Warning! the Times We Knew Were Coming Are Here

By Gail Lewis

The unthinkable times have arrived! There really is a clear and present danger that the vestiges of the social democratic organisation of the social – flawed as that has seemed in other moments – is well and truly over as we face the profoundly alarming and devastating results of first Brexit, then Trump.

We face it even though we knew it could happen.

Last night I went to see ‘Parisienne’, originally titled ‘Peur de Rien’ (Fear of Nothing) by Lebanese film-maker Danielle Arbid. Set in the early 1990s it is about a young woman arriving from Beirut and attempting to adjust existentially and emotionally as much as practically to life in Paris as she struggles to get her immigration papers, and juggle university with illegal working. We see her attempting to make friends, drifting among various groups of students whose political affinities range from right-wing fascistic, through Marxist, to Anarchist. In one scene she is on the banks of the Seine with the current boyfriend looking at the now derelict Renault factory that was at the heart of ‘Paris ‘68’ and is, in the mind of the boyfriend, the symbol of all radical hope and possibility – a past moment to which return is not just possible but imminent.

Watching this scene from the place of the ‘outsider ness’ of Lina (the character) and more poignantly perhaps, of us in 2016, such sentimentalism is a powerful evocation of what we failed to see…. That, at least since the early 1970s, the right was slowly and steadily clearing the ground from which its representatives – originally Thatcher and Reagan – would not only gain power and take up occupancy within the infrastructures of politics but embark on an unending project in which a new commonsense was fashioned. For let’s not kid ourselves, while Farage and Trump narcissistically kiss themselves for bringing the quietened, the ignored, the nationally dispossessed back to their rightful place in the electoral machinery of governance, from the late ‘60s they were setting the policy agenda in their clubs and think tanks, such as that set up by Thatcher and Keith Joseph, the Centre for Policy Studies, the point at which we have now arrived (albeit in far from a straight line) was being laid down – in the mechanisms of regulation, in policy framework, in ideology. What was then ‘monetarism’ was to morph into what we now call Neo-Liberalism, the fully grown, big brother of the earlier infant monster. And even if for some the combination of Brexit and Trump marks the point of demise of Neo-Liberalism, what was laid down as legitimate ideological attack on sections of the population despised by figures such as Farage and Trump was already being voiced. In a speech in Birmingham, UK, Keith Joseph speaking about the increasing levels of material deprivation that sections of the working class were facing articulated the issue this way: “the balance of our human stock is threatened” (cited in The Guardian, 12/12/1994). Like Boris Johnson’s references to black people as “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” in 2002; like Trump humiliating disabled people or spewing his racism against Mexicans and misogyny during his campaign for the US Presidency; like Pamela Ramsey Taylor from Clay County, West Virginia, saying “It will be refreshing to have a classy, beautiful, dignified first lady in the White House. I’m tired of seeing a Ape in heels”, to which local mayor, Beverly Whaling expressed her pleasure since it “just made my day Pam”, it’s open house on women of colour and those called minorities.

There is indeed much to be afraid of.

We need to be afraid of the further entrenchment and entanglement of global capital, the nationalist right (maverick or not) and the securitisation agenda.

In US, here and in Europe where the right wing parties and forces are delighted and mobilising. Watch out for Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in Netherlands. Watch out for Norbet Hofer in the re-run of the elections in Austria and for Viktor Orbán in Hungary. The Trump/Putin axis is terrifying and already somewhat triumphant. God help us but imagine Middle East! And of course Ukraine etc. And whether the wall against Mexico is built materially, it symbolically declares might and profound fear and rabid xenophobia. Whether bricks or fencing and perhaps providing temporary jobs in the building trades the policing of that space offers yet more power and profit for the transnational companies like G4S plc in its British incarnation, G4S Secure Solutions in its US incarnation, with origins in Demark, and others who are barely subject to any regulation yet who ‘police’ across the world including Israel. Companies that run prisons and ‘personal security services’ in everything from airports to domestic violence services in police stations and personal homes while people, like Jimmy Mubenga, die at the hands of their operants. Imagine how they are already drawing up provisional contracts to be negotiated for ‘right’ to patrol the new wall!! And Chinese steel and toys and electrics will continue to flood in and financial capital circulate the globe corrupting attempts at social care and collective compassion/networks – no walls for them – and the working class voters, including those who voted Brexit and Trump, will continue to be betrayed. Let alone ‘minorities’ and women.

We need to be afraid of the legitimate expression of long held fears about and antipathies toward sexual and gender politics that embody a gesture toward freedom. Women – cis and trans – have long known that one of the central sites for the policing of gender normativities is the boundaries of the toilet (bathroom in US parlance) – in which the eyes of some women cast down to the breast area of those other women who are deemed insufficiently or unrecognisable ‘really’ feminine so as to challenge their right to bathroom use – making it totally apparent that this battle we are now in is the domain of the loo as much as it in that of the border and the institutions of government.

We need to be afraid of the re-articulation of the prohibitions on sex across ‘racial’ boundaries. For if among all the things that Brexit and Trump has made clear it is that sex and race must still not be brought together even while they are totally inseparable. Sure people hated and mistrusted Hilary Clinton; sure they did so partly because of the rampant and entrenched misogyny. But along with this what was absolutely unthinkable for many, many people was that a white woman (even from a powerful background) could not be allowed to take the Presidency following a black man. What kind of miscegenationist ‘coupling’ would that announce and legitimate!!  

We are in the beginning of a battle that is about life itself. Black life, Woman life, Queer life, Working Class life, Im/migrant life, Disabled life. Life here, Life there. There is indeed much, much, work to be done.

Gail Lewis is a Reader in Psychosocial Studies at Birbeck College, University of London

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