Looking at pro-Trump far-right supporters breaking in the Capitol, many mainstream opinion-makers shake their heads over the dangers of polarisation and extremism, providing the (far-) right with a convenient discourse about “both sides” and advocating a return to a status quo that brought us where we are. But in times of rising fascism and increasing inequalities, polarization is a necessity.
A commentary by Jan Fürth
Avoid polarisation at all costs?
Taken out of context, polarisation and division discourses sound really neat to the ears of the average citizen. Who wouldn’t want harmony and unity? But when a dangerous far-right ideology is rising, the very same discourses are used to either condemn resistance as “polarising” or to discard it as analogous to the very same threat it is standing up to. Uncompromisingly standing up to these hateful ideas makes you a polarising figure. Taking the streets to face off violent far-right thugs makes you a thug. In the end, all that is left is to either settle for this far-right extreme as a lesser evil or sit tightly under a new ‘moderate’ normalcy. A right-wing neo-liberal one, of course.
This naive faith in the absolute need for moderation becomes dangerous blindness when there is a shift in ideology towards the far right. If one always ought to stand in the middle, then how far rightwards should one go in a country where the president and one of the two parties has shifted towards fascism? How much understanding should we show for far-right ideas when they become a growing part of the mainstream? Are the murders of some unarmed African-Americans OK because of the majority’s racism? Should one accept at least some children in cages because a majority of citizens approve of it? Should the coup attempt be met with some understanding for the far-right mob? Shouldn’t one abstain from criticising and mobilizing to avoid polarisation?
„Both sides“ and a lesser evil
A logical consequence of discourses on polarisation is the understanding that there are two poles, two extremes. Indeed, there cannot be polarisation without two completely opposed camps, and thus we find ourselves left with the well-known ‘both sides’ discourse from Donald Trump’s reaction to the 2017 Charlotteville far-right terror attack. All critiques of the far right are being met by a barrage of ‘whataboutist’ fire, pitting the coordinated attack on the central institution of decision-making against the vandalism happening in the margins of some BLM demonstrations. By pushing this line, far-right violence is minimized and its structural and institutional character is obscured.
According to this view, Trump’s far-right movement is only an answer to – and even a defense against – the specter of some kind of ‘BLM Antifa neo-marxist anarcho-bolshevist’ threat, or rather conspiracy, against the United States. In the U.S. American context, this ‘red scare’ becomes a powerful weapon to present Trump as a lesser evil, relativizing his far-right views as necessary to avoid another kind of – this time un-American – extremism. Thus the polarization thesis becomes an appeal to choose your side, with a powerful far-right media machine making sure that you’ll make the right choice.
In addition to giving ammunition to the far-right movement, the polarisation-and-two-extremes argument is also being pushed by (centre-)right forces that are looking to re-establish the status quo ante – going back to the pre-2016 situation. The equivalence thesis then becomes an appeal to go back to the ‘golden mean’, i.e. the kind of consensus-based politics that are celebrated by (neo-)liberal and some conservative commentators as ‘reasonable’ and ‘civilized’. As we know from U.S.American politics dominated by two right-wing parties, this middle-ground is very much tilting towards the right. In this sense, calls for moderation are powerful appeals to upholding the current status quo, which is the continuation of the kind of right-wing neoliberal policies we have been seeing since Ronald Reagan won the elections in 1981, and even earlier: neo-liberal economics, institutionalized racism and U.S. military imperialism.
When Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are attacked as ‘extremist’ or ‘polarizing’, including by people from their own party, this right-wing normalcy is being reestablished again and again. The centre-right Democratic majority can distance itself from these ‘extremists’ in its ranks and claim to be the voice of reason in contrast to a Republican party that has been seized by its far-right wing. The hope being, of course, that their position as the status quo will be embraced by a majority of electors equally convinced about the need for a ‘return to the normalcy’. And there you go: you have Joe Biden.
While the Democrats’ bet worked out in a context of global pandemic with important human losses and catastrophic socio-economic consequences, especially in the United States, it has proved a risky one, and the gains are rather meager. Their lame strategy could only be saved by extraordinary efforts by women of color and other community organisers, but it doesn’t bode well for the future, as we can expect the business-as-usual technocratic approach of the Biden administration to fail to tackle the class and racial inequalities plaguing the country, not to speak of the climate crisis. In the meantime, the promoters and accomplices of the ‘polarisation’ discourses will make sure that the United States will stay stuck in the same right-wing neo-liberal dead-end, with a Trump-like escape into a far-right alternative reality remaining the only mean of expression for the country’s frustrations.
Far from being a strictly U.S.American issue, the ‘polarization’ discourse has also been visible in European discussions and has been prominent in recent discussions of events in Washington. As The Jacobin was reporting lately, no other than… British left-wing politician Jeremy Corbyn was attacked by commentators talking about the Capitol assault! In Germany, it was a deputy from Merkel’s right-wing CDU Party, Thomas Heilmann, who put on the same level Trump and Antifa or the German street movement against the far-right AfD party, saying that “Polarisation and denigration always lead to hate and violence”.
We must reject empty discourses about polarisation that carefully avoid to talk about fascism and instrumentalize far-right terrorism to attack the Left. Let’s call things by their names and categorically refuse false equivalences between fascism and anti-fascism, between racism and anti-racism, between far-right authoritarianism and broad popular leftist movements challenging the status quo. In times of rising fascism, polarisation is a duty. Polarisation is society breaking up. It’s up to us to organize, unite and rebuild!