Brexit and the Trump election were certainly about class – but not so much about the alienation of the working classes as the prerogative of the middle classes and the wealthy.
I am sat on the train, across from six suited, young, white, English-sounding men – the kind that I walk quickly past, or try not to eavesdrop on, lest I overhear something that will spoil my balance of mind. The kind who travel to Europe for ‘mini-breaks’. And for whom casual racism and sexism is a matter of course. The kind of people whose spaces I’d be cautious, if not loathe, to enter.
It is the Saturday after the referendum – they are on their way to a party, I presume. I am trying to distract myself, but I can’t help overhear a blithe reference to the vote, and some kind of pro-EU statement. ‘This is Europe’, I find myself thinking, derisively.
Stereotyping may be a poor form of political thought and practice. Yet, their presence across from me is an unpleasant, visceral, reminder that racism does not come in pre-packaged forms; that racism and racist attitudes cut across class and educational and social status. And that a good proportion of those that voted to stay in the EU are also, very likely, racist. But in this referendum event, we seem to have forgotten that. My encounter with this group of people helped clarify why I have such difficulty with some of the liberal responses to Brexit.
The presumably middle-class English-sounding men across from me are part of the educated classes who, supposedly, voted Remain**. Their racism may not have come from Nigel Farage or the Daily Mail; it may not be borne of fear and a limited perception of their lived experience. Instead, it is a ‘respectable’ racism, that comes from the colonialist imaginings and messaging that are so embedded in the fabric of western society – from family life and education, to political and popular culture. These men may not be the ‘racist whites’ that verbally and physically intimidate ‘foreigners’ (but, then again, who knows – outright violence is not the provenance of a particular class). But it is, nonetheless, a racism borne of the historical violence not just of the UK but, more generally, ‘Europe’.
The liberal shock and despair in the days that followed Brexit was the mirror image of a nostalgia for Empire – a peculiarly European nostalgia for an era of multiculturalism that is supposedly lost; a loss that is projected onto the ‘ignorant’, ‘uninformed’, ‘racist’ white non-urban working class. But sitting across from the six suited young white British-sounding men, I was confronted by this imagined Europe unmasked; a Europe that has little right to this nostalgia.
For many (but not all) of and from the global south, ‘multicultural Britain’, indeed ‘multicultural Europe’, is a siren song. It is not always an encounter of uplifting progressivism but of subjugated coercion. The lost ‘multiculturalism’ being mourned is an effect, and in many cases the experience, of the violence of Europe – of the dispossession and displacement caused by centuries of colonialism and slavery, and by the militarism and extractivism being unleashed by Europe across the world.
For people of and from the global south, the experience of multiculturalism is profoundly complicated. While there is no doubt a comfort and joy in being with and amongst so many different peoples with whom we share historical and cultural connections, there are also an equal amount of gut-wrenching reminders of why we are, and continue to come, here. Even for those that journeyed to the metropole uncoerced – the educated, professional, ‘documented’ classes, the ones that multicultural society prizes – Europe, ultimately, reminds us of itself.
Brexit might have stripped away a certain freedom of movement – but for many this freedom has never existed, in the first place. The freedom of movement so treasured, and so mourned, is exclusively, and in every sense, European – including its legacy in the white, settler-colonial regions of the Commonwealth.
For those of and from the global south, our experience of this supposedly open, welcoming society is constituted through police registrations and Home Office checks; through the monitoring and documentation of all our comings and goings across borders; of what kind of work we must do, and how much we must earn; of who we may marry and how much they must earn; and, yet, years of uncertainty about whether we will be deemed a fit addition to this multicultural fabric. (Also see, Fortress Europe.)
To those dismayed by the uncertainty of what lies ahead, I understand your distress – the sense of betrayal brought on by the referendum, the feeling of having been robbed of the promise of openness and wanting it back, and of wanting to escape for somewhere that this promise still (appears to) exist. Yet, for the countless lives that have contributed to Europe’s exuberant experience of multiculturalism, Brexit did not bring vulnerability and uncertainty, it did not frustrate a promise that was always illusionary – it merely made this condition more identifiable.
Brexit may have… finally… opened more eyes to the routineness of this psychic and material violence. But that eye-opening should be a reminder of the lies that a liberal Europe has bought into. The violence that has been documented so publicly (indeed, so voyeuristically) is, in fact, the cry of a Europe that feels aggrieved at being unmasked. For this violence has been documented for generations in the minds, bodies, and communities of black and brown folk, and, more recently, amongst those generalistically classified as ‘eastern European’ too.
Brexit is Europe waking up to itself – rubbing scrunched eyes, frantically searching its memory for a pleasant dream, and bemoaning the reality of the day ahead. And having, finally, gotten out of bed, it is now shadow-boxing itself. For the Others of Europe, Brexit is a bucket of ice water, a sharp, painful, intake of breath, before heading out to another long day’s work.
Post-script: This article began as a pained personal rant written the day I encountered that group of men some days after the referendum. It is painful still, and enraging, to have to return to it now, in the days after the election of Trump. So much white liberal and left thought is now regurgitating the post-Brexit narrative – each event characterised as a consequence of the scourge of neoliberalism, a wake-up call to heed the pain of the working classes. These analyses are not untrue but a half-truth, and a dangerous one at that.
Contrary to the diatribes of liberal Remainers against the racist, uneducated Leavers, the reality, it appears, is that ‘59% were in the middle classes, while the proportion of Leave voters in the lowest two social classes was just 24%;. Also, as opposed to the narrative of an uprising by the working-classes in the blighted north, 52% of people of Leavers lived, in fact, in the supposedly more progressive south (see Danny Dorling’s Brexit: The decision of a divided country).
Similarly, it wasn’t the working classes that carried Trump to victory. People of the lowest economic bracket voted for Clinton, 53-41. Conversely, Trump won every economic bracket above $50,000 by a margin of 1-4 percentage points.
Brexit and the Trump election were certainly about class – but not so much about the alienation of the working classes as the prerogative of the middle classes and the wealthy. As some writers have already noted, the working class disaffection story can hold only if we assume that the working classes is mainly white. The real class story is of the entitlement of the middle-classes and the wealthy, who most often do happen to be white – the ‘respectable’ racists whose racism is couched in the language of meritocracy and hard work
The class uprising story is worn. As is the sneering or patronizing of the great uneducated masses. For white liberals and leftists, alike, this reductionism is a consequence of what they (think they) know. It is the story they have learnt so well, it is the only one they can speak safely and without implication.
Meanwhile, those that have been speaking and living the violence of race for generations are confronted with the intensified consequences of dangerously ill-informed gestures of allyship.
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rashné limiki has spent the past 15 years as an immigrant/educational-economic migrant. Her place in the UK is secured through academic work, but she finds escape and solace in writing. @rashnelimki
This feature was commissioned and edited by MD’s Editor-at-large Lola Okolosie. To pitch an article, review or feature please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org