In Praise of Non‑Conformists!

This article, by Allan Todd, seeks to examine the evolving landscape of democracy and personal freedoms within the United Kingdom. Alleging a stark shift towards an authoritarian state, it highlights the government's recent passage of laws that purportedly erode fundamental democratic rights, such as the right to peaceful protest and the right to strike.


Probably most people in the UK accept the legitimacy of state power, because it’s seen as being based on a democratic constitution, law and ‘decency’. Which is strange, given that that ‘legitimate’ state has, over many years, inflicted inhuman cruelty and countless deaths across the world – via British colonialism and imperialism, and by frequently engaging in illegal wars and ‘military interventions’ against countries such as Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq. While the West’s ‘war on terror’ has seen the UK complicit in ‘extraordinary rendition’ and the torture of suspected terrorists – alongside ever-increasing secret surveillance of ordinary citizens.

Now, of course, this same ‘legitimate’ state has recently passed – and is enforcing – laws that have eroded fundamental democratic freedoms, such as the right to effective peaceful protest. Currently, that same state is now planning to take away the right of whole categories of employees to withdraw their labour. Such legislation graphically underlines the Tories’ increasing disdain and contempt for democratic freedoms.

The dangers of conformity

In view of all those repressive actions and the ever-increasing drift to an authoritarian state, it is surely the duty of all genuine democrats to rebel against and resist those actions, and to disobey all those ‘legitimate’ undemocratic laws.  Unsurprisingly, papers such as the Mail are furious that Just Stop Oil protesters continue to disobey the new anti-protest laws, and that some judges are not sending them to prison – very predictable, given its previous open support for blackshirted fascists.

Fig. 1 – The Mail’s previous support for authoritarianism & fascism

But we should beware those call for blind, automatic obedience to authority and ‘respect’ for law and order. Such a mindset is precisely what always underpins authoritarian states. Such mentalities are particularly unsupportable when the ‘legitimate’ state – and those who manage it – itself frequently flouts its own laws when convenient and/or profitable. It was such respect for ‘obedience and conformity’ that lay behind the rise and the horrors of fascism – including the Holocaust it spawned. Where the state is acting in undemocratic or inhuman ways, the highest moral duty for people is to disobey that state, to refuse to conform and, instead, to resist.

An ‘obstructed democracy’

While some will no doubt object to any attempt to draw parallels between the UK today and the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1920s and ‘30s, it is worth recalling that – because of the recent anti-protest laws – the UK’s democratic status has been downgraded by an international report on fundamental freedoms, to ‘obstructed’: the same as the “illiberal democracies” of Hungary and Poland:

While a recent article in The Times has pointed out that civic freedoms have been so severely eroded by this increasingly-authoritarian Tory government that the UK is now “on a par with El Salvador.”

The Tories are continuing to severely restrict democratic rights – an authoritarian trend “not dissimilar” from developments in countries such as Hungary, Poland and Turkey. Currently, they have turned the UK into the most undemocratic country in western Europe.  What makes this current situation even more worrying, is that they are doing this whilst also making statements and implementing policies which Gary Lineker rightly pointed out are “not dissimilar” from what took place in 1930s Germany. As the poet Michael Rosen quickly pointed out, Gary Lineker’s comment was if anything an understatement – so he helpfully listed NINE ways in which current Tory statements and policies (for instance, on asylum seekers, refugees and trans people) are “not dissimilar” from those prevalent in 1930s Germany:

Fig. 2 – Tory policies “not dissimilar” from ‘creeping fascism’

‘Useless eaters’

Michael Rosen’s 7th. point – which the Nazis used to stir up hostility against disabled people because they were “costing us” – resonates with the current much-justified protests against a recent ‘Jeremy Vine on 5’ programme.  Apart from starting the programme with a ‘Vile’ Tweet that spoke of “jobless benefits” and questioned whether it was right “for taxpayers to fund indefinitely” the “4 million of people in the UK being supported by the state”, this programme played into a growing narrative increasingly directed against disabled people:     

This programme needs to be seen in conjunction with a campaign being run by the Telegraph – which has been described as an extremely worrying extension of government policy during the pandemic, which seemed to treat disabled and elderly people as expendable. This disgraceful Telegraph campaign has invited its readers to calculate how much each person is contributing to disabled benefits – a particularly vile and dangerous request, given the on-going ‘Cost of Living’ Crisis, and seemingly part of the mounting attacks on ‘scroungers’ and the welfare state in general.

As Michael Rosen pointed out, all this is very much the language of fascism, and thus “not dissimilar” from campaigns in 1930s Germany, which increasingly targeted disabled people – and which, unchecked, ended up in the Nazis’ T4 plan which exterminated disabled people. Given the impact of inflation on so many people, the Jeremy Vine programme and the Telegraph campaign, taken together, demonise and scapegoat disabled people in a potentially-inflammatory way, creating a ‘hostile environment’ that will result in even more hate crimes against disabled people. 

Given the parallels, it’s perhaps useful to remember what Pastor Niemoller learned, painfully and almost too late, after being sent by the Nazis to Dachau concentration camp. His experience led him to write the following:

Fig. 3 – ‘First they came…’: how ‘creeping fascism’ proceeds

He could well have added disabled people and the LGBTQ+ communities to his list – these were some of the first groups to be persecuted by the Nazis.

‘Creeping fascism’

This current targeting of disabled people is part of a wider attack on all oppressed sections of society, and particularly on all non-conformist minorities – such as climate activists, trade unionists and trans people – that refuse to go along with the agenda of this increasingly hard-right Tory government.  We really are living in ‘dangerous times’, when – along with the Tory Party – neo-fascist groups are exploiting people’s genuine concerns and mounting hardships, as a result of the ‘Cost of Living’ Crisis, in order to build up support. Even up here in the Lake District, this weekend saw the extreme neo-Nazi New British Union holding a meeting in Eamont Bridge, just south of Penrith.

Particularly worrying about all this is that it seems that meeting was not the first in the county. It is thus extremely disturbing to have some government ministers echoing far-right sentiments.

As we know from history, fascism always grows during times when those dependent on wages, pensions and benefits are struggling to make ends meet. While unscrupulous political adventurers, such as Farage, act as their political outriders, amplifying the fanatical irrationalism of what Neil Faulkner called ‘creeping fascism’, in order to take over the state – or at least to push it even further to the right. Thus it’s particularly worrying that mainstream media outlets are increasingly prepared to help spread such rightwing ideas and campaigns – again: something “not dissimilar” from 1930s Germany.

Non-Conformists – unite & fight!

Authoritarian regimes always begin by victimising/scapegoating minorities – before moving on to wider society. As capitalism tries to strengthen its ability to make ever-more obscene profits by taking away the right of public service employees to protect living standards and essential public services, trade unionists have now joined the list of ‘othered’ minorities. 

Unsurprisingly, the huge corporations – and the government and mainstream media that service and facilitate them – are increasingly accusing all non-conformist rebels and resisters of ‘illegality’. These political trends need to be vigorously opposed now – via a huge upsurge of non-conformity:

Fig. 4 – Some determined non-conformists! But we need MORE!

The evils of the 1930s and ‘40s are, sadly, repeatable – IF we’re not vigilant and prepared to resist the current renewed danger of a relapse into barbarism. More and more, we need radical disobedience, revolt, rebellion and resistance to combat the authoritarian state and ‘creeping fascism’. We must not allow the right wing’s professed obsession with obedience and conformity to sap the will to resist. It was calls for ‘order’ and ‘conformism’ – NOT non-conformism – that helped pave the way to the Nazi dictatorship and its escalating horrors. And it’s worth remembering that the first victims in the concentration camps were trade unionists and the left.

The ‘Extreme’ Centre’

In such dangerous times, we need a clear, strong and radical political alternative: not just to confront the far right, but also what, in his 2015 book, Tariq Ali termed the neoliberal ‘Extreme Centre’.

Fig. 5 – The ‘Extreme Centre’: reasons to be NON-conformist!

Today, that ‘Extreme Centre’ consists of the Tories, the LibDems and Starmer’s ‘New Labour 2.0’ – all three wedded, to a greater or lesser extent, to the very neoliberalism which has caused all these multiple crises. Sadly, it seems that even the Green Party – in its renewed attempts to form a ‘progressive’ (sic) alliance with the LibDems, and to appeal to ‘soft Tory voters’ – may be heading in a similar ‘Extreme Centre’ direction. We thus clearly need a new radical left party that provides a real alternative to that ‘Extreme Centre’ – by determinedly challenging ‘The System’ that has produced all these threats.

Meanwhile, let’s step up our non-conformity with the present politically-toxic situation – before it really is too late.

Allan Todd is a member of ACR’s Council and of Left Unity’s National Council, and an ecosocialist/environmental and anti-fascist activist. He is the author of Revolutions 1789-1917, Ecosocialism not Extinction, Trotsky: The Passionate Revolutionary, and Che Guevara: The Romantic Revolutionary

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