By Francis Lee for the Saker Blog
The referendum on Britain’s vote to Remain or Leave the EU – Brexit – has raised deeper issues than simply whether or not the UK retains its European membership. The real issue is that of the whole Transatlantic bloc from Seattle to Warsaw, its, culture, institutions, politics, and economics has also been undergoing deep structural changes – not necessarily for the good.
The victory of the Leave majority in the first UK Brexit referendum in 2018 and a rerun, which should never have been allowed, of the Remain campaign in the general election of 2019 – both in the face of a massive establishment propaganda blitzkrieg was quite remarkable. The centrist coalition of the centre-right Conservative business class and the still deeply Blairite and third-wayist faction of the overwhelming majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Trades Union Congress (TUC and most of its affiliated unions) and tens of thousands of rank-and-file woke militants, threw everything but the kitchen sink into their campaign but lost. But even then, the issues had not been settled – that is for the self-appointed, London based, middle-class, parvenues who imagined themselves as carrying the torch for civilization. After what was a definitive verdict – which in both instances was a ‘NO’ to the continued membership of Britain in the EU – there was a vicious counter-attack. It started from the premise that EU membership is an absolute good, the absolute truth, and that any opposition is racist, homophobic, xenophobic, misogynist … and so on and so forth. The fuddy-duddy notion of national sovereignty was of course considered completely de rigueur. Therefore, there is not, nor can there be any legitimate critique of the EU. Argument closed: no engagement or discourse on the subject, just hysterical ranting, and mass cancellation. Sound familiar?
In fact the EU before, during, and after the referendum was hardly the Shangri La imagined by the ‘Remainer’ constituency. At that time, their political and cultural love object was the EU of Manuel Barroso, ex-Maoist, ex-President of the European Commission, now working for Goldman Sachs, Merkel’s pet Russophobe, Donald Tusk, and not forgetting Jean-Claude Juncker, at that time President of the European Commission, who was incidentally involved in a tax avoidance scandal in Luxembourg where he was one-time Prime Minister, and then a litany of other self-serving political mediocrities on the make. The EU is also an economic dead zone (particularly in the peripheral areas of Eastern and Southern Europe) with unemployment rates higher than the UK and growth rates lower.
A veritable economic and political Shangri-la? Yeah, right. Like Lord Nelson at the Battle of Copenhagen* the Remainers are putting the telescope to their blind eye: I see no economic and political dead-zone! Maybe they should have gone to Specsavers!
These sentiments are not just conservative, they are downright reactionary and anti-democratic. And the ex-centre-left has played an insidious part in this development. The glaring contrast between the people’s vote for leaving and the vote of the PLP and TUC institutions which supposedly represent them, for remaining, prompted even left observers to conclude that the people, like sheep, had gone astray and handed racist xenophobes a shameful victory. This was the liberal centre-left’s great Brechtian moment when ‘the people should be dissolved and a new one elected.’ The famous German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, was of course making a sardonic comment on the actions of the East German Communist regime in 1953 when it suppressed the workers uprising. It bears a striking similarity to the response by our own neo-totalitarians in 2016. Additionally, the procrastination of the establishment Remainers, which was slowing down the whole exit project, can be thought of as the establishment’s Augustinian moment. St. Augustine ‘’God give me chastity and celibacy, but not yet.’’ the Remainer-speak version being God give me Article 50 but not yet.
In sociological terms the upper-echelons of the liberal class who think that they have the divine right to set the political agenda, represent a sub-hierarchy below the real policy makers and shakers. The 20% beneath the 1%. They tend to be ensconced in the media, academia, professions such as law and medicine, middle-management, financial planners, economists, computer programmers, aerospace designers, and the entertainment business. Quite a number, particularly in business, government, both local and central, advertising, telemarketing, public relations, could be considered to be ‘bullshit jobs’ (in the late) David Graeber’s insightful observation. As a whole this particular social and occupational stratum, look up rather than look down, they serve power not the people. They are Orwell’s Outer party in his 1984 novel, sandwiched between the Inner party and the Proles. Knowing which side their bread is buttered on they identify with and support the Power Elite.
An avant garde leading from the rear, yes. Trahison des Clercs, most certainly but more politically and culturally homogeneous today than as was once the case.
This shell of a once fighting left (now unrecognisable from their previous political and ideological moorings) now embraces the culture of identity but excludes the entity of class. As a result poverty has become the P-word, and the poor the pariahs of neoliberal dystopic utopia. When we talk about class in a Marxist, materialist sense, we are talking about a relation of power, specifically about who does and who doesn’t have power to shape society. Identity politics makes this conflict of interests in society invisible. Neoliberal economics, however, is quite simply class war. It has advanced in part because identity politics depoliticized the public. Is it mere coincidence that the melange of post-Marxism, identity politics, and neoliberal economics saw the light in the same post-sixties decades? Together, they form the heart of the reaction, which is the take-back by the economic elite in the last four decades of every gain the fighting left loosed from the fist of capital before and since World War II. The rapacity of contemporary capitalism is enabled by the weakness, dishonesty, and cowardice of the flaccid and collaborationist left.
On the American side of the pond the same (albeit worse) diseased and morbid social tendencies began to emerge from a decaying body-politic circa 2001 and maybe even before, but the 9/11 was the pinnacle, which was of course no accident. For one of the persistent strands in American political life is a cultish extremism that approaches fascism. This was given expression and reinforced during the two terms of Barack Obama. “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fibre of my being.” said Obama, who expanded America’s favourite military pastime, bombing, and death squads (“special operations”) as no other president has done since the Cold War.
The American political and social-theorist, Christopher Lasch, now unfortunately no longer with us, succinctly identified the political/cultural shifts in the American polity in the late twentieth-century. (1) America has undergone a profound structural, cultural, and political transmutation: it is not the masses or working class, so much as an emerging sub-elite of professional and managerial types who constitute the greatest threat to democracy, according to Lasch. The new cognitive sub-elite is made up of what Robert Reich called “symbolic analysts’. This middle-class occupational stratum – in the British rather than the American sense – traffics in information and manipulates words and numbers for a living. They live in an abstract world in which information and expertise are the most valuable commodities. Since the market for these assets is international, the privileged class is more concerned with the global system than with regional, national, or even local communities. In fact, members of the new sub-elite tend to be estranged from their communities and their fellow citizens. “They send their children to private schools, insure themselves against medical emergencies … and hire private security guards to protect themselves against the mounting violence against them,” Lasch writes. In effect, they have removed themselves from the common life and have moved offshore.
These tendencies, however, have been observable even before Lasch’s observations. Way back in the middle to late 1950s, the great American theorist C Wright Mills, produced powerful polemics concerning the structure and direction in which the Republic was headed. These tendencies were recognised as early as the 1950s. (2)
‘’We cannot assume today that men (sic) must in the last resort be governed by their own consent. Among the means of power that now prevail is the power to manage and manipulate the consent of men … and many people are neither radical nor reactionary, they are simply inactionary. If we accept the Greeks definition of an idiot as an altogether private man then we must conclude that many citizens of mass societies are indeed idiots … History making may well go by default, men may well abdicate its continual making and so merely float along as corks in a bottle of an Ocean drift. The implication of this, however, is that history will indeed be made – but by narrow elite circles without effective responsibility to those who must try to survive the consequences of their decisions and of their defaults.’ (3)
A more recent American social critic, Morris Berman, has also been cognisant of the cultural decline and disintegration of America; indeed it would have been difficult to miss. His caustic analysis on the current state of American Culture – The Twilight of American Culture (4) – makes particularly compelling reading for the English-speaking world. Mr. Berman argues provocatively and incisively that the direction of American civilization is locked into a path which will lead nowhere except into its own demise. The American empire has now borne witness to the passage of its most fruitful and triumphant years and its approaching the future – if it hasn’t already got there – and a period of social and political chaos from which there doesn’t appear to be an exit, or at least a controlled exit. So the controlled exit is about the best route on offer, though only 50/50 at best.
‘’For when a population becomes distracted by trivia, and when cultural life is redefined as a perpetual round of entertainments, when serious public conversation becomes a form of ‘baby-talk’, when in short, a people become an audience and their public business becomes a vaudeville act, then a nation finds itself at risk; culture death is a near (extremely near) possibility.’’(5)
The fault-lines, stresses and cleavages in the Transatlantic bloc are becoming increasingly clear both within nations and between nations. In Europe the exit of Britain from the EU and Europe, and the possible defections of Hungary, Poland and Italy. In the United States the strain on the Republic with an increasing and assertive emergence of the South and possible mid-west as well as the drift of coastal America away from flyover America. It could be said that these are simply speculative guesses, but these future possibilities are a little more than simply straws in the wind. For better or worse, big changes are on the way.
(1) Christopher Lasch – The Revolt of the Elites – published posthumously in 1994. The title of the book was taken from the name of a book “the Revolt of the Masses” by the elite theorist Jose Ortega Y Gasset in 1930.
(2) The Power Elite, 1959 and The Sociological Imagination 1956.
(3) C Wright Mills – The Sociological Imagination – Ibid – pps. 51, 195
* The naval Battle of Copenhagen (1801) occurred during the War of the Second Coalition when a British naval fleet commanded by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker defeated a Danish fleet anchored just off Copenhagen. Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson led the main attack. During the battle, he famously is reputed to have disobeyed his senior officer, Sir Hyde Parker’s, order to withdraw by holding the telescope to his blind eye to look at the signals from Parker. The signals had given Nelson permission to withdraw at his discretion. Nelson then turned to his flag captain, Thomas Foley, and said ‘You know, Foley, I have only one eye. I have a right to be blind sometimes.’ He raised the telescope to his blind eye saying, ‘I really do not see the signal.’ Copenhagen is often considered to be Nelson’s hardest-fought victory.
(4) Morris Berman – The Twilight of American Culture – published in 2000.
(5) Berman – Ibid., -Introduction.