Shockingly Familiar: Crisis, Reform, and Nationalism in 2016

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After the Brexit vote, a friend of mine said 2016 feels like the right-wing 1960s. Today, right-wing social movements across much of Europe have found their way to Britain, in nationalist campaigns dressed up as anti-establishment crusades. The election of Donald Trump has seen this populism explode across the Atlantic in a manner few predicted, showing once again that this global shift can translate nationalistic rhetoric and sentiment into viable candidates and winnable elections. But rather than seeing these often proto-fascistic movements as a break from the Thatchers, Reagans, Bushes, and Blairs that proceeded them, it may be more useful to see them as a continuation. 

“Reform in Order to Preserve” was one of the most powerful slogans of the 1832 Great Reform Act in Britain. The dangers of the French Revolution instilled fear in the British ruling classes, and they understood that the grievances of the lower classes required ameliorating if the aristocracy were to protect the bulk of their power and wealth. This conservative logic has informed much of the thinking of the latter half of the 20th Century, and can provide a useful insight into the political developments of 2016. While capitalism attempted to build consensus among the working classes, by providing the safety net of social democracy or trade union influence from the post-war period through the early ‘70s, this was considered unsustainable by Thatcher and Reagan and the interests that animated them. They ushered in an era of free trade and enterprise where we were all entrepreneurs, and replaced unions and welfarism with cheap credit and the dream of success in the free market. But the unemployment, indebtedness, and inevitable crises created by the “free-market” have slowly deflated the aspiration bubble which Blair and Obama sailed in on. Now, while many of the reforms being proposed by economic and political elites to preserve their power may not be wholly new, they’re appearing uglier than many of us imagined. 

Danger in the Safety Net

In 1968, Conservative MP Enoch Powell made his now infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech. He warned the people of Britain that black migrants were verbally abusing the elderly, and that in two decades, “the black man would have the whip hand over the white man.” While Powell was sacked for his speech, his words had dramatic effect on Britain’s white population. Over 1000 dock workers went on strike in support of Powell, and the far-right seized this moment, marching through multicultural urban areas and sparking an increase in racial violence. But, Powellism didn’t last long, and was formally rejected by the Conservative Party. But racism already firmly underpinned policy-making, particularly in relation to immigration and the Empire. The 1962 Immigration Commonwealth Act repealed the free movement of subjects of the British Empire from migrating to the “mother country.” British Imperial subjects now had to prove they had a grandparent with a British Passport. The (fully intended) consequence of this, was a halt in migration to Britain by people of African or Asian heritage, with those from white settler colonies (South Africa, Australia, etc.) being the only colonial citizens who could satisfy the criteria. This institutionalised racism ameliorated the concerns behind Powell’s brief period of influence, and this was coupled with relatively progressive social democratic reform under the post-war consensus between Labour and the Conservatives.

This consensus lasted up until the 1970s, seeing social welfare, access to healthcare, and worker representation conserve the interests of political elites in both major parties until it began to trouble business interest groups. The economic cost of welfare and strikes on the British economy, claimed Margret Thatcher, demanded cutting back the safety nets. Thatcher, and her US counterpart Ronald Reagan, set about reforming social values around an ideology which saw society as a mere collection of individuals, whose greatest ambitions would be home ownership and entrepreneurship (both of which would be encouraged by state subsidy and cheap credit). This was the ideology captured by the Blair government in 1997. 

Blair put a fresh young face to Thatcher’s reforms, which conserved the power of the elite, while offering the possibility of wealth and other successes in the “free market” for the poor. Further, Thatcher warned of being “swamped by people of a different culture,” and Tony Blair mirrored this racism. In the run-up to the 2007 local elections, he set his targets on African Caribbean communities and crime:

What we are dealing with is not a general social disorder; but specific groups or people who for one reason or another, are deciding not to abide by the same code of conduct as the rest of us... The black community — the vast majority of whom in these communities are decent, law-abiding people horrified at what is happening — need to be mobilised in denunciation of this gang culture”. But we won't stop this by pretending it isn't young black kids doing it.

...This is not a metaphor for the state of British society… it is a specific problem, in a specific criminal culture among specific groups of young people

Blair’s racism worsened following the 7/7 attacks in London, when his government introduced control orders — which imprisoned Muslims suspected of terrorism-related offenses in their homes — stop and search police powers which no longer required reasonable suspicion, and wars of aggression across the Middle East. This was bolstered by comparable campaigns in the United States. Bill Clinton’s ‘Three Strikes’ sent huge numbers of African Americans into prisons (and was legitimized by Hilary’s now infamous description of black youth as “super predators”). Following this, Bush’s invasions abroad and Patriot Act at home set a model for Labour to build a broad consensus for anti-Muslim racisms. The Blair government’s efforts to encourage voters to identify with the racist Othering of black people generally or Muslims in particular was accompanied by cheap credit that made home ownership, luxury commodities, and the possibility of free-market success part of his legacy. It worked a treat, with Labour winning multiple elections and only began to crumble in 2008.

On both sides of the Atlantic, the financial crisis cast doubt upon an economy built on the financial sector. Feeling sentiments shifting, political lobbyists, the press, and campaign funders broke with tradition, and took a new tack. This approach centred the nationalism, and its implicit racism, which had underpinned the earlier campaigns, relegating the economic offerings to a vague accompaniment.

In Britain, Brexit promised the people sovereignty, border control, and British values. This dog-whistle racism bolstered a nationalism more dangerous than those that had come in the last two decades. With both social democracy and the free-market credit regime demoted, the racism now stood alone, naked in front of the nation. The politicians who had cloaked it in the language of job protection or aspiration could only look on in disbelief as pure revanchism swept across the nation.

Fascism often presents itself as a working-class revolt while emanating from the top down. Whether or not the Brexit campaign can be defined as such, it certainly shares this trait, among others. While the Murdoch press and other corporate media outlets bang the Brexit drum, big business owners pour money into a campaign fronted by a privately educated son of a hedge fund manager. Nigel Farage has resigned and returned to the head of UKIP multiple times since his party claimed victory in the EU referendum, and he isn’t the only right-wing populist who appears more comfortable in opposition.

Donald Trump rose to power on more or less the same dog-whistle slogan as the UKIP campaign: taking the country back. In countries like Britain and the United States, both formed largely through imperialism, nationhood is intrinsically tied up with whiteness. Yet, while this racism is common to political campaigns in Britain, this is possibly the first time it has been the primary, possibly even sole platform upon which a successful national vote has been won. Racisms of past campaigns have been proposed alongside crisis-ridden social democratic and free-market offerings, reforming the current state of affairs in the hope of conserving it. But the promises made by the victors in this political moment are far less coherent — the well-trodden racism of immigration control and tougher policing leading to better-jobs and safer streets hasn’t accompanied wider offerings like the social democratic and "free-market" campaigns of previous political moments. The current projects in Britain and the US have built themselves upon far weaker foundations than those which have come before, and it is likely to crash in a fashion even more spectacular than their ascent. The question remains however, as to what will replace such a lurch to the right. The murmurs of fascism have haunted political debates on both sides of the Atlantic over the last 18 months, and unless a critical alternative can snatch power away from these dangerous and precarious reformers, a march in the other direction could compound the failures, crises and racisms which led to their emergence. 

Adam Elliott-Cooper is a teaching fellow in the Department of Sociology, University of Warwick.