il-lee-untitled© Art Projects International; Courtesy of artist and Art Projects International, New York


‘What we may be witnessing is the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.’ So wrote Francis Fukuyama in his seminal 1989 essay ‘The End of History?’. ‘With the fall of the Soviet Union’, Fukuyama continued, ‘The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.’

Fukuyama did not suggest that the end of history meant the end of wars or conflicts, but rather that capitalism and Western-style liberal democracy were the culmination of human political development and would not, and could not, be transcended. Over time, he insisted, all states would adopt a form of capitalist liberal democracy. It was an argument contested from almost the moment he finished writing his essay. The rise of Islamism, the unleashing of ethnic conflicts, the challenge posed by China – a myriad developments, his critics suggested, questioned the presumption of an end of history.

But nothing, perhaps, has torn at the heart of Fukuyama’s argument more than the tumultuous events of 2016. From the Brexit referendum result in Britain to Donald Trump’s Presidential victory to the seemingly unstoppable rise of populist forces throughout Europe, the events of the past year have shown that in the very countries that were models for Fukuyama’s ‘final form of human government’, large swathes of the electorate are questioning that form. The link between capitalism, democracy and liberalism, which formed the bedrock of Fukuyama’s thesis, is itself being questioned.

In ‘The End of History?’ Fukuyama grasped important truths about the post-Cold War world. What he failed to grasp was the importance of politics and the significance of collective ideals. ‘Economic calculation’ and ‘the endless solving of technical problems’ have not, and cannot, replace ‘the struggle for recognition’ or ‘the ideological struggle’.

In the quarter of a century since Fukuyama wrote his essay, politics, particularly in the West, has indeed shifted away from ‘ideological struggle’ towards ‘the endless solving of technical problems’. The broad ideological divides that characterized politics for much of the past two hundred years have been eroded. Politics has become less about competing visions of the kinds of society people want than a debate about how best to manage the existing political system, a question more of technocratic management rather than of social transformation. As a result of these changes there has opened up a new political faultline; not, as in the past, between left and right, but one between those who are at home in, or at least willing to accommodate to, this globalized post-ideological, world, and those who feel left out, dispossessed and voiceless. In the past, such disaffection could find a political outlet through the organizations of the left and of the labour movement. No longer. It is the erosion of such mechanisms that is leading to the remaking of political landscape.


After the collapse of the Soviet Union, few believed in an alternative to capitalism. Communist parties crumbled, while social democratic parties remade themselves, cutting ties to their traditional working class constituencies while reorienting themselves as technocratic parties. Trade unions weakened and social justice campaigns eroded.

The left, no longer rooted in old-style class politics, responded to the new political terrain in one of two ways. The first was to look to bureaucratic or managerial means of creating a more progressive society, in a sense to grasp the Fukuyama argument that ideological struggle and idealism would have to be ‘replaced by economic calculation [and] the endless solving of technical problems’.

Many on the left had always looked to the state as the key means of enforcing social change. As social movements and political organizations eroded, this became an even more significant strategy. It was not just the national state, but transnational organizations, from the EU to the International Criminal Court, that became important to the left as vehicles for social change. Transnationalism gave managerial politics a progressive sheen.

The second response to the challenge posed by the demise of class politics was to embrace ‘identity politics’. The roots of identity politics are long and reactionary. They stretch back to the counter-Enlightenment of the late eighteenth century and its hostility to Enlightenment universalist values. Such critics of the Enlightenment opposed the idea of universal human values by stressing particularist values embodied in group identities – nationalism and racism in particular.

In the decades after the Second World War, however, it was radicals who embraced the politics of identity. In the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust, overt racism became far less acceptable. The old politics of identity faded, but a new form emerged – identity politics as a weapon wielded not in the name of racism and nationalism, but to confront racism and oppression, and as a means of challenging inequality. The struggle for black rights in America, in particular, was highly influential in developing ideas both of black identity and self-organization. Squeezed between an intensely racist society, on the one hand, and, on the other, a left largely indifferent to their plight, many black activists ceded from integrated civil rights organisations and set up separate black groups. It provided a template for many other groups, from women to Native Americans, from Muslims to gays, to look upon social change through the lens of their own cultures, identities, goals and ideals.

In the 1960s, identity politics provided a means of challenging oppression and was linked to the project of social transformation. But as the possibilities of social transformation faded, so the recognition of identity became an end in itself. ‘The very language of commonality’, American cultural critic Todd Gittlin observes, ‘came to be perceived… as an ideology to rationalise white dominance.’

As the left has transformed itself through mangerialism and the politics of identity, many sections of the working class have found themselves politically voiceless at the very time their lives have become more precarious, as jobs have declined, public services savaged, austerity imposed, and inequality risen. Far from helping create new mechanisms through which the working class could challenge economic marginalization and political voicelessness, many liberals, and many on the left, have come to see the working class as part of the problem. They were too uneducated and bigoted, part of the old world now being left behind. In the wake of the Brexit vote and of the election of Trump, rather than addressing the discontent these votes expressed, many raged instead against the racists and the idiots who knew no better than to vote the wrong way.


Having lost their traditional means through which to vent disaffection, and finding themselves despised by liberals and the left, many working class voters have themselves turned to the language of identity politics. The causes of the marginalization of working class communities are largely economic and political. But many have come to see that marginalization primarily as a cultural loss. The very decline of the economic and political power of the working class and the weakening of labour organizations and social democratic parties, have helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems. And as culture has become the medium through which social issues are refracted, so they, too, have turned to the language of identity to express their discontent. But not the identity politics of the left. It is the identity politics of the right, the politics of nationalism and xenophobia, the identity politics that provides the fuel for many populist movements, to which many have been drawn. Rightwing populists have refashioned the original reactionary politics of identity for a new age.

The right, almost as much as the left, has been reshaped by the end of the Cold War, adopting forms that mirror those of the left. There has been the emergence, on the one hand, of a managerial, technocratic, form of conservatism as exemplified by Angela Merkel, and, on the other, of a politics of identity rooted in nationalism and hostility to immigration. From Donald Trump to Marine Le Pen, leaders of such movements link a reactionary politics of identity to economic and social policies that once were the staple of the left: defence of jobs, support for the welfare state, opposition to austerity. Feeling abandoned by the left, many traditional working class voters have abandoned the ideals of the left, looking instead to populist politics as a means of regaining a voice.

It is tempting to view the rise of populist anti-immigration movements as a purely Western phenomenon, the product of racism and xenophobia in Europe and America. Yet if we raise our eyes to look beyond Europe and America, we can see a similar process across the globe. In many African, Asian and South American countries, too, the old order is under pressure from populist forces. Here, the ‘old order’ is not represented, as in Europe and America, by the parties of right and left that shaped the postwar consensus. It is represented, rather, by the organizations that led struggles for freedom from colonialism, such as the Congress Party in India or the ANC in South Africa, or by the ideologies that claimed to represent the identity of the free nation, for instance Kemalism in Turkey or Nasserism in Egypt. These organizations and ideologies have become senile or corrupted.

Just as in Europe and America, people have become disaffected with the old order. And just as in Europe and America, many of the opposition movements that give voice to that disaffection are shaped not by progressive ideals but by sectarian politics, and rooted in religious or ethnic identity. The Islamist AKP in Turkey or the Hindu nationalist BJP in India are the equivalents of the Front National in France or the alt right in America.


What we are witnessing globally is a crisis both of the political class and of progressive opposition to it. It is this dual crisis that is unstitching politics. To return to Francis Fukuyama’s vision, the current tumult is the result of struggles for recognition that remain unshaped by progressive movements, of ideological struggles in a post-ideological world.

2016 might have been tumultuous. But with Donald Trump formally entering the White House, Britain (probably) triggering Article 50 to leave the EU, elections in the Netherlands, France, Germany and possibly Italy, all of which could see rightwing populists gain ground, or even triumph, a referendum in Venezuela, growing opposition to the new austerity package in Brazil, and the continuing catastrophe of civil war in Syria, 2017 is likely to be even more so. The challenge of addressing the dual crisis of the elite and of opposition movements, and in particular of recreating a left that is in thrall neither to managerialism nor to the politics of identity, will become even sharper. What we need is to re-establish a politics of solidarity not rooted in the politics of identity, whether of the right or the left, to establish new social mechanisms through which to link liberal ideas about individual rights and freedom, including freedom of movement, with progressive economic arguments and a belief in the community and the collective. That I will try to address in another post. In the meantime, Happy New Year, and best wishes for 2017.


The images are, from top down, by Il Lee, ‘Untitled’; ‘Toppled City 1’ by Chaouki Chamoun; Raymond Girke, ‘Untitled’; and mark Rothko, ‘Untitled (Black on Grey).


  1. One thing that requires explaining is the acquiescence of the traditional centre-left parties to growing inequality, the failure to impose the degree of progressive taxation that was taken from granted in the 1950s, and the acceptance of the mythology of austerity. A major driver for inequality is technology, which transfers value from what used to be skilled labour to the owner of the hardware and software that has deskilled it. This in turn provides a realistic basis to xenophobia, as more and more of the remaining jobs are entry-level. I see little thinking anywhere on how to handle these problems.

    • “This in turn provides a realistic basis to xenophobia… “I see little thinking anywhere on how to handle these problems.”

      Freshwater economic types and their political allies on the right would argue that the answer is obvious, that people simply need to retool their skill sets to prosper in the 21st century economy. The absurdity of a punch press operator retooling to run electrophoresis gels in DNA lab is obvious on its face. And a simple thought experiment demonstrates the futility of the exercise were it even possible. Look back to agriculture in 1900 where in the US nearly half of the labor pool did farmwork. Automation and consolidation now produce vastly more food while employing only 2% of the labor force. In the process, displaced farm workers flocked to the cities to take factory jobs and service jobs from elevator operator to big band musician. Now those factory jobs are going the way of the ag jobs of the early 20th century. But where is the emerging employment sector to which displaced workers might flock? And we are only at the beginning of the transition to automation. Some have suggested that within a generation, most trucks will be autonomous. Amazon already delivers by autonomous drone in some areas. I can buy today a robot called “Baxter” for about $25,000. Programming Baxter looks a lot like teaching a worker a task. And Baxter can work 24 hours a day, seven days per week.

      If the problem was simply money, that would be easily solved with a negative income tax or one of the other basic income schemes. But for a society to be cohesive, people need to feel that they are contributing. To this end I suggest that we will need to redefine work, to expand our understanding of work, to set ourselves to tasks aimed at making our societies better rather than simply wealthier.

      Or we can simply go with the social Darwinists and celebrate a society bifurcated into a thin layer of haves and broad sea of have-nots ruled by force and intimidation and quieted with drugs and vapid entertainments. Come to think of it, perhaps we’ve already made our choice.

      • Nicholas Winterson

        Absolutely well put. One of the problems is the mistaking the map for the territory and then limiting even how much we can openly question the map.
        The issue is to face up to our (Uncomfortable though it may be ) actual environment and move away from abstract thought . I have a low level of certified education by standards but am willing to learn and adapt, but age , culture and other factors not only hinder my ease of passage but also limit how and what I am viewed as. No excuses for not partaking in where I find myself but it would be nice to be able to speak freely and have an actual adult conversation about limits, values, questions, hopes and fears.

      • jswagner

        > for a society to be cohesive, people need to feel that they are contributing. To this end I suggest that we will need to redefine work, to expand our understanding of work, to set ourselves to tasks aimed at making our societies better rather than simply wealthier.

        We seem to be veering completely away from the point of Kenan’s piece, but in fact, for over 30 years, labor has been losing out increasingly to capital as the benefactor of productivity, which I think is a main underlying pressure behind populist disaffection. We’re in the early stages of searching for the culprit, and naturally turn to l’étranger as the problem: protectionism, nationalism, and identity politics.

        To your point, James, we’re missing good science on getting to societies that are “better rather than simply wealthier”. Capitalism has nothing to say on the subject, quite on purpose, since economic freedom is the implicit proxy for utopia, which sorts out such mere social challenges magically, via invisible hands. Here in America, that means 1) interfering with automation’s random-but-increasing pace in any way is immoral, and 2) addressing automation’s increasing role in inequality and political foment means you’re a Marxist. I won’t critique you for the youraove as-vague-as-possible prescription; Jeremy Rifkin spoke of this in detail over 30 years ago as it begun, yet we haven’t moved beyond his few (and lame) solutions, and academics have provided little guidance, caught up in communist or capitalist frameworks. Certainly part of the answer is questioning automation’s reach, and/or slowing it down; terrifically messy, and anyway unpopular even in progressive circles, so caught up are we in the false paradigm of efficiency=utopia. Part of the solution is something a little like the Civilian Conservation Corps we had here in America, government as employer, in tasks for the common good– though, due to automation, I can’t see it being anything truly “like” the CCC, which was, horrors, manual labor-based. And part of the solution is education that questions consumption and wealth as values, that teaches meaning through truly productive work, defined in terms of spreading well-being instead of in personal aggrandizement terms.

        Capitalism certainly is right to warn of the dangers of decoupling the notions of work and income: the problem is that we simply will have to do so, to address problems capitalism is only partially able to assist. There are some early experiments along this line that have been quite successful. At the moment, I say such things, and left and right both pile on to shout me down; unfortunately, I suspect I’ll have all too many agreeing with me in a decade or two, when structural unemployment is roughly twice what it is now.

  2. I would argue that you have masterfully delineated the many symptoms but have failed to identify the root cause. That cause, I submit, is that capitalism has ceased to be a sharp tool wielded by the political class to promote the public weal. Roles have reversed and today politics has become the sharp tool of capitalism and the public weal bones tossed to keep the dogs from turning on their masters.

    Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign as the candidate of the putative center-left party in the US hangs as poster child for this phenomenon. She was the candidate of Wall Street to the east and Hollywood to the West, never deigning to spend more than token effort on the vast middle of the country or the vast population of the lower and middle classes. She didn’t even really bother to lie to those whose votes she saw as an entitlement. Her opponent did. Her loss to an obscene caricature is nothing more or less than the extended middle finger of middle America.

    Capitalism has brought great benefits to those countries that employ it. But its usefulness is as a tool, not as an end in itself.

  3. Nicholas Winterson

    I would suggest that the movement of the ‘Working class’ towards disapproval of the new order is never fully addressed. If jobs go to immigrants and rents rise to levels families cannot afford but groups of young foreign workers can afford by living as a collective, then being pissed off is a profoundly human response. The poor are the very ones who now live in localities which may only resonate with ‘Other’ languages and feel the full brunt of employment displacement. These are as I know from personal experience the reality of many peoples lives. The fact that peoples discomfort which stems from both evolutionary and economic sources cannot somehow be openly discussed and thus vented is a major part of the problem. I don’t understand racism and I don’t wish to unring some magic bell to the past but to not be able to express doubts or question direction cannot be healthy to any form of Society. If 400,000 surgeons or politicians or even writers of internet blogs were to arrive I would suggest the response from the media etc would be of a different kind..

    Human beings are never all Right or all Left and in many cases the response I witness is a smart reaction to the unfolding future. It is economically aware and socially natural. The fact that the liberal voices hate it is irrelevant. When people have better options they choose better options. It seems a pity that the paucity of the institutions that we have created to ‘Deal’ with the ‘Working class’ are now coming back to haunt us.

  4. Enlightenment Ideals and Resilience Theory

    Liberty – Adaptive Capacity
    Equality – Managing Diversity and Redundancy
    Fraternity – Managing Connectivity

    I would say that people and politics are changing all the time in relation to changing internal and external circumstances.

    Currently the main changes are a drift back to the ideas of civic liberalism whereby communities can be more self-determining and self-identifying in order to counter the liberal elites who, since the 1870s, have used liberalism (aka managerialism/technocratic governance/universal values) to accumulate a great deal of power. However, for all the political, economic and cultural reasons stated, we are now at a point in history when conservativism, libertarianism, populism, socialism and fascism have made an alliance to defeat the liberal and islamic elites.

    In more ways than one, ideological wars between elites is a defining feature of human history and experience and one that may never go away despite all attempts to wish this ugly side of humanity away. However, being territorial is as instinctual as it is to breathe and eat. Simply because we need land and resources to survive and so there will always be a need to feel secure that adequate land and resources are always available for our substinance.

    Therefore, the paradoxical question of what lives and what dies in order to preserve ourselves is the one constant of our lives and the most defining faultline in all political, social, economic and ecological discussions. At present in our modern age of liberalism, at least in The West, democracy is used to deconflictualise this ever present debate. Moreover this ever present debate is currently being expressed largely through ideology which has and always will be the case since ideology is the mental version of military might. So it is pretty encouraging that we cqn use our minds instead of our hands to peaceably negotiate the distribution of resources. However it is when an ideology begins to actively discriminate and persecute as is the case with liberals in opposition to fascists (there is no such thing as rightwing populism. Populism is an ideology advocating self-determining communities with an enabling and protective state. Different populists argue about how the enabling and protective state is constructed. Populists dont advocate universal values only that the people decide for themselves. Fascists (what you call rightwing populists) also advocate their right to self-determining communities but are also very clear about their cultural values. Hence self-determination for fascists is a means by which to realise their community rights and cultural values but for populism self-determination is the means to avoid externalised elitist control whether it is ‘apparently’ benevolent or not with the belief that elites that are internalised within self-determining communities are better managed. Hence democracy is the battleground for ideological alliance making and adversarial conflict which then drives policy to gain power and influence. This is the defining feature of global politics at present, not as Kenan or Fukuyama suggests.

    Essentially globalisation is being culturalised and the hegemony of liberalism is being defeated. Moral pluralism is then the defining feature of 2016 as ideological forces separate from old alliances in order to form new alliances that are better adapted for the multiple crisis we will be facing in the future as the Earth erodes beneath our feets.

    Resource scarcity is the new reality and so global politics is orientating itself to how the world will adjust to a world with scientifically derived ecological limits. At present, conservativism, libertarianism, populism, socialism and fascism predominantly consider devolution and greater rights of self-determination including communitarian rights to be the wisest course of action. In a sense then, these ideological forces are currently reshaping the debate to one about the capacity of communities to solve their own problems and whether each community can do this in commonwealth with other communities with the protection of an enabling state. In this respect global problems will be solved locally.

    These ideological forces are in opposition to liberalism because state-centric solutions have never worked and are easily corrupted by self-serving elites and their lackays. Brexit and Trump are the real life illustrations that liberalism, its elites and its lackays have largely used its mandate for liberty and equality to actually suppress liberty and equality in order to capture global resource flows including human resource flows. Essentially therefore, the technocratic managerialism and the now out of balance positive discrimination policy towards minority groupings and temporary residents has provided the economic and political fuel to claim greater community rights as advocated by conservatives, libertarians, populists, socialists and fascists.

    In cultural terms, this ideological split is most poignantly framed as left wing (liberal) identity politics which focuses on individuality and right wing (conservative) identity politics which focuses on the community. The former is policed by a civil state, the latter is policed by a civic state. Therefore the multicultural diversity agenda is either focussed on individual rights or it is focussed on community rights.

    This is the new ideological battleground. One that is between individual self-determination in a globalised world on the one hand and on the other community self-determination in a globalised world. This is not the end of history or liberalism but a battle between civil liberalism and civic liberalism and therefore civil democracy and civic democracy.

    Civil liberalism is the current status quo whereby the ideals of liberalism (liberty, equality and fraternity) are framed at individual liberty, individual equality and individual fraternity. With civic liberalism, the ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity are framed at community liberty, community equality and community fraternity. The former takes us on a path towards a centralised global governance structure in which individual rights are protected and enabled globally. The latter takes us on a path towards decentralised global governance structures in which community rights are protected and enabled.

    The question that then arises is whether a technocratic managerial state protecting and enabling individual rights can provide social, cultural, economic, political and most importantly ecological justice or whether a decentralised commonwealth of self-determining communities can better provide for these broad ranging justices. Conservatives, libertarians to a degree, populists, socialists and fascists seem to opt for the latter whilst liberals tend to opt for the former.

    At present, the reason why liberals are losing the debate is because they cannot incorporate ecological rights into their ideology without contradicting the full realisation of human rights as per international treaties. However if liberals reframed the enlightenment ideals towards resilience theory then liberalism is able to generate a broader outlook that goes beyond purely anthropogenic concerns. In a sense then, the only real crisis of 2016 within the midst of post-truth the fall of democracy diatribes is within liberalism itself – simply because it is unable to adapt itself fully to a an ever changing world that is presently orientating itself towards principles of resilience, sustainability and wellbeing.

    • Do you ever read what you write?

      “conservativism, libertarianism, populism, socialism and fascism have made an alliance to defeat the liberal and islamic elites.”

      “In a sense then, the only real crisis of 2016 within the midst of post-truth the fall of democracy diatribes is within liberalism itself – simply because it is unable to adapt itself fully to a an ever changing world that is presently orientating itself towards principles of resilience, sustainability and wellbeing.”

      You and I live in very different worlds. Very different universes, perhaps.

      • Well it would be more accurate to say we see life from very different perspectives but if a more derogative phrase suits your perspective better then that is fine too.

        Let me guess, you are a liberal!

        • “Let me guess, you are a liberal!”

          Guess again. My thinking doesn’t neatly fit into a team jersey. Moreover, it does not appear that you and I even share a common understanding of liberalism. I understand liberalism as the political philosophy born of the Enlightenment, informed by science, and always shaped by reason and logic. I infer from your comment a notion of liberalism that would more accurately be recognized as postmodernism; a steaming loaf of malodorous nonsense long past its “use by” date.

          Your joining of liberalism and Islamism, philosophies essentially diametrically opposed, as the common target of various forms of thuggery costumed for polite company, is incomprehensible. Then to celebrate that thuggery as principled with resilience, sustainability, and wellbeing suggests hyponatremia secondary to overconsumption of Kool-Aid.

  5. Paul Hepden

    Thank you Mr Malik for an analysis of far greater nuance that we see here in much of the British media.

    Whilst I concur with a great deal of the above analysis, I have trouble with the following which appears to paint what has happened in 2016 as very black and white, namely:

    ‘It is the identity politics of the right, the politics of nationalism and xenophobia, the identity politics that provides the fuel for many populist movements, to which many have been drawn. Rightwing populists have refashioned the original reactionary politics of identity for a new age.’

    The above article appears to assert that those voting against flawed economic liberalism in 2016 were, by default, actively CHOOSING to vote for, and align themselves with, nationalism and xenophobia. Yes, there are right-wingers (although this term is due for subtle alterations to its definition now, in 2017) throughout the West – there have been for centuries but, at least in the UK, people who are racist in a simply nasty way are few and far between. (It’s not the problem it’s portayed as in some sections of the Press. If you don’t believe me, witness a right-wing rally. It will be a small gathering. By contrast, go to a Jeremy Corbyn rally. Many, many more in attendence).

    The reality is much more complicated. In my experience, many (of the 17+ million) in the UK who voted to leave the EU were not doing so out of some kind of jingoistic, nationalistic fervour, or a ‘secret’ xenophobia that had been somehow previously hidden away. Moreover, I would argue that many of the those 17+ million were not all that influenced by the Leave campaigns or press like the Daily Mail or Express. No, they had simply watched the news for many years – they knew that the EU was not the force for good it claimed, knew that it served business more that Europe’s citizens. Further, they had seen how the EU had been granted more and more powers no citizen had specifically voted on.

    Moreover, people simply used their eyes: they witnessed the changes forced on their communities through rapid and uncontrolled immigration* and knew that many people’s livelihoods were affected by this. When asked a question that was – essentially – not related to UK partisan politics (Do you wish to be in or out of the EU?), many people, understandably, voted to leave.

    The views of many that had gone unexpressed at the ballot box for years were suddenly heard by thiis question finally being asked it’s not the expression of a sudden lurch.

    Moreover, the vote does not necessarily equate to racism, popularism, or whatever some sections of the press wish to denigrate it as. It was simply a vote to reduce the size of government, removing the less accountable tiers in the process, ensure future UK governments have greater accountabilty so that views are not ignored again in future and that individual votes are worth more.

    Yes, leaving the EU was also to get a handle on immigration, but when there is a housing crisis as there is in the UK (currently house prices are unnaffordable for many and rents are sky rocketing; plus, 120,000 UK childen are homeless), in my opinion, any reduction in immigration is worth the possible economic consequences until those problems are fixed.

    It can be argued that issues such as the housing crisis is the UK Government’s fault, not the EU’s. To a large extent this is true. However, whilst there is uncontrolled immigration at the extent that the UK currently experiences (obligatory under EU membership), leaving the EU was a part of the problem. The next step is to tackle the UK Government.

    *Always keep in mind that one can be intolerant of immigration without being intolerant of immigrants – a significant difference.

    • The above article appears to assert that those voting against flawed economic liberalism in 2016 were, by default, actively CHOOSING to vote for, and align themselves with, nationalism and xenophobia. Yes, there are right-wingers…


      The reality is much more complicated. In my experience, many (of the 17+ million) in the UK who voted to leave the EU were not doing so out of some kind of jingoistic, nationalistic fervour, or a ‘secret’ xenophobia that had been somehow previously hidden away.

      As it happens I have long argued against the idea that those who voted for Brexit or those who oppose immigration are all racist. For instance,

      Britain did not become a different country on 24 June. It did not overnight get taken over by xenophobes and racists and the ignorant. Rather people, and views, that many liberals, and many within the elite, were able previously to ignore, they no longer could… There are certainly hardline racists among Leave voters and leaders. But it’s self-serving, not to mention counterproductive, to dismiss all those who voted Leave as racist or xenophobic.


      A key slogan of the Leave campaign was ‘Take back control’. It was often derided as hollow and meaningless by Remain supporters. For many sections of working class voters, however, whose world seemed to have been turned upside down by forces they could not shape, it was a sentiment that resonated deeply. ‘One of the biggest failures’ of contemporary mainstream political parties, the American philosopher Michael Sandel recently observed, ‘has been the failure to take seriously and to speak directly to people’s aspiration to feel that they have some meaningful say in shaping the forces that govern their lives’…


      In the wake of the referendum vote, rather than address the fundamental reasons for popular discontent, those on the other side of the political faultline have responded with same kinds of attitudes that led so many to vote Brexit in the first place. Supporters of the Remain camp have raged against the ‘idiots’ and ‘racists’ easily swayed by xenophobia and lies. Many have demanded a second referendum to overturn the result of the first. They have urged MPs – the majority of whom support British membership of the EU – to block any moves towards Brexit in the best interest of voters who know no better. They have, in other words, treated the working class, and the democratic process, with the same contempt that first created the chasm between the political elite and large sections of the electorate.

      But I have also argued that immigration is not primarily responsible for the problems faced by working class communities but has become rather the means through which many have come to understand those problem:

      Economic and social changes – the decline of manufacturing industry, the crumbling of the welfare state, the coming of austerity, the atomization of society, the growth of inequality – have combined with political shifts , such as the erosion of trade union power and the transformation of social democratic parties, to create in sections of the electorate a sense of rage…


      Immigration has played almost no part in fostering these changes. It has, however, come to be the means through which many perceive these changes, largely because of the way that the immigration issue has been framed by politicians of all hues over the past half century.


      The reasons for the marginalization of the working class have been economic and political. But many have come to see it primarily as a cultural loss. As people have become disenchanted with politics, and as class-based politics in particular has become deprecated, so the language of culture has become increasingly important as the means through to make sense of society and social relations. The same social and economic changes that have led to the marginalization of sections of the working class have also made it far more difficult to view that marginalization in political terms.


      As economic and political change is perceived as cultural loss, so those regarded as culturally different come to be viewed as threats. ‘Taking back control’ has become translated into a desire to protect borders, defend national culture and keep out immigrants. The failure of the left to address properly either the democratic deficit, both at home and at the European level, or the sense of social dislocation felt by many sections of working class, has meant that a progressive desire, within many working class communities, for a democratic voice has become intertwined with regressive arguments about immigration, nationalism and protectionism.

      I also argue, as I argue in this essay, that the failure of the left, has provided new ground for populists and the far-right:

      The failure of the left to address properly either the democratic deficit, both at home and at the European level, or the sense of social dislocation felt by many sections of working class, has meant that a progressive desire, within many working class communities, for a democratic voice has become intertwined with regressive arguments about immigration, nationalism and protectionism.

      And, finally, I argue that neither side in the Brexit debate addressed the fundamental problems:

      Many in the Remain camp insist that only by voting ‘Yes’ to the EU can we prevent the triumph of anti-immigration populists. Many Leave campaigners argue that only by quitting the EU can we truly challenge populist anti-immigrant sentiment. Neither is right. Support for populism is an expression of disaffection from political parties and institutions that feel remote and out of touch. Ignoring that disaffection in the name of staying in the EU will increase the sense of resentment about the liberal elite that fuels populism. But equally, given that restoring national sovereignty will not address the more profound political shifts that have led to people feeling politically abandoned and marginalized, nor taking control of borders challenge the reasons for wage restraint, or for the rise of zero hour contracts, or create new housing, or shorten NHS waiting times, neither will Brexit address people’s real grievances or dispel the disaffection that many sections of the electorate have with mainstream politics.

      All sides in the debate want to see issues in black and white, and so fail to address the problem greys.

  6. You write we are witnessing ‘a crisis of both the political class and of progressive opposition to it’. Absolutely right. I look forward to the promised post on re-establishing ‘a politics of solidarity’. In the meantime a couple of questions and critical reflections.

    I am not so sure that, having lost traditional means of venting disaffection, the working class has turned to identity politics, experiencing their marginalisation by globalisation as a cultural loss. Much working class disaffection seems quite familiar, and expressly economic and political. The lightning rod for that disaffection was often immigration but this was less about less about race, culture, and community than the nationalism of ‘taking-care-of-our-own-first’; taking back control of borders, about jobs and money. Such nationalism might be a form of identity politics but it isn’t new. The vote for Brexit brought some working class communities and a lot of Tory shires together in an alliance underpinned by national identity that kept the Conservatives in office for most of the 20thC.

    And if this is another form of identity politics, the idea, though hugely valuable, is being asked to do too much. It appears to encompass every kind of politics over a very long period of time that wasn’t explicitly based on the universalism of enlightenment liberalism, and/or subsequently socialism.

    The politics of solidarity linking individual freedom with progressive economic arguments and the collective sounds like some kind of socialism to me. It is just possible of course, that Fukuyama was wrong about a world without ideological struggle and about a world of ‘economic calculation’ (capitalism appears to be eating itself) but right that its socialist challenger has been decisively defeated. I hope not, but if the politics of solidarity is some kind of socialism, it has an awful lot of baggage to lose and some new ideas to work out. It will want a more complete account of the past. Social democracy had turned to managerialism long before the fall of the Soviet Union but the more interesting question is why its earlier class-based politics offered such a feeble challenge to the system. It would also mean challenging working class thinking as well as speaking to its disaffection. A working class finding itself voiceless might have tried to repossess its own organisations or create new ones rather than vote for Boris Johnson and Trump. But then, maybe a politics of solidarity doesn’t mean socialism but some new form of human association capable of dealing with the power structures (and self-destructiveness) of capitalism.

    A last comment/question. I take it that the reference to freedom of movement (individual freedom) isn’t simply a reference to the EU but to a world without borders. Given the mess that imperialism, racism and underdevelopment have made of the world I cannot see how this is remotely practicable or politically possible. There have to be better ways than fences of dealing with people fleeing poverty as well as persecution, but ‘free movement’ as a principle?

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