Saturday, 21 October 2017

New Zealand an antidote to a toxic trend still sadly topical today

There’s a striking frieze inside Milan Central station, a relief that has a certain attractive quality at first glance. It’s only when one comes to look at it more closely that one notices details that are far less attractive. And it’s no relief at all.
Elaborate carvings look down on the entrance lobby of Milan station
At either end of the frieze is a symbol that it’s hard not to recognise. The symbol of magisterial authority in ancient Rome: a bound bundle of rods with an axe projecting from the middle. It symbolised power, the axe underlining that it went as far as life and death.
Striking detail: a symbol we might have hoped behind us
And what was the bundle called? Why, a fasces. It gave its name to the movement that adopted it as symbol in twentieth-century Italy, Mussolini’s Fascism.

In a sense, that’s not inappropriate. Mussolini built the Central Station (well, to be accurate, he got some other people to build it for him). He put his party’s symbols among the decorations. If we look at the entire frieze again, we can see that there’s a blank space in the middle, clearly designed for lettering. Presumably once it contained some uplifting slogan of the Fascist state, urging the people to sacrifice to the glory of the nation. That might possibly be in war, that most glorious of all Fascist actions, as long as, like station-building, you could get other people to engage in it for you.

The words have been expunged. But presumably the cleaners of Fascist symbolism didn’t feel the fasces themselves could be removed without damaging the entire frieze, so they remain in place. Which is particularly apt, since it underlines a fundamental point: there are certain lethal viruses that simply cannot be entirely wiped out but lie dormant for decades or even centuries, before bursting forth again in some new and terrible contagion.

That’s certainly the case of Fascism. Around the world, we have seen that phenomenon of the thirties emerging once more: the impoverished, the left-behind, the disappointed entitled, rally around the providential man who voices their hatred of others – above all, of the Other – and promises them quick fixes to their suffering which they can never deliver. And they get elected.

We’ve seen it in Trump. We’ve seen it in surge of support for the far Right in Germany and Austria. We’ve seen it in the move or Brexit in Britain.

Brexit’s a particularly striking case. Its essence is xenophobia, fear of the foreigner. Some defend it as a way to protect jobs or wages; all the evidence is that the damage to both has been done by British forces not foreigners. Others defend it as a means to protect workers against a club of capitalists; all the evidence is that workers have gained more rights through EU membership than they’ve ever lost.

It even creates strange bed fellows, or perhaps I should say boatmates. One of the more remarkable photos of the Brexit campaign showed Kate Hoey, left-wing Labour MP, literally in the same boat as Nigel Farage, like her a leader of the Brexit movement, and a worthy heir, if ever there was one, of the men who proudly made the fasces their symbol in the 1920s: nationalistic, Islamophobic, a hater anything that deviates from a strict interpretation of the white, English-speaking mainstream.

All in the same boat? Or getting on swimmingly while making the country sink?
Far left and far right together in the toxic mix that Brexit made
How did she end up in the boat with him? That’s the toxic nature of Brexit. More broadly, it’s the toxic effect of all those nationalisms now spreading their tentacles around the world. Again.

Curiously, I saw the Fasces in Milan last week. The next morning, I discovered that the centrist, moderate Labourite Jacinda Ardern would be leading the next government of New Zealand. Here are a few predictions I make with absolute certainty:

  • The same people who would climb into a boat with Nigel Farage will criticise her for forming a coalition with New Zealand First, an unpleasant nationalistic party. I agree with their concerns, because she’ll surely have to meet its leader Winston Peters on some unpleasant anti-immigration measures. I can only hope that as a small minority in the coalition, New Zealand First will have its worst poison drawn. I’d also remind those who like to walk shoulder to shoulder with Kate Hoey that pots have to be careful what they say about kettles, and Farage was far more than a minority partner in the Brexit coalition.
  • Ardern will set out to do some good, as she’s told us: she wants to build “a country where our environment is protected, where we look after the most vulnerable, where we support our families, where we make sure people have the most basic of needs, like a roof over their head.” Her goals will be far more limited than many of us would like, and she’ll achieve far less than even she wants, but she will do some good. That’s because she’s in government, and government can do things, when oppositions can only proclaim them.

Her arrangement with Peters means that Ardern is at best containing right-wing populism rather than blocking it. However, in a world where a Trump can win the White House, that feels like a welcome change. 

It was particularly welcome to me after seeing the Fasces, still hanging on, inside Milan station. 

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