Nigel Farage’s social call on Julian Assange’s hideaway in the Ecuadorian embassy was a clarifying moment that ought to have flooded light on a dark world. To those who are willing to see, it revealed that far left and far right are now one movement.
“All isms are wasms,” quipped a Foreign Office wag as fascism and communism united in the Hitler-Stalin pact. That wasn’t true in 1939, when Berlin and Moscow found their shared belief in the “ism” of totalitarianism was greater than the difference between left and right, and isn’t true now. There is an “ism” – illiberalism – an ideology that has been growing for years. Do not underestimate its force. Illiberals now control the White House and the Kremlin. You can track their influence in the Brexit right’s contempt for education and expertise and the Labour left’s alliances with the counter-Enlightenment.
The old division between left and right makes as little sense now as it did in 1939. To realise its futility consider that in conventional terms Farage is a politician who manoeuvres in the grey zone before the right and the far right. He exploits chauvinism and plays on racial fears but is always careful not to incite violence directly. Assange is a man of what I once called the Chomskyan left and what modern critics call the regressive left. He is against the west, often for good reasons. Like so many of his kind, however, he will then ally with any force, however reactionary, which opposes the west as well.
The supposed political differences between the closet racist and alleged rapist in no way prevented them becoming chums. Why would they? Farage is an inspiration to and friend of Donald Trump. He admires Putin’s contempt for human rights and his hatred of the EU. If Wikileaks were dedicated to exposing injustice wherever it occurred, I would have no difficulties with it. But in characteristic regressive style Assange provides support services to the gangster capitalists of the new Russian empire. He proved his loyalty when he published hacked emails from the Clinton campaign, thus helping Putin and Farage’s preferred candidate win the US presidency.
Extremes merge. Red bleeds into black. Everywhere, the institutions of liberal society are denounced as a lying conspiracy, the better for illiberal movements to propagandise their own vast lies.
You catch the futility of the old labels if you can manage to sit through All Governments Lie , which had its London premiere last week. It is an unintentionally fascinating piece of propaganda because any one of at least three dictatorial or otherwise illiberal movements might have made it. The camera pans over the offices of the New York Times, CNN and the Washington Post, making sure that the viewer knows that liberal organisations rather than Fox News or Breitbart are the liars’ accomplices. The work of a Donald Trump supporter, perhaps, determined to expose liberal globalists? But then the producers try to persuade the audience that there is a monolith called “the media”. This idea made little sense in the 20th century, for what did journalists at the New Yorker or Financial Times have in common with journalists on the National Enquirer or Sun? Nothing that anyone could see. It is a blatant falsehood now that the web allows billions to produce their own media.
Nevertheless, the fantasy of “the media” is popular with Russian propagandists. They want to say that the “Russophobic” and monolithic western media are biased against them because they hate Russians, rather than because of the policies and practices of the Putin tsarocracy.
“News outlets are more propagandistic than journalistic,” a lugubrious voice explains, before the camera cuts to a distinguished-looking gentleman who opines that the elite in Britain and the US maintain power by controlling “attitudes and opinions”. The distinguished-looking gentleman is Noam Chomsky expounding on an old theme: his propaganda model of journalism. Rather than looking at why revolutionary socialism failed, Chomsky and his many adherents on the defeated radical left say the masses are brainwashed into voting against their interests by journalists, who are under the control of rich proprietors and advertisers.
All journalists, that is. Not this or that news organisation but the media as a malign totality. I have many objections to the view that democratic consent is “manufactured”. The strongest was provided by the supposedly brainwashed US electorate last November. Trump received just two endorsements from the editorial boards of America’s 100 largest newspapers. He still won. Needless to add, Chomsky has now joined Assange, Farage and Trump’s march on Moscow and makes a mockery of his supposed opposition to propaganda by appearing on Putin’s propaganda networks.
Trump’s victory has not only disproved the conspiracy theories of the defeated of the 20th century, it has shown how useful they can be to victors of the 21st. Putin and Trump want to cast themselves as victims, the better to justify their aggression. The fantasy of a monolithic media manufacturing falsehoods serves a dual purpose: it blackens truthful accounts of their crimes and corruptions and justifies their lies. Supporters who are primed to believe fact-checking is an illusion and all objective evidence is contaminated will happily believe that Russian-backed rebels in Ukraine did not shoot down a Malaysian jet or that Obama ordered taps on Trump’s phone.
If I had been writing a year ago, I would have concluded with wet words on the need for liberal societies to examine their faults. We must, I would have said with a pious air, understand why we have gone so badly wrong that men like these can come to power. And of course we should.
But concerned platitudes about the need to redress liberal failures miss that Putin, Trump, Farage, Assange and their many imitators are not always brainwashing their followers in a Chomskyan fashion. Their admirers positively welcome their tearing up of the old rules on honesty in public discourse, their contempt for facts, for human rights, for foreigners and all others who can be defamed by a demagogue on the make. They want a strongman who can pummel his enemies. They are entertained by his brags and impressed by how well he cheats. Many of the men among them revel in a leader who can boast about grabbing pussy or will pass a law allowing them to beat their wives. Many of the women want a real man in charge.
As I keep saying, the problem is not the liars, it is the millions who want to be lied to.• Comments will be opened later