Tweet Follow @RPJblog
By Jason Michael
SCOTTISH UNIONISM AND THE FAR-RIGHT – which are essentially expressions of the same reactionary thinking – don’t excite my homunculus nearly as much as the centrists of the independence movement. Nothing is more inimical to a political cause or movement than centrism. In every movement in modern history the centre has always been the weakest link, the vulnerability most easily exploited by its opponents, the likeliest segment of the community to produce witting and unwitting fifth columnists. Our simplistic understanding of the political spectrum, one suspects, is the problem. We picture a left-right or an us-and-them band of opinion stretching in gradation from one extreme through the centre to the other. Everyone with an opinion, with a dog in the race, is situated somewhere on this line, and those in the centre we tend to think of as the moderates – those most likely to listen to both sides of the argument. However, this picture, according to Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali, is entirely wrong – or, at least, so outdated as to render it completely useless to movements and activists engaged in today’s political conflicts.
Certainly, we can dismiss the centrists’ claim to be the moderates a priori because it wrongly assumes that the rest of us are incapable of listening to or even understanding the other side of the debate. Such an egregious assumption thus leads the centrist to assume the rôle of mediator, arrogantly explaining not only our own politics to us, but also that of our opponents – thereby affording our opponents yet another platform, and one inside our own camp. The result of this is almost too obvious to merit further discussion; it allows the opposition to speak twice. Centrism amplifies the opposition. Centrism makes this assumption and assumes this rôle because it singularly fails to grasp the simple truth – à la Max Weber – that there is no ideology without conflict of ideology. That is to say that we understand our opponents’ politics, their ideological positions, precisely because we understand our own politics and ideological positions. The oppressed do not need to be retold the narrative of their oppressors. Rebellion arises from an intimate knowledge of the oppressor’s politics.
A better and more useful iteration of the political spectrum must excise political centrism for the simple reason that the centre – due to its lack of ideology – no longer belongs to the spectrum. Naturally, this at first sounds extreme; threatening, as it appears, to remove all possibility of moderation and mediation from the discussion. But again, this is a fallacy. It imagines that the competing ideologies it presumes to moderate are not in themselves discrete spectra with both moderate and extreme factions. Within each side of every ideological conflict there are moderates who will dialogue with the other side and mediate such discussion to the extremes of their own faction. In actual fact, these natural lines of communication within contenting ideological groups constitute what the centre used to be before the advent of new centrism or “extreme centrism.” The difference being, unlike the assumed function of the extreme centrists, intra-factional mediation happens within an ideological position. One neat expression of this conclusion is that to have a point of view one must first have a standpoint. Centrism has no ideology and therefore no standpoint.
So, what is extreme centrism? In a 2015 Russia Today interview with Tariq Ali, Noam Chomsky, and Julian Assange, Ali summed up the crisis of modern politics:
What we’ve been witnessing, together with the neoliberal economy, is a contraction of politics – in the sense that what we have in western politics is neither the extreme left nor the extreme right, but an extreme centre. And this extreme centre encompasses both centre-right and centre-left, which agree on fundamentals; waging wars abroad, occupying countries and punishing the poor, or pushing through austerity measures. It doesn’t matter which party’s in power either in the United States or in the western world – they carry on as before with a continuity from one regime to the next.
Essentially, what is described here is a transcendence of the centre. In order to occupy the safe and risk-averse middle ground of political discourse – in order to hold power for its own sake, the centre abandons ideology. Rather than seeking to advance the political aspirations of a class or social group (ideological politics), centrists and the centre political parties become administrators as opposed to leaders. By this behaviour politics is reduced to a type of financial governance managed by mere managers – a professional class comprised of depoliticised career politicians. While calling most – if not, all – of their critics populists, their style (as opposed to substance) of politicking has become the very definition of populism; fetishizing obscurant and vaguely defined and highly individualist rights-based crusades, treating things like gender politics in isolation from the wider politics of class struggle, and taking them off on tangents to appeal to the emotions of comfortable and apolitical centrists and an ideologically confused soft left and soft right.
The centrist, by way of analogy, is the complex character of Robert the Bruce in the film Braveheart – appealing here to my own faction, ideological Scottish independentistas. At once he is our hero and the man to who William Wallace – an ideological freedom fighter – looks for support. Yet, being a man of wealth and privilege, and even of power, Bruce is compromised. He cannot afford to pick a side because he benefits from the status quo. Of course, his heart – like that of Murray Foote and others – might want independence, but by taking sides he stands to lose too much. The centrist is a survivor. He or she will always be on your side, no matter what side that happens to be.
Robert the Bruce, as it turns out, is an excellent example because he reminds us that many of our heroes are social, economic, and political survivors – they are centrists, and the Scottish National Party, the Green Party, and the wider independence movement are not short of them. Not so long ago, when a number of Scottish Conservative politicians colluded with the British establishment media to brand me a terrorist and a holocaust denier it was an SNP MSP in the Highlands who inflicted the most damage. Not because she knew me or the facts, not because she bore me any ill-will, but because she – as a centrist – was incapable of appearing politically unattractive to the centrists (almost a synonym of ‘Tories’) of her constituency. It was exactly the same when one Glasgow group decided to cancel my appearance there. Centrism uncritically bends to the false belief that both sides of an argument are valid, something Donald Trump reinforced when he compared the behaviour of the leftists and the far-right at Charlottesville.
We have seen this time and again in the independence movement. The exact same dynamic was at play in the SNP assault on Grouse Beater, we saw it mobilised against Michelle Thomson, Corri Wilson, and even Alex Salmond. Centrists may not intend to be allies of the union or the far-right, but the consequence of their behaviour is always and everywhere the same: By legitimising the far-right, British unionism, and other reactionary voices, by giving them a “fair hearing,” they allow them to throw mud – and these forces, having the state and the media in their corner, can make some of that mud stick; even when it is rooted in nothing more than a baseless accusation or an outright lie. Giving our opposition a right of reply makes it possible for people like Grouse Beater and myself to be at least suspected of antisemitism, and that is all that’s needed. Like paedophilia, the accusation of something as “abhorrent” as antisemitism, once it appears in print – even when entirely untrue – never goes away. The centrist will never call out the right. He or she cannot even call out fascism and far-right Nazism because that would demand the taking of an ideological stance.
Scottish unionism and the far-right infuriate me, but in the world of politics I at least know how to begin to deal with them. They have an ideology. We have an ideology because we are in conflict with their politics and ideologies. This is not the case with the business managers of the extreme centre. Right and left are irrelevant to them, and this makes them dangerous – perhaps more dangerous than the most extreme fringes of the hard right because their moderation and mediation, their assumed leadership of the movement, hobbles the mobilisation of our ideology. With the left restrained by an ideologically sterile centre, the far-right is ultimately enabled, emboldened, and amplified by the so-called moderates of the left. The same is true for unionism and loyalism in Scotland with regard to the behaviour of our own “moderates.” Independence is an ideological struggle, because above everything else Britain is a neoliberal and imperial-colonialist ideology. It cannot be countered with flaccid managerial flunkies working to ensure their pensions are in order no matter who is boss. We have to rid ourselves of this useless and counterproductive centre.
South Park And Radical Centrism
5 thoughts on “The Extreme Centre”
Thanks for this important article, Jason! It seems to me that the SNP’s setting of a date for Indy 2 in 2020 and the continuing appeal for an Article 30 “permission” for Scotland to make a decision about its own future is an expression of the Centrism of which you write. I think that if Scotland doesn’t act before Brexit actually happens, then the English government of the UK will act to make it impossible for the Scottish Government and Parliament to act. The Scottish Parliament may well be abolished!
Another group would still be able to act. A People’s Referendum organised by leaders of the YES movement could still happen, but if the English government declares a state of emergency in the case of a NO DEAL Brexit, then even the possibility of any kind of collective action may be made illegal, and the military used to enforce submission.
It seems to me that YES leaders need to take independence out of the hands of the SNP, and hold a referendum before Brexit. The question should be something like, “Do you require the Scottish Parliament to resile the Treaty of Union with England, and revoke the Act of Union.” The choice should be YES or NO.
Whilst I agree with many of your points, I think an important issue is the fact that in all of your examples, the “centrists” have in fact always taken a stance and it has always been on the side of the right. I would suggest that these people are not genuinely “centist,” but are supporters of the right, pretending to be fair and reasonable in order to give the views of the right a second hearing. They are infiltrators, liars, wolves in sheep’s clothing, but not genuinely interested in taking the centre ground. Others may actually think they are being fair and democratic, but are at best misguided. Whatever their aims and motives, I agree that they are to be treated with extreme caution.
LikeLiked by 1 person
A most useful insight. Thank you!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Reblogged this on Ramblings of a 50+ Female.
The analogy of the character of Robert the Bruce in the film Braveheart is the perfect example of the centrist position.But the fact that when faced with his own obliteration he decided to take action. It is in fact the real thing that pushes people in power to act.
The “I’m all right Jocks” and “House Jocks” will only act when their comfortable position or house ( metaphorically) burns down. Only when confronted with a stark choice will they be forced to decide to protect their own position they have to act or lose all. The last time the UK seemed the safe bet. The Independence movement must exploit the fiscal punishment that remaining in the UK will bring very soon.