Defeating Steve Bannon
It seems like we are going to be subjected to another episode of Bannonmania. The Oxford Union has recently announced (albeit rather quietly) that they are inviting Steve Bannon — the guy who looks like your racist uncle high on meth — to speak at an event they are holding today, just two weeks after they cancelled an event with the leader of the German far right party AfD, Alice Wiedel, after pressure from anti-racist groups who condemned the Oxford Union for being complicit in giving them “a platform” to promote their sordid views.
As expected the Oxford Union has come under criticism for inviting Steve Bannon from critics who believe the Oxford Union are giving Bannon a free platform that will further his legitimacy and are complicit in ‘normalising’ Fascism and white nationalism.
It is certainly true the Oxford Union in recent years have built up a reputation for inviting and puffing up ‘contrarians’ and ‘controversial’ speakers, even if they don’t have a substantial following, and aren’t actually that contrarian at all, probably for the shock value and for sensationalist headline seeking. And yes, quietly announcing their invitation of Bannon with only two days notice was sly and a deft sleight of hand.
Nevertheless, the purpose of this piece isn’t to argue specifically for whether the Oxford Union should or should not ‘give a platform’ to Bannon to speak on. Such debates are rather tedious, and are starting to feel like groundhog day, though I support the right of people to protest Bannon at the debate, and I do think space should be made for anti-fascists, victims of far right racist violence or anybody else in the audience for that matter to challenge him. I would support a dignified protest of the kind done against Katie Hopkins 3 years ago. Alas, I don’t run the Oxford Union, and they probably do not care a damn what I think.
What I am more interested in is the broader question and principle that the recent episodes of Bannonmania, whether the New Yorker fiasco in September, or the invitation to the Oxford Union now, have provoked. How precisely do we combat this nationalist populism and the authoritarian politics they promote? What place does public debate have in doing this?
Sadly, Bannon is no isolated fringe figure. His ideas are odious and abhorrent, but his influence is considerable, despite the silly comparisons with Lenin and Frantz Fanon . He spouts his bile from countless platforms, whether on CNN, Fox News, Bloomberg, Yahoo, ITV, BBC, CNBC, CBS, Real Time with Bill Maher, The Munk Debates, not to mention being the former White House Chief Strategist, and advising the President of the United States, most powerful man in the world. He doesn’t need the Oxford Union to give him legitimacy or ‘normalise’ him. He has already been normalised. The fact that Donald Trump has been elected as president of the United States and millions of people are at least somewhat sympathetic to Bannon’s ideas demonstrates that he and his ideology have some kind of ‘legitimacy’. So this argument about ‘normalisation’ and ‘legtimisation’ is a non-argument.
Bannon has played a big part in popularising ideas such as economic nationalism, immigration restrictionism, America First foreign policy and white identity politics that helped forged the support for Donald Trump. If we are serious about combating Trumpism and all the other variants of authoritarian populism and nativism that is on the rise in Europe and North America and beyond, then challenging people like Bannon is inevitably going to be part of that.
The elitist, uber privileged space of the Oxford Union may not be the best place to engage and challenge those sympathetic with Bannon. But to many critics location and context isn’t the issue, it is the principle of whether one should engage and debate at all in any context.
This kind of black and white, ‘you’re-with-us-or- you’re-with-the-racists’, absolutist thinking helps no one. James Baldwin debated William F. Buckley publicly at the Oxford Union, Trevor Huddleston and Dennis Skinner publicly debated Enoch Powell on television, Edward Said shared a platform and publicly debated Bernard Lewis, a known ‘Orientalist’ and merchant of the racist Eurabia conspiracy theory. Were they racists? Or useful idiots for racism?
Would it be wrong, for instance, to debate Douglas Murray? Who I’m sure is condemned as a fascist and a white nationalist for his views on Islam and immigration, and his apologia for the far right, anti-semitic Orban regime in Hungary (whom I’ve been very critical of myself for these reasons) If so, then you’re going to have to condemn Cornel West, a self proclaimed “Jesus loving free black man” for engaging with Murray in a conversation earlier this summer. Was he ‘normalising’ white nationalism in this instance? Are you willing to say that? The point is there is no iron cast rule for the question of debating people we deem to be racist. This is why the slippery slope, reductio ad absurdum argument that says ‘does this now mean that we must debate genocide, the morality of slavery or whether raping women is good or not’ are total red herrings that are meant to be thought stoppers and serve no other purpose.
The fact is debate and argument is a tactic for combating the likes of Bannon. It’s not the only tactic, but it is a legitimate tactic as part of wider political struggle. It is fine to think that it is perhaps not productive in debating the likes Bannon, but that is different from dismissing those that do think so are racist themselves. However, I think there is a deeper reason to this aversion, this allergy, this hostility to debating the reactionary right on the plane of ideas: the brutal truth is many leftists have little or no confidence in their ability to articulate their ideas persuasively to a mass audience. They do not even know why they hold the ideas they do, and why they think they are right; only that they think they may be in the safe moral majority in holding them. They cannot think for themselves. They can’t debate, they can’t argue. They don’t know the art of the dialectic; of rhetoric; of argument. They don’t know how to debate someone who questions every single assumption of left wing thought. They fear they may lose, and may be exposed and their self evidently wonderful ideas may, just may, be demonstrated to be wrong.
Look I get it, times are getting desperate. Trump is in the White House and is at the imperial helm, the far right feel emboldened, nativist nationalism is on the up and white nationalist rhetoric is beginning to creep into mainstream discourse. Trump’s barbaric and draconian policies towards Hispanic immigrants, and the relatively recent massacre of Jews in Pennsylvania demonstrates this is not nothing, it isn’t a game. Slavoj Zizek does have a point when he points out that things that were unacceptable to be uttered in public 10 or 15 years ago are now becoming acceptable. What is also worrying is that the populist far right, even though they are a minority are able to set the general terms of the debate and impose their topics on to everyone. The fundamental question then we face is how do we fight this scourge?
The objective is not to ‘beat’ Bannon in a debate, or to convince him to become a milquetoast social democrat (a strawman often erected in this debate). I don’t think anyone seriously thinks that the point of debating Bannon is to change his mind. I think the question can be distilled down to whether there exists is an audience open enough to rethink their views on Bannon. Some think so, some think not. Those who condemn any debate with Bannon and his sympathisers and upporters in any context are denying that it does, or that it can be engaged with, whether they say it openly or not. That is effectively throw in the towel and imply that there is no future for politics.
I am reminded of a quote we should all bare in mind from CLR James in his last interview he gave before he passed away in 1989 when he was asked how Lenin would’ve dealt with Margaret Thatcher, seeing as she had won three elections, and right wing hegemony was strengthening with the British left weak and underwhelmed from all the defeats it suffered at the hands of Thatcherism (something Stuart Hall warned the Left not to underestimate):
How would Lenin have dealt with Margaret Thatcher? Lenin would have said, “She has won three times. Something happens once, that is an accident. The second time, maybe it is a coincidence. But the third time, that is an orientation. She has won three times, let me see why.” He wouldn’t rush into agitation to put up somebody against her. He would have said, “Bring me all her books and everything she has said”. He would have analysed them all and he would have said, “She represents this and this today is stronger than it was, and she sticks to that, and that is why she wins; and now to defeat her we have to get down to these fundamentals.”’
Now one can’t ventriloquise for the dead, but I am sure CLR would say something similar if he was alive today and asked how do we deal with Trumpism and national populism?Brexit, the Trump presidency, the Lega Nord in power in Italy, the election of Bolsonaro in Brazil, Modi in power in India, the rise of the Orban regime and other nationalist populist movements throughout Europe, demonstrates, if my diagnosis is correct, that we are living through a reconfiguration of global politics. All of these thugs are symptoms of a very deep crisis within global capitalism economically speaking, and actually existing liberal democracy politically and ideologically speaking. We are living in the moment Antonio Gramsci described in his Notebooks where the old is dying, but the new has not yet been born, and it is in this moment where monster begin to emerge.
The fundamental question we have to ask ourselves is, why do these national populists seem like they are only considerable opposition to the status quo? Why do they seem like they are the only group to pose as the ‘authentic’ voice of protest for the “little guy” as Bannon would put it? Why do they have this pseudo-emancipatory potential? Why do they seem attractive? What is it about our political, economic and social context that makes them flourish? The Frankfurt school theorist Walter Benjamin once said “behind every fascism is a failed revolution”. The fact is the rise of this reactionary populism is correlated with the decline of the left, and they have entered into the vaccum vacated by the weakening of the Left. Our moment calls for us to stop being fascinated by these little details and small controversies and take a step back and look at the bigger picture and ask more fundamental question of ourselves.
I know saying that we didn’t get into this mess overnight and we aren’t going to get out of it overnight, and we aren’t going to ‘No Platform’ our way out of this, isn’t exactly cheery, especially as we want to grasp desperately at quick fixes and shortcuts, because we feel we are going to stop the next catastrophe. But so long as we think in this way we will always be stopping the next catastrophe and not dealing the the cause. Anti-fascism if it means anything is firstly to stop fascism, but also to attack the conditions that make fascism possible. It is going to take time to build the movement necessary to mount a sufficient challenge to the likes of Bannon and all the other hard right forces politically, ideologically, socially and culturally. The question is whether a more radical international Left can emerge that is able to do this and can be an alternative to both liberal democratic capitalism and reactionary national populism.