We are all barbarians now...

Wednesday 20 January 2016 11:47

In July 2015, at the height of the Greece/EU crisis, the philosopher of liberal capitalism, and theorist of European unity, Jürgen Habermas gave an interview to the Guardian. It was, in effect, a threnody for the idea of Europe, a lament for what his native Germany had done or undone. He identified the European non-elected institutions – the council, the commission and European Central Bank (ECB) – as the rogue core of the new anti-democratic power in the land. But Jürgen Habermas should get out more. Europe is more of a disunity than a union and politicians who preach unity and ‘closer integration’ on the great European summits, are loudly proclaiming racism and nationalism in their home valleys.

A pub in Lamb’s Conduit Street, London, 2008

Naturally it’s called The Lamb. My wife and I walk in there one sunny day. We have arranged to meet our son and his partner. The Lamb is a traditional English pub, dark, suffused by soft light, a big mahogany horse-shoe shaped counter. Dickens is reputed to have been a regular here, and Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath certainly were. At the bar we order a pint and a half-pint of London Pride. Suddenly, mysteriously, we are surrounded by men in suits. Some of them have shaved heads. They stand watching as we pay and take our beer to a seat. We are vaguely irritated. Is there some kind of anti-Irish vibe in the Lamb? But we know this a student haunt for kids from the School of Oriental and African Studies, Birkbeck and the staff from the National Hospital in Queen’s Square as well as locals. We should feel at home here but we don’t. It’s not the staff, it’s these guys in suits. Then they vanish. My wife notices that an elderly man, like something from an episode of Fawlty Towers, thin, wizened, dressed dapper in a blue blazer and cravat and reading the Telegraph, is listening closely to our conversation. After five minutes he leaves.

There is much coming and going to a room upstairs. People buy drinks at the bar and disappear. Happy smiling people, greetings called across the bar, back-slapping and hand-shaking. A meeting, we assume, or a club. Then a group of young men comes down wearing military fatigues. My first thought is that this is an army pub, despite there being no army barracks to speak of for miles. But I notice that one of the men in fatigues, standing at the bar, chatting cheerfully, even a little excitedly to his friends, has a swastika tattooed on his neck.

At that point our son and his partner arrive. They are slightly shocked. They tell us that the street outside is now full of police and there are cameras trained on the pub. My wife says that she just heard someone talking about a website called Redwatch and the penny drops. I know that Redwatch is a far-right website that posts photographs of people on left-wing and anti-war demonstrations and asks people to identify them and find their names and addresses.

We understand that we are drinking with the British National Party (BNP) – a fact confirmed by a chance sighting of a booklet passed between two people at the next table. The BNP are properly fascist, no neo- about them.

We leave immediately. I whistle The Red Flag as I pass their door security, confident that fascists have no real sense of history and even less of culture. Nobody notices. The police film us even though their dapper tout must have told them that we were just Irish people meeting their London-based son for a quiet drink. They do that, the police.

This is seven years ago. Since then the BNP has almost disappeared from the British political landscape replaced by a party called United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The old BNP traces its lineage back to Oswald Mosley and the Nazi sympathisers of the 30s. Like neo-Nazis everywhere they see themselves as representing some sort of superior racial qualities. They are low on theory and high on racial hatred. They were viewed with suspicion by an older generation that had actually fought fascism, even though privately many of those older people would say that Hitler was right about the Jews or that he got Germany back on its feet or that he controlled the unions. They appealed to people who had a sneaking regard for dictatorship but disliked getting their hands dirty. UKIP, on the other hand, is dedicated to democracy. They constantly deny being racist; they have nothing against Africans or Arabs or Pakistanis - in their own countries. They want people to vote for limits to immigration, ‘English towns for English people'' and other synonyms for racism, racial superiority and xenophobia, while at the same time being wholeheartedly for the free market, something the BNP never embraced. That many of UKIP’s personnel and member had backgrounds in the BNP is treated much as the Catholic Church treats converts - the sinner has repented and has come into the fold and is now 100% Catholic. So that’s all right. A background in street violence against Asians or Muslims is expunged by a UKIP membership card. The main thing is to be wholeheartedly British and to believe that British is best.

Gower Peninsula, South Wales, 2015

Moorlands, tiny, perfect stone-built chapels and corrugated-tin church meeting houses, neat farms, white sand beaches. This is the only constituency in South Wales that voted for the Tories in the 2015 election. Everywhere else voted Labour. Even so the split was Tory 37.1%, Labour 37%, so it was a close-run thing. Everywhere you go the roadsigns are in both Welsh and English. Shops give their names in Welsh, advertising is in Welsh, the sides of vans, trucks – the Welsh language is highly visible but rarely spoken.

My landlady tells me (in English with an English accent) that everything is changing. They even changed the spelling of her village from Rhossily to Rhossili. She likes the Irish and she likes families but not pets. Once she had four archeologists and they wrecked the apartment. They must have slept with their boots on. The archeologists were English. I suggest that she hang out a sign saying No Archaeologists, No Pets. She says it might be a good idea, but I know from the way she looks at me that she thinks this is some kind of bizarre Irish tradition. She sells fresh eggs outside her front door. Lettuce too sometimes. You put the money in an honesty box. The Welsh will never have an independence referendum. In general, Plaid Cymru, the Welsh national party, wins three of the forty parliamentary seats for Wales. Nevertheless, the people here have a strong sense of identity within the union, something like the way a Londoner identifies as a Londoner but also as British. But not at all like the way a Scot identifies as a Scot.

Isle of Wight, off the south coast of England, 2015

Lennon and McCartney thought they might rent a cottage here when they were sixty four. It looks unlikely. This is one of the most conservative Tory constituencies in England. Everything is British-this and British-that. Union Jacks fly outside many homes. They dislike the French particularly– it’s always ones closest neighbour who irritates. The French are, apparently, ruining the island garlic industry by selling cheap garlic. Island wine is not very good, but at least it’s not French. In fact, supermarkets stock wine from anywhere in the world as long as it’s not Europe, especially from the colonies, New Zealand and Australia, or ex-colonies like South Africa. Most of the people who live here are either elderly and retired (pace The Beatles) or looking after the elderly and retired. The average age on the island must be pensionable. The tiny minority of actual island natives call these care-home migrants, overners – from ‘over there’. The worst kind of overners are summer visitors, especially Londoners who come down in Range Rovers (known as Chelsea Tractors) and block the island lanes. Nothing moves in August unless it’s a boat.

One of the radar-stations that helped win the Battle of Britain was here, at Ventnor. In July and August 1939, repeated attacks by the Luftwaffe completely destroyed it. The damage is still visible in the ground. It’s an interesting place from whence to contemplate the channel, for across this narrow sea, visible on clear days, lies ‘The Continent’. The British, who have gone forth to conquer and colonise for three hundred years or so, are slightly paranoid now that their conquering days are over and the principal object of their paranoia is ‘the continent’, in particular the French and the Germans, but further afield lie other threats from the vengeful places that once belonged to The Empire. Behind much of the rhetoric about immigration is the ever-repressed guilt of massacre, famine and exploitation and feeling that perhaps now might just be payback time.

This guilt is, of course, sublimated into all sorts of political constructions and evasions. For example, a taxi driver tells me that he’s not racist but ‘they come over here and they don''t want to be British’. They wear their own clothes, never learn English. They don''t want to fight for England. I observe that my mother’s family all emigrated here in the 1930s and fought in the Hitler war.

e’ve got nothing against the Irish,’ he says, ‘we count you as one of us.’

‘But,’ I object, ‘we fought a war to prove that we weren’t.’

He dismisses this minor point. We Irish, it seems, dress the same as the English, talk English and we like The British Way of Life.

‘Your problem is skin colour, isn’t it?’ I say.

He denies being racist. Again. The taxi drops me at the hovercraft terminal. I’m going back to the mainland. The wind off the sea is fresh. It’s blowing up-channel from the distant Atlantic. It reminds me of home.

Dalston, London, 2013

Tourists arriving in London have no concept of England as a nationalist land. Like every great Metropolis, it is a country unto itself. Of all the capitals I have visited, it is the most racially mixed. I’ve spent a lot of time wandering its streets. Our sons have lived for long periods in Dalston in north-east London, an area long settled by Turks, people from the Caribbean, Asians, Italians and Jews. Nowadays ‘gentrification’ is reaching out and property prices have gone up; many of the old shops have become gastro-pubs, or hipster fashion-shops, nevertheless that old eclectic feel is still there. All the languages of the Middle-East can be heard, together with most of the European ones. This is the multi-cultural Britain beloved of Tony Blair and New Labour – one of the poorest parts of London but also one of the most racially mixed.

We''re walking to the Turkish restaurant, Mangal 1 Ockbasi in Arcola Street. The artist-couple known as Gilbert and George eat there often. Gilbert and George are supporters of the Monarchy, admirers of Margaret Thatcher, Tory voters, yet Gilbert was born in Lazio, Italy and George is the son of a poor single mother. What do they think of the Tory anti-immigration stance? Who knows? They don’t talk to the customers. As we walk we hear running footsteps approaching from behind. The pathway is narrowed by a bus-shelter so we step to one side. The runner passes us, dressed in a suit, his sober tie flying in the wind. ‘It’s all right,’ he calls, ''I may be black but I’m a chartered accountant.’ I shout, ''I fucking hate chartered accountants!’ But he’s gone. I don''t know if he heard.

The Disunited Kingdom

The so called ‘United’ Kingdom, is, in fact, riven by competing nationalisms and has been for two hundred years. The Irish were, perhaps, the first to make their mark starting, arguably, as early as 1798. Five significant nationalist rebellions followed until 1916 and the Irish War of Independence of 1919 to 1921 and what would become the Republic of Ireland. Of course, part of the island of Ireland is still British – the ‘six counties’ have just recently settled into some sort of uneasy peace.

But in 2015, faced with the prospect of eternal rule by right-wing rich guys with funny accents, the Scots voted overwhelmingly for themselves. In the election of that year each of the big all-Britain parties – the Tories (Conservative), the Liberals and Labour – were wiped out in Scotland by the Scottish National Party (SNP). The SNP is social-democratic in its politics and it’s hard to escape the impression that its success is at least partly the result of the rise of English nationalism and the programme of brutal cuts to the social welfare system being undertaken by that most nationalist of parties, the Tories. Under David Cameron the Tories have implemented a wide range of often spiteful cuts, are in the process of setting up the National Health System (NHS) for privatisation (indeed aspects of it have already been privatised), are driving an anti-immigration policy that UKIP would be proud of, including introducing legislation to force landlords to evict undocumented migrants or refugees whose request for asylum has failed. Under Cameron too the Tories will get their wet-dream of an IN/OUT referendum on the EU, and Scots, who are reported to be strongly pro-EU, are not amused by the prospect of being taken out of Europe by UKIP and the Tories whom they jointly detest.

What do the Scots think of a government that has abolished a fund to help disabled people live in the community; severely cut children’s mental health services; cut funding to the NHS by 8%; applied 40% cuts to carers for the elderly; abolished legal aid for childcare cases and a range of other legal proceedings; cut funding for services to victims of domestic violence; imposed a special tax on social housing to force people who have more bedrooms than they need out of their homes (disproportionately affecting older people whose children have moved out); reduced social welfare for 50,000 households; cut public service jobs, including 1,000 firefighters; driven an anti-union agenda and so on? A country like  Scotland that votes overwhelmingly for a social democratic party cannot be expected to welcome these cuts.

Paradoxically, the Tories are probably the party most invested in the Union, being officially known as the Conservative and Unionist Party. They are closely associated with the Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, the party of the protestant grandees, and consequently have a history of repression there. It was a Tory government that introduced internment without trial and a range of creative forms of torture that would later be copied by Bush’s CIA. Internment and the associated torture regime was probably the single policy that helped to make the Provisional IRA the formidable force that it was. All of this was done in the name of preserving the union.

‘Shameful and Grossly Inadequate’

Here in the Republic of Ireland our nationalist rebellion (1919-21), which separated us from the (dis)United Kingdom brought us a change of master but not a revolution. After 1921 the bourgeoisie changed its colour from red to green and learned a little Irish. The master class slipped into power as easily as it slipped on its driving gloves.

Poverty in the post-revolution phase was, if anything, worse than it had been before the revolution. The slums of Dublin, Cork and Limerick were famous. Emigration was steady and devastating. During this time our education system was dominated by various Catholic orders and fiercely anti-British. Nationalism, Catholicism and anti-British sentiment were a substitute for critical thinking about the state we found ourselves in. I remember being taught Swift’s famous formula that we should ‘burn everything English except their coal’ while at the same time all of my mother’s family were living and working in England because there was no work to be found at home.

The Provisional IRA bombing campaign in Britain forced a rethink of that old grudge. But nationalism is still very close to the surface. Just recently a new political party called Identity Ireland announced its presence. It looks like the usual mix of xenophobia and incompetence and unlikely to do well, but there are many forms of institutional racism here, most notoriously the so-called ‘Direct Provision’ system – effectively a barbaric internment system for refugees and migrants – and it is possible that this new party will tap into a barely submerged stream of xenophobia or, as happens in the UK and elsewhere, edge the mainstream parties into expressing their own forms of racism. According to the Identity Ireland website, the group is ‘against policies which encourage multiculturalism and ghettoisation’. They want, according to a recent press conference, to live in a country where the majority of the population is of ‘ethnic Irish origin’. They’re not very clear about how they define that particular construction. For example, I was born here in Ireland as were my parents. But my great-grandfather was Scottish, and the Wall side of the family is of Norman French and Welsh origin. I’m not sure I’m ethnically Irish. If I have to be repatriated I would prefer it to be to Normandy where the summers are better and the wine is cheaper. But then the Normans themselves were of Viking origin…

I suppose if I’m to be deported from the Emerald Isle I will not be transported by a vessel of the Irish Naval Service. With a personnel of under 1,000 people, male and female, and eight ships it must be one of the smallest navies in the world, and certainly one of the least belligerent. It spends most of its time in the inhospitable North Atlantic policing recalcitrant fishing boats. The most recent additions to the fleet have, rather bizarrely, been named after writers Samuel Beckett and James Joyce. (Imagine the radio conversation: ‘Beckett to Joyce, fail again, fail better, over’) and a WB Yeats is yet to come (‘Sailing to Byzantium’ perhaps).

In 2015 the Navy deployed one of its eight ships to the Mediterranean where it is participating in the mission to rescue people shipwrecked on the escape route from war-torn Africa to Europe. It is often grim work. In an incident in July 2015, for example, they discovered fourteen bodies below decks on a barge. In the same incident they rescued 210 people including 35 children. In another incident they rescued 367 people from a craft that sank in 30 seconds. Since search and rescue forms a very large part of their duties off Ireland’s shores, I imagine they carried out these tasks with courtesy and efficiency, but the deployment is part of Europe’s half-hearted attempt to save the refugees from Western powers’ post-imperial meddling. Ultimately this so-called ‘migrant crisis’ (which is really a Europe- and USA-sponsored civil war in North Africa and the Middle East) can be traced back to the Bush-Blair illegal attack on Iraq as well as the strategic reliance on Saudi Arabia. But Europe wants to wash its hands of it. A sort of logical cordon sanitaire has been erected to break the causal link between the EU’s policy in the Middle East and the destruction of communities that led to millions of internally displaced persons and hundreds of thousands of refugees. That connection is simply not permitted.

Politicians and the media in Britain and Ireland are careful to generate fear of the barbarian hordes gathering beyond our gates. A ‘swarm’ of refugees is David Cameron’s term. The British Foreign Secretary, David Hammond described people from Africa ‘marauding around’ Calais and threatening Europe. Not only is this dangerous rhetoric but it is demonstrably false too. 86% of refugees are in developing countries (this and the following figures can be found here). 1.6 million Syrians are in Turkey, for example. Last year Britain (population 64 million) accepted 10,000 applications for asylum; Sweden (pop. 9 million) accepted 30,650; Ireland (pop. 4.6 million) accepted 130. I don’t know the figure for last year for Lebanon (population 4.5 million) but there are 1.6 million refugees there.

There is a schizophrenic feel to the media in Ireland in particular, with commentary alternating between ‘our brave/compassionate/efficient boys and girls rescuing misfortunate victims of people-trafficking’ versus ‘they’re coming here in their millions and we’ll all be black in twenty years’. Phone-in talk shows are the worst. Long distance truck drivers who pass through Calais, where Britain is struggling manfully to keep refugees from their former colonies where they belong (i.e. on French rather than British soil), tell harrowing stories about having been gassed in their trucks while they slept, being chased by chisel-wielding black or brown people and having to wait for hours while the road ahead is swept for human detritus. The consensus is that ‘something has to be done’. What is to be done depends very much on the moment. On the one hand, all the talk shows agree that the truck drivers are innocent victims in all of this. They are simply going about their jobs of speeding the transport of commodities in the globalised capitalist world. On the other hand, you can’t simply open the doors and let ‘them’ all in. Nobody questions whether global capitalism might just possibly have created the situation in the first place, or that there is, in fact no reason not to open the doors. Perhaps one caller in a thousand suggests that the reason all these people are fleeing their homes is because we fucked up. Such is the discourse here, and in the UK too. It’s them or us - we being mainly white northern Europeans, and they being… well, almost everybody else. Recently, Michel D. Higgins, President of Ireland, described the EU response to the Mediterranean migrant situation as ‘shameful’ and ‘grossly inadequate’. He could have said it about Ireland itself and it would have been an understatement.

The Colonisation of Europe

The response of the European Union in general to the Greek debt crisis is revealing. The writer and academic Oscar Guardiola Rivera describes it as Europe colonising itself, and indeed the idea of Greece, and to a lesser extent Ireland, Spain, Portugal and Italy as debt colonies of the Northern European powers, Germany in particular, has taken hold of the public consciousness. In past centuries commercial entities like the British East India Company or the Dutch West India Company functioned in this way, supported by European military and naval power. Nowadays, debt is the weapon of choice and Greece has suffered collective punishment at the hands of its sister states. The threat, against weapon was deployed is the rise of new kinds of socialism. Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain are pioneering a kind of political movement that has evolved from the Occupy protests but, unlike Occupy, they intend to take power.

In other European countries, left-wing candidates are making progress, most recently Jeremy Corbyn in the UK, whose bid for leadership of the Labour Party looks, at this point, like being successful. Atrophied centre left parties like the PD in Italy are being edged leftwards again. This ‘return of the repressed’ has alarmed right-wingers like Wolfgang Schäuble and the right-wing parties that presently dominate in the EU are determined to put it back where it came from, deep in Europe’s political subconscious. This is the point of the pointless imposition of austerity and even more debt on Greece. This is the narrative told repeatedly by Greece’s ex-finance minister Yanis Varoufakis. At this stage it looks very like the end of the European Union. I am a Europhile of many years’ standing. I supported Ireland’s entry into what was then the EEC, believing that the social democracy of countries like Germany, France and even Italy could only have a good effect on our priest-ridden semi-Republic. I was right – at first. But in the last twenty years I have witnessed the right-ward march of politics here. The Greek crisis was the final step. What Varoufakis and Syriza did was expose the brutal and irredeemable nature of the institutions and politics of the EU. Now, if I were given a chance to vote, I would vote for Ireland to leave Europe, for Europe to disintegrate, to go back to where we were, where at least at a local level the fight can be prosecuted against people whose names we recognise. And so, I too take my place in the casual comedy of nationalists, not because I am a nationalist but precisely because I am an internationalist. Europe is not a union but a fortress under a self-imposed siege. Our commanders built walls of debt and law, not just to keep the barbarians out, but to control the barbarians within of which Syriza is the most threatening form to date. So like Ovid in Tomis, I say barbarus hic ego sum. Except that in the Europe of today, we are all barbarians of one kind or another.