This post is part of a feature on the 2017 UK elections, moderated and edited by Patrick Neveling (SOAS, University of London).
As an Irishman living in England, I am struck by the total difference between how Brexit is discussed in both countries. In Ireland, it is clear that Brexit will bring economic disaster, but this can be mitigated against by significant planning and coordinated response by government and business. That even at this late stage, the form of Brexit is unknown is a source of great anxiety in Ireland. By contrast, in Britain to have any discourse of Brexit as impending economic ruination is simply unacceptable. Those who dare to utter prophecies of economic trouble are bullied into silence by a raging right-wing media. Brexit can only be allowed to be framed in the positive.
“All forms of the state have democracy for their truth, and for that reason are false to the extent that they are not democracy.”
— Karl Marx, Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right
“The power of the people is always greater than that of the people in power.”
— Wael Ghonim, a Google executive at the time of Egypt’s popular uprising against President Hosni Mubarak
When Hillary Clinton attempted to counter Donald Trump and his supporters’ populist attacks by explicitly branding them a “basket of deplorables, racist, sexist, xenophobic, Islamaphobic—you name it,” she was hoist on her own petard. The chant “Lock Her Up” drew its enormous potency from her alleged corruption and from her being a figurehead of the ruling Washington elites who have leached the American state’s democratic egalitarian idealism. Calling Trump and his followers racist and sexist was waving a red rag to a bull. She played on a negative view of populism, an immanent antidemocratic elitism, which elicited outrage, making a mockery of her own populist appeal. The occasionally rank dominant-class prejudice that accompanies antipopulist sentiments (including those that assume it is a working-class phenomenon, when it is frequently cross-class) was egregiously apparent in a CNN pundit’s observation that Trump “was throwing red meat to the base” in his highly controversial travel bans.
A crisis is always good for humor. The English satirical magazine Private Eye caught the spirit of uncertainty and the possible tragedy of Brexit—that many of those who voted for it may have intensified their abjection as a result. One spoof comment for The Daily Turkeygraph (a composite of the conservative Daily Mail and Telegraph papers) written by Jeremy Paxo (a reference to the news commentator Jeremy Paxman, also a brand of stuffing mix) was headlined “TURKEYS VOTE FOR CHRISTMAS IN REFERENDUM CLIFFHANGE.R. Another for The Indepandent (sic, The Independent, a liberal/conservative paper) headlined “BRITAIN VOTES TO LEAVE FRYING PAN AND JUMP INTO FIRE.”
The European Union is a free trade area that enables multinational corporations to take advantage of low tax regimes for their head offices and of low labor costs for their manufacturing, caller center, and human resources operations. It forces countries to pay off the debt owed to private banks at the cost of democracy, jobs, pensions, welfare benefits, and economic stability (let alone growth), enabling public subsidy of private risk. It blocks entry to migrants risking their lives to come and work in Europe, or to escape war and poverty in their countries of origin. Why would anyone support a vote for Britain to Remain?
It was political
16 June 2016
I first heard the BBC Radio 4 announce the death of the Labour MP for the Spen Valley, West Yorkshire while I was driving along the A62 from Manchester, where I work, to the Colne Valley, where I live. My commute follows an ancient trade route that crosses the fold of the Pennines at Standedge Edge to enter the West Riding, a political region still known as West Yorkshire, even today with its multicultural cities of Leeds, Halifax, Bradford, and Huddersfield. The county is an interlocking series of valleys running east and west, in which large derelict textile mill sites cast long shadows along the same canals and roads that once carried their products away to the rest of the world. In the previous year on the occasion of her first address to the UK Parliament, the MP had called up West Yorkshire’s history, which was her own history:
I arrived in London on 10 July, a few weeks after the Brexit referendum. I was in Parliament the following day—the day Theresa May was named the new prime minister.
Reading about the situation is one thing; dealing with it ethnographically is another. I have no idea how to proceed, nor do I trust my initial observations. So this post with its provisional assertions should be read with circumspection.
Bulgarians on their way to the “West”
EU immigration was the primary source of contention in the debates surrounding the recent referendum about the United Kingdom’s EU membership. The “leave” campaign continuously bombarded the public with warnings about “uncontrollable hordes” of EU benefit seekers (for a discussion on the construction of migrant categories, see Apostolova 2016) planning to permanently settle for the “easy” life in the UK and take away the jobs of the locals. Likewise, the “remain” campaign promised to crack down on the number of immigrants and further restrict the rights of newcomers. In this way, both camps reinforced the perception that immigration from the EU, and in particular from eastern Europe, is a problem. Furthermore, in their effort to make the case for a “remain” scenario, academic voices tirelessly demonstrated the economic, cultural, and demographic benefits of EU migration. Such efforts, however well intended, still feed into an instrumentalist policy perspective that constructs migrants’ lives as only important in terms of their added value for the local economy.
Against the predictions of the last polls, a narrow majority of the UK voters decided to leave the EU. Once again, the political crisis of Europe has deepened. And once again, it does not seem as if this deepening of the crisis will force a fundamental reorientation of the “European project.”
In the following, I take issue with a mainstream framing of the crisis as one engendered by an atavistic nationalism that haunts the cosmopolitan present of Europe, a framing that directs attention away from the class character of European state-making of the past decades. If the EU is not to disintegrate, however, the latter has to be challenged.