In 2020, you published a reference book, Reactionary Democracy. How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream. Let’s begin by discussing a methodological and epistemological question. In your book, you write that “we do not believe objectivity in research can be achieved… we take sides.” Can you talk about the importance of subjectivity in research regarding the far right and how you incorporate that need to take a side in your book?
In our work, we try to both challenge the privileging of objectivity and apolitical neutrality and defend the subjective and political. For us though, this is not merely a choice between two equal positions, but an analysis of the ways that ‘objectivity’ is used to legitimize political, and specifically reactionary, arguments and identity positions and delegitimize critiques of these and power as ‘subjective’ or about ‘identity’ coming from often particularized and minoritized positions and experiences. This is particularly acute around race, gender and sexual identities. Related to this epistemological position, we also believe that you cannot be objective about racism and other forms of inequality and injustice and the claim to be so is itself political and wrong.
As such, our approach is based on critical research on standpoint and positionality. In our view and experience, claims of objectivity tend to obscure power relations and the ideological underpinnings behind the research undertaken. Hegemonic positioning is thus often thought of as ‘objective’. For our book, this was crucial as one of the criticisms we make is about the way liberalism has been positioned in a normative manner and portrayed uncritically as an objective force for good and a bulwark against the far right and reaction, even though a simple historical analysis shows that the picture is much more nuanced. Unpacking and making visible the inequalities core to the current hegemony demonstrate clearly how its normative status is both political and problematic, particularly as reactionary forces are rising.
Our argument is not to dismiss the good that has been achieved under liberalism, but to critically evaluate the position from which its defense emanates, to whom this good applies or does not, where it has come from, and equally whether it has come from liberalism itself or through its ability to evolve and absorb political demands, both progressive and reactionary. The SCOTUS leak about the overturning of Roe v Wade is a very good example on several levels. Most notably, the ways in which researchers who study politics and claim to be objective have treated ‘both sides’ in the reactionary culture war as equal, thus ignoring the radical imbalance of power in the face of it, particularly for those at the sharp end of such developments. We have witnessed racialized, working-class women whose interests, interventions and activism are often dismissed as being subjective and about identity, something which has legitimized reactionary positions.
It is also fascinating to see many still blame this development on some kind of force outside of the hegemony. Trump and his legacy are a great culprit as his election was always portrayed as some sort of freak accident. Yet we believe this is the wrong approach as there is far more to Trump and his legacy that makes them very much part of our current hegemony, than makes them a radical alternative to it.
The book makes a strong point on the need to rethink how liberalism and far right are articulated, stating that “we must challenge and move beyond the hegemonic idea that liberalism and racism are antithetical.” Can you explain how liberalism, racism, and fascism are related and how (or even if) we can decouple the concepts from one another?
This links to the previous point. We argue that it is doing a disservice to the positive sides and potential of liberalism to portray it uncritically as an unquestionable force for good. As such, we are told that it must be protected from fascism of course, but also from criticism and its failure to confront and address decisively various forms of oppression such as racism which remain embedded in practice (including through illiberal measures as witnessed by the rise in securitization).
Many of the rights that we take for granted today and cherish as democratic and progressive achievements were not won by liberal forces, but against the liberal elite of the time. It was movements opposed to the liberal settlement who forced change through and made it impossible for liberal elites not to budge and accept them. Even today, as we detail in the book, it is liberals platforming the far right and treating it and anti-racists as equivalent, opposing immigration (even if projected onto the ‘left behind’), and fighting a culture war against identity politics, trans rights and anti-racism not just in the name of liberalism, but as a way of resisting change to the system.
As Domenico Losurdo noted, it is liberalism’s flexibility which has allowed it to remain hegemonic. This is key as what changed through the pressure of progressive movements and politics, could just as well swing back towards reaction and this is very much what we are seeing currently. What is most concerning for us is not just the rise of reaction, but the failure in many mainstream circles to understand that this rise could not have been possible without the mainstream’s collusion. If we are to fight reaction, racism and the resurgence of fascist politics, we must challenge the mainstream and liberalism and open up to radical progressive alternatives, if only as a corrector to the status quo, something the mainstream elite no longer even seem to be open to. They would much rather, it seems, position the far right (or ‘populism’ as they often call it) as the only alternative to liberalism, instead of risking radical progressive change. This is a very risky gamble as we witness the opposition to fascism and reaction waning as a result of decades of mainstreaming.
You also delve into the liberal-racist tendency to celebrate the high achievements of individuals who belong to minority or otherwise oppressed groups. How does this shifting of focus from systems to individuals enable the far right? Related to it, how the ideas of ‘liberal Islamophobia’ and free speech relate?
This builds on what Eduardo Bonilla-Silva terms liberal and colorblind racism and what he, Alana Lentin, David Theo Goldberg and others have linked to the myth of the post-racial society. The individualization of racism has made us see racist acts as happenstance, as freak incidents which have apparently no ties to the wider hegemony and system. Similarly, it has made us celebrate individual progress as signs that we had overcome racism. Obama’s election was greatly symbolic and allowed reactionaries to legitimize a backlash as if ‘whites’ were now those at the sharp end. This has served to erase historical power imbalances and allow reactionaries to diminish and deny structural and systemic racism, push false equivalences and construct anti-white racism as a phenomenon. We see this most acutely in the All Lives, Blue Lives, and White Lives Matter responses to Black Lives Matter and more recently in the anti-Critical Race Theory movement and campaigns. It has also allowed those within the liberal camp to ignore their participation in ongoing structures of oppression (‘but we said All Lives!’) and look good in comparison to the illiberal far and extreme right.
This false dichotomy has been used by some on the far right to push racist narratives back into the mainstream under a liberal, post-racial, veneer which emphasizes culture and religion as opposed to race. This is what we discuss more precisely when we explore the liberal and illiberal articulations of racism and Islamophobia. Concepts which were once thought as progressive such as free speech or laïcité (secularism) in France were harnessed by reactionaries to racialize and reject certain communities on the basis that they are not compatible with our liberal way of life. Since these articulations could easily stand against the more extreme, biological, illiberal articulations, it allowed them to act as if they were actually against racism or at least not racist by comparison. What is shocking is how easily many in the mainstream have been convinced this is the case and accepted deeply racist policies to be implemented – think of the various liberticidal laws against Muslims passed over the years in France and Europe more widely.
The book explores the three-step process by which far right views are mainstreamed. Can you develop on how mainstream conservatives adopt and normalize salient ideological points elaborated by the far right? How can we fight against this trend?
What we argue is that if we want to understand and counter the mainstreaming of the far right, we need to look beyond the far right and even the right more generally. Too often, we tend to look at the mainstreaming of the far right with the far right as sole or main agent, and the mainstream (and liberal democracy) as the vulnerable target. So much so that it even adopts and adapts far right ideas and narratives to see off the illiberal threat. Our argument is that there can be no mainstreaming without the agency of the mainstream. Therefore, what we try to highlight in the book and more recently in our work with Katy Brown is that we must take a longer view of the process and ensure that we do not let mainstream actors off the hook. We must hold accountable these actors with a privileged access to shaping public discourse and therefore a serious democratic responsibility – at present, we tend to let them pretend that they are simply reporting (bringing us back to the objectivity issue) or responding to what ‘the people’ want as if they have no power to shape the agenda. This is incredibly naïve and yet somehow it has worked and played a key part in the mainstreaming of the far right. Thus, we need to challenge these, as well as the platforming of the far right and its ideas, and liberal racism which all play a significant role in mainstreaming.
Last but not least, where do you see the forces that are shifting politics to the right internationally? Do you consider the term ‘illiberalism’ can capture this shift, and offer another perspective than the notions of far right or populism, or does it obscure the roots of the problem?
Illiberalism as a concept or label can be useful in our opinion, but it has limitations and implications as we discuss in the book and our wider work. It is not enough to point to illiberalism if we are to seriously tackle the root of the issue as it can serve as a distraction or displacement from the problems within liberalism, which it can serve to reinforce or excuse in the name of fighting illiberal extremism.
We have witnessed a resurgence in illiberal and extreme politics as some have felt emboldened by the mainstreaming of the far right, including under the banner of and in defense of liberalism, and this needs to be taken extremely seriously. However, we cannot let ourselves be reassured by the illusion that evil is outside and can simply be kept out. Various forms of oppression continue to be core to our liberal system and shape the lives of those who live within it. While they are generally rendered invisible, recent events have shown that we cannot expect liberalism in and of itself will prevent the return of incredibly reactionary politics as it can clearly accommodate them. Therefore, we need to explore systems of oppression within liberalism and liberal societies and dismantle them. This may be through reform, but we cannot ignore the ways in which reform, like progress, has been used to protect the system historically. As such, it is imperative to remain open to exploring other alternatives. We need to (re)imagine these and re-ignite debates about what democracy should mean beyond its current reactionary iteration.
Aurelien Mondon is a Senior Lecturer in politics at the University of Bath. His research focuses predominantly on the impact of racism and populism on liberal democracies and the mainstreaming of far right politics through elite discourse. His first book, The Mainstreaming of the Extreme Right in France and Australia: A Populist Hegemony?, was published in 2013 and he recently co-edited After Charlie Hebdo: Terror, racism and free speech published with Zed. His new book Reactionary democracy: How racism and the populist far right became mainstream, co-written with Aaron Winter, is now out with Verso.
Aaron Winter is Associate Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of East London. His research is on the far-right with a focus on racism, mainstreaming and violence. He is co-editor of Discourses and Practices of Terrorism: Interrogating Terror (Routledge 2010), Historical Perspectives on Organised Crime and Terrorism (Routledge 2018) and Researching the Far Right: Theory, Method and Practice (Routledge 2020), and co-author with Aurelien Mondon, of Reactionary Democracy: How Racism and the Populist Far Right Became Mainstream (Verso 2020). He is also co-editor of Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power and the Manchester University Press (MUP) book series Racism, Resistance and Social Change.