By Alberto Toscano, September 21, 2019
How long does a crisis take? The inhabitants of the United Kingdom, as well as international witnesses following the events (or lack thereof) of the past three years with a mix of Schadenfreude, bemusement or anxiety, may well be forgiven for asking themselves this question. Irrespective of sober quantitative forecasts of economic doom attendant on a ‘no deal’ exit from the European Union a growing number of people seem inclined to opt for the fanciful but compelling idea of a clean break, if nothing else to ‘get it over with’. When it’s not just the time of policy or planning, of budgets and bureaucracies, but of your everyday life and psyche that comes to be occupied by a political issue, the attractions of finality are considerable. A sense of this public mood, not to mention of the animal spirits of revanchist nationalism that often accompany it, lies behind Boris Johnson’s sub-Machiavellian strategy, hatched with his volatile advisor Dominic Cummings, to “move fast and break things” – things here meaning parliamentary sovereignty and constitutional customs. As that strategy falters – faced with legal challenges, parliamentary resistance and the transparency of its own bluff and bluster – life in the United Kingdom oscillates between a grinding, powerless sense of stasis and stagnation (Brexit never-ending) and the anxiety that protracted crisis will segue into catastrophe, on October 31 (what the more delirious irredentists fantasise as ‘independence day’) or sometime thereafter. Between the ongoing grind and the oncoming crash, one can also find excitement and distraction in the small events and pseudo-events that populate the time of Brexit: parliamentary rebellions, legal opinions, ministerial leaks, Tory expulsions, Labour resignations, or Johnson’s gaffes.
Deal or no deal, it is evident that the political and social crisis crystallising around Brexit is not going to be resolved – whether in a palliative or catastrophic manner – precisely because it is not one crisis but many (or, perhaps more accurately, many-in-one), all of which have their own rhythms, their own temporalities, which seem to evade any synchronisation. It is one of the lasting discoveries of critical theories and anthropologies that human beings live in a multiplicity of uneven, and sometimes incompatible, times. Writing in the 1930s, the German philosopher Ernst Bloch, talked of the non-contemporaneity of the contemporaneous, and of the emergence of ‘non-synchronous people’, to grasp how the German petty-bourgeoisie could simultaneously inhabit a technologically complex capitalist society and entertain racial fantasies and feudal dreams (as he quipped: ‘Peasants sometimes still believe in witches and exorcists, but not nearly as frequently and as strongly as a large class of urbanites believe in ghostly Jews and the new Baldur’). Notwithstanding its reputation for phlegmatic empiricism, its self-image as averse to the violent enthusiasms and fanatical beliefs raging across the Channel (or the Eurotunnel), the United Kingdom – but especially England – is a deeply non-synchronous place. Living in an old country – to borrow the title of an insightful book about struggles over the nation’s past – also means living in a place with a lot of unfinished, or unfinishable, business.
So what are these crises that combine to make it so that from Land’s End to John O’Groats the time is definitely out of joint?
There is a crisis (and a time) of nations: while the regulatory and ideological horizon of European integration somewhat cushioned the creep towards what had already been forecast in the 1970s as ‘the break-up of Britain’, the prospect of Brexit accelerates and intensifies the lines of division. Conflicts that channel entangled histories of religion, class and identity going back hundreds of years are revived by a profoundly anachronistic form of English nationalism, which, at the same time as it calmly countenances the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement or the secession of the Scots, still lives in a kind of imperial time, improbably referring to the reorientation of the economy from the EU to the ‘Commonwealth’. The nationalism dominating the discourse for Brexit is of a particularly mutant stripe: combining nostalgias for Little England, pantomime replays of World War Two, and resisting the impersonality of the federal, the international, and the global, while hankering for the imperial, as it dreams of reviving the glories of a trading power while actually pushing the country to become a deregulated tax-haven.
There is a crisis (and a time) of capital and class: however many times it may be statistically refuted, and notwithstanding its basis in a lamination of race and class that itself goes back to the days of ‘social imperialism’ (when the colonies were advertised as a boon to the English labourer), the notion of Brexit as some kind of working-class revolt is one of those zombie ideas that refuses to stay dead. In part, it is because it is accompanied and complemented by one of the most powerful notions behind the phantasm of a national(ist) renaissance, namely decline. Now, Britain has been deemed in decline (as the pivot and engine of the world-economy) at least since the 1870s, and deindustrialisation, rather than the European-led calamity it is somehow purported to be, is a matter of secular transformations or of internecine class struggle (as in the trauma of Thatcherism). Even the very fishing industries so often taken as the prime sacrificial victim of European integration were in decline long before the cold hand of Brussels made itself felt in the dreaded quotas and regulations. On the other side from the shearing injuries of class, and the sometime distorting mirrors through which they’re viewed, there is the grotesque continuity of an upper class which flaunts its own anachronism – as in the figure of the MP and ‘Leader of the Commons’ Jacob Rees-Mogg, who delights in being tagged ‘the honourable member for the eighteenth century’, while accumulating a fortune through the most deterritorialised and deterritorialising form of finance capital.
There is a crisis (and a time) of race and identity: as patent in Nigel Farage’s violent invocations of ‘decent people’, the murder of MP Jo Cox, or in the Minutemen-like patrols of the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ that the neo-fascist outfit Britain First have recently begun to hound the handfuls of migrants landing on English shores, Brexit has brought to the fore both at its fringes and core strains of far-right identitarianism which some might have wrongly thought quashed with the demise of the National Front, the British National Party and their toxic offspring. Perhaps less talked about is the displacement and continuation of long-standing ‘post-colonial’ racisms against the children and grand-children of imperial subjects onto the seemingly ‘white’ migrants from EU accession countries (Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, though the leave campaign raised the spectre of Albanians, Serbs, Macedonians, and, with an Islamophobic flourish, Turks). ‘White-on-white’ racism, though widespread, failed properly to register on the ideological radar – and the Eurosceptic left largely abandoned its duties of (class) solidarity, preferring instead to twist itself into knots to turn the votes of amorphous categories of English voters including pensioners into claims about ‘the working class’. More, the way in which the xenophobic rhetoric of Leave was articulated with the long history of the anti-black and anti-Asian racisms – with the unending repercussions of the racialisation of citizenship evident in everything from the harassment and deportation of Afro-Caribbean members of the ‘Windrush generation’ to the demands to denaturalise those guilty of ‘Islamic extremism’ – still demands thinking through. It is obvious, in any case, that the coincidence of the so-called ‘migration crisis’ across Europe with David Cameron’s hubristic wish to sort out the Tory’s Europe problem once and for all, was a crucial driver of the Brexit vote – and served as fodder for pervasive racist social media campaigns about invasions of immigrants from the Balkans and beyond orchestrated by malevolent Eurocrats.
There is a crisis (and a time) of institutions: defeated at the ballot-box by the doomed contest between a myth of regeneration and the reality of bureaucratic integration, not to mention by the unscrupulous machinations of emotion and fact perpetrated by the Leave campaign – or indeed the inability of ‘Europe’ to stand, especially in the UK, as a sign of rupture, novelty or hope – the case for Remain (or at least against ‘no deal’), has found new energy in delving deep into the procedural resources of parliament. Having subjected Johnson’s government to six defeats, challenged its craven strategy of parliamentary prorogation in the courts (a case now being deliberated on in the Supreme Court), turned it into a minority government through the expulsion of 21 Tory ‘rebels’ and legally obligated the government to ask the EU for an extension in what members of its right-wing nationalist cabinet have called a ‘surrender bill’, the opposition to a No Deal Brexit has seemingly revived the fortunes and efficacy of what is jingoistically called the ‘mother of all parliaments’ (the Icelandic althingi would beg to differ). Here again, we have a clash of temporalities: the body that represents the quintessence of liberal democracy (a.k.a. constitutional monarchy), and which flaunts its venerable age with eccentric pomp (the Speaker’s cries of ‘Unlock! Unlock’ after the counting of votes, the Black Rod, the parliamentary Mace that a particularly cheeky MP tried to run away with), comes up against the bullish ‘now’ of Johnson’s executive tabloid populism – with the next election inauspiciously sold as ‘parliament versus the people’. What might have once, in the time of the Chartists, been a slogan of radical democracy is now turned into a nationalist rallying-cry against ‘betrayal’. But the institutions that are also undergoing crisis and recombination are the political parties. Ever since the 1975 Referendum on entry into the EEC in which the Labour Left (Tony Benn) and the Tory Right (Enoch Powell) campaigned for a ‘No’ vote, while the centre of both parties argued for European integration – a moment still very much alive in Remainers’ animosity towards Corbyn as a closet Brexiter – ‘Europe’ has been an object of obsession and division for the Conservatives (note that before David Cameron’s unfortunate push to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s membership to placate his party’s chauvinist right, Europe was viewed as a priority for only 10% of the electorate). Brexit is in many ways the externalisation and regressive ‘socialisation’ of their own long-lasting ideological crisis. And the fact that the Tories decided to settle their internal accounts in public, or rather through the public, at the very time when their regime of austerity was further immiserating areas experiencing decades of deindustrialisation, also allowed, perversely, blame for the cruelties of capital to be deflected onto Brussels – whose responsibility for the devastation of Greece was there for all to see, but which is not the primary culprit for misery in the Midlands and beyond.
To return to the question with which I started: this crisis (or crises) that has crystallised around Brexit is not going to end any time soon. Wishes for a clean break or a return to the European fold, whatever the outcome of the current ‘negotiations’ and creeping constitutional crisis, are unlikely to bring any clarity or stability. The fault-lines cutting across the UK polity, its unwritten constitution, its component nations, its recombinant class structure, and perhaps above all its dreams, fantasies and ideologies, all augur troubled times ahead (and that is without bringing to bear other critical temporalities, namely those of the systemic crises of capital and climate). In an oft-quoted line passage of his prison notebooks, the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote: ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’. Ironically, it is in a regnum, a kingdom, whose anachronistic continuation few seem truly to challenge, that Gramsci’s description acquires its greatest force. This regnum, this increasingly disunited kingdom, is an interregnum, and it seems to find ever new and morbid ways for the old to keep dying.
21 September 2019