Desperation Outweighed Apprehension


From New Left Review:

In the Old World, the principal reason why populism of the right typically outpaces populism of the left is widespread fear of immigration; and the principal reason why this has not carried it to power is greater fear of economic retribution if the euro—detested as an instrument of austerity and loss of sovereignty though it may be—were not just denounced, as it is by populisms of the right and left alike, but actually discarded. In the uk alone, though nowhere near forming a government, a populism of the right did achieve, in the referendum on British membership of the eu, a score exceeding even Trump’s. The victory of Brexit, Trump announced from the start, was an inspiration for his own battle in the us. What light does it throw on the unexpected outcome of the election in 2016? Fear of mass immigration was whipped up relentlessly by the Leave campaign, as elsewhere in Europe. But in Britain too, xenophobia on its own is by no means enough to outweigh fear of economic meltdown. If the referendum on the eu had just been a contest between these two fears, as the political establishment sought to make it, Remain would have no doubt won by a handsome margin, as it did in the referendum on Scottish independence in 2014.

Over-determining the contest, however, were three further factors. After Maastricht, the British political class declined the straitjacket of the euro, only to pursue a native brand of neo-liberalism more drastic than any on the continent: first, the financialized hubris of New Labour, plunging Britain into banking crisis before any other country of Europe, then a Conservative-Liberal administration of a draconian austerity without any endogenous equal in the eu. Economically, the results of this combination stand alone. No other European country has been so dramatically polarized by region, between a bubble-enclosed, high-income metropolis in London and the south-east, and an impoverished, deindustrialized north and north-east: zones where voters could feel they had little to lose in voting for Leave, a more abstract prospect than ditching the euro, come what may to the City and foreign investment. Fear counted for less than despair.

Under the largely interchangeable Labour and Conservative regimes of the neo-liberal period, voters at the bottom end of the income pyramid deserted the polls in droves. But suddenly granted, for once, the chance of a real choice in a national referendum, they returned to them in force, voter participation in depressed regions jumping overnight, delivering their verdict on desolations of both. At the same time, no less important in the result, came the historical difference separating Britain from the continent. The country was not only for centuries an empire dwarfing any European rival, but one that unlike France, Germany, Italy or most of the rest of the continent, never suffered defeat, invasion or occupation in either World War. So expropriation of local powers by a bureaucracy in Belgium was bound to grate more severely than elsewhere: why should a state that twice saw off the might of Berlin submit to petty meddling from Luxemburg or Brussels? Issues of identity could more readily trump issues of interest than in any other part of the eu. So the normal formula—fear of economic retribution outweighs fear of alien immigration—failed to function as elsewhere, bent out of shape by a combination of economic despair and national amour-propre.

In the United States, to these were added the native factor of race, as distinct from, and additional to, immigration. But otherwise, such were also the conditions in which a Republican candidate abhorrent to mainstream bipartisan opinion, making no attempt to conform to accepted codes of civil or political conduct, and disliked by many of those who actually voted for him, could appeal to enough disregarded rust-belt workers to win the Presidency. There as in Britain, faced with a leap in the dark, in de-industrialized proletarian regions desperation outweighed apprehension. There too, much more rawly and openly, immigrants were denounced and barriers—physical as well as procedural—against them demanded. Finally, and decisively, in this case empire was not a distant memory of the past but a vivid attribute of the present and natural claim on the future, felt as cast aside by those in power in the name of a globalization that spelt ruin for ordinary people and humiliation for their country. Make America Great Again—prosperous in discarding the fetishes of free movement of goods and labour, and victorious in ignoring the trammels and pieties of multilateralism: Trump was not wrong to proclaim his triumph was Brexit writ large. But it was a much more spectacular revolt, since it was not confined to a single—for most people, entirely symbolic—issue, and was devoid of any layer of establishment respectability or editorial blessing. There was no American Gove or Johnson, nor any Daily Mail or Sun. Across the length and breadth of the land, just two newspapers of any local significance endorsed Trump. Neither was exactly a household name: the Las Vegas Review-Journal in Nevada, which he lost, and the Florida Times-Union, smaller than six other papers in a state that he won.

“Passing the Baton”, Perry Anderson, New Left Review