July 20, 2016, by lqzam1
The Death of Jo Cox and Our Shared Future
Remain lost the vote. It was of course going to be difficult to over turn the impact of the popular press and the nationalist Right. The layers of cultural meaning and resentment that have been implanted over decades were always going to be hard to dislodge. At first I did think the arguments on the economy would persuade many voters who fear another recession. Here there is a powerful case for favoring the status quo in a world of insecure employment, and in a campaign supported by most of the political class this might have been expected to have produced a positive result. Indeed at the start of the campaign, according to the polls, many voters seemed undecided. This could be taken to mean that for large parts of the electorate the nationalistic arguments had simply failed to persuade them. Indeed when I watched news programmes at the beginning of the EU campaign the voice I most often heard was the desire for more information. The public at this point sounded a bit like children cross with their parents for burdening them with such a big choice when really they just wanted to go on their summer holidays. Yet from the beginning the campaign to Remain lacked a politics of the street. Instead ‘committed’ politics seemed to belong to the Brexit campaign, whose arguments about the regulation of immigration, the national ‘shame’ of not being able to control our borders and of ‘taking back control’ seemed to resonate with the broader population. However we also saw just how easily the street can turn into the gutter. Wild claims about Turkey’s future membership of the EU, Nigel Farage’s anti-immigrant poster and complaints about the distant nature of the European parliament all seemed to strike a chord in an increasingly angry debate. This came home to me one Saturday morning when I met a Brexit campaigner who explained that the EU was a fascist institution. When pressed on this it quickly became totalitarian and then after a while authoritarian. Such was the hatred and the anger the words did not matter. After a fairly heated exchange (and apologies to my embarrassed daughter) I walked home thinking that in a politics driven by anger what matters is outcomes. That institutions are shut down, immigration stopped and the political class blamed. I could not help but think that there was more than an echo of the European politics of the 1930s in all this. The contempt felt for common institutions and the dismissal of the decadence of democracy oversaw the rise of extremist politics within Europe. Having been in many grass-roots campaigns myself over the years I am used to hearing excitable language but this time it seemed different. The closest that I had previously come to this was as a young Labour activist in the 1980s. During this period I came across many people who became involved with Militant Tendency. Many of the people I met in Militant were really likeable and yet some of their arguments and programmes struck me as wild and I was not surprised when Labour sought to root them out. Yet as I got to know them personally I understood that the source of their anger was often the same as mine, having come from poor families who could not get a job in the labour market. I admired their energy and passion, and yet could not understand how a programme of nationalising the top hundred companies operated as a feasible form of politics. If anything the politics of the 1930s teaches us of the importance of the constitutional state, human rights and the law and their restraining effect on more radical political proposals. Not surprising then that radical social movements have concentrated upon changing perceptions and more cultural forms of politics that stop well short of smashing the state. A radical politics of citizenship is still possible but needs to be careful of destructive and hateful language. This does not cancel a politics that seeks to question representative democracy as there are other forms of engagement, but ultimately progressive politics needs to strengthen democratic institutions and not undermine them. Yet such was the hatred held by many of the Brexitiers for Europe that this is what many of them seemed to want to do. The spectacle of Farage a few weeks ago at the EU telling elected representatives to get a ‘proper job’ was deeply uncomfortable. Especially given the possibility that Europe has (just like the nation-state) the capacity to further democratise itself and to protect the rights of the vulnerable. However this politics in the immediate future will have to go on without the UK.
My own frustration came not simply out of the simplistic thinking that came out of this exchange, but the growing sense in the campaign that the language we use should not be something we need to think carefully about. If Remain sought to utilise economic utilitarian arguments then Brexit were culpable of not only a return to an aggressive nationalism, but for a series of claims they clearly felt would not be scrutinised by the media or public. The most telling moment here came when the Brexit campaign issued a short manifesto as if they were a government in waiting. This was clearly absurd as this was a referendum and not a general election. However this move mostly went without comment. At the time many of those commenting on the campaign compared it to the rise of Trump in the U.S. through the idea of ‘post-fact’ politics. This claim is probably half wrong. The ability to mobilise the population clearly depends in a mass democracy on a form of symbolic politics that are not directly determined by facts. Yet amongst the wild and excited talk of the campaign there was clearly a sense of promises being made that would never be delivered upon. The clearest example of this was the NHS ad by the Brexit campaign. This offered a brutal contrast between the NHS now and after Brexit. The images showed what looked to be poor working class people being cared for by the NHS after we had left the EU. Yet the sense was, after the ‘liberated’ society that was to emerge after Brexit, these statements would soon be forgotten. As if politics is a huge exciting spectacle making claims about bright new tomorrows and what mattered was strategic advantage and not truthfulness. The Remain campaign in this respect merely offered the status quo whereas it was Brexit that offered people a more exciting language of social transformation and change. After the vote many commentators have argued that it was the losers of economic globalisation (the working-class population) who were the people most likely to be attracted by this sense of possibility. If within our global world many have been left scrambling to survive, Brexit offered the possibility of radical change. Further that unlike the educated middle-classes, many people did not feel themselves to be European and had a growing sense that their more place-specific identities were under threat in a world of migration and change. I don’t think there can be any doubt that these were important features in the outcome. Here I have felt uncomfortable at what often sound like a condescending attitude which argues that people who voted Brexit were simply not informed enough and should accept they made the wrong choice. This, despite the many of us who felt a deep attachment to the EU project, is simply undemocratic and needs to be rejected.
There was however a moment in the campaign that could have been transformative. Until her tragic death Jo Cox was a little known MP. Fairly new to parliament she had mainly campaigned on the rights of refugees, the war on Syria and for people with autism. After her death I looked on her Facebook page to find a record of fairly unremarkable gatherings that Jo had attended. What became evident in her posts was her ‘ordinariness’. She visited schools, local libraries, met refugees and attended openings and fund-raisers, mostly in her constituency in Batley. At first it was hard to see why she would become the target of a fascist attack. Yet her evident belief that politics is local, national and cosmopolitan made her a potential object of hatred. After the shock of her death I was left feeling puzzled as to why her death did not have a greater impact.
What then did Jo Cox stand for, and what of my argument that her death failed to change the nature of the debate? If there was something ‘ordinary’ about her politics and daily activity there were other meanings at work as well. There were the images of Jo Cox as a mother often pictured with her family and her husband. Notable by its absence were images of her meeting the rich, powerful or indeed celebrity supporters. Her speeches in parliament were not short on passion and engagement, but there was something to the point and modest about them. In one of her final pieces of writing for the Times newspaper she writes about the war in Syria and yet her concerns seem to be overwhelmingly humanitarian. She also supported the Dubs amendment that aimed to persuade the UK government to take in 3000 child refugees who had escaped Syria mostly without their parents. She estimated in April this year that 95,000 such children currently exist within Europe and that her proposal was that the UK takes in 3 per cent. It seems it was supporting these causes that turned Jo Cox into a target for hatred that eventually led to her death. The Europe that Jo Cox seemed to stand for was pluralistic, concerned about inequality but one where compassion and humanistic concern found expression across national borders. It was this in the end perhaps that became the focus of an uncivil politics.
Within the Britain that Jo Cox has left behind these fairly modest ideas and proposals become unmentionable. Lost in the anxieties about immigration, national borders and what it means to be patriotic was an idea about a different Europe that almost never found expression in the campaign. This was not a neoliberal Europe or one based upon more radical forms of transformation. The Europe of Jo Cox aimed at social justice, pluralism and human rights. The debate on Europe had taken such a Rightist turn that even these concerns seem to be too much. Yet in the end I think the ‘too much’ was that she was prepared to apply these principles across borders. This then offers an interesting paradox if we can agree that within a global and interconnected age images, resources, bodies and identities become stretched across borders but that any recognition of this becomes somehow unacceptable. I noted that the Remain campaign very rarely mentioned ideas around globalisation, let alone the role that the EU might play in this world. Instead both Remain and Leave were stuck at the level of the national interest, or as David Cameron reminded us several times, there were patriots on both sides of the argument. Here what became unmentionable was that we can have identities other than our national identity. The phrase ‘take back control’ was clearly meant to apply to national sovereignty. As if the rightful place of identity and citizenship is the nation-state. This of course abolishes any more complex account of identity as well as other versions of citizenship that might have included global, European or indeed local concerns. Here I waited (in vain) for someone to say where is our identity when we oppose, say, fracking? The attempt to prevent new forms of carbon-based energy being opened up in a world threatened by climate change is at once local, national and of course global. Every activist I have met who works on these questions, while often emphasising local risks, knows that they are part of a much bigger global, social and cultural struggle. Where indeed is ‘our’ identity when we oppose racism which we know does not neatly fit into the borders of national frontiers? Yet in the campaign national identity remained ‘the’ identity.
Both Leave and Remain offered excessively cleaned-up and tidy arguments. Like many people I tried to watch the ‘big TV’ debates. These were presented as gladiatorial contests between slick politicians hungry for power and prestige. Mostly these resembled a sporting event where the viewers were invited to cheer for the home team while deriding their rivals. Online I noticed a basic lack of civility between ‘opponents’ as people tore into one another. This became apparent when, after a discussion with someone I didn’t know, they seemed taken aback when I thanked them for their time and helping me understand the Brexit case better than I had done previously. Instead the campaign was an exercise in finger wagging, accusations of project fear and of course the exciting language of calling someone a liar. Within another exchange I was called ‘delusional’ for suggesting that human rights and the welfare state set humane standards for our society. The effect of this was inevitably to squeeze out subtle and more complex arguments. In a television-dominated campaign voters were invited to make up their minds as they watched the top personalities slug it out. There were of course all too few spaces for alternative intellectuals or even people who simply wished to offer more complex narratives. On television there were also vox-pop moments when ‘ordinary’ members of the public were asked their opinion which usually began with which camp do you belong to or which side are you on? Not surprising that the charged atmosphere of national patriotism has opened the door to enhanced everyday forms of racist aggression. As many people have pointed out the heightened expectations and raw emotions that came along with the campaign not only gave a new legitimacy to racist sentiments but created a sense of ‘us versus them’.
In the weeks ahead the fairly modest politics of Jo Cox is likely to come under threat. Will social democracy survive the assault from the Right as UKIP seek to target Labour sets in the North of England and the Brexit Conservative government moves to the Right in a world of rising unemployment, failing pensions and welfare cuts? What will happen to more civic understandings of nationhood as politicians seek to cash in on a ‘reborn’ Brexit nationalism? If the UK withdraw from the European convention on human rights and adopt an Australian-style points system, will we also see the emergence of Australian style refugee camps? This is less the inclusive agenda represented by Jo Cox, but more like what Agamben called ‘bare life’. Agamben reminds us that before Europe came under the grip of the concentration camp citizens had to be stripped of their rights. Already in neoliberal UK we have seen how humanity becomes treated when it is deemed to be ‘surplus to requirements’ no longer required by the labour market having to rely upon food banks, young people with mental health problems being referred to charities or indeed refugees scrambling to survive. What then begins to happen to this ‘surplus population’ if the Brexit government removes their rights? Of course we are not in this world yet although it is more than a remote possibility. This is not the world that Jo Cox stood for and it is for this reason amongst others we need to carefully attend to her loving and generous nature by keeping her memory and her modest (and sometimes radical) politics alive.
There are of course reasons to be optimistic as well as fearful and I say this as someone who was optimistic about the potential of Remain. Labour are somewhat predictably in crisis and there are indeed genuine fears it may split. Before anyone tells you this is a good idea let me say that as someone who lived through the 1980s when Thatcher was kept in power by a split between SDP and Labour that it is not. There are voices at the moment suggesting that a radical anti-austerity alliance needs to be formed and that Labour needs to give up on the idea it can govern alone. This is likely to be difficult for Labour to accept although there are progressive possibilities here as well. We are already seeing other radical campaigns post-Brexit beginning. In my home city of Nottingham over the past week I have seen invitations for public meetings from social movements opposing racism, militarism (after Chilcot) and fracking. It is, as Jo Cox would probably have reminded us, too soon to give up hope where a better world remains a permanent possibility.
However while I currently think the prospects are not good for those on the Left things can indeed change quickly. Another group of people I spent my time talking to during the campaign could be described as Lexit. For them any possibility of an authentic socialist future was cancelled by the EU, given its commitment to neoliberal politics most recently dramatised by the crisis in Greece. While I also felt more positive about the EU before the humiliation of Greece through a politics of progressive privatisation I remain unconvinced by this set of arguments. Here questions of politics become about a technical choice. The EU remains as capable of reform as any other institution. Recently we have commemorated the Battle of the Somme when soldiers were sent off to die by European states that were barely democratic and had not developed a fuller language of citizenship. Indeed scepticism about war and the militaristic aims of the state has been one of the more progressive developments within more recent European history, and likely to get a shot in the arm after Chilcot. The Lexit case is that without the EU we are now closer to a more authentic form of socialism. This entirely misses the cosmopolitan case that institutions like the United Nations, Europe and the court of human rights can act as barriers to state aggression and the mistreatment of their citizens. This history of European socialism is such that what was once called actually existed socialism was a miserable failure when it came to preserving the ethical core of human freedom. Indeed at present the main beneficiaries of the current crisis are likely to be the nationalist and aggressively neoliberal Right.
One of the reasons as a young man I was attracted to Europe (the others being travel and the electronic music of Kraftwerk and Neu) was it seemed to be a place where ideas mattered. In my imagination Europe was the place of Adorno, Simone de Beauvoir and Kafka. Another towering figure who belongs to this stable is Elias Cannetti. One of Cannetti’s most repeated refrains was that we simply don’t live long enough to ever make up our minds. We are the victims of relatively limited life-spans never having truly understood something unless we have lived it. Well in my own limited life span (now well over 50 years) the period I am most often thinking about is the mood in the country after the Falklands War. Thatcher had just beaten Michael Foot to gain a second term riding a wave of nationalist celebration and this proved to be a devastating period for progressive politics. What followed was the bitter violence of the Miners’ strike and a renewed period of intense class conflict. There will be those who say that the current situation has enormous potential for radical politics, but I seriously doubt this is true. However in the coming months as the new post-Brexit world begins to take shape I hope we will take the opportunity as Hannah Arendt might have said to use our language carefully, to be civic-minded, accept responsibility for the public domain and to stubbornly refuse the invitation to invest our hopes in charismatic politicians rather than more careful forms of thoughtful and respectful argument about the possibilities of our own times. If many complained that the 1990s ushered in a period of post-citizenship where relatively affluent consumerist societies allowed many to switch off we no longer live in such luxurious times. Instead we need to recall the spirit of people like Jo Cox and ensure we remember the need for compassion and moral complexity.