For God, Harry and St George? Nationalism, Authoritarianism and Fascism in England.
- When Nigel Farage talks about ‘picking up a rifle’ if Brexit is not delivered, do you cheer along with his audience?
- When the Queen is on the telly, do you feel a surge of patriotic pride?
- When you see stories about drug users, do you fear we have lost our moral compass?
- Do you feel pride when you see the flag of the cross of St George in any context other than football, sports events or the village fete?
- Do you agree that it is “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori (it is sweet and honourable to die for one’s country)?”
- Do you get emotional about national stories such as ‘Trafalgar’ ‘Standing Alone’, the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’?
- Do you think the British Empire was a good thing and that the colonies were better off under British Rule?
- Do you perhaps secretly agree that “There ain’t no Black in the Union Jack”.
- Do you agree that Britain is a ‘Christian country’?
Following the defeat in the Commons of May’s deal in January 2019, and throughout calls for a people’s vote (a second referendum) on EU membership, there have been warnings of riots in the streets. These warnings have come from Theresa May herself: “There has not yet been enough recognition of the way that a second referendum could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy”. ‘Damaging social cohesion’ is code for ‘riot’.
Sky news, in what might be a deliberate provocation, quoted a woman in Burnley saying, if Brexit does not happen: “Oh, there’ll be mass riots. There’ll be hysteria. There could even be a civil war. The country has used its voice and if the Government ignores what the people have said then there is going to be a civil war. There is going to be.”
The head of Amazon UK in July 2018, Douglass Gurr, warned that a no deal Brexit could prompt ‘civil unrest’, while in September 2018 Police Chiefs stated that they were preparing plans to quell disorder after a no-deal Brexit.
No Brexit = riots.
No Deal = civil unrest.
The first is an issue about the thwarted ambition of a minority of hard right nationalists, the second might arise out of actual events. I think there is a difference between them, and that difference is nationalism or ‘proto fascism’, the latter being ideologies and cultural movements that influence and form the basis for fascism itself.
Most British people will rightly recoil with horror at fascism, and its association with Nazism. They may also think that this is extremism, and will be tempted to dismiss it as ‘Un-British’. Fascism itself might be ‘Un-British’ but proto fascist strains of culture exist and in the hearts of some patriotic conservatives, who may vote Labour as well as Tory, could lead toward authoritarianism if not full flown fascism.
Fracturing Societies giving rise to Fascism?
Rowland Atkinson and Don Mitchell in ‘Fracturing Societies‘ paint a rather bleak picture:
“The world feels like it is falling apart, and maybe it really is. Maybe the weight of human misery, the collapse of civil societies, ethno-national tensions and divisions, political exits and polarization and the accelerating ecological crisis, maybe all of this make things different this time” .
Wolfgang Streeck (2016) echoing Antonio Gramsci, suggests the context is actually a ‘post-capitalist interregnum’ in which the old system is dying but a new social order cannot yet be born. Streeck calls the current order one of multi-morbidity, climate change being one of many frailties as we head towards social entropy, radical uncertainty and indeterminancy. Streeck argues that the current context is anchored in a variety of interconnected developments:
- Intensification of distributional (capital v labour) conflict due to declining growth.
- Rising social inequality.
- Vanishing macroeconomic manageability.
- Steadily increasing indebtedness (private and sovereign).
- Pumped up money supply (from quantitative easing).
- Possibility of another financial crisis as per 2008.
- The suspension of democracy.
- Slowdown of social progress.
- Rising Oligarchy and Plutocracy.
- Governments’ inability to limit the commodification of labour, money or nature.
- Omnipresence of corruption.
- Intensified competition in winner takes all markets.
- Unlimited opportunities for self-enrichment (for the 1%).
- Erosion of public goods and infrastructure.
- The failure of the US to establish a stable global order.
- Public cynicism towards economics and politics.
- Rising populist nationalism and the spectre of fascism, and isolationism in the US.
- Fracturing political blocs and alliances.
- Erosion of Democratic legitimacy and thus a democratic deficit.
Fintan O’Toole argues that England is a nation at each other’s throats, citing the ugly rise of English nationalism as expressed in the YouGov poll below. Antecedents for the growing rift include:
- Regional disparities in opportunity, wealth and income.
- A generational divide.
- The erosion of the Welfare State and the NHS.
- Tory led Austerity ripping up the social fabric.
- The Sensationally Rich being sensationally stupid.
- Bullingdon club bully boys running the country.
- The constant stoking of fears about immigration by the national press and many politicians.
O’Toole argues “Brexit is much less about Britain’s relationship with the EU than it is about Britain’s relationship with itself.”
The above is part of the context for a worrying trend easily seen on social media, on the front pages of papers like the Sun, and expressed in political discourse and in pubs across the land. It is not confined to Britain, as other European countries are also experiencing this dangerous trend. Some have not forgotten a fascist history, they invoke it as part of a glorious past to be resurrected as they wallow in ‘post-colonial melancholia’. While they still remain a minority, they need watching. More worrying is that ordinary folk, who perhaps once were quietly conservative, may well be thinking about more authoritarian responses to current events such as Brexit and immigration. Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage and Marine Le Pen may fail to win majority popular support, but it may be the case that they inflame once relatively docile conservatives into becoming proto-fascists. Libertarians, with their focus on ‘individual freedom’ paradoxically are useful idiots to fascists. One can see support for hard right positions by Libertarians clustering around ‘freedom of speech and association’. They are de facto apologists for fascism as they clamour for the Nazi voice to be heard, forgetting that ‘free speech’ operates always in a power context.
Nationalism, The ‘Authoritarian Personality’ and proto-fascism?
What then are the characteristics and cultural ideas that inform those of an authoritarian bent? What belief systems and values can easily lead to the metaphorical wearing of black shirts and actual hate speech aimed at gays, women, refugees and immigrants? The following four writers, George Orwell, Theodore Adorno, Umberto Eco and George Lakoff, provide clues that illuminate the process. It is my assertion that many a conservative*could easily be swayed by more dangerous extrapolations of some of their core values, their moral foundations of ‘Loyalty, Sanctity, Authority and Liberty’, that the conservative (religious/traditionalist) ‘strict father’ metaphor can support the development of support for a Dear Leader, Mein Fuhrer, or an Il Duce.
As for the broad term ‘far right’, this can refer to:
- The active reduction of safeguards for minority groups; manifest as opposition to things such as ‘hate speech’ and ‘political correctness’. Anti-gay, anti-feminist and anti-foreigners (migrants/asylum seekers/refugees).
- National identity and citizenship rooted not in civic based rights and obligations, but in ethnicity.
- Mistrust of political pluralism and a faith in the one true party or leader.
- The identification of clearly defined enemies to define citizens as (usually) ethnically white native populations whose position is privileged, protected and defended. The Daily Mail’s use of ‘Enemies of the people’ to describe Judges is a thus a far right trope.
Before I outline further values and attitudes that help to identify the three concepts, a short note on the scale of the issue and on why ordinary conservatives provide good ground for the development of nationalism, authoritarianism and proto-fascism. The all-encompassing term ‘far right’ might include the characteristics the three terms, but I’ll leave detailed discussion of defining the concepts to others.
Sophie Gaston (2017) writing on ‘far right’ extremism provides a hint at the scale of support:
“Demos’ research into far-right activities on Facebook identified scores of dedicated pages across four European countries (UK, France, Italy, Hungary), with hundreds of thousands of posts in just one two-month period, contributed by tens of thousands of unique users. Furthermore, Demos’ social media analysis following terror attacks across Europe and during major political campaigns, including the European Referendum in Britain, demonstrated a clear spike in online hate speech on a staggering scale, directly linked to these events – suggesting the internet has created a new ‘safe space’ for expressions of violence and discrimination otherwise unseen in ‘offline’ behaviour”.
Martha Gill writes that any new party that rises to end the Brexit mess will be a far right, worse than UKIP, one. “…according to a YouGov/Times poll, the appetite in this country is not for a Lib Dem-friendly, centrist party, but a hard-right party of Brexit – something that appealed to 38% of those asked. Even more striking, perhaps, was the 24% who would like to see a far-right, explicitly anti-immigrant and anti-Islam party.
In 2018, the head of the Met police’s Counter Terrorism Unit warned that the UK has not woken up to the problem of fascist groups such as ‘National Action’. Yet, a focus on the obvious and extreme neo Nazis distracts from a deeper undercurrent of values that can lead us towards it, and allows us to distance ourselves from thinking that we, ‘The British’ could ever fall prey to it. It also allows us to think fascism infects a tiny minority. I here argue that this would be a mistake to think it cannot fester and bred in otherwise seemingly moderate hearts. I offer, in the next segment, just one reason why this may be so.
We may fear the rise of fascism, morphing from simple patriotism to nationalism to authoritarianism because of what Elizabeth Minnich called the ‘evil of banality’ – the absence of thinking, pace Hannah Arendt’s ‘thoughlessness’.
Ordinary people are not what Margaret Archer would call ‘meta reflexives’, or what Graham Scambler calls ‘dedicated meta reflexives’ – we just don’t have the education, time or conceptual tools to think things through. In Archer’s typology, ‘meta reflexivity’ is thinking about my thinking: understanding who I am and why I think and behave as I do, then questioning the basis of that thinking. One considers, for example, the morality of action, the nature of personhood, empathetic consideration of the humanity of the other, the unity of experience with others and with the planet, gendered patterns of thinking, class-based patterns of thinking, or the possibility of heuristic thinking and our propensity to use emotion when reasoning. It means understanding perhaps ‘ego states’ and how we can be called into subservient ‘subject positions’ by powerful others. The meta reflexive, when considering what to do and before doing it, tends towards the perpetuation of ‘rumination’ considering alternative answers or different ways of looking at the question. One may think about, for example, professional and organisational patterns of thinking and how this shapes one’s own thoughts and actions. It means challenging cliché, convention, insider jargon, technical terms and routine talk. It means overcoming the ‘evil of banality’ and accepting the ‘life and death importance of thinking’. The nationalist and fascist however want none of this. They need answers now and they want certainty. They will often be critical of people who are educated, they often abhor intellectuals.
Elizabeth Minnich, after Hannah Arendt, in trying to understand the ordinariness, the banality, of people argues:
“No great harm to many people could ever be perpetrated if distorted systems had to rely on moral monsters to do it, nor would any great good affecting many people happen if we had to depend on saints….”
While reflecting however that great harm is done:
“people who are not thinking are capable of anything”.
When political cultures and discourse become characterized by talk of vermin and rats, of building walls, in which vulnerable people are subject to neglect or abuse, when people become stigmatised, marginalised and discounted…when extraordinary events become ordinary events, it just takes a:
“practiced conventionality, a clichéd conscience, emotional conformity or susceptibility to small scale bribery (or peer acceptance), a sense of isolation or a distrust of the reliability of others that works against taking a different public stand”.
Meta reflexivity requires ‘thinking close in’ to get us beyond systems, excuses, and clichés to see the person right in front of us. Minnich argues that while the systems in which we work matter a great deal, the final moral responsibility for thought and action lies with the individual. We cannot assign all agency to economic, political and social systems but we do need to consider ourselves in context. Systems are conditions of possibility, they can provide structures for thought and action and help to create a subjectivity, but they are not causes of all actions. There is a society that pre-exists us, into which we are born. This society has ‘generative mechanisms’ working behind our backs that provide enablements and constraints on courses of action, so we are highly structured but not determined. The task is to create a critically thinking subjectivity rather than a passive docile clichéd subjectivity. The latter is food and drink to the fascist. We need to identify and counter the generative mechanisms that provide enablements for fascism – we need to exercise our judgmental rationality in relation to our epistemological relativism, i.e. our bounded and fallible knowledge about the world, in order to create a less fascist ontology.
Let’s now examine what values, assumptions and emotions underpin authoritarianism, nationalism and proto-fascism.
George Orwell – Nationalism
In ‘Notes on Nationalism’, George Orwell wrote:
“Somewhere or other Byron makes use of the French word longeur, and remarks in passing that though in England we happen not to have the word, we have the thing in considerable profusion. In the same way, there is a habit of mind which is now so widespread that it affects our thinking on nearly every subject, but which has not yet been given a name.”
In 2018, we still have ‘the thing in considerable profusion’. Many people in Britain are afflicted with ‘longuer’ and we have some names for it: ‘post-colonial melancholia’ and ‘nationalism’. The first is a yearning for a return of our Imperial Glory, the second is a feeling that the interests of ‘our country’ comes first. The yearning is for a time when we ‘stood alone’ against continental tyrants. The Spitfire is not only a beautiful piece of machinery, it is also a very potent symbol of patriotic pride which for some also includes nationalistic pride. This is why Churchill is still a national hero, the White Cliffs of Dover a potent image and the Monarchy goes almost unchallenged.
You hear ‘longuer’ voiced by the more fanatical wing of the Brexiteer camp today. They have a visceral hatred, and mistrust, of European capitalist elites. They yearn for taking back control without realising they will merely hand back a veneer of sovereignty to home grown capitalist elites, but because these ‘Greedy Bastards’ wear Union Jack waistcoats, that will be just fine.
“As the nearest existing equivalent (for longeur) I have chosen the word ‘nationalism’, but it will be seen in a moment that I am not using it in quite the ordinary sense, if only because the emotion I am speaking about does not always attach itself to what is called a nation — that is, a single race or a geographical area. It can attach itself to a church or a class, or it may work in a merely negative sense, against something or other and without the need for any positive object of loyalty”.
Orwell writes here of ‘emotion’ and this is key. To understand why people will undertake acts of heroism, or folly, don’t underestimate the role of emotion. Those who have strong moral foundations based in ‘Loyalty, Authority and Sanctity’ will have very strong feelings guiding action towards loyalty to nation, the authority of monarchy, or Presidents, and of the righteousness sanctity of their cause; “One Nation, Under God” for “God Blessing America” for “King and Country” and for crying “God for Harry, England and St George”. These feelings can all too easily be mustered in the service of Capital for foreign wars in order to secure commodities such as oil. Thinking about the dynamics and complexities of capital accumulation – who dies, who benefits, just gets in the way of making dirty money. Simple easy slogans bypass thought.
In Britain, capitalist elites (you can see them at Davos and graduating from Eton and Oxbridge), have for many decades decided that great swathes of the population do not really matter, that they are cannon fodder, cheap labour, in the elites’ unending quest for capital accumulation at any cost. British capitalist elites, such as Johnson, Gove, Rees-Mogg et al have used the EU is a cipher for ‘capitalist elites’ and provide the nationalist with something ‘to be against’. We witness home grown elites calling others elites in order to foster division and support for their own self-interest or as a result of wallowing in their own national mythologies.
“By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad”.
Here Orwell prefigures work on ‘dehumanisation’ by, for example, David Livingstone Smith, and of course the language of swarms, vermin and rats beloved by Thatcher, the Daily Mail and Katie Hopkins.
“But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interests (my emphasis). Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality”.
When Gove repeatedly parroted ‘Take back control’ he was tapping into this nationalist sentiment of securing power and prestige. One has to ask who was taking back control over what and for whom? The English nationalist in 2018, perhaps feels that England has become a minor global player emasculated by ‘the bloody french’ among others, and that we needed to become ‘Great Again’. The ‘again’ of course refers to Empire. The likes of Rees-Mogg are petty nationalists fearing the power of a supranational organisation controlling their access to tax havens, a particularly British elite resource and one which facilitates their quest for capital accumulation. What they don’t spell out is that Brexit will make not a blind bit of difference to the call centre worker or the zero hours contractor or the underpaid care worker. Perhaps, though the underemployed, the precariat, in the Brexit heartlands will feel better about themselves as they will feel momentary joy when raising the Union Jack as they did on June 23rd 2016.
Theodore Adorno – The Authoritarian Personality
The following is a series of questions from Adorno’s Authoritarian personality test, you can take it here : https://www.anesi.com/fscale.htm. There are limitations with tests of this nature. Validity: not the least is that answering questions in a ‘lab setting’ or in your own home does not amount to the same thing as actual beliefs and behaviours. Does this measure ‘authoritarian personalities’ or something else? Bear in mind also it was devised in the US in the 1950’s. ‘Authority’ is one of Jonathan Haidt’s 6 moral foundations, and thus according to his theory is of particular importance for political emotion and discourse. It links with Lakoff’s ‘strict father’ metaphor, of which more later.
To test your nascent authoritarianism you might want to reflect on the degree to which you agree with the following.
- Obedience and respect for authority are the most important virtues children should learn.
- A person who has bad manners, habits, and breeding can hardly expect to get along with decent people.
- If people would talk less and work more, everybody would be better off.
- The businessman and the manufacturer are much more important to society than the artist and the professor.
- Science has its place, but there are many important things that can never be understood by the human mind.
- Every person should have complete faith in some supernatural power whose decisions he obeys without question.
- Young people sometimes get rebellious ideas, but as they grow up they ought to get over them and settle down.
- What this country needs most, more than laws and political programs, is a few courageous, tireless, devoted leaders in whom the people can put their faith.
- No sane, normal, decent person could ever think of hurting a close friend or relative.
- Nobody ever learned anything really important except through suffering.
- What the youth needs most is strict discipline, rugged determination, and the will to work and fight for family and country.
- An insult to our honor should always be punished.
- Sex crimes, such as rape and attacks on children, deserve more than mere imprisonment; such criminals ought to be publicly whipped, or worse.
- There is hardly anything lower than a person who does not feel a great love, gratitude, and respect for his parents.
- Most of our social problems would be solved if we could somehow get rid of the immoral, crooked, and feebleminded people.
- Homosexuals are hardly better than criminals and ought to be severely punished.
- When a person has a problem or worry, it is best for him not to think about it, but to keep busy with more cheerful things.
- Nowadays more and more people are prying into matters that should remain personal and private.
- Some people are born with an urge to jump from high places.
- People can be divided into two distinct classes: the weak and the strong.
- Someday it will probably be shown that astrology can explain a lot of things.
- Wars and social troubles may someday be ended by an earthquake or flood that will destroy the whole world.
- No weakness or difficulty can hold us back if we have enough will power.
- It is best to use some prewar authorities in Germany to keep order and prevent chaos. [You’ll have to pretend it is 1946 when you answer this one.]
- Most people don’t realize how much our lives are controlled by plots hatched in secret places.
- Human nature being what it is, there will always be war and conflict.
- Familiarity breeds contempt.
- Nowadays when so many different kinds of people move around and mix together so much, a person has to protect himself especially carefully against catching an infection or disease from them.
- The wild sex life of the old Greeks and Romans was tame compared to some of the goings-on in this country, even in places where people might least expect it.
- The true American (British) way of life is disappearing so fast that force may be necessary to preserve it.
Personality variables said to be associated with this are:
|Personality Variable||Questions measuring variable|
|Conventionalism: Rigid adherence to conventional, middle-class values.||1, 2, 3, 4|
|Authoritarian Submission: Submissive, uncritical attitude toward idealized moral authorities of the ingroup.||1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10|
|Authoritarian Aggression: Tendency to be on the lookout for, and to condemn, reject, and punish people who violate conventional values.||2, 3, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16|
|Anti-intraception: Opposition to the subjective, the imaginative, the tender-minded.||3, 4, 17, 18|
|Superstition and Stereotypy: The belief in mystical determinants of the individual’s fate; the disposition to think in rigid categories.||5, 6, 19, 20, 21, 22|
|Power and “Toughness”: Preoccupation with the dominance-submission, strong-weak, leader-follower dimension; identification with power figures; overemphasis upon the conventionalized attributes of the ego; exaggerated assertion of strength and toughness.||8, 11, 12, 20, 23, 24, 25, 30|
|Destructiveness and Cynicism: Generalized hostility, vilification of the human.||26, 27|
|Projectivity: The disposition to believe that wild and dangerous things go on in the world; the projection outwards of unconscious emotional impulses.||18, 22, 25, 28, 29|
|Sex: Exaggerated concern with sexual “goings-on.”||13, 16, 29|
Do you recognise yourself or anyone else? If this value system is adopted by what Graham Scambler calls the ‘Focused Autonomous Reflexive’ we might have a potent fascist leader in the making.
Umberto Eco’s Ur-Fascism.
Josh Jones writes:
“While Eco is firm in claiming “There was only one Nazism,” he says, “the fascist game can be played in many forms, and the name of the game does not change.” Eco reduces the qualities of what he calls “Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism” down to 14 “typical” features. “These features cannot be organized into a system; many of them contradict each other, and are also typical of other kinds of despotism or fanaticism. But it is enough that one of them be present to allow fascism to coagulate around it.”
- The cult of tradition. “One has only to look at the syllabus of every fascist movement to find the major traditionalist thinkers. The Nazi gnosis was nourished by traditionalist, syncretistic, occult elements.”
- The rejection of modernism. “The Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, is seen as the beginning of modern depravity. In this sense Ur-Fascism can be defined as irrationalism.”
- The cult of action for action’s sake. “Action being beautiful in itself, it must be taken before, or without, any previous reflection. Thinking is a form of emasculation.”
- Disagreement is treason. “The critical spirit makes distinctions, and to distinguish is a sign of modernism. In modern culture the scientific community praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge.”
- Fear of difference. “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus Ur-Fascism is racist by definition.”
- Appeal to social frustration. “One of the most typical features of the historical fascism was the appeal to a frustrated middle class, a class suffering from an economic crisis or feelings of political humiliation, and frightened by the pressure of lower social groups.”
- The obsession with a plot. “The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.”
- The enemy is both strong and weak. “By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus, the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
- Pacifism is trafficking with the enemy. “For Ur-Fascism there is no struggle for life but, rather, life is lived for struggle.”
- Contempt for the weak. “Elitism is a typical aspect of any reactionary ideology.”
- Everybody is educated to become a hero. “In Ur-Fascist ideology, heroism is the norm. This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.”
- Machismo and weaponry. “Machismo implies both disdain for women and intolerance and condemnation of nonstandard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.”
- Selective populism. “There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”
- Ur-Fascism speaks Newspeak. “All the Nazi or Fascist schoolbooks made use of an impoverished vocabulary, and an elementary syntax, in order to limit the instruments for complex and critical reasoning.”
I think many of these ideas can be seen in the ‘strict father metaphor’ discussed by George Lakoff. It is a view of society that emphasises discipline, punishment, responsibility and authority. It is not hard to see how this form of conservatism lends itself to the development of proto fascism. I also consider that some current world leaders exhibit theses traits…and thus, in Eco’s terms are ‘fascist’.
In ‘Don’t think of an Elephant‘ and ‘The Political Mind’, Lakoff attempts to describe the link between our values, what they are based in, and our political views.
To do that we have to go back to the beginning of our experiences as human beings and that means our experiences in a ‘Family’.
Every single one of us experienced early life in a family. That family might be the ‘ideal type’ of the nuclear family beloved of advertisers, or it might be a ‘reconstituted family’ including second wives/husbands. Sadly, a few grow up in social services care experiencing a ‘family’ of a very different type. The family is an ‘agent of primary socialisation’ in sociological terms – this means we learn social norms, values, behaviours and attitudes as well as a host of other things such as language and modes of dress. The family then is a foundational social experience and our experiences of families provide us with ways of thinking about how we should live together as couples, families and within wider society.
Some of us are for capital punishment, capping welfare and social security, a strong military and intervention, using force if necessary, to secure the nation’s interests abroad. We might also consider that those who use the railways, or universities, should be the ones to pay for them rather than taxpayers. The same goes for health in that we should learn to take responsibility and pay for services when we need them. The nanny state should be made redundant and that taxes should be ‘relieved’ or cut to the bone.
The link between our family experiences and our politics is not very clear. We may even think there is no link at all, and that our social and political views are arrived at after some due consideration and the application of rational thought.
Lakoff however argues that the family provides us with at least two experiences which then act as unconscious metaphors for life:
- The Strict Father.
- The Nurturing Parent.
These two models of family life provide us with ‘frames’ – ‘mental structures that shape the way we see the world‘ Frames provide us with language and values, they shape our policies, the organisations we devise, what we consider is good bad, moral or immoral. Lakoff’s work follows on from Ervin Goffman who discussed our use of frames in ‘Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience (1974).
To over simplify perhaps, this is to say that we all hold both frames, strict father – nurturing parent, in our heads but one may be more dominant than the other. We then approach political and social life and use these frames to explain and give meaning to what we are experiencing and to what we value.
Right wing conservatives tend to have a ‘strict father’ frame while those on the Progressive Left tend to have a ‘nurturing parent’ frame. Thus, issues such as social security will be seen by referring back to those frames, and in so doing we will use particular language such as ‘striver v skiver’ and invoke values that accord with those frames to explain and gain meaning for issues such as ‘social security’.
Lakoff’s point is that over the past three decades or so the conservative right have been able to get their frame accepted in the media, by political parties and even in the general population while those of the progressive left have been unable to articulate their frame – ‘the nurturing parent’. The right has done so by spending billions in think tanks, universities, books, articles, research grants, professorships…..
So what are the features of the ‘strict father’ ?
This frame is based on a set of assumptions:
- The world is a dangerous place and always will be, because evil exists.
- The world is hard and difficult because it is competitive.
- There will always be winners and losers.
- There are absolute right and wrongs.
- Children are born bad, in that they only want to do that which feels good rather than that which is right.
- Children therefore have to be made to do the right thing.
- This world therefore needs a strong strict fatherwho can: protect the family in a dangerous world; support the family in a dangerous world and teach children right from wrong.
These assumptions draw upon centuries of religious teaching from patriarchal Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – that puts ‘God the (strict)Father’ at the top of the social and universal hierarchy. Early capitalist development in Europe and in the United States was founded upon these principles and found expression in the laws enacted at the time, for example the poor law in England.
Children are required to be obedient, because the strict father has moral authority – originally derived from God – as the head of the house: patriarchy. The only way to teach obedience is through punishment for wrong doing until the child can internalise discipline to do what is right. A striver has this internal discipline while a skiver does not. Without punishment, there would be no moral authority and the social order would collapse. Moral hazard is invoked as a justification for imposing strict social policies and for not introducing supportive systems. Moral hazard arises when individuals (skivers) or institutions (e.g. trade unions) do not take on the full consequences and responsibilities of their actions. In doing so they have a tendency to act less carefully than they otherwise would. This might result in someone else bearing responsibility for the consequences of those actions.
The morality of internal discipline has another affect. Discipline is required to be successful in a competitive difficult world; discipline results in self-reliance and prosperity. Wealth is a result. Therefore wealth is a marker of discipline and therefore wealth and morality become linked. Those who are wealthy – the 1% – deserve to be because of their internal discipline and self-reliance. Those who are on benefits deserve their poverty because of their lack of discipline and self-reliance.
This frame is unconscious, part of our brain structure, and is not invoked explicitly in political discussions. When using the language that arise from this frame, the frame is invoked and reinforced. Conservatives know this, and hence do not rely on reason or facts to make their case – they invoke the language of the frame and talk about their values. In so doing, they reinforce the strict father frame.
The strict father knows that adults must bear responsibility, and are no longer entitled to his protection as they should have learned right from wrong. Jonathan Haidt provides a more detailed description of the origins of moral foundations in ‘The Righteous Mind’ and Jordan Peterson in ‘Maps of Meaning’ tries to explicate grand narratives that provide meaning to human groups. The strict father metaphor may be one of those narratives.
We have four descriptions of what an authoritarian approach to life might be. Lakoff and Adorno root their analysis in cultural psychological development, and especially in childhood for Lakoff. Adorno attempts to measure the characteristics while Lakoff only hints at its development. Orwell distinguishes between defensive patriotism and power hungry nationalism rooted in emotion. Eco’s list builds on the earlier work and clarifies for our times what it might look like. The chief danger is that financial capitalism and globalisation has produced a tiny number of winners and a much, much larger number of losers, and the ‘left behind’. Most people in the Brexit heartlands do not possess a class analysis, as the teaching of social class went out of fashion if it was ever in, and this even applies in sociology. They don’t or cannot exercise meta reflexivity to question their own values and assumptions, while traditional values of authority, sanctity, liberty and loyalty provide – proto fascist? – fertile soil for nationalism and fascism to flourish within fractured social systems. Thoughtlessness abounds, dominant frames provide near hegemonic meaning for many social groups, part of their lifeworld colonisation, which if not countered, could result in the lights going out across Europe.
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*conservative here includes those who vote Labour.