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.)

Post-truth politics and librarianship

To what extent can information literacy address so-called “post-truth politics”? (Image c/o freestocks on Flickr.)

Post-truth politics. Nothing screams zeitgeist quite as much as a blog post about the emergence of “post-truth politics”. At present it seems to be everywhere. Political tweets, articles in national media, analysis by the commentariat. In the aftermath of Brexit and with the emergence of Trump as a presidential candidate in the US, it has almost become a short-hand method by which to describe the current political climate. As someone working in the information profession and being politically engaged, the topic itself is like catnip to me. The notion of “post-truth” as someone who deals in facilitating access to information? How could I not jot down a few thoughts?

A few weeks back I was flicking through a collection of essays by George Orwell (living the stereotype). One essay in particular caught my attention: Looking back on the Spanish War. The Spanish Civil War is a bit of an obsession of mine. Being married to a Spaniard has helped feed this (on top of a history A-level where the study of fascism was the basis of the entire course), and I pretty much seek out as much information as I can on the most romanticised of 20th century conflicts. Orwell, of course, was actively involved in the conflict. Along with many other leftists, he left the UK to join the International Brigades and fight fascism in the truest sense of the phrase.

Reading through his reflections on the Civil War, one passage particularly hit home…forgive me if I reproduce it here in its entirety, but I think it is justified:

Out of the huge pyramid of lies which the Catholic and reactionary press all over the world built up, let me take just one point — the presence in Spain of a Russian army [Note: the Russians provided strategic support and hardware for Republican elements, but did not send in their army]. Devout Franco partisans all believed in this; estimates of its strength went as high as half a million. Now, there was no Russian army in Spain. There may have been a handful of airmen and other technicians, a few hundred at the most, but an army there was not. Some thousands of foreigners who fought in Spain, not to mention millions of Spaniards, were witnesses of this. Well, their testimony made no impression at all upon the Franco propagandists, not one of whom had set foot in Government Spain. Simultaneously these people refused utterly to admit the fact of German or Italian intervention at the same time as the Germany and Italian press were openly boasting about the exploits of their’ legionaries’. I have chosen to mention only one point, but in fact the whole of Fascist propaganda about the war was on this level.

This kind of thing is frightening to me, because it often gives me the feeling that the very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. After all, the chances are that those lies, or at any rate similar lies, will pass into history.

Orwell wrote these words in 1943.

Post-truth politics is, ultimately, a fancy new term for an age old…truth. In many ways this is hardly surprising. There is a tendency to re-package old ideas and present them as somehow new challenges for a new generation, when quite often they are old ideas that are re-packaged and presented as somehow new [citation needed].

When it comes to Brexit though, I wonder to what extent the vote to leave can simply be blamed on untruths or a sense of “post-truth politics”. Of course perhaps the prime example of the notion of post-truth politics was the infamous Vote Leave bus that suggested £350m being sent to the EU could be spent on the NHS instead. Despite being dismissed as “misleading” by the Chair of the Statistics Authority, the statement clearly influenced some, as demonstrated in this recent piece by Faisal Islam for The Guardian:

“I would go mad if this money doesn’t go into the NHS, I will go mad. I want to be assured that this money – because that’s why I voted to come out,” says Shirley.

But to what extent was the reality of Brexit really about “post-truth politics”? Certainly there are those that were misled, and there are those that would have been persuaded by falsehoods, but by no means can we paint Brexit as solely the consequence of post-truth politics. It is, for example, undoubtedly true that the European Union has adopted and pursued an extensive and damaging economic agenda across the continent. Casting an eye towards Greece is enough to underline the extent to which the EU is hardly a benign, friendly force for good. Economically speaking it is highly destructive. This is certainly a truth for those on the receiving end of the economic brutality. And a truth that is felt by the working class across the continent, those who do not feel the economic benefits so many of us take for granted (can anyone seriously argue that the working class in Greece have benefitted from the EU’s interventions?).

In this respect I was what might be described as a “reluctant remainer”. For me, if it was purely down to the economics of the European Union, I would have voted out. No-one who cares about the poorest in society could possibly consider the anti-democratic and destructive economic policies of the EU and believe that these are things that should be embraced. But then there are the social aspects. I am pro-immigration (indeed, I’m pro-“no borders”), and for me a vote to leave would have had disastrous implications for not only immigrants at home (which given the rise in racism seems to have very much come to pass), but would have given a powerful shot in the arm for far-right movements across Europe (who wasted no time in celebrating Brexit). That I could not countenance. And it was for that reason I voted to Remain. But, there were strong and powerful reasons to Leave, and they were not about “post-truth politics”, but a deeper truth about the reality of how the EU operates.

In terms of how this fits in with our work, would we make much difference here? Certainly, I think librarians clearly have a key role to play in terms of information literacy. We should be out there presenting the facts and working to ensure greater democratic engagement. And when I say “we should be out there” I mean we should be active, we should not just be waiting for folk to come to us in our libraries or institutions, we should be going out to them. Actively engaging wherever possible, working with communities, helping them to make sense of the huge volume of misinformation that proliferates during any political campaign.

But I don’t think better critical thinking amongst voters would necessarily have made a difference in terms of events such as Brexit. Yes there was inaccurate information from the Leave campaign that appears to have persuaded some to vote to leave, but would it have been any different if people were better equipped to assess the information provided? If you see the economic consequences of the EU in the Mediterranean, would you have been none the less persuaded to vote to Remain if you knew that not only were we not spending £350m per week on the EU that could have been spent on the EU, but that Turkey is unlikely to join any time soon and that we would have to join an EU army? Or would these truths make no difference whatsoever? Would the truth of the economic conditions enforced by the EU outweigh such “truths”? Or would the evident democratic deficit? And there are, of course, the racists and xenophobes who will take a racist position and disregard any “truths” that they are confronted with.

“People have had enough of experts,” said Michael Gove. I think we need to hear the voices of experts now more than ever. One look at the state of our media underlines how little the experts are heard, dominated as they are by commentators who pontificate on what they “reckon”. But experts and professionals can’t change realities or affect the lived experience of others. An individual critically analysing information in the run-up to the referendum could just as easily have voted to leave as voted to remain. Criticality and information literacy are not panaceas, but they help shine a light that can be shone into the darkest corners. Ultimately, it is not truth alone that will determine voting intentions, but how heavy that truth weighs.