Commentary: Brexit is a dysfunctional journey to a place that doesn’t exist

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By Christopher Silver

To people who feel deprived of a clear social identity, Ur-Fascism says that their only privilege is the most common one, to be born in the same country. This is the origin of nationalism. Besides, the only ones who can provide an identity to the nation are its enemies. Thus at the root of the Ur-Fascist psychology there is the obsession with a plot, possibly an international one. The followers must feel besieged. The easiest way to solve the plot is the appeal to xenophobia.

Umberto Eco, ‘Ur-Fascism’ New York Review of Books, 1995

Christopher Silver
Christopher Silver

When it comes to the EU referendum, there is very little for anyone on the left to get enthused about. If any emotion is provoked, it is a weary sadness that it has come to this — an entire country embroiled in a debate that has been framed almost exclusively by the right for the right.

We are all destined to vote on a matter largely defined by the internal politics of the Conservative Party. All the burning passions on show — which have lit up a great bonfire of English nationalism, xenophobia and exceptionalism — distract from the mundane events that brought us to this sorry impasse.

A dysfunctional and declining political party is using a national plebiscite to resolve its internal differences and secure its right flank. If the quality of the debate is intellectually dishonest, mean-spirited and boorish, it’s because we are simply being asked to help resolve a long running brawl that broke out within the ranks of the Tory party decades ago.

This regrettable state of affairs reminds us that Britain is a country in which the party political system is broken, probably beyond repair. Those who think this an overstatement are, I assume, prepared to disregard the fact that the country’s third largest party is founded on a policy of repealing the Act of Union.

DISPLACEMENT

In the context of the Great British Fragmentation that we are now living through the EU referendum is a kind of mass displacement exercise. All of the anxieties about the parlous state of contemporary Britain are transferred onto the relationship with our neighbours. Hence the gloriously absurd sight of a distant, opaque and self-sustaining elite complaining incessantly about rule by a distant, opaque and self-sustaining elite.

For Scots, it’s long been clear that England’s is the nationalism that dare not speak its name. The coming vote is just the latest instalment in the weird psychodrama that will end up, one day, with the final waking realisation that England is a perfectly normal country. If it achieves nothing else, embracing Europe might mean that British exceptionalism and xenophobia are understood for what they are — the worn out rags of an imperialist past,  a longing for a fictitious greatness now relegated to the realm of mass nostalgia.

There are other perfectly cogent reasons for the left to back an “In” vote. Perhaps the most important is the manner in which Brexit would validate an array of right-wing arguments and movements across the continent.

The point of Umberto Eco’s essay, quoted above, is to remind us that fascism is an exceptionally wooly concept, bundling together the promise of traditionalism and futurism, state control and the free market, conservatism and revolution and so on. Eco’s ‘Ur Fascism or Eternal Fascism’ refers to a set of characteristics around which fascist movements often coalesce. His 1995 essay is a call for wariness that a system so flexible ’can come back under the most innocent of disguises’.

It is worth considering that in age of right-wing ascendency — of mass fear and insecurity in which geopolitics is in flux — we may have to choose, in simple terms, between two broad trajectories. Europe is currently hovering anxiously at a post-crash crossroads, reluctantly defending a beaten transnational order, as it did once before.

DISDAIN

For the avoidance of any doubt — I am not claiming that any mainstream current in British politics is fascist — even in loose terms. Repeated exposure for the outspokenly bigoted elements in UKIP have proved more comical than threatening. Farage as a ‘pound shop Enoch Powell’ is accurate in its disdain. It was Powell’s remarkable gifts as an orator that made him seem dangerous. Today, soaring rhetoric is replaced by the sight of the inane grins that only narcissists ever attempt (worn so well by Trump, Farage and Boris). The buccaneer celebrity troll is the demagogue for our society. Only he will channel a popular will that is besieged. To quote Eco’s prescient essay again:

Umberto Eco (Bogaerts, Rob / Anefo)
Umberto Eco (Bogaerts, Rob / Anefo)

‘To have a good instance of qualitative populism we no longer need the Piazza Venezia in Rome or the Nuremberg Stadium. There is in our future a TV or Internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.’

Of course on the continent itself, actual fascism, or its marginally more innocent looking descendants, are on the march again. Earlier this week the far-right came within a fraction of a percentage point of winning the Austrian presidency. Jobbik in Hungary, the Front National in France and Golden Dawn in Greece are on the rise, as is the populist anti-immigrant right in Germany and the Nordics. These are morbid symptoms of a continent full of isolated and frustrated militants for a thousand threatened identities.

These movements gain strength by fixating on borders and the premise that ‘Kantian’ European elites, with their universalist morals, are out of touch with the homeland. The overwhelming desire of European institutions — to keep such problems at arms length while maintaining an uneasy face saving exercise —  is totally inadequate in a world in which significant demographic and climate changes are likely to make mass migration of the destitute a norm.

THREAT

Do we on this island need to be part of some vast transnational bureaucracy to recognise that the fight against such forces will, sooner or later, become unavoidable? Probably not. Is there the possibility that the European Union, rather than stifling such movements, has offered them, perversely, both an all-pervasive cosmopolitan conspiracy to rail against and funds and a platform to channel back home from Brussels? Almost certainly. Might the EU itself realise that its skittish and politically costly approach to the migrant crisis, the defining issue of our times, obscures the fact that the existential threat to Europe is not from without, but within? Stranger things have happened.

There are no simple answers to such a litany of failure, but if we stay in, we at least acknowledge that this is our fight too.

The darkness in Europe is never far from the surface. Scratch at the egalitarian rhetoric and it can be plainly seen. There is no shortage of imagery to explain what the death of Europe’s founding universalist ideal looks like. A member state stealing what valuables refugees can carry with them, the struggles at the Hungarian border last autumn, Calais, Lesbos — there is no renaissance or enlightenment there.

The lack of commonality in Europe, of a demos, not to mention a credible transnational class consciousness, is the problem for those of us who imagine that a retreat behind borders is not the answer. The building of parallel structures of solidarity to mirror those ensconced in Brussels is the only real alternative.

Until then, as citizens of a continental bloc that excels at making the wretched of the earth more wretched, there is a certain impossibility about being a radical in contemporary Europe. Our lives are enmeshed in and defined by enormous privilege as birth right. If you don’t believe me — consider the grisly evidence at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

TRADITIONS

If radical guilt is part and parcel of cosmopolitan nightmares, the dream of British exceptionalism is of a profound disassociation from these realties. It is a longing to live up to De Gaulle’s remark that prefaced the original rejection of Britain from the European club:

‘England in effect is insular, she is maritime, she is linked through her interactions, her markets and her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries; she pursues essentially industrial and commercial activities, and only slight agricultural ones. She has, in all her doings, very marked and very original habits and traditions.’

It is a dream of returning — a genuine and deep yearning amongst many to recapture a country that they feel has been lost. Everywhere globalisation has inspired this urge, while simultaneously making the return to one nation of order and tranquility impossible. We can no more re-instate the Britain of Harold Macmillan (whose schedule allowed him to read novels in the afternoon) than hitch ourselves up to the Trident subs and drag the British mainland to a psychologically tranquil spot in the mid-Atlantic. The promise of Brexit is a promise to lead a nostalgic tribe, who feel exiled at home, to a place that doesn’t exist.

On an island, perhaps, it is easier to locate all your problems beyond the water. Recently a traumatised survivor of the Bataclan massacre expressed a deeply held conviction that if only the audience had been legally permitted to carry arms, the incident might not have been so awful. It is understandable, natural even, to want to map a clear and comprehensive course through damaged terrain. ‘If only…’ cry the lost. One of the first duties of progressive politics is to be wary of those who complete that sentence for them with a simple solution. If the rogues gallery win at selling a fictive idyll — premised on the absurd claim that any place still connected to global networks can win through in splendid isolation — they win big.

Increasingly, the definitive role of nation-states is to pick up the pieces after the effects of global economic and social shocks have been visited upon their citizens. Media savvy atrocities in Brussels or Paris are, in the grand scheme of things, pinpricks in comparison to the nightmares those capitals once inflicted upon the Congo or Algeria — Europe does not adapt well to being cast as a victim. But the reaction to these events, with their revival of collective symbolism and the singing of ‘Imagine’, remind us how obsolete the nation has become in comparison to ascendent transnational networks. There are those in Britain who steadfastly believe that terror can be held off at a distance, that we can forget the uniquely barbaric qualities of colonialism, that we can slip anchor in the night and drift away from this dark continent of revolution and mechanised genocide.

Yet whatever the mythos of British exceptionalism has to say on the matter — historically, culturally or economically — we cannot disown Europe. We don’t really know who an “In” vote will be a victory for, other than Cameron. With a Leave vote, we do.

It will be a victory for those who tell their followers that the siege will soon be over, if only we build higher walls.