By Alex Cachinero-Gorman
This piece is a continuation of another, which you can read here. Part 1 dealt with the recent attempts to unseat Jeremy Corbyn from the Labour Party, and part 2 deals with apportioning blame in the wake of the crisis. It was originally written during the still-fresh fallout from Brexit, but I’ve decided to shape it up and publish it anyway, as I think some of the core issues still haven’t been dealt with.
Since writing, the second round of Labour Party elections has gone in Corbyn’s favor, Theresa May has announced that Article 50 will trigger in March 2017, and like a demonic consultant selling political life insurance, Nigel Farage has begun coaching Donald Trump on his presidential campaign. Recent revelations of the vastly under-estimated “middle class” vote have even begun to confirm the analysis I have been pushing for.
However, with all this to unpack, we could already jump into another unnecessarily postponed piece. For now, enjoy the (belated) show.
In the intervening months since part 1 of this piece was published, the suicidal forward-acceleration of British politics has powered on, undeterred by caution. The short-lived “coup” against Corbyn has faltered and fallen decidedly flat, and a last-ditch effort by its architects to legally bar the embattled Labour leader from running has too (the implications of which I will leave to more astute commentators). And as the press has staccato, cacophonous fits over Nigel Farage’s apparently planned resignation from UKIP, David Cameron ceding his role to Theresa May, the nearly-buried Chilcot Report, and Angela Eagle’s related leadership bid for the Labour Party and the upcoming leadership elections, one wonders if there is any real exit for Britain outside of an abattoir of its own making.
We could go on about any one of these topics, but though his name is in the title, I believe there has been enough ink (and unicode) spilled over Jeremy Corbyn in particular. This is not another piece about the despair of our perpetual electoral dilemma as modern subjects. There is a different article in the ether out there, about state-centric socialist platforms and self-proclaimed “progressive” movements, that I would like to write one day. But I think that the remainder of these issues is actually more enlightening in view of what part 2 is really all about, anyway.
Truth be told, I wrote the core of this section well before I wrote part 1. And it is the more important half, for me, because in a time where there is much bandying about of the F word, we need more than ever an honest account of the social forces we’re dealing with. I believe, in this sense, that there remains (badum-chhh) an unexplored vastness at the heart of the Brexit vote that is endlessly referenced but seldom discussed, so in the spirit of understanding the roots of the current crisis, I’d like to revisit the theme of “responsibility” once more.
Stats on Stats
On a parliamentary level, all eyes are locked & morbidly focused on Jeremy Corbyn, yes. But while completely off the mark, the official version—that the Labour Party lost its base, and therefore the Referendum, due to Corbyn’s mismanagement—finds even more vigor in a related, and more malignant, strain of the blame-game.
For what a lot of the resentful urban “salariat” who voted Remain have been thinking (and some, saying openly) is that the fault of this referendum lies squarely on the shoulders of the reactionary, racist poor. If only 52% of the country wasn’t so ignorant, the argument goes, we wouldn’t be in this position. The provincialism of our backwards countrymen never stood starker in contrast to the cosmopolitanism of the metropolitan center—supposedly. The irony is apparently lost on these types that their internationalist, humanistic outlook stops short of actual humans in their midst; like Dostoevsky’s doctor, it seems that “the more they love humanity in general, the less they love man in particular”.
If we were indeed dealing with a raging orcish horde, perhaps I would agree that our sympathies best not be wasted on the “feelings” of racists. But the question is not one of accommodating racism, but identifying from where it finds its true strength. The answer, I think, is much more profound than your neighborhood hooligans.
A statistical analysis doing the social media rounds, based on the Lord Ashcroft polling data, does seem to throw a wrench in that hypothesis. Absolute numbers, of course, can be misleading. So-called “middle and upper class” (or “ABC1”) voters provided 10,349,804 (59.4%) of the final 17,427,384 votes for Leave, but relative to their cohort, “C2DE” voters (or the poorest classification of respondents) voted in greater numbers in favor of Leave than their ABC1 counterparts, 64% to 47%.
But even by very reserved estimates, a huge amount of C2DE voters very likely did not even show up at the poll, whether from disbelief or indifference—upwards of 48%, according to the projections. And when weighted for equalised proportional turnout (72%) for all social “grades”, the numbers seem to confirm these two realities at once—with 46.35% of ABC1 and 53.7% C2DE voting for Leave, we see both the greater number of “working class” votes for Leave and their incredible proximity to votes from higher echelons (see page entitled “Flat turnouts” on spreadsheet linked above).
That is to say, while there has been much hemming and hawing about the retrogression of “working class values”, all things considered, the result actually owed itself to a cross-class alliance for the ages. Which is to say there is a substantial bloc of better-off Leavers who are unceremoniously exiting center stage to let their worse-off compatriots suffer the consequences of public scorn.
So the statistics, as usual, are less enlightening than they at first appear. Or at least, they support an entirely different hypothesis depending on how they are read. One might foolishly hope that this would lay to rest once and for all the would-be “scientists” of sociology, but the intoxicating allure of seemingly-hard data—in stark defiance of historical, aesthetic, or philosophical readings of politics, which I think are desperately needed—means that these marginally-insightful polling practices will stubbornly persist far beyond our lifetimes. In the meantime, there remain (ha) even more categorical problems—for example, how does one determine the outer limits of each social/economic group? Reds seem to be, predictably, the only ones pointing out the somewhat fuzzy definition of “middle class” employed by surveys of referendum voters:
In other words, if you took the working class / middle class labels of the CRS system at face value then, for this poll, voters in the UK referendum were 33% working class, 67% middle class with no ruling/capitalist class, not even as the often over stated 1%.
Instead we would work off looking at whether people have to make a living through working for others (the working class), have enough skills, tools and space to independently work for themselves (the middle class) or have so much wealth that most of their income comes from having the rest of us work for them. For the UK that would give you more of a 80%+ working class, 20%- middle class and 1%- ruling class, with the actual section of that class that rules being more like the top 0.01%.
Andrew Flood, Workers Solidarity Movement, Ireland
The picture, perhaps unsurprisingly, is not quite so simple. Even if the above is a polemical reach—for it would include people tens of thousands of pounds away from each other in salaries, assets, and other indicators of wealth in the same bracket—it is clear that there is more to the story. But more importantly for our purposes is a problem of representation—of visualising the blame.
Images of a racist badlands surrounding an anti-racist metropole(s) are better reserved for the likes of World War Z—but this hasn’t stop shocked Remainers from raising their pitchforks in sudden revulsion at the rot at the core of “their” country. And that is precisely the dilemma—that it is so surprising to these self-styled cosmopolitan liberals, for whom history is always a recently-renewing and sanguine affair. That the result was long in the making, as I pointed out in part 1, and that it is rooted in the policies the British government has pursued for decades, should be clear by now. But with this fact alone we risk falling into the exaggerated romance of a working class revolution behind the referendum, a kind of righteous rebuttal to a meddling state apparatus—which is, in simple terms, a woeful mistake.
No, this campaign, and the ultimate result, were made from top to bottom on a racist platform. But far from a bewildering & persistent tide of ignorance from below, racial politics rely on institutional networks to be enforced, and so can never be a truly grassroots phenomenon.
The stage was shared by an unholy alliance of forces (none of them, we might note, organic ‘community leaders’ of any sort): nativists, libertarians, neoliberal conservatives, and a range of opportunists that deliberately sought out a bloc of the white English class that “buys into English colonial nationalism and has backed…terrible right wing figures from Enoch Powell to Margaret Thatcher”, as Flood has signaled. In the background, behind the curtain, were the centrists and ‘mainstream’ liberals whose concessions on immigration, support of Prevent, austerity, Trident, and a laundry list of other policies implicitly coveted the same group. Together, they manicured a narrative which became entrenched in popular discourse, and provided the appearance of respectability and legitimacy to thoroughly violent policies in a way no down-and-out reactionary ever could.
One supposes they are racist with great reluctance, or even proud, perhaps, but only after rigorous logical proofs brought them to their unassailable position. And yet it is the never-present, but oft-evoked “masses” who are the subjects of much of the liberal scorn since the Brexit vote. Surely, this much abused word, in its patronising meaninglessness, should put an end to any doubt that this line of thinking is anything more than a cowardly deflection.
What these dismissive arguments really demonstrate is that scrutiny is conditional. Just as a serial killer is seen as deranged, while a drone operator is seen as rational (though both execute large numbers of innocent people); and just as drug use by white people is invisibilised by media obsession with the “inner-city neighborhoods” of color (even though white people consume the same or potentially more drugs than everyone else), there is a certain kind of confrontational and ‘unsophisticated’ expression of racism in the nationalist hinterlands that is made hyper visible by cultural and literal surveillance, while the right-wing of the bourgeoisie recedes comfortably into the background. This is the racism of Leavers who came out in scores of street-ambush interviews after the referendum which purported to show the “true face of Brexit”, including so-called “Bregretters” who in their shuffling, public stupidity are made to take cover for their establishment benefactors. These are folks who’ve captured the popular imaginary in endless reality shows, paraded around like carnies and given a lucrative, selectively-edited forum to free associate until they get a laugh out of audiences. Meanwhile, sophisticated necrophilic campaigns carried out in “kitten heels” cause no similar outrage, perhaps because of the “calmness” and “seriousness” of the Sith-lord who espouses them.
In reality, there is no such thing as organized racism without the hand-in-glove cooperation of the fortunate classes. I am reminded of the work I’ve done translating documents on white supremacist organisations in the U.S. which reflects this (im)balance. Rather than an agile, grassroots network of self-motivated communities pushing a racist agenda, what we find time and time again is an incestuous cadre of elite bourgeois and wealthy patrons that sustain the work. This is to say nothing of the likes of the “parties” of the extreme right. Without them, racism is inflammatory, violent, and even deadly—but not, in my estimation, capable of organic self-renewal, much to the chagrin of so-called ‘national anarchists‘. It must be goaded on and provoked to function. Of course, similar claims, one imagines, are leveled against radicals by white supremacists themselves—but I feel no need to dissect this argument other than to say, with Arendt, that it is a question of qualitative difference.
The point is that in order to become a racist movement, these forces must operate in a power vacuum in an existing situation of inequality enforced by a state apparatus. In this sense, racist movements are not exogenous to their host countries, but intimately linked with the very state institution itself. To reconfigure the social body to a new position, it must like DNA, grow out of an existing strand. You can only read against the grain, as Gayatri Spivak taught, “if misfits in the text signal the way”.
The state’s genesis—its ‘identity’, and the specter of ‘enforcement’—are the very conditions of possibility for all authoritarian-racist fantasies. And it is the state’s “former glory” which almost always serves as the clarion call for their morbid campaigns. In this sense, high-minded liberals and conservatives alike who would separate government from organized racists shouldn’t be taken seriously, because they quite literally need each other in order to exist. With only one half of the equation—without one aspiring to be the other, in some sense—what we have is merely a semi-organised band which can be openly fought and contested. And the stakes, as I think we all know, are much more dire.
Mind the VATs
For every article that has purported to expose how the referendum was “actually” about racism and not “economics” doesn’t seem to grasp the foundational—I’d say even colonial—nature of both in each other. There is no modern world-system without the sophisticated human trafficking and resource extraction that we call colonialism. And there is no such thing as a non-racialised labor pool in a country where Black people, Arabs, and South Asians are at the bottom of the social ladder. To speak race—to invoke it—is to already be speaking the arrangement of things in the social order, which by necessity means how wealth and resources are distributed. That also means studying more carefully what seem to be prima facie statements about “either” race or economics, since they are constituent factors of each other.
When, in interviews, white folks from these racist outskirts say that they are sad to see Polish people, foreigners, etc. coming in and “changing” their neighborhoods, there is no question that they are being racist. Their place in the pecking order is tied to who they think they are racially—to the benefits they believe they are due in the great Odinic order of their little universe. But I am also convinced that this is a kind of racial coding for understanding their predicament: that their invocation of race as an explanatory factor is a sort of window into another world of sense, a hyperlink and a symbolic mirror into a world which has no expression for them. For what follows, almost without fail? The same, perennial concerns that are preyed upon by neo-conservatives the world over: jobs are scarce, prices are rising, morale is low. In other words, they cite the conditions of late capitalist immiseration, presided over by the elite classes. And they are only partially deluded—though black people and people of color are not out to get them, the ruling classes are.
As I’ve said, I don’t think this means we need to have any unwarranted sympathy for white fragility; I reject the “hapless victims” narrative foisted upon poor whites when many collude openly with white supremacist states as much-needed vigilantes. But it’s actually a question of aesthetics: that is, what we see, and how. I want to ask: how representative is this vitriolic band of homegrown racists of the state we’re in? How could these types ever be “more” responsible for Brexit than the upright career-politicians and their fawning minions that have stoked the flames for generations? And aren’t their statements revealing, both for their content and for what they unintentionally say about the racial order in the UK—of exactly the state of organised, top-down inequality that is the true cause of social stratification? In other words: who made the pecking order?
It is curious indeed that in the same breath that we condemn the corrupt oligarchy which conspires against human freedom, we should proceed to lay responsibility for our mistakes squarely on the shoulders of the working poor. And as usual, working class migrants and Britons of Black/South Asian/Arab descent reside in some strange, purgatorial category of their own outside the social body, conspicuously absent in these discussions. One wonders why they are not included in this monolithic wash about “values”; the subtext, of course, is the perennial assertion that the “true” working class is white. That many “C2DE” voters were undoubtedly people of color, who proportionally voted Remain in higher numbers, disrupts the simplistic binary between good-natured (white) liberals and mean-spirited (white) proles. What’s more, that some must have voted Leave, by dint of the numbers, remains almost universally untouched.
So what is the instinct that animates people to find explanations in other peoples’ motives, as opposed to their material conditions? Is such a thing even possible? Like a losing shell game, will it not, again and again, produce the same, pre-arranged result, by which we can talk about a “type” of person rather than a set of social forces that caused this or that event? Such is the tired Calvinism of our contemporary political imagination, where every part is already written and no soul wavers from their predestined role in the divine drama.
I am reminded of Talal Asad’s magisterial On Suicide Bombing, where he argues that motives are “rarely lucid, always invested with emotions, and their description can be contested”. They rest on a “fantasy of accessibility” & on assumptions about unmitigated access to some ‘internal state’ of mind or of being—which may not even be clear to the actor—leading us, in this case, to the impossible metaphysical debate of who is and is not a racist. Most importantly, we only really ask about motives “when we are suspicious of what the action means”: and Brexit, no doubt, made us more than suspicious. [All quotes from On Suicide Bombing, p. 41, 56]
But our suspicion should be directed at the premise of this debate in the first place. Neither Corbyn nor the racist, reactionary provincials ’caused’ Brexit. It was the political consensus of a country which burned the candle at both ends: abusing its people and demanding their loyalty all the same; running a pyramid scheme on them and then shaming them for wanting out. Successive governments have pushed Right to Buy legislation, privatisation, regressive VATs, and opposed steel tariffs on cheap Chinese steel while simultaneously ensuring working stiffs that they were “on their side”. In the end, the racism that fueled this noxious cocktail in the first place emerged as an effective tool for the very same proponents of either camp (“in” or “out”) to covet, like arms dealers, both sides over generations.
Think of it: at the inception of the European Community, the poles were reversed. Anti-racist, anti-capitalist movements pushed against the consolidation of big business’ interests, while big business rejoiced with each successive victory in their favor, knowing full well the ‘flexible’, austere market on the horizon. Now the very same people want to pose as cosmopolitans: they defend the scant concessions made under great duress to workers as the heart of the “humanitarian” EU project, while Leavers have become an out-of-touch ancien regime nursing libertarian dreams of Anglo-Saxon “capitalism in one country”. One recalls Groucho Marx’s dictum: whatever it is, I’m against it. Hail, Freedonia indeed.
As the pound continues to fall and the right-wing of the ruling class dominates the Brexit narrative, we should be cautious about playing directly into their hands. Ultimately, the cadres of business professionals and middle class Aryans who helped carry the Leave vote will simply never be scrutinised with the same mediatic lens as everyone else: there will be no shocking reports and no exposés on their innermost whims and fancies, only Geraldo-like reporting on the same areas that would have otherwise been ignored in a normal news cycle.
I argued in my last post that the referendum result drew from decades of social/economic shifts and political maneuvering. The composition of British society has shifted considerably since the arrival of the Windrush, and yet, the desire for clear-cut, ahistorical solutions is at a fever-pitch. In the face of these long-term, complex changes in class dynamics, economic relationships, and social infrastructure, some are now preposterously throwing their weight behind a second referendum, as if the social landscape wouldn’t simply collapse under the weight of more bombast and inflamed sentiments. But only sophisticated grassroots efforts can meet the challenges ahead. There is no round two of this circus—there is a way forward, and there is social collapse…and not even the good kind.
In the days following the referendum, I remember seeing one of the ambush-style interviews I mentioned on the BBC, where a flummoxed interviewee was barraged with questions. The older white man, when asked if he thought things would be worse economically with Britain out of the EU, simply replied, “It can’t be any worse than it already is.” Real or imagined, I think this sentiment is far more widespread than any of the media conglomerates or expert pundits have admitted; and I think that there is no arguing that this is the reality for many, many people.
If we are going to learn anything from this debacle, it shouldn’t be that things were great before the vote except for some pesky, recalcitrant primitives. It’s that the vote was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back, shattering the relentlessly, obstinately self-affirming illusion of normalcy in which Britain had wrapped itself for far too long.