Rhetorical Anti-Racism and the EU Referendum
22 July 2018
For many, deciding how to vote in the EU referendum was a “no brainer”, given that voting Leave was portrayed as strongly associated with racism and xenophobia. However well intentioned, this stance leads to contradictions for progressive Remainers, as they struggle with ambivalent sentiments towards the working class and anxieties around the "benefits" of global capitalism.
“While not everyone who voted for Brexit is a racist, all racists voted for Brexit.”
This often-heard claim presents us all with a problem when we try and untangle issues of racism and xenophobia from the various hopes and fears of 33 million people as they made up their minds on how to vote in the referendum two years ago. A number of questions arise. How do we make the distinction between supporting Brexit and being racist? What is going on when we choose not to? And where do we place ourselves within the terms of this paradox?
Anti-racism and Remain: an article of faith or anxiety?
Before the referendum, many Remainers told me the decision was a “no brainer”. Highly educated individuals were implicitly stating that here was a choice in which the brain was not required, where their usual intellectual and critical faculties were superfluous. The decision was to be based on another criterion. I began to understand that this criterion was race.
Put simply, in the context of a referendum campaign that centred so heavily upon immigration, for someone to ask for some thinking time to consider the pros and cons of the European Union, to not declare oneself quickly and loudly for Remain, often raised a fear in that person: that they might be suspected of being a closet racist.
If you deeply self-identify as non-racist, and you feel you have much to lose in terms of your self-image and public reputation if someone merely suspects (let alone accuses) you of being racist, then your options within a highly racialised and binary referendum are going to be limited.
The irony inherent in this expression of anti-racism is that it is more concerned with the self than with the other, with making a statement rather than an enquiry.
Beyond Rhetorical Anti-Racism
But what if you have less to lose on this score, or what if you have more time and space to think, like me, a person of colour, or a poor person who has very little social capital, or an academic who has already done a lot of the thinking?
As I listened to people through my experience as a community organiser in South East London – spending time with people who are very distant from levers of power and influence – I became interested in how a self-regarding, rhetorical anti-racism can foreclose on certain kinds of dissenting thought and blind people to important social relationships.
In these conversations, I began to hear a kind of empathetic position towards East European migrants, which the usual commentators simply couldn’t hear. It went something like this: “When people on the TV say that immigration is a good thing, because we need these people to come and pick our fruit and wipe the backsides of our old people, I think: ‘if I lived in Poland or Latvia, they would be talking about me like that, like that’s all I’m good for’. Well I say: fuck ‘em.”
In other words, working-class Londoners were deciding to vote Leave not on the basis of hatred for Eastern Europeans, but out of a latent sense of solidarity with them. They perceived a deep humiliation in these implicit assumptions about what certain kinds of people are “good for”, what the “natural order of things should be”. I felt that this kind of identification of ordinary working people with each other across borders was an example of internationalist proletarian sentiment. But many people, including those identifying as left-wing, have become so unfamiliar with this feeling that it is missed, and only the second part – the anger in “fuck ‘em” – is registered. After all, this part is addressed to us, “the people in charge”, and we love to be the centre of attention.
It’s little surprise that this latent working class solidarity has been rendered invisible, given the neo-liberalisation of communications and the steady erosion of organisations which understood and challenged the age-old tactic of divide and rule: trade unions, workers’ newspapers, and working class politicians.
Then comes the double whammy, the bit that really makes you think you are going crazy. Not only are the noble sentiments missed and this alienation of self and others through the action of capital ignored, but the diagnosis is singular, denigrating and brutal: this form of dissent is simply racism. The poor cannot be trusted with complex questions; it just brings out the worst in them.
The limitations of a rhetorical anti-racism
Whilst most people of colour accept that they cannot live lives free from the deep structures of racism, whether external or the ones they have internalised, many people who consider themselves to be white feel very strongly that they have liberated themselves from these self-same structures, through a simple belief in their personal capacity to do so.
Whether due to an unconscious sense of omnipotence or a morally superior, yet uncritical, xenophilia, this often leads them into positions that fundamentally contradict their supposed attachment to other important progressive principles.
For example, many left-wing people feel passionately that we should fight the marketisation of the National Health Service. However, they blithely accept the free market to import doctors and nurses from other countries. They see the welcoming of these “foreigners” solely as a sign of openness and internationalism, yet in reality it is fundamentally an exploitative relationship with other countries. Some of the world’s poorest nations have essentially transferred billions of pounds to the UK in the form of medical staff trained at their expense.
Likewise, people who vigorously oppose the marketisation of our public services, through privatisation or academisation, apparently find the marketisation of Europe to be wholly unproblematic, perceiving the Single Market as an entirely benign instrument.
It is vital that we distinguish between what we believe is good for people and what people are good for. Chris Bickerton and Richard Tuck, in their pamphlet A Brexit Proposal, offer us an idea of how these neo-colonial attitudes might have surreptitiously entered in to the liberal collective unconscious:
When they hear critics of the EU on the Right say that it is becoming a super-state, their (the Left’s) response is often, So what? What was so good about the British state, and why should it not be superseded by a European one, with all its appealing trappings of (potentially) global power? People whose liberal great-grandfathers would have enthusiastically managed the British Empire are now keen to manage the European one.
Capital constantly appropriates and commodifies all positions and ideas, even anti-racism. So we have arrived at a point where many people who identify as left-wing have wedded their anti-racist credentials to the primacy of the free market, exemplified by a deregulated movement of labour, rather than to the lived experiences of the workers themselves.
Even their attempts to understand or sympathise with the “Brexit-voting poor” reflect their own alienation from the working classes. The phrase “left behind” reproduces the very hierarchy it purports to question. Whilst we might not all enjoy the same economic or social privileges, we all live in the present tense, with equal claims on the future. Likewise, the notion that the Brexit vote was a “cry for help” drips with condescension. Why not a “cry for power”, “an expression of agency”, or “a call to explore new ideas”?
It is important to also make a distinction between racism and xenophobia. One might consider that racism is a socially constructed ideology which is then personally adopted, whereas xenophobia, being a phobia, is a person centred attitude which may then find a wider resonance in a cultural group. One is an idea, the other is a feeling.
The question then arises, what kind of political judgments are made around people’s emotions, such as their sense of fear, and who gets to valorise these judgments? I turn again to my experiences in South East London, this time around the issue of gentrification, to help unpack this question.
Many working class or settled communities have to contend with gentrification and are fearful of the cultural and economic change this heralds for their way of life and neighbourhoods. Many middle class people (often the same people who are involved in the gentrifying process) understand this are sympathetic to these concerns. In fact they might often stand alongside and support any resistance to this kind of rapid change. However, when these self-same working class or settled communities have to contend with the change that comes along with immigration, the sympathy falls away, and any resistance is seen as deplorable. In each case, both of which are responses to demographic change, the ruling class decides on the moral value of the resistance, betraying its own class prejudice along the way.
In the absence of a positive and persuasive account from the Left on these phenomena, it is no surprise that we cede the meaning-making to the right and see the rise of “Us vs Them” populism. In his recent book The Populist Explosion, John Judis describes the distinction between left and right-wing populists:
Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or an establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle, arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of favouring a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African American militants. Rightwing populism is triadic: it looks upward, but also down upon an out group.
The idea that certain people, usually foreigners, are “naturally suited” to certain types of low paid and insecure work has to be constantly challenged, otherwise the Left is complicit in this project of “‘othering”’ that it purports to oppose, and tragically we do the Right’s work for them in constructing and validating the idea of the “Third Group”. Furthermore, the Liberal pro EU constituency, with its simplistic charge of racism against Leave voters, is also complicit in this broader process of ‘Othering’ the immigrant. Deaf to the nuances in ordinary workers’ understanding of their own experiences, and by vigorously reinforcing the ‘third group’ as the victim of racist Leavers, it only seems to confirm the case of the right wing populists.
So, if there is some truth in the claim that “while not everyone who voted for Brexit is a racist, all racists voted for Brexit”, what should the Left do about that? It must draw a sharper distinction between these two groups, rather than constantly collapsing them into one. The vast majority of working-class people who chose to leave are no more or less racist than other voters. Indeed, their instincts are often more genuinely internationalist than those who look down upon and patronise them. The Left must listen more carefully to their voices, and work to amplify and build the latent solidarity and internationalism that exists within these communities. In so doing it would more readily build the capacity to fight those who support Brexit out of hatred.
 Chris Bickerton and Richard Tuck, A Brexit Proposal (November 2017), p. 21.
 John Judis, “Us v Them: the birth of populism”, The Guardian, 13 October 2016.
About the author
Anshu Srivastava is an architect, community organiser and psychoanalytic psychotherapist in training based in southeast London.