Among the speakers at the Galway International Arts Festival’s ‘First Thought Talks’ is Liz Fekete, director of Britain’s Institute of Race Relations. Her recently published book, Europe’s Fault Lines, examines the ominous rise of far right parties across the continent and attendant upsurge of racist and authoritarian policies and ideas.
Ahead of her Galway visit, Fekete spoke with me about her study of right wing movements and racism and how they might be countered. It is a subject she was born to write about as both her parents were Hungarian refugees who came to England after World War II.
“My parents were displaced by the war; my mother lived in a refugee camp for several years,” Fekete recalls. “My father was from the Hungarian minority in Romania and he had a difficult time getting out of the country to England. As children we didn’t really know they had been formed and traumatised by those experiences. When we were going to school there weren’t the Asian, African, and Caribbean communities that came later, so being Hungarian we were the different ones in school.
'I don’t believe that mono-cultural societies ever exist. It is a false model that is always held up'
"I always had a sense our parents were a bit frowned upon but when you’re young you don’t fully grasp all that. We used to speak Hungarian at home when we were little, but our teachers told our parents we mustn’t do that because it would hold us back. In that sense our English schooling alienated us from our minority background. All that sense of being an outsider created a rebel instinct in me. I left school when I was 16 and it took me a long time to settle down and find my path. I was very fortunate that I got a job at the Institute of Race Relations and the director then was Ambalavaner Sivanandan. He saw value in me and channelled my unruly ignorance into something else.”
Having initially joined the IRR in 1982 as a typist, Fekete steadily worked her way up through the organization to become its executive director. She is now recognised as one of Europe’s leading authorities on racism and writes and speaks extensively on topics such as fascism, Islamophobia, anti-terrorism policies, and immigration.
As a child of immigrants herself one idea Fekete rejects as to how migrants are accommodated by a host society is assimilation. “The idea of assimilation is a non starter. I don’t believe that mono-cultural societies ever exist,” she asserts. “It is a false model that is always held up; the idea that minorities have to subsume themselves into a dominant culture but there is no real dominant culture in any society. Societies are always made up of a mixture of cultures.
"The UK has always been a multi-national society and it’s thrilling that all those identities are there. The idea that everything should be homogenised seems false to me. My parents were different but that was what was thrilling about them; at school other children wanted to visit our house because my mum was a brilliant cook and they’d experience new food like smoked salami instead of egg and cress.”
Europe’s Fault Lines traces the upsurge of right wing and xenophobic movements throughout Europe since the 1990s. “Many anti-immigrant parties that are now in government in Europe, either at local or national level, didn’t emerge from the far right political family, but they are using the same rhetoric,” Fekete explains. “What has changed is that in the 1990s there was a policy among centrist political parties of a cordon sanitaire in terms of not forming alliances with Fascist parties; that cordon has broken down. In many European countries even social democrat parties are forming governments in alliance with extreme hard right parties.
"In Austria the far right is the dominant partner in the coalition and in Italy the Interior Minister is from the hard right. The second big change is that the form of racism, that I would call nativism, has become the dominant strand all across Europe. In 1991 far right parties across Europe were calling for policies of national preference of natives over migrants in areas like employment, housing, and welfare. That nativist idea has moved from the margins into the centre; there is a consensus around ‘our own people first’ even though migrants pay into host countries through taxes, but the idea that they should be denied access to the welfare state and left in a situation of permanent precariousness has taken hold. We have seen that in the UK with the recent Windrush scandal where the Home Office bureaucracy is applying these policies against Commonwealth citizens, especially from the Caribbean.”
'I don’t see our crisis as a straightforward repeat of the 1930s. At the same time that does not mean it is not very worrying. We are almost in a pre-Fascist stage'
Every few days on Facebook someone posts a photo or quotation that draws a parallel between the Fascist figures of our own day and those of the 1930s. Fekete cautions against such comparisons; “We have to be careful where we make historical analogies. I don’t see our crisis as a straightforward repeat of the 1930s. At the same time that does not mean it is not very worrying and we are almost in a pre-Fascist stage. The difference is that the 1930s was a time of rivalry between nation states.
"In our globalised world, with global circuits of finance, the power of nation states is diminishing. So it’s not a return to the 1930s but what you do have is some of the ideas of the 1930s around a more authoritarian state, a more controlling and mono-cultural state, a more patriotic state. I think that is because we are moving into a period of extreme crisis, not just globally with the displacement of people, but also in Europe we have entrenched social exclusion now. We no longer have that social democratic model of a universal welfare state where there is the possibility of social mobility. You are the class you are born into now; young people can’t get a house for example.”
Fekete concludes our conversation by suggesting how the malign political forces she writes about might be countered. “I feel very strongly that the resistance to the far right has to come from the local level and from the bottom up. I detail in the book the alarming growth of far right paramilitarism and vigilante groups. To a large extent this has been in border areas, but it is spreading, and there needs to be strength at local and community level to push back against that and I believe that pushback is developing.
"At government level I see it as less positive. They are concerned but only in the sense that it’s bad for community cohesion, so they tend to place resources into big mainstream organisations that have community reach but tend to come out with wishy washy condemnations of hate on all sides. The problem is at the centre where parties on both left and right are giving out messages that stigmatise certain groups in our society, principally migrants and refugees. When you have all of those mainstream nativist messages my main hope for fighting xenophobia is at the community level.”
Liz Fekete will talk on Europe’s Fault Lines - what is happening to our European home? at NUIG’s Aula Maxima on Sunday July 22 at 8.30pm. Tickets are €10. See www.giaf.ie