Archive for November, 2016

Laughter of the Elves

November 30, 2016

brexitPublishing can move fast when the stakes are high. Just a few months after the terse, fractured summer of 2016, a tranche of shiny books appear commemorating the Brexit vote of June 23 – the culmination of what was the nastiest political campaign in my lifetime, probably the worst since the ‘nigger for a neighbour’ days of the 1960s. Now writers and analysts have begun to bang out lengthy titles in which they try to make sense of it all. Ian Dunt’s Brexit book is the only one I have read and I suspect it is the only such book anyone will need.

Dunt begins with a worst case scenario. He sketches out a possible future where Britain has fallen out of the European Union with no reputation, no trade deal, passport deal, single market access, or customs union. Dunt is a knowledgeable, thoughtful fellow, with an aptitude for stats and mechanisms, and Brexit true believers have an easy answer for his kind. Warnings from worried economists can be dismissed as ‘Project Fear’. Press the Brexiters further, and you’ll come away with the impression that trade agreements and all that stuff isn’t worth a piss in the wind.

‘For many Leave voters, money was less important than sovereignty,’ Dunt writes. After all, doesn’t globalisation hurt people, and diminish the intangible goods of life? What about tradition, patriotism, sense of place? ‘I would prefer not to be better off and have a country that didn’t go to 75 million,’ said Nigel Farage in 2015. ‘Some things matter more than money, and I think the shape of our communities and the sense of contentment living in the country matters more.’ It’s almost as if the anti globalist movement Farage leads has evolved beyond mere rational wants and into a higher plane of English spiritualism.

Neoliberalism has racked up plenty of casualties but in Farage’s critique isn’t there a certain complacent perspective: the perspective of a class and a generation that has never really known scarcity, that is a little too used to its own security and to things working as they should? Point is, the need for material things and functioning markets can’t just be wished away. How would we cope in Dunt’s nightmare scenario: lorries bottlenecked at entry ports, meat and fish rotting in warehouses, firms closing down, foodstuffs disappearing from the UK’s supermarkets and medicines from our pharmacies?

Dunt is the best writer on the complexities of the EU. With bold, sure strokes he cuts through the crap and actually explains something. Like so much else, Europe has become hyper politicised: ‘the failure to assess it as a working organisation rather than a demonic fantasy means the ministers in charge of Brexit are struggling to construct a credible negotiating strategy.’ We get a reasonable deal from the EU as it is: ‘a well-meaning but internally contradictory experiment in transnational political organisation.’

Negotiating such a deal after we’ve walked out will be difficult. We’ll be negotiating with the entire EU, and also with the WTO as failsafe. We will need crack negotiators in ‘difficult, very boring areas and the people who specialise in them tend to have done so for their entire career,’ Dunt writes. ‘You can’t just pluck a smart young thing from the civil service and train them in a few weeks. They’ll be eaten alive in negotiations.’ We will be running around like Apprentice candidates trying to sell junk prototypes to antique shops on the Portobello Road.

We could potentially make Brexit work, Dunt says. But on our current course, we will hit a ‘Project Fear’ type Brexit, because people in government have so little grasp on what they want and how to get it. Boris and Liam Fox are obviously ridiculous: Gove dashed his reputation as a serious conservative intellectual on the summer referendum. Far more disturbing is Dunt’s exposure of Theresa May. She’s seen as a safe pair of hands in tough times. Yet rather than keep Eurocrats on the back foot, trying to guess what we were going to do, May announced her Article 50 date ‘seemingly as an afterthought’ – and, with that, blew what little leverage she had. As Dunt says: ‘May’s decision to give away the date and then petition for talks outside Article 50 was equivalent to a gunman throwing down his weapon and demanding the enemy surrender.’

You get the feeling that the main Brexit figures aren’t motivated by rational self interest so much as a giggling nihilism. David Cameron famously said of Michael Gove that ‘he is basically a bit of a Maoist – he believes that the world makes progress through a process of creative destruction’. There’s a little far left revolutionary craziness there, also something like the weaponised attention seeking of the alt right – and it is, again I think, something that comes from long periods of prosperity and safety.

When I last wrote about Vote Leave, I quoted the classic Fitzgerald line, about Tom and Daisy Buchanan: ‘They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’ But maybe a less glamorous literary allusion fits better. Terry Pratchett’s fantasy novel Lords and Ladies has a conservative rural community invaded by psychotic killer elves. The good witch Nanny Ogg finds that her cottage has been trashed and ruined by the invaders.

‘Why’d they do it?’ her companion asks.

‘Oh, they’d smash the world if they thought it’d make a pretty noise,’ Nanny says offhand.

For such a chilling book, Dunt ends with some positive thoughts. A good Brexit is possible, he says, but only if we revive ‘British values… calm debate, instinctive scepticism, practical judgement and moderation.’ Unfortunately, Dunt doesn’t need to add that these values have been abandoned in the process so far, and there is no sign of common sense returning.

Railways in Hiding

November 28, 2016

undergroundrailroadThrough Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower cycle is threaded a picaresque tale that begins when Father Callahan, failed priest and alcoholic, gets on a Greyhound coach leaving a doomed Maine town called Jerusalem’s Lot. Running from vampires, and also from his own failure, he crosses ‘a great, possibly endless, confluence of worlds. They are all America, but they are all different.’ The variants of America are small – there are different faces on the banknotes, different letterheads on the newspaper, and ‘maybe there’s another version of New Jersey where the town on the other side of the Hudson is Leeman or Leighman or Lee Bluffs or Lee Palisades or Leghorn village.’ And yet the thrill’s in the wandering: ‘There are highways which lead through all of them, and he can see them.’

It seems frivolous to compare Colson Whitehead‘s Underground Railroad with any supernatural novel. But despite the grim intro to his America, the plantation Georgia from the slave’s perspective, reeking with heat, sweat, whippings, rapes and executions, there is a similar sense of adventure, of possibilities and the luminous. Runaway slave Cora escapes from the vicious Randall homestead through what turns out to be a literal underground railroad: steam trains, running through a network of subterranean tunnels from one state to another. This surreal development in no way jars the reader following Whitehead’s terse narrative of indentured horrors: you just don’t see the join. As Alex Preston wrote: ‘And here is the spark that ignites the novel. For Whitehead has taken that historical metaphor – the network of abolitionists who helped ferry slaves out of the south – and made it into a glistening, steampunk reality.’ Whenever Cora asks who built the railroad, a laconic engineer replies: who builds everything in this country?

‘If you want to see what this nation is all about,’ rail agent Lumbly explains, ‘you have to ride the rails.’ Cora rides the rails all over the US, and finds in every state she visits, a new America, differing in gradations. South Carolina’s benign and orderly world, nominally liberal, conceals a frightening Edwardian eugenicism. Tennessee appears to be engulfed in yellow fever and a rampaging forest fire – caused, apparently, by a household spark, some casual carelessness decimating city-sized acreage. In the Indiana free zone, successful escapees debate the future of the race: Booker T Washington’s conservative incrementalism fights the revolutionary fire of du Bois. North Carolina has solved the ‘race problem’ by simply banning all persons of colour from its state, importing European migrants to do the gruntwork. Yet the North Carolinans are still morbidly afraid of black people, staging gallows and passion-plays in acts of propitiation to keep ‘the other’ away. As Lumbly also says, every state is different – but everywhere Cora visits is either a slave state, or vulnerable to slave-catchers and local racists. The contradiction in the founder myth – freedom, but not for you – is inescapable, the warp in the heart of the American dream.

Hot on Cora’s trail is the road agent Ridgeway, a swaggering Simon Legree of a slave-chaser, and perhaps the O’Brien of the antebellum South. He thinks himself a philosopher-king of predators, even employing a secretary (a man of colour) to notarise his thoughts. ‘Here was the true Great Spirit, the divine thread connecting all human endeavour – if you can keep it, it is yours,’ Ridgeway believes. ‘Your property, slave or continent. The American imperative.’ The story doesn’t let you go for a moment, and you are sorry when the book comes to an end.

One thing we learned this year is that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are fragile things. Underground Railroad has the feel of a nineteenth-century novel, but perhaps that’s not what Whitehead is getting at. Perhaps he is trying to give us a vision of our future.


November 9, 2016

Everybody knows why Donald Trump won the US presidential election. Now that it’s happening, everybody knows. You have maybe heard it all night from analysts and talking heads. You will keep on hearing it, from politicians, from think tank people, from newspaper columnists, on your social media. You’d be amazed how many people have the answer.

Let me summarise the root cause argument for you. Trump will assume the Presidency of the free world (I write this as the man himself gives his acceptance speech) Britain voted to leave the EU, and the Tories won the last general election. Big, unexpected defeats for liberals, and down to one thing: a revolt from the white working class that has been screwed over by free markets and free movement.

The argument writes itself. Since 1979, the progressive Atlantic parties (the American Democrats, and the Labour Party in this country) separated themselves from the working class that they originated to represent. Clinton Democrats and New Labour embraced a more aggressive form of capitalism, involving more privatisations, more migrant labour, and a further shift from manufacturing to service based economics. Culturally, and certainly in this country, Labour introduced more identity-based politics, which bemused the working class left that tended to prioritise trade union rights over the rainbow coalition. The white working class, in Britain and in America, grew tired of crap jobs,  social stratification and political correctness and delivered a resounding ‘Fuck you’ to the establishment. Result? Goodbye, Europe: hello, Mr President Trump.

There’s obvious truth in the argument, and I do think that the left and liberals need to acknowledge some responsibility for this complete fucking train wreck that we are waking up to. I’m thinking less of the beard strokers and more of the career activists who demonstrated against ‘neoliberalism’ and foreign intervention. Well, we have a President who’s sent the markets haywire, and who takes care to accommodate murderous foreign powers. To paraphrase Margaret Atwood: we have that kind of culture now. It’s not quite what you wanted, but it’s a start…

And yet: as the policy wonks and beard-strokers deliver the rehearsed argument, is there not a undertone of complacency in their voices? Can it really be so simple? Is there not a sleight-of-hand being played here somewhere? And are you sure that you’re not being fooled again?

Here’s the problem. The political science professors and the Labour grandees and the columnists have a point. We might well be better off outside the EU. We should certainly be able to have sovereignty over our own laws, and unravel the crap parts of EU law from our system. Identity politics is often silly. We should be able to make and sell stuff in our own countries.

Fair enough, all good, but what I don’t get is the zero sum nature of these arguments. It’s not enough for ‘the left behind’ to succeed – others must be hurt. These few months since the referendum have been an obvious example. June 24 was a fantastic opportunity to draft our written constitution, our Bill of Rights, to redress institutional wrongs that have screwed all of us, for centuries.

And what do we get? Nothing, except yet another crackdown on net migration. A British Prime Minister – someone who represents the greatest country in the world – travelling from country to country, and telling people ‘Please don’t visit Great Britain.’ It would be funny, if it wasn’t so fucking tragic.

(Oh, and we’re not getting workers on company boards, nor will we reform unpaid internships – how’s that blue-collar revolution working out for ya?)

This isn’t just rhetoric. People get hurt. The EU nationals who find themselves passed around like so many bags of candy. The victims of racist assaults, in the wake of June 24. Every man, woman and child made to feel less British because they have a different colour skin or imperfect English or an unusual name.

Trump is of course the master of ‘others must suffer’ zero sum politics. Mexicans, Muslims, assertive women, African-Americans – there appears no end to the man’s hatreds. Politicians used to win by careful strategies that appealed to as many voters as possible. Trump pulled his victory from a jukebox of resentments. We have seen the normalisation of outright bigotry, and white supremacism, during this campaign (if you don’t believe me, I can recommend the work of the St Louis journalist Sarah Kendzior, a fearless chronicler of alt-right craziness).

And this takes us into a different world. Put simply, it doesn’t matter that we have Equality Acts and diversity training and identity politics if enough people decide these things don’t matter. The brilliant journalist Chris Deerin said that: ‘civilisation is a more fragile thing than we often care to understand.’ And he’s not wrong.

It’s pointless to make predictions, ultimately pointless in this instance because of the number of catastrophic scenarios that will make talk of political theory laughably irrelevant, but I think the following scenario will play out. There will be a lot of tedious anti-Americanism, and looking-down upon the working class, in Britain and in America. Implications will be made that democracy is hardly worth the candle if it keeps throwing up a Trump or a Brexit. The moral legitimacy of the American idea, and of democracy in general, will be undermined.

Trump might satisfy some of his base (as Tory Brexit will satisfy to some extent the ‘left behind’ in this country) but nothing will ever satisfy the true believers, because while we can do more to stimulate domestic industry and control immigration we cannot reverse time or socially engineer a lost country. There will be more bitterness, more resentment, more backlash, which Trump and Nigel will not be able to blame on the ‘establishment’ because by then they will be the establishment. And civilisation will get that little bit more fragile.

Obviously I don’t have the answers, but I will say this. Zero sum politics doesn’t work. The white working class Trump talks about deserve the best (and I’ve yet to meet a working class person who wouldn’t be insulted by the idea that they would fall for a blatant scam artist like Trump or Farage, or Jeremy Corbyn for that matter). People who feel hard done by because of immigration deserve their say and our support: but what about immigrants themselves, or EU nationals, or those of us who support free movement or merely don’t have a problem with it: aren’t we citizens too? We must accept that times and societies and countries change. Tradition and sense of place isn’t corroded by that change, on the contrary, it’s for the sake of tradition and the texture of our lives that we must stand up for difference, for the cosmopolitan, for what is creative and otherworldly and compassionate in us. This isn’t over.


Shoulder your duds dear son, and I will mine, and let us/hasten forth,
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.

– Whitman

‘Song of Myself’