The next Prime Minister of Italy may well be Silvio Berlusconi, the four-time premier and tycoon who is in many ways the prototype for Donald Trump. Although Berlusconi was banned from elected office for life in 2015, he is currently appealing to the European Court of Human Rights on a technicality. He is being represented by the same British law firm which includes Amal Clooney. After all, everyone has the same human rights, even if (as in the case of Berlusconi) they’ve been convicted of tax fraud, wiretapping political rivals and paying for sex with underage prostitutes, and are planning on forming a government with the political descendents of Mussolini.
Meanwhile, Democrats in the US are falling over themselves to condemn Senator Al Franken for the incident in which he groped a colleague in 2006. A few weeks ago condemnation of Harvey Weistein was universal. No one claimed he had been set up or that the charges were ‘fake news’. On social media many progressives are proud that they condemn all wrongdoers, no matter which side of the political divide they line up on. They are waiting in vain for the right to reciprocate and/or congratulate them.
The abstract principle that everyone has the same right before the law and must enjoy the same access to justice is a fine one. Similarly, it is of course essential that those who have done wrong must be brought to justice and the hypocrisy of those who only pay lip service to universal principles when it suits their political agenda exposed. It is noble of liberals and the left to stand up for such principles.
However, there’s clearly a problem: the right is neither grateful nor impressed. If Berlusconi is successful, he will pay off his lawyers, bribe his way back into power and set about ripping the constitution and the rule of law to shreds. (Italy’s recognition of the European Court of Human Rights may well be at stake.) In much the same manner, no Republican in the US will turn round and thank Democrats for preserving the human rights of all Americans by berating itself for ‘allowing’ some of its leading figures to get away with abusing women. The idea that the right-wing will suddenly learn a valuable lesson about hypocrisy and renew its commitment to democratic values is morbidly mistaken.
Right now all over the world the right is abandoning its commitment not just to the rule of law, constitutional precepts and human rights, but to the very notion of a shared reality. There is no fact or value that they will not deny whenever it is expedient to do so. Whether this takes the form of Michael Gove in the UK decrying the work of experts, politicians in the US rejecting out of hand careful research documenting the pedophilia of a Republican senatorial candidate and the overwhelming evidence of regular sexual abuse by the President, or right-wing pundits from Fox News to the Telegraph openly lying about climate science to protect corporate interests, the savage nihilism of the new global right-wing movement is beyond anything we have encountered in the age of democracy – with a couple of notable exceptions.
That doesn’t mean that the right will not, drawing upon seemingly inexhaustible reserves of cynicism, use the tools of democracy, including the media and the courts, to suit their purposes. At this moment they are busy weaponising every element of our civilisation to attack liberal values and entrench their power. That includes not just the notion of women’s rights in order to purge opposition politicians and liberal celebrities, but also movies, computer games, children’s cartoon characters and other cultural icons, from Ghostbusters to Gamergate and Pepe the frog to pizza and cow’s milk. Their commitment to literally building up their armories is no accident – what we are witnessing is the equivalent of a psychopath grabbing everything he can as a tool to beat his victim to death. (The most powerful weapon nowadays is, of course, the Internet.) That means they will happily employ the notion of free speech and the discourse of human rights when and where it suits them. No Republican or fascist will ever insist that those rights also be granted to their political opponents, and they will never turn such weapons on themselves.
This does not mean that we abandon our commitment to honouring universal values. Rather it’s a question of priorities. Just as the right to free speech does not mean that everyone can demand access to mass and social media audiences, liberals and the left must not prioritise causes established and exploited by the far-right. With the very real threat of fascism bashing down the door of democracy, this is not the time for human rights lawyers to be defending budding autocrats like Berlusconi, and in much the same way, while it’s right and necessary to condemn the Louis CKs and Harvey Weinsteins and Al Frankens of this world and disown anyone who casts aspersions on their victims, the left must not spend so long howling in the desert at its own hypocrisies that it lets the real enemy off the hook. Democrats did not facilitate abuse by those men in the same way as the Republicans are for Moore and Trump.
In the meantime, while doing all they can to expose and annihilate the far-right agenda, US progressives would do well to study Italy’s dismal history of vapid and hapless post-Berlusconi governments to learn an instructive lesson in how mere neoliberalism managerialism, committed to no values beyond GDP growth targets, inevitably leads back to yet more right-wing populism – or something even worse.
(Based around a conversation with @ChiaraLiguori.)