[Marxism] Fear and Fumbling: Brexit, Trump and the Nationalist Surge

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Dec 19 09:43:31 MST 2019


(The first book sounds really interesting.)

NY Times, Dec. 19, 2019
Fear and Fumbling: Brexit, Trump and the Nationalist Surge
By Jennifer Szalai

The Politics of Pain: Postwar England and the Rise of Nationalism
By Fintan O’Toole
232 pages. Liveright Publishing. $27.95.

The Case for Nationalism: How It Made Us Powerful, United, and Free
By Rich Lowry
280 pages. Broadside Books. $26.99.

“May all your teeth fall out except the one that gives you pain”: It’s 
an old Yiddish curse, but as Fintan O’Toole explains in his slyly 
brilliant new book, it could turn out to be an apt description of the 
“English nationalist project” known as Brexit. An unsettled sense of 
national identity is like having a sore tooth, and Brexit is like taking 
a sledgehammer to the wrong side of your face. Once the “radically 
invasive” procedure of extracting Britain from the European Union begins 
in earnest, O’Toole writes in “The Politics of Pain,” the original 
toothache will persist — only this time amid the wreckage of a bloody mouth.

O’Toole, an Irish journalist, is aware of the political and economic 
upheavals that have buoyed pro-Brexit forces, but with this book he 
explores what the critic Raymond Williams called a “structure of 
feeling” — in this case, a mentality that likens the staid bureaucracy 
in Brussels to a monstrous occupying force. O’Toole dissects a number of 
myths peddled over the years by Britain’s most extreme Euroskeptics, 
including the specter of an overweening continent determined to outlaw 
prawn cocktail-flavored potato chips.

Brexit and President Trump represent both sides of the Anglo-American 
nationalist coin — on this minimal observation, O’Toole and Rich Lowry, 
the editor of National Review magazine and the author of another new 
book about nationalism, would seem to agree. But where O’Toole warns of 
the dangers posed by indiscriminate eruptions of nationalist fervor, 
Lowry’s “The Case for Nationalism” exudes an untroubled sanguinity. 
Nationalism’s biggest problem, Lowry says repeatedly, has been the 
“smear” against it.


ImageFintan O’Toole, author of “The Politics of Pain.”
Fintan O’Toole, author of “The Politics of Pain.”
Credit...Benson Russell
“The Politics of Pain” is searching and elegantly argued. O’Toole isn’t 
unsympathetic to those who voted in favor of Brexit, but makes 
abundantly clear that he believes they were suckered into a raw deal. 
Being Irish, he knows “the worst agonies that zero-sum nationalism can 
inflict.” His tone is charmingly wry but never gleeful. He reserves his 
most withering indictments for elite politicians like Nigel Farage and 
Boris Johnson — the “Brexit ultras” who successfully deployed the 
language of autonomy and wounded pride to cast Brexit “simultaneously as 
a reconstitution of Empire and as an anti-imperial national liberation 
movement.”

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This toggling between grandiosity and self-pity is a neat trick, and 
O’Toole says the absurd rhetoric has been so successful because England 
has never grappled properly with its experience of winning a world war 
while also losing an empire. The English have been unprepared to think 
of their country as just another among many, one that is relatively 
privileged but ultimately ordinary. (Seeing Brexit as primarily an 
English phenomenon, O’Toole takes care to focus on England, rather than 
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.) “In the imperial imagination, 
there are only two states: dominant and submissive, colonizer and 
colonized,” O’Toole writes, making a funny and surprisingly fitting 
analogy with the sadomasochism, tedious rules and fantasy of absolute 
powerlessness on offer in E L James’s “Fifty Shades of Grey.”

“The Politics of Pain” is not a celebration of the E.U. — a deeply 
flawed institution, O’Toole concedes, which has settled into an 
“arrogant, complacent” technocracy since the end of the Cold War, when 
it mostly gave up trying to encourage the “reasonable expectation that 
life will get better for ordinary people.” But he says that Johnson and 
the other reactionary members of the ruling class have abdicated their 
own responsibility to the very people they purport to serve.

“A nation state is, first and foremost, a shelter,” O’Toole writes, 
likening it to an umbrella “in the hard rain of neoliberal 
globalization.” Brexit, he says, offers a garish but empty nationalism 
shorn of any protections. Promising to dismantle the environmental and 
labor regulations they denounce as “red tape,” the Brexiteers “want to 
sever the last restraints on the very market forces that have caused the 
pain.”

To get a sense of what Lowry makes of Brexit in “The Case for 
Nationalism,” you can read one of his confident section titles: “The 
Neo-Imperial European Union Threatens Self-Government.” You won’t get 
much more substantive information by reading the section itself. After 
denouncing the E.U. as “too big and too sprawling,” Lowry declares that 
“Brexit was an appropriate reaction to this highhandedness,” without 
specifying what “this highhandedness” actually entailed.

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“Nationalism Is Natural,” “England Changed Forever and Seeded America,” 
“We Always Sought to Spread Across the Continent”: Lowry’s book is 
divided into numerous sections like these, most of them not much longer 
than a page or two. The book reads like a recitation of talking points, 
a paint-by-numbers manifesto. As befits an American nationalist, Lowry’s 
main focus is not on Britain but the United States. Underneath the 
book’s tidy, methodical structure seethes a fundamental incoherence, 
because Lowry has undertaken a seemingly impossible task: to try to 
square a Trumpian nationalism with an expansive view of American ideals.


ImageRich Lowry, author of “The Case for Nationalism.”
Rich Lowry, author of “The Case for Nationalism.”
Credit...Karen Morneau
Yes, Lowry admits, the term “blood and soil” might be a rallying cry for 
white supremacists and “deeply inimical to the America project,” but he 
still wants to talk about ... blood and soil, even if he calls them 
something else. Yes, “our treatment” of indigenous peoples “was often 
shameful,” but “one way or the other, the tribes were going to give 
way.” (Lowry’s reflexive use of the first-person plural suggests who he 
assumes his audience includes, and who it doesn’t.) Yes, slavery was 
bad, but “the defenders of the interests of slavery were committed 
anti-nationalists” because “they feared the rise of national institutions.”

Never mind that historians like Jill Lepore have called the secession of 
the Confederacy an act of “illiberal nationalism”; never mind that Lowry 
evinces a deep antipathy to federal power elsewhere in the book, 
especially if it offers to do something so nefarious as strengthen “the 
welfare and regulatory state.” He has a case to make, and he’s going to 
march along his trail of section headings to make it.

There’s a kind of conservative thinker who needs to feel perpetually 
besieged, and with a Republican nationalist in the White House, Lowry 
has to scour the horizon for slights, which he proceeds to inflate into 
existential threats. In the section helpfully titled “A Campaign of 
Cultural Vandalism Threatens the Nation,” he warns: “John Wayne has been 
targeted, and so has Thanksgiving.” On the same page, he also bemoans 
that “we obviously don’t live at a time of careful distinctions.”

Quite so. But that doesn’t stop Lowry from making his own 
less-than-careful generalizations. “Cosmopolitanism has always been open 
to the charge that — whatever its broad-mindedness or idealism — it 
cultivates a contempt for what’s near, immediate and tangible,” he 
writes, the halting and passive syntax functioning as a kind of “sorry 
not sorry.” Now where have I heard that caricature (or “smear,” if you 
will) of a contemptuous, deracinated cosmopolitanism before? Oh, yes. 
It’s the one long preferred by despots and autocrats the world over. 
Maybe Lowry’s nationalist paean to American exceptionalism isn’t so 
exceptional after all.

Follow Jennifer Szalai on Twitter: @jenszalai.





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