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During the research and write-up of my PhD, I have had the opportunity to continuously reflect on the chronology of populist political discourse and the divisive stance it has taken in recent years, not least in relation to key issues of social (in)justice. What has fascinated me most, however, is the familiarity of much of the (currently) dominant narrative to the discourses used during the early years of the Austerity programme (early 2010s) where anti-capitalist, anti-establishment and anti-elite sentiments were particularly rife. I reflected on my days of activism as part of the Anonymous hacktivist collective, when these words seemed to be synonymous with a desire for genuine social justice for the vulnerable, marginalised and minoritised…only to later discover that the years of gradual drip-feeding of far-right ideas surrounding race, gender, religion, sexuality and environmentalism had hijacked those same signifiers – framing any kind of opposition to the “new” (but very much old and tired) hegemony as “annoying wokeness” or “political correctness gone mad”.
Right-leaning politicians soon jumped on this bandwagon to appeal to the racist factions of the public who had finally been empowered to show their true inner colours during the Brexit years, and those who were simply looking for an outlet for their woes – someone or something to blame – but who had somehow managed to forget the deep scars left behind from the inevitable consequences of neoliberalism. There cannot be a better demonstration of this than Liz Truss’ latest attack, in her keynote speech at the Conservative Party conference, on anyone opposing the government’s policies as being “anti-growth”…whatever that means. Even as each Conservative politician turns out to be more discursively radical than their predecessor, rooting the country deeper in this post-truth hegemony, we are still subjected to remnants of Nigel Farage from the sidelines. In his most recent 42-minute interview with Steven Edgington from the Telegraph, he demonstrated the continued stronghold of the far-right on the discursive field surrounding anti-establishmentism and anti-elitism.
It was interesting to hear Farage’s embodiment of the 1930s Chicago School of thought surrounding crime and criminality, framed as some kind of nostalgic dream that Britons should aspire to return to; people speaking the same language, having similar cultural interests, histories, engaging in self-regulation (i.e. emulating ideas of informal policing mechanisms), with the consequence of the alternative being framed as lawless anarchy. It is almost as though he spent an inordinate amount of time rifling through any Criminology textbook he could find to try to secure the smallest sliver of justification for spewing hatred about migrants and refugees. It is unclear whether or not this was a deliberate attempt to appeal to academic audiences, but it may have been worth (rather than remaining in the 1930s) actually reading ahead to more contemporary work which largely discredit some of these bygone theoretical ideas as inadequate in explaining “crime” rates in large metropolitan cities. Even so, Farage’s Chicago School ideas seemed misguided. Discourses relating to ‘community cohesion’ and ‘integration’ were thrown out without adequate explanation, closely linked to his views on immigration; the cause of our economic woes being framed as some kind of ‘burden on the state’ as a result of migration.
In Farage’s post-truth world, deregulation of industry and business is framed as a solution to the ongoing cost-of-living crisis. Well, we know the inevitable consequence of deregulating industry…we have been privy to the process in slow batches for 12 years. The UK also fell victim to this kind of neoliberal model during the Thatcher era. There is a vast archive of state-initiated and state-facilitated corporate crimes (and other significant individual and ecological harms) that can be attributed directly to the deregulation of major industry, and that’s even before talking about the horrors of the Grenfell Tower fire. These arguments for neoliberalism were accompanied during the interview by a narrative fixated on attacking globalism (e.g. “globalist idiots”) in defence of economic, political and cultural nationalism. The outrage at the state-facilitated actions of rich bankers that caused the 2008 Economic Crisis, and the subsequent Austerity programme, was framed as some kind of exaggeration (“hardly anyone lost their jobs”).
While there are statements made throughout the interview that those opposing the current Conservative government could agree with, like the weakness of the Party in resonating with ‘regular’ people (due to being out of touch with social reality), and the fact that they are almost certainly “headed for a 97-style wipeout, and they deserve it”…it is worth noting that the message is also reliant on the messenger. As a private-school educated politician, with a background in corporate tax avoidance, Farage is the epitome of the ‘establishment’, the ‘metropolitan elite’ who he claims to oppose. Despite this discursive war taking place in political, social and academic arenas, the “anti-” narrative needs reclaiming not through defensive practices, but ones which engage in active reframing of the ‘establishment’ as being all-encompassing of the vices associated with neoliberalism; greed, selfishness, individualism, ego-centrism and inevitable narcissism.