Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Toothache in the rain

The Sore Tooth and the Broken Umbrella: Brexit and the Crisis of Nationalism - Fintan O'Toole from TASC on Vimeo.

This is good. It's fifty-two minutes long, but worth your time. It's a perceptive critique of Brexit from Fintan O'Toole.

His theme is the rise of English nationalism and he talks about about its purpose, consequences, and dangers, dangers about which English nationalists seem oblivious. Brexit is the consequence rather than the cause. Ironically, its language and politics is alien to English political traditions - 'the will of the people,' opposition as betrayal, plebiscitary politics, the sacred moment of the referendum - all are closer to continental revolutionary practice than British representative democracy. Nationalism is not necessarily related to real, lived experience. It is irrational and impervious to argument. And, ultimately, it can never deliver the utopia it promises.

O'Toole points to two types of nationalism, one that is positive about the nation and what it can contribute, and the antagonistic version that defines the nation against others. English nationalism is the latter. Again there are two variations of antagonistic nationalism, the imperialist one, where a nation asserts itself over others on a world stage, and an anti-imperialist one, where a nation resists imperial domination. Brexiters make a claim to both. They are utterly contradictory.

One the one hand we have the notion of a liberated Britain once more ruling the waves - "Empire 2.0." As if that wasn't enough, we have an anti-imperialist version too. The problem with that is that in the absence of an imperial aggressor, we have to invent one. And so the EU, a body that we joined voluntarily as an act of idealism as well as self-interest (and, yes, positive nationalism), a body in which we were one of the most powerful decision makers, an organisation that gave real economic benefits and protected citizens' rights, is now called 'rule by Brussels' and we have become 'a vassal state.' It's completely mad.

There are things O'Toole missed. Wales is the obvious one, equally as committed to Brexit. And the other is that there is a left nationalism as well. Yet that too is unimaginative and nostalgic. It clings to Bennite recitations of past struggles - the Levellers, the Chartists, the Suffragettes, etc. Each are as historically important as they are distinct. But they do not constitute a coherent tradition of national independence formed through working class struggle. And those 'Lexiters' also embrace the madness. For them, the EU is an alien imposition deliberately created to crush any hint of democratic socialism and impose a neoliberal order on subject states. They say this at the same time as the right argue that the EU is a socialist regulatory nightmare, strangling business and economic liberty. This astonishing incoherence has seen Dennis Skinner and Kate Hoey rebel against a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn to vote with the Tories. Work that one out.

O'Toole reckons that there is little we can do about nationalism other than see it out. As its discontents are irrational, appeasing its demands will do nothing. Instead he argues, rightly in my view, that our focus should be on a social Europe "animated by an urgent imperative of social justice and equality." The European Union is an ally, despite the regressive economic orthodoxy of the handling of the Euro crisis, but the prime responsibility lies with the individual nation to build welfare states and abandon counter-productive austerity policies. To which I would add the importance of strong labour unions. This ties in with another aspect of English nationalism, its link to economic deprivation.

If there is one phrase I would love to remove from modern political discourse, it's "the white working class." It needs to be replaced by another one - "the working class." The qualification "white" is redolent of antagonistic nationalism. The belief that the white working class has been forgotten and disadvantaged, while the non-white working class has been privileged at their expense, is implicit in the term. It's the politics of resentment. Not only is the narrative an example of how scapegoating foreigners works, it is also untrue. All research shows that black and ethnic minority groups do worse than white ones. But once again, perception trumps reality. I have even seen a comment on Twitter from a leftist talking about how an indigenous working class has been exploited by a "cosmopolitan elite." This should send a shiver running through anyone with even the slightest acquaintance with fascism and anti-Semitism.

The other phrase that is often used, "the left behind," is much more useful. It describes deprivation as a function of geography rather than ethnicity. It is also true. It always has been. It was as true in the 1930s as it is today. The "left behind" is an apt description of areas in transition. When a place loses a staple industry, communities collapse. New replacements may spring up, but rarely in the same location. This is where investment, regional policies, social intervention, local government, and strong welfare states play a crucial role. They can manage transition and help areas resurrect themselves. EU regional aid was a huge benefit, but they took the blame for the UK government's inaction and neglect. Instead of support and investment, we see universal credit, cuts to services, exploitative casual employment, low wages, and of austerity for the poor alone. The anti-EU vote in these areas was a cry of desperation rather than of nationalism.

O'Toole speculates about why we never saw English nationalism coming. But if we didn't spot its rise, he hasn't seen its fall. It's declining. Antagonistic nationalism is weak amongst the young - in all classes and all areas. They see Europe as a source of opportunity and a guarantee of rights, not as an alien oppressor. I don't think that they yearn for imperial glory - not even at football. (We've all written that off and now the international break is mainly seen as an irritating interruption to what really matters, club football with its cosmopolitan profusion of international stars.) Only the most fervent believers cling to the expensive quack remedies sold to them by charlatans once they realise that they are killing rather than curing them. The majority for Brexit was small, weak, and ill informed. The political response has been inept and craven. Support couldn't last. This week, there was a pretty dramatic opinion poll. It may be an outlier or the product of sampling error, though all the polls have slowly slipping in that direction. Remain has a ten point lead over Leave.

I have always said that we are a nicer country than many give us credit for. People like Blue Labour may believe that we have to throw illiberal red meat at the workers, but I think they are patronising ordinary people, pandering to the worst to no effect. Brexit isn't inevitable. The fantasies of a deranged political class do not have to be implemented. But what is absolutely imperative is that we see our enemy as poverty, deprivation, and hunger - yes hunger, in Britain - and we bring determination to defeat that enemy into all our dealings with our European partners. Now that's a nationalism that would make me proud to be English once again.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

Greece and a tragedy

I'm here.

It's a lovely mild winter in Greece. The leaves are falling and the citrus is ripening. I have a one way ticket. I will probably return to the UK sometime in late January. Both circumstance and choice means that my life is lived in two places, rather than here alone.

I can come and go as I please because I am an EU citizen. My rights are guaranteed by freedom of movement, as laid out in article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. Until now. A small majority of my fellow Brits have voted to take this right away from me and to strip me of my citizenship. A legal right will become something that can only exist at the discretion of the Greek government and the European Union's rules on the citizens of third countries. I have no idea what this will mean for me. Nor do millions of other people in the same position. Lives are being ruined to no good purpose.

It was a disastrous decision, but rather than handle it constructively and minimise the damage, the government has been driven by the fanatics and fantasists in the Conservative Party (with a little help from the weird Lexit brigade), aided and abetted by staggering incompetence and over-confidence. I could go on and on, but this gives a good summary. Consumed by fury, Brexiters spit bile at the EU for the perfidy of doing exactly what they said they would do. Remainers are called remoaners for pointing out the obvious. The British government blusters, promises the earth, and then submits to what is required by law and treaty, the only options available to an organisation of, for now, 28 nation states. The choices we face are over how much poorer and how less influential we will be. Even if we abandon Brexit now, much damage has already been done.

And as it becomes evident that Britain is giving away its power to shape decisions in its vital national interest, Theresa May is making her last stand to make the world safe for tax havens. I think my country has gone mad.

We will see what transpires as reality begins to overwhelm wishful thinking and people realise what it was they were actually voting for. The latest poll has a 50% majority in favour of a second referendum. This is a bit of a misnomer, it would actually be a third referendum. The first was in 1975 and the score is currently one-all, extra time and penalties beckon.

This is the curious thing. Governments make mistakes. Sometimes they are serious. Brexit is in the first rank of notable errors. It ranks alongside the return to the gold standard in 1925 in adverse economic impact, though that was far less complex and easily reversed. It comes a long way second behind the Munich agreement of 1938, whose consequences killed 50 million people. But what is different about both of those is that the people taking the decisions thought they were right to do so. Munich is still the subject of historiographical debate. Brexit is being delivered by a Prime Minister who campaigned against it. Politicians who voted for it in Parliament are on record as saying it will be catastrophic. Business is against it. Science and industry is against it. The TUC is against it. The universities are against it. Most economists are against it. All our closest allies (with the exception of an American president drawn from the same stable) are against it. All those with whom we wish to agree post-Brexit trade deals are against it.

Ah, but we are told these are the elite. The people have spoken. Their will is reflected in their tribunes, those horny handed sons of toil; Viscount Rothermere, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Vladimir Putin ('no, we deny it all'). That's before we get into the dodgy finance and groups like Veterans for Britain, investigated here by Adam Ramsay. He points out that this was no a blow against the establishment, but a victory for it. As he says, "The Brexit movement was led by Establishment England." It was a win for an unpleasant, reactionary right.

17.5 million voters out of a UK population of 65.6 million have defined "the will of the people." If a mere 600,000 people had voted differently, the result would have been reversed. I can't remember such bombastic certainty, to be based on such fragile support.

But then again, Brexiters' nationalism is so un-English. If our national characteristics are reticence and self-deprecation, they are born from a very deep self-confidence. The sheer belligerence of Brexiters, their lexicon of treason and betrayal levelled at all opponents, are signs of something else. They know that they have attached themselves to nonsense. They know that they are about to impoverish the nation. They know, deep down, that they are failures and that Brexit will be as reviled by future generations as the Gold Standard and Munich. They just can't admit it.

Brexit is a contradictory shambles, promoted by obsessives, sold through illusion, and implemented by incompetents. It is so shoddily built that the slightest wind could bring it down. It's only support is another English trait, embarrassment, being seen to do the right thing, "respecting the referendum result." Could we cope with admitting a mistake and finding a way out?

There is a passage in Max Stirner's The Ego and its Own on the death of Socrates that reminds me of our predicament.
How they do praise Socrates for his conscientiousness, which makes him resist the advice to get away from the dungeon! He is a fool that he concedes to the Athenians a right to condemn him. Therefore it certainly serves him right ... That he did not escape was just his weakness, his delusion of still having something in common with the Athenians, or the opinion that he was a member, a mere member of this people. ... as he had uttered no sentence of death against himself, [he] should have despised that of the Athenians too and escaped. 
Let's not drink the hemlock. Let's escape. Let's survive. There's no shame in sanity. Besides, I have a Greek dream of my own to live.