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Brexit, racism, and the fantasy of white working class ignorance


Brexit — Britain, exit — is the name of a precipice. A fake-polite racism too easily beckoned into public from its half-hidden place. The fragile self-pride of a people whose history is a litany of terrible, pointless harms. The ordinariness of ruin, how easily things get ruined, how ruined things already are. The gap between our small lives and the big world, our up-close lives and the faraway machine. A lot of work for an ugly new word.

The racism and xenophobia, customarily barely suppressed, that floated up to the surface during the campaign for Brexit have come to characterize it, far beyond the question of whether or not the UK should be in the European Union. If the EU ever was a human rights project to guarantee peace and freedom, it has long since come up against the limits of peace and freedom in capitalism. Devastated by war only two generations ago, Europe has reimagined war as a minimally ideological method of securing global supply chains (“freedom”). Soldiers patrol the stations and airports (“peace”). All this is nothing new: the end of the world is a fantasy, not a politics. Survival is a defiance, but not a dramatic one — something like answering the question, “Why should you be allowed to live?” with “Why not?”

For some people, “Brexit” seems to be the name for a fantasy of white working class ignorance — a fantasy that is an alibi for white ruling class structural racism, itself perhaps an alibi for the complicated, impossible fog called capitalism. But I am not very sure at all that my Brexit, the Brexit of the precipice, has anything much to do with the white working class. I think that many, many people are racist, but I don’t think this is because they are poor.

I was born in Britain because it was safer and richer than the elsewheres my grandparents came from, its safety and riches in part extracted from those elsewheres. So I can recognize as well as any racist poor person, imaginary or not, the politician’s habitual sneer. I know how bureaucratic violence dresses itself in a pragmatism that is something like: “Why should you be allowed to live well? You are just an animal that has a word for death.” I know as well as a family flying a Union Jack on their front lawn, teary-eyed at the thought of Grandpa’s heroism in the war, the urge to reach into the past to give the present and future meaning. But I have no further common ground with racists, and I can’t accept their worldview, any more than they can mine. What are we to do with this impossible situation? Can we turn away from each other peacefully, like history has yet to happen?

The day of the referendum result, on a train heading east out of Berlin, I fell into conversation with a stranger who turned out to be a soldier in the German army. My sense of disaster blurred the careful boundary I would usually have tried to maintain between us. Compulsively, I told him that my grandma left Germany for Britain as a refugee in the 1930s and now I was in Germany watching a nationalist coup in Britain. My grandmother’s parents were deported to the camps; what would happen now to the people I loved? The events of over 70 years ago have been kept alive in my family as if they happened yesterday or never stopped happening.

The ironies of the situation — the train, the soldier, me, the dead — loomed so large I couldn’t do anything with them. “I’m just very worried about fascism,” I kept saying. The soldier was very kind to me. My questions grew wilder: “In the event of a revolution, do you think the army would intervene on the side of the people?” No, he said, he didn’t think so. His colleagues were mostly racist nationalists. They hated refugees, Muslims, Black people; they hated what they perceived as dangerously unlike them. The thing is, he said, these people sit in their homes, just looking at the TV or the computer, not even talking to their neighbors. He offered this as an explanation for why there was no explanation. Why are people racist? They don’t know, and so we can’t know either.

At my friend’s house in the countryside outside Leipzig, someone said we should do a Tarot reading for Brexit. “I don’t want to do it, don’t make me do it, it will just be the Tower and Death,” I said. We did the reading by the lake; I channelled Britain, as the only British person there; I got the Tower, Death, and a bunch of Swords. The Tower was reversed: a hubristic disaster, sending the world into an upward tumult. Imperialism and slavery, we all agreed. In the position of the future was the Wheel of Fortune: the wildness of luck, the chance that fate can be changed.

Some British people still brag about the Tower, about the days when the world map was all pink for British rule, a vast imperial terrain on which “the sun never set” because it was always daytime somewhere in the British empire. Now this bloat has shrunk down to a little fingernail-paring, a portion of an island. Why would an empire long to become a fingernail? People speculated that the result was a mistake, that the Leave side hadn’t planned on winning. Liberals descended on the public squares of British cities, wrapping themselves in EU flags. The flag-worship was part of a pervasive post-Brexit mania. The many weird takes — conspiracy theories, accusations of ignorance, petitions to re-stage the vote, denial of racism, excuses for racism, apparent shock at the existence of racism — reinforced the sense that the result contained an indigestible toxin.

British racism doesn’t want to know what race is. British racism, I thought, sweeps its footsteps away as it walks, so it can never remember itself. But when Brexit happened, I saw that all the footsteps are still perfectly preserved. From the perspective of this tiny island, rancid with nostalgia, the colonial project has diminished to a vague, troubling elsewhere. Thus British national identity, mounted on the abuse of enslaved, waged and indentured people all around the world, can configure itself as an indigenous struggle. UKIP leader Nigel Farage declared that Brexit marked Britain’s independence day. For all his pride in empire, he pretended to forget that Britain has for hundreds of years been a colonising entity that many people, from Ireland to Kenya, have fought for independence from. Superimposed over Farage’s face I see holographic ghosts of slaves and peasants, photobombing this present with a present of their own. Although the heroism and fortitude of World War II is grubby with use in British discourse, Britain did not fight its famous war against fascism out of love for the Jews, who they turned away at the border, nor even because of hatred of fascism, which they liked better home-grown.

Theresa May said in a recent speech, “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” I am a proud non-citizen of this nowhere forged by the colonial and neocolonial adventures of western Europe. As the historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh write, “Since the peoples of the world have, throughout history, clung stubbornly to the economic independence that comes from possessing their own means of subsistence, whether land or other property, European capitalists had to forcibly expropriate masses of them from their ancestral homelands so that their labor-power could be redeployed in new economic projects in new geographic settings. The dispossession and relocation of peoples have been a worldwide process spanning five hundred years.” We are not to blame for the nowheres we come from. Staying where you’re from might be pleasant, but it’s not a moral virtue. We move because we have to, and we have been moving for a long time.

When people ask me where I’m from, I say London — not England, not Britain, and not even Manchester, where I was born and lived as a child. I say I’m from London not only because my family are there, but because “London” is the closest acceptable equivalent to “nowhere,” which is where I’m really from. London is a sharp-edged city: very rich and very poor. Like all important cities, it is full of people who come from somewhere else. The dream of strong borders makes no sense in London, just like London makes no sense from inside that dream.

The story of how I ended up born nowhere, told in detail, would have to briefly cover transatlantic slavery and the plantation economy, the history of European anti-Semitism, and the colonisation of Ireland, but no one has time for that. To those to whom this sounds exotic and multicultural, I offer the singular banality of my life. I was born in Britain because Britain committed enough violence to render itself inevitable. If you maim and kill a bunch of people for trade reasons while keeping a straight face and burning the evidence whenever you can, eventually you can shrug and say of the piles of corpses and broken hearts behind you, “That was a long time ago.” This shrug is the punctuation of a vicious falsehood about life that says it is only biological, only factual.

My attempts to write about Brexit dissolve into the gap between two desires: to speak to people who I feel have reason to hate me and to be in dialogue with people I feel have reason to care for me. One is a propaganda desire and the other is a ritual desire. Agitprop and incantation. The former wants to change the world of others, and the latter wants to maintain and keep intact some small pieces of a shared, immediate world. This is too schematic. Everything felt very schematic, back in the Brexit summer, when I couldn’t talk about anything else. I was suddenly very interested in questions about “the left” that I hadn’t considered for years: what should the left do, what did the left need, and so on. A friend told me, with kindness, “Don’t waste your time thinking about the left. The left has always been scheisse for Black people.” She died a couple of months later, a death not unrelated to the banal, everyday pains of race/class/gender, and I include these words to remember her by, and because she was right. The end of the world is a fantasy, but death is still real.

What is the past? What is a country? British racism, even the racism of five minutes ago, considers itself as ancient as the British slave ships that once rode high on the imperial sea. Slavery was a very long time ago, while the Shakespeare plays that sailors performed on the deck of the ships remain fresh and contemporary. The nineteenth-century is very recent and relevant, because it was a period of glorious industrial expansion, according to  the pro-Leave documentary Brexit: The Movie, but the fact that this industrial expansion was largely powered by the trade in slaves and the colonisation of huge tracts of the world is irrelevant and boring to talk about. It’s in the past! What’s the past? I don’t even remember writing this sentence. The 1960s are memorialised in commerce on Carnaby Street in London; the 1960s were swinging, just like the famous 1960s pub signs saying No blacks no Irish no dogs might have swung back and forth when a door slammed in someone’s face. London is a great city, with many important buildings, palaces and monuments, but it is not important that these buildings were funded by vast imperial plunder.

Capitalist violence is limitless, and what limits it pretends to pertain to race and nationality: death can be strewn from the sky over there, but here it must be held in check; this person can be executed in the street by police, but this person deserves the police’s protection. The instability of this order only reinforces its violence. In Brexit’s Britain and Trump’s America, the theme of 2016 has been “white people freak out.” Perhaps they are scared that the magic protective circle of whiteness is contracting, but perhaps we should pay their troubles as little mind as they pay ours.