Some on the left are crying when they should be laughing, argues John Rees
The milkshake dousings of prominent fascists and figures from the far right, most recently Nigel Farage, would, you might think, be a cause for celebration on the left.
Yet in some quarters there has been an outbreak of hand-wringing about the undesirability of the use of “political violence” against figures on the far right. Political violence, it is said, is always unacceptable, will escalate, and is counter-productive.
Now, there is an argument to be had about the use of political violence. I will return to it later. But for the moment the only relevant fact is that throwing milkshakes is not political violence.
How can you tell the difference? Well, it’s really very simple. When political violence is used someone ends up in A&E. When a milkshake is thrown the overnight service in an expensive hotel will sponge down your suit and have it ready for the morning.
In extreme cases, when political violence is used an MP, or worshippers at the mosque, can end up in the morgue. When a milkshake is thrown, it may need serious attention by a dry cleaner to restore a suit to its previous condition.
So, throwing milkshakes is not equivalent to political violence. It is, however, a spectacularly successful method of humiliating political opponents, particularly those on the far right.
Politicians like Tommy Robinson and Nigel Farage trade on their tough image, and on the image of being an outsider, of speaking up for the “little man” against the political establishment.
When a milkshake is thrown it humiliates its target. It makes them look small. And when it’s thrown by someone unknown, a real “little man”, it shows that the common people don’t love the far-right demagogue. Like Charlie Chaplin’s takedown of the Great Dictator, it both ridicules and diminishes its target.
When the practice spreads spontaneously it amounts to a change in mass psychology, the action-oriented equivalent of the dispersal of an urban myth.
This oddly English practice, with its faint echo of charivari, seems at this moment precisely calibrated to the threat of the far right and uniquely able to cut them down to size in full view of a national mass media audience.
It is precisely because the far-right nurture preposterous leadership cults that they are vulnerable to this kind of humiliation. It doesn’t work so well when similar things happen, as they have, to Harold Wilson or Ed Miliband or Jeremy Corbyn, who tend to shrug it off or laugh it off.
And this brings this to the critical point. The fascists and the far right don’t work on normal political principles. Their ideology isn’t rational and its appeal doesn’t rest on a clearly argued set of ideas which are designed to convince fellow citizens to support them.
Fascist and far right politics trade on the desperation of their supporters. These are people who have been made miserable and angry by the vagaries of the market, an uncaring welfare system, and by an arrogant and brutal ruling class.
They have suffered for decades and have lost all faith in the establishment political parties. The appeal of Robinson and Farage is that they seem in some way tough enough to stand up to the political establishment. They want to control the streets, or to build up a party machine outside establishment politics, in order to force their way into the political game.
Physically confronting fascists, humiliating the far right, is one way of undermining their appeal. It disrupts both their organisational capacity and undermines their ideological appeal.
That’s why the Battle of Cable Street in the 1930s and the Battle of Lewisham in the 1970s were turning points in the fight against, respectively, Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and the National Front.
So, whether is throwing milkshakes at Farage or pots and pans at Oswald Mosley, there’s nothing wrong with either humiliating the far right or physically confronting fascists.
Of course, physical confrontation of the fascists, or throwing milkshakes at them, can never be the whole story. Ideological argument is also vital, but it’s not enough on its own. And it very much depends on what those arguments are and who is putting them.
Centrist politicians of course cannot see this. They imagine that the answer to the irrationalist appeal of the far right is simply to restate what the centrists imagine to be rational arguments in favour of their political position.
But if the answer to Farage is Tony Blair, or his would-be modern imitators, then it is little surprise that they are incapable of winning the argument. After all, if there is one thing less convincing than a new lie, it’s an old lie. Farage undoubtedly is a liar, but he is yet to tell a lie that cost as much money or resulted in so many deaths as the lies Tony Blair told about Iraq.
The truth is the fascist and populist right are a product of the lies told by the centrists about the free market and about foreign wars. The very last people who can convince possible Farage supporters that they are wrong are Alistair Campbell, Michael Heseltine, Tony Blair, or Vince Cable. In fact, they are a gift to Farage, demonstrating that everything he says about the political establishment’s inability to understand the pain of ordinary people is absolutely true.
The only force that can defeat Robinson and Farage is a united, radical, labour movement. It is the only force that can legitimately claim to be anti-establishment, and speak for millions of ordinary working people.
But it will throw this advantage away if it reproduces the rationalist error. Voting, essential as it is, is by no means enough. The Labour Party memes going around on social media that show Farage being buried by Labour votes might be fair enough propaganda in the few days before the election, but if they convey the message that Farage can be defeated only at the ballot box they are miseducating the labour movement.
What can provide hope to millions of people is a fight now. A fight for jobs. A fight for better wages. A fight for effective trade unions. A fight to nationalise failing private companies. A fight against racism. A fight against the coming conflict with Iran.
The more the Labour Party looks like the political establishment, the less effective it will be. The more Labour convinces itself it doesn’t need to be part of a wider movement, the less effective it will be. The more it thinks it can rely on argument alone, rather than argument allied to mass organisation and the struggle, the stronger Farage will become.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.