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Union Jacks Flutter Over a Widening Gyre

by | June 27, 2016

All the wrong people are cheering. Farage, bulbous eyes swivelling and moist, lauded a victory for “the real people, for the ordinary people, for the decent people”. The citrine-tinged Trump, with customary intuition, praises the Scots (who overwhelmingly voted for Remain) for taking their country back. Marine Le Pen, hailing a “victory for freedom,” demands a similar referendum in France. Certainly, George Galloway, having joined Farage in demonising ‘mass immigration,’ is also pleased, and there are a few saps who think that Tony Benn’s democratic socialist dream is on the brink of fruition. But the serried ranks of red-faced, Toryboy rosbifs, delightedly fluttering their Union Jacks while sinking glass after glass of celebratory fizz, know that tomorrow belongs to them.

How did it happen? The Remain campaign had the broadest possible coalition, the most money, and ample media backing. It had the CBI, the TUC, the City, the leaderships of all the major parties and most of the minor ones, the Mirror, the Times, the Guardian, the FT, the Independent, the Observer, even the Mail on Sunday. All the big class battalions were for Remain. Most of the big intellectual artillery was lined up behind Remain. World leaders intervened on its behalf. Ukip, the Tory Right, small-to-medium sized capital, and the ranks of Poujadist patriots out to restore Britishness, surely had little chance.

One reason for the success of the populist Right is that this debate was one structured as an argument within the Right, from the beginning. It is odd that in a debate where Remain clearly needed the Left in order to win the debate, that the Left was so utterly absent. That is in part due to the Left’s own inherited weaknesses and blind-spots. Most of the Left has unenthusiastically backed Europe for years, as a last-ditch defence against the British ruling class, but such a lack of enthusiasm was never going to translate into a rowdy call to the battle stations. The remainder, a diminished rump, have said little about Europe for a long time, largely to avoid giving ground to the Right. Their last minute ‘Lexit’ campaign generated no resonance whatsoever, and their projections of what gains could be made in the context of withdrawal were based on a gross overestimation of working-class and left-wing power. But documents now being leaked also show that the official Remain campaign had insisted, for most of its existence, that Tories like Cameron should be “the dominant message-carriers”. They didn’t want to make any concessions to Labour, or the Left, even if that was the only way to win.

The EU referendum, after all, was offered by Cameron as a sop to the Tory Right, to retard the long-term degeneration and break-up of the Conservative Party. It is not as though they can stop the rot from happening, but perhaps Cameron reasoned that by gambling on a referendum he could at least slow it to a manageable pace. It is one of the ironies of the campaign that he has probably accelerated it quite drastically. In a related irony, he has also probably brought forward the day of Scottish independence, as clearly signalled by Nicola Sturgeon: those who voted to restore British potency have foreordained the abolition of Britain.

Allowing the debate to be structured in that way, as one between the business-minded centre-right, and the nationalist hard-right, gave the latter an advantage in an era when business-as-usual is what many people are suffering from. And what did Remain give us? The worst of everything. The worst fearmongering, the worst charm offensives, and the worst cultural signalling. The worst fearmongering, because it was both hectoring and pathetically ineffectual, often deploying the language that the right-Brexiters were far more adept at using. For example, consider Nick Clegg’s attempt to tap into the nation’s postcolonial castration anxiety:

We will be left with no empire, no union and no special relationship. We will never have been so alone. Never so isolated. Never so powerless.”

The fact that Clegg invoked empire at all is extraordinarily telling. There has been an effort by the political mainstream to resuscitate the British empire for some years, beginning with Gordon Brown expressing ‘pride’ in that history. But to invoke it here is tone-dead: as if the affective basis of Brexit in large parts of the country was not precisely that we no longer have an empire, that we aren’t really in a ‘special relationship,’ that we are all alone, isolated, powerless — and, so many believed, bullied by an arrogant pinko bureaucracy. But this was nothing compared to the ranks of journalists and politicians evidently keen to fill up the Project Fear ‘bullshit bingo’ cards. Brexit, Alistair Campbell warned, “plays into the hands of the Islamic State”. It would, defence secretary Michael Fallon added, “only be good news in Raqqa and Moscow”. Hugo Dixon of the Guardian conjured up the spectral image of Putin gleefully rubbing his hands together at the thought. Even the europhobic Express newspaper published intelligence claims that ISIS wanted Brexit to facilitate “the destruction of Europe” — the paper evidently torn between momentarily conflicting forms of bigotry. Not to be outdone by Ukip, moreover, the Remain campaign tried to muscle in on the anti-immigrant frenzy, suggesting that Brexit would make it harder to deport rapists and murderers.

If the augury about economic meltdown was more plausible, due to the sheer paucity of post-Brexit solutions, it was often expressed in a way that demonstrated very swiftly why people might vote for Brexit. US Trade Representative Mike Froman, interviewed in the Financial Times, offered the prospect that Brexit was “undermining the prospects of a new transatlantic pact,” referring to the ultra-neoliberal Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. As if this kind of post-democratic pact might not have something to do with the feeling millions have of being trapped in an iron cage. As if Jean-Claude Juncker saying, “there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties,” had not been heard and registered. As if Schäuble’s well-known contempt for Greek democracy had not been noised abroad. The undemocratic trade pacts and the often unelected officials overseeing them in secret, are precisely among the things fuelling the reactionaries.

Unsurprisingly, this bland and aloof campaign was ineffectual, and hardly improved by Labour’s Alan Johnson replaying Jacques Delors speeches from the 1980s. As if the idea of a ‘social Europe,’ always minimal in scope, has not been squeezed by the EU’s far more pressing structural commitment to German ordoliberalism. As if the brutal waterboarding of Greece, and the regimentation of austerity on the basis of severe economic blackmail across southern Europe and Ireland, did not somewhat diminish that progressive sheen. As if the voracious shovelling of money and resources from the poorest into the ravenous maws of the large banks, who are never finally paid off, wouldn’t turn the stomach of even the mildest trade unionist. Never mind a ‘left-Brexit’; Corbyn’s last-ditch efforts aside, there was no ‘left-Bremain’ either. The brittleness and plaintive tone of left-Remainers, their propensity to moralise at and lecture the practically irrelevant left-Brexit camp, is symptomatic of this.

Culturally, the Remain campaign struggled for relevance. The first Britain Stronger in Europe campaign video set the tone, with an appeal essentially pivoted on the idea that the EU was wonderful for deregulation, flogging wine overseas and travelling abroad on your gap yah. The left-wing campaign, ‘Another Europe is Possible, begged the young, over some Nineties techno sounds and slick cityscapes, to ‘Vote for Equality’ among other desideratum — though how one could vote for this in a referendum about the EU was never entirely clear. The big problem for Remain was how to detach Labour-supporting, working-class and often ethnic minority voters from the Brexit bandwagon. No one was able to make them an offer. No one even seemed to be talking to them, for most of the campaign — at least, no one from Remain. Instead, in despair, the Remain campaign acquired a bullying, bombastic and alienating tone. The tone has not improved in defeat. On the one hand, the tragic, broken-hearted memes of “the 48%” have all the bathetic mawkishness of, in the words of Jamie Allinson, being trapped in a really sad mobile phone advert. On the other, the young scamps mocking ‘grandma’ and ‘stupid voters’ for messing with the future are perpetuating precisely the resentments that allowed the racist Right to win the campaign.

Finally, after months and months in which centrist politicians and pundits derided Corbyn as an unelectable disaster, his radicalism as electoral poison, and after Remain tried to keep their campaign as Tory as possible, there came a plea for him to come along and rescue it by injecting some radical ideas into it. And notwithstanding the gasps of professed outrage from the Labour Right at Corbyn’s performance, and the extraordinarily opportunistic calls for his head after the outcome, led by the ghastly Margaret Hodge — who, recall, had to be rescued from a BNP surge that her own anti-migrant bluster had helped create — Corbyn did the best he could in this scenario by offering a conditional, critical defence of Remain. Had he joined in the ra-ra cheerleading for the EU, had he not prefaced his support with some serious criticisms, Labour would be looking at a bleak scenario in these mid-to-north England areas which have gone Brexit. By at least sounding critical, and above all keeping his distance from the Tories, he has probably avoided a Scottish outcome for the party in these areas.

But Corbyn was also not the dynamic factor in this referendum. Nor was any part of the Left. The racists were. The chauvinists were. And what the racists have done is successfully articulated a broad antiestablishment sentiment — originating in class injuries, regional decline, postindustrial devastation, generational anxieties, etc. — along bigoted, national chauvinist lines. The vote cannot be reduced to racism and nationalism — but that is the primary way in which it has been organised and recruited and directed, and that is the primary way in which the outcome will be experienced. That this was achieved so soon after the fascist murder of a centre-left, pro-immigrant MP, is stunning in a way. It says something about the truculence of some of the chauvinism on display. It says something about the profound sense of loss which a reasserted ‘Britishness’ is supposed to compensate for. This is what many of the left-Brexiters have simply failed to appreciate. In refusing to see that resentful, racist nationalism was indispensable to the Brexit victory, in imagining that the flag-waving and conspiracy theories about the EU are superfluous relative to the ‘class anger’ about neoliberalism and declining living standards, they have adopted an exceptionally crude model of ‘consciousness’. Implicitly, it is as if they see racism as merely a flimsy superstructure, or a temporary fug obscuring the ‘real’ antagonism. As if the questions of nationality and race have not been decisively formative of the way in which class issues are settled in the United Kingdom.

There is a lot of finger-wagging on Twitter and elsewhere about how the exit voters have just triggered economic self-destruction. House prices will fall, savings will be diminished, the pound will weaken, jobs will dry up. Well, that’s all true. Except. Not everyone benefits from the insane property market. Not everyone has savings. Not everyone benefits, as the City does, from a strong pound. Manufacturing has suffered from that priority. Large parts of the country have been haemorrhaging jobs for years. ‘The economy’ is not a neutral terrain experienced by everyone in exactly the same way. And some of the votes, coming in core Labour areas, not necessarily strongly racist areas at first glance, indicate that. So people have voted against an economy that wasn’t working to their benefit. They have voted for ‘fairness’ in a context in which immigration was the only index of ‘fairness’. Of course, the polling and vox pops suggest that large numbers of them have also voted against Muslims, ‘Africans’, equal rights for gays, and all the social change that has befallen the UK in recent years. In some way, connotatively, these things are all linked — the nation’s decline, the loss of the empire, the evisceration of whole regions of industrial strength, and the erosion of the white, heterosexual man’s monopoly on full citizenship.

The practical alternative to EU membership will be a great deal worse for those regions that have rebelled against it. This is not because one couldn’t, in principle, envision a left-social democratic solution for a British economy withdrawn from Europe. It is because no one has such a solution up their sleeve. The Labour leadership is desperately trying to hammer one out that is technically viable, electable and capable of being implemented in the run up to 2020, but that takes time — and there’s no way that the formula they would have come up with would have involved British withdrawal from the EU and the sudden precipitous loss of half the country’s trade, and the almost universally predicted fall in growth. And so, the only alternative economic model that anyone has been talking about is a hyper-Atlanticist model of capitalism with British fortunes tied more to the US economy, and former colonies cultivated as markets. What the advocates of this model always despised about Europe was not its neoliberal institutions, but its social commitments and its human rights laws. What they will now seek is a broad, aggressive offensive aimed at making the lives of the poor and the oppressed much harder, while making it easier for especially small employers to cheat, discriminate, bully and fire their workers, and savaging the few public protections for the regions that have been devastated by austerity in recent years.

Yet you only have to watch the reactions of many Brexit supporters to know that this isn’t going to change their minds. Their joy and relief, their sense of accomplishment, of having finally made themselves heard, of having ‘taken their country back,’ is overwhelming. They won something; they finally won something. And nor is it just pensioners in blighted cities. The people shouting ‘out, out, out’ at Muslim school students in Brockley, the woman in Enfield telling non-white people to ‘get out,’ the neo-Nazis parading in Newcastle: the racists feel a new confidence, a new entitlement. It is ‘their country’ at last. Even if it is only a ‘psychological wage,’ they will fight to defend their gains. And as long as the debate is organised on the basis of US-style culture wars, with an arrogant metropolitan oligarchy pitched against a racist-chauvinist backlash, the ranks of the latter will grow.

The culture wars now afoot were signalled by Nigel Farage, who greeted the victory with what looks like a calculated, gloating reference to the fascist murder of Jo Cox MP: “we’ve done it without a single bullet being fired.”