Internationalism: is international solidarity a more potent weapon than info lit?

Could internationalism have halted the rise of fascism in the 1930s? (Image c/o on Flickr.)

In my last post I wrote about information literacy and the extent to which I believe it is effective in dealing with the rise of the far-right across the globe. As I argued there, I believe that the issue we have at present is that a large section of society in Western liberal democracies feel disconnected from the political elites and have seen recent votes as a chance for them to tear down the edifice. In the UK, it has led to a vote to leave the EU. In the United States it has led to the election of a candidate who stood firmly on an anti-establishment platform. What connects these two events is, in my view, a collective wish by electorates to give the establishment a kicking, stirred up by a cynical right-wing that seeks to advance a political philosophy that seeks to further the divide between the richest and the poorest.

I said in my previous post that I didn’t want to get into answers that can lead us on the path to salvation. I was criticised for doing so. I still do not want to get into the business of providing answers, but I do want to explore some of the issues a bit more from a historical context, in the hope that it might provide me with some answers, as well as perhaps highlight some of the lessons of the past.

Of course, in some respects it’s very lazy to return to the 1930s to seek lessons to learn in order to understand the world as it increasingly is now. It’s relatively recent, it’s an aspect of history that every school pupil studying the subject is bombarded with, and it’s a period that has become somewhat of an obsession. Putting all that to one side, however, it’s a good point to start exploring the rise of the far-right and the circumstances around it.

As I noted in my previous post, the Nazis rose to power not on the back of a coherent programme that garnered mass support, rather they threatened to smash the whole system down and start afresh. They wanted to tear the system down and build Germany from afresh. What for them had become “rotten” they did not wish to fix or patch up, they wanted to smash it down and construct something new. It wasn’t about reform, it was about destruction and re-building. This led to growing support as the communist “threat” hovered in the background, as Kershaw notes:

“Panic at the growing support for the communist party (largely at the expense of the Social Democrats), and the wildly exaggerated prospect of a communist revolution, had gripped the middles classes. The ‘bourgeois’ parties of the centre and right duly collapsed, along with over thirty small regional or interest parties (their proliferation facilitated by an electoral system of unrestricted proportional representation). The Nazis hoovered up the bulk of their dwindling support.” (Kershaw, 2015)

The centre collapsed under the strain and, ultimately, people fled to the extremes, whether that be the communists or the fascists. The centre was no longer tenable as a political position. Arguably, given those circumstances, only a strong communist party would have been enough to prevent the Nazi rise to power internally (emphasis on arguably). But to what extent would internationalism limited the rise of the fascists in the 1930s?

Orwell’s Lion and the Unicorn, an essay published in 1941, highlight the extent to which there was a lack of international solidarity to tackle the rise of fascism. Orwell writes:

“Economically, England is certainly two nations, if not three or four. But at the same time the vast majority of the people feel themselves to be a single nation and are conscious of resembling one another more than they resemble foreigners. Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism. Except for a brief moment in 1920 (the ‘Hands off Russia’ movement) the British working class have never thought or acted internationally. For two and a half years they watched their comrades in Spain slowly strangled, and never aided them by even a single strike.” (Orwell, 2000)

This lack of internationalism was also reflected by the late Jack Jones, a trade unionist and a member of the XV International Brigade. In a collection of reflections on the Spanish Civil War, Jones recalled the lack of interest in foreign affairs by his fellow workers:

“Day after day at the dock I tried to draw my mates’ attention to what was happening in the world. It wasn’t easy, for the order of debate was sport, sex, beer and, of course, the job. But Hitler had come to power in Germany and their trade union movement was in tatters. The trade unionists, Socialists and Communists were being pushed into concentration camps along with the Jews. Early in 1934 the Austrian trade unionists had been brutally suppressed by Dollfuss. Older trades unionists on the Trades Council were apprehensive and coveted their fears to me, but, to my workmates, Germany and Austria were far-off countries.” (Arthur, 2009)

One wonders to what extent the rise of fascism would have been halted had there been a united, large-scale internationalist response to its rise. I’m of the school of thought that believes that if the “allies” had taken a stronger line with Franco in the Spanish Civil War, indeed, if they had fought for the Republic, the rise of fascism would have been checked (it’s a dangerous game playing “what ifs…” with history mind you). Whether you believe it would have made a difference or not, it seems evident to me that internationalism, a true sense of international solidarity, would have made a significant difference.

Is this an answer to our current situation? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe there are a whole host of answers, complex, multi-faceted answers that we need to consider (yes). There is no magic bullet, no single answer that will reverse the rise of the far-right. But I can’t help but think that working internationally, in solidarity, not treating the problems of one Western liberal democracy as entirely distinct from other Western liberal democracies, might help. That maybe, instead of creating answers for our own backyard, we need to work together with our neighbours to ensure all our communities are safe.

I tend to hark on about Orwell a lot, but there are some words of his that provide some distant hope as to the future. Reflecting on the Spanish Civil War he wrote:

“Too ignorant to see through the trick that is being played on them, [the working class] easily swallow the promises of Fascism, yet sooner or later they always take up the struggle again. They must do so, because in their own bodies they always discover that the promises of Fascism cannot be fulfilled. To win over the working class permanently, the Fascists would have to raise the general standard of living, which they are unable and probably unwilling to do.” (Orwell, 2000)

Those are not the terms I would use, but there seems to be to be a truth there about Brexit, Trump and the far-right across the Western world. Their promises to the workers cannot ever be fulfilled. They cannot bring the utopia that the workers desire. They cannot close the gap between the richest and the poorest. They cannot lift the standards of living of the poorest in our communities. Why? Because it is in contravention to their own political philosophy. By working internationally in solidarity, perhaps we can bring about this realisation a little earlier, and hasten the decline of the far-right.

References

Jones, J. (2009). Jack Jones. In M. Arthur (Ed.), The real band of brothers. London: Collins.

Kershaw, I. (2015). To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949. UK: Allen Lane.

Orwell, G. (2000). Lion and the Unicorn. In G. Orwell, Essays. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1941.)

Orwell, G. (2000). Looking back on the Spanish War. In G. Orwell, Essays. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1943.)

Information Literacy Won’t Save Us; or, Fight Fascism, Don’t Create A LibGuide

“Some men just want to watch the world burn.” (Image c/o Patrik Theander on Flickr.)

In the wake of both the EU referendum and the election of Trump in the United States, there has been a growing concern about the proliferation of “fake news” and the rise of post-truth politics. As William Davies puts it in The New York Times, facts are “losing their ability to support consensus” as we enter “an age of post-truth politics”. This kind of talk is, of course, catnip for library workers because it plays into certain narratives that have dominated the discourse in recent years, specifically the rising importance of information literacy.

Although I would not dismiss the importance of information literacy in terms of education and providing the tools individuals need to think critically about the information they find, we need to be careful not to overplay its effects. Alarmed as I am about the current political environment, I am not wholly convinced that raising the standard of information literacy in our communities will see our way through the rising white nationalist mood that has gripped Western democracies. Well, I’m not convinced at all. Certainly history suggests that a belief that if only people could better interpret the facts we could find our way out of this mess is misplaced.

One of the issues I have with the term “post-truth” is inherent in the phrase itself – that if the current situation represents post-truth, then the period before must therefore be characterised as one where truth was primary and dominated our political and social landscape. There is nothing unique about the notion that fact takes a back seat to narratives. It has been apparent in our politics, in our understanding of history and in our journalism for some time.

In his renowned work of historical theory, What is history?, Carr explores the role of “fact” in historical works. Carr writes:

“The facts speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the floor, and in what order or context…The belief in a hard core of historical facts existing objectively and independently of the interpretation of the historian is a preposterous fallacy…” (Carr, 1990, p.11-12)

He continues with regards to our understanding of 5th century BC Greece:

“Our picture has been preselected and predetermined for us, not so much by accident as by people who were consciously or unconsciously imbued with a particular view and thought the facts which supported that view worth preserving.” (Carr, 1990, p.13)

In essence, although fact has a place in the historical record, it is secondary to a particular narrative that the historian wishes to present. Our understanding of Greece, as Carr explains, is not strictly factual, the facts are secondary to the narrative the historian sets out. The narrative will contain fact (of course), but it will not primarily be factual. As Professor Barraclough (quoted in Carr) argued, historical narratives are “strictly speaking, not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgements” (p.14).

To a certain extent, Herman and Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent comes to a similar conclusion about journalists. Much like the historian, the journalist applies filters and reinforces particular narratives, either consciously or unconsciously. In the book’s conclusion, the authors argue that:

“In contrast to the standard conception of the media as cantankerous, obstinate, and ubiquitous in their search for truth and their independence of authority, we have spelled out and applied a propaganda model that indeed sees the media as serving a ‘societal purpose,’ but not that of enabling the public to assert meaningful control over the political process by providing them with the information needed for the intelligent discharge of political responsibilities.” (Chomsky & Herman, 2008)

In the afterword to the 2008 edition of the text, the authors argue that the rise of technology, increased commercialisation and more competition for advertising revenues have resulted in:

“…more compromises on behalf of advertisers, including more friendly editorial policy, more product placements, more intrusive ads, more cautious news policy, a shrinkage in investigative reporting and greater dependence on wire service and public relations offerings, and a reduced willingness to challenge establishment positions and party lines. This has made for a diminished public sphere and facilitated media management by government and powerful corporate and other lobbying entities.” (Chomsky & Herman, 2008)

On the basis of the arguments of Carr, Herman and Chomsky it is clear that public discourse and debate is rarely informed by fact, rather it is informed by the narrative preferences of the individuals disseminating information (this also links in with Nietzschean philosophy – the one philosopher I am familiar with – who questioned the very notion of there being an “objective truth”). This was fine when the media landscape was relatively small-scale, it becomes a different matter when the landscape becomes a vast, unregulated space populated by individuals who reject the responsibilities that come with the narratives they disseminate.

Although Herman and Chomsky’s theory doesn’t exactly fit with the notion of “post-truth” politics, it does have some relevance here. The growing hand-wringing over “post-truth politics” by the mainstream media has been a handy weapon for them to utilise, and one that has helped to mask their own culpability for the current political and social crisis. Under the cover of “post-truth” the media are able to differentiate themselves from the vast swathe of media out there pushing alternative narratives that sit outside the mainstream of post-war public discourse, thus masking their culpability for our current environs.

As Herman and Chomsky have pointed out, the media do not have a good history when it comes to presenting facts or in being “ubiquitous in the search for truth”. Rather it has a history of presenting information that fails to challenge the status quo and rather than speaking out against power they are complicit in power structures and in reinforcing a very narrow economic perspective. This narrowing of public discourse and failure to challenge the orthodoxy has resulted in the media increasingly being seen as part of the political elite. They are no longer holding power to account, they are engaged in a symbiotic relationship where the two feed off each other, one reinforcing the other. When the media and the state become intertwined, loss of faith in the latter also results in a loss of faith in the former, because they have become virtually indistinguishable. Hence we find ourselves in a situation where even were the media to try to hold individuals like Farage and Trump to account, they will be ineffective. Because the media are simply extensions of the system that those individuals and their followers seek to tear down.

And this is ultimately the key. The problem is not information literacy. The problem is that there is a movement that seeks to tear the entire system down (for a variety of reasons – although primarily its source is racism). What we are encountering is not simply addressed by encouraging people to read more critically (although long term this strategy may help), it requires continuous and persistent challenging of those that seek to tear everything down. It’s this that we must consider when we think about how best to support our communities and tackle the threat that they are facing.

Earlier this year, Steve Bannon (appointed chief strategist for the Trump presidency) gave an interview to The Daily Beast where he declared that:

“Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

Earlier in 2014, Trump himself declared that:

“You know what solves it? When the economy crashes, when the country goes to total hell and everything is a disaster. Then you’ll have a [chuckles], you know, you’ll have riots to go back to where we used to be when we were great.”

There are clear echoes here of the past. It’s very easy to fall back on Nazi Germany analogies, but here it seems appropriate. Now, as then, we are living in the aftermath of a substantial economic shock, one that has seen the poorest punished hardest whilst the wealthiest continue to prosper. Now, as then, people are turning to extremes for answers. As it was in the 1930s, it is the far-right that have prospered by blaming “the other” and profiting from a clearly stated desire to tear down the whole edifice. As Ian Kershaw, one of the leading historians on Nazi Germany, notes of this period in German history:

“Voters were not for the most part looking for a coherent programme, nor for limited reforms to government. Hitler’s party was attractive to them because it promised a radical new start by clearing out the old system entirely. The nazis did not want to amend what they depicted as moribund or rotten; they claimed they would eradicate it, and build a new Germany out of the ruins. They did not offer to defeat their opponents; they threatened to destroy them completely.” (Kershaw, 2015)

This is where we are in the West. Those that are turning to Trump (or to Farage) are not interested in “truth”, in “facts” or in critical thinking. They simply want to tear the whole thing down. They want to “drain the swamp”. To smash down the system that they feel has abandoned them and create something that puts their interests first. And where there are desperate people searching for someone to speak for them, there are those that are only too willing to exploit them. A defence against exploitation is not information literacy (although this doesn’t mean that we should abandon it, it is still a vital skill to encourage critical thinking). A defence against exploitation is the dismantling of capitalism, the real cause of people’s alienation and abandonment.

In terms of how we tackle this, I have no answers. I’m not going to sit here and bash out some glorious plan that will save us all and reverse the hell that we have allowed to be visited upon us (and let’s not kid ourselves, we have allowed this to happen). But my mind does turn to Orwell (as it often does) and his thoughts when reflecting upon the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism. In his essay, Looking back on the Spanish War, Orwell writes:

“One feature of the Nazi conquest of France was the astonishing defections amongst the intelligentsia. The intelligentsia are the people who squeal loudest against Fascism, and yet a respectable proportion of them collapse into defeatism when the pinch comes.” (Orwell, 2000)

The “pinch” has come. We must continue to “squeal” at every opportunity, we must not give them a moment, we must not for one second normalise a vile politics that seeks to divide and tear apart our communities. And we must not ever, no matter how difficult the fight, collapse into defeatism.

References

Carr, E.H. (1990). What is history? London: Penguin.

Herman, E.S. & Chomsky, N. (2008). Manufacturing Consent. London: Bodley Head.

Kershaw, I. (2015). To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949. UK: Allen Lane.

Orwell, G. (2000). Looking back on the Spanish War. In G. Orwell, Essays. London: Penguin. (Original work published 1943.)