Radical feminists: time to abandon the left

Feminists are wasting their time trying to persuade the left’s revolutionary vanguard not to ostracise them.

Watching a brief Twitter interaction between babyfaced lefty weathervane Owen Jones and Jen Harvey, a gender critical feminist, crystallised this for me.

Jen protests at Owen’s characterisation of ‘transphobia’ as something perpetrated by ‘centrists’:

The splendidly angry Twitter thread that follows asks: how dare you try and purge feminists from the left-wing umbrella for defending our own interests?

It’s a good thread. But she’s wasting her time.

Jones’ claim that ‘centrists’ are ‘transphobic’ is a standard left-wing tactic, designed to push in two directions. Firstly, it speaks to anyone who already knows that ‘transphobia’ is a Bad Thing, to claim the fight against this Bad Thing as quintessentially left-wing; and not just the moderate left but the True Left.

Secondly, it speaks to anyone who has an emotional stake in others continuing to recognise them as part of the Lefty Gang, to let them know if they want to keep their designation as part of the Great Virtuous Tribe of Left Wing Goodies and not be kicked to the kerb as nasty, bigoted centrists, they’d better lay off the transphobia.

So, according to Jones, to be left-wing is to support trans people, and to question trans activism is to renounce membership of the left. If you do that, you might be a centrist, or even (shudder) On The Right.

I see a lot of feminists getting really upset about moves like this, which redefine the legitimate field of operations of radical leftism and demand acquiescence by threatening ostracism. Look, I get it – most feminists see themselves as left-wing, and for most left-wing people (including myself, when I was a lefty) being on the left is an important part of personal identity. Left-wing ideology is all about how the world should be, rather than how it currently is, and it’s frustrating and depressing to try and share one’s vision of a world transformed with people who just tell you exasperatedly ‘but that’s not how the world works’. So lefties tend to band together in groups where they can – to a greater or lesser extent – share visions for how the world ought to be.

The problem with this, though, is that how the world ought to be is a movable feast. As it’s grounded only in hopes, dreams, aspirations, rather than observable reality, there’s nothing to stop my lefty vision diverging from yours. At that point, if these two lefties are to continue feeling part of the same movement, there’s a competition for which vision wins out. It would be nice if this were always conducted as a straight competition for which ideal is the most inspiring, but in practice among radicals the main weapon in the battle of ideas is to accuse your ideological opponent of not really being left-wing, or not left-wing enough. Not pure enough.

Under Stalin the purging of visions of transformation that competed with Uncle Joe’s took a literal and brutal form: arrest, incarceration, execution. Fortunately, at least for the moment, we inhabit a world where Owen Jones has no power to send those he dislikes to the gulag, so he is confined to prattling in the Guardian or on Twitter; but trust me, when he warns his fans off centrism and transphobia thus, the mechanism is the same. If you don’t agree with me, you’re not in my gang. You’re a centrist. A Tory. Excommunicated!

Since the 1960s, the march of progressivism has taken on one cause after another, beginning with racism, sexism and homophobia. On these fronts it has indisputably made the world a better place in some respects: we should all treat one another equally and with equal courtesy. As significant gains have been chalked up on these fronts, new anti-discrimination fronts have opened up, of which the latest is transgender rights. Because progressivism works like the EU’s acquis communautaire, right-thinking leftists are expected to add each new progressive cause to those that preceded it. All must be espoused and vocally supported. And it’s one out, all out: to fail in espousing a single progressive cause celebre is to fail entirely as a leftist. (Outside the proper causes, it’s open season: you can support all the genocidal Soviets and IRA bombers you like. But woe betide you if you put a foot wrong on the progressive causes. Campaign all your life for trafficked women, the welfare state, whatever; if you said a bad thing about trans women once in 1992 we will picket you until you die, then dance on your grave.

The problem radical feminists face right now is that they must either abandon their radical feminism, or be abandoned by the left. Radical feminism holds that gender is not a binary but a hierarchy, one perpetuated by a patriarchal society with the intent of keeping women in a subordinate position. The trans activist position, that gender is a matter of inner feelings and identity, seen from this perspective, is an outrage: if gender is a matter of feelings and individual choice, how can anyone critique the unfair power relations perpetuated by social gender structures? Surely if you’re not comfortable with your designation you should just find an identity that’s more comfortable? Radical feminists argue that it just doesn’t work like that. Identifying as something other than female doesn’t change the fact that I’m female bodied, and being female bodied is where it all begins.

So, radical feminists cannot support the literalists of transgender activism, who put inner gender identity ahead of perceptible physiological materiality and state that to be a woman one must simply identify as one. In circular fashion, when asked to define ‘woman’, the answer is ‘someone who identifies as one’. Thus radical feminists have set themselves against transgenderism, which is the current darling of the left. One out, all out: if you question us on this front, you’re probably a bigot on all the others too. Hell, you might even be a centrist.

A lot of feminists are angry at the injustice ¬†of this, as in the thread I quoted earlier. We campaign all our lives for the world as we think it ought to be, and for the sake of a few men in dresses you want to take our leftist identities from us? Fuck you. But this is a waste of time. Why? Because the progressive ratchet is relentless. What started with obvious injustices such as racism seeks out ever more nebulous forms of injustice and discrimination to attack, and ever more authoritarian means of doing so. The revolutionary vanguard of the social justice movement is leaving a trail of bruised, angry former leftists in its wake – excommunicants barred from belonging for questioning – say – the impact of open-borders immigration on the indigenous working class, or whether a male-bodied individual with a bass voice, a receding hairline and a fully functioning penis can¬†truly be a woman. American standup comic Owen Benjamin recently stated in a podcast ‘I arrived in LA as a left-winger, and I’m leaving it with people calling me a conservative. My political views haven’t changed’.

Radical feminists, the left is moving under you. Has moved under you. Your political views may not have changed, but some of them now disqualify you for membership of the left. The next group to discover this will be LGB activists, from the days when it really was LGB and not today’s alphabet soup. Your choice is simple: give up radical feminism, or give up on the left.

Though of course it’s up to your personal conscience, in my view the radical feminist analysis of gender relations is an important one, so I hope you choose the latter. The upside is that if you do so, you no longer need to feel hurt and angry when people accuse you of things which are only a problem if you want people to see you as a lefty – such as being a transphobic centrist. You also don’t need to be in Owen Jones’ gang any more. What’s not to like?

May’s retail offer disappoints on all levels

Theresa May’s big conference announcement for the day was…wait for it…extra dosh for Help to Buy.

Great. Fantastic. Muted applause.

The announcement disappoints, on so many levels.

Level one: it’s a stupid policy that will make the situation it proposes to ameliorate worse. Why is there a crisis in the first place? Housing prices are too high. What happens when you increase demand (give more young people the means to buy) without increasing supply accordingly? Prices go up. It’s barely even a sticking plaster on an endemic problem that will take a degree of political boldness undetectable in this government.

Level two: it’s weak and calculating, and trying not to look that way. The Tories are in a bind, because no-one young votes Tory. To entice more young voters their way, they need to do something to help more young people become the property-owning middle classes that traditionally vote Tory. That means building enough houses to keep prices stable or encourage them to fall. But on the other hand, housebuilding on that scale will annoy the older people who like the countryside as it is, and who see the rising value of their home as a nest egg. These are people who already reliably vote Tory. So, May must choose whether to protect the interests of the Tories’ core vote or risk alienating this core vote in order to appeal to another demographic that may or may not be swayed by her efforts. She has tried to square this circle, with a policy that will enable more young people to get a toe on the housing ladder, while ignoring the need to increase supply; her policy will thus avoid too much desecration of the sacred Green Belt and continue to drive up house prices, hopefully keeping the core Tory vote on board. Everyone wins, right? Except it’s a stupid policy that just defers the fundamental problem, which is either too few houses or too many people. She must know well that this is the case but lacks the clout, the boldness or perhaps the vision to do more than paper over the cracks and try to keep these competing interests onside.

Level three, and fundamentally, this policy disappoints because it’s such a sad capitulation to the bland, vision-less, tinkering-with-the-dials modern politics of ‘me, me, me’. What will the government do for me? What about my interests? Sod the country, I’m voting for whoever has the best deal for me. Forget having a vision and trying to govern in the national interest. Forget trying to carry the people with you when you do so. Ignore the big questions, fiddle with this tax or that incentive, try and triangulate for as many selfish subsets of the demos as you can isolate.

Whatever what your views on Brexit, it is clear that many people voted Leave knowing full well it was likely to result in an economically bumpy ride but believing that leaving was in the national interest regardless. By and large it was a vote that rejected the selfish nest-feathering insularity of retail politics in favour of a bigger vision. In uncertain times, faced with many competing narratives to explain ever more unpredictable outcomes, the Brexit vote spoke of a people – 52% of them, anyway – looking for a politics that is more about vision than retail offers. Arguably the popularity of Corbyn’s unaffordable promises speaks to the same impulse. But has May sensed the national hunger for vision and boldness in politics? Has she fuck. After her disastrous attempt at grasping nettles in the national interest – the so-called ‘dementia tax’, a genuinely bold and progressive effort to stop kicking the pretty troubling can of elderly care down the road – she has retreated from the big picture into the horse-trading politics of buying off this or that demographic.

What the Conservatives need is a leader with the courage and vision to make a clear case for tackling the country’s vested interests and getting the political consent for this by inspiring political solidarity. In the case of housing that means getting the NIMBYs to accept that they have to choose between keeping their pretty view at the expense of a thriving community, or letting development happen so their children can afford to buy in the area. We need someone who can speak to the whole country and draw out a sense of solidarity, of being willing to compromise so that the country overall can thrive.

The Conservatives were once able to find the kind of language to capture that kind of purpose and collective endeavour. Sadly, though, Mrs May has shrunk from the task in hand and I don’t see any likely successor who strike me as more plausible. So instead we get a shit policy that aims to buy off one group while keeping another pacified. A policy, and a party, that utterly fails to meet the mood of the times but instead harks back to the selfish, narcissistic politics of the ‘End of History’ post-Cold War era. A policy and party that resolutely refuses to acknowledge the fact that history has come roaring back, and that our current elected representatives are painfully, woefully not up to the job of dealing with it.

Feminism vs trans-cis-demi-genderblah: why you should care

Very much enjoyed Sam Harris’podcasted discussion with Douglas Murray on topics ranging from transgenderism to leftist apologism for Islamic terrorists and the migrant crisis. Towards the end he said (I’m paraphrasing slightly) something to the effect that he’d given up on the left and its narcissism of small differences, could not bring himself to care about its internecine battles because sod them, there are more important matters at stake.

I do broadly agree with him that there are more important things going on in the world at present than the debate¬†about whether or not a penis can be female (of course it can’t, you idiot, it’s a penis). Nonetheless,¬†the quarrel between the feminists and the transgenderists is worth paying attention to, even if you’ve reached a general state of exasperation with the entire grievance-mongering, self-flagellating, virtue-signalling, political paralysis-inducing nonsense that is the post-Cold War leftism of identity.

It’s worth keeping an eye on because to my eye it is evidence of some (albeit tiny)¬†green shoots of hope. One of my core frustrations with identity politics, and more broadly with the speech code restrictions it imposes on society in general, is the way it insists on dealing only with the world as it should be. Any inconvenient facts about the world as it actually is are either ignored, denied, explained away or countered with shrill¬†accusations of bigotry.

Remaining with the feminists, for example, this can be seen in the rage that breaks out whenever somebody dares suggest that women who don’t want to get taken advantage of might want to consider not getting falling-down drunk in the company of oversexed men with dubious morals. Of course ‘She was drunk and I was horny and she didn’t say no’ is no excuse for¬†raping an unconscious woman, however she came to be unconscious. But some unpleasant scumbags will take advantage, and the best way to avoid being the victim is not to get shitfaced when surrounded by¬†dodgy pervs. And yet any attempt to point this out is met with furious accusations of ‘rape apology’ and ‘victim blaming’.¬†On the one hand here, we have¬†people who adhere rigidly to a vision of the world as they believe it should be (any sexual contact not preceded by explicit consent is assault) and wish to police all departures from that vision. On the other, we have those who observe the world as it is (most people are okay but there are some¬†predatory toerags out there) and wish to take pragmatic steps to¬†encourage¬†individuals to use their judgement to avoid unpleasant outcomes.

One¬†of the recurring themes of Murray and Harris’¬†podcast was the bad faith with which¬†the left has attempted to silence or toxify the real and necessary discussion around Islamism and integration¬†of migrants in Western societies. We could see this as another instance of one side insisting only on a discussion of the world as it should be (everyone is nice to everyone regardless of faith; white people are extra nice to brown people because colonialism) meeting and condemning in the shrillest possible terms others’ desire to discuss the world as it is (many Muslims have no desire to integrate in the West; further, some of these think the West is a sink of¬†moral squalor and are willing to blow themselves up in order to combat this iniquitous den of moral filth).

The strange insistence of this type of leftism on denying¬†any narrative but that of the world as the imaginer would like it to be¬†be finds¬†a natural common cause with the genderists. Here, the privileging of wishful thinking over observable reality becomes an individual’s emancipatory right: I am whatever gender¬†I say I am, because no-one else can dictate my identity but me. This sacralisation of solipsism as a human right further demands that any physiological facts that contradict the individual’s self-definition, such as possession of the wrong sex organs, are simply discounted.¬†Because I say I am a woman, my penis is a womanly penis. And because most of the arguing I do about this is on the internet, whether or not I actually have a penis seems, some of the time at least, less relevant. Therefore, I will claim that it is not relevant at all and in fact that mentioning said penis makes you an oppressive bigot.

Returning to the quarrel between the feminists and the genderists, my slender¬†green shoot of hope ¬†grows from the fact that feminism¬†may now be forced¬†to lead the charge¬†against the madness of identity politics. For if genderism is allowed to run riot, feminism stops being possible. I’m not talking about the whiny type¬†of virtue-signalling feminism that tries to get prominent scientists¬†sacked or protein shake¬†adverts banned; I’m talking about the very necessary type of feminism that¬†runs women’s refuges or rape helplines, and campaigns for abortion rights and against FGM. Because the world is still, in quite a few ways, a more difficult place to navigate safely if you’re the owner of tits and a uterus¬†than if you’re the owner of a penis. Most of the pragmatic, grass-roots, truly meaningful feminism aims to address problems that accrue to women because of their physiology. But if¬†the genderists win, and focusing on the physiological aspect¬†of these difficulties is erased because it conflicts between the genderists’ vision of the world as it should be, then feminism becomes conceptually impossible. Thankfully, numerous feminists have woken up to this and are insisting that no, your delicate feelings and desire for me not to rain on your parade does not take priority over certain immutable physiological facts and no, pointing that out doesn’t make me a bigot, it makes your protests¬†deluded and monumentally self-absorbed if not actually mentally ill. Because that’s what we’re talking about: a group of people who wish to rewrite reality in¬†the name of social justice. We need to call this what it is – madness – and pedal rapidly backwards from the conceptual framework that permits this madness to take hold.

I understand the reluctance of many to get involved in the internecine quarrels of the left. Nonetheless I would urge anyone who is concerned about the increasing fragmentation of Western culture, and particularly the inability of our intelligentsia to counter divisive grievance and oppression narratives with observable and accepted facts, to make common cause with those feminists currently in the front line of the fight to save the reality-based community.

Forget policy: to survive, conservatism must fight for Western civilisation

It is clear that the left is enjoying something of a moment, not just in the UK but across most of the West. It has reduced universities to censorious leftist monocultures, is busy imposing its ever more deranged zombie religion of political correctness in public debate and is so effusively full of confidence in its command of the cultural moment that ‘Acid Corbynism’ has caused quite a stir at this year’s Labour Party conference (fringe). Meanwhile the right-leaning press is full of gloomy arguments discussing the Tories’ oncoming demographic Armageddon and crisis of political confidence.

Mulling this over, it strikes me as strange that conservatives should feel thus on the back foot, when there is so much to preserve, so much to care for and pass on to the next generation. The whole of Western civilisation, in fact. Why, then, are conservatives so embarrassed about wishing to conserve?

The doctrine of postmodernism, which advances a wedge of dilettante erudition ahead of its jackhammer of angry philistinism, has used its assault on the concept of canon to leave the best part of three decades’ worth of Western university graduates with barely a piecemeal grasp of their cultural heritage. Even this is filtered for them by their tutors through a lens of guilty identity politics, that reduces everything it touches, no matter how sublime or beautiful, to an ugly scrum for power under ‘cisheteropatriarchy’.

The result is three decades of graduates that simply do not see anything worth conserving. Where conservatism sees our culture as a collective endeavour worth contributing to and continuing, a flame that we all help to carry, the graduates of postmodernism see it as a monolithic engine of marginalisation. A pervasive, miasmic, indestructible force for perpetuating in-groups and injustice, to which the only legitimate reaction is resistance and subversion, and the amplification of voices deemed marginalised. It is in this fundamental perception that much of the ‘snowflake’ stereotype resides, for today’s university students naturally wish to align themselves with the marginalised rather than their imaginary plutocratic oppressors. This leads in turn to the strange phenomenon of Ivy League students, arguably some of the most privileged young people on the planet, throwing public tantrums when their pain and oppression is not validated.

But I digress. My argument is that conservatism’s crisis of confidence lies in the fact that even conservatives have been infected with postmodernism’s anxiety about whether Western civilisation really is worth saving. How could it be otherwise, when we study at the same universities, participate in (to an extent) the same public discourse, live and work with those who would take a hammer to our past? And if it isn’t worth saving, what are are conservatives but a bunch of intransigent junk-hoarders? Or perhaps conservatives just really dig the cisheteropatriarchy? Perhaps they just get off on shitting on marginalised groups and exploiting the poor?

You can see where the current leftist narrative about conservatism originates, and perhaps you begin to see why conservatives struggle to articulate counter-narrative. Because a counter-narrative to this nihilistic, pomo 21st-century mutation of leftism would require saying: I reject your basic premise. Western civilisation is a remarkable collective achievement of some five thousand years and deserves our humble appreciation and positive contribution, not this childish window-smashing. Everything I believe in stems from this premise, while you seem to believe progress can only come about when we tear it all down: the statues, the literature, the music, the architecture, the very notion of high culture itself. And as long as conservatives have even the shadow of a fear that the pomo nihilists might have a point, there is nothing to defend. Nothing to conserve. And if that is true, conservatism really does degrade merely to cheerleading for free-market capitalism or else embittered white nationalism, frothing on Twitter about Islam.

There is something worth conserving. We must say it. Own it. What is Acid Corbynism to the Parthenon, to Rilke, to the sweep of English literature from Beowulf to The Waste Land? To Beethoven’s Ninth? Chartres cathedral? We must fight for our heritage, speak proudly of it, put effort into knowing and sharing it. Don’t let it be destroyed by petty, envious philistinism disguised as radical egalitarianism. In embracing and loving our cultural heritage, and arguing without shame for its continuation, we anchor conservatism in something greater than market capitalism or nativism: in the astonishing sweep of many thousands of years of cultural achievement. A flame worth our helping to carry it on.

notes: identity politics is not compatible with democracy

a few quick notes on something that has been troubling me for a while.

some basic premises of democracy:

  • a demos: group of people with enough shared culture, aims, sense of solidarity
  • enables both voting on issues of interest to whole group AND acceptance of majority rule when it goes against them
  • presumption of equality, rationality and common humanity

identity politics:

  • national groupings seen as arbitrary or harmful
  • replaces these with demographic ‘identity’ groupings¬†– sex, age, race etc
  • plays down importance of class (lip service in theory, little¬†in practice)
  • demographic ‘identity’ groupings associated with a predetermined hierarchy of victimhood
  • this hierarchy is presumed to warp or wholly supplant political priorities as stated by any given demos
  • objections to this represent either oppression (if coming from someone ‘higher’ up the HoV) or false consciousness if from someone with more¬†oppressed characteristics
  • solidarity for common political cause is rendered difficult or impossible because
    • no-one can speak for someone with different victim characteristics
    • hence large coalitions¬†fragment into fractious special¬†pleading by competing splinter groups
  • common humanity – or even enough cohesive group identity – as basis for overall unity of a demos is problematised ¬†to the point where majority voting is no longer tolerated

identity politics often uses a deadening form of ‘tolerance’ to obscure the fact that the interests of different groups may be fundamentally opposed – see for example the conflict between the rights claims of transgender activists and those of radical feminists

this is not a zero sum game necessarily but it is not enough simply to ignore it, or resolve it by using the victim hierarchy to render one side of the argument morally unmentionable

we are in danger of throwing the baby of rational debate on a (presumed) level playing field out with the bathwater of enlightenment universalism

and without a social convention of rational debate, in which all are presumed equal and in which all speech is permissible an all positions up for discussion, we have lost a fundamental premise of democracy for we cannot discuss the issues

and without a presumption of some cohesion and commonality, however contingent (accidents of birth, geography, culture) we cannot presume enough solidarity to vote on them

and without debate, and a vote which all can accept, we have no democracy.

is that really where we are going?

Dear American friends: Don’t mistake Brexit for Anglo-Trumpism

Dear friends and associates across the pond.

I’ve noticed a great interest in Brexit among you in recent days. It’s a momentous event, so of course people who take an interest in current affairs should be interested. But it’s becoming evident to me from the tone of discussion, as well as¬†in the articles that I see repeatedly shared¬†as explanations of what is going on, that the subtext for at least some of your¬†discussion is an attempt to read the tea leaves for your own presidential race, in particular¬†where it concerns¬†Trumpism.

I would like to suggest that Brexit is less useful as an analogy in this respect than might seem superficially the case. There are some commonalities, which I will discuss later, but at the risk of repaying your assumptions with some of my own about an American political context I am less than well-versed in I would like to suggest some of the ways in which the campaign for Britain to leave the EU emerges from and reflects a very different cultural and political context.

Argument

It is popular among the commentariat to characterise the vote for Brexit as an incoherent, logic-free howl of protest by ‘the left-behind’ against the elite.¬†It is simply assumed that the EU is by definition a good thing, and that objections to it must therefore represent a nihilistic, under-educated anti-politics stance oriented more towards backlash than positive political change. It is hence less¬†popular, at least among that substantial section of the media that is in favour of the EU, to explore the possibility that many of those objecting to the EU might actually have a case – let alone to explore what that case actually is.

The campaign for Britain to keep its distance from the European Union is as old as the European Union itself. Though it has often been painted as such by the prevailing consensus, it is not merely a hobby-horse for ideologues and eccentrics but (admittedly along with a share of eccentrics) a serious campaign with coherent arguments and a lengthy, thoughtful tradition, covering economic, cultural and constitutional issues. I will not attempt to sum these arguments up here, except to provide some links to places where the case is stated better than I could myself.

Brexit: The Movie is a 90-minute documentary created to put the case for leaving during the referendum campaign. It was crowdfunded and created outwith the official Vote Leave campaign¬†by a coalition of long-term Brexit campaigners, and documents some of these well-established arguments for leaving the European Union. It makes the case for an open, globally-oriented free-market Britain trading not with the EU’s protectionist customs union but with the world as a whole.

Lexit: The Movie was less well-publicised, because created and released later in the campaign, but does a similar job reviewing and putting forward the left-wing case for leaving the European Union.

Elsewhere, this extended essay from the civil society think tank Civitas does a good job of setting out the history and development of the UK constitution, and the extent to which this settlement has been eroded by the radically different assumptions and priorities of the EU mode of government.

Finally, this campaign is not without proposals for the future. The long-running Brexit campaign has a well-developed proposal for a phased withdrawal from the institutions and acquis of the European Union – with the slightly ungainly name¬†Flexcit¬†–¬†¬†that sets out a pragmatic, de-risked and market-oriented process that, far from being a grand rupture, would see a staged separation between the UK and the European Union that optimised stability and positive relations on all sides.

While I am here at risk of myself projecting my own assumptions onto a political context with which I am not deeply familiar, it is not my impression that Trumpism has any equivalent long-term campaigning history, core arguments, political objectives or worked strategy for getting there. If I am wrong I would be grateful to learn more from you all about how and in what ways.

History

It scarcely bears repeating, but the islands that make up the British Isles have an ambivalent history with the European continent that stretches back some 2,000 years. From the Roman conquest of England to the Anglo-Saxon invasions that drove the Celts into the hills of Wales and Scotland, to the Anglo-Saxon¬†fight¬†under Alfred against the counter-invasion from Scandinavia, to the Norman conquest that added a Scandinavian/French aristocratic¬†superstructure to a Saxon peasantry. The incursions of the English Crown into France in the Middle Ages, the combative race against¬†other European nations to colonise the world through the early modern period, and the eventual English defeat of Napoleon’s attempt at a unified Europe. And of course the role played by Britain in ending¬†another attempt to create a unified Europe, a century later, in the carnage of World War II – a continent-wide catastrophe that itself forms the backdrop for the creation of the European Union.

This essay is not interested in passing moral judgement on the events and interactions that form this narrative. But it is clear that¬†the history of British relations¬†with the countries¬†of Europe is a complex, sometimes explosive¬†blend of cultural interchange, invasion and counter-invasion, intermarriage, interaction, intervention and immigration. The guilt-ridden post-colonial narrative of this being ‘a mongrel island’ comprising influences from all these pasts¬†chooses to highlight the cultural interchanges that have shaped the British Isles but tends to omit the conflicts that annealed that shape. It is at best perversely¬†ahistorical, if not downright irresponsible, to attempt to understand the British cultural reaction to the steady encroachment of European Union governance onto these islands without reference to this deep history of interchange and ambivalence.

(It should be emphasised of course that the UK is not unique in this deep history, though our position as both culturally interwoven with but geographically distinct from Europe does give our perspective a particular tilt. But the presence of equally complex stories in nations across the continent helps to account both for the elite enthusiasm for the European project, and also the ambivalence of many ordinary Europeans to the same project.)

Returning to our theme of parallels (or their lack) between Trumpism and the Brexit movement, I struggle to see how equivalent issues of deep history and cultural memory might inform Trumpism, though again I would be grateful to be corrected on this front.

What the EU actually is, does, and aims to achieve. (The democratic case.)

It is far from clear to me what impression Americans in general have of the European Union. Indeed it is far from clear to me that many in the United Kingdom have more than the most superficial understanding of its operations, ambitions or relation to individual member states. The popular perception among many who support it seems to me to be of a sort of benign superstructure that guarantees certain rights, in some indefinable way makes foreign holidays cheaper and which generally encourages everyone to travel and be nice to one another. The slightly more detailed view perceives it as a trading bloc, permitting tariff-free commerce and harmonising regulations across a continent in order to ensure prosperity and mutual benefit all round.

But one need only read the European treaties to realise that the EU is none of these things – or at least to describe the EU as any of those things is a little like holding an elephant by the tail and describing it as being¬†somewhat like a pencil. As trenchantly set out by Ben Kelly, the EU is not just a trading bloc and was never intended to be a democracy. Its ambition is to become a single federal state, and the slow accretion of treaties pushes each time inexorably in this direction: extending beyond trade into justice, foreign policy, law enforcement and immigration with the Maastricht Treaty, expanding to new territories with the Treaty of Amsterdam, further geographical expansion with the Treaty of Nice and effectively introducing a state constitution by the back door with the Treaty of Lisbon. The Five Presidents’ Report, the 2015 white paper that sets out the broad objectives for the next EU treaty, proposes in the interests of saving the eurozone from further crises to introduce further integration in areas as diverse as banking, tax, social security, company law and property rights, and replacing individual nations’ representation in key international bodies with a single EU representative.

Each of these changes requires what is described in the EU as ‘pooling sovereignty’. This euphemism in fact means the surrender of key national competencies to the supranational jurisdiction of the EU Institutions.

By analogy, the formation of the European Union is equivalent to inviting the United States to support the creation of a Pan-American Union, with a parliament situated Рsay Рin Mexico City, and a stated ambition of creating a federal Americas bringing together the entire continent. This political construct could then grant freedom of movement for all the peoples from Canada through the United States to the nations of South America, to live and work wherever they liked in the Americas. These nations could then begin the process of harmonising tax, labour, property, social security and criminal justice practices under a single system, and like the other member states the USA would be required to give up the supremacy of its Supreme Court for a Pan-American Court whose job would be to enforce the terms of the Pan-American Treaties and any laws or directives emanating from the government in Mexico City.

Should someone suggest such a project, it is likely that objections would be widespread in the USA. It¬†is also unlikely that those doing the objecting¬†would be solely¬†dispossessed blue-collar Americans. Indeed, should an observer from another continent seek to present the project as wholly benign, and those objecting as the illiberal, under-educated, backward-looking losers of globalisation’s great leap forward, it is likely that the mildest possible response¬†to this interpretation¬†would¬†be that¬†it might be worth considering the situation¬†from a few different perspectives before drawing this conclusion.

Common ground

Having said all of this, it cannot be denied that there is common ground between some aspects of the EU referendum moment and the rise of Trumpism. While the issues I have outlined briefly above represent a political and cultural context with (to my eye at least) no clear parallels across the Atlantic, it is also true that the long-running campaign to detach the UK from the European Union has been amplified by a growing gulf between the political elites that continue to drive European integration, and the populations of the countries they seek to integrate.

This has found its clearest outlet in protests against European freedom of movement, which for a minority has fanned the flames of xenophobia but which for many more represents a proxy issue for the loss of democratic control implied by ‘pooling sovereignty’, ¬†as well as impacting materially on the earning capacity of those at the unskilled end of the labour market. Additionally it has raised questions of identity, belonging and cultural cohesion that the elites who benefit most from freedom of movement, wedded as they are to a decontextualised New Left model¬†of identity, are simply without the conceptual framework to address. In this highly contested field of globalisation, international trade, migration, community and identity there may well be some parallels between the angry proletariat that has mobilised for Brexit, and the angry American proletariat mobilising for Trump.

In summary, then: the case for Brexit is complex, well-established and coherent and Рwhatever you think of its merits Рshould not be mistaken for Anglo-Trumpism. However this is not to say that the British Isles is not also experiencing a revolt similar to the one that has propelled Trump so far into the presidential race. That said, I would be cautious about extrapolating this common ground too far, beyond saying that globalisation is (to be trite) a global phenomenon and it is probable that the proletarian pushback against its downsides has only just begun. It is my view that the European Union is one of many ways in which the global political order has been steadily adjusted over the last five decades or so, in the interests of an elite that benefits hugely from globalisation while externalising its many downsides, and that this adjustment has occurred in many ways at the expense of popular sovereignty. Those in countries with a tradition of democracy, but without any recourse to the corridors of power other than their vote, are rapidly waking up to the attenuation of that vote and are beginning to clamour for their franchise back. This is likely to lead to further upsets over the coming years.