By Kumar David –
Political sclerosis, ethnic-nativism and new-populism: Brexit exposes faults lines in UK and Europe
A de facto ménage trois of the Labour Party, most Tory MPs cum Prime Minister and Scotland’s SNP, or to put it in class terms, an alliance of the educated elite and new working class around London, the uppity middle class, and high capital, was bested at the Brexit referendum by an grouping of English provincials, working classes in Labour heartlands who have suffered deprivation, and aged seekers of British sovereignty. I will discuss this huge event in the context of a swing to the right in Europe and America.
Donald Trump and the rage he has inspired isn’t neo-fascist in a proper sense; it is coarse and vulgar populism, refutation of moderation and a pantomime of Islamo- and Latino- phobia. The new or far right in Europe (UK Independence Party, Democratic Front in Denmark, France’s Front National, Austria’s Freedom Party and the Danish Peoples Party) which sometimes win over 20% of the vote is more interesting and is not the same as the fascism of interwar years. The difference is on three counts. On the ideological side it is anti-immigrant ‘keep the nation white’ cultural nativism, Islamophobia and physical insecurity. Second is economic anxiety heightened by staggering wealth and income inequality, high youth unemployment and frozen wages. Third is absence of an alternative social and economic model despite the manifest failure of global capitalism. Soviet Communism has disintegrated and capitalism is in the throes of a fifteen year crisis (whose origin lies in 2001), a cul-de-sac from which there seems to be no exit. On the left are as many sectarian fragments as denominations among Protestants. The ‘masses’ in disarray seek salvation in the clumsy vulgarity of a Trump or in a suave, shrewd and silver-tongued Nigel Farage.
Islamophobia is a unifier whose main strength is not demonization of Islam by its defilers but the failure of Islam’s leaders to grasp the nettle of stewardship. They have failed to project ‘their’ Islam and have allowed political Islam to be defined by others; both its denigrators and its apologist in the West. Islam as a political entity is not defined by its captains; rather it allows itself to be defined by others. This is what Edward Said, an interesting intellectual but too verbose a writer, termed Orientalism or the West defining the orient in tune with its own perceptions. “In the eighteenth century there emerged an orient suitable for study in academy, for display in museums, for the colonial office, for illustration in anthropological, biological and historical thesis” (Orientalism). The same was true of China before the revolution but no longer; China now robustly defines itself for itself and for the world. [Islam as religion, as distinct from political Islam, has retained its identity and weathered Western redefinition of its tenets].
Not so with political Islam; both radical and “moderate” versions are established by default in Western discourse because Islamic society has proved impotent to throw up leaders equal to this task. In the aftermath of every jihadist attack who says “This is not Islam! Real, ‘moderate’ Islam is like this, or it is like that”? Barrack Obama, Noam Chomsky or other vicarious spokesmen. Modern political Islam has not found its voice, its Mao, its Pope Francis, or its version of the European cultural identity underpinning the EU. The Arab Spring has turned into bitter winter; the tyrant Sissi brutalises Egypt and condemns to death all who expose his despotism. The need for political revolution has never been greater, or remoter, from Atlantic to the Java Sea, from Zanzibar to Kazakhstan. Tragically, the failure of political Islam to define itself has also emasculated the ability of Palestinians to regain their lands from a Zionism which is blind to their very existence. Like the colonisers of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, who saw in Africa a space void of humans to occupy, colonise and exploit, so too Zionism is blind to the existence of humans who have lived, toiled and reproduced in these promised lands from Roman times.
Rise of the European right
The European new-right is not the old stuff of Mussolini and Hitler. The feature common to all the European new-right is not an economic agenda, anti-working class politics or addiction to authoritarianism. The common thread is aversion to immigration which finds resonance in provincial middle-classes, and when blended with rejection of economic privation, finds resonance in the working class as well. The traditional working class in North Eastern England and the Midlands broke with the Labour Party and supported Brexit, so much so that UKIP seems poised to do to Labour in its working class heartland what the SNP has done to it in Scotland.
Immigrants are a no longer negligible in number and the swing to the right is a defensive reaction. More than fear of immigrants straining the welfare system is a perceived threat to culture and way of life. Natives incorrectly blame immigrants for the wage freeze, economic austerity and deterioration of public services including healthcare and transport but Labour’s unifying message does not get across because it is not perceived as much different from the message of the Cameron Tories.
Here is a typical extract from the web. “Have sympathy for preservation of Scandinavian people and culture. No-one asked the native population if they minded thousands of “others” dumped in their towns, villages, and in some cases homes. Those who watch arrivals are criticized if they object and ignored when they are victims of rape or violence. Native populations are fearful of being swamped by people with cultures different and incompatible with their own”. This is a more complex phenomenon than racism or religious intolerance; the Brexit backlash in England was a reaction against white, Christian, EU immigrants and this drives home the point. (Scotland and Northern Ireland were atypical for other reasons).
There is good reason why Plato despised democracy; he would have derided the Brexit outcome. Nonetheless in the twenty-first century one must bow to it; this decision cannot be reversed except by an implausible second referendum. Even then the terms of re-entry would be less acceptable than the prevailing terms. Therefore other matters assume urgency – what the English do about their predicament is not a priority. First is Scotland’s independence, its right to self-determination and ensuring its EU status. Scotland is already part of the EU so it is best to fast-track its membership to take effect simultaneously with the UK’s exit. A second Scottish independence referendum must be scheduled within the UK’s two year quit-EU window.
The EU has to be transformed from a club run by political elites who lord it over millions but ignore them and ice the cake for finance capital. The hubris of the Brussels bureaucracy – snooty civil servants and fat-cat former bankers – is detested by the citizenry. Now there are demands for referenda to quit the EU or exit the Euro elsewhere, and if they succeed, loathing of Brussels’ bureaucrats will be no small reason. The EU has to change from a top-down project run by finance capital and bureaucrats into an expression of the public will. But this won’t happen since bureaucrats, more than survival minded politicians undermine systemic change, adding grist to the charge that the EU is fundamentally undemocratic. The crunch is deeper; people have lost faith in political and business establishments, governing elites and political parties of all hues right across Europe, America and much of the rest of the world.
Nigel Farage in the flush of victory told the TV cameras “The Labour vote has come to us; we will replace the Labour Party” – I have mentioned the ghost of the SNP returning in a UKIP avatar to haunt Jeremy Corbyn and lost-in-the-woods Labour. Corbyn has been a lukewarm persona and projects little energy or leadership charisma, still, the failure of Labour to deliver its anti-Brexit vote is not anyone’s fault but due to the basics I outlined. He must now stand firm, confront the saboteurs and move Labour to a post-EU era. Brexit is an earthquake that terminates free entry of EU citizens and ‘Scotxhit’ will be an aftershock which if followed by changes in Northern Ireland’s status will re-christen the United Kingdom (UK) as United Twindom (UT) of England & Wales. The Labour Party has to modernise its programme and its immigration policies if it is to remain credible in the UT. This is the moment for Jeremy Corbyn to make a bid for greater power in the Party and take control of the nomination slate for the next election.
There is another challenge that will drag on for generations; I am returning to my first discussion. The failed states of the Middle East will not be repaired for a long time even after the wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan end. It takes time for men with fractured femurs to stand again. The UN High Commission for Refugees says there are 60 million refugees worldwide. Most are internal refugees (IDPs) and only a fifth international but millions of IDPs are potential international refugees. Some respite may be found if the rich world, in its terror of an immigrant deluge, were compelled to transfer sufficient investments to broken nations to kick-start large scale development. A district in Switzerland paid a hefty fine rather than take its allocated share of refugees. Ah the Swiss are fine fellows! They have pioneered a fine way for the survival of prosperous societies in isolation!