“Earth” by Rabindranath Tagore

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Accept my homage, Earth, as I make my last obeisance of the day,
Bowed at the altar of the setting sun.

You are mighty, and knowable only by the mighty;
You counterpoise charm and severity;
Compounded of male and female
You sway human life with unbearable conflict.
The cup that your right hand fills with nectar
Is smashed by your left;
Your playground rings with your mocking laughter.
You make heroism hard to attain;
You make excellence costly;
You are not merciful to those who deserve mercy.
Ceaseless warfare is hidden in your plants:
Their crops and fruits are victory-wreaths won from struggle.
Land and sea are your cruel battlefields –
Life proclaims its triumph in the face of death.
Civilization rests its foundation upon your cruelty:
Ruin is the penalty exacted for any shortcoming.

In the first chapter of your history Demons were supreme –
Harsh, barbaric, brutish;
Their clumsy thick fingers lacked art;
With clubs and mallets in hand they rioted over sea and mountain.
Their fire and smoke churned sky into nightmare;
They controlled the inanimate world;
They had blind hatred of Life.

Gods came next; by their spells they subdued the Demons –
The insolence of Matter was crushed.
Mother Earth spread out her green mantle;
On the eastern peaks stood Dawn;
On the western sea-shore Evening descended,
Dispensing peace from her chalice.

The shackled Demons were humbled;
But primal barbarity has kept its grip on your history.
It can suddenly invade order with anarchy –
From the dark recesses of your being
It can suddenly emerge like a snake.
Its madness is in your blood.
The spells of the Gods resound through sky and air and forest,
Sung solemnly day and night, high and low;
But from regions under your surface
Sometimes half-tame Demons raise their serpent-hoods –
They goad you into wounding your own creatures,
Into ruining your own creation.

At your footstool mounted on evil as well as good,
To your vast and terrifying beauty,
I offer today my scarred life’s homage.
I touch your huge buried store of life and death,
Feel it throughout my body and mind.
The corpses of numberless generations of men lie heaped in your dust:
I too shall add a few fistfuls, the final measure of my joys and pains:
Add them to that name-absorbing, shape-absorbing, fame-absorbing
Silent pile of dust.

Earth, clamped into rock or flitting into the clouds;
Rapt in meditation in the silence of a ring of mountains
Or noisy with the roar of sleepless sea-waves;
You are beauty and abundance, terror and famine.
On the one hand, acres of crops, bent with ripeness,
Brushed free of dew each morning by delicate sunbeams –
With sunset, too, sending through their rippling greenness
Joy, joy;
On the other, in your dry, barren, sickly deserts
The dance of ghosts amid strewn animal-bones.

I have watched your Baiśākh-storms swoop like black hawks
Ripping the horizon with lightning-beaks:
The whole sky roars like a rampant lion,
Lashing tail whipping up trees
Till they crash to the ground in despair;
Thatched roofs break loose,
Race before the wind like convicts from their chains.

But I have known, in Phālgun, the warm south breeze
Spread all the rhapsodies and soliloquies of love
In its scent of mango-blossom;
Seen the foaming wine of heaven overflow from the moon’s goblet;
Heard coppices suddenly submit to wind’s importunity
And burst into breathless rustling.

You are gentle and fierce, ancient and renewing;
You emerged from the sacrificial fire of primal creation
Immeasurably long ago.
Your cyclic pilgrimage is littered with meaningless remnants of history;
You abandon your creations without regret; strew them layer upon layer,
Forgotten.

Guardian of Life, you nurture us
In little cages of fragmented time,
Boundaries to all our games, limits to all renown.

Today I stand before you without illusion:
I do not ask at your door for immortality
For the many days and nights I have spent weaving you garlands.
But if I have given true value
To my small seat in a tiny segment of one of the eras
That open and close like blinks in the millions of years
Of your solar round;
If I have won from the trials of life a scrap of success;
Then mark my brow with a sign made from your clay –
To be rubbed out in time by the night
In which all signs fade into the final unknown.

O aloof, ruthless Earth,
Before I am utterly forgotten
Let me place my homage at your feet.

 

From: “Rabindranath Tagore: Selected Poems” (Penguin Books, 1985: 99-101)

‘All that is solid melts into air’: the dialectical nature of our world

Let’s begin with Marx and Engels from The Communist Manifesto (published in 1848):

“Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man [sic] is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere.

The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.”

For me dialectics is a way of seeing and thinking about the world. The world around me is in perpetual flux. The world is in constant movement. What’s more, this locomotion is ridden with contradictory tensions, and it is the very friction of these tensions that fuels ongoing change. Dialectical thinking is that which is attuned to contradictory motion and imminent potentialities. All that is solid melts into air.

Remarkably, the language used by Marx and Engels in 1848 to depict and predict world developments chimes well with the contemporary discourse of ‘globalisation’. If we take this above passage from The Communist Manifesto and hold it up to the present-day, we can see a battle between, on the one hand, a desire for certainty and the satisfaction of old wants, fixed, fast-frozen relations, and local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, and, on the other hand, a desire for the best of all that is solid which melts into air: a willing acceptance of uncertainty that comes with openness to new wants and experiences, intercourse in every direction, connections everywhere, universal interdependence, and a cosmopolitan world.

Let’s end then with one aspect – from the Lord Ashcroft Polls – of how and why people voted the way that they did in the 2016 UK referendum on European Union membership.

Everyday life as illusion and truth, power and helplessness

Henri Lefebvre (1901-1991) was an urban sociologist and French Marxist philosopher who theorised on the production of urban space, the right to the city, and the nature of everyday life. The below quote is from the Foreword of his book Critique of Everyday Life (Volume 1) in which he identifies the key feature of everyday life as ambiguity and contradiction:

“There, before us, lies a child, a casualty, or a corpse; a marriage, a life together to organize or to disrupt, a place to live to be found; suffering to endure or avoid – pleasure to enjoy or spoil; a decision to hazard and accept with all its consequences (and this without adequate information, or having lost information en route, etc.). Uncertainty is not without its charm or interest; it can never last long. It maintains ambiguity, keeping what is possible in a state of possibility, allowing us to take our pleasure in what Valery called the whorehouse of possibilities; it can even oscillate between the comical and the dramatic, but we must choose. We weigh the pros and the cons, but there is no telling when something new on one side of the scales will come to outweigh the other. So decisions may ripen like fruit on a tree, but they never fall of their own accord; we must always cut the stem, we must even choose the moment of choice… Hence the infinitely complex, profound and contradictory character of life is given an element which is always new, and which is indeed constantly being renewed by knowledge.

To put it more clearly or more abstractly, ambiguity is a category of everyday life, and perhaps an essential category. It never exhausts its reality; from the ambiguity of consciousnesses and situations spring forth actions, events, results, without warning. These, at least, have clear-cut outlines. They maintain a hard, incisive objectivity which constantly disperses the luminous vapours of ambiguity – only to let them rise once again.

Philosophers and psychologists have confused the issue by sometimes attributing this ‘being-there’ of results to consciousness or being, rather than to actions and decisions, and sometimes attributing ambiguity to philosophically defined existence rather than to the everyday as such.

Feelings and desires can hardly choose. They would like to choose, they would like not to choose, to possess incompatibles all at the same time: several skills, several possibilities, several futures, several loves. Practically, the requirement to act and to make decisions imposes choice. But to choose is to make a judgement. We have no knowledge of the human actions which go on around us; they escape us just as our own selves escape us. And yet we must make judgements. And even before or after the epic moment of decision or action, we must go on making ever more and more judgements. It is the only solid ground, the only unchanging requirement amid all life’s ups and downs, its one axis. Such are the varied aspects of the everyday: fluctuations beneath stable masks and appearances of stability, the need to make judgements and decisions. But nothing is as difficult and as dangerous as making judgements. ‘Judge not.’ From the very beginnings of social life, men [sic] have been obsessed by the function of the Judge, and the powerful fight among themselves to exercise it. The Judge pronounces, makes irrevocable decisions according to the law as it stands, or in the court of appeal. He must embody justice, or Law, or the force of Truth. God passes for supreme judge, and the myth of the Last Judgement is a mighty image, the most striking in the most elaborate of all religions. The human masses sustain this great hope: the Judge will come. For ordinary men, every one of the innumerable little judgements required in life implies a risk and a wager. We are so used to making mistakes about our fellow man that good sense tells us to be wary of passing judgement, disapproves of hasty verdicts, and, quite rightly, denounces prejudice. As a result we find it easier to judge a global society than to judge men. Every capitalist is a man; within him, up to a point, the man and the capitalist are in conflict. Extreme cases – the capitalist who is the complete incarnation of money and capital – are rare. Generally, there are two or more contradictory spirits living inside the capitalist (in particular, as Marx noted, the coexisting needs of enjoyment and accumulation tear him apart). It is therefore both easier and more equitable to condemn a society than to condemn a man.

Brecht perceived the epic content of everyday life superbly: the hardness of actions and events, the necessity of judging. To this he added an acute awareness of the alienation to be found in this same everyday life. To see people properly we need to place them at a reasonable, well-judged distance, like the objects we see before us. Then their many-sided strangeness becomes apparent: in relation to ourselves, but also within themselves and in relation to themselves. In this strangeness lies their truth, the truth of their alienation. It is then that consciousness of alienation – that strange awareness of the strange – liberates us, or begins to liberate us, from alienation. This is the truth. And at the moment of truth we are suddenly disorientated by others and by ourselves. To look at things from an alien standpoint – externally and from a reasonable distance – is to look at things truly. But this strange and alien way of looking at things, disorientated but true, is the way children, peasants, women of the people, naive and simple folk look. And they are afraid of what they see. For this many-sided alienation is no joke. We live in a world in which the best becomes the worst; where nothing is more dangerous than heroes and great men; where everything including freedom (even though it is not a thing) and revolt, changes into its own opposite.

[…]

Brecht’s epic theatre […] starts from a ‘commonplace’, it is the opposite of the classical ‘koinon’, and is taken from the everyday. He starts from disagreement, divergence, distortion. The play – or the scene – poses a complete problem which has not been resolved in advance, and which is consequently irritating, embarrassing. To begin with, Brecht confronts the spectator with an action or an event […]. He leaves the spectator in a (for him) disturbing externality. Instead of making him participate in an action or with defined ‘characters’, the stage action liberates him: it ‘arouses his capacity for action, forces him to make decisions … he is made to face something (by) argument’. Called upon to make a judgement, obliged to come to a decision, the audience hesitates. And in this way the action is transferred to within the spectator. Without being aware of it, and although everything is clearly happening in full view, the spectator becomes the living consciousness of the contradictions of the real.

And is it really accurate to say that this theatre excludes emotion? It excludes emotion of a magical nature, the kind that allows or implies participation and identification. But maybe Brecht’s theatre is aiming to bring forth new forms of emotion and images by actually ridding them of whatever magic the imagination has retained. If this were not the case, if Brecht’s theatre were restricted merely to evoking states of mind, this is where it would come up against its own limitations, and fairly severe limitations they would be. As it happens, it provides a model for art liberated from magic. And that is a great innovation. Brecht unravels the contradictions of everyday life and liberates us from them. For magic plays an immense role in everyday life, be it in emotional identification and participation with ‘other people’ or in the thousand little rituals and gestures used by every person, every family, every group. But in practical life as in ideology, this magic only signifies the illusions men [sic] have about themselves, and their lack of power. And everyday life is defined by contradictions: illusion and truth, power and helplessness, the intersection of the sector man controls and the sector he does not control.” (Lefebvre, 1958 [1991]: 18-21)

From Capitalocene to Biophilia: a rallying call for ecological sovereignty

Extract from: James Connolly’s “We Only Want the Earth” (1907)

Iceland, Geography, and Biophilia

My child-like excitement for an impending university geography field trip to Iceland has led me to exploring the concept of biophilia. The distinct lure of Iceland feels like a spiritual calling to the wonder and beauty of the natural world. My excitement reminds me of the draw to studying geography: a love of the world in its full human and natural dimensions. Mine is a spiritual and political love that deplores inequality and poverty, injustice, exploitation of humans and the environment, despoliation and mindless plunder, and the ultimate betrayal of our custodianship of planet Earth, otherwise known as the potentially catastrophic era of the Anthropocene. Specifically, mine is a love for what the human species, all living beings, and our shared home of Earth could be and should be, against the harm wrought to us all by capitalism. My imminent visit to Iceland is a rekindling of my original love for geography and a journey into the meaning of biophilia. This journey starts with Icelander Björk’s album “Biophilia” and proceeds to the writings of Edward O. Wilson and Erich Fromm.

Björk’s album “Biophilia”, released in 2011, was the outcome of what had been happening in Iceland during that time, from the financial crisis to an environmental movement against the building of five aluminium factories: “on so many different levels”, she says, “there was this message that all the old system don’t work anymore, you’ve got to clear your table and start from scratch” (Björk 2011a). The album is “about connecting the dots, it’s not so much about that each thing is original, it’s more about building bridges between things that haven’t had bridges between them before, like nature and technology, and like atoms and the galaxy” (Björk 2011b). In one sense, Björk’s “Biophilia” is a product of what geographer Yi-Fu Tuan (1972) termed topophilia, our affective bond to place which is born from our experiences and circumstances: “being brought up in Iceland I have always had a relationship with nature, before I even knew that that’s not common, living in a capital in Europe but you’re still surrounded by mountains and ocean”; while walking to and from school, “I started mapping out my melodies to landscapes”; at music school from aged five to fifteen, “I was being introduced to the classical canon, Beethoven and Bach, and finding some of it interesting but a lot of it not really matching my own strong experience […] and also being a girl in the 70s in Iceland, I mean this was like for girls in Germany in the 1700s! I wanted musicology for girls, Icelandic girls in the twentieth century” (Björk 2011b).

The word biophilia is commonly attributed to the biologist Edward O. Wilson, namely, to his book Biophilia published in 1984, which was followed by an edited collection titled The Biophilia Hypothesis (1993). For Wilson (1993: 31), biophilia “is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms”. He makes the case for a hereditary biophilia that has developed through gene-culture coevolution, and calls upon psychologists and other academics to urgently investigate, in the context of the natural environment, what “will happen to the human psyche when such a defining part of the human evolutionary experience is diminished or erased” (Wilson, 1993: 35). Wilson’s (1993: 38-39) biophilia is a central part of a new environmental ethics, which, while acknowledging the utilitarian potential and material value of wild species, pleas for consideration of “the hereditary needs of our own species” in which the biodiversity of life has “immense aesthetic and spiritual value”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, the environmentalist scholar David W. Orr offers a more radical agenda, calling for a biophilia revolution. On closer examination, his revolution is an incremental set of demands with a left-tinged anti-globalisation, localism, and patriotism, which cuts against a sense of biophilia as a global relationship to humankind and planet Earth; indeed, he confesses, “I do not know whether it is possible to love the planet or not” (Orr, 1993: 432).

The Earth’s Eastern Hemisphere (Wikimedia Commons)

Despite the popular association of biophilia with Edward O. Wilson, it was in fact the humanistic Marxist philosopher and psychoanalyst Erich Fromm (1900-1980) who first introduced the term, explicitly in The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil (1964) and The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (1973), and implicitly in The Sane Society (1956) and Marx’s Concept of Man (1961). Like Wilson, Fromm considers biophilia – the love of life – as having a biological grounding, specifically, as an innate tendency in all living beings to preserve life and to fight death. But for Fromm, biophilia is also more than this, it is an innate tendency to integrate and to unite; or, to paraphrase Björk, to build bridges. Unlike Wilson, Fromm’s basis for studying biophilia is not biology but the conditions of existence that shape human beings as fundamentally social beings and the capitalist conditions of existence that estrange us from this basic need for connection.

Before I embark into the world of Fromm’s biophilia, which, I argue, offers us a critical theoretical basis for a rallying call for ecological sovereignty, I contextualise this call within a particular framing of the ecological crisis of the twenty-first century.

 

Anthropocene versus Capitalocene

The Anthropocene (from the Greek work “anthropos” meaning human being) is the term designated to the thesis that human activity has tipped the Earth into a new geological age. On the present vogue of the Anthropocene, Benjamin Kunkel (2017: 22-23) writes:

“It expresses […] an awareness that environmental change of the most durable significance is taking place as we speak, with unaccustomed speed. (Little besides a giant asteroid or a nuclear war could alter the surface of the earth faster and more completely.) […] the Anthropocene condenses ‘into a single word’, as Davies says, ‘a gripping and intuitive story about human influences on the planet’. It designates a contemporary situation in which humanity, accidentally or deliberately, engineers the planet’s condition, and then sets this present moment in a span of time stretching decades, centuries or millennia into past and future. […] What was once true about the now passé term ‘postmodernism’ is true for the Anthropocene today: it names an effort to consider the contemporary world historically, in an age that otherwise struggles with its attention span.”

While intended as a rallying call, Kunkel (2017: 23) identifies arguments that the Anthropocene is also “a watchword of despair”. Reviewing Jason Moore’s (2015) Capitalism in the Web of Life and Andreas Malm’s (2015) Fossil Capital, he summates their critiques of the Anthropocene and Moore’s alternative thesis of the Capitalocene:

“Its defect, as Moore sees it, is to present humanity as a ‘homogenous acting unit’, when in fact human beings are never to be found in a generic state. They exist only in particular historical forms of society, defined by distinct regimes of social property relations that imply different dispositions towards ‘extra-human nature’. […] Moore proposes that the Anthropocene be renamed the ‘Capitalocene’, since ‘the rise of capitalism after 1450 marked a turning point in the history of humanity’s relation with the rest of nature, greater than any watershed since the rise of agriculture.’ Malm […] locates the headwaters of the present ecological crisis several centuries later, in the global warming set off by coal-burning industrialisation. He complains that in ‘the Anthropocene narrative’, climate change is ‘relocated from the sphere of natural causes to that of human activities’ only to be ‘renaturalised’ a moment later as the excrescence of ‘an innate human trait’. […] ‘Capitalism in a small corner of the Western world invested in steam, laying the foundation of the fossil economy; at no moment did the species…exercise any sort of shared authority over its own destiny and that of the earth system.’ Nor in the time since has the species en bloc become ecologically sovereign: ‘In the early 21st century, the poorest 45 per cent of humanity generated 7 per cent of CO2 emissions, while the richest 7 per cent produced 50 per cent.’ For Malm and Moore, capitalism must be recognised as the overriding determinant of humanity’s recent ecological career if the present era of natural history is to become a useful object of analysis, not merely of handwringing.” (Kunkel, 2017: 23)

The Earth’s Western Hemisphere (Wikimedia Commons)

As I will go on to illustrate, Fromm’s concept of biophilia is grounded in a comprehension of capitalist social relations in which humanity is neither individually autonomous nor a sovereign political bloc but is instead removed from its social relationship to other living beings and to nature. Moreover, for Fromm, there is nothing natural about the antithesis of biophilia; as such, there is no inherent human trait underpinning capitalism that has led us into the Anthropocene. Vis-à-vis the ecological crisis of the twenty-first century, Fromm’s distinctly socialist biophilia is an urgently needed rallying cry against the Capitalocene.

 

Fromm’s socialist Biophilia

“Socialism for Marx was, as Paul Tillich put it, “a resistance movement against the destruction of love in social reality.”” (Fromm, 1961: 59)

Erich Fromm, 1974 (Wikimedia Commons)

 

i. Social beings, total beings, and productive life

For Fromm, it is a fundamental human need to connect with living beings:

“The necessity to unite with other living beings, to be related to them, is an imperative need on the fulfilment of which [our] sanity depends. This need is behind all phenomena which constitute the whole gamut of intimate human relations, of all passions which are called love in the broadest sense of the word.” (Fromm, 1956: 30)

Furthermore, as humans we search for meaning to our existence and desire transcendence: all our “passions and strivings […] are attempts to find an answer to [our] existence” (Fromm, 1956: 29). In this respect we are faced with two conflicting tendencies, to love and to create, and/or to hate and to destroy:

“Creation and destruction, love and hate, are not two instincts which exist independently. They are both answers to the same need for transcendence, and the will to destroy must rise when the will to create cannot be satisfied. However, the satisfaction of the need to create leads to happiness; destructiveness to suffering […].” (Fromm, 1956: 38)

This need for relatedness and transcendence has no “physiological substrata” but rather is based on our primary driver as a species-being, the human situation: “the total human personality in its interaction with the world, nature and [human beings]; it is the human practice of life as it results from the conditions of human existence” (Fromm, 1956: 70).

Fromm recognises that our spiritual health flourishes when our conditions of existence provide ‘freedom to’, not simply ‘freedom from’. This freedom to allows for the total human personality to grow, as based on our relation to each other, the world, and oneself. Here he draws upon Marx’s notion of ‘total man’ [sic]: whose “independence and freedom” are founded on “the act of self-creation”, which is achieved when our individuality is affirmed and expressed in each of our relations to the world, that is, quoting Marx, “seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, willing, loving” (Fromm, 1961: 37-38). Fromm (1961: 38) sees Marx’s goal of socialism – the emancipation of human beings – as our “self-realization in the process of productive relatedness and oneness with [humans] and nature”. For Marx (alongside Spinoza, Goethe, and Hegel), he explains, humans are “alive” inasmuch as we are “productive”, grasping the world outside of ourselves in the act of affirming and expressing our total being; inasmuch as we are “not productive”, i.e., “receptive and passive”, we are “nothing”, we are “dead” (Fromm, 1961: 29-30). Fromm (1961: 30) contextualises this concept of productivity – as opposed to receptivity – within Marx’s understanding of “the phenomenon of love”:

““Let us assume man to be man [sic],” [Marx] wrote, “and his relation to the world to be a human one. Then love can only be exchanged for love, trust for trust, etc. If you wish to influence other people you must be a person who really has a stimulating and encouraging effect upon others. Every one of your relations to man and to nature must be a specific expression corresponding to the object of your will, of your real individual life. If you love without evoking love in return, i.e., if you are not able, by the manifestation of yourself as a loving person, to make yourself a beloved person, then your love is impotent and a misfortune.””

Love, for Fromm (1956: 32), is a crucial aspect of “the productive orientation: the active and creative relatedness” of humans to their fellow humans and to nature:

“In the realm of thought, this productive orientation is expressed in the proper grasp of the world by reason. In the realm of action, the productive orientation is expressed in productive work, the prototype of which is art and craftsmanship. In the realm of feeling, the productive orientation is expressed in love, which is the experience of union with another person, with all [humans], and with nature, under the condition of retaining one’s sense of integrity and independence.”

Productive love reflects a set of attitudes, “that of care, responsibility, respect and knowledge” (Fromm, 1956: 33). Productive love, as part of the orientation of productive life, is the gem of Fromm’s conceptualisation of biophilia.

 

ii. Insane capitalism: alienation as death

For Fromm (1956: 94-95), capitalism tends towards insanity because it generates a world in which capital, “dead past”, is placed higher than labour, present “living vitality”:

“The conflict between capital and labor is much more than the conflict between two classes, more than their fight for a greater share of the social product. It is the conflict between two principles of value: that between the world of things, and their amassment, and the world of life and its productivity.”

It is worth noting here that Fromm’s (1956: 6) identification and exploration of the “pathology of normalcy”, specifically, the pathology of capitalism, made his work a timely radical alternative to that of Sigmund Freud:

“Freud’s concept of human nature as being essentially competitive (and asocial) is the same as we find it in most authors who believe that the characteristics of man [sic] in modern Capitalism are his natural characteristics. […] His basic concept is that of a “homo sexualis” as that of the economists was that of the “homo economicus.” Both the “economic” man and the “sexual” man are convenient fabrications whose alleged nature – isolated, asocial, greedy and competitive – makes Capitalism appear as the system which corresponds perfectly to human nature, and places it beyond the reach of criticism.” (Fromm, 1956: 76-77)

The basic problem of capitalism, Fromm (1961: 43) argues, is “the negation of productivity: alienation”. Capitalist social relations distort the labour of productive life – that is, meaningful and enjoyable self-expression – into labour which is forced, meaningless, and alienated from us. This alienation (or estrangement) means that we do not experience ourselves as active agents; “the world (nature, others, and [oneself]) remain alien to” us, standing above and against us “as objects” (including those of our own creation) (Fromm, 1961: 44). In brief, alienation, as “essentially experiencing the world and oneself passively, receptively” (Fromm, 1961: 44), is dehumanisation and death.

The consequence of capitalist alienation for life in general is the loss of the human dimension through abstractification and quantification:

“This abstractification takes place even with regard to phenomena which are not commodities sold on the market, like a flood disaster; the newspapers will headline a flood, speaking of a “million-dollar catastrophe,” emphasizing the abstract quantitative element rather than the concrete aspects of human suffering. […] It is an expression of the same attitude when a newspaper headlines an obituary with the words “Shoe Manufacturer Dies.” Actually a man has died, a man with certain human qualities, with hopes and frustrations […].” (Fromm, 1956: 116)

Contrary to productive love as biophilia, capitalist alienation fosters the indifference to life and even the attraction of death:

“We speak of millions of people being killed, of one third or more of our population being wiped out if a third World War should occur; we speak of billions of dollars piling up as a national debt […]. Tens of thousands work in one enterprise, hundreds of thousands live in hundreds of cities. The dimensions with which we deal are figures and abstractions; they are far beyond the boundaries which would permit of any kind of concrete experience. There is no frame of reference left which is manageable, observable, which is adapted to human dimensions. While our eyes and ears receive impressions only in humanly manageable proportions, our concept of the world has lost just that quality; it does not any longer correspond to our human dimension. This is especially significant in connection with the development of modern means of destruction. In modern war, one individual can cause the destruction of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. He [sic] could do so by pushing a button; he may not feel the emotional impact of what he is doing, since he does not see, does not know the people whom he kills; it is almost as if his act of pushing the button and their death had no real connection.” (Fromm, 1956: 119)

In our present moment, in which the president of the most powerful country on Earth denies the existence of climate change, Right-wing reactionary nationalisms are on the ascent worldwide, experts are ridiculed and ignorance is celebrated as non-elitist, and fake news is all the rage, Fromm’s (1956: 120) words take on a renewed sobering significance:

“Science, business, politics, have lost all foundations and proportions which make sense humanly. We live in figures and abstractions; since nothing is concrete, nothing is real. Everything is possible, factually and morally.”

 

iii. Insane capitalism: nationalism as idolatrous worship

“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” (Donald Trump, 2017)

“If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” (Theresa May, 2016)

“Now, the dividing line is not between left and right but globalists and patriots.” (Marine Le Pen, 2015)

Fromm (1956: 58-59) insists that the person who has not “freed” oneself “from the ties to blood and soil is not yet fully born as a human being”, since their “capacity for love and reason” is debilitated:

“Nationalism is our form of incest, is our idolatry, is our insanity. “Patriotism” is its cult. It should hardly be necessary to say, that by “patriotism” I mean that attitude which puts [one’s] own nation above humanity, above the principles of truth and justice; not the loving interest in one’s own nation, which is the concern with the nation’s spiritual as much as with its material welfare – never with its power over other nations. Just as love for one individual which excludes the love for others is not love, love for one’s country which is not part of one’s love for humanity is not love, but idolatrous worship.”

For Fromm, it is only when we succeed in fully developing our love and reason (moving from ‘freedom from’ to ‘freedom to’) that we can create a world based on solidarity and justice, that we can feel rooted in a universal comradeship. What’s more, the ecological survival of planet Earth depends on such a biophilic reclamation of globalisation – a rooted connection to ourselves, other living beings, nature, and the world.

 

iv. The socialist struggle for Biophilia

“The whole life of the individual is nothing but the process of giving birth to [one]self; indeed, we should be fully born, when we die – although it is the tragic fate of most individuals to die before they are born.” (Fromm, 1956: 26)

Fromm defines biophilia as “the passionate love of life and of all that is alive; it is the wish to further growth, whether in a person, a plant, an idea, or a social group” (Fromm, 1973: 485). The tendency “to preserve life and to fight against death” is the most elementary form of biophilia, and is common to all living beings; the more positive aspect of biophilia is the tendency of all living substance:

“to integrate and to unite; […] to fuse with different and opposite entities, and to grow in a structured way. Unification and integrated growth are characteristic of all life processes, not only as far as cells are concerned, but also with regard to feeling and thinking.” (Fromm, 1964: 45-46)

The “person who fully loves life is attracted by the processes of life and growth in all spheres”, preferring “to construct rather than to retain”, “capable of wondering”, loving “the adventure of living” more than certainty, seeing “the whole rather than only the parts”, and wanting “to mold and to influence by love, reason, […] not by force, by cutting things apart” (Fromm, 1964: 47). In dialectical tension with biophilia is necrophilia, the love of death. When life becomes about things, when one is engrossed with having rather than being, when one is obsessed with possession and control, when one is oriented to the past rather than to the present and future, desiring certainty when the only certainty in life is death, then a necrophilous orientation develops (Fromm, 1964). Contrary to Fromm’s dialectic of the biophilous and necrophilous orientations is Freud’s idea of the life instinct (Eros) and the death instinct. This, for Fromm (1964, 1973), is wrong, since both are not biologically given and equally ranked. Biophilia is the normal impulse for living beings, whereas necrophilia is the result of a life unlived.

Most societies fuel conditions of existence for both our creative and destructive tendencies, just as most people are a combination of biophilous and necrophilous orientations – the question is which wins out. “A healthy society furthers” our “capacity to love” others, “to work creatively, to develop” our “reason and objectivity, to have a sense of self which is based on the experience of” our “own productive powers”; whereas, an “unhealthy society is one which creates mutual hostility, distrust, which transforms” us “into an instrument of use and exploitation for others, which deprives” us “of a sense of self” (Fromm, 1956: 72-73). Fromm (1964: 59) warns that the lack of protest against nuclear warfare and “the discussions of our “atomologists” of the balance sheet of total or half-total destruction” reveals “how far we have already gone into the “valley of the shadow of death””. This analogy retains critical relevance amid our own era of global warming and reactionary Right-wing nationalisms.

Ultimately, a political struggle is needed for a global and grassroots democratic socialism that enables the “full unfolding of biophilia” (Fromm, 1964: 46) and the full development of the person “who does not “dominate” nature, but who becomes one with it” (Fromm, 1961: 63). Fromm was a staunch critic of both capitalism and Stalinist totalitarianism. His vision of socialism was for an end to “existential egotism”, in which, quoting Marx, we are alienated from our “own body, external nature”, our “mental life” and our “human life” (Fromm, 1961: 53). Fromm (1961: 63) elucidates:

“Marx’s concept of socialism is a protest, as is all existentialist philosophy, against the alienation of [humans]; if, as Aldous Huxley put it, “our present economic, social and international arrangements are based, in large measure, upon organised lovelessness,” then Marx’s socialism is a protest against this very lovelessness […].”

This is a socialism against the exploitation by human beings of other human beings, of other living beings, and of nature; this is a struggle for a productive life, for life creating life, and for the ecological sovereignty of biophilia.

“Welcome to biophilia, the love for nature in all her manifestations…” (David Attenborough)

 

References:

Björk (2011a) Björk is back – Interview 2011 (about Biophilia), YouTube

Björk (2011b) Bjork: On Music and Biophilia – The Sound of Nature | WIRED 2013, YouTube

Fromm, E. (1973) The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. Middlesex: Penguin Books

Fromm, E. (1964) The Heart of Man: Its Genius for Good and Evil. New York: Harper and Row Publishers

Fromm, E. (1961) Marx’s Concept of Man. New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.

Fromm, E. (1956) The Sane Society. London: Routledge

Kunkel, B. (2017) “The Capitalocene”. In London Review of Books 39(5), 22-28

Orr, D. W. (1993) “Love It or Lose It: The Coming Biophilia Revolution”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by S.R. Kellert and E. O. Wilson. Washington D.C.: Island, 415-440

Tuan, Y. F. (1990) Topophilia: a study of environmental perception, attitudes, and values. New York: Columbia University Press

Wilson, E. O. (1993) “Biophilia and the Conservation Ethic”. In The Biophilia Hypothesis, edited by S.R. Kellert and E. O. Wilson. Washington D.C.: Island, 31-41

Wilson, E. O. (1984) Biophilia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press

Expounding racial hatred before and after the Brexit vote

In this post I present, first, a brief overview of the current period in Britain vis-à-vis racism and hate crime; second, the limitation of a dominant academic understanding of racism; and third, a historical exposition of the nature of racism which offers explanatory power for our contemporary era.

I. Hate crime post the EU referendum

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Anti-Polish propaganda which was posted through the doors of immigrant residences in Cambridge during the EU referendum campaign (source: YouTube)

Britain’s EU referendum cannot simply be regarded at its face value as a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. More than this, it was a noxious campaign on immigration, which was preceded by years of political and media discourse that has mainstreamed anti-immigration sentiment. The Brexit vote legitimised racism: it took the shame out of racial hatred and unleashed waves of its verbal and physical expression. The Economist (2016) reports hate crime data from the National Police Chiefs’ Council of 3,076 incidents of harassment or violence between June 6th and 30th 2016, a rise of 915 on the same period the previous year. More recent figures, from between August 5th and 18th, indicate 2,778 cases, an increase of 14% on the same period in 2015. The stark reality behind these statistics can be seen through the following summary by The Independent (2016) of hate crime incidents since the EU referendum:

“Gangs prowling the streets demanding passers-by prove they can speak English

  • Swastikas in Armagh, Sheffield, Plymouth, Leicester, London and Glasgow.
  • Assaults, arson attacks and dog excrement being thrown at doors or shoved through letter boxes.
  • Toddlers being racially abused alongside their mothers, with children involved as either victims or perpetrators in 14 per cent of incidents.
  • A man in Glasgow ripping off a girl’s headscarf and telling her “Trash like you better start obeying the white man.”
  • Comparisons with 1930s Nazi Germany and a crowd striding through a London street chanting: “First we’ll get the Poles out, then the gays!””

This provides a critical backdrop and climate to the horrific fatal assault on a Polish man, Arkadiusz Jozwik, in Harlow, Essex, on 27th August 2016. The question addressed by this article is: why and how have we arrived at this moment? To answer this, we need to adequately understand the history and nature of racism in Britain.

II. Dominant academic framing of racism

The UK Independence Party's "Breaking Point" poster that was launched during the EU Referendum campaign

The UK Independence Party’s “Breaking Point” poster that was launched during the EU referendum campaign

Sociologist Gurminder K. Bhambra (2016), in a blog post written soon after the EU referendum result, states that what was “unleashed in the weeks prior to the vote was the most toxic discourse on citizenship and belonging, and the rights that pertain as a consequence”. She questions the idea of Britain as an ‘independent’ nation, given its history as part of wider political entities: notably, the colonial Empire and Commonwealth, and the European Union. Bhambra continues, the idea of the British nation has long been dependent on “a racially stratified political formation” of its making and, decisively, it has been:

“the loss of this privileged position – based on white elites and a working class offered the opportunity to see themselves as better than the darker subjects of empire […] – that seems to drive much of the current discourse. Austerity has simply provided the fertile ground for its re-emergence and expression.” (Bhambra, 2016)

Thus, she argues, to understand ‘Britain’ one needs to understand its colonial and imperial Empire and governance. The 1948 British Nationality Act was a turning point, for previously Britain’s colonial subjects were defined as British subjects but with the Act they became Commonwealth citizens. And as the bodies of these Commonwealth citizens migrated into the space of the British nation-state, “mythologies of the changing nature (or, perhaps more accurately, face) of Britain” developed:

“Mythologies that continue to reverberate in the present and have taken on a renewed political vibrancy in light of the debates regarding our continued EU membership. […] The transformation of darker citizens from citizens to aliens over the 1960s and 1970s was based on a visceral understanding of difference predicated on race that brought into being two classes of citizenship – full citizenship and second-class citizenship. […] immigration into the country was increasingly managed by the passing of Acts to discriminate among citizens on the basis of race.” (Bhambra, 2016)

From this twentieth century history, Bhambra concludes that the “common-sense position” on what it means “to be British or English is to be white”, as based on the “mythology of a white Europe or a historically white Britain”. The consequence of this (racist) common sense is a grave misrepresentation of Britain’s “multiracial political formations”. As such:

“we must rethink our analyses to take into account the imperial configuration of Britain and all those who were subjects within it and subject to it. If this is not done, then that demonstrates a commitment to a racialized national history that has no space for its darker subjects.” (Bhambra, 2016)

For me, this academic narrative leaves unexplained the present-day racism against Eastern Europeans, for example. Without a doubt, racism before and since the EU referendum affects Britain’s darker subjects, but what has evolved is not simply or only a racism that targets those of different skin colour. Other markers, both visible and invisible, are also at play as signifying negative racial difference and inciting hatred. Helpful here is the work of the sociologist Robert Miles (1993), who makes the point that proposing (or indeed assuming) the ideology of racism has its historical origins in colonialism can lead to a conclusion that racism is an ideology created exclusively by ‘white’ people to dominant ‘black’ people. However, “in part, the origins of racism can be traced back to pre-capitalist social relations within and beyond Europe” and “its reproduction is as much determined by the rise of the nation state as by colonialism” (Miles, 1993). From the highly cited and regarded work of Stuart Hall and the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) collective, a dominant academic understanding of racism has problematically developed, as Miles observes, “often implicit in their writing is the assumption that the only contemporary form of racism in Britain is that which has people of Caribbean and South Asian origin as its object”. Yet:

“Many physical characteristics (both real and imagined) have been and continue to be signified as a mark of nature and of ‘race’ […]. Moreover, cultural characteristics have also been, and continue to be, signified to the same end. The reification of skin colour therefore mistakenly privileges one specific instance of signification and ignores the historical and contemporary evidence which shows that other populations (Jews, Irish people, etc.) have been signified as distinct and inferior ‘races’ without reference to skin colour […]. Moreover, it restricts analysis of the nature and determinants of racism to a debate about the effects of colonial exploitation.” (Miles, 1993)

I turn now to detail Miles’ exploration of the history of racism, which, I will illustrate, provides astute explanatory power to the contemporary era surrounding Brexit.

III. On the history of racism and its reverberations in the present

Miles’ explanation of the historical interrelationship between nationalism and racism vis-à-vis capitalist development is instructive:

“In the context of its formation, nationalism was […] a revolutionary doctrine because it sought to overturn monarchy and aristocratic government by an appeal to the popular will of ‘the people’ who were the ‘nation’ […] For much of the nineteenth century, nationalism was synonymous with a struggle for political sovereignty within defined spatial boundaries and for some form of representative government. […] By way of contrast, there was no single political strategy that emerged from the general theory of biological, hierarchical differentiation expressed in the idea of ‘race’. This was not only because there was little agreement about the boundaries between the supposed ‘races’, but also because scientific racism did not posit a single, coherent political object. The theorisation of ‘race’ and ‘nation’ took place at a time of ‘internal’ European political and economic reorganisation and ‘external’ colonial expansion, in the course of which the range of human cultural and physiological variation became more widely known to a larger number of people. The extension of capitalist relations of production increased the circulation of commodities and of people, and this increasing mobility, migration and social interaction provided part of the foundation upon which the ideologies of racism and nationalism were constructed. The increasing profusion of physiological and cultural variation, as recognised in western Europe, became the object of intellectual curiosity and, thereby, of the theoretical practice of scientists and philosophers. But it also became the focus of political attention and action as populations within and beyond Europe were nationalised and racialised by the state […]” (Miles, 1993)

Mesocephalic indexes - an illustration of racial science from the Popular Science Monthly Volume 50, 1896 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Mesocephalic indexes of different ‘races’ – an illustration of racial science from the Popular Science Monthly Volume 50, 1896 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

While distinct ideologies, nationalism and racism can overlap: the construct of the ‘nation’ as based on cultural differentiae is compatible with the notion that the nation is founded on a biological ‘race’. Miles continues to demonstrate that first the feudal aristocracy’s, and later the bourgeoisie’s, ‘civilisation’ project became fused with racism – a civilisation project which was central to emergent and developing capitalist social relations within and outside Europe:

“In France, notions of politesse and civilité were used by the feudal aristocracy to contrast the refinement of their behaviour with that of the ‘inferior’ people whom they ruled. […] the bourgeoisie became its leading exponent once it had displaced the aristocracy as the ruling class. By the early nineteenth century, the bourgeoisie, conscious of its material achievements and more firmly in political control in at least certain parts of Europe, began to assert that its values and manners were more a matter of inheritance than a social construction. In these circumstances the notion of civilisation (Elias 1978: 50): “serves at least those nations which have become colonial conquerors, and therefore a kind of upper class to large sections of the non-European world, as a justification of their rule, to the same degree that earlier the ancestors of the concept of civilisation, politesse and civilité, had served the courtly-aristocratic upper class as a justification of theirs.”” (Miles, 1993)

Depending on conjuncture and interests, the boundaries of blood have been mapped and remapped:

“Hence, during the nineteenth century, in certain circumstances the English working class, or fractions thereof, were signified by the dominant class as ‘a different breed’, an uncivilised ‘race’, but in other circumstances, as a constituent part of the English (or British) ‘race’, a ‘breed’ which contains ‘in its blood’ civilised and democratic values. […] The result was a racialised nationalism or a nationalist racism, a mercurial ideological bloc that was manipulated by the ruling class (or rather by different fractions of it) to legitimate the exploitation of inferior ‘races’ in the colonies, to explain economic and political struggles with other European nation states, and to signify (for example) Irish and Jewish migrants as an undesirable ‘racial’ presence within Britain.” (Miles, 1993)

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This 1862 song, “No Irish Need Apply”, was inspired by No Irish Need Apply [NINA] signs in London (source: Wikipedia)

Thus for over two centuries the signification of racial difference has been a central aspect of class relations and class struggle both inside and beyond Europe. To maintain domination:

“Europeans in different class positions have racialised each other, as well as inward migrants and those populations that they colonised beyond Europe. During the twentieth century, there have been further examples of the racialisation of the interior of European nation states (as in the case of the Jews), as well as a racialisation of larger-scale inward migrations, including colonial and non-colonial migrations, since 1945.” (Miles, 1993)

We might productively consider the present period in Britain as an extension and evolution of this history, in which racism vilifies an internal European Other and an Other from outside Europe.

It was by the close of the nineteenth century that the political economic domination of the global capitalist system by Britain came under threat from sources inside and beyond Europe, and as such, by the final quarter of the nineteenth century:

“a new, right-wing English patriotism, which was simultaneously royalist and racist, was created […] the whole world was racialised, including Europe, in an attempt to comprehend the rise of competing European capitalisms, each embodied in a separate national shell, and each seeking its ‘destiny’ on the world stage” (Miles, 1993)

A nineteenth century British cartoon (source: Wikimedia Commons)

A nineteenth century British cartoon (source: Wikimedia Commons)

Irish immigration into Britain during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was racialised, as was immigration from Eastern Europe and Germany. There was widely perceived to be an ‘alien’ problem in the country:

Commencing halfway through the penultimate decade of the nineteenth century, a political campaign against the settlement of immigrants from eastern Europe achieved prominence […] Those involved in the campaign consistently exaggerated the scale of immigration […] and demanded the introduction of an immigration law which would permit the state to control and limit the entry of Jewish refugees from eastern Europe. […] the notions of ‘immigrant’ and ‘alien’ became synonymous in everyday life with that of Jew […] legislation regulating the entry of aliens into Britain was introduced immediately preceding and after the First World War. […] Assertions about the existence of a German conspiracy multiplied, and myths about the German ‘national character’ which signified Germans as having certain (negatively evaluated) natural attributes were widely articulated […] The categories of ‘German’ and ‘Jew’ were often used synonymously” (Miles, 1993)

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The Daily Mail, 1938 (source: Wikimedia Commons)

The political debate surrounding the Aliens Act of 1905, and the subsequent Aliens Restriction Act of 1914 and Aliens Restriction (Amendment) Bill and Act of 1919, identified the problematic presence of three population groups:

“First, there was a lingering desire to find additional ways of punishing the defeated foe, the ‘Hun’. In addition, two ‘new’ enemies were found. These were trade union radicals or ‘Bolshevik sympathisers’, and Jews, including those who had arrived as refugees in the late nineteenth century as well as the longer-established Jewish community, a proportion of which formed part of the British bourgeoisie […] Collectively, this Other constituted the quintessential ‘alien’” (Miles, 1993)

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An anti-immigration poster from 1902 (source: Wikipedia)

Nonetheless, confronting major shortages of labour, the Labour government reluctantly opted for large-scale foreign-sourced labour. By the close of 1946 a system was in place for the resettlement of Polish people and the European Volunteer Scheme (EVW) came into being. The political discourse underpinning this immigration was one of ‘assimilation’ and (as it later transpired) a problem of lack of ‘integration’:

“the concern was to find the most suitable ‘races and nationalities’ that would not only provide labour power but also possess the kind of ‘vigorous blood’ that could be expected to benefit ‘our stock’. […] As evidence accumulated showing that the Poles and the EVWs were not learning the English language, that they continued to identify themselves with the nation states from which they originated, and that they were forming ‘exclusive communities’, official concern increased.” (Miles, 1993)

A stark comparison can be made here with the present-day racism against Polish people, who are accused of failing to integrate and assimilate to the so-called British way of life. Across Europe, including Britain, integration has become a state objective: “‘they’ are expected to learn to behave like ‘us’ because cultural homogeneity is considered to be a necessary precondition for the survival of the nation” (Miles, 1993).

Miles identifies a shift vis-à-vis immigration to Britain during the years 1945-1951, from Europe as the major source of labour migration to that of the British colonies and ex-colonies:

“because the British state proved unwilling to realise its racism in law at this time, the rights of British colonial and ex-colonial subjects to enter and settle in Britain were not withdrawn. Migration from the Caribbean (as well as from Ireland) continued and increased through the 1950s, and was paralleled by migration from India and Pakistan. It was not until 1962 that the British state imposed controls on the entry of British subjects from what had become known as the New Commonwealth.” (Miles, 1993)

Decisively, “by removing the right of entry to, and settlement in, the United Kingdom from certain categories of British subject, the state established new (racist) criteria by which to determine membership of the ‘imagined community’ of nation” (Miles, 1993). A critical aspect of this post-1945 era has been the response of the British state to political agitation for immigration controls against ‘coloureds’: such immigrants have been “simultaneously racialised and signified as the cause of economic and social problems for ‘our own people’” (Miles, 1993). Similarly, in recent times, both European and non-European migrants to Britain have been racialised and signified as the cause of the social and economic problems of the British people; it has become (racist) common sense that immigration is a problem and must be severely controlled.

The development of the European Union has brought with it a new specificity of tensions vis-à-vis immigration, nationalism and racism. What isn’t new is the political debate about immigration – framed as alien populations flooding in to threaten the identity and existence of the nation. However, what is distinct is that:

“the effects are refracted through a novel international conjuncture, one in which the reality of the nation state, and the power of the individual state to regulate social relations within its ‘sovereign territory’, is being transformed in Europe as a result of the interplay between the power of international capital and the political reorganisation embodied in the evolution of the EC as a supranational political unit.” (Miles, 1993)

From the early 1950s through to the early 1970s there was large-scale labour migration into Western Europe which (with some exceptions) the state promoted as an economic necessity. But since then this political discourse has been replaced by one of the need for stricter and stricter immigration controls. And so:

“Every official statement expressing support for the ‘principle’ of increased [immigration] control […] legitimates political opposition to immigration within the electorate in circumstances where the state faces structural constraints on its ability to deliver what it promises: this contradiction will ensure that immigration remains at the centre of political conflict within most European nation states and within the European Commission during the 1990s and beyond. The contradiction is overdetermined by the reality of the EC as a political entity: because of the attempt to create a European immigration policy, the politicisation of immigration as a problem in one member state can have immediate repercussions in the others. Moreover, in so far as a consequence of continuing immigration is a magnification of political opposition to it, and in so far as that opposition is grounded in, or expressive of, racism, the intervention of the state reinforces that racism.” (Miles, 1993)

One response that has emerged on the Left defines the European Union as a ‘Fortress Europe’, which “prevent[s] ‘black’ people from entering its borders and […] sustain[s] a common ‘white’, Judaeo-Christian heritage by repelling or subordinating alien (non-European) cultural influences (such as Islam)” (Miles, 1993). During the EU referendum, this was what Lexit campaigners such as the SWP raised in their incoherent arguments. What is indeed rampant in the contemporary era surrounding Brexit is a pan-European racism – reflected in the growth of far Right parties across the continent – against, for example, an African Other, an Islamic Other, a Syrian Other, et cetera. That said, Fortress Europe racism is not the whole picture. As observed by Miles of the late twentieth century:

“For geo-spatial and ideological reasons, the greatest apprehension originally concerned migration from the southern edge of the EC. The fear was, and is, that the Mediterranean Sea will become Europe’s Rio Grande, no more than a minor obstacle for the ‘millions’ of Africans seeking to enter the EC illegally […] Since 1989, new fears have been articulated: speculation has increased about a large-scale migration from eastern Europe, one that places Germany (and Austria) in the front line against an ‘invasion’ from the east.” (Miles, 1993)

Alongside then a Fortress Europe which negatively racialises an external (non-white and/or non-Christian) Other, what has also become prevalent is a negative racialisation of an internal (white) Other, most notably, Eastern Europeans. These racialisations and their associated racial hatreds have historical origins in capitalist (and pre-capitalist) social relations and the nation state, with colonialism one integral moment within this; in this context, “theories of racism which are grounded solely in the analysis of colonial history and which prioritise the single somatic characteristic of skin colour have a specific and limited explanatory power” (Miles, 1993).

 

References

Bhambra, Gurminder K. (2016) “Viewpoint: Brexit, Class and British ‘National’ Identity”, http://discoversociety.org/2016/07/05/viewpoint-brexit-class-and-british-national-identity/, last accessed 10th September 2016

Editorial (2016) “Hate crime: Bearing the brunt”, The Economisthttp://www.economist.com/news/britain/21706477-rancid-post-referendum-rise-bearing-brunt, last accessed 10th September 2016

Lusher, Adam (2016) “Racism unleashed: True extent of the ‘explosion of blatant hate’ that followed Brexit result revealed”, The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-racism-uk-post-referendum-racism-hate-crime-eu-referendum-racism-unleashed-poland-racist-a7160786.html, last accessed 10th September 2016

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

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.]