Friday, March 28, 2014

There's something about Nigel

This post belongs in a series of posts called The English Ideology (IIIIII & IV).

If one thing became absolutely clear in the dismal, joyless 'leaders debate' between Nick Clegg and Nigel Farage, it is that some things are more important to people than jobs and money.  It's not the economy, stupid.

In fact, to push the point home, it never was the economy, stupid.  'The economy' doesn't exist outside of representation and discourse, in part because 'the economy' (as a hermetically sealed, intrinsically immutable, self-sufficient space) is itself an artefact of representation and discourse. Thus Clegg, in his defence of EU membership,  summoned a discourse of 'growth' and 'jobs' as unarguable goods.  What could be bad about it?  Thus he posed as what he is: a middle-of-the-road technocrat.  And if he couldn't any longer position himself as the honest broker and the outsider, he could at least prove that Farage and his party were demagogues sacrificing British leadership, British values, and British justice to some fanatical doctrine.  Only a few years ago, this might have worked very well - but that was before his own disappearance up the Rose Garden of power, and before the repeated class injuries endured in the context of recession and austerity.

The UKIP leader, for his part, adopted a moral idiom.  He spoke the language of exasperated social resentment, in this case against immigration and EU bosses.  (This is the classic right-wing populist gesture, identifying an occult collusion between an empyrean elite and the wretched, and fecklessly poor. )  With this language, supplied in large part by the popular press and think-tanks such as Migration Watch, he was able to undermine the seemingly commonsensical nature of Clegg's interpellations.  Don't bang on about the 'benefits', he said: mass immigration from poor countries in the south and east of Europe is hurting ordinary working people and it's not fair.  Of course he also played the numbers game, casting doubt on Clegg's figures.  UKIP are good at the numbers game, precisely because they understand that it is a purely rhetorical exercise.  The right figure is that which a) efficiently demonstrates a point, b) tells people what they expect to hear and confirms their 'worst fears' (even if they derive an obscure pleasure from it), and yet which is c) time- and effort-consuming to track down and rebut.  The right figure is just an element of a morality fable.

To expand on the morality a little bit, Farage, recently asked about the contribution of immigration to jobs and growth, claimed that, after all, money isn't everything.  This essentially boiled down to his saying, "I would rather have a bit less money than live next to a bunch of foreigners."  The cri de coeur of any privet-hedge-hugging white petty bourgeois: that was his exalted position.  The Cruddasite centre-left, predictably, wet themselves.  A Labour shadow minister gushed to the Guardian that this was a hammer-blow against "the tyranny of the market".

You can see the logic of this: in principle, neoliberalism favours compulsory competition at every level, whereas Farage is suggesting that British workers be protected from at least this form of competition, the kind that comes from peripheral flotsam of overseas.  For Blue Labourites banging on about 'faith, flag and family', such exclusionary identity politics really is the only alternative to 'the market' - and therefore, somehow the task must be to incorporate such attachments into a progressive articulation, (cf. 'UKIP of the Left').  However, as we ought to have learned from Mrs Thatcher, there is nothing at all new in the egoistic calculations and desiderata of a particular class being commuted into the idiom of a moral common sense.  And what UKIP favour is not, in fact, protection of workers from competition, but the protection of small business from EU regulations such as labour laws, environmental restrictions and so on.  What UKIP wants is a more aggressively competitive, Atlanticist capitalism.

And Farage's morality tale is fairly cliched, folkish stuff.  The British people, so long the repositories of common sense, the temperate yet stalwart defenders of liberty, the inheritors of the Magna Carta and the tradition of common law, the possessors of the best justice system in the world, at some point allowed themselves to be led astray by an out-of-touch political class, and joined an "expansionist, imperialist" superstate-in-becoming.  (The mere fact that he could say this about the EU, uttering those words comfortably, and then just as comfortably reference the Commonwealth, as if Britain doesn't know anything about being an empire-state, is a tribute to the pervasive power of the ideologies which he draws on.)  They have surrendered their liberty to a foreign power.  Their laws are no longer made in the mother of all parliaments.  They have regulators and bureaucrats breathing down their necks, forcing them to sell only bananas of a particular curvature, and only in metric measurements, and only under certain conditions, and ideally in competition with Polish or Spanish fruit sellers.  They have the 'madness' of open borders to half a billion people.  They are no longer sovereign, but are exposed to unaccountable political and cultural flux.  Their renaissance can only come when they coalesce and, through the agency of UKIP, overthrow the Westminster elite and put common sense back on the agenda of government.

There remains, then, something to be said about Farage's plausibility in all this.  His performance showed that he not only knows what he's doing, but more importantly that he looks like he knows what he's doing.  He has the look and manner of a corporate salesperson - all those patently phoney spontaneous 'quips' and 'asides' that he keeps up his sleeve - yet this is actually what many people want and expect from their politicians.  In contrast to upper crust establishment figures like Clegg and Cameron, he sounds like a perplexed outsider, and even his years as a commodity trader, can be invoked as a source of 'real world' authenticity.  And they can be harnessed to homely little platitudes, which he is an absolute master of: "In the real world, the customer is king."  No such thing has ever been the case, but we are so used to hearing it that it sounds vaguely like it might be true.  Finally, he has a way of not reeking too badly, in public performance anyway, of the kind of twitchy, sweaty, moonbat racism that characterises his party as a whole.  He instead articulates the polite, aversive racism of a certain 'British' common sense, and in so doing manages to sound quite 'reasonable': we can have a few foreigners, but only if they can pay their way, and only if they're here to work, and only if we can deport them when we don't like them, and only if they aren't too culturally dissimilar.

Yet, of course, the major condition of Farage's ascension is Cameron's declension.  Cameron enjoyed a very brief period of grace, as a kind of post-Thatcherite liberal.  By 'post-Thatcherite', I do not mean that Cameron rejected Thatcher's legacy, but that he operated basically on the same terrain secured by Thatcher, as do all the dominant parties now, while abjuring certain of the specific ideology and policy thematics that defined Thatcherism as an 'insurgent' political project.  He came across as an undogmatic, competent 'entrepreneur', comfortable with Britain's multiculture, and here to manage the country like a business gone awry.  Even his poshness wasn't necessarily a drawback.  Even as it poured execration on the poor, the dominant culture has learned once again to venerate dominant class values.  And, precisely as a toff and thus someone with a certain 'traditional' mien, he even effectively tapped into the ideology of 'fair play'*, an old theme of British nationalism, which returned like so much nostalgic kitsch in the aftermath of the credit crunch.

There has always been a widespread belief among certain social classes, particularly the middle class, that if Britain is not actually a meritocratic society then it is at least not far from being one; that, at any rate, there is no structural impediment to it being so.  It doesn't matter that 'meritocracy' is conceptually incoherent.  In its common sense understanding, it means 'fairness', which in its turn means whatever the dominant social norms prescribe.  In Cameron's earliest phase, he made it clear that 'fairness' would mean the bankers and the rich paying 'their share' toward clearing Britain's debt (no such thing happened, of course), while the poor would be weaned off the welfare teat and 'encouraged' back into work.  'Everyone' shares the costs, even if 'everyone' only includes those whom the greater number of the British middle class blamed for the crisis - reckless bankers and the feckless poor, those who either would not or could not keep a disciplined budget.  There will be tough times but if we all tighten our belts and grit our teeth, we can get through this and the good times will return.  Traditional British fair play.

Well, few people believed for very long that this government was overseeing a fair and equitable settlement of the crisis.  Real incomes, and living standards, have declined year after year.  Nor has stagnation given way to buoyant growth.  We are left with neither fairness nor efficiency.  Somehow the invocation of the spirit of the Blitz, of empire, of the years of British grit and global power, did not help.  And then, along comes Nigel.  He does not evoke the spirit of social compromise, of 'fair play', of mutual sacrifice.  He tells us that it's not fair, that we have sacrificed too much, and that at any rate, some things matter more than money.  He comes in the spirit of common sense insurgency, of a folkish Britishness long repressed by the parliamentary elites.  He articulates the sense of loss, of having been cheated, of injury, experienced by polyglot social layers, and in response urges the recovery of lost British potency as the means of redemption.

Nigel Farage won the debate with Nick Clegg, hands down.  And with that, signalled that a highly authoritarian, exclusionary form of 'Britishness' is winning too.

*I am indebted, for this part of the post, to discussions with persons who shall remain anonymous.