To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul. It is one of the hardest to define. A human being has roots by virtue of his real, active and natural participation in the life of a community which preserves in living shape certain particular treasures of the past and certain particular expectations for the future. Simone Weil, The Need for Roots.
In the weeks following the UK-wide referendum, I felt a series of powerful emotions I can only now express in words. In the aftermath of the vote, I recall being hunched over the radio, listening to a procession of BBC announcers in a state of utter incredulity. After the longest political campaign in my lifetime, Britain was set to leave the European Union. The questions were immediate and searing. How could my country (the island of Mill, Blake, Shelley and Paine) turn its back on the European project? Did most of us really want a shrunken Albion, receding into resolutely blanketed mists? As the days went on, my mood grew darker still. In the wake of news reports of the most disgusting xenophobia in the open street, I found myself feeling angrily hopeless. I just didn’t want to be part of this country anymore. ‘Is this what it meant to be English?’ I asked. The liberal cosmopolitan in me shivered at such a question. Yet this stinging query persisted. I needed answers. These were not the rather dry factual answers offered by political pundits and economists, but answers of a more existential kind. I needed to know what kind of country I was really part of, so I could decide whether to remain part of it. My constant companions in these reveries were the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek and the father of English political prose George Orwell. Both thinkers, it seems to me, offer us the tools for a daring analysis of the present situation, and offer us hope, that a resolution to our predicament might be found. The following discussion is premised on the highly unfashionable claim that there is something in the British (and specifically the English) national character which in part explains our woes, and perhaps how to overcome them.
The Anatomy of a Nation
The first problem to be tackled in this regard is the matter of nationhood itself. What makes for a nation and what keeps nations together? In a fascinating discussion of political history through the searing gaze of Hegelian theory, Žižek concludes in The Fragile Absolute that nationhood frequently depends upon an artful balance between a sense of particularity (one’s native stories, rituals and institutions) and the degree to which a country believes that these specifics participate in some ideal of universal truth (the peculiarities of a nation that have something to offer mankind as a whole). If humanity were an orchestra, what instrument would we the English play? This is what we might call the gage of national coherence, the two ingredients that allow a country to talk cogently about itself and its role. To illustrate this dynamic tension at the heart of the nation, Žižek chooses the story of ancient Israel in the Hebrew Bible. Here he says is the vivid epitome of a polity constantly wrestling (yet doing so successfully) with the strain between particularity and universality. What does Žižek conclude? In order for the universal to have its fullest expression in the fractured and plural domain of history, Ideal must first be mediated through particularity. Universal values (depicted as by Isaiah as Yahweh summoning the nations to Zion) cannot be undertaken as an exercise in uncovering rights which are self-evident (as in the Declaration of Independence) nor can do they appear unbidden from some Platonic sphere of the Real. They must be observed, cherished and solidified within the context of a distinct community of persons who serve as vessels, protectors and diviners of the universal. In this context, Abraham is the ‘father of the nations’ (Gen 17:5) because his faithfulness reveals a single moral order where God rules irrespective of nationality, religion or language. Yet such universal sovereignty could not have been recognised without the individual known as Abraham who made his life an instrument of the universal. As Žižek notes:
Judaism stands for paradox of Universalism which maintains its universal dimension precisely by its ‘passionate attachment’ to the strain of particularity that serves as its unacknowledged foundation. Judaism thus not only bellies the commonsense notion that the price to be paid for access to universality is to renounce one’s particularity; it also demonstrates the strain of unacknowledged stain of unacknowledgeable particularity of the gesture that generates the Universal is the ultimate source of the Universal’s vitality.
Yet, what happens when universality and particularity no longer sit in sympathetic balance? Moreover, what happens when one tries to actively erase the other? We have an object lesson about the erasure of universality by particularity in the nativist experiment of Nazism in the twentieth century. Here ‘socialism’ (normally associated with the world community of workers) is emptied of universality by the German nation becoming a violent expression of blood and soil, to the exclusion of ‘the nations’. This is why Nazism was similarly hostile to Christianity, Liberalism and Marxism because all three creeds proposed a universal emancipatory alternative to the nihilistic insular paganism of the Leader. In this spirit, Žižek suggests that ‘Christianity and Marxism should fight on the same side of the barricade against the onslaught of new spiritualisms’ (new manifestations of blood and soil) on the grounds that ‘the authentic Christian legacy is far too precious to left to fundamentalists and freaks.’ What needs to be preserved is the Christian insistence that history is not driven by a predetermined cage of race or nation, but rather is left radically open, a state of continual ‘becoming’. What rightly worried liberals and leftists after Brexit was precisely this; the fear that something called ‘the individual’ or ‘humanity’ was becoming lost a deluge of national drum beating. Yet, any dispassionate appraisal of the situation that Britain finds itself in the second decade of the twenty-first century cannot conclude that nativism is erasing universality ala 1939. Instances of spasmodic disquiet about immigration and Europhobia are symptomatic, not of the dominance of the particularism, but a reaction to the dominance of universalism at the level of economic structures and political institutions. Talk of Britain as a global business ‘hub’ or as the more noxious UK PLC, suggests a stripping away of the notion of countries as clusters of particularism and the subordination of culture to the universal rules of market exchange.Yet as Simone Weil reminds us in her book The Need for Roots, an overemphasis upon market-exchange poisons belonging and strips us of identity. As Weil notes:
Money destroys human roots wherever it is able to penetrate, by turning desire for gain into the sole motive. It easily manages to outweigh all other motives, because the effort it demands of the mind is so very much less. Nothing is so clear and so simple as a row of figures. There are social conditions in which an absolute and continuous dependence on money prevails — those of the wage-earning class, especially now that piece-work obliges each workman to have his attention continually taken up with the subject of his pay. It is in these social conditions that the disease of uprootedness is most acute.
To a degree, it is this erosion of local identity which has driven so much of the EU debate. In this vein, ‘keeping England England’ might mean nothing more threatening than keeping the post office open, making sure there is a good school nearby and plenty of jobs when the kids leave school. For such folk, the glittering prospect of great European markets feels as remote as a tennis match on Mars. Freedom of trade and movement may have attractions for liberals with the educational and economic capital to compete, but rings hollow to those who seek stability in shared forms of life, the local and personal. If the European Union is merely a showroom full of tantalising unaffordable luxuries, many in England’s little towns have concluded that Europe is not for people like them. How should we understand such a rejection? This is where George Orwell becomes a useful (if uncomfortable) companion in our search both for analysis of our present situation and its resolution.
Orwell: Particularity and Discontents
An important contribution to this discussion can be found in Orwell’s 1941 essay The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius. The first thing to strike a reader of this much-underrated work of Orwell’s is his Janus-faced account of the English spirit: both generous and reactionary, descent yet bigoted, very much like Orwell himself. What might this strange contradiction reveal about Britain’s present situation? At first Orwell’s vivid discussion of the politics of Englishness seems like a prophecy of despair for those who desperately wanted Britain to remain inside the Union. Perhaps one of Orwell’s most painful assertions in this regard, is his claim that while liberal intellectuals (like me) always gravitate towards grand schemes and abstract internationalism, the English in general, gravitate towards something far more earthen realities of ‘solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields, and red pillar-boxes’. At the heart of this valorisation of small, familiar and every day, says Orwell, is a quiet patriotism which has ‘a horror of abstract thought’.
No tidy arrangement of imported Human Rights, international organisation or grand ideas, will ever fully satisfy the ordinary English person. Only an understated love of country combined with a stern dose of common sense will do. This is a land where people are quite satisfied with their muddled solutions to local problems and their own contradictory opinions. What the English can’t stand, says Orwell, is having their problems and opinions subjected to some logic-chopping exercise which might attempt to impose a regimented external order. And for the English, this kind of rationalisation has always been seen as a suspicious interloper from the continent; from Napoleon to Jacques Delors. What do these reflexes mean for English identity? Above all, they express the peculiarly Anglo-Saxon virtue of ‘being bloody minded’ and refusing to fit into any pre-defined plan. As a consequence, the average English citizen is content to keep themselves to themselves (and most importantly go their own way.) They don’t want to ignore the world, but at the same time don’t feel called upon to be overly fraternal or chummy. As Orwell reflects on these pronounced tendencies among the English working-class:
In the working class, patriotism is profound, but it is unconscious. The working man’s heart does not leap when he sees a Union Jack. But the famous ‘insularity’ and ‘xenophobia’ of the English is far stronger in the working class than in the bourgeoisie. In all countries the poor are more national than the rich, but the English working class are outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habits.
In good times, such sentiments are mostly constructive; the healthy English scorn of busy bodies and arbitrary power. Taking pot-shots at sometimes self-obsessed EU commissioners is a profoundly constructive exercise which only makes a seemingly faceless organisation a little bit ridiculous and therefore a little more human. The British are the best ambassadors of liberal democracy the world has yet known, not because we are always faithful users of the ballot box, but because of our generalised contempt for everything which demands we treat it with dewy-eyed reverence. Viewed in this light, the anti-European reflexes of the Times and the Telegraph can be greeted with a spirit affection. Yet virtues need the proper soils to grow in, to keep them strong and healthy. Yet our national soil has been parched of late. In times like these, once noble reflexes have become raw and heated. They have become immune to reasonableness, perspective and most of all moderation. In this fraught state, people feel trapped and robbed of power. They feel degraded and lied to as they watch other doing well out of their misery. When all else fails, patriotism becomes the last line of defence. This was a notable feature of the Referendum debate, yet it was frequently misunderstood or even ignored by some ‘bourgeois’ liberals at the BBC, the Guardian and Number 10. The attractions of Europe could not compensate for decaying seaside towns, run down city-centres and de-industrialised urban wastes. Europe was a lightning rod for all that and more. Many people wanted their pride and dignity back but their leaders were not listening. Voters no longer felt at home in their homeland. They accordingly opted to ‘take back control’.
Yet, as Orwell knew, this intense insularity exists as part of a paradox. While the Britons of 1941 were trenchantly inward-looking, Britain still ran an empire, that administered commodity markets, bureaucracies and governments over more than half the globe. Yet even in the post-war world, this painful fissure between a generally universalist elite and a traditionalist public remained- a divide given a voice by figures as divergent as Enoch Powell and Tony Benn. While it is true that the ambitions of Britain’s cosmopolitans slowed and even froze for some of the post-war 1945 period (with a focus on full employment and public welfare at home) the process sped up again after 1980 as globalisation increasingly superseded traditional sovereignties. This led to some new and pervasive social contradictions in our island home. Britain under Thatcherism became a pioneer of a new global order in which capital was no longer rooted to any single country. Nothing could be allowed to stand in the way of the free flow of wealth. Consequently, nationalised industries were disbanded, labour rules liberalised and state measures to boost employment were abandoned. Many communities were thrown to the wolves. Now we are living with the consequences of that political philosophy. Thatcherism and its New Labour successor nurtured a country divided between North and South, rich and poor, the inner cities and the suburbs. What a missed opportunity the Blair government turned out to be. Instead of uprooting the divide between the rooted and the rootless, the disjunction has deepened, between regions, classes, and generations. Cosmopolitan are now so estranged from the nativists that they appear to inhabit two different worlds. The two nations of Disraeli have morphed from the country houses versus the slums to the dead-end towns versus and optimistic gap-year graduates of Cameron’s sickly Albion. The vote to exit the European Union is merely the latest manifestation of this internal imbalance between the universal and the particular in our national life. The European project was too much the international construct, remote from people’s lives and alien to their experience. For someone like Orwell (steeped in the particularism of the Englishmen) such an enterprise would always have fitted uncomfortably with the nation’s character. In times of dissent against elites of all kinds, such an institution becomes unbearable. Can we forge a new settlement which appropriately reigns in the excesses of the universal?
Orwell’s Answer: The Politics of Decency
Developing a new balance between universality and particularity is an exercise fraught with dangers (as recent debates about multiculturalism in Europe have shown). It is all too easy to condemn an out of touch liberal elite. It is altogether much harder preventing oneself from becoming a cardboard cutout of Donald Trump in English clothes. In seeking to address a legitimate grievance, says the liberal, aren’t we in danger of throwing the cosmopolitan baby out with the bath-water? There has been much talk in the left-wing press over the last few weeks about the rise of racist sentiments and a worsening of public attitudes towards outsiders. And despite their variation in the headline, they seem to be asking the same set of horrified questions. Don’t Britons want European shared institutions? Don’t they want Greek barbers and Polish newspaper sellers? Do they really want ‘England for the English?’ Some advocates of the particular (the extreme nativists) would answer in the affirmative, but I am willing to bet this is not the majority of my fellow patriots. There are well-documented instances of people abusing immigrants for personal woes, yet we shouldn’t let that ugliness distract us from the real problems people are facing: lack of decent housing, stagnant wages, insecure work and poor public services. As the commentator Paul Mason pointed out a few days before the vote:
Working-class people, especially those on low pay in the private sector, worry that in conditions of austerity, housing shortages, wage stagnation and an unlimited supply of migrant labour from Europe has a negative effect on their living standards. For some, that is true.They are right, too, to worry about the cultural impact. In a big, multi-ethnic city, absorbing a lot of migrants is easy. In small towns, where social capital is already meagre, the migrant population can feel unabsorbed. The structure of temporary migration from Europe means many of those who come don’t vote, or don’t have the right to – which feels unsettling if you understand that it is only by voting that the workforce ever achieved progress.
Given this context, it is hardly surprising that when surveyed, the majority of Leave voters saw Europe’s backers as rich and well-connected. Predictably, the right-wing press, both before and after the referendum exploited this feeling of class division brilliantly. The Sun’s headline of the 27th of June, Pro-EU celebrity luvvies like Kate Beckinsale and Jamie Oliver join chorus of super-rich Remainers bemoaning Brexit is an excellent impression by metropolitan plutocrats of genuine working-class unease. What lies at the root of this judgement? Doubtless many statistics can be thrown into the pot, but I suspect the key problem is more existential. At the heart of it, there is a lack of hope across vast swathes of the country. There is precious little trust between politicians and the electorate and little love lost between the upwardly mobile and those left behind. There is the fear that nothing will get better and that everything is getting steadily worse. This atmosphere of despair is being fed by cynical politicians, manipulative newspaper editors, irresponsive public servants and an irresponsible plutocrat class. Sadly, European immigrants are frequently caught in the cross-fire of these home-grown turf-wars. What is the answer to these woes? For the Orwell of the 1940s, the answer to undignified political systems (devoid of care and patriotism) is socialism. By socialism, Orwell did not mean some abstruse philosophy of insurrection and barricades, but a focus on upholding the principle of justice in ordinary life. As Orwell reflects in Road to Wigan Pier (1937):
[It] must be remembered that a working man, as long as he remains a genuine working man, is seldom or never a Socialist, in the complete logical, and consistent sense. Very likely he votes Labour or Communist if he gets the chance, but his conception of Socialism is quite different from that of the book-trained Socialist higher-ups. To the ordinary man, the sort you meet in any pub on a Saturday night, Socialism does not mean much more than better wages and shorter and hours and no-one bossing you about…. Often in my opinion, he is a truer socialist than the orthodox Marxist, because he does remember….that Socialism means justice, and common decency.
Using Orwell as a starting point, we can see that is what is sadly lacking in Britain today; an erosion of decency, in everything from providing good affordable housing, to offering a measure of job security. Through the seductions of universalists and their consumer utopias, we have duped ourselves into accepting a dilapidated country where hopelessness has become endemic. The way back to hope seems increasingly littered with obstacles. I must confess that I cannot share the enthusiasm of Vote Leave for an isolationist Shangri-La, built on the mirage of free-trade and the systematic exploitation of fears over immigration. I think it doubtful that such politics can heal the deep wounds from which the country is now suffering.Of course, the same people who have for decades advocated rip-roaring markets and for the State to ‘get out the way’ are now the same people who bemoan what has happened to Britain’s sinking working class. For instance, the Spectator‘s Toby Young (a Tory libertarian of sorts) now suggests after 30 years of labour market deregulation and stagnant wages, ‘the metropolitan elite must take some responsibility for the residents of England’s depressed seaside towns, not scorn them’. Sadly, Young fails to see the link between the decimation of such places and the trickle-down economics arrogantly peddled at every election since 1979. This cognitive dissidence between philosophy and practice does not bode well as these representatives of the self-styled ‘people’s army’ push the country closer to the exit door. But there’s still hope. Like a good Hegelian, I perceive the flip side of the dialectic. While the UK vote to leave the European Union leaves the dreams of liberal cosmopolitan in tatters, it may yet redress (if perversely) our over-reliance on an unfeeling universalist politics, drawing the debate closer to the concerns of the people. Is it just possible that the British (those historical muddlers) can find a way through which clears the ground for a new settlement? Can we leave the EU but remain in the EEA? Will the language of endless austerity give way to a more generous politics? Time will tell on these specifics, yet I suggest that as pieces of the collider scope settle, new pressure points will emerge, which may yet nurture the decency most British people crave. And while the immediate future appears uncertain, the contours of a more livable synthesis can already be glimpsed.
A New Synthesis: Equality, Liberty, Locality
The doctrine of laissez–faire will not work in the material world. It has led to the black market and the capitalist jungle…On the other hand, the doctrine of laissez–faire is the only which seems to work in the world of the spirit; if you plan and control men’s minds you stunt them, you get censorship, the secret police, the road to serfdom, the community of slaves. We want the New Economy with the Old Morality. We want planning for the body but not the spirit. E.M. Forster, The Challenge of Our Time
What are the constituent parts of this new politics trying to be born? Perhaps the best political formulation of this balanced settlement I have ever come across is to be found in the work of the American philosopher Daniel Bell. In his Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, (1978) Bell describes himself as ‘a socialist in economics, a liberal in politics, and a conservative in culture’. This I believe is precisely the landscape which our fractious politics is confusingly groping for at present. Any political party willing and able to tap into this implicit dimension of the national mood would be the most significant electoral force since the 1945 landslide. Such synthesis would be ‘socialist’ in precisely Orwell’s sense. It would recognise the fact that the majority of Britons react with the horror in the face of avoidable cruelty, are scandalised by unjustified wealth and desire to be treated fairly. Yet such a national conscience is also liberal because it ultimately depends upon that wellspring of English irreverence for authority and a dislike of power grabs. As Orwell observed in 1941:
The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the nineteenth century. But this has nothing to do with economic liberty, the right to exploit others for profit. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above. The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker.
How might Orwell’s portrait of the free Englishmen help us in the present situation? I believe this time-honoured respect for liberty will continue to protect us after Brexit, in particular from the lure of authoritarianism and reaction of all kinds. Doubtless, there will continue to be worrying calls for some kind of clamp-down (the rounding-up of migrants, the immediate closing of our borders and the cutting of international ties). Yet our propensity to respect the rights of others will I believe inoculate us from the most thuggish of the nativists. The English may be remarkably insular, but they do not, by enlarge hate the outside world. Similarly, our respect for the rule of law is unlikely to be compatible with those zealous persons in the Leave Campaign who want to expunge EU legislation on employment and human rights from the statute book, in a desperate bid to recast the country in their own image. No one party or cluster of politicians has the right to rewrite the social contract. Such a task should be undertaken by a cross-section of the people’s representatives or it should not be undertaken at all. If hardline Conservatives attempt such an unceremonious slash and burn, they must be fought and fought with vigour. Any new politics we wish to construct will be formed in an attempt to preserve the best of Britain’s European experience. Yes to social protections, yes to common labour standards, yes to Human Rights, yes to increased LGBT rights, yes to environmental protection. Yes to liberalism with a gritty British flavour.
What of the last ingredient of my national synthesis? What can ‘cultural conservatism’ gift England after Brexit? By cultural conservatism, I don’t mean a politics which would need to violate either socialism or liberalism. I don’t mean the return of old hierarchies or the reinvention of deference. I don’t mean the snobbishness of the landed squire or the petty prejudices of bourgeois society. Downton Abbey is best left in Julian Fellow’s paternalistic imagination. By cultural conservatism, I mean a love of place, land, and common endeavour. I mean a tenderness for the past and a joy in the little things. It has often been said that someone who feels at ‘home somewhere, feels at home everywhere’. In a country now bitterly divided, we need to work hard to renew our sense of belonging (the civic pride of our cities and towns) so that we can again feel at home. We need to be just as intolerant of squalor and decay of some of our town centres as we are of anti-social behaviour. We need to be impatient with soulless clone cities full of people who hate living there. We need to be courageous in the defence of beloved national institutions like the NHS, left to wither by unscrupulous politicians. We need to rediscover the sense that the country has a future worth inhabiting. In this respect, there is something to be said for people like Roger Scruton or Peter Hitchens (at their grimmest) because they can recall for us the language of tradition, community, and place, which has been too long subordinated to the demands of Capital. They press on us the question inherent in all forms of cultural conservatism, ‘Are we just a shop window for the world, or are we a nation, with common institutions, habits, and affections?’ Answering this question is as vital for socialists as it for conservatives. In the end, this is the existential quandary of Brexit and it will define us long after we have left the European Union.
How shall we wait out the interregnum between contradiction and synthesis? I suppose Hegel might have suggested a beer (a perfect blend of the universal and particular?). For those of us who have less confidence in the iron law of History, we need to start getting organised. The country will have many rougher days ahead, so we need to put our best foot forward and attempt to build a better future after Brexit. As Žižek wrote in a recent article about the Brexit result: ‘Although crises are painful and dangerous, they are the terrain on which battles have to be waged and won.’ On balance, I still think that exit from the European Union will be a tragedy for Britain. Yet, with every tragedy, there might come new opportunities. Perhaps the EU has made we liberal cosmopolitans lazy in our politics. Instead of fighting door by door, street by street, for a politics openness and pluralism we hoped that the European Union would bring about such a culture through the backdoor one directive at a time. The referendum in June offered a conclusive verdict on that strategy. If we want a more humane politics we will have to fight for it here and now. If we want to tackle xenophobia and fear at the root, we need to ensure decent lives for our fellow citizens. The cynical politics of the Conservative Party or the insurgency of UKIP cannot do it, but those inflamed by Orwell’s virtue of decency can. Let’s really take back control of our country, not through slogans and fear by rediscovering what is our culture offers the world. What is our distinctive spin on the particular yet universal mission of nations? Perhaps Billy Bragg put it best ‘Sweet moderation, heart of this nation, desert us not, we are between the wars.’ This is still the country I want to be part of.