Brexit on 23 June follows a trend across Europe, supposedly in response to the existence of an overweening and undemocratic European Union. (Very briefly: I do believe the EU suffers from hubris, I do believe the EU is in great danger of becoming a corporatist neoliberal venture for which it was never intended and of which the euro is the symbol. But I also believe that in spite of the urgent need to fundamentally reform the European Union the world is infinitely better off with one than without one.)
I want to go somewhere else with this piece. The trend across Europe and elsewhere in the western world is the arrival/re-appearance of nationalist and anti-migration movements. This is echoed in another trend, happening across the globe from West Africa to Southeast Asia.
One day before Brexit, the wonderful Pakistanti Qawwali singer Amjad Sabri was murdered by self-styled Islamic radicals in Karachi. Earlier this year the world witnessed the destruction of Palmyra by Islamic State (or ISIS), an act of vandalism rivalled by the blowing up of the Bamiyan statutes by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001 and the vandalism perpetrated on Timbuktu by self-declared jihadist invaders in 2012.
What do they all have in common? I would argue: the idea of purity. Or, to put it better: nostalgia for purity, the illusion of purity. It never existed but they want it back.
The rhetoric is interchangeable. Prior to the referendum that returned the tragic Brexit vote, British nationalists talked about reducing immigration, taking back control from a monstrous – and what’s more: foreign – bureaucracy and return to the green and pleasant self-ruled lands of old times. Without too much interference from outside and even fewer migrants thank you very much. Elsewhere in Europe, extremist politicians talk about sovereignty, the need to curb immigration and to stop the EU. ‘I want my country back,’ is their rallying cry.
Sufi music is abhorrent to the Taliban because it pollutes the otherwise pristine and sweet unspoilt sound of prayer. Monuments and tombstones and artefacts make the mind of the beholder stray from the correct path of a blemish free faith where no idolatry takes place.
It is the illusion of purity: an unspoilt people, an unspoilt faith, the pristine English village, the Khalifate. That dream of purity can only be fulfilled through destruction and vandalism. What is tainted and unclean must be removed. Whether it’s a monument, music or an institution like the European Union. Sacrifice is unavoidable, even if it means putting an entire economy or a future generation in jeopardy. Purity requires the use of a wrecking ball. Brexit and the blowing up of monuments are two sides of the same coin.
None of this is new. But it has become more virulent and more aggressive of late and moves to counter it have been shockingly inept. Why? I believe that this is in part because of the overwhelming victory of globalisation and its attendant ideology (neoliberalism) and in part because of the total collapse of the countervailing progressive movement.
The Thatcher/Reagan revolution informed by the unfettered free market ideology peddled by the likes of Milton Friedman has been successful beyond its wildest dreams. It has reversed virtually everything that an organised and united people’s force fought for during a century and a half. Unions everywhere, anti-colonial movements everywhere. Today, neoliberalism is continuing the business of taking us collectively back to the 19th century. States have been rolled back, utilities that provide life-saving basic services (water for instance, health care) have been or are being privatised, structural adjustment programs have ravaged economies from Latin America to Asia via huge chunks of Africa – the list is long. The very welcome demise of the dictatorial and inept Soviet Union and its European satellite states in 1989 cemented the Thatcher/Reagan victory.
The progressive movement has struggled to find an answer to this free market steamroller. Instead, it has adopted most of the steamroller’s principles (the main one being that Greed Is Good) and has been looking for a visage, something to mask the fact that it may look progressive but is the exact opposite. The visage was already present in its ranks and was eagerly adopted as its faux progressive front. It’s called identity politics.
Starting with second wave feminism in the late 1960s it has since morphed into a multitude of movements that have their own navel and their own victimhood as their unique focal points. They have rendered the old and lofty principle of international solidarity obsolete. To mask this simple fact, Diversity was invented, which incorporates (and I use this word deliberately) an in-crowd of people who all look different but who mostly and basically think the same thoughts. Progressive it is not: this movement has attached itself eagerly to the globalisation agenda. And as I have argued earlier, it is precisely for this reason that it fails to counter resurgent European nationalists, religious extremists and the other purity seekers.
Purity is the reaction globalisation has engendered. Races should not mix. People should not mix. Cultures should not mix. Musics should not mix. Countries should not mix and most certainly not be “overseen” by some supranational busybody. It is telling to see that extreme rightwing groups in the United States combine utter hatred for the United Nations (another international bogeyman) with a stunning lack of knowledge about the organisation. Donald Trump is their champion and, as if to illustrate my point, the other presidential candidate is a shell for corporate America with a ghastly track record as former Secretary of State. I live in a region that has to deal with the atrocious fallout of the criminally catastrophic decision to oust Libyan dictator Muammar Ghadaffi (someone they were previously more than happy to do business with), of which Hillary Clinton was an active and enthusiastic supporter.
Because of the Left’s astonishing incompetence in reviving the forces of solidarity that used to cut across all identity lines (race, sex, sexual orientation and everything else) both forces – globalisation and the purity movements – will continue to run amok and crash into each other. The have-nots have been divided by identity politics and will not stand together again. It is curiously ironic that the likes of Brexit are driven by another type of identity politics, a variety the faux progressives disapprove of: rural, working class or former working class and (dare we day it) mostly white, subject to a condescending sneering campaign by those in possession of the correct identity politics. This has backfired spectacularly.
Brexit is a tragic mistake. Purity, be it racial, ideological or religious is a dangerous illusion. The progressive movement is dead and its faux progressive identity politics driven replacement an abysmal failure. We need something new. Maybe it is already there, unable to stop the steamroller but at least attempting to slow it down. New bold citizen-led movements show a way forward, like the one that removed autocrat Blaise Compaoré, then resisted a coup attempt by his presidential guard, and a new one, aimed to get genetically manipulated cotton removed. All three in Burkina Faso. We could do with a lot more like these.