A Tale of Two Referenda

By Michaela Benson and Dimitrios Theodossopoulos

This time last year, Greece geared up for its referendum on whether to accept the latest bailout offered by the European Union; indignation with the punitive actions of the EU that were holding Greece and its people to ransom fuelled solidarity within the nation-state and support from across Europe, calling for a resounding rejection to the latest measures. Fast forward a year, and the United Kingdom has voted on their referendum; the question of whether they should leave the EU positively supported by a marginal majority. Two countries, two very different positions within Europe, but what can we learn from looking across these two referenda?

In the past few days, following the referendum in the United Kingdom, we have seen numerous accounts that try to explain and make sense of the voting patterns both in the press and across the blogs of social scientists, focussed on the multiple sources and articulations of indignation expressed by many members of the population. Similarly, in its aftermath, such accounts became the public face of the Greek referendum. However, we feel compelled to depart from this intepretativist orientation to focus instead on how these referenda have let nationalism and xenophobia in through the front door in ways that are worryingly reminiscent of the 1930s. We realise that we are not alone in making this call, but strongly believe that this is the primary message that we, as anthropologists and sociologists, have to communicate.

In Greece, a charismatic political leader, Tsipras, managed to use the grass-roots indignation, including the OXI vote of the extreme right, to bolster oppostion against European neoliberalism. Not afraid to speak in populist terms, Tsipras managed to communicate his political manoeuvres to his ‘people’, to explain politics in a way understandable to many. And a sizeable proportion of the Greek people appear, so far, to appreciate his nuanced, indirect manoeuvres, because their strategy has been embedded in a left ideological platform. But it should not be forgotten that while Tsipras represents SYRIZA, the parliamentary decision to hold the referendum was brought about through the support from the Eurosceptic, right-wing populists ANEL and the far-right, neo-fascist Golden Dawn. Uncomfortable bedfellows brought together in pursuit of OXI, multi-vocal and inflected, the dark ideological forces of the extreme right infiltrating the democratic process.

If there was any doubt, yesterday’s performance by Farage, UKIP MEP, in the European Parliament and the support thereof by Le Pen, la FN, highlights how the British referendum too has given voice to nationalism, and to a much greater degree than Greece; the rise in racially motivated attacks on the streets of the United Kingdom since Friday’s vote to leave the European Union bringing racism and fascism out of the shadows and into the light. Perhaps a more populist leader heading up Remain or even rejecting the call for the referendum in the first place, would have focussed on the fascism banging at our door. But this was not to be. The Remain campaign failed spectacularly to articulate its political message in terms understandable by the many. It is in this respect that a politician like Tsipras, who can communicate a strategy for the left in plain non-elitistic terms, is desperately needed in British politics.

However, let us return to our analytical duty as anthropologists and sociologists. Only one small step separates patriotism from nationalism, nationalism from fascism. It is about time that our analyses focus more on the danger of chauvinist ideologies that grow due to our analytic apathy. At this time we need to highlight in our analyses how and where fascism and ultra-nationalism have been allowed to penetrate democratic processes, gaining in power through the neoliberal pretext of polyphony and pluralism. Fascism is hiding in plain view within democracy, legitimised through these two recent referenda, the divisions that these have permitted providing fertile grounds for its proliferation.

What is the role of anthropologists and sociologists in such dark hours? To be clear, we are not suggesting that there is a need to debunk the chimera of democracy; rather we call urgently for the imminent threat that comes from the far right to be acknowledged and spoken, shouted from the rooftops. To popularise this threat points at its obvious parameters and many tentacles. If anything, this tale of two referenda teaches us that as sociologists and anthropologists, we need to be focussed on both the interpretation and deconstruction of contemporary democratic processes, but also to lead the charge in calling out the insidious, pervasive and dangerous ideologies of the far right.

Michaela Benson is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmiths, deputy editor of The Sociological Review, and Associate Editor of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. She writes on migration and social class. She tweets @michaelacbenson.

Dimitrios Theodossopoulos is Reader in Social Anthropology at the University of Kent. He has conducted extensive ethnographic research in Greece and Panama and is the PI of the ESRC-Funded project Households in Crisis, which compares the impact of crisis and austerity on families in Greece and Portugal. He tweets @theodossopoulos.

Originally posted 2nd July 2016

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