Ben Ryan reviews Sasha Polakow–Suransky’s ‘Go Back to Where You Came From: The backlash against immigration and the fate of Western democracy.’
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The march of populism and the backlash against refugees, immigrants and Muslims has now been with us for some time, though rarely until recently taken very seriously by the political elites. When in 2013 David Cameron was quoted as having said that many Conservative party activists were “swivel–eyed loons” it was symptomatic of a political culture that was seemingly incapable or unwilling to engage with the danger signs. Less than five years later the political elites are still struggling to adapt to the “new normal”, but there is at least a growing literature of people trying to understand and analyse what is happening.
Sasha Polakow–Suransky’s Go Back to Where you Came From is a fascinating contribution to that literature. It stands out from the crowd of books on the topic by highlighting the extraordinary breadth of the anti–migrant backlash. The research for the book contains some 80 interviews conducted between late 2015 and 2016 from Denmark, France, the Netherlands, Germany, South Africa and Australia, in which Polakow–Suransky explores the many disparate and diverging groups, parties and movements that collectively might be described as a far right populist uprising.
The material goes far beyond the usual suspects. Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen naturally feature (the latter is interviewed), but so do many smaller actors, including local mayors and politicians who may or may not be affiliated to right wing parties (or in some cases are actively opposed to them), and grassroots campaigners and internet provocateurs. There are also interviews with migrants in the Calais camps and with those who have experienced the Australian offshore detention system. However, the most interesting and the majority focus their attention on the anti–migrant groups. It is striking that while much unites many of these movements, not least an opposition to Islam, a fear of being replaced and anger at the traditional political elites, they are by no means a cohesive grouping.
Some entertain modest, parochial goals of removing asylum camps or housing from their local area. Others have a genuine national, or even Western international mission to change the whole political structure. The particular issues that exercise the interviewees are not the same, they naturally reflect the policies and dynamics of the particular country in question. It is helpful to have this laid out, and described in the voices of those who are leading the backlash, not simply reported upon from a distance or lumped together. One of the author’s concerns is to encourage readers and those who are horrified by the far right to actually listen to the views of this movement, and he certainly lives that commitment in the research.
Listening does not imply support. Polakow–Suransky is scrupulous in quoting his interviewees, but certainly not scared to call out their hypocrisy or to criticise them. The content is not designed to be sympathetic, but rather to reflect the author’s fear that this represents the potential start of an authoritarian turn that would doom Western liberal democracy.
This is Polakow–Suransky’s core thesis, that Western liberal democracy is under threat unless it responds by taking the backlash seriously and containing the forces that are being unleashed. The most compelling aspect of this thesis is the idea that one reason liberal democracy is so under threat is that its own beliefs, features and tools are being used against it. The tools of the liberal state are being used to illiberal ends.
This critique, that liberalism is eating itself, is a familiar one, but interestingly has tended to be directed towards the political left. Stories, for example, of left wing students banning right wing speakers from university campuses for failing to be sufficiently liberal, or politicians like Tim Farron feeling forced to quit the Liberal Democrats due to suspicions as to how liberal their views on homosexuality really are, have been relatively commonplace. The charge here, by contrast, is directed towards the right, whom Polakow–Suransky accuses of using liberal tools to deliberately target minority groups.
In one example he discusses the infamous “burkini ban”, when several French towns banned women from wearing the all body swimsuit on the grounds that it was anti–secular and, therefore, anti–French. He notes the way in which laïcité, both in that case and in others is not, in point of fact used to create a neutral liberal state, but on the contrary is being used by anti–migrant groups to target Muslims. He notes the hypocrisy of French campaigners calling for a ban of the burkini and an insistence on serving pork in schools, while also calling for nativity scenes in all public buildings and even for an increase in state funding of churches to prevent them being turned into mosques. In the name of secularism, churches are to be funded by the state. In one particularly revealing interchange with the French philosopher Alain Finkielraut, Polakow–Suransky manages to get to the heart of the matter, with Finkielraut conceding he doesn’t actually care if laïcité is truly neutral; he wants it used to force assimilation, not liberal neutrality.
Other examples are taken from a range of events across the case study countries. They include the applause at a Press Freedom Association event in Denmark that greeted a speaker called for banning the Koran, and the changes in Australian law that prevent whistle–blowers from speaking to the press about sexual abuse in detention centres. These represent examples of the curtailment of free speech in order to protect the liberal West. At the same time provocative new media sources like the Dutch Geenstijl use free speech as a cloak to provoke opposition to Muslims.
Democracy too, for Polakow–Suransky, is being undercut. Mob rule and the calls of one group are being used to drown out the rights and status of others. As a result the author sketches out the impossible choice facing many politicians of obeying an illiberal mob or investing power in unelected courts. It is interesting to note that some of the interviewees were clearly learning how to leverage exactly that power, with one interviewee from the Dutch PVV committed to referenda for essentially every issue – suspecting that that would help them win much more easily than through the normal political routes.
All of which leads Polakow–Suransky to the conclusion that liberal democracy, perhaps Western civilization itself, is on a precipice. It’s a diagnosis, of course, that he consciously shares with the very people who he is criticising, but whereas they see the threat as being from Muslims and immigrants (the “Great Replacement” as Renaud Camus prophesised, and is quoted at several points in the book), he sees it as coming from within. The West is creating the circumstances for authoritarianism to arise from within and allowing itself to be subverted by the far right.
As a thesis, it makes for compelling reading. As a diagnosis of where the West is, and as reportage on what the backlash looks like, this is an excellent book. The inevitable question that it raises is what to do about it, and it is here that I’d have to question the solution.
Polakow–Suransky provides two possible ways forward. One, which is less developed but discussed at times, is to use the tools of the liberal state in a positive way in order to defend liberal democracy (as opposed to the destructive means employed by others). So, for example, he praises the decision of the French courts to overturn the Burkini ban, and names that as democratic (despite the policy’s popularity), on the grounds that courts serve as a necessary check and balance in a democracy to protect minorities.
This is fine as far it goes, but the problem, as recognised elsewhere by the author himself, is that ultimately this continues to feed the problem. The liberal establishment relies on courts and technocratic solutions without ever really getting to grips with challenging the narrative. This could in fact feed authoritarian responses that demand changes to the law once elected. The Brexit referendum provides a cautionary tale – much of the EU’s difficulty lay in being a technocratic bureaucracy that had comprehensively lost the battle for hearts and minds.
No doubt in part for that reason the bigger solution proposed is one of engagement. In the introduction Polakow–Suransky lays out that he wants to confront two myths. One, from the right, denounces asylum seekers as an invasion that must be stopped. The other, from the left, insists there is no problem. In truth the book focuses mostly on the former, though the scale of the backlash does provide at least one answer to why the left are wrong to ignore it.
Drawing on the work of Karen Stenner, Polakow–Suransky notes that disparaging or denouncing those that are fearful about being replaced and are seeing their culture change around them is more likely to drive them to authoritarianism. The solution, therefore, needs to move beyond denouncing to genuine engagement and listening. Crucially, however this has to be done without making “moral concessions”. Herein though lies the big difficulty with Polakow–Suransky’s solution. It stops just a little short of showing how that might be possible, and a fatalist might suggest that the time when this was a plausible solution has passed.
The analogy that occurred to me to describe the issue is rather like those stories of Japanese soldiers who, decades after the Second World War had ended, finally emerged from the jungle having never heard that the Americans had actually won. In this particular battleground of migration both sides are only beginning to emerge from the jungle to discover their defeat. The far right groups Polakow–Suransky interviews have, in one sense been inevitably defeated. While it is possible to stop any more refugees entering the West it is impossible to ever achieve what many of them really want – a return to the West of their youth before migration threatened what they see as their way of life.
Diverse populations are now a reality and short of the forced expulsion of anyone who can’t trace a family tree back at least four generations on both sides of the family to membership of the country (a policy that appeals to such a tiny minority even of the far right that it is impossible to envisage), that cannot be reversed. Polakow–Suransky notes himself that many of his interviewees have only a very simple discourse, they have no interest in, and nothing to say on, how to accomplish integration, they simply want the clock turned back. In that sense there is no way to have a dialogue that can ever accomplish that goal.
On the other side, emerging from their own jungle, are those of the liberal elite who still have not reconciled themselves to the fact that they have comprehensively lost the debate on migration. The populist revolt across Europe and the West is symptomatic of the fact that liberals seem incapable of making any case for migration or asylum that seems to have any genuine popular resonance.
This is the problem. Polakow–Suransky is absolutely correct that simply denouncing people as racists and bigots is counter–productive (as Hillary Clinton, the Remain Camp, and dozens of other cases demonstrate). However, actual engagement is not necessarily going to function any better until liberalism can actually start telling its own stories in such a way that can actually convince someone they might be right. If all we have are more debates which give all the momentum and oxygen to the one side able to tell a story (Polakow–Suransky’s far right) then it may do nothing more than to reinforce their narrative in the public consciousness.
What is needed is not dialogue and listening, but a better liberal myth. Polakow–Suransky is a little disparaging of “political myths”. He should not be; they are the only possible salvation for his liberal democratic state. The reality is that the West’s politicians have stopped being able to tell their citizens that they are on the path to something better, and that their fears should be allayed for a greater goal. As a result the fears proliferate and the authoritarians have the run of the field. Only by getting people to believe that there is a better future for liberalism can you have a dialogue that has the chance of saving the liberal democratic West. Sadly, what the book reveals through its interviews with people on every side, is that liberals are not currently up to the task.
Go Back to Where You Came From: The backlash against immigration and the fate of Western democracy. Sasha Polakow–Suransky (2017), London: Hurst and Company.
Sasha Polakow–Suransky: @sasha_p_s