Saturday, 26 January 2019

Identity is the Crisis, Can't You See

One of the less successful (though no less entertaining) chapters of Fintan O'Toole's Heroic Failure sees him attempt to connect Jacob Rees-Mogg's use of the word "vassalage", via the aristocratic self-indulgence of the Hundred Years War, to the MP's father, William Rees-Mogg, and the latter's book, The Sovereign Individual. Though he is right to point out that "for them the exit from the EU is really a prelude to the exit from the nation state into a world where the rich are truly free because they are truly stateless", and he is also correct that the ties that bind the rich to each other trump national loyalty, he is wrong to dismiss this as hypocritical self-interest masked by an antiquarian conceit. Imagining them imagining themselves as the modern equivalent of the Knights Templar or the Order of Malta unnecessarily diverts attention from obvious class interest to the trope of elite conspiracy. Similarly, I think that those who this week charged James Dyson with hypocrisy for both supporting Brexit and moving his company headquarters to Singapore are mistaken.

Central to capitalist ideology is the separation of the public sphere of politics from the private sphere of business. Just as charity is ostentatiously performed as an annex to business but has little apparent influence on its ethics, so politics can be treated as a private matter of conscience that has no bearing on commercial decisions (and vice versa, hence Boris Johnson's "fuck business"). Liberal outrage when partisan politics is all too obvious in the boardroom, such as JCB handsomely rewarding David Davis, merely reinforces this idea of separate realms. But that ideology in turn means you cannot be a hypocrite if you sacrifice your political beliefs to commercial logic, as Dyson is accused of doing. In reality, James Dyson and Jacob Rees-Mogg see no conflict between "global Britain" (in practice the free movement of capital) and national chauvinism, not because they rigorously separate their political and economic selves, but because they identify the nation's interests with their own. This stance conflicts with the worldview of many leavers, particularly those who hope for a more protectionist national economy, but there has been no attempt by the Brexit elite to hide this difference of opinion (that the media have been rubbish at interrogating it is another matter).

What their insouciance points to is the dominance of an identity that has been a long time in the making. Fundamentally, the Tory-Whig division of the 18th and 19th centuries was between the relative priorities of domestic and foreign wealth in the management of the state: between land and trade. This was decisively settled in favour of the latter in 1846 with the repeal of the Corn Laws. The cause of empire allowed the two to be temporarily reconciled, essentially by projecting the idea of the homeland and its associated virtue of loyalty to the colonies. With the coming of universal suffrage in the 20th century and the shift of the cause of the national economy from the political right to the left, empire as a field of elite action also became an escape from democracy and its attendant obligations, most obviously the funding of a welfare state through taxation. With the end of empire, that field of action moved to international finance capital, with the result that Tory reactionaries like the Rees-Moggs happily adopted libertarian theory. It is no coincidence that so many contemporary Tories admire Singapore, despite it being an unattractive model from the perspective of working-class leavers.

I raise this to point out that the contemporary identities of "leaver" and "remainer" are not homogeneous. Just as leavers are divided over capital mobility and communal obligation, so remainers are divided over the direction of EU reform (more social democratic versus more neoliberal). That might seem obvious, but there is a growing belief that Brexit is forcing a fundamental realignment of political loyalties (that this belief co-exists with an insistence that Tory Party members are overwhelmingly in favour of no-deal and Labour members in favour of remain doesn't seem to trouble those advancing the idea). The latest example of this comes from The UK in a Changing Europe, an avowedly "non-partisan and impartial reference point" funded by the ESRC and based at King's College London: "The UK is increasingly polarized by Brexit identities and they seem to have become stronger than party identities, a new academic report finds. Only one in 16 people did not have a Brexit identity, while more than one in five said they had no party identity."

I would interpret the latter as a sign of sophistication on the part of those polled. We have long been exposed to the idea of the floating voter, and it is inevitable that parties in a first-past-the-post electoral system are coalitions of shifting interests whose complexion changes from election to election. In the circumstances, I'd be surprised if more than 80% said they had a fixed party identity (I'm actually surprised it's that high). In contrast, if you put people on the spot over a binary issue then you'd expect them to come down on one side or the other, even if they have only a weak preference. This in itself doesn't constitute an identity, any more than an opinion on Marmite does. The insistence that Brexit is dividing the country into two camps serves an obvious centrist interest, but it also allows the fragile coalitions formed around the referendum to avoid self-interrogation. The People's Vote campaign in particular has been a classic exercise in displacement. Instead of building a case for the EU beyond the negatives of departure, there has been a focus on process and legitimacy.

As I noted in the previous post, Fintan O'Toole believes that punk is central to understanding the character of Brexit: "If you are English and in your fifties or early sixties, two things are likely to be true of you. One is that in 2016 you voted to leave the European Union: 60 per cent of both men and women in the UK aged between fifty and sixty-four did so. The other is that you were, in the immediate period after the UK joined the Common Market, a punk. Or if not an actual punk, then a vicarious one, living off the thrills of this most powerful and original English cultural movement of modern times. These two truths are closely related. At the level of high politics, Brexit may be defined by upper-class twittery. It seems more P.G. Wodehouse that Johnny Rotten. But at the level of popular culture, it is pure punk". While he accepts the difference between "high" and "low" Brexiteers - his book's premise is essentially deluded lions led by venal donkeys - he reduces each to a stereotype: Bertie Wooster and Johnny Rotten.

The central flaw in O'Toole's argument is not his bonkers claim that punk turned the English character towards masochism, but his dodgy sociology and even dodgier maths. Punk was just as popular in remain-supporting Scotland and Northern Ireland as it was in England and Wales, but it is also true to say that it was a minority interest everywhere, and not just in 1976. Not only were teenagers in the late-70s more likely to be into disco or heavy metal, but a strong identification with any musical sub-culture was atypical. Most people simply weren't that bothered. Despite the iconic status of Never Mind the Bollocks: Here's the Sex Pistols, the biggest-selling LP of 1977 was Abba's Arrival, while the albums released that year that would go on to rack up the most sales over time were Meatloaf's Bat Out of Hell, the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack and Fleetwod Mac's Rumours. I'm all for blaming Brexit on the lasting damage done by Barry Gibb and Stevie Nicks, but I'm not sure I could really justify it.

If you can't find a convincing explanation for an identity, then maybe the identity doesn't really exist. Maybe it is just an ideological frame, or a psychological projection, like marketing "tribes" or the belief that supporters of your football team's main rivals are all arseholes. There is also the danger of political scientists conjuring up a field of work: "The Brexit juncture comes in a new era of UK politics. It marks the first real crisis of politics in the post-devolution era in which the UK has become formed as a multi-national state, not just in terms of its governance, but in its identity too. Formal decisions concerning Brexit reside with the Westminster Parliament, but the consequences ripple across the UK’s nations and their assemblies, parliaments and civil societies. The European question has layered another deep cleavage onto the already fractious territorial politics of the union." Brexit is certainly an emotive issue, but I wonder if the assumption that it will be a disruptive part of our politics for years to come will prove true. The real lesson of punk was that it only lasted a few years.


  1. Ha!

    It reminds me a bit about my Mam commenting a few years ago on the lousy musical taste of her co-workers: 'You wouldn't think they'd grown up through the time of the Stones, Cream or Jimi Hendrix'!

    There are plenty of people my own age who participated in the techno and drum and bass scene yet are now quite partial to Mumford and Sons. This country! *tuts*

  2. «It is no coincidence that so many contemporary Tories admire Singapore»

    In that admiration "Singapore" is merely an euphemism for "Dubai". The Singapore government is merely "one nation" tory, with too much state intervention and paternalism, for most extreme thatcherites.

    1. Not to mention that Singapore:

      a) has over 80% of its citizens in the equiavalent of social housing, and
      b) has a large enough Muslim minority that they felt it prudent to ban the Satanic Verses.

  3. «The real lesson of punk was that it only lasted a few years.»

    There is I guess some validity in the argument that "punk" is central to contemporary british culture, and it not quite the “bonkers claim that punk turned the English character towards masochism”.

    But that "punk" was essentially nihilistic, decadent, both selfish and self-harming, a product of ennui and despair. It was in some part the lower class version of Bulligdon Club attitudes.

    Perhaps the loss of the english empire and then of the english "one nation" policies have generated similar attitudes among the upper and lower classes.

    Current tory (Conservative and New Labour) policies are also nihilistic and decadent, centred as they are on championing the meanest self-regard of the “aspirational voters who shop at John Lewis and Waitrose”, typically older (often childless or estranged from their children) ladies and lords of the micromanors, owners of petty southern property.

    1. Punk was not "essentially nihilistic, decadent, both selfish and self-harming, a product of ennui and despair".

      It certainly played up the idea of boredom, but that was a critique of the decadence of the mid-70s. It was actively bored *with* things, not just suffering ennui. As the Clash sang, "I'm so bored with the USA".

      Its nihilism was an affectation belied by its DIY activism (kids formed bands, produced fanzines, made their own clothes etc); while its openness to ideas and influences, from postmodernism to reggae, was anything but selfish.

      I don't want to over-emphasise it's cultural significance (my point is that it was a brief flowering that was soon absorbed & commodified), but it has been badly misrepresented by O'Toole. It isn't the Brexit Rosebud.