Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 23: Understanding the neoliberal personality — with Samir Gandesha

Speakers: Melissa Roach, Maria Cecilia Saba, Jamie-Leigh Gonzales, Rachel Wong, Am Johal, Samir Gandesha

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Melissa Roach  0:06 
You’re listening to Below the Radar, a knowledge mobilization project recorded out of 312 Main. This podcast is produced by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. 

Maria Cecilia Saba  0:17 
Below the Radar brings forward ideas to encourage meaningful exchanges across communities. 

Jamie-Leigh Gonzales  0:21 
Each episode we interview guests on topics ranging from environmental and social justice, arts, culture, community building, and urban issues. This podcast is recorded on the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. 

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Rachel Wong  0:43 
Hi, I’m Rachel Wong and I’m pleased to introduce this week’s guest on Below the Radar. Our host Am Johal is joined by Samir Gandesha, who is the director of the Institute for the Humanities at SFU, and an Associate Professor in the Department of Humanities. In this conversation, Am and Samir look at the current state of the world’s political order, where we currently see a wave of populists movements all over the globe. With the ubiquity of social media and the rise of divisive rhetoric on different socio-economic lines, Samir explains how these contribute to what he calls the ‘neoliberal identity’.

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Am Johal  1:27 
Welcome to Below the Radar, this is Am Johal. I’m here with Samir Gandesha, the director of the Institute for the Humanities, and an Associate Professor with the Department of Humanities. Welcome, Samir.

Samir Gandesha  1:40 
Thanks, Am, it’s great to be here.

Am Johal  1:41 
Yeah, Samir, I’m really excited to talk to you, ‘cause you’ve been, for some time now, writing about authoritarianism, the neoliberal personality, as well as a lot of other theoretical work, and I’m wondering if you can talk a little bit about the writing and thinking you’ve been doing around this notion of the neoliberal personality.

Samir Gandesha  2:04 
Sure. I think my interest in this area goes back several years now, and it stems from some of the programming that I’ve been doing at the Institute, and it was really focused around that majority government of Stephen Harper’s and the way in which, under Harper, the structure of the Canadian state started to transform somewhat, and there was a crack down, for example, on what librarians and federal government scientists could say to the public. There was, of course, the 2015 terrorism—anti-terrorism—legislation that was passed, and much of this was geared up towards the forms of Indigenous resistance to various kinds of economic development projects — in particular, pipelines. Obviously a big issue, an ongoing issue in this province.

Samir Gandesha  3:10 
So that sort of sparked my interest in looking at developments in Canada and then beyond Canada to the rest of the world, obviously, with the election of Trump in 2016 and the referendum in the UK to leave the European Union, developments as well in Turkey and India and now more recently in Brazil, sparked my questioning of how it could be possible within a neoliberal, let’s say, world order now, that we could have the return of authoritarianism. And the reason for that question is because in Germany, in West Germany at its founding, in 1949, you had a very influential school called the Ordoliberal School based at Freiburg University. And one of the main themes of Ordoliberalism was that in order for us to prevent the return of fascism in West Germany, it’s necessary to firmly regulate the state, and the way you’d do that is that you’d use the market to enforce a kind of rationality within the state apparatus — which would prevent the return of an authoritarian, and indeed, fascist state to come back.

Samir Gandesha  4:43 
In a way, the Freiburg School was looking at things from a very different angle, but trying to answer similar questions to the Frankfurt School, right, which was ‘What were the historical causes for fascism? Why wasn’t there a revolution when the objective conditions seemed right?’ And then Adorno’s taking this up in the post-war period to think about the authoritarian personality, to think about what he calls the formulation of a new categorical imperative after Auschwitz — namely, that the Holocaust not repeat itself. So the problem is essentially shared, but the answers to that problem, or the solutions to that problem, are very different. So in a nutshell, it shouldn’t be the case, according to the logic of Ordoliberalism that Neoliberalism gives rise to authoritarianism. But this has been exactly the opposite. We’ve seen it first under Thatcher, the authoritarian populism that Stuart Hall talks about as of even before the election of Thatcher in 1979, there’s a book on ‘Policing the Crisis” in 1978, and that really sort of leads to this kind of movement within the state and also within elements of civil society, what I would call social psychology, towards a real, authoritarianism shift, which is coming into, as it were, full fruition these days.

Am Johal  6:15 
Now several years ago, you edited a book on Adorno and Arendt, and so, in a sense, you’ve been thinking about this for a long time. It’s not even a recent thing. Wondering if you could talk a little bit about that project.

Samir Gandesha  6:26 
Right, well thanks for that question. This is true, theoretically, conceptually, I had been thinking about this for some time, and indeed it goes back to an essay that I contributed to the Adorno Companion, Cambridge Companion to Adorno, on Adorno’s critique of Heidegger, and what Adorno calls Heidegger’s “jargon of authenticity.” And so authenticity is of course a very important word today in terms of how the right organizes itself, but also you can say it’s part and parcel of the left’s identity politics as well.

Samir Gandesha  7:02 
Adorno and Arendt are interesting figures to juxtapose, because there’s, you know, a famous story about the relationship between them whereby Arendt’s husband at the time, Günther Anders, had wanted to invite Adorno to their home. Adorno had just helped with Anders’, I think it was his habilitationsschrift, you know the kind of postdoctoral dissertation on music, I believe it was. And Arendt said “That one’s not coming into the house.” She was quite adamant because she was a long time friend and lover of Martin Heidegger and Adorno was very critical of Heidegger. But despite those personal animosities, which were more on the side of Arendt than Adorno, there are some remarkable similarities in terms of how they try to think through the problem of what Arendt calls totalitarianism, and what Adorno simply names fascism or authoritarianism.

Samir Gandesha  8:09 
And one of the key points of intersection is an incapacity or lack of ability to think, and this is Arendt’s reading of the Eichmann Trial. Eichmann was somebody who only thought in slogans. He couldn’t really formulate thoughts and he couldn’t exercise his judgment. This is what Adorno calls in his critique of the culture industry, a lack of capacity for experience, to actually experience the world, to experience others. Because what experience means is, some encounter with alterity, with something that is other, in some ways can threaten you, that calls your being into question — which is what we encounter when we encounter the best of artworks and the best of music works. These are things that profoundly affect us. So with the rise of the cultural industry, and Arendt has a similar notion, we lose the ability to think coherently, we lose the ability to exercise judgment, we lose the ability to engage in experience in a profound and substantive way.

Samir Gandesha  9:22 
How is that relevant? Well, today, especially with the proliferation of the last, say, 15 years of social media, we see the way in which echo chambers develop, right? And we’re constantly fed back views that are almost identical to our own. So we have these sort of reinforcing mechanisms by which our worldviews are constantly confirmed — that means the inability to think, that means the destruction of experience. And that has really formed one of the key subjective grounds for the return of authoritarianism.

Samir Gandesha  10:01 
Last point on this, when I was in Brazil in February — I taught a course for a week there — the students were telling me how important social media was in the election of Bolsonaro. Not so much Twitter —  Twitter is very important for people like Modi and of course, the Tweeter in Chief himself, Donald Trump —  but it was WhatsApp. And so it would be the circulation of these text messages via WhatsApp that proved to be very influential. So I think that this problem of how popular culture, how commodified culture affects us, comes back in a dramatic way with social media, and everything we know about it in terms of the manipulations of Cambridge Analytica and problems with Facebook sort of commodifying our information, et cetera.

Am Johal  10:57 
And we seem to be going through a particular moment around authoritarianism and populism, but it’s landing down in countries in different ways. You’ve traveled to India recently and were teaching in Brazil. Of course Erdoğan in Turkey, Viktor Orbán in the context of Hungary and it functioning in a type of way within the European Union itself. You’re seeing it in terms of the Brexit campaign as well. I’m wondering if you could share with us your thoughts on why this type of populism, authoritarian populism, is landing down in this particular moment and how you read these different situations — because obviously they are not the same, but there’s a kind of interconnectedness that these things are kind of erupting in places in a particular form and time. 

Samir Gandesha  11:55 
Right so, I would say there’s an objective institutional dimension to this and a subjective dimension to this. Before I come to those, I would just say, by way of a preface, that we can see these trends already back in the 1990s and the late 90s with for example Haider in Austria and the Freedom Party there. But it’s only really accelerated between two key events, and these would be 9/11 on the one side and then the 2007-2008 crash. And here you have, in a sense, a perfect storm in Europe and North America, though one would say not so much Brazil for the resurgence of authoritarian populism. So 9/11 becomes the kicking off point for the neo-conservative agenda to fundamentally re-make American foreign policy and make it much more aggressive and proactive in terms of fostering regime change and we’ve seen the effects of that throughout the Middle East and North Africa, which creates, then, this tide of…

Am Johal  13:16 
Although you could say in Latin America they were involved with that in the 70s and 80s.

Samir Gandesha  13:23 
Oh absolutely, no doubt. But that’s in a sense part of the story of American exceptionalism, the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, and so on. It’s really seen Latin America as its backyard, in which it could do pretty much as it pleases. So absolutely right, but there’s a specificity there that has to be understood as well. But your point really is well taken because the so-called migration crisis on the southern US border is one that didn’t come from the heavens and just dropped from the sky, but was actually, actively created by an interventionist US foreign policy, going back to the 19th century.

Samir Gandesha  14:11
But this very specific crisis has to do with the active, very aggressive muscle flexing in the Middle East, and we see that continuing today, vis-a-vis the sanctions placed on Iran and the  bellicose rhetoric and saber rattling there now. So you have a kind of neo-conservatism coming out of this set of attacks on the United States homeland, and then 2007-2008, have the full fruits of neoliberal deregulation, which of course go back to the late 70s, early 80s. But really I think in the United States, especially, has a lot to do with Clinton’s - Bill Clinton’s - reforms to deregulate banking. And so you have then this tremendous sense of economic and social insecurity experienced by people who, for example, have to walk away from their mortgage and their homes while Wall Street gets bailed out because these financial institutions are apparently too big to fail. That creates, then, anxiety, resentment, anger, which can then be mobilized against immigrants, migrants, people of colour, LGBTQ people. Trans people in particular seems to be bearing the brunt of this. The argument about authoritarian populism is that it’s got either to do with economic anxiety or it's got to do with racism. But I think  the two have to be understood as going hand in hand: you take the economic anxiety and you provide a kind of racist account of the roots of that anxiety.

Samir Gandesha  16:07
So as I was saying, the institutional dimension and then a kind of more objective, quasi-objective dimension, a subjective dimension. So say, the institutional dimension is baked into liberal democracy where you have a contradiction between, on the one hand, a restricted conception of freedom. Freedom has to do with what figures like Hobbes would call an ‘absence of obstacles’ to the continuance of motion, you know? As long as you don’t have barriers to your ability to dispose of property as you see fit, you’re free, and that’s the extent of it. If you don’t actually participate in property ownership and appropriation and disposition, then your freedom is rather limited. So you have this very narrow conception of freedom, which is in conflict with a notion of equality. Not just equal treatment under the law, but the idea ultimately in a democracy that we should participate in making the laws under which we live. So this contradiction, I think, creates incredible stresses. It leads to frustration, it leads to anxiety, it leads to those things I was speaking about earlier, anger. So when you have then a particular socio-economic crisis, as I was saying, bookended by 9/11 on one hand, 2007-2008, those contradictions really kind of burst forth. They don’t create, in and unto itself, authoritarian populism, but then create the conditions within which populist movements can mobilize by using very divisive and destructive, outright misogynistic and racist rhetorics, and that’s what we’re seeing.

Samir Gandesha  18:08
So the subjective side, we’ve already in a sense covered: we have this, in a sense, this promise of a good life, a promise of a fulfilled life, one in which we are able to make the key decisions about our lives and their fates. But that promise is unrealized, so rather than looking to transform the system more in line with that promise, we try to find scapegoats, we try to find those others who are responsible for our sense of, let’s say failure. And it’s a completely missed, begotten sense of failure, it’s one that is built into the structure. It doesn’t have to do with a personal failing. But I think the neoliberal context especially encourages us to think about every success, but of course every failure, as our own responsibility. So this becomes unbearable, so one then has to find some other entity, some other individual or group to blame for this.

Am Johal  19:17 
And there certainly is this kind of creation of an enemy, both within the borders and certainly one outside of it, but it lands down differently in these places, in India, in Hungary, in Turkey, in Brazil. Wondering if you can talk a little bit about the specificities and the nuances of these places.

Samir Gandesha  19:36 
Yeah, I think this is really where the rubber hits the road in a sense, where you have to come to terms with this specificity. You know, one approach that I found that helps quite a bit is Samir Amin wrote really quite a nice, concise piece on ‘The Return of Fascism’, and it was in the pages of Monthly Review, it came out in 2014. And he came up with quite a good definition of what fascism looks like today and he holds that it comprises a categorical rejection - he says democracy, but I say categorical rejection of the liberal democracy, right? So all the freedoms of association, of the press, of free expression, and so on. These come under particular attack, and the notion of division of power and checks and balances, in particular that offered by the court comes really to be undermined.

Samir Gandesha  20:48
But what justifies this is some notion of an authentic, collective identity based in ethnonationalist terms, and I think we can say this is a very good definition that then can be worked out, let’s say a kind of structural definition, that then can be worked out historically in different ways given the particular geographical region that we’re talking about. To take India as an example, you see this very much that the institutions of liberal democracy are being called into question - not just institutions of liberal democracy, but let’s say the integrity of scientific discourse and the autonomy of the university. These are really being challenged head on, and with this re-election of the BJP, one can only see more of this, a real consolidation of this attack, and it’s being done in the name of Hindutva, Hindu nationalism, the idea that Hindustan is really the land of Hindus, and if you’re not a Hindu, then you really have two options: convert back into Hinduism or leave. You know, the Muslim population is especially directed to do this. Go to Pakistan if you don’t want to. Either bow down to majoritarian rule and therefore do everything that the majority, which is to say the BJP says, convert, or good bye. So this is, I think, an example of ethnonationalist agenda, it’s fascistic insofar as it really does place the collectivity and the leader of that collectivity, Narendra Modi, very much above any notion of constitutional checks and balances.

Samir Gandesha  23:01
So we could see that, you know, we don’t have to look too much further afield in this country, here [in] Canada, where Harper was, prior to, you know, the previous election - talking about ‘Old Stock and New Canadians’, with a certain suggestion that immigrants had better bow down to those who settled and ruled and continue to rule the country. We’ve seen the most recent version of that in the United States with this statement of Trump - “those who want to criticize the country just better go back to where they came from.” So this is a kind of constant.

Samir Gandesha  23:50
In Brazil, the situation is different. I had an hour long discussion with a colleague down there at USP, University of São Paulo, Vladimir Safatle, and he has been one of the leading public intellectuals, and I think he’s now taking a great risk by continuing his activities, but he does, and he’s, I think, very courageous. We spoke about many things, in particular what gave rise to the situation in Brazil that is, say, Bolsonaro’s election - there’s many components to this, not least of which was the incarceration of Lula, who despite the waning fortunes of the PT Labour Party maintained tremendous popularity among the population, and probably would have been re-elected. But this didn’t happen, of course, and this is what’s often called a judicial coup. So there’s real complicity amongst the state elites to prevent Lula from being a political force. But it seems to me from my discussion with both Safatle and also a number of colleagues there and students, that the key watershed moment was 2013 where you had this enormous series of protest actions throughout the country which were kicked off in São Paulo and it was essentially about something quite minor, which was the increase of bus fares. But this was just that spark that really set the blaze, a whole set of demands and frustrations. What started out as a kind of left movement for better sort of accountability and responsiveness on the part of the state to the needs of the poor, it became hijacked by the right and the party of order. So the very thing in a sense that gave the right some prominence in this moment is the very thing it started to militate against, which is to say, the kind of disorderings of Brazil in society, which then culminates in somebody like Bolsonaro. So there’s a kind of fluidity of politics these days, and we see a kind of echo of this in the gilets jaunes movement and how it has kind of Janus faced to it.

Am Johal  26:51 
Now I guess in the case of Modi but certainly with the case of Viktor Orbán in Hungary where you have distortions of processes playing out, basically an attack on the liberal state in many ways, and when they come up for re-election, despite the outrage coming in from outside of these countries, they are being elected with overwhelming majorities. If you go to Hungary today, oftentimes despite these attacks on Central European universities, that there is a kind of popular support within these countries because of these constructions of enemies within and without. Trying know, they say “we’re not living under authoritarianism, there’s still a rule of law”, but there are constitutional changes being made with super majorities that are restricting access or remaking the state in pretty fundamental ways.

Samir Gandesha  27:53 
Right, and as with Poland, again one of the states that is being remade is a judicial system, the judicial system is being fundamentally transformed. And when that happens, you really lose that key check on executive power, and the constitutionality only really works when you have an independent judiciary. And so this is one of the things that is being fundamentally undermined, and it’s Viktor Orbán who’s come up with the terms, not just him, but he uses it quite frequently in defense, of ‘illiberal democracy’. He’s quite happy about being in an illiberal democracy. Putin himself recently said that the days of liberal democracy are done. And of course there are people on the right who agree with him. But there are also people either through omission or commission on the left who kind of agree with him, too. Liberalism is just a fraud. Well, I wouldn’t be so quick to throw it out, you know, don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater. I think on the left we’ve always wanted to deepen the process of democratization and the experience of the 20th century holds that you can’t just get rid of rights and you can’t get rid of the rational and valuable structure of the legacy of liberalism. Understood on its own terms it’s not sufficient, and in fact, it produces a kind of opening for authoritarianism and fascism, but it has got to be some dimension of the society that we’re struggling for, I think. But today that’s really debatable.

Am Johal  29:34
Now going into the federal election here in Canada, Fall 2019, with all of these different populist forces on the table and in planning - in a way, it was kind of opened up in the 2015 election with some of the rhetoric coming from particularly the Conservative campaign - but we’re seeing things like the Peoples Party, Maxime Bernier, but also others, and I imagine that it’s going to be heated. We’re gonna see these forces come into play in a more mainstream way than we’ve seen in recent years, and I wonder what your sort of political reading of this federal election is.

Samir Gandesha  30:17
Yeah, I think we are going to see more, in a sense, Trump-ism in Canada. We’re gonna see this as a strategy to really nail down a hard core of racist, xenophobic, misogynist base. And I think that last point is very crucial, because I think there’s various church groups in Ontario who really push an anti-abortion agenda who are behind Doug Ford. And the logical conclusion of this as we’ve seen is Alberta - I’m sorry, Alabama. Alabama. I shouldn’t say that. But Alabama where abortion has been completely criminalized, I think this would be an important dimension. I think we sometimes underestimate how important misogyny is to this authoritarian resurgence. I think this is a constant, it’s a common denominator in all of these movements. The idea of strong, traditional, masculine leadership and I think this is one of the things that the Conservative Party here will try to make hay out of.

Samir Gandesha  31:47
Unfortunately, the successes of authoritarian populism are as much about their organizing capacities and their technological savvy - that is, their use of social media and so on - as it is about the failure of left alternatives. Unfortunately, I hate to say this, but Jagmeet Singh has not been a particularly good leader for the NDP. There hasn’t been a strong political force in Canada as there has been in the UK, whatever you think of Jeremy Corbyn, he has actually articulated a strong left agenda. It might be too reminiscent of 1970s Laborism. There are other aspects that have to do with more sort of local democracy and so on, which are quite interesting and valuable. I think most exciting is what we’re seeing in the United States with not only Sanders but now, of course, Elizabeth Warren has come to the forefront and has injected very important and interesting ideas into the debate amongst the front runners for the democratic nomination.

Samir Gandesha  33:10
I see this as important precisely because one of the things of populism, right and left, is the focus on one leader. One sort of leader seems to have the right answers. On the right, we have leaders who seem to try to embody a kind of mystical will of the people. On the left, it’s the person who will speak truth to power and will articulate a strong agenda. But their personalities are so important, right? And of course you even have notions like Bernie Bros, which is a very, I mean, it was a term of criticism. It was to denigrate the supporters of Bernie Sanders, but it just shows how important the leader is. If you have now a situation in which democratic-socialist ideas are becoming more, in a sense, mainstream. It’s a kind of mixed blessing. On the one hand, the ideas can be incorporated and neutralized, but it also means it opens up some interesting spaces for discussion. You don’t then have one person that represents it, but maybe more than one, maybe two. In this country, we haven’t really had that and it’s very unfortunate insofar as the country has played a key role in articulating both right and left versions of populism. You know, the right wing version was in the 90s and in the 80s - late 80s and early 90s of the Reform Party. And there’s still that element in the Conservative party and I think it’s going very much in that direction as opposed to Progressive Conservative legacy in that party. Of course, the NDP comes out of the CCF, which was a kind of left populist party. So it’s interesting how today, Canada sees this vacuum on the left, and I don’t know how that’s going to be redressed. I mean one of the  things that has been really interesting about the Labour Party has been the role of movement, or sorry, of momentum, and also Bernie Sanders was able to capitalize on a lot of the energies from Occupy. But have we had those social movements outside of Quebec?

Am Johal  35:26
But you know, interesting around the pipeline debates, in particular you see the state not only buying a pipeline but also placing activists under surveillance, particularly Indigenous communities, and the extent to which some of it, just become public just in the recent weeks. But you do see these aspects creeping their way into the system which was, you know, essentially part of normal public discourse, to be able to protest, to be able to raise these questions. But when you politicize the approval process, I think this is another kind of dynamic - I mean, it’s always been there - but the way it’s been amped up.

Samir Gandesha  36:10
No absolutely, you’re exactly right. When, for example, you have members of the establishment saying that the National Energy Board has become ‘industry-captured’, then people lose faith in the process and must voice their concerns by other means. Which means peaceful protest, civil disobedience. A number of SFU faculty have actually exercised their right to civil disobedience on Burnaby Mountain, and well, they should because they talk about these ideas. I do, and you do when you teach in the classroom. For us not to then engage in action is a problem. We have to, in a sense, put our actions together with our words. I was concerned about precisely this a number of years ago, when the legislation that became the bill that became the anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51, was being  discussed, we at the Institute had a, with your help and co-sponsorship, put on a big discussion about it with the leading constitutional experts on the question. And the room was packed, there were about 320 people there. And very worried about this. But it was clear, from the way that the legislation was drafted, that it wasn’t really - to get back to your kind of differentiation - it wasn’t about the enemy from without, it was about the enemy from within. Which is to say, in particular, Indigenous land defenders. People who were simply defending their land, living on their land. And the ironies of a country seeking to engage in a process of reconciliation while at the same time tabling this legislation about. And of course, the Trudeau government said it would amend the legislation when they came to power, but he really hasn’t done that. Although I mean, a number of former prime ministers, ex-chief justices and so on say that it’s not “amendable”, that it would have to be fundamentally re-written because it’s so flawed from a constitutional standpoint. 

Samir Gandesha  38:31 
So, one of the things that I’m known for around here a little bit is talking about things like freedom of speech, freedom of expression. And that immediately puts me in some kind of camp where I’m seen to be easy on fascists and things like this. And this is pretty outrageous. People don’t understand how important these freedoms are to express dissent. And I think this is, again, it’s part of this, unwillingness to really think about the contradictory nature of the liberal-democratic tradition. I think there is a tremendous pessimism and cynicism with these institutions, which is totally understandable. But if we get so mired in that, we really do help the other side.

Am Johal  39:22
Yeah, in this context where, you know...or last Sunday, I guess, where Donald Trump openly in a very racist tirade of tweets went after four congresswomen, women of colour. I mean, this was a kind of rhetoric that was dog-whistled in the 80’s often by fringe candidates. You wouldn’t see the President of the United States speaking so brazenly and in such a racist and misogynist way. Or it was from the era of George Wallace or some of these third party candidates who weren’t going to come close to the levers of power, so a kind of thing where there are very much targets around communities of colour heading into heated political frames, and, you know, how to think about this in terms of this moment where you do have a president that can basically get away with it and in a way, it’s a political strategy to go after the left wing of the Democratic party, to heighten the contradictions within the party. It’s a savvy political move in terms of whipping up the base of the Republican party which, in many ways, Trump has captured. If there are moderates in the Republican party, you don’t really hear much of them anymore. And so, in some sense, the vehicle of the Republican party - which Noam Chomsky calls the most dangerous political party in the world - has been taken over from within in many ways, and I don’t know if there’s … and given all the public financing rules in the States and very much unchecked, open season kind of fundamentalism that is financed from within the Republican party, it’s a very difficult thing to do or unwind, or to like, is it even possible to recover as a kind of ‘mainstream conservative force’, if it ever was one?

Samir Gandesha  41:19
Wow, that’s a huge question. The only thing that I could really respond with - and I think it’s going to sound a little bit weak - is a kind of demographic argument. That as the Republican base starts to die off, that party is going to have a harder and harder time replacing it, unless it starts to make a move back to a more moderate position. Which is not to say that groupings like the alt-right don’t consist of young, angry, frustrated, entitled white males. But, I think overall, you see this in the UK, for example. Those who voted overwhelmingly to remain within the European Union [are] under 40, 35. And I think that those who voted mainly for the Democratic party in the last election were of a similar demographic. So I think demographics are going to play a huge role, which is why we’ve seen over the last decade or so, maybe a bit longer, voter suppression. This is a real worry.

Am Johal  42:53
And I think this is one of the challenges, where you have a supreme court that has been tipped in a particular way. So when issues like gerrymandering, when they would go to the Supreme Court, now the Supreme Court is not going to be stepping in. And so, there is a kind of ‘rules of the game’ that is being established by the election of Trump and his choice of Supreme Court justices that does kind of tip the scales in a particular way. I think a second point, which is that, when the Democratic party, both its, predominantly their mainstream or moderate wing, but their inability to connect with the genuine resentments of the white working class, create the conditions where the Republicans can play on those fears. And to some degree there are genuine resentments about the loss of the manufacturing sectors and those types of things that I think also exist in Canada in a number of ways, where engagement from the progressive wings of the party haven’t gone into those communities and areas where the rhetoric and means of engagement are very different.

Samir Gandesha  44:05
No absolutely. I had just been reading Phil Neel’s Hinterland, which is a really interesting political economy, urban geography, and also kind of geology of the, let’s say, the tectonic shifts in the United States since the 70s have produced something like Donald Trump. And he makes this exact same argument that the - well, he doesn’t like the term ‘white working class’ - but the working class, of which a sizeable portion is white, has been in a sense forgotten by the political elites, and this has been part and parcel of a certain kind of neoliberal identity politics.

Samir Gandesha  44:59
And this is quite troubling when you look at, for example, the candidacy of Kamala Harris who plays very well amongst a certain constituency within the Democratic party, the most loyal constituency, of which, are female African-American party members. And I mean, Elizabeth Warren is very popular with them, but you also have that appeal of Kamala Harris, and she tries to come across as progressive, but when you look at her actual record, it’s much more mixed. She’s kind of a law and order former prosecutor. So that can be, again, a sort of repetition of Obama who presents a kind of progressive face but whose policies were extremely destructive both on the domestic front specifically, vis-a-vis his response to the economic crisis which hit African-Americans hardest, or much harder than Whites in the same socioeconomic class categories. And of course, in terms of foreign policy, pretty disastrous. So, this is what often gets set up.

Samir Gandesha  46:27
Now, you’d expect on the proper left for there to be much more nuanced discussions of class, but I don’t see this. I think there’s an attempt, really, to, I think, attack White people individually, and I think this is completely counterproductive. Not only is there a vacuum that is created within this group insofar as nobody is actually addressing their concerns, but then there’s a kind of demonization from a moral standpoint. And one can understand, you know, given the context today, one can understand where this comes from. There’s a tremendous amount of fear and anger on the part of people, communities of colour, LGBTQ communities, and this is understandable. But to engage in politics per se, or politics as such, we need to move beyond that sort of moral condemnation. We have to say, “I don’t really like that person at all. I don’t like what they say, I don’t like how they dress, I don’t like what they do. But we have something in common, we need to find a way to work together.” This is politics of alliances or really hegemonic politics, where you stitch together different demands into something that is coherent and actionable. Whether you like the person who is making that demand over there really shouldn’t matter too much, or we get very hung up on this. I think there’s a kind of moral purity that’s operative on the left, and we really have to move beyond that.

Samir Gandesha  48:05
I’ll give you a couple of examples. One that I like to talk about all the time is the film Pride, which documents this LGBTQ+ - although it was gays and lesbians really for the miners at that time - and they supported the miners by raising money. And they took these funds to Wales and they met these communities, and they were not well received at first. The homophobia was through the roof. But because they had a common project and a common, in a sense, political enemy, they were able to ultimately work together. And also, you see the Punjabi youth movement in Southall in the 1970s and 1980s coming together first as a kind of self-defense organization, right? It’s like the East Indian defense organization here in BC, but their experiences fighting against the National Front, the neofascist political party at the time, then led to them having a class analysis of a kind of forms of oppression within the Southall Punjabi community, and also were able to build alliances with other movements such as Rock Against Racism, Anti-Nazi League, and so on. This happened in the 1970s, and I think we’ve lost something of that ability to work together even though we don’t all, you know, like each other. We don’t see eye to eye, we have aesthetic differences, cultural differences, maybe linguistic differences etcetera, but I think we need to, at this moment, start to re-think it.

Am Johal  49:51
Yeah so Samir you have a book project that you’re editing called Spectres of Fascism that came out of the Free School that the Institute of the Humanities initiated. It’s coming out in 2020, around March or somewhere close to there?

Samir Gandesha  50:05 
Yeah, that’s the hope.

Am Johal  50:07 
Could you tell us a little bit about the book?

Samir Gandesha  50:08
Thanks for letting me plug the book. Yeah so as you mentioned, it came out of this Free School that we had about a year and a half ago that was really inspired by some of the developments that had been happening over the previous, let’s say, year or so. We felt, at the Institute, that we needed not just have a one time lecture or panel discussion, but a sustained conversation over several months which also included a conference on the situationist international right, in a sense, in the middle of it bisecting it. And so we had a number of local and some visiting speakers to talk about different aspects of fascisms. Not the spectre of fascism, but spectres, to think about the differences in the way in which these forms of authoritarianism and neo-fascism are playing themselves out a world over. So it essentially consisted of three parts. The first was to look at the historical experience of 20th Century fascism, to give us some orientation: what are we talking about? Well, we have to talk about this historically.

Samir Gandesha  51:27
And then we had a discussion of the theories and concepts of fascism that maybe came out of this historical experience. So we had some talks on Klaus Theweleit’s book on Male Fantasies, very important to think about again, as I said earlier, the misogyny that lies very much at the heart of sort of fascist subjectivity. Guthrie’s work on fascism, I’ve got something on Adorno’s authoritarian personality, which is very much a part of, as you were saying, thinking about the neoliberal personality. You’ve got a chapter on Carl Schmitt, a very important figure for understanding the way in which the state today is really consolidating its...let’s say the executive branch is really becoming foregrounded and we’re moving increasingly in the direction of states of exception, abrogation of the normal function of legality. So there are other conceptual and theoretical perspectives, and then we have various case studies. We have a terrific piece by Ajay Gudavarthy, he’s one of the key public intellectuals in India today. He’s just written a book called India After Modi. He’s in very high demand to comment on the current state of Indian politics, terrific piece by him and his brother. We’ve got a piece on the relationship between the French New Right and the US alt-right, which is quite fascinating, by Tamir Bar-On, who himself has written quite a bit on fascism and French New Right. We have a terrific piece by the fellow I mentioned earlier, Vladimir Safatle, looking at the Latin American space as the laboratory for a kind of authoritarian neoliberalism.

Samir Gandesha  53:35
Often people think of neoliberalism as this way in which a transition was made away from Keynesianism towards market mechanisms associated with Thatcher and Reagan and in this country, Mulroney. But there’s a pre-history, one that includes the transformations of New Zealand’s state just prior to that period, in the late 1970s. But most importantly, 1973, with the coup that overthrew Salvador Allende, Pinochet coming to power, essentially a kind of dictator, who then brought the Boys from Chicago in to fundamentally re-make Chilean society along neoliberal lines. So Safatle is talking about how, in a sense, we are seeing now the second iteration of this laboratory where the neoliberalism is going to be exclusively fascistic in nature, and this Bolsenaro.

Samir Gandesha  54:38
And you know, there’s many other contributions. Last one I’d mention I’m thinking people will say “well, you didn’t mention my chapter!” so I have to go through each one of them. But there’s great pieces by Jaleh Mansoor, looking at the relationship between Italian futurism and the contemporary alt-right, Hilda Fernandez, a Lacanian understanding of the authoritarian populist leader - it’s entitled “So You Want a Master?” Another piece by Johan Hartle on the spectacle of left politics in the art world and so on. So I think we’ve got quite an interesting array of authors. And this is really, I should just note in conclusion, a kind of first iteration, because what we’re planning to do at the Institute in approximately a year is to have a very ambitious conference on the consolidation of authoritarian populism, and our plan is to produce a top quality book. This book that I’ve been talking about, Spectres of Fascism, is more a political intervention. And this book that I’d like to do in the future coming out of this conference would be more of an academic, scholarly contribution. So stay tuned.

Am Johal  56:17 
Thank you so much for joining us Samir, I just have one final question. Predictions on the 2020 US elections.

Samir Gandesha  56:26 
I’d be foolish to offer a prediction. But I think if the Democratic party handles the nomination race properly, unlike nearly four years ago, then the party, if it has Sanders or...what’s her name?

Am Johal  56:50 
Elizabeth Warren?

Samir Gandesha  56:51 
Elizabeth Warren, at the helm, I think it would stand a very good chance of taking the White House. But as things stand now, the party seems, I mean with so many contenders and still quite early, so many energies being directed in far too many directions, I’m not so sure. It’s very hard to see them being able to triumph. Whereas Trump has been able to, I think, consolidate his support, despite everything. He’s Mr. Teflon. The stock market is through the roof right now. It’s very difficult for an incumbent president not to be elected when the economy is firing on all cylinders, although we just recently noted the US has seen a 75% reduction in Chinese investment because of the trade war. There might be all kinds of fractures that are just starting to develop that become very prominent and evident by 2020, so it would be silly for me to make any predictions.

Am Johal  58:05 
And the President’s still at 45%, thank you so much for joining us Samir.

Samir Gandesha  58:09 
My pleasure, thank you.

[theme music]

Rachel Wong  58:17 
Thank you again to Samir Gandesha for joining us on this episode of Below the Radar. You can learn more about SFU’s Institute for the Humanities in the link that we provided in the episode description below. Thanks also to our production team which includes myself, [Rachel Wong] and Maria Cecilia Saba, to Davis Steele for our theme music, and to you for listening to the show. Be sure to tune in next time on Below the Radar.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
August 19, 2019

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