Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Tag: fascism


This article was published in Ceylon Today on July 20 2020

thinking before you speak is not repression

We live in a strange world today. Democracy seems meaningless and governments have no control over tech and communications behemoths like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon. It is odd to think that not so long ago the founders of these enterprises were seen as almost saintly gurus bringing nothing but good to the world. Google used the phrase “Don’t be evil” in its corporate code of conduct. On 16 May 2013, Margaret Hodge MP, the chair of the UK Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee, told Matt Brittin, head of Google UK, “I think that you do evil”. According to Shona Zuboff, in her monumental work The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, surveillance capitalism was pioneered at Google and later Facebook, in much the same way that mass-production and managerial capitalism were pioneered at Ford and General Motors a century earlier, and has now become the dominant form of information capitalism.

Much of the evil that is done relates to hate speech and fascism. Andrew Marantz is a staff writer at the New Yorker. He has been writing for the magazine since 2011 and has also contributed to Harper’s, New York, Mother Jones, the New York Times, and many other publications. His new book, Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation deals with the time he spent embedded with a variety of people along the spectrum of right-wing politics from ‘respectable’ republicans, through lite-right, alt-right, cuckservatives, paleoconservatives, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites, white-supremacist thugs  and  “white nationalists—not the old skinhead type but the more polished, just-asking-the-question variety.” Marantz brings a good deal of wry humour to his story but in the end the book is a depressing picture of rancid extremism becoming normal, of distortion of the truth becoming acceptable and unsurprising, of a vicious buffoon with no moral centre ruling the globe’s most powerful nation with the assistance of those amoral right-wingers.

Marantz declares: “I knew what it was like to experience much of life through the mediating effects of a screen. It wasn’t hard for me to imagine how anything—a dead gorilla, a gas chamber, a presidential election, a moral principle—could start to seem like just another thing on the internet.”


The interesting thing about the book is the way Marantz interweaves his encounters with right-wingers using the internet to further their aims and the technocrats who use the internet to further their fortunes. “What I can offer is the story of how a few disruptive entrepreneurs, motivated by naïveté and reckless technoutopianism, built powerful new systems full of unforeseen vulnerabilities, and how a motley cadre of edgelords, motivated by bigotry and bad faith and nihilism, exploited those vulnerabilities to hijack the American conversation.”


One person he encountered in both worlds. Peter Thiel is a billionaire entrepreneur and venture capitalist. He is a co-founder of PayPal, Palantir Technologies and Founders Fund. Thiel was Facebook’s first outside investor when he acquired a 10.2% stake for $500,000 in August 2004. He sold the majority of his shares in Facebook for over $1 billion in 2012, but is still on the board of directors. Thiel mixes with fascists and also supports Trump. “Why would a capitalist grandee, the cofounder of PayPal and one of the most revered investors in the country, risk tarnishing his reputation by mixing publicly with pariahs?”


After the 2016 election, Marantz was in the lobby of the Trump Hotel in Washington He sees “tatted-up Proud Boys” (middle-class young men in Fred Perry shirts who go looking for trouble at left-wing rallies), “notorious 4chan shitlords who seemed flummoxed by the mechanics of face-to-face conversation”.


A term used in the book is Overton window. This means the range of socially acceptable opinion, which can shift over time. Social media has extended the opportunities to stretch the boundaries of the acceptable. “Some norms—such as welcoming the stranger, or respecting the dignity of women, or resisting the urge to punch random pedestrians in the face—really are worth preserving.”


Some critics have a problem with the problem Marantz has with freedom of speech. J Oliver Conroy feels Marantz is too nostalgic for the days of old media, when journalists were relied upon to be the gatekeepers but failed in that mission in relation to Vietnam and Iraq. “What if our media gatekeepers – overwhelmingly white, coastal, secular, educated at a handful of elite universities and only 7% Republican – suffer from profound myopias and bias?”   Marantz has doubts about unfettered freedom of speech. “When it comes to core matters of principle, though, it’s not always possible to be both evenhanded and honest. The plain fact was that the alt-right was a racist movement full of creeps and liars. If a newspaper’s house style didn’t allow its reporters to say so, at least by implication, then the house style was preventing its reporters from telling the truth.” When it comes to racism and misogyny: “To treat these as legitimate topics of debate is to be not neutral but complicit.”


The people Marantz encounters would never have got employment in the old media but social media enables them to spread their poison. They “espoused opinions that were so politically retrograde, so morally repugnant, or so self-evidently deceitful that no reputable news organization would ever hire them. And yet, in the twenty-first century, they didn’t need traditional jobs. Instead, they could mobilize and monetize a following on social media.”


Marantz quotes the philosopher Richard Rorty who warned back in 1994 of the gains which could be lost. I quoted Rorty myself in these pages in 2017. Rorty wrote in 1994: “One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion…. All the resentment which badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates will find an outlet.” It is not elitist to want to retain the gains that were made; it is not PC to mourn the loss of civility that Trump and the worst excesses of social media embody.

Marantz concludes: “The Constitution guarantees that Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech; it does not guarantee anyone’s right to threaten strangers in the public square, or to shout obscenities on TV, or to use a social media platform to agitate for the physical removal of your fellow citizens, or to promote racist ideas without being made to feel like a racist.”





Democratic Deficit

This article was published in the April 2014 edition of Echelon magazine.


Will austerity trump apathy at EU Parliamentary Elections?


All EU member states will hold elections between 22 and 25 May 2014 to choose 751 MEPs (Members of the European Parliament). This will be the eighth Europe-wide election to the EP (European Parliament). The EP is the only EU institution to be directly elected.

The electorate in EU member countries never displayed much enthusiasm about the EP. Voters think voting is futile because decision-making generally resides in the European Council, which comprises heads of state and governing ministers from member nations. Turnout has been falling steadily since the first election in 1979. In 2009, the overall turnout was at 43%, down from 45.5% in 2004. In Britain, the turnout was just 34.3%, down from 38% in 2004. Turnout is not yet as low as that of the US Midterm elections which usually falls below 40%. The participation of young people voting for MEPs is particularly discouraging. In 2009, 50% of those over 55 voted, while only 29% of 18 to 24 year olds bothered to vote. Low voter turnout weakens the democratic legitimacy of the EU.

Distrust about the treaties and conventions that hold together modern Europe appear at an all-time high. The percentage of Greeks approving the EU leadership decreased from 32% in 2010 to 19% in 2013, while in Spain, the approval plummeted from 59% in 2008 to 27% in 2013.

In Ireland, polls indicate that Sinn Féin, once the political voice of the IRA, as the TNA was the voice of the LTTE, will easily elect three MEPs. The political gains to the Irish mainstream parties and the ruling coalition arising from positive economic indicators now mean nothing. UKIP’s (United Kingdom Independence Party) support rose from about four percent in 2012 to about eleven percent in 2013 – despite having no members in the British parliament. Proportional representation in the EP favours UK fringe parties that do not do well under the first-past-the-post Westminster system. At the last EP elections in 2009, UKIP came second behind David Cameron’s Conservative Party. Radical right-wing populist parties do well in EP elections because of differences in the degree to which voters vote strategically and dissimilarities in the issues that are at stake. Diverging levels of turnout allow populist parties disproportionate representation. For example, the Dutch PVV, an anti-Muslim, anti-immigration party, obtained 5.9% of the seats in the 2006 and 15.5% in the 2010 national elections, as opposed to 17.0% in the 2009 elections for the EP.


Exit polls suggest that PRRPs (Populist Radical Right Parties), a group of parties with fascist tendencies, could win around 67 seats, close to 10%, up from the 37 they now control. The Economist estimated in January 2014 that anti-EU populists could win between 16% and 25% of seats. Cross-border alliances may strengthen their bargaining power. Dutch right-wingers are discussing an alliance with their right wing French counterparts.

Not everyone believes that fascist parties will take over the EU. Some assert that concern about populism is exaggerated. In Conflicted Politicians: the populist radical right in the European Parliament, Counterpoint, a research and advisory group that uses social science methods to examine social, political and cultural dynamics, investigated how the PRRPs currently operate in the EP.

The report concluded that PRRP MEPs face a fundamental conflict. On the one hand, their ideology commits them to being fiercely critical of the EU – in some cases they want out altogether. At the same time, they benefit from the EU – obtaining money, representation, legitimacy and contacts – and are part of one of its core institutions.


Some PRRP MEPs react by rebelling against the institution and regularly voting against the majority on the issues that matter to them, such as immigration. PRRPs do not find it easy to maintain alliances and their weakness is rooted in ideological heterogeneity, a fear of stigmatisation, and conflicting nationalisms. The populist radical right has little impact on policy and substantive issues in the EP. When compared to other political groups, its MEPs participate less, write fewer reports and opinions, and are less successful at pushing through amendments and winning votes. They rarely hold the balance of power and so have little ‘blackmail power’ to offer the other political groups votes in exchange for advancing their policy interests. The PRRP focuses its role on gaining publicity rather than participating in policy-making activities.

Why do EP elections matter? These elections are taking place during a period of profound political and economic crisis, and will shape EU politics for the next five years. The results will determine the answers to such questions as: How can the eurozone be made robust? Should austerity policies be maintained or abandoned? The power of banks operating on a global scale is beyond the control of individual states. So far, only the conservative and nationalist blocks have successfully politicized European elections. The ability of citizens to combat the EU’s democratic deficit from below is key to changing the representational structure for the better.

Even if the EP is reformed, it will not be a parliament as we know it. In democracies, the legislature normally initiates and amends laws, whereas in the EU, faceless technocrats devise directives behind closed doors. Axel Weber, chairman of UBS, told an audience at Davos that the coming elections could undermine recent progress by governments and the ECB (European Central Bank) by allowing extreme anti-European parties to gain influence in the parliament. What Weber calls “progress” is that banks are not lending to businesses. Bank lending has been falling for years now. Most of the €1 trillion that the ECB lent to the banks at the height of the crisis, ostensibly to stimulate national economies, has been repaid to the ECB. There is a liquidity trap because European banks have been paying money back to the ECB while starving companies and people of credit – in Ireland, Italy, France, Spain and Greece.

Even a higher voter turnout will not put right the lack of democracy in the EU. Technocrats, not the elected parliament will continue to make the important decisions. Voters know this and do not bother to vote. This allows right wing parties that have no chance of representation in their home parliaments to win seats in the European parliament. They may not be able to affect EU policy but they do get a platform and the oxygen of publicity. Even those, like Axel Weber, who warn of the dangers of right wing parties getting into the EP, are really saying that they do not want elected representatives interfering with the plans of the technocrats (who favour bankers like Weber).

Herr Weber would probably also object if voters elected non-right parties who did something practical to restrain the banks.


He is probably not really in favour of democracy.



Resurgence of the Right

Austerity feeds Fascism in Europe

Germany and France initially got together to lay the foundations for  the European Union project as an attempt by to prevent the two nations going to war yet again. The project was also an attempt to rebuild a continent laid waste by Nazism and nationalism. Today, fascism is gnawing away like a rat at the EU’s moral core. Most of the member countries in the EU today have some history of fascism. The economic crisis and the austerity measures implemented to counter it have exacerbated the situation.

Neo-Nazism borrows elements from German National Socialist doctrine, including militant nationalism, racism, xenophobia, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. Anti-Muslim sentiment is also now a component. Targeting of “the other” is common. Migrants are easy targets to blame when “natives” are unemployed.

In 2012, the European Parliament allocated €289,266 to the European Alliance of National Movements (EANM). Among the seven members of EANM are the British National Party, France’s Front National and Hungary’s Jobbik, all of which are xenophobic. Claude Moraes, a UK Labour MEP, accused the BNP of “views which are undemocratic, such as repatriation of part of the population”.

There will be European Parliamentary elections in six months’ time. These elections usually have a low turnout, which gives an opportunity for protest voters. From next May, the European Parliament could have a radically different complexion. The Dutch Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, has agreed an electoral pact with the French National Front. According to polls, National Front is the most popular party in France. In Austria, there has been a resurgence in support for parties whose views uncomfortably echo that celebrated Austrian, Adolf Hitler.


After the war, the far-right in Germany itself quickly re-grouped. The Deutsche Rechtspartei was founded in 1946. The Socialist Reich Party was founded in 1949. The German Social Union) was another 1950s Neo-Nazi organisation. The currently most successful rightist movement is the National Democratic Party (NPD), which won 9.2% in the 2004 state election in Saxony, and 1.6% of the nation-wide vote in the 2005 federal elections.

In 2011, Verfassungsschutz (Federal German intelligence) reported 25,000 right-wing extremists in Germany. In the same report, 15.905 crimes committed in 2010 were classified as far-right motivated. These crimes included 762 acts of violence in 2010. In 2011, neo-Nazis were linked to ten murders.

The NPD may be entering the mainstream. However, it has dubious friends such as Homeland-Faithful German Youth, which organises annual marches to mark the bombing of Dresden. NPD leader Udo Voigt was charged with incitement for distributing race-hate pamphlets about German footballer Patrick Owomoyela, whose mother is Nigerian. There are many smaller groups preaching anti-Semitism and calling for violence against immigrants. German neo-Nazis frequently attack refugees’ hostels.

There are many neo-Nazi enclaves in economically depressed East Germany. Dotted around the tiny village of Jamel, on the coast of the Baltic Sea, the vast majority of residents are neo-Nazis – and proud of it. There have been reports of pro-Hitler parties here during the summer where attendees chant ‘Heil’ around a bonfire.


France outlaws Nazi organizations, yet a significant number exist. The French government estimated that neo-Nazi groups in France had 3,500 members. In 2011 alone, 129 violent actions were recorded in France against Jews. In France in 2011, 260 threats were recorded, 15% related to neo-Nazi ideology.

An Ifop poll for the Nouvel Observateur suggested in October that Marine le Pen’s National Front (FN) will win 24 per cent of the  vote in next May’s elections for the European Parliament. Mass immigration from Eastern Europe, and from Muslim countries, has been the main target of the FN’s campaigning. Harry Roselmack, France’s first black newsreader, wrote in Le Monde on November 5 2013, “Xenophobia and racism are the essential glue that binds the FN. And it is not unhelpful to see its republican veneer crack from time to time.”

A significant minority of Italians look back fondly on the period between 1922 and 1943 when Mussolini got the trains to run on time, drained the Pontine Marshes and won a small empire for Italy. Fascism is still alive in mainstream Italian politics, thanks in part to Berlusconi merging his Forza Italia party with the Alleanza Nazionale, which has neo-fascist roots.

“Most old people remember only the total devastation fascism brought,” said Alberto Martinelli, a political science professor at the University of Milan, “But a minority, while not saying outright they loved Mussolini, will say how things were better”

The dictator also still provides a rallying point for today’s far-right sympathisers, Italian football hooligans, and the politically ambitious CasaPound, named after the celebrated American poet Ezra Pound who sided with Mussolini during the war. CasaPound won over 25,000 votes in the Lazio regional elections.

Every year, on October 28th, Mussolini’s admirers celebrate the anniversary of Fascists’ March on Rome. They march and pray, blessed by a Fascist priest, the famous Father Tam who gave a Fascist salute during a skinhead protest march held in Milan.


The far-right Jobbik Party won 17 percent of the Hungarian Parliament in 2010.  The party scapegoats Jews and ethnic Roma. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has failed to establish a strict line between his centre-right Fidesz party and Jobbik, and he has been reluctant to condemn its policies. A Jobbik Member of Parliament called for Jews in Hungary to be put on lists, saying they are a “security risk.”


The far right political party Chrysi Avyi (Golden Dawn) received 6.92% of the votes in the elections of 17 June 2012, entering the Greek parliament with 18 representatives. A few Golden Dawn members participated in the Bosnian War and were present during the Srebrenica massacre. Court testimonies recently revealed that Golden Dawn party members have allegedly committed dozens of criminal acts, including attempted homicides and violent street raids. The magistrate’s report revealed that party members had military training, including the use of assault weaponry. The Racist Violence Recording Network, a group monitoring hate crimes in Greece, estimates there have been 300 serious assaults by far-right gangs in the country over the past two years. Nearly all of them involve multiple attackers and end with stab wounds and broken bones. A Golden Dawn supporter stabbed anti-fascist rapper Pavlos Fissas to death in the heart and chest on September 17.


The re-articulation of nationalist discourses in Greece is disturbing. Some online comment threads are reminiscent of Colombo Telegraph. A foreigner stirs up the trolls with this contribution: “Golden Dawn sounds like something I would clean my toilet with. You blame everyone for your nation’s position but yourselves. You know why Greece is suffering. It’s not because of America, or Jews, or immigrants. It’s because you have not contributed anything to the world in 2000 years. You live off tourists walking through the rot and ruin of an ancient era that is never coming back. You are not a nation, or a people. You are a museum. What do you think you’re going to do, conquer what Hitler could not, get rid of immigrants and hope jobs appear out of nowhere? What a joke a once proud people have become.” Responses to the provocation were like this: “What a pile of horseshit. This is all LIES. … misinformation and Zionist propaganda.”

Some in Greece have called for restrictions on hate speech from the right. In Sri Lanka also, hate speech has the potential to rekindle conflict. Censorship, however, is a slippery slope.

The rise of the neo-Nazis raises many complex issues, in addition to the question of freedom of speech and association. The economic crisis has highlighted the de-legitimization of liberal democratic practices and institutions. Even before the crisis took hold, many who were sympathetic to European integration and the single market, were somewhat queasy about the tyranny of un-elected bureaucrats in Brussels. Whatever about the moral tone of the EU project, the reality was too often rule by directive rather than democracy. The crisis has led to troika technocrats dictating to elected governments.

In Greece, from the 90s onwards new nationalist, anti-European discourses highlighted the democratic deficit. If EU institutions were not to be trusted, was violence not justified?

Are we seeing a similar situation in Sri Lanka? Is there a danger that frustration with the ineffectiveness of the democratic opposition will lead to extra-parliamentary action by extremists nostalgic for a non-existent past glory?

Perhaps no far right party will ever take power again as in Germany in 1933.  Vigilance, however, is essential.



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