The confidence men

If the last few years teach us anything, it is how much can be achieved with confidence. Or, to put it another way, with voluntarist strategies founded on the confidence of speculators. The Left has its own versions of voluntarism, but here I want to focus on the Right. The forces of reaction, be they neocons, theocons, white nationalists, Islamophobes, border fetishists, MRAs, lone wolves and outright fascists, are selling confidence and power to audiences that are crying out for it. They have achieved much by gambling with enormous stakes. They have been chaotic, adventurist, sometimes violent and entrepreneurially criminal, and it has worked. 

Look at Trump and Farage, and their speculative raids on democracy. Trump put his own pocketbook on the line when there was little reason to expect him to succeed. He worked up a campaign out of little more than media attention, late flows of 'dark money', and energised far right networks. Finally, he exploited an opening in the rustbelt states, where the Clinton campaign - assuming that suburban Republican votes would be crucial - self-owned. 

The Brexit Party was an informed gamble, characteristic of Farage's modus operandi. It could have gone badly wrong, which is why it was launched under Catherine Blaiklock's name until it was established. But with a modest war chest, and nothing like a party infrastructure, it found a weakness. Amid a parliamentary crisis, with Brexit not delivered, and European elections that should not have happened on the way, both the major parties treated it like any other election. "I couldn't believe my luck," Farage said.

On the wilder end of apocalyptic reaction, consider the Islamic State, a mobile theocracy built as much out of its own viral momentum as blood and treasure. Its strategists understood that a big win, packaged in the right way, would generate further wins. Iraqi armed forces retreated without a fight, before a much smaller army, because they expected to be crushed. Recruits poured into the training camps because the victories already racked up proved to them that God was on the move. And their global ambition, their ability to steal into Syria and Libya when new fronts of state breakdown and war opened up, their opening of fronts in Europe and North America, their recruitment of franchises abroad, added to the propulsive power of the movement.

One reason the liberal-centre has been so overwhelmed by the new Right, is that it has failed to grasp the potential of voluntarism in circumstances of institutional crisis. Its rhetoric is overwhelmingly that of neurotic faith in the integrity of the existing order. It is always about what can't be achieved, what is impossible, what must not be risked on pain of losing what must never lost: jobs, trade and the economy. The Right replies by proving that it can be done. That it can and will be risked. That 'miracles' can be achieved. That enough people will bear the loss, because 'the economy' doesn't mean the same thing to them that it does to its erstwhile defenders. Besides, when it comes to immigration: it isn't the economy, stupid.

The Right proves, in short, that the liberal faith in the impeccable consistency and logic of the status quo is unfounded. They're almost like hackers saying, if this system is as secure as you say, how come we can break into it? Or, to put it another way, if your version of reality is the only version possible, how come it contains us? Karl Rove used to be mocked by liberals for saying, "We're an Empire now and, when we act, we create our own reality." The chaos in Iraq seemed to horrifyingly rebut this unspeakable smugness, but did it? Did they not create their own reality? Wasn't the chaos, the civil war, the patrimonial corruption, the torture, the complete social breakdown, the million bodies, their own reality?

For a similar reason, the centre has been battered and bewildered in the domain of meaning. How does it come to be, that facts and reason are no match for sheer confidence? For falsehoods expressed with the salesman-like bark of a commodities trader, or a real estate agent? Indeed, how have the terms of 'facts' and 'reason' become the idiom of the alt right, the brand name for their ideology, their mode of rightist 'common sense'? Why are they so impervious to fact-checks? Hannah Arendt tells us that the followers of far-right leaders actually don't mind being lied to, because they expect politicians to cheat. They just want their guys to lie more effectively. They also want to be in on it, but even if they discover they've been lied to, they will just pretend to have known all along, and it will only renew their admiration for the tactical savvy of their cheating, lying leaders. Not to mention their contempt for the stupid, conned masses. Above all, to recall Karl Rove's point, beliefs create realities, they don't reflect them. "The true goal of totalitarian propaganda," Arendt says, "is not persuasion but organisation". It orchestrates and puts into motion the believers, whether they believe or not.

Of course, this also makes the movements fragile, because their voluntarism is not founded on any sort of historical consciousness. The nose of a gambler or speculator for an opening, a weakness, a change in the waters, is not the same thing at all. The capitalist's sense of a market is not historical. While liberalism has absolutely no need for history, is indeed founded in the obliteration of historicity, the Right does need something other than the eternal present. In place of history, as Barthes famously suggested, the Right has myth. In particular, it has the myths of nation and race. It has myths of cyclical repetition. Consider Bannon's fondness for the Strauss-Howe generational theory. It has the myths of what Roger Griffin calls palingenesis, expressed in the slogans 'Take Back Control' and 'Make America Great Again'. In these myths, the nation is always perpetually becoming what it always was, what it originally had been, and would be again if it was appropriately led. The nation, the real nation, is ready for this. Reaction doesn't need popular majorities; it never has. The far-right in the twentieth century needed considerably less than half of the public to support it. Nor does it ground itself in democratic majorities. Mark Farage insisting that "the country" is solidly behind Brexit, when it is palpably not. Mark Trump reminding his followers that "certain people" hate America and thus, even though his core support is 35 per cent of the public, the opposition is not real America. Ultimately, they will rely on violent exclusions to assure their mandate.

As politically efficacious as myth and voluntarism can be, however, they lend themselves to hubris, gross miscalculations, and collapse into paranoia, in-fighting and demoralisation in the face of setbacks. When they're founded on a sapiosexual relation between leader and followers, they create enormous ego-shaped obstacles to a rigorous accounting for failure. It would be difficult to recount a successful rightist movement in the last twenty years in this country, that didn't suffer from a version of these problems. Look at the BNP, collapsing into factional warfare and dwindling into oblivion after they'd just won half a million votes in a general election. Look at Ukip, ousting their only viable leader - who himself had hubristically promised to quit if he didn't win a seat - and descending into schisms after winning four million votes in a general election. Look at the Brexit Party, blaming the "Muslim block vote" for their failure in Peterborough, as though a party with no local structure had an intrinsic right to win a seat there.

The confidence men succeed with brio and tactical boldness, but only inasmuch as the democratic system is already in a process of involution. As Nikhil Singh once put it, fascism is not the eternal other of democracy, but its permanent shadow, its doppelganger. The confidence of the new reactionaries is the obverse of the collapse of faith in democracy. Their success is notably contingent on breakdown, on low electoral participation, on low party membership, on a weak civil society, on widespread cynicism. They claim to want to overcome these problems, to restore the relationship between government and governed on a more authentic basis. 

If, however, any political project appropriately founded in its historicity, and thus with a patience and resilience greater than the average social industry pundit, were to rebuild mass political participation and civil society organisation, it would be a major setback for them. It would atalyse the inevitable descent into paranoia and in-fighting. Their confidence, swagger and rorty bray would evaporate as quickly as it appeared.

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