Monthly Archives: June 2016

Notes on Racism and the Brexit Referendum


The question is not whether you are racist but whether the things you do have racist effects.

In the reaction to last week’s Leave vote in the Brexit referendum, people who take aim at all ‘the racists’ who voted Leave, and others who defended Leave voters as ‘not racist’, are both missing the point. The basis for the Leave campaign, the grounds upon which it was fought, the way in which it was presented in Britain’s media, and indeed the way prominent figures in the Remain campaign treated the question of immigration as a ‘legitimate concern’ were all racist.

The assumed premises of the referendum: that some sort of stop would be put to immigration, and that one group -‘the British people’ had the absolute right to decide on what ought to happen with millions of other people living in the UK without them even being consulted, were racist.

Under such conditions, even a verdict of ‘the people have spoken’, uttered in reluctant recognition of a result one did not want, is racist. Anyone who thinks that this can be ignored or set to one side, because the ‘real story’ is the articulation of legitimate grievances about the immiseration under neoliberal austerity and rule by an aloof elite through a resounding Leave vote, is deluded. Indeed, not recognising this makes it all the more difficult to do anything about the legitimate grievances.

There have been strong critiques of phrase ‘take the country back’ that featured so much, or so it appeared, in the vocabulary of Leave supporters. Yet there is no a priori reason for this phrase to have racist, nativist content, or that it should carry with it a silent “from the immigrants”, or indeed “from the Brussels mandarins”, or whatever. However, that is how it resonates because a successful campaign has been fought to identify refugees and migrants as the source of contemporary ills.

You cannot argue with the idea of ‘taking the country back’ in the abstract, because it defies argument. However, the automatic association of this idea with racist content obscures some concrete truths. British liberals would prefer to pour scorn on Leave voters to whom this idea appeals, because it suggests that its content is at once retrograde and conservative, whereas the EU project -assuming we can ignore the wholescale economic destruction wrought against entire countries and the tens of thousands of human beings killed by its border controls- is forward-looking and progressive.

There is a real sense in which ‘the country’ has been taken from people, notwithstanding the fact that the UK has never been run by anything other than an elite few. Electricity, water, railways, the health service, housing, education: all these things have been privatised either wholly or in part, with more coming down the line. Why would it not be entirely right and understandable that people should feel a sense that they have been robbed? They have.

What is more, they have even been robbed of the sense that such things ought to be theirs -that is, everyone’s. The British Labour Party abandoned such principles long ago, communications media is overwhelmingly in the hands of big business and what remains public largely serves the conventional wisdom that privatisation is a good thing. Thatcher’s vision of a ‘property-owning democracy’ carries within it the notion that if you do not have property you are a failure. All of this is a recipe for a severe sense of dislocation, and it is fertile terrain for scapegoating.

Take education: a commonly held fear is the idea that the local school is full of children who do not speak English, and the presence of such children -rather than a presence that enriches- are thought to be somehow depriving one’s own children of the proper start in life. Such a fear is stoked in The Sun today, as shown in the graphic above – ‘Streets full of Polish shops, kids not speaking English..but now Union Jacks flying high again’.

Such a fear may well be classified as racist, but is this wanting the best for your own child above all else not precisely the same practice that is seen as respectable in those who go out and buy a copy of The Times to peruse the league tables, to make sure that their child is kept apart from the failures and among the successful?

A function of neoliberalism is to eliminate a willingness to share with others, and to look upon everyone else instead as a competitor for resources and a threat. Many of those who denigrate Leave voters in their entirety as ‘stupid’ -as, for example, Oxford historian Roy Foster does in today’s Irish Times- share the same moral code, the same belief in hierarchy and private advancement, the same prejudices: in Oxford University in 2014, a black student applying for admission was half as likely to get in as a white student. It is as though part of the contempt for the stupid people from liberal elites stems from the fact that they do not know how to conceal their racism properly.



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Common political confusions


Something can be rational, but that doesn’t make it justified.

Something can be understandable, but that doesn’t make it legitimate.

A fear about something can be real, but that doesn’t mean the object of fear is real, or that the fear is justified, or legitimate.

Describing the fear as ‘very real’ does not make the object of fear any more real. But it may make the fear more real.

Something can be legal, but that doesn’t make it just.

Something can be just, but that doesn’t make it legal.

Legality and legitimacy are two different things.

Legality isn’t necessarily a good thing and neither is legitimacy.

Voting for something doesn’t mean you’re going to get it in any measure, no matter how passionately you vote for it. Whether you get it or not is decided elsewhere.

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The Vortex: fascism, racism and the social media mob


Behold the vortex of Ireland’s public discourse. A 4FM DJ, who provides a platform to fascists from Identity Ireland, takes the former Tánaiste for her response to Jo Cox’s murder by a Neo-Nazi, because male politicians get online abuse too.

Why has Boylan put “murdered” in inverted commas? Is he suggesting that Jo Cox was not really murdered? After all, he does claim the man was ‘deranged’, rather than note that his reported actions to date -from the attack on an internationalist and anti-racist politician, to the grandiose declaration in court that his name was ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’- are entirely consistent with those of a fascist agitator fully conscious of their aims and intended effects. But it could also be that Boylan doesn’t know how to write properly.

Burton, meanwhile, treats Jo Cox’s murder as primarily a question of misogyny directed at female politicians, particularly on social media. Yes, there is an element of misogyny to Jo Cox’s murder. This is because fascism is inherently misogynist. As Robert O. Paxton highlights in his authoritative The Anatomy Of Fascism, fascism needs ‘authority by natural chiefs (always male), culminating in a national chieftain who alone is capable of incarnating the group’s historical destiny’. But there are many other elements to it that make it far more than just a matter of social media abuse directed at women.

Paxton concludes his study by stressing that further fascist advances toward power depend ‘in part on the severity of a crisis, but also very largely upon human choices, especially the choices of those holding economic, social, and political power’. But what we have seen in the wake of Jo Cox’s murder is a widespread refusal, on the part of people who do hold such power, to even call it by its name. Do they even know what it is?

If we’re being charitable in Burton’s case, the fact that she herself drew parallels with fascism when her car was surrounded by anti-water charges protesters in Jobstown may be down to her own ignorance. To spell it out: the Jobstown protest was motivated by the introduction of a regressive tax in the context of a deep austerity programme that is an effective transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich and stewarded by a political party that claims to represent the working class. It came to an end without anyone getting injured. It has absolutely nothing to do with the fascist ‘pursuit of redemptive violence without ethical or legal constraints’ (Paxton again). To draw such parallels, apart from anything else, is to deny the danger posed by fascism in the here and now.

By all means, let’s recognise that fascism and racism can be strengthened through electronic communication. But it’s both mistaken and harmful to contend that uncivil and even abusive online communication is the origin of fascist and racist activity. It is all too convenient to do so, as it lets elite groups off the hook for their decisions and their complicity. And if it all can be boiled down to the matter of the untutored mob being afforded too much freedom, well, there are plenty who take this concept of an elite exercising their rule regardless of what the weak-minded mob think a lot more seriously, and some of them are in Britain First.

Paxton notes that ‘”giving up free institutions,” especially the freedoms of unpopular groups, is recurrently attractive to citizens of Western democracies’. If people cannot recognise that the motive behind Jo Cox’s murder was both fascist and racist, and that the conditions that give rise to such acts of violence have to do with the identification of particular groups -in Britain, specifically, Muslims, refugees and migrants- as threats to the primacy of the nation, then similar acts will continue to occur. But a large part of the response has been to attribute the murder to vindictiveness about such matters as politicians’ hairstyles (The Times, Irish edition), and the dehumanisation of politicians more generally, with lots of commentators stressing that politicians are actually quite decent people, contrary to what the mob might be inclined to believe. The trouble is that the same people raising the alarm now about the dehumanisation of politicians have rarely had anything to say about the widespread dehumanisation of such groupings as Muslims or refugees or migrants, which is where fascist groupings such as Britain First seek to forge common cause with the mainstream.

Perhaps it is to be expected, but it is no less jarring for that, that there is such a widespread refusal to draw any distinction in elite political and media circles between, on the one hand, genuine indignation at the harm done to societies hit by austerity measures enacted by a political elite serving big business and big finance first and foremost, and, on the other, anti-political resentment, which is carefully fostered by a right-wing press geared towards stripping away what remains of public services and social and democratic rights. Such anti-political resentment is stoked systematically by the very same media outlets that warn of the danger posed by those elements of the population who constitute the enemy within. If there is no room made for such a distinction to be drawn, then the latter is likely to thrive, with dire consequences for the democracy that people in these circles claim to respect.

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‘Respect for democracy’

'Xenophobe', by Eneko

‘Xenophobe’, by Eneko

In today’s Irish Times, the paper’s political correspondent Stephen Collins attributes the murder of Jo Cox to an ‘erosion of respect for democratic political values’. He decries the ‘wave of cynicism and bitterness’ that has ‘infected political debate right across the democratic world’, and relates this to the ‘growing appeal of populism of the left and right which seeks to simplify almost all issues to a clash between the interests of ordinary people and a “corrupt elite”.’


‘A fascinating study dealing with the challenge populism poses to the EU, published by the Carnegie Institute this week, said populism is essentially illiberal because it rejects democratic checks and balances and has a conception of the will of the people that leaves no room for pluralism or deliberation.’

The study Collins cites is an article by Heather Grabbe and Stefan Lehne. I don’t share the overall analytical framework of the article, and it contains some glaring contradictions, but it does have some interesting observations.

The article has very little to say about the populism of the left mentioned by Collins, but a great deal to say about the populism of the right. In fact, the populism of the left, however defined, appears as something of an afterthought.

While ‘new parties and movements are bringing fresh energy into politics that could benefit democracy and the EU with it’, the article says that ‘radical-right populists reject both what the EU stands for and how it works’. Moreover, the ‘xenophobic narratives of radical-right populists have very nasty effects in European societies by increasing social tensions and encouraging attacks on minorities’.

The article recommends that the union has to ‘engage citizens directly, refocus on their legitimate grievances, and strengthen the consensus around its values base’, which it defines as ‘human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights’.

Clearly there are questions to be asked about how such values are understood, and whether the overarching structure of the EU can in fact sustain them.

The authors claim that the ‘EU is a values-based project as well as an economic project’, but economic conditions shape values. The ECB is a spectacularly effective coercive instrument for imposing a particular set of values, but they are the antithesis of those in the value base defined by the authors.

This contradiction between the stated value base and the institutional architecture of the EU is noted indirectly, and apparently without irony, in the author’s observation that ‘once in office, Greece’s far-left Syriza party and the right-wing Finns Party dropped their more extreme positions and joined the mainstream on policy choices.’ ‘Choices’ indeed.

The authors highlight the breaking of the ‘long-standing taboo against allowing far-right parties into office’, and conclude that ‘radical-right populism threatens the health of the EU in ways that national democracy can resist.’ In response, they say that union also has to take seriously the legitimate grievances that underlie support for anti-establishment parties’. In particular, ‘on tax evasion, corruption, and inequality, the EU needs to show that it is on the side of citizens rather than of political elites and big business’.

Notably, the authors make no mention of migration as a ‘legitimate grievance’. And yet what we have seen in recent years, especially in Britain, is a refusal, on the part of political and media establishments to recognise grievances in relation to tax evasion, corruption, and especially inequality, as legitimate, but grievances about immigration -however ill-informed and unfounded- take shape in these quarters as a valid concern, even when they stem from a will to ignore values of human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and respect for human rights.

So essentially the report recommends that the EU ought to represent the interests of ordinary people rather than a corrupt elite. I don’t know about you, but it seems as if the authors of the article suggest there is some sort of genuine clash between the interests of ordinary people and a corrupt elite. These days, articulating this view in Ireland is enough to win you the label of ‘populist’.

And here is where the deliberate confusion, on the one hand, of movements that seek to realise values such as human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality and respect for human rights, with, on the other, xenophobic far-right groupings, under the umbrella of ‘populism of the left and right’ is so pernicious. By pretending that the two are essentially the same, the role of the prevailing order in nurturing xenophobic and racist far-right activity is hidden from view, and the cause of the disease is made to appear as the cure.

If the likes of Stephen Collins were genuinely interested in respect for democracy, their focus would not be on the civility of discourse, but on the accumulation of power and wealth by individuals and entities that do not stand in elections. And if they really want to locate the source of the ‘erosion of respect for democratic political values’, they could make a start by taking a look in the mirror.

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I never got the attraction of tolerance as a virtue. I don’t quite get why tolerance is given such weight. I’m concerned with Britain here, but it could apply to other places too. This tolerance seems little more than being contented not to deport someone or lock them up because you don’t like the look of them or you don’t like the sound of them. Or maybe it’s being willing to endure what you find objectionable because you don’t want to disturb the social peace by unleashing an outbreak of violence.

It’s better than nothing, I suppose. But it’s hardly worth elevating to the status of a Value That Makes Us Great As A Nation. I doubt anyone feels a sense of gratitude that they live among people who don’t really like them and don’t have any interest in their welfare or what they might have to say about anything, but who are not presently minded to have them ethnically cleansed.

Mind you, Britain does seem remarkably tolerant of things like Nigel Farage, and UKIP, and the Prime Minister referring to migrants fleeing war as a ‘swarm’. It seems to be quite good at tolerating lurid stories about benefit scroungers that are intended to demonise people whose access to housing, health, decent wages and social supports has been expropriated. The tolerance of vast wealth accumulated by the financial sector is really quite impressive, considering all the damage it has done. Elected politicians and media professionals exercise a strikingly robust tolerance of expressions of racist and chauvinist resentment, which they then truss up as ‘legitimate concerns’, in case anyone’s reserves of tolerance might be tested by the unvarnished truth.

Yesterday Nigel Farage stood in front of a billboard campaign poster for leaving the European Union that echoed actual Nazi propaganda, as plenty of people pointed out. Later in the day Jo Cox, a Labour MP who had campaigned for the rights of Syrian refugees and Palestinian children was murdered by a man who had bought a gun from a neo-Nazi grouping and who, according to eyewitnesses, shouted ‘Britain First!’ as he brutally attacked her. Those two events, so close by, will inevitably prompt some thinking about causes and effects. Yet foremost in a great deal of media coverage about the killer were the details that he was a ‘loner with mental health issues’ (The Daily Telegraph); a ‘helpful and polite loner with history of mental health issues’ (The Times); ‘quiet, polite and reserved… would help (neighbours) with gardening and did voluntary work’ (The Guardian). It seems hard to imagine that the same kind of detail would be so much to the fore if the perpetrator of such a horrific act were to have shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ beforehand. There would be no trouble relating the act to some form of Islam, whereas insisting on relating this particular act to British nationalism and its outworkings does not feel like the kind of thing right-thinking and decent people get up to.

The thing about classifying the killer as mentally ill is that it removes the need to explain any further. The genesis of the act can be located firmly inside the perpetrator’s head, rather than in the racist paranoia stoked by Britain’s press. And if he was a ‘loner’, well, that means he wasn’t really one of us, was he?

Do you think the Nazi-style billboard will mean an end to Nigel Farage’s appearances on BBC Question Time, for example? I am guessing it won’t, because Nigel Farage is a creature of the British State. The reason he has received so much attention down the years, so many appearances on Question Time and so on, is that he speaks in a language that they understand. He articulates positions that appear reasonable and may even make some kind of sense within this purview. The racist underpinnings of his rhetoric simply appear as part of the great rich pageant of British public discourse, the cut-and-thrust of Oxford and Cambridge Union Societies debates projected into every TV set and radio station throughout the land. After all, we are tolerant, right? We can handle this. But when Farage talks about ‘our’ borders: is he ever challenged about just who, precisely, is this ‘we’ he is referring to? Why would he be, if Boris Johnson isn’t, and David Cameron isn’t, and Tony Blair wasn’t either?

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Spain: The Sorpasso

The big political news in Spain at the moment is expressed in a single term: sorpasso. ‘Sorpasso‘ is an Italian word. Its use in Spain stems from the history of the Italian Communist Party in the 1970s and 80s, as the PCI sought to overtake (sorpassare) its rivals for party political primacy. It was then adopted in the 1990s in Spain by Julio Anguita, the then secretary general of the Spanish Communist Party and co-ordinator of Izquierda Unida (IU, United Left) as the target for Izquierda Unida: to overtake the PSOE, (Spanish Socialist Workers Party), as the dominant force on the left of Spanish politics. This sorpasso did not materialise, but recent polling indicates that Unidos Podemos, the joint electoral ticket of Podemos and Izquierda Unida, will indeed overtake the PSOE as the main force on the left in the upcoming elections on the 26th of June (26J). This translated piece from Isaac Rosa, published in today’s, puts the concept of sorpasso into a broader socio-political context.

Podemos Secretary General Pablo Iglesias and Izquierda Unida federal co-ordinator Alberto Garzón

Podemos Secretary General Pablo Iglesias and Izquierda Unida federal coordinator Alberto Garzón

The people whose sorpasso already took place

I don’t know if on 26J we will see the sorpasso predicted by the CIS (the official statistics bureau), the sorpassito identified by other surveys (that is, in votes but not in seats), or even the sorPPasso the more optimistic in Unidos Podemos dream about. What I do know is that the electoral sorpasso, when it happens, will be only the latest in a long series of sorpassos in recent years. Yes, the one on 26J would be the most resounding, but it would not have been possible without all the others that came before.

At the origins of Podemos (apart, of course, from Venezuela, Iran, communism, [television channel] la Sexta, and Pope Francis) there was a group of university lecturers and activists who at the end of 2013 realised precisely this: that there were more and more people who had already made the sorpasso. Most of them had done it without a sound, in private, almost without noticing, but it was irreversible.

I remember how some of the founders of Podemos, in the months leading up to the party’s birth, showed surveys where, reading between the lines, one could predict the political crisis that would come about following the social and economic crisis. Surveys that showed a shifting in discourse, a spilling out of values and principles that indeed went beyond the left-right axis, shared by citizens on both sides. A tectonic movement that did not yet sound like an earthquake, but that was there for whoever was prepared to listen, and was headed straight for the pillars of Spain’s ‘consensus’.

One part of the public had made a first sorpasso in 2011, in the 15M and the months that followed. This is what the “they do not represent us” shouted in the squares was: a cultural sorpasso of the party system, though only in words for now. Many others went on, sorpassando, as they took part in Mareas, strikes, and stopping evictions in the intense cycle of protest of the time.

But there were many others as well, the majority, who made their sorpasso at home, without going onto the streets, merely by watching the news bulletin or the political debate and cursing through their teeth. People who felt deceived, defrauded, and who gradually lost trust in traditional parties and in the political institutions. People whose sorpasso came about through corruption, inequality, cutbacks, dwindling expectations and the widespread decomposition of the post-Transition system. People who felt like hitting the table with a good sorpasso.

Some of them still went out to vote, and ended up voting for parties that in reality they had already overtaken, but they voted for them because they could find no option that was sorpassante. Hence the blazing success of Podemos: it was what so many were waiting for: the possibility of realising the burning desire to give the parties who caused the crisis a good sorpasso in the chops.

When such a rupture happens, no campaign of fear can do its job. With such a disconnect, there is little that the PP and PSOE can offer, and they should really thank their lucky stars that they were able hold on to so much support after all that has happened and continues to happen, since there are many among their voters who have already done a sorpasso on them even if they still put a tick in their box.

The question then is not if there will be a sorpasso, but when, whether it happens this 26J or in the following elections. And whether it will be Unidos Podemos at the helm, or if they too will end up sorpassados if they’re not careful.

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