Are unions the cure to the rise of right-wing political ideology?

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Recently I’ve been thinking about the political nexus of economic insecurity, loneliness and the rise of right-wing, racist political groups.

Going back to at least the late 1990s and 2000s, more and more research has conclusively linked the prevalence of job insecurity and economic insecurity to the appeal of right-wing parties like One Nation in Australia, the National Front in France, UKIP in the UK and the extreme right-wing of the Republicans in the USA. (Back in the 1990s, it was tied to the study of the impacts of globalisation.)

More recently, there has been increased study in the phenomenon of loneliness; in particular loneliness as a health issue.

For example, a major Australian study recently found that One Nation supporters were more likely to be lonely, and significant bodies of research show that people with insecure work who have low-incomes feel loneliness and anxiety far more than other people.

A few issues ago, my newsletter made a call for unions to re-embrace the social elements of union history. While there is only so much that unions can do, I strongly believe that by re-emphasising social interactions, relationships and events, unions can contribute to tackling right-wing populism and loneliness (at least amongst our members and their families).

What’s driving the resurgence of extremists, racist right-wing politics, here in Australia and around the world?

A growing body of social science suggests the answer is economic anxiety and insecurity, worsened by financial shocks, austerity policies and globalisation.

For example, when there is greater exposure of people to the consequences of globalisation and free trade, polarisation increases:

greater exposure to import competition led to an increasing market share for the FOX News channel, stronger ideological polarization in campaign contributions, and a disproportionate rise in the likelihood of electing a Republican to Congress. Trade-exposed counties with an initial majority white population became more likely to elect a GOP conservative, while trade-exposed counties with an initial majority-minority population become more likely to elect a liberal Democrat. (More)

This extends to Australia, where the politics of globalisation, reduction of tariffs, and erosion of the welfare state (i.e. neo-liberal policies) contributed to greater electoral support for fringe parties like One Nation.

Job insecurity itself is a well-established concept in economics, psychology and sociology where it is generally defined in terms of individuals’ fear of job loss. Of course, having always been an integral feature of the labor market, the threat of unemployment is hardly new. The achievement of right-wing populist leaders, however, has been to put a new spin on it. Accepting that the fear of becoming unemployed lies at the root of job insecurity, they compound this fear by holding that the liberalized international economy makes it harder for workers to find as secure and well-paying a job as their current one, should they become unemployed. Their argument, in other words, is that workers in affluent countries have not only become more vulnerable to the play of international economic actors and forces over which they have no influence and against which they have little protection, but in addition they have to cope with good jobs having become scarcer as the result of globalization’s promoting their flight overseas and their replacement, if at all, by inferior labor market opportunities at home. (More)

So, when union leaders, like Allen Hicks of the ETU, criticise free trade agreements (and especially Labor’s support for “free” trade) for sending working people into the arms of One Nation, he’s correct.

Obviously, the union movement has long known the corrosive social and political impacts of economic and job insecurity. It was a major feature of our Change the Rules campaign for example.

Which is why I’ve been drawn to the growing body of research about the links between loneliness and right-wing populism.

The Australia Talks project surveyed 50,000 people and made a number of findings, several of which are linked to the impacts loneliness and job and economic insecurity.

Firstly, there are very high levels of loneliness among One Nation voters.

Interestingly, a third group that reports disproportionately high levels of loneliness is One Nation voters. Nearly one in ten (9%) of Pauline Hanson’s followers report being lonely “always” compared to around 2% for followers of each of the other parties.

We believe feeling disconnected from the world and its institutions often drives people to find solace in marginal political movements. This indeed, is the developmental trajectory of multiple forms of extremism.

Secondly, there are very high levels of loneliness among people on low-incomes.

While 21% of people who earn less than A$600 a week feel lonely “frequently” or “always”, the comparable figure for people who earn more than A$3,000 a week is less than half that (10%).

This speaks to the more general (but often neglected) fact that around the world poverty is one of the biggest predictors of poor health, especially depression and other mental illnesses.

Thirdly, inner city residents also have high levels of loneliness (higher than rural dwellers).

Compared to people who live in rural areas, those in inner metropolitan areas are less likely to say that they “never” feel lonely (15% vs 20%), but much more likely to say that they “occasionally”, “frequently”, or “always” do (50% vs 42%).

(It’s also worth noting that loneliness also contributes to physical illness — it increases risk of death more than poor diet, alcohol and obesity, and is as unhealthy as smoking. For a movement concerned with the health of everyday people, this alone should be a call-to-arms for the union movement, let alone the political impacts!)

George Monbiot prominently wrote in 2016 about how neoliberalism causes loneliness.

Capitalism (and especially neoliberalism) atomises and alienates people, causing (as Robert Nisbet wrote) a “state of mind that can find a social order remote, incomprehensible, or fraudulent; beyond real hope or desire; inviting apathy, boredom, or even hostility. The individual … does not feel a part of the social order”. Study after study finds a strong relationship between preferences for anti-immigrant parties and social isolation.

But what is increasingly becoming clear is that loneliness also contributes to polarisation and tribalism. This mass society theory states:

  1. the diminished role of intermediate structures—family, local community, professional organizations, traditional civil society organizations—had the direct effect that more people were left unattached, and hence available for mobilizing efforts by charismatic leaders
  2. the decline of the well-working pluralist society, with its cross-cutting affiliations and loyalties of a local, proximate nature, removed an important barrier for keeping ‘the loyalties from moving towards a single and remote object, such as the nation’
  3. in order to reduce feelings of frustration, insecurity, and detachment that result from social isolation, people are motivated to replace decaying identities and social networks with new ones—real ones such as totalitarian social movement organizations that offer ‘quasi-communities’ as well as those that are only metaphysical or metaphorical in character, such as ethnic nationalism.

Obviously, not everyone with an insecure job, no economic security, and who feels lonely joins an extreme political group. In fact, apathy and withdrawing from civic and social life is more likely than becoming a right-wing political extremist. But this toxic combination of insecurity and lack of social ties are generally crucial to drawing people into extreme right-wing groups

The cure for this is a stronger civil society with active social and friendship networks, with secure employment.

Unions can tick the box for all three of these cures… but to do so, our movement must consciously recapture our history of social, civic unionism.

Historically, unions were at the centre of a network of civic and social institutions.

We ran trade-centres, schools, child-care, theatres and music halls, meal clubs, sports clubs, radio stations and newspapers, funeral services and of course, we were central in workplaces where working people (mainly men) spent a third of their lives. In regional areas and in the industrial inner cities, unions and union members were often at the centre of the local community.

But by the 1980s, the movement had jettisoned most of those extra social and civic activities. (No surprise it also coincides with decline in density.)

I’m not suggesting that unions should stop focusing on workplaces, but to win in the workplace, working people must also interact with our movement outside of the workplace.

To build trust and deep connections with working people, we need to be active in communities and civil society. This is especially important in regions where civil society is weak or fraying — something starkly highlighted by TV shows like Struggle Street.

And we may even find allies on this amongst mental health professionals.

(It is also worth highlighting the central importance of our movement’s work to improve job security and also to tackle mental health/mental injury at work through the WHS framework, something the ACTU has recently commenced a focus on.)