The Extreme Right & Middle-Class Apathy
May 8, 2009
There’s a really good article in current LRB by Gareth Peirce about the UK government’s possible (likely) complicity with torture in Guantanamo Bay and other overseas detention centres.
It’s interesting for several reasons, one of which is that it highlights something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately: middle-class political apathy. Peirce argues that the government uses secrecy to maintain general apathy towards the possibility that the government is torturing people; people don’t know, so they can’t care. For me, what is particularly frightening, is that I think a lot of people are happy not caring.
When activists talk about the democratic deficit – the fact that a million people can march against a war and it will happen anyway, the fact that no one thinks ID cards are a good idea, and yet we all know the government will push them through anyway – we are angry and frustrated. We start trying to think of new strategies; if conventional activism isn’t working, what do we do now?
But when I talk to many non-activists about the democratic deficit, there is almost a sense of relief underpinning their words. I can’t do anything about injustice/poverty/the war/racism/torture; so therefore, I don’t have to bother.
European elections are coming up, and there’s been a lot of discussion about the BNP, and the inroads the BNP are making in traditional Labour-supporting white working-class communities. I have a lot of issues with the way this discussion is framed, which I will be talking about more in the future. But one factor in the rise of the BNP that is continually overlooked is middle-class apathy.
Part of this apathy is grounded in the fact that a lot of middle-class white people don’t actually disagree with BNP views on immigration even while condemning the BNP. If they did, then the Labour & Conservative parties wouldn’t be trying to out-xenophobe each other every election.
But even the (middle-class) people in my office who agree with the Labour & Tory immigrant scapegoating (I don’t count as an immigrant for them, what with being white & Canadian) are pretty scathing about the BNP. Yet, if I sent around an email encouraging people to vote in the European elections, or stuck a “hope not hate” postcard on my desk, I’d get in trouble.
The people in my office, by and large, are not going to vote. They will condemn the BNP verbally, but they think I’m eccentric, at best, for actually going to protests and having political opinions. They don’t understand why I actually care about stuff like this.
So the BNP might get an MEP seat, and everyone will tut-tut, feeling morally superior to the BNP while having done nothing to stop them. The government wouldn’t listen anyway. Which is just fine, because to quote Phil Ochs “demonstrations are a drag…” And I hear Debenhams is having a really good sale this weekend.