Thursday, 21 July 2016

Racism is crawling back out from under the rug

The world is changing. The last time the World News pages looked this unfamiliar was fifteen years ago, in September. Fortunately, this time the death toll has not been in the thousands. But Britain leaving the European Union is a much further-reaching geopolitical shift than the World Trade Centre attack – assuming it ends up happening. Since the referendum it’s become apparent that none of the people pushing the Leave campaign had a plan for what would happen if they won.

But there have already been very ugly consequences in Britain. Despite the denials coming from the Conservative section of the Leave campaign (less so from UKIP), it seems that at least a large minority of their supporters believed they were voting to expel immigrants and people of colour from the country. Content note: racism.

Immediately following the referendum, some people demanded a second one, including (we’re told) some of those who’d voted Leave. I’m guessing a large proportion of them had believed the Leave campaign’s promise that Britain’s EU membership fee would go to the National Health Service instead, and called for a second vote when Nigel Farage blithely admitted that that had been a lie. It also wouldn’t surprise me if a number of people thought Remain was a done deal – pretty much all of us outside the UK did, after all – and ticked Leave in the hope that a significant protest vote would stimulate the EU to shape up on some of its endemic problems with governance and economic policy. Americans who welcomed Donald Trump’s Republican nomination because “there’s no chance he’ll ever win the Presidency,” take grave warning. That kind of thinking belongs to the world that just ended.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron tendered his resignation, both rightly and smartly, in the wake of the vote. He earns a large share of the blame. He will be remembered – in history textbooks centuries from now – as The Prime Minister Who Broke the EU. And he will deserve it. As many people before me have pointed out, he promised the referendum as an election bribe, which is to say he gambled Britain’s place in Europe to further his own career and ended up losing both. Only... gambling important issues on the outcome of a vote to further one’s own career is kind of the job description of a politician. The fact that he needed to promise the referendum in order to get elected demonstrates that Britain’s attachment to the EU was already dangerously loose.

Ironically, I think the original idea for a European Union was British. The earliest prescription that I’ve found, seven years older than the Hague Convention and eleven years older than the European Coal & Steel Community, is C. E. M. Joad’s 1941 book What Is At Stake And Why Not Say So? which I happened to pick up at a second-hand book sale one time. 1941 was so early in the Second World War that Joad actually had to justify the claim that the Nazis were objectively evil (as opposed to merely happening to be at war with a bunch of other European states, which until 1945 was the default situation for Europe). And back then he proposed a pan-European federation as the solution. Right from the beginning, the foundational principle of what has become the EU was “Europe must not tear itself apart again. There can never be a Third World War.” That is what is now in jeopardy, if nationalist movements in the other member states follow Britain’s lead.

The Remain movement made two big mistakes, and I shall try to avoid both. One was to underestimate the racism simmering under the surface of British public life; the other was to assume that racists and their dupes accounted for the entirety of the Leave bloc. The EU has been fantastic for the rich, a mixed blessing at best for the poor and working class – well, except insofar as it’s responsible for the unprecedented 71-year peace in Western Europe, but “Imagine how much worse things would be without us” is not a valid excuse for doing less than your best.

The benefits and problems of the EU are alike encapsulated in a thing called the Treaty of Maastricht, signed in 1992. The Treaty includes a protocol known as the Social Chapter proposing various rights for workers across Europe, which Britain did not ratify because it was too socialistic for many of John Major’s Conservative government. One particular bunch of hard-line right-wingers, determined that British employers should never be hampered by European worker protections, formed the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in response. However, the Treaty also includes a set of fiscal rules for countries to abide by if they want to adopt the currency that we now know as the Euro, and those rules are as neoliberal as any Tory could wish. There are limits on how much inflation, debt, and government deficit you can have if you want to become part of the club. It doesn’t say you have to start with social spending if you find you need to make cuts to stay within those limits, but that’s generally the option neoliberals favour.

Neoliberal dogma has been disastrous for the British poor and workers since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. The theory goes like this. If the banks are short of money, they won’t want to risk lending it out and not getting it back. They’ll either lend only to people with fantastic credit ratings or else they’ll charge punitively high interest. You don’t want that, so you need people to give their money to the bank, i.e. to save it rather than spending it. So you’ve got to encourage people to save money. When do people save money? When things are expensive and it’s hard to get government assistance. So you withhold government assistance from people so that they’ll put their money in the banks. This is called “austerity”.

The trouble is, because these are economists we’re talking about, there is no empirically-based timeframe for how soon you need to either see results or admit your programme isn’t working. That means you can always say “Give it one more year.” It has to work! It’s maths! We have graphs and everything! After eight years of this kind of thing, the British people have developed a deep distrust of people in suits urging them to keep putting up with the status quo for the good of “the economy” – a term which, it is becoming apparent, can be operationally defined as “the interests of rich people”. That’s presumably what Michael Gove was tapping into when he scuppered a major Remain argument by telling an interviewer “I think the people of this country have had enough of ‘experts’ from organizations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.”

Not, of course, that Gove or any of his colleagues ever had the remotest intention of reversing austerity. That’s where the Leave vote becomes puzzling again. Member states have to compromise on some policies to comply with EU directives. Since the EU government is composed of representatives of all the member state governments, its directives will pull towards the centre simply by the law of averages. On that basis, we would expect the working class of any given member state to want to stay in the EU when they have a right-wing government like the Tories, and to want to leave when they have a left-leaning government like the Scottish National Party. In the UK, exactly the opposite happened.

The SNP have always sought to make Scotland an EU member state in its own right, free of England’s control. A couple of years ago this proposition was defeated at the polls by a majority who – one of them told me – were concerned above all to maintain stability in these uncertain times. That majority, however, was much smaller than the majority of Scots who last month, presumably for a similar reason, voted Remain. Stability with England is now looking like a joke, and the EU have told Scotland that they can’t belong to both Unions if the split goes ahead. I’m not betting either way on whether the EU will survive, but I’d give the United Kingdom a decade, tops.

What’s puzzling is why so many of the English working class blame immigrants instead of the real culprits. Look back up at the photos above. Sadly this is what we’ve come to expect in Anglo countries: poor white people are racist, what can you do? And because we’ve come to expect it, we – we progressives – have stopped asking why. We come up with slurs for them instead, like white trash or chav or (in my country) bogan, and laugh at them, just like any other privileged group does with its marginalized counterpart. Then we scratch our heads and wonder why the working class doesn’t step in behind our progressive banners.

There have been plenty of studies on the effects of racist attitudes, but none that I know of on their causes. I can only make a guess and hope it’s educated. My guess would have five main components:

  1. Prejudice is one of the human brain’s default settings. Our mental software is object-oriented, which means that we sort things into classes and expect things in the same class to behave in the same way. Unfortunately, we do this to people as well as things: “Women are good with children”, “Vegans are always telling you they’re vegan”, “Japanese people take photos of everything”. And tragically, we’re especially eager to do it when we see them as enemies, rivals, or infiltrators: “Gays are diseased”, “Muslims are fanatical”, “Poor whites are racist”. This is an innate fault, but as I’ve taken pains to point out before and will insist again, innate is not the same as inevitable. Prejudice can be quashed by knowledge – personal acquaintance is the most effective kind, but education works too. The trouble is,
  2. Neoliberal regimes have no incentive for correcting prejudice. When you cut back (and back, and back...) on essential state services, people find themselves excluded from those services through no fault of their own. When you pare away income supports, so that people can’t afford commodities, the resulting drop in demand leads to job losses and people getting made redundant, again through no fault of their own. If you’re committed to the cutbacks – and if you weren’t, I wouldn’t be calling you neoliberal – you’re not going to tell people “Yes, our policies will make your life worse, sucks to be you.” Not enough to go around? Must be too many people competing for it. That means that more people arriving, i.e. immigration, is the source of the problem. Now if you can convince people that the problem is immigration, at least some of them will take the next logical step and conclude that the problem is immigrants. This misconception will go uncorrected, because
  3. The unions have had the teeth kicked out of them. Knowledge is the antidote to prejudice. Knowledge can come from personal acquaintance or education – but personal acquaintance is haphazard across the population, and poor people tend to be less educated. The policies that really cause hardship are not visible on the street; what you see when you’re poor is the person rolling up at your drive-in window in a nicer car than you can afford. Unions are a third source of prejudice-busting knowledge, because unions gather information on society-wide labour conditions in the course of their daily business, and union members have been shown to be consistently less racist, less sexist, and less homophobic than non-members. But unions got in the way of the neoliberal programme, and were accordingly disabled and dismantled. The Left didn’t put up enough of a fight because
  4. The academic Left was fatally distracted by postmodernism. This bit is where most of the guesswork in my educated guess happens, because if you Google around for the history of political postmodernism you mostly get postmodern analyses of history as politics instead. Postmodernism began, as far as I can tell, with a bunch of mostly white guys “deconstructing” the concept of proving people wrong so that they couldn’t be proved wrong. The Left picked it up, as far as I can tell, because if there is no objective truth then conservative and neoliberal dogmas can’t be objectively true. But policy is theory made flesh, and you can’t make a coherent policy out of postmodernism. The neoliberals won by default. (There’s also a high degree of elitism in the incomprehensibility of postmodern texts, but the same is true of Hegelian philosophy and Karl Marx managed to found a popular movement on that.) In response,
  5. The Old Left gave up on minorities. The original workers’ rights movements posited the Marxist premise that the class divide is the deepest divide; oppression is by definition something a master does to a worker. Then other marginalized groups began speaking up. The civil rights movement of the 1960s didn’t challenge the Marxist assumption, because African Americans were all poor or working-class. But then came second-wave feminism in the 1970s, and gay liberation and indigenous rights in the 1980s, and no new theory to accommodate them but postmodern gibberish. The old Left guard objected to their class politics being displaced by other-social-divisions-exist-as-well politics, or “identity politics” as they labelled it, and hung the feminists and the gays and the brown people out to dry. It may be a coincidence that they were mostly straight white men and therefore happened to land on the privileged side of the “identity” divisions. I mean, that’s not technically impossible.

Now I should stress that this sorry state of affairs is not the end of the story. The social justice movement retains many of the terms and catchphrases of postmodernism, but over two to three decades has determinedly rearranged them into ornamentations on an ethical theory logically coherent enough to argue for or against. (Jacques Lacan is presumably turning in his grave.) But social justice has yet to discard a couple of postmodernism’s more self-defeating ideas. One, particularly acute in the current crisis, is that you can turn off bigoted attitudes by stopping people expressing them. You can’t. All that does is drive them underground. We tried that, and now they’re coming back up.

This is why I put the natural human proclivity to prejudice at #1 on my list. Yes, the lines that distinguish “us” from “them” are drawn in socially-constructed places. And yes, the elite will exploit that line-drawing habit when it suits them, and try to determine where the lines are to be drawn. But no, the line-drawing habit itself was not invented by the elite; it’s a design flaw in the human brain. It won’t go away if we just let be and let slide. It can only be overcome by education and social integration.

You know why it’s taken me a month to write this? Because when I write politics I prefer to end on an up note. I prefer to at least point in the general direction of a solution. But I don’t know where we go from here. Neoliberalism has become just the way things are, a part and parcel of being a modern society. Here in New Zealand I’ve seen the nominally Left neoliberal Labour Party win elections and then loiter around the centre occasionally tossing social democracy a bone, but I’ve never seen a genuinely progressive or social-democratic party get anywhere near government. And I’m less than two years from turning forty. No wonder people younger than me don’t vote.

“Old New Zealander” Chris Trotter has written a post celebrating the imminent passing of neoliberalism. I think he’s probably right. I’m not celebrating, though, because I can’t see a rejuvenated and reorganized Left suddenly blossoming out of nowhere to take the reins. I have a horrible feeling that Trumpist fascism is what’s in our future. It will not be averted by postmodern burbling about the relation of power to knowledge, and it will not be averted by nostalgia for the days when a real working man was a straight white union man. And I’m sorry, Marxist friends, but I think any attempt at armed revolution will only feed it.

But, you know, sorry to be a downer and all.

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