Other people’s worries are no different from yours. Just as you worry about how to pay the bills, and wonder where you will be in five years, so do extremists. You give them an unwarranted respect if you imagine them to be solely motivated by their ‘ideals’ such as they are. Think instead about the importance of earning a living: the politics of having enough brass to put food on the table. The most mundane reason why communists and fascists did not prosper in the 20th century has nothing to do with the supposed moderation of the British national character and everything to do with money.
If you wanted to dedicate your life to the far left or far right, there were few ways to earn a living. Unless you had a private income, like Oswald Mosley, or the upper class leaders of the 1968 generation of far leftists, you could not sustain yourself. Respectable society forced you to take other work. Nothing could be further from the truth today: the modern equivalents of fascists and communists have an embarrassment of options now, while the old respectable society, which once constrained extremists, is starting to look uneconomic and out of date.
Until recently Stalinists, Trotskyists, their fellow travellers, and I suppose what we should call ‘post-communists’, might find work as a Labour MP. But very few made it into Parliament. Left wing trade unions might hire them as political officers; left wing MPs or councils as researchers. But only a tiny number of posts were available. Most Marxists had to work in full-time jobs, usually in universities or schools, and agitate in their spare time. The alternative was to commit to a life of political slavery and work for Militant or the Socialist Workers Party for nothing. Understandably, very few people were prepared to do it.
The far right was as hampered by the lack of money and full-time activists. The BNP won about half a million votes in the 2010 general election, but the cost of standing in 339 seats almost bankrupted the party as it threw away £133,500 on lost deposits. By the 2015 general election, it barely existed. The same fate awaits Ukip.
The problem of how to earn a living was as pressing for far rightists as the far leftists. Left wingers, who assume they can work as propagandists on a Tory press filled with fascists, clearly don’t know Tory journalists or the Tory press. Tory editors want to be respectable. They don’t want mob-raising writing that risks taking politics into the streets. Even authentic authoritarian chauvinists must watch what they say and suppress their real views. The few far-right journalists in the national press are thus reduced to the status of lap dancers. They can arouse the punters, certainly, but must never provoke them into getting physical.
Most conservatives steered well clear of Tommy Robinson, even though he was one of the few politicians who can speak well to the racist strain in white working class British culture. There was too much of the beer hall and Doc Martens about him: a bad smell that will only grow stronger now he’s serving his second prison sentence.
The Sun and the Mail both published Katie Hopkins, letting her go after she compared migrants to cockroaches and talked in true fascist language about a ‘final solution’ after the Manchester attack. On the other side, Labour’s social democrats were gloating a few weeks ago about the fate of Aaron Bastani, a Corbynite Twitter troll. He wanted to move on to a secure job, but the respectable left wing think tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research, reportedly withdrew an offer after staff protested about his association with George Galloway. Here was a lesson for anyone trying to get on in the Left, noted an anti-Corbyn site:
That Aaron Bastani is now too toxic for mainstream organisations, thanks in part to the abusive behaviour on social media that the Alt-left see as necessary to promote their products, suggests that budding young writers are better off steering clear of the Alt-left.
Even if you could set aside all moral considerations, at the level of brute economics extremism was for losers. And so it was in the 20th century, but old arguments make little sense today.
Bastani is only looking for work because he crossed Corbyn by opposing the leader’s approved candidate for Labour general secretary. If he had been a good boy, he might have hoped for a job in a Labour party where the only people likely to be hired now are Corbyn loyalists. Far from moderation being a virtue in Labour politics, the smart career move is to appear as extreme as possible.
As for the right, a Muslim liberal I know once asked Tommy Robinson why he didn’t stop playing the game of inciting anti-Muslim bigotry and find a proper job. ‘Fine,’ came the reply ‘if you can tell me where else I can make £4,000 a month.’ Denied traditional employment, Robinson turned to the world’s biggest bank: the Web.
How much he raised through YouTube advertising and donations from his followers no one knows, but he was confident enough to launch a crowdfunding appeal for £100,000 to equip a studio from where he could become an online broadcaster. The tendency of the Web to push people to extremes in search of an audience has been well covered; Robinson has now been jailed for contempt of court after filming himself outside a trial. To monetise your politics, you must keep your market in a profitable state of outrage by posing as a lone voice exposing the truths the establishment want to hide.
Meanwhile it is a matter of record that Daniel Pipes’ Middle East Forum sent money to Geert Wilders. It’s not too farfetched to imagine right wing and alt-right organisations in the US are as happy to fund other European movements.
And not just alt-right organisations, but governments too. Until now, three foreign governments have interfered in European and western politics: Russia, which provided loans to the French National Front and attempted to subvert the US presidential election, and Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have poured money into Islamist causes and mosques. Last week, Donald Trump’s ambassador to Germany praised Austria’s far-right chancellor saying, ‘I absolutely want to empower other conservatives throughout Europe’.
Since 1945, Atlanticism has been at the heart of ‘respectable’ European politics. Moderate European politicians knew that America would help them. The Trump administration has made the old certainties appear preposterous. When the US government is closer to Farage, Robinson and Hopkins than Theresa May, you have to ask who is the fringe and who is the mainstream? How much longer can left wing think tanks and conservative newspapers pretend that they matter when the energy, the support of foreign powers and the money is with the men and women on the extremes?