Saturday, 23 July 2016

Escape from Freedom

So I finally have time and brain space to blog again, and I've been thinking: what do Brexit, Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump have in common?


To my mind, there are at least three similarities.

The first is that each of them represents a response to perceived threats to the wellbeing of their nations from people who are labelled "terrorists".  These terrorists are pictured as an existential threat and mainstream political forces are portrayed as being too weak to respond to these threats.  Hence, a certain proportion of our population turns to someone who will be "strong" and act decisively.

In Britain, a majority turned against their more moderate leaders and voted for a movement led by the right-wing UKIP and the far-right elements of the Conservative Party.  In the US, establishment Republican figures are rejected in favour of an outsider who promises to fix their broken nation.  Here in Australia Pauline Hanson remains a marginal figure but after 18 years of trying she has finally achieved a return to parliament - and her rhetoric is hardly more extreme than that of some members of our Coalition government.

The second similarity is that Islam provides a lightning rod for the fears that have propelled these right-wing outsiders into the mainstream.  Brexit is driven by a desire to control immigration, primarily to exclude the wave of refugees from Syria and other Islamic trouble spots who are flooding into Europe.  Both Trump and Hanson promise to end Muslim immigration, prevent the building of mosques and defeat Islamic State.

The final similarity is that in each case the debate is driven by fear, even panic, unsupported either by facts or by clear policy responses.  People have not elected a person who has thought through the problem and developed a response.  Instead, they have turned to someone who has played on their fears and produced a simple slogan which calms and comforts them.

Our fear of terrorism is not unreasonable, but in all three countries it is out of proportion to the threat.  The worst mass shootings in the US (and there have been many) are nothing to do with terrorism, they are carried out by disturbed young people making use of their community's lax gun laws to create mayhem.  More innocent people are shot each year by police than by terrorists.  More people die in all three countries as a result of domestic violence and alcohol-induced violence than Islamic extremism.  Yet none of these much more serious problems creates the same level of panic or calls forth a "strong" or "decisive" response.

The proposed solution - banning Muslim migration - is not so much a solution as a slogan.  Aside from the obvious - that the ban is misdirected because the vast majority of Muslims oppose terrorism - the policy has no legs.  How will such a ban be implemented?  Will all immigrants be subject to a religious test?  How will lying on such a test be detected?  Will background checks include evidence of a person's religious practice?  What degree of connection with, or devotion to, Islam is sufficient to exclude someone, and how will this be measured?  If someone has previously been Muslim but has abandoned the faith, will they be allowed in?  And will their visa be subject to continued non-attendance at Friday prayers once they are here?

Even if we could actually implement such a ban, what is the evidence that it would protect us from terrorism?  This question is particularly pertinent because IS's current practice is to recruit at a distance, targeting vulnerable people who are already in the country they want to disrupt.  Recent attacks in Australia, the UK, the US, Canada, France and Belgium have all been carried out by people who are residents and even citizens of those countries, sometimes even born there.  What will happen when our post-ban societies are victims of another attack?  What will our right-wing demagogues offer us then to make us feel safe?  No doubt when overseas Muslims can no longer be targeted, we will focus sharper attention on those who are already here.  The groundwork for this is already being laid in the proposals (also championed by Hanson, Trump and the UKIP) to ban further mosque-building and to ban women from covering their faces in public.

Of course, driving Islam underground and persecuting its followers will not make us safer or even make us feel safer after the initial sense of relief.  Indeed it will make is less safe as Muslims see proof that we really do hate them and more of them respond to calls to strike back in the name of Allah.  The cycle of violence will spin ever faster.

What is going on here?

In 1941 German-born social psychologist Erich Fromm published a book called Escape From Freedom.  Fromm himself, a man of Jewish parentage, had lived through the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany before seeking safety in the US in the 1930s.

Escape From Freedom analyses the psychological processes which underlay the rise of European fascism.  It describes the rise of the Nazis as driven by the fears and uncertainties of particular sections of the German population who suffered badly during the Great Depression.  The lower middle class, in particular, felt confused and fearful, seeing their livelihoods and way of life threatened by forces beyond their control.  In this environment freedom was psychologically burdensome, leaving them insecure, and they turned instead to charismatic, "strong leader" figures who promised decisive action to solve their problems.

The Nazis had a gift for describing both the problems and the solutions in simple (indeed simplistic) terms.  The problems of Germany, they said, were caused by easily identifiable enemies.  There was the enemy without - the Allied powers who were milking Germany dry by demanding war reparations and by manipulating world trade against them.  There was also the enemy within - a secret Jewish conspiracy to subvert German society through control of the financial sector and other key social institutions.  These threats demanded a powerful response - massive militarisation to deal with the external threat, suspension of freedoms and a powerful unfettered police force to deal with the enemy within.

Although our circumstances are not identical, there is a lot to learn from Fromm's analysis.  Trump, Hanson and the UKIP are all neo-fascists.  They advocate the same broad set of policies implemented by the Fascist governments of the 1930s and 1940s - strong authoritarian government, extreme nationalism, a focus on law and order, an insistence on social uniformity, an abhorrence of anything that looks or smells even vaguely like socialism, and a naive liberal free market view of economics.  They also, like the Nazis, build their support base by targeting enemies both without and within.

Sure, none of them are advocating the creation of concentration camps, but nor were the Nazis in the early 1930s.  They began with general anti-Jewish propaganda and progressed by easy stages through laws which restricted Jews from certain occupations, then stripped them of citizenship.  It was not until 1938 that they progressed to open violence towards Jews and even then they retained the fiction that Kristallnacht, the 1938 pogrom that killed over 2,000 Jews and destroyed vast amounts of Jewish property, was not an official government action.

Much of Fromm's psychological dynamic is also on display in Australia, the UK, the US and other parts of the world.  People feel a general sense that things are not right in their societies.  Even though our economies are prospering, ordinary people are finding their jobs and businesses are at risk.  Dangers seem to be growing all around us.  Meanwhile we feel powerless to affect any of these things and the institutions through which we used to act - our trade unions, our churches, our social and sporting clubs, even our political parties - are in decline.

The actual causes of these problems are complex and deep rooted.  I have previously written (here and here) about how the problems that we see daily on our TVs are symptoms of deeper problems - the problems of environmental degradation, growing inequality and our attachment to destructive social and political illusions.  However, the scale of these problems and the complexity of the solutions leads to precisely the fear and disempowerment Fromm observed in Germany in the 1930s.

In this situation it doesn't matter that the problems are misidentified or that the solutions are impractical and counterproductive.  What matters is that someone offers to take the weight off our shoulders, to speak for us, to fix the problem for us, to restore our peace and sense of self-worth.

They won't be able to deliver on this promise.  Their prescriptions will make the problems worse and if we follow them we will feel less secure than we did before.  If they follow the Nazi pattern, they will then attempt to keep our loyalty through escalating the strategy, implementing ever stricter law and order policies, stricter supervision of our imagined enemies, more belligerent foreign policies.  If we allow them to get away with it, they will end up with such a firm grip on power that we couldn't dislodge them even if we wanted to.

I would like to say we should stop the cycle of escalation before it begins, but it's already too late for that.  Rather, let's stop it now before it gets out of hand.

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