To come to the point, it seems that in regard to my Brexit post earlier this week, I was really contending throughout with a single sub-genre of the growing literature of post-Brexit shock and awe reaction -- perhaps we can call it, following Joan Didion in "Slouching Toward Bethlehem"-- and at the risk of sounding derisive -- the "they're-trying-to-tell-us-something approach." What she had in mind in context was the typical journalistic response of well-meaning East Coast periodicals to the "hippie" phenomenon of Haight-Ashberry -- the kind which insisted upon seeing in this San Fransico drug and party scene, with its minimal-to-vanishing political content, a great collective disavowal of the "consumer culture," post-war "conformity" and "alienation," and the like buzzwords of then-modish discourse. We may perhaps expand the term, however, to take in that whole genre of social criticism in which writers and journalists -- who are in fact utterly remote from the phenomena they describe -- insist upon reading their own anxieties and beliefs into cultural and political movements that in fact articulate very different concerns.
Thus, for David Frum (and he appears to have been half-right, if only by a luck of the draw), Brexit was not *really* a repudiation of internationalism and multilateralism in all its forms; it was a warning to the rest of us about the kinds of populist eruptions that can threaten "the open economy" (which we are presumed to like) if we don't manage to get a handle first on "mass migration" (which we presume is bad). And so too, for Glenn Greenwald, Brexit was not *really* about a xenophobic backlash; it was an expression of economic malaise and discontent among the working class which in this case manifested itself, through the manipulations of cynical politicians, in a woefully misguided, dangerous, and hostile form. In other words, Brexit is always *really* about what the writer in question sees as the important issues, the things people ought to be worried about, and the rest of the rhetoric surrounding the Leave campaign was mere artifice and superstructure.
Frum may be the closer to the mark of the two as to the motives of Brexit voters, in so far as the data suggest that a much larger share of Leave voters than Remain-ers have highly negative views of immigration, with a full three-quarters believing that it damages British "culture" and a similar portion believing it harms the economy. The problem with Frum's analysis is that he thinks this is a valid concern -- that migration truly is the enemy of the disenfranchised, far more so than the conservative economic policies -- the "open economy" -- that he (with some admirable qualms and caveats) has spent his career promoting.
To his credit, let it be known that Frum has come down hard against the extreme forms of xenophobic and racist scapegoating we are witnessing in the American election, and has tried more than once to draw a line between holding restrictionist views on immigration on the one hand, and being an outright racist and migrant-baiter on the other. One finds that when it comes down to making policy that affects real people's life-chances, however, that distinction is actually a bit harder to make than Frum would like to believe.
Sure, we can have a tired argument with Frum about whether he is correct in financial, "practical," and other hard-nosed terms as to whether immigration "helps or harms our economy" (and in such discussions, it is always presumed that the "we" implied in "our economy" does not include the immigrants themselves, whose fate some imagined "rest of us" are entitled to lay on the scales with purring disinterest-- for not even Frum pretends that deportations and restrictions are in the interests of immigrant people and families, as he specifically deplores Hillary Clinton for "look[ing] at the issue exclusively and entirely from the point of view of the migrants themselves"). We might point out that wages for British workers are far more likely to be driven down still further by the act of suddenly forcing currently legal EU residents to obtain new visas or get out (which -- despite the plummy reassurances of the Leave Campaigners -- is an option that is actually on the table in the unknown post-Brexit future). In the absence of unconscionable mass round-ups and expulsions, then (which also, admittedly, in the world's currently careening course, can't be entirely ruled out as a possibility), the Migration Policy Institute forecasts that: "a major increase in irregular migration [in the U.K.] is likely once new rules are in place, given previously legal workers from Europe would require visas to work. This irregular migration will mostly come from visa overstayers in any future system."
In other words, EU citizens from Poland and elsewhere will not actually leave, even if they lose their formal residency status under new visa requirements (because they will want to continue putting food on the table for themselves and their families, and other sinister reasons). Instead, they will join the informal economy with the rest of the UK's undocumented population, where they will be hunted out of recognized housing and forced to work in exploitative conditions without recourse to wage protections and the other benefits of the formal economy. This will not only massively hurt them; it will also suppress wages for everyone else -- and especially for the already worst-off. The fact that the Leave movement made "cutting the red tape" of "EU regulations" a core campaign plank, meanwhile, likewise does not bode well for the future of worker's protections in the U.K.
The more important question, though, is not really whether immigration "hurts Britain's economy" or -- more ominously -- whether it damages "our" *ahem* "culture" *ahem*. The real question is what degree of suffering does one think it is legitimate to inflict on real people in order to prevent such perceived damage. In the U.S., undocumented immigration has reached such a critical mass that it is very difficult to wholly discount and ignore the human impact of regimes of deportation and border militarization (the thousands dying of exposure in the Arizona desert tell a tale from which no one will be able to permanently avert their eyes) -- though, of course, some are still trying. In the U.K., by contrast, overall migration levels, and especially undocumented migration, appear to have been low enough that the voice of the people whose banishment, exile, and/or family separation is being so cavalierly discussed (including by many Remain politicians, let it be remembered) is almost never heard. This became visible to me last summer, during an earlier round of the U.K. immigration debate (long before any of us had heard of Boris Johnson, and when Nigel Farage was just a negligible far-right looney). But the impacts are still there, whether people look at them or not. Suppose you are a Pole living in the U.K. Suppose the best of all possible worlds obtains, and the Brexit vote does not jeopardize your residency status. What will be the status of your children, supposing they were not living in the U.K. at the time of the vote? Will they be included too? Or do you work and never see them while they grow by feet on the other side of the channel?
None of this is even to mention the likely impacts of Brexit on Europe's larger response to the refugee crisis on its eastern periphery, which I tried to get at last time. To this concern, Frum appears singularly indifferent. He writes:
If any one person drove the United Kingdom out of the European Union, it was Angela Merkel, and her impulsive solo decision in the summer of 2015 to throw open Germany—and then all Europe—to 1.1 million Middle Eastern and North African migrants, with uncountable millions more to come. Merkel’s catastrophically negative example[... etc.]"
Nowhere in this does Frum use the word "refugee." Nowhere does he mention the fact that the EU has actually massively and brutally suppressed the westward flow of refugees over the past six months -- first through border closures in the Balkans, then through signing a devil's bargain with Turkey (a country that has never signed the 1967 Protocol to the international refugee convention and therefore does not recognize displaced Syrians as refugees) and turning the former reception centers on the Greek coast into barbarous detention camps. What Europe has Frum been watching since 2016 began?
Nor does Frum explain to us why having 1.1 million largely working-age people enter an aging and otiose economy of 81 million people is such a terrible thing.
Nor, finally, does he ask himself what he would like Merkel to have done with the 1.1 million, if not allowed them entry? Frum writes as if she conjured this massive population into being. But they would have existed somewhere, whether they made it to Germany or not. Should they instead have drowned in the Mediterranean? Sweated in Turkey's informal economy, where they are denied work permits because Turkey does not recognize them as "real" refugees? Should they sit out Syria's civil war in a concentration camp somewhere? Or should they just never have left in the first place? Perhaps the really generous thing on their part would have been to spare Britain's vague feelings of wounded national pride by sitting down at home and allowing themselves to be annihilated by Asad's barrel bombs or ISIS's genocidal campaigns. Not that hardly any of them have even been allowed into Britain anyways, even when it was still fully a member of the EU!
These are the realities of people's lives that should ultimately trump all merely "practical" discussions. Even if immigrants did harm the "culture," even if they did damage "national sovereignty," in some vague way -- aren't these concepts rather poor shadows on which to hang the fates of real people? I refer Frum to Wendell Berry's "Questionnaire" and would be curious to hear his answer:
State briefly the ideas, ideals, or hopes,
[...] for which you would kill a child.
Name, please, the children whom
you would be willing to kill.
As for Greenwald's claim that Brexit -- and the Trump phenomenon too -- are a product of the insurgent economic discontent of the working class -- we have to start as always by asking which working class?; who's economic discontent? Certainly the vote was not a cry against the economic discontent of low-wage Poles or undocumented immigrants in Britain's informal economy. Are these not members of the working class? On the US side, are Mexican and Central American irregular migrants not workers? By God, they work harder than anyone!
People like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump will find it convenient to deny such commonalities of interest -- to insist that the problem with cheap labor is with the labor, not with the fact that people like Johnson and Trump have rendered it cheap. In just this way throughout history has one segment of the working class been pitted against another, told to blame the other. The most forward-thinking parts of the labor movement have never gone in for it, though -- they have always insisted that in the end, there must be "one big union" of workers -- solidarity across all lines. But just so, there have always been those other, not-so-forward-thinking ones among them as well. These are the ones beloved of demagogues and crooks and scoundrels. They are the ones who reliably put the Boris Johnsons of the world in office so that they can whisper to their business colleagues behind their hands that their real objective all along the way has been to cut "red tape." They'll push even more workers onto the black market, take away EU holidays and maternity leave, and then blame it on the Poles.
One has loathing above all for the Trump and the Johnsons in this scenario. But one feels a special sting of despair and betrayal as well at the voters who allow themselves to be taken in by such men-- men who do not even bother to hide their contempt for their own supporters, men who make willing dupes of people who should -- probably do -- know better. The keynote of the Trump campaign has after all been that even it knows that it is lying. I refer you to this entirely typical interchange, as reported by the Guardian:
"CNN had initially reported that Trump was planning to roll back his December proposal for 'a total and complete shutdown on Muslims entering the United States' [....] Trump national spokesperson Katrina Pierson, a frequent television surrogate for the campaign, seemed to agree with reports while trying to spin them.
Although Pierson insisted 'it’s only really a change if you never knew what the ban was to begin with”, she seemed to focus on the vetting process. 'If you are coming into this country and you cannot be vetted, then you should not be allowed in until you can be vetted.'[...]
Pierson also wrongly claimed that there wasn’t an existing vetting process, telling CNN: 'We’re not going to base national security off PolitiFact or even the United Nations.'"
Here is Ortega y Gasset's "reason of unreason" in full flower. No one hearing this -- not even the Trump supporters -- can think that she's actually correct. We are meant to merely enjoy the spectacle of Trump sticking his finger in the eye of the established (because incontrovertibly true) opinion (here emblematized by PolitiFact and the UN). This is why one always hears from the Trump supporters the plaint: "Can't people take a joke?" As Ortega y Gasset wrote in 1930:
"[T]he tonic that keeps the mass-man in form is insincerity, 'the joke.' [...] If anyone persists in maintaining that he believes two and two make five, and there is no reason for supposing him to be insane, we may be certain that he does not believe it, however much he may shout it out [...] A hurricane of farsicality, everywhere and in every form, is at present raging over the lands of Europe." (Anonymous standard trans.)
Of course, Greenwald would not deny any of this. He refers in the course of his article to Nigel Farage and, by implication, Trump as "malignant figures," who are trying to "exploit" genuine feelings of disempowerment for their own vicious ends. In what, then, lies Greenwald's and my real disagreement?
In this: Greenwald has a kind of instinctive sympathy, it would appear, with those who are set on sticking their fingers in the eyes of the establishment, even when they are doing so for all the wrong reasons. Is this an unfair reading? Allow me to quote Greenwald at length and you can form your own judgment:
"In sum, the West’s establishment credibility is dying, and its influence is precipitously eroding — all deservedly so. […] It’s natural — and inevitable — that malignant figures will try to exploit this vacuum of authority. All sorts of demagogues and extremists will try to redirect mass anger for their own ends. Revolts against corrupt elite institutions can usher in reform and progress, but they can also create a space for the ugliest tribal impulses: xenophobia, authoritarianism, racism, fascism. One sees all of that, both good and bad, manifesting in the anti-establishment movements throughout the U.S., Europe, and the U.K. — including Brexit. All of this can be invigorating, or promising, or destabilizing, or dangerous: most likely a combination of all that.
The solution is not to subserviently cling to corrupt elite institutions out of fear of the alternatives. It is, instead, to help bury those institutions and their elite mavens and then fight for superior replacements."
Am I alone in detecting in this a sneaking admiration for Trump and for Brexit? Or at least, an unmistakable exhilaration at the sight of our societies sliding perilously closer to some catastrophic precipice? What exactly does Greenwald mean anyway by wanting to "bury" those "corrupt elite institutions" and "their elite mavens"? How should one bury them? Metaphorically? Non-violently? Or in the New York Harbor or the pine barrens? And how long is Greenwald's list of people who ought to be buried? From the sounds of his article, it is at least expansive enough to include everyone from the head of the IMF to writers for Vox magazine. And what does he mean by wanting to "help bury" them. Help whom, exactly? Presumably, the Trump supporters and the Brexiteers.
A couple weeks ago I wrote a post that accused America's Bernie-supporting Left of basically doing what the German Communist Party did in the lead up to the 1932 election that brought Hitler to power -- i.e., of effectively siding with the fascists over the liberals and the social democrats. I wrote this rather shamefacedly at the time, with the conviction that I was perhaps going a bit far, putting words in people's mouths, and the like. But here comes Greenwald to declare, in effect, that he is willing to sacrifice Weimar, to join with the fascists in burning it all down, and then trying to resurrect "superior replacements" in its wake.
Right. Because we know how "superior replacements" -- involving greater degrees of universalism and generosity and all the rest -- always seem to arise spontaneously out of times of great social chaos and uncertainty. "Bury[ing]" the only world we know always has a way of bringing out the best in people, doesn't it?
Greenwald would no doubt peg me as "subservient," after reading all this. I am not. I am in no way trying to paper over everything that's wholly wrong and unacceptable about our existing institutions. Lord knows I am reminded of that today, when the Obama administration has just released its total count of civilian casualties from drone strikes. 116 innocent people -- and that's the dramatically undercounted official total! The real number may be closer to 800, by The Guardian's estimate. But Greenwald contradicts himself if he would somehow use this as an excuse to sacrifice those institutions at the expense of empowering forces that would kill countless more. He reminds one of no one so much as the anarchist Souvarine in Zola's Germinal, who ends up trapping hundreds of miners underground in an act of terrorism, supposedly undertaken in defense of the "working class." As Souvarine says: "If justice [is] not possible with man, then man must disappear." (Ellis trans.) Greenwald, whose criticism of existing liberal democratic institutions always hinges upon their complicity in the slaughter of innocents in Muslim countries, would be guilty of just the same self-contradiction, the violation of his own professed ideals, if he takes a hand in empowering Trump.
All of which is to say that there are worse things in the world than Obama and Hillary Clinton. That is a sentence so laughably obvious that it takes a writer with the humorless tunnel-vision of Glenn Greenwald to lose sight of it. To come to the point, one of those worse things is edging its way toward the White House as we speak. Brexit just gave a great deal of comfort to those who would abet it getting there.