On the Far Right, Plain Speaking and Political Correctness

by Daniel Hartley

The mainstream press often observe that, unlike most Westminster politicians, spokesmen of far-right parties like UKIP and the BNP are plain-talking and “tell it like it is.” Part of the appeal of the far-right is thus not so much what they say as how they say it.

One of their most powerful tactics is the way in which they attack liberal discourses such as political correctness. They rightly sense, as most people do, that political correctness is essentially a formalism, with no substantive content, albeit one which has a certain local (and very important) efficacy. The problem with political correctness is that, like “tolerance,” it acts as an ideological supplement to and placeholder for actual, material justice and equality. It functions as a purely symbolic discourse which belies its origins in real social inequalities and injustices. One need only compare it to its socially substantive counterpart, solidarity, to understand its limitations: political correctness presupposes a social agent with some minimal form of power (arising from the white, patriarchal, heteronormative social structure) acting with enlightened tolerance and superficial decency towards an objectively less powerful social agent; solidarity, however, presupposes a fundamental universal equality as the basis of a collective self-organisation which aims to overthrow in actuality the very power structures which make political correctness necessary.

What the far right exploits is thus the gap between liberal formalism and social reality. That is why when they speak plainly it is as if they are speaking the truth: the empty clichés of Westminster give way to a man telling it how it really is. It is analogous to a situation in which two schoolboys who are usually thick as thieves being forced to speak far more formally than usual because the headmaster is present; the second he walks out the door they launch back into their usual slang and buffoonery. They feel relieved. They can laugh, joke, be their real selves again. Is this not precisely the logic of the far right? Like (public) schoolboys, they whisper to us when the teacher’s out of earshot and let us revel in our “real” selves, relieving us of our duty to play-act a political correctness that we all knew to be bullshit in the first place.

The problem, of course, is that what the far right says when it speaks plainly is completely false. But that doesn’t matter, because it has the structure of a truth. And a cathartic one at that. Moreover, the “real, authentic” self it allows us to be is potentially nothing but the purest ideology – a bric-a-brac identity cobbled together from the flotsam and jetsam of nationalism, racism, sexism and homophobia. It is a very dangerous mixture, and one which should spur us on to develop an alternative, socialist “common sense” which can take on the far right’s lies on the terrain of plain speaking.