the Disillusioned kid: Ban The Blok?
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Monday, November 15, 2004

Ban The Blok?

Vlaams Blok is a Belgian Far-Right (some might say Fascist) party. According to Wikipedia, it was "[o]riginally a mainly Flemish regionalist and republican party, it has developed into the Flemish equivalent of the French National Front, concentrating on immigration positions, often accused with xenophobia and racism." On its website, party leader and MEP Frank Vanhecke describes Belgium as "an artificial construct dominated by the Socialist Francophone minority in Wallonia." For this reason, he explains that the " party's main objective is the secession of Flanders from Belgium." They have called for the deportation of all non-European immigrants and leading members reportedly deny that the Nazis carried out the holocaust. Wikipedia contends that "studies shows that a major party (if not a majority) of the party's electorate oppose its separatist and republican standpoints." Nevertheless, the Blok has achieved considerable support. It has 18 representatives in the 150-seat Parliament, came second in EU elections in June and two opinion polls last month apparently showed that it was the most popular party in the region, ahead of even the Christian Democrats.

Despite its successes, World Crisis Web comment that "the Blok has been kept out of power by a political 'cordon sanitaire' of isolation by mainstream parties." This was taken to new levels this week with a supreme court ruling that the party was guilty of "permanent incitement to segregation and racism". The BBC explain, "The ruling means the Blok will lose access to state funding and access to television which will, in effect, shut down the party." Given the abhorrent views expressed by the party (I'm referring here to their racism rather than their belief in an independent Flanders which is unlikely, but hardly contemptible) it is tempting to think that the ruling is a good thing and that banning such organisations is a sensible policy, but I am far from convinced that this is the case. I believe strongly, and have done for sometime, that it is a mistake for progressives to calling for bans of Far-Right groups and Fascists. Clearly the decision in this case falls short of a full-blown ban, but it is not far short and it raises many of the same issues. In this light, it seems a good time to consider the merits of bans in such situations, an important tactical and strategic question.

The obvious argument against banning is a straightforward retread of the freedom of speech argument. This has certainly been articulated by representatives of the Blok in their criticisms of the court ruling. Vanhecke, for instance, opined, "Exactly 15 years after the Berlin Wall came down and the people of East Germany and eastern Europe regained their freedom, it was confirmed today that in the Belgian state, democracy and freedom of speech are under threat." Perhaps the best articulation of this argument from a progressive viewpoint, is the case made by Noam Chomsky in defence of the freedom of speech of holocaust denier Robert Faurisson.

The freedom of speech argument is important, but not, in my opinion, conclusive. Many advocates of this position base their arguments on an assumption of an absolute right of freedom of speech, yet in reality nobody actually accepts this. Freedom of speech is almost always seen as an element of a wider rights system which would also include rights such as freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, privacy etc. The system in which these rights exist is not axiomatic and their are contradictions. I cannot simply barge into your home, for instance, and begin pontificating on some issue or other, because this infringes your right to privacy. This being the case we cannot avoid the conclusion that there are in fact limits on freedom of speech. The only question is what they are.

It might be contended that conforming to a broadly consequentialist position we might justify a ban on the effects of an organisations rhetoric. For instance, most people would probably find it difficult to argue against someone being prevented from inciting people to carry out racial attacks. However, in recent times, far-right groups have largely moved away from this position and toned down their rhetoric, although it is unclear how much of this is simply cosmetic. There is an issue of the legitimacy given to less violent, but no less racist views, by the presence of far-right parties within the political system and it is not inconceivable that this could encourage racism. The problem with this argument, however, is that it could be applied to many "mainstream" parties, whose increasingly xenophobic rhetoric about immigration has helped to encourage anti-immigrant sentiments.

Quite apart from the philosophical arguments, there is a straightforward question of practicality. The Blok's response to the court ruling has been to declare that it will "relaunch" itself. In truth it appears that this will amount to little more than a name change and is to occur officially next weekend. Would a group who had actually been banned find it any more difficult to get around the restrictions? An alternative response might be for the group to go underground, most likely becoming increasingly violent.

For me personally the clinching argument as to why progressives should not call for nor support bans of far-right groups is a pragmatic one. Governments make decisions to ban such parties partly on the basis that their views are abhorrent, but to a large extent because they fall outside the elite consensus. It is not inconceivable that the banning of a fascist group could be used as precedent to ban a progressive organisation which managed to get itself in a position to effectively challenge the status quo. In fact, they would hardly need to get so far, the government has on several occasions banned anti-fascist events, such as an Anti-Nazi Carnival in Burnley, planned for September 1, 2001. It hardly seems sensible for progressives to support a policy which could very easily be used against them.

None of the above should be taken to suggest that I don't believe that we should not confront the far-right. Rather, I think it is a mistake to go cap in hand to the powers-that-be and ask them to do this for us. A cursory perusal of history shows that the ruling classes of the world were hardly consistent opponents of Fascism in the 20s and 30s, with the result that it was ultimately left to the masses to defeat it, with the massive costs that entailed.

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