Brexit’s inevitable racism

“‘History’ has to be renegotiated and resignified in order to (re)create a sense of the past appropriate to the particular conjuncture and the political project for the future. […] in the case of English nationalism, the events selected include those which evince a sense of external threat over which ‘the English people’ triumph, especially events concerning war and imperialism […]. The continually reconstructed sense of the English past, in which ‘race’ is an ever present reification, signifies the English ‘nation’ (and therefore the idea of ‘race’) as an ever present collective subject” (Miles 1993: 76-77)

In one significant sense, the EU referendum wasn’t a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, rather it was a referendum on immigration and English/British national identity in which the idea of ‘race’ was infused. The referendum’s outcome, its narrow margin, was critically determined by the sociological white working class in England (and Wales), the former Labour Party heartlands. The dominant slogan of the Leave campaign, “Take back control”, as vacuous as it was, nevertheless translated as take back control of ‘our national borders’ and of ‘our nation’. It resonated as a slogan because large and indeed broader sections of the public have become convinced that their country is being invaded – that ‘we are under threat’.

Anti-immigration discourse has become mainstream, as (New) Labour joined the Conservative Party in its propagation alongside much of the media (all with various shades, nuances, and guises). Once the Labour Party explicitly bought into an anti-immigration discourse, along with the austerity politics post the 2007 -2008 global capitalist crisis – albeit a softer anti-immigration and a softer austerity – then the far Right, including UKIP, were on course to gain, as dramatically confirmed by Brexit.

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The Labour Party’s “Controls on immigration” mug from 2015: representing one of its election pledges. This was criticised at the time as pandering to UKIP.

It is also crucial to recognise that this contemporary moment is not altogether new:

“An important dimension of the post-1945 period has been the way in which successive British governments have responded to political agitation to impose immigration controls on the entry of those who used to be called ‘coloured’ Commonwealth citizens […]. The political discourse employed has been overtly and covertly racist, although within the formal political arena, references to inherent biological inferiority to legitimate the demand for such exclusion have been rare. Rather, the migrants have been simultaneously racialised and signified as the cause of economic and social problems for ‘our own people’ […] The post-1945 Caribbean and Asian presence in Britain has been signified as a previously external threat that is now ‘within’, so that the ‘old order’ is threatened by its presence. As a result, because ‘our’ collective existence is supposedly challenged, resistance (even a new war) must be organised. The prominent and desirable features of ‘our culture’ are spotlighted and reified by the assertion that they are in danger of being negated by the consequences of the presence of an Other […](Miles 1993: 73-77)

If we replace “‘coloured’ Commonwealth citizens” with Eastern European migrants and Syrian refugees (although the former are still scapegoated), then what we have today is a situation in which the Other is racialised and signified as the cause of the social and economic ills of ‘ordinary English/British people’. What’s more, the contemporary external threat has a more fluid geography that includes Europe, against which one’s own cultural identity must seemingly be defended and preserved. All the while, a neoliberal politics of austerity, with its driving conditions of poverty and inequality, escapes critique.

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“migrants have been simultaneously racialised and signified as the cause of economic and social problems for ‘our own people’” (Miles)

We have a constructed fantasy of a country at war, of a country being invaded, and of an enemy within. With anti-immigration discourse becoming conventional, it is not surprising that during the EU referendum the Leave campaign’s dominant slogan, “Take back control”, won ideologically.

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A country at war, a country invaded

Leave voters talked of: ‘wanting our country back’; it being ‘time to stand on our own two feet’; and that ‘we’re British, so come what may, we’ll be okay’. Such statements of faith illustrate a belief in a fabricated past and present and an impossible future, counter to all credible evidence and empirical reality. Amidst an anti-intellectual culture of ‘don’t trust the experts’ (with a leading Leave campaigner and former Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove saying, “I think people in this country have had enough of experts”), “Take back control” reflected a quasi-religious English/British nationalism and patriotism saturated with the idea of ‘race’. The results of Lord Ashcroft’s Poll on how people voted in the EU referendum are startling in this respect:

One third (33%) [of leave voters] said the main reason was that leaving “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.” […] In England, leave voters (39%) were more than twice as likely as remain voters (18%) to describe themselves either as “English not British” or “more English than British”. Remain voters were twice as likely as leavers to see themselves as more British than English. Two thirds of those who considered themselves more English than British voted to leave; two thirds of those who considered themselves more British than English voted to remain. […] By large majorities, voters who saw multiculturalism, feminism, the Green movement, globalisation and immigration as forces for good voted to remain in the EU; those who saw them as a force for ill voted by even larger majorities to leave.”

During the 1980s the Thatcher-led Conservative government created a populist unity though nationalism and patriotism, including ‘a Great Britain at war’. Take Thatcher’s speech in July 1982, after the Falklands War, in which she constructs a discourse remarkably similar to that of the Leave campaign:

“When we started out, there were the waverers and the fainthearts, the people who thought that Britain could no longer seize the initiative for herself … that Britain was no longer the nation that had built an Empire and ruled a quarter of the world. Well they were wrong. The lesson of the Falklands is that this nation still has those sterling qualities which shine through our history.” (Cited in Miles 1993: 75)

During the EU referendum campaign, Leave spokespeople teased the Remain camp for not believing in Britain: the Remainers were ridiculed as the waverers and the fainthearted.

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Nationalism, patriotism, and faith in the implicit idea of (racial) superiority

Back to the 1980s:

“The Conservative government reinforced this notion of Englishness or Britishness, which is shaped by the idea of ‘race’, in its British Nationality Act, 1981. The Act brought nationality law into line with the racist categories constructed in earlier immigration law and immigration rules (Dixon 1983: 173): “The crucial irony of the 1981 Act is that it is designed to define a sense of belonging and nationhood which is itself a manifestation of the sense of racial superiority created along with the Empire, while simultaneously it cuts the ties of citizenship established in the same historical process. The ideology of Empire is reconstructed: while Thatcherism rejects the essential expansionism of Empire in favour of ‘isolationism’, its supremacism, chauvinism and racism are preserved.” (Miles 1993: 76)

In 1950 UNESCO issued a statement declaring the so-called biological phenomenon of ‘race’ as a social myth. Before this, the British Empire had a specific relationship to nineteenth century racial science. To help justify colonial domination, ideas developed by racial science were incorporated into arguments to naturalise capitalist exploitation: ‘it is the white man’s burden to civilise the black and brown races’. What survives from this history is a pseudo-biological cultural racism: in which the idea of ‘race’ feeds into nation, and biology into culture. English/British nationalism echoes nineteenth and early twentieth century imperial nationalism. Embedded in this nationalism and patriotism, disguised within, is the idea of ‘race’:

“Phrases like “the Island Race” and “the Bulldog Breed” vividly convey the manner in which this nation is represented in terms which are simultaneously biological and cultural.” (Gilroy 1987: 45)

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Brexit Great Britain: an island race of bulldog breed

A dangerous outcome of the EU referendum is echoed in the words of Sivanandan (1990: 150) on 1980s Britain: “Shame…has gone out of Thatcherite Britain – the shame of being a racist…” Take, for example, the upfront honesty of some Leave voters from the north and south of England as reported on television news shortly after the result:

What Brexit has done is legitimise racism from which the fascist far Right will continue to grow (and it will grow most vigorously if a Labour Party coup succeeds in ousting the socialist leader, pro-immigration and anti-austerity, Jeremy Corbyn, in order to shift the party rightwards once again to a soft anti-immigration and a soft austerity politics).

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The Labour Party ‘on the back foot’ with a former Labour voter on the question of immigration during the 2010 election.

The question of Scotland is an important one, with both the SNP a vocally pro-immigration (and anti-austerity) party and Scottish voters, in the main, pro-Europe. The question being: why? The following astute historical analysis of the distinct nature of Scottish nationalism, vis-à-vis racism, offers an answer:

“post-1945 Asian migrants to Scotland have not been the object of a systematic and hostile political agitation as happened in England (although this is not to deny that racist images of these migrants are commonly expressed in everyday life in Scotland). Part of the explanation for this lies in the fact that the particular political compromise embodied in the Act of Union of 1707 between England and Scotland ensured the reproduction of a distinct proto-state apparatus and national identity. In this context, political nationalism in Scotland during the twentieth century has tended to focus on the perceived economic and political disadvantages of the Union. Nationalism in Scotland during the 1960s and 1970s therefore identified an external cause of economic disadvantage/decline, without reference to ‘race’, while in England the idea of ‘race’ was employed to identify an internal cause of crisis, the presence of a ‘coloured’ population which was not ‘truly’ British.” (Miles 1993: 77-78)

In the context of Brexit, the accusation of racism is a contentious one. One narrative emerging after the Leave campaign victory, from many of its voters, is an offended and defensive ‘I’m not a racist…’ One needs to understand what racism actually is (see my blog post Racism 101). While not all Leave voters (including the highly irresponsible fool-heads of Lexit) were and are racists, without doubt, the Leave campaign pushed and unleashed a reconstructed ideology of British Empire soaked with supremacism, chauvinism, and racism. Deeply worrying and perilous times lie ahead.

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Post EU referendum: a continued discourse of a Great Britain under attack that requires a tough Army General to lead against.

Reference: Miles, Robert (1993) Racism after ‘race relations’. London: Routledge.

[I dedicate this post to Lee Claydon, with love and solidarity.]

My interview in Jungle World on the British radical Left and Europe

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Jungle World is a radical left-wing German weekly newspaper published in Berlin, which is known for its anti-nationalist and cosmopolitan politics.

The following is the original transcript of my interview in Jungle World here.

In your Blog you have criticized the position of the SWP and Lexit campaign. Can you briefly describe why a part of the British (radical) left is arguing for leaving the EU and why this is wrong in your opinion?

Dominant sections of the British Trotskyist Left, and surviving Stalinist currents, compose the Lexit campaign. The legacy of Stalinism largely explains why so-called Trotskyist organisations like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and Socialist Party (SP) have effectively adopted a leftist nationalist position – a hangover from the Stalinist idea of “socialism in one country”. One further feature of the SWP’s and SP’s position is their warped calculation of ‘Britain out’: that conditions will be objectively better for the British working class because there will be a crisis in the ruling Conservative Party government. This is warped since the mainstream Brexit campaign, if it succeeds, will undoubtedly be a huge victory for the political Right (regardless of any reshuffle of its leaders). The hegemonic politics of ‘Britain out’ is anti-immigration, racist nationalism. There’s simply no way round this.

The Lexit campaign is mobilising the nation-state as a bulwark against the evils of neoliberal global capitalism. For sure, the EU is a bureaucratic and undemocratic capitalist club of bosses, which is hostile to immigrants and refugees. But as socialists we are not crudely anti-capitalist; we are not crudely anti-globalisation. We are for sublating the progressive elements of capitalism out of capitalism; we are for an alternative globalisation. As such, on the EU question, our political response should be: stay in and fight for a fully democratic workers’ Europe. This is congruent with the tradition of Marxism (from Marx and Engels, through to Gramsci, Lenin, and Trotsky): for a socialist “United States of Europe”. Capital seeks globalisation, it seeks to overcome national borders; let’s not forget that as capitalism’s gravediggers, so do we but on our own terms! It is incongruous and anti-dialectical to pose as internationalist and yet succumb to nationalism, which is what Lexit does.

The upcoming EU referendum has revived nationalist sentiment and postcolonial nostalgia. Is the rhetoric of independence related to the British colonialist history? Does the (radical) left have an answer to that? What is particularly “British” in this discourse and where do you see analogies with other European countries, where anti-EU populism, both left and right wing, grew in the past decade?

Since 1945 racist anti-immigration discourse in Britain has rarely referenced biological inferiority, rather immigrants have been racialised as the cause of the socio-economic problems of ordinary Britons. English/British nationalism is dependent upon the idea of ‘race’: “an island race” which is distinct and apart from Europe. This imagined community utilises the past supposed greatness of the British Empire. A present insecurity in the national psyche, fuelled by a politics of austerity and a scapegoating of ‘the Other’, drives a resurgence in the allegiance to the national psyche: ‘Britain was great, let’s make Britain great again’. Ironically the Lexit campaign, while ostensibly for open borders, totally blunts its ability to challenge this racist nationalism.

The British situation is also very much part of a contemporary and pervasive European trend of anti-EU populism and exclusivist and racist nationalism, which positions the nation-state as a rampart against the perils of globalisation. This is a populism that seeks to cement space and reverse time. This is a deeply reactionary throwback of which a potential disintegration of the EU would be a part.

What role does the refugee crisis play in the referendum campaign? On the one side the right wing fears the refugees, on the other side the left sees the EU as a system killing people who are seeking protection or a better life… Why is it possible for the left to agree with the the right and far right in this question?

Absolutely core to the mainstream Brexit campaign is an implicit and sometimes explicit racism and xenophobia to immigrants and refugees, specifically their racialisation as the cause of socio-economic woes, which leaves the government’s politics of austerity unquestioned. The primary argument of the Lexit campaign is that the EU is neoliberalism incarnate, which leaves our national government ‘off the hook’. Secondary arguments of Lexit follow: the EU is an enemy of immigrants and refugees, and a ‘Britain out’ vote will destabilise the government. It is not a case of the far Right and the far Left agreeing on the question of immigrants and refugees, but rather that both place blame on the EU and negate national bourgeois responsibility.

Let´s focus more on the left. Why does the British and European left rediscover nationalism right now? Is it only anti-EU-rhetoric or is there more about that?

Romantic anti-globalisation has long been a current on the Left. This includes the crass dichotomy of ‘local good’ and ‘global bad’. In this schema, the nation-state forms the context spatiality of ‘the local’ whereas the EU of ‘the global’. Karl Marx once said of reactionary, romantic anti-capitalists that, it is “as ridiculous to yearn for a return to that original fullness as it is to believe that with this complete emptiness history has come to a standstill”. Add to this the legacy of Stalinism and its thesis of “socialism in one country” and one has a thoroughly muddled left-wing nationalism. Central to decent socialist politics is a commitment to a fully democratic, alternative globalisation, with international workers’ solidarity that brings down borders rather than erects or cements them: a global democratic union of localities that sublates the radical possibilities born from global capitalism – its infrastructure, wealth, resources, and gravediggers – out of capitalism into an equal and just society.

Who are the people that vote for leave? Can you characterise this group? Do working class interests play a role in the debate?

The key battle in amongst the working class in England and Wales (Scottish voters are, in the main, likely to vote to stay in the EU). The working class in England and Wales have traditionally voted for Labour, but in recent years have increasingly been attracted to far Right parties like UKIP. Why? This trend is a consequence of the Labour Party drifting rightwards under Tony Blair, the weakness and incompetence of the organised far Left, the defeats of the labour movement, and the mainstreaming of racist anti-immigration discourse. This sociological group will ultimately determine the vote.

In an open letter to Britain Slavoj Žižek writes: “The nation-state is not the right instrument to confront the refugee crisis, global warming, and other truly pressing issues. So instead of opposing Eurocrats on behalf of national interests, let’s try to form an all-European left.” Is that a possibility/solution? What do you think about new movements such as DiEm25 launched by Y. Varoufakis a couple of week ago, which not only are decidedly pro Europe but claim to make “another Europe” possible?

Both Žižek and Varoufakis are generally correct. A pan-European Left which can fight for another Europe, a workers’ Europe, is absolutely central for our class – locally and globally. Is it possible? Yes, absolutely: by mobilising connections through labour movement struggles, trade unions, political left organisations, and so on. The DiEM25 Manifesto is right to assert: “The EU will either be democratized or it will disintegrate!”

Leon Trotsky’s ‘method of analysis’ back in 1917 is as astute then as it is today: “If the capitalist states of Europe succeeded in merging into an imperialist trust, this would be a step forward as compared with the existing situation, for it would first of all create a unified, all-European material base for the working class movement. The proletariat would in this case have to fight not for the return to ‘autonomous’ national states, but for the conversion of the imperialist state trust into a European Republican Federation.” What the EU has constructed is not something we want to blindly bulldoze, its disintegration through a tsunami of racist and xenophobic nationalisms would be a terrible reversal of historical progress. As cosmopolitan internationalists, we are for, echoing Trotsky, a “United States of Europe – without monarchies, standing armies and secret diplomacy”!

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