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England, whose England?


Commentary

England, whose England?

Jon Beasley-Murray

By their fear you shall know them. The USA responded to al-Qaedaʼs September 2001 attacks with a proliferation of flags reaffirming national pride and widespread support for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, confirmed by George W. Bushʼs 2004 re-election. Spain reacted to the Madrid train explosions of March 2003 with silent vigils that shut down the country, and by replacing José María Aznarʼs Partido Popular government with a Socialist Party that would withdraw Spanish troops from Iraq. By July 2005, the UK had already given Tony Blair a third term, albeit with a reduced majority and despite general anti-war sentiment. Rather than patriotism or protest, Londonʼs tube and bus bombings inspired anguish and self-mockery: anguished analyses of British-born ʻbombers from suburbiaʼ; self-mocking websites such as www.iamfuckingterri [archive]fied.com. Others, however, were less anguished and only accidentally self-parodic: ʻBombers Are All Spongeing Asylum Seekersʼ declared the Daily Express.

Meanwhile, arsonists attacked a mosque on the Wirral, and hate crimes rose sixfold in the weeks following the 7 July bombings.

Whereas the US and Spanish responses to terror were fairly coherent, their alchemy of affect into politics more or less straightforward, the effect of the London attacks has been more confused. An overhyped stoicism, bolstered by folk-memory narratives of the Blitz or IRA mainland campaigns but leavened by understandable twitchiness, has combined with various forms of hysteria, whether liberal hand-wringing, illiberal violence or libertarian excess (ʻbeer not afraidʼ), and it has been distanced through irony. The bombs did not particularly play into New Labourʼs rhetoric of security at home and belligerence abroad, but at the same time Blair is riding higher in the polls than ever before, apparently on the principle that the person who caused the mess is best placed to clear it up.

For Paul Gilroy, the mess that is Britainʼs overseas entanglement and the messiness of its reactions to terror on the tube are both best referred to deeper, post-imperial roots.* British attitudes to race and to geopolitics alike are conditioned by the ambivalence of ʻpostcolonial melancholiaʼ, on the one hand, and an emergent ʻunruly and unplanned multicultureʼ, on the other. The countryʼs melancholic mood derives from its refusal to face up to the loss of an empire which had structured its political institutions and given a sense of coherence to its culture. Rather than working through this loss,

Britain acts it out in the ʻracist violence [that] provides an easy means to ʻpurifyʼ and rehomogenize the nationʼ, which is then followed by ʻshame-faced tides of self-scrutiny and self-loathingʼ and interspersed with ʻoutbursts of manic euphoriaʼ. But Gilroy also * Paul Gilroy, After Empire: Multiculture or Postcolonial Melancholia, Routledge, London, 2004; published in the USA as Postcolonial Melancholia, Columbia University Press, New York, 2005; Paul Gilroy and Herman Ouseley, ʻRace and Faith Post 7/7ʼ, Guardian, 30 July 2005. Quotations are from After Empire/Postcolonial Melancholia, unless otherwise indicated.detects a ʻspontaneous tolerance and openness evident in the underworld of Britainʼs convivial cultureʼ. He argued in a recent dialogue in the Guardian that ʻwounded Londonʼs responseʼ to the July attacks, such as ʻthe shrine at Kingʼs Cross and the crowd at Stockwell stationʼ, showed ʻvividlyʼ that British history ʻoffers valuable lessons about how to get along convivially in a multicultural polityʼ.

The countryʼs predicament offers opportunities as well as pitfalls. If we could only identify and analyse the central role that colonialism and race thinking played in the constitution of the modern state, and then also defend and explain the countervailing trend towards conviviality, Britain might stand firm against ʻUS models that are identified with an inevitable future of racial conflictʼ. Indeed, the ʻrebirth of English tolerance and generosityʼ might even ʻone day teach the rest of Europe something about what will have to be done in order to live peacefully with differenceʼ.

Cheap

There is, it should be evident, some irony in Gilroyʼs position. He suggests that Britain might become ʻGreatʼ again, forging a path separate from an embattled and incorrigible United States, and taking a lead within Europe; but the first step towards that goal would be the acknowledgement that Britain is in fact no longer Great, and the abandonment of its geopolitical pretensions. It is perhaps no wonder that the figure who most permeates this book is George Orwell. Orwellʼs ʻauthentically geo-pious Anglo patriotismʼ operates as a hinge between the early-twentieth-century intellectual internationalists and exiles (W.E.B. DuBois, Hannah Arendt, Sigmund Freud) who populate the first half of the book and the twenty-first-century pop culture performances (Ali G, The Streets, The Office) that take centre stage in the second. Orwell and his dislocated Englishness mediate the ʻintuitive estrangementʼ of Freud and what Gilroy terms Ali Gʼs ʻdaring act of patriotic loveʼ.

Orwell combines ʻworldly consciousnessʼ with ʻparochial attachments to Englandʼs distinctive environmentʼ. As indeed does Gilroy.

To recover a worldly consciousness, Gilroy would have us return to ʻthe cosmopolitan hopes of a generation that, like Orwell himself, in rejecting both Fascism and Stalinism, articulated larger loyalties: to humanity and to civilizationʼ. This is the generation of modernist intellectuals from Freud and DuBois through Arendt and Jean-Paul Sartre to Frantz Fanon and Malcolm X. Their cosmopolitan humanism,

Gilroy argues, is articulated during the ʻspecial momentʼ between the rise of Fascism in the 1930s and African decolonization in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Its epicentre was the late 1940s, the point at which the United Nations adopted its ʻUniversal Declaration of Human Rightsʼ, but which also saw the partition of India, the establishment of the state of Israel, and the foundation of apartheid South Africa. In the shadow of Nazism, a ʻplanetary debate over ʻraceʼ and racism emerged from this phase of nation building and geopolitical realignmentʼ that ʻdemanded a complete political and philosophical response to race loreʼ.

Gilroy suggests that modernist intellectuals embarked upon the necessary rethinking that would reveal the centrality of racism to modern politics, and also laid the ground for a cosmopolitan democracy that could succeed colonialism. That project was cut short by the rise of culturalist theories of race that replaced the biological racism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Culturalism leads to the right-wing articulation of a ʻclash of civilizationsʼ but also to the debilitating insistence on absolute differences that, in Gilroyʼs eyes, renders contemporary anti-racism ineffective and even counterproductive. These are the ʻcheap appeals to absolute national and ethnic difference that are currently fashionableʼ, invoked by apologists for the war on terror and defenders of identity politics alike.

ʻCheapʼ is one of Gilroyʼs favoured epithets: he rails against the ʻfacile notionsʼ, ʻcasual talkʼ and ʻsqueamish reluctanceʼ of his opponents, but he reserves particular ire for ʻcheap antihumanist positionsʼ, ʻthe cheapest invocations of incommensurable othernessʼ, ʻcheap patriotismʼ, ʻcheap managerialismʼ and ʻcheap consensusʼ. The repetition is striking. But why, in politics as in housing, should the expensive be valorized over the affordable? After all, in The Road to Wigan Pier, Orwell himself had a rather more nuanced assessment of the ʻcheap luxuriesʼ, from the cinema to the newly available ʻcheap smart clothesʼ, with which the poor in the 1930s mitigated the effects of unemployment. Gilroy seems to take ʻcheapʼ to be a synonym for ʻinadequateʼ or ʻinauthenticʼ. But this equation of market price with political value carries overtones of exclusivity typical of modernism but surely less palatable for cultural theory today. It reeks of Orwellʼs famous sensitivity to the smell of working-class life, the ʻvillainous cheap scentʼ that, we are told in Nineteen Eighty-Four, ʻonly the proles usedʼ.

Vulgar

Gilroy finds himself on uncertain ground when he invokes the market, whether as metaphor or as object of analysis. But he is convincing in his discussion of the state.

The premiss of mid-twentieth-century modernist internationalism was, Gilroy argues, an unflinching inquiry into the racist grounds of the contemporary state. Note that it is racism, not race, that supplies these grounds: with Sartre, Gilroy insists that race is racismʼs product, and so a derivative rather than a generative difference. Gilroy also follows Freud in suggesting that the root of racism lies in a fundamental division within a community (again, at its core, not at its periphery) arising from ʻthe conflict between the social obligation to love oneʼs fellow citizens and the unhappiness involved in the impossible attempt to do soʼ. Minor differences are therefore presented as intractable, absolute and natural distinctions between the human and the ʻinfrahumanʼ; the effects of this mechanism of differentiation, presented as causes, are projected by the state onto first the national territory and later, with colonialism, the planetary stage.

The state is very much the villain of the piece for Gilroy. ʻRaciologyʼ, or Manichaean race thinking, is ʻa product of modern political culture with special ties to its philosophies of power, government, and statecraftʼ. European colonialism merely extended state logic to a global scale. Public torture, for instance, never disappeared from the repertoire of European governance; it just migrated to the colonies, as is evident from histories of the Congo or the Caribbean, or the bloody suppression of the 1857 Indian mutiny. The ʻpractice of blasting prisoners to death by tying their bodies over the mouths of cannonʼ, spattering ʻblood and fragments of fleshʼ over onlookers, is surely just as spectacular and as visceral as the treatment of Damiens the regicide famously described in the opening pages of Foucaultʼs Discipline and Punish. Moreover it is not as though colonial practices were somehow ʻsealed off from the mainstreamʼ:

metropolitan statecraft and imperial governance informed each other, the periphery serving as ʻa laboratory, a location for experiment and innovation that transformed the exercise of governmental powers at home and configured the institutionalization of imperial knowledge to which the idea of ʻraceʼ was centralʼ. Foremost among these imperial knowledges is the discipline of cultural anthropology. But political theory and conceptions of economic progress are also marked by their colonial provenance, transforming the raciological assumption of naturalized difference into a temporal distinction between the developed regions and their developing counterparts condemned to lag behind.

If Freudʼs response to the pathology of civilization was ʻfatalisticʼ, Gilroy draws hope from other modernists such as DuBois and Fanon, who offered ʻacts of imagination and invention that are adequate to the depth of the postcolonial predicamentʼ that they described. And if even DuBois suggests that the ʻcolor lineʼ means that ʻ“race” is a fatal, unchanging principle of political culturesʼ, Gilroy optimistically declares that his ʻrefusal of that fate is what defines the approach to anti-racist agency I want to sketch outʼ. Gilroy wagers on the possibility of an explicitly ʻcivilizingʼ project that, in his Guardian piece, is also taken as ʻa means of building democracy and citizenshipʼ.

It may be true that todayʼs war against terror, with its absolute demarcation of difference, spectacular destruction of the infrahuman, opportunistic suspension of legality, and shallow rhetoric of ʻmessianic civilizationalismʼ, has deep roots in the practices of colonial governance; also that the voices of modernist cosmopolitan humanism are now discredited on the Left and the Right alike, along (Gilroy says) with the internationalist drive of mid-century feminism and socialism. Yet Gilroy still believes we can take on the challenge of ʻarticulating cosmopolitan hope upward from below rather than imposing it downward from on highʼ and so ʻinvent conceptions of humanity that allow for the presumption of equal valueʼ. To take up this challenge, however, we are moved from the political philosophy of modernism to the cultural studies that finds in Orwellʼs work ʻthe source of [its] traditions of dissenting cultural reflection and analysisʼ. Gilroy puts his hope in ʻa “vulgar” or “demotic” cosmopolitanismʼ whose value lies ʻin its refusal of state-centeredness and in its attractive vernacular styleʼ. The second half of After Empire/Postcolonial Melancholia is devoted to this.

Smelly

Here, Gilroy shifts from the high culture of mid-century European and Atlantic intellectual life to the low culture of an ordinary twenty-first century. This is also a shift from ʻThe Planetʼ to the ʻdistinctive environmentʼ of ʻAlbionʼ. Gilroy analyses a series of contemporary British cultural phenomena, from the blunt nationalism of football terrace chants (ʻTwo World Wars and One World Cupʼ) to the anxious masculinism of Nick Hornby or Tony Parsons and the complex ambivalence of The Office. But he is at pains to demonstrate the ambivalence at the heart even of the rowdy supporters of England football, who have to acknowledge despite themselves that the countryʼs paltry sporting prowess is but a melancholic substitute for lost geopolitical importance.

The fans, too, are victims, and Gilroy insists on recognizing ʻthe dignity and value of the worthy lives that motto [ʻTwo World Warsʼ] has helped to lead astray or divert into the arid lands of British nationalist fantasyʼ. Even Changing Rooms and Ground Force are taken to harbour utopian potential in their ʻliberating ordinariness that makes strangeness recede in a fog of paint fumes and sawdustʼ; their melancholic sorrow lies in the assumption that such change can only be effected within the bounded plots of an Englishmanʼs house and garden.

In the end, then, Gilroy cannot fully put his faith in the ʻsmall triumphsʼ of the ʻordinary, spontaneous antiracismʼ that he finds in contemporary music and popular culture, however ʻvibrantʼ or ʻvitalʼ it may be. It is all too likely that a generation could be misled either by ʻmanipulative political leadersʼ or by ʻhip-hop consumer cultureʼ and the other ʻstultifying US styles and habitsʼ in which Gilroy somewhat strangely finds few redemptive possibilities. This is where we see the depth of Gilroyʼs ambivalence about market processes. Why, if a demotic cosmopolitanism is self-evident and spontaneous, is it so easily veiled or seduced by pathological melancholia, state command or market mediocrity? Why, in short, do the affective regimes of ordinary, unruly, everyday life in Madrid, New York or London support or subvert political order in such different ways? I agree that the answer must lie in part in differing imperial histories, though Spain too lost an empire, perhaps even more traumatically than did the formerly Great Britain. I suspect that what is required is a more nuanced analysis of the relation between affect and politics, one that does not, by simply opposing a vibrant demos to a calcified state, repeat the very populist gestures it sets out to criticize.

Gilroy has been criticized for his ʻpopulist modernismʼ before – not least by Kobena Mercer, who took him to task as long ago as 1990 for his celebration of ʻblack cultural practicesʼ that have ʻspontaneously arrived at insights which appear in European traditions as the exclusive results of lengthy and lofty philosophical discussionsʼ (ʻBlack Art and the Burden of Representationʼ, Third Text 10, Spring 1990). As we see in After Empire/Postcolonial Melancholia, and as in all populisms, Gilroy wants to have his cake and eat it: both championing the spontaneous wisdom of the people and insisting on what in the Guardian he called the intellectualʼs ʻfundamentalʼ task of ʻeducationʼ.

Populism sets its store by the people but never fully trusts them, hence its characteristic double articulation of mobilization and demobilization. It puts its faith in the nationʼs ordinary common sense and sentiment, but at the same time seeks to exclude those who do not accord with its version of common sense, to mark them as somehow not fully part of that national community. Here, as so often, the rhetoric is directed primarily against political elites, specifically the New Labour government that has betrayed (Gilroy suggests) the faith accorded it by the 1997 electorate. But there is equal distrust of the cheap or petty, suburban or rural, ʻsmall-minded Englishnessʼ of those who are perhaps not ʻvulgarʼ or ʻordinaryʼ enough.

Yet surely the point of a truly Orwellian patriotism, if we really were to consider resurrecting this rather quaint project, is that you cannot pick and choose: true solidarity has to contend with the physicality and materiality of the most unpleasant of affects and habits. For Orwell, the politics of affect figured above all in the ʻphysical repulsionʼ incarnated in the notion that ʻthe lower classes smellʼ. How, Orwell asked in The Road to Wigan Pier, can you have ʻaffection for a man whose breath stinks – habitually stinksʼ? Consensus or hegemony are not at issue here: Orwell points out that it is irrelevant how much ʻyou may admire his mind and characterʼ. The point of conviviality is not the liberal politics of agreement, but the challenge of living together despite what is indeed an almost pre-political sensation of difference. If an anti-racist patriotism has any sense at all, ʻEnglandʼ must belong to everyone. But of course at this point ʻEnglandʼ starts to fade, leaving only its increasingly marginal state apparatus – marginal despite its paroxysms of nervous violence, as in the killing of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell. Yes, there will be points of historically conditioned affective intensity (melancholia or shame, nostalgia or pride, anguish or joy), tied to images or sensations that are coded as national. And a television corporation or cricket team, or even a government, might work within these codes to incite or dampen particular affective responses. But why should such overcoding also structure a politics of liberation?

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