Zadie Smith wonders if the post-Brexit U.K. can remain "united," and if it can honor its old values
Zadie Smith in 2014
"Whether we still know, in Britain, what a better life is, what its necessary conditions are and how to achieve them, is what’s now in doubt."
-- Zadie Smith, in "Fences: A Brexit Diary,"
in the August 18 New York Review of Books
in the August 18 New York Review of Books
Though Zadie Smith is probably better known as a fiction writer (and teacher of fiction writing; she's a tenured professor at NYU), my experience of her is entirely as a nonfiction writer -- such an incisive and insightful one that when I saw that she's written "Fences: A Brexit Diary" for the August 18 New York Review of Books, that was the first thing I turned to when the issue arrived.
I'm sorry that I can't encapsule what makes the piece so absorbing piece, because the power of its perspective depends on the many strands of Zadie's personal history and cuiltural consciousness which are so carefully woven into her responses to the Brexit vote,. Consider just these geographical circumstances:
• that, because of a family illness, she has been living for the last year back in her old North West London neighborhood, which retains a fair amount of its remembered multicultural character but is in the throes of gentrification
• that, at the time of the actual Brexit vote, she was in Northern Ireland, "staying with my in-laws, two kindly, moderately conservative Northern Irish Protestants with whom I found myself, for the first time in our history, on the same side of a political issue," and "together we watched England fence itself off from the rest of Europe, with hardly a thought about what this meant for its Scottish and Irish cousins in the north and the west."
The latter circumstance gives rise to this perspective:
Much has been written since about the shockingly irresponsible behavior of both David Cameron and Boris Johnson, but I don’t think I would have been so entirely focused upon Boris and Dave if I had woken up in my own bed, in London. No, then my first thoughts would have been essentially hermeneutic. What does this vote mean? What was it really about? Immigration? Inequality? Historic xenophobia? Sovereignty? EU bureaucracy? Anti-neoliberal revolution? Class war?
But in Northern Ireland it was clear that one thing it certainly wasn’t about, not even slightly, was Northern Ireland, and this focused the mind on what an extraordinary act of solipsism has allowed this long-brutalized little country to become the collateral damage of an internal rift within the Conservative Party. And Scotland! It’s hard to credit. That two supposedly well-educated men, who have presumably read their British history, could with such utter recklessness throw into hazard a hard-won union of three hundred years’ standing—in order to satisfy their own professional ambitions—appeared that morning a larger crime, to me, than the severing of the decades-long European pact that actually prompted it all.
NEOLIBERALISM MAKES YOU FEEL "LIKE
YOU CAN DO NOTHING TO CHANGE IT"
Zadie has a lot to say about the often-twisted reasoning, confusion, and rank ignorance of many voters on both the Leave and Remain sides, and to the extent that the result can be taken as evidence of "a working-class populist revolution, she's sympathetic:
Doing something, anything, was in some inchoate way the aim: the notable feature of neoliberalism is that it feels like you can do nothing to change it, but this vote offered up the rare prize of causing a chaotic rupture in a system that more usually steamrolls all in its path.At the same time, she takes note of "the casual racism that seems to have been unleashed alongside [this "violent, more or less considered reaction to austerity and the neoliberal economic meltdown that preceded it"], both by the campaign and by the vote itself, and adds two anecdotes from her Jamaican-born mother:
A week before the vote a skinhead ran up to her in Willesden and shouted “Über Alles Deutschland!” in her face, like a memory of the late 1970s. The day after the vote, a lady shopping for linens and towels on the Kilburn High Road stood near my mother and the half-dozen other people originally from other places and announced to no one in particular: “Well, you’ll all have to go home now!”Most interestingly, though, "the profound shock" Zadie felt at the referendum result causes her to focus on "our own Londoncentric solipsism." That shock, also experienced by many other Londoners, "suggests at the very least that we must have been living behind a kind of veil, unable to see our own country for what it has become."
I kept reading pieces by proud Londoners speaking proudly of their multicultural, outward-looking city, so different from these narrow xenophobic places up north. It sounded right, and I wanted it to be true, but the evidence of my own eyes offered a counternarrative. For the people who truly live a multicultural life in this city are those whose children are educated in mixed environments, or who live in genuinely mixed environments, in public housing or in a handful of historically mixed neighborhoods, and there are no longer as many of those as we like to believe.
For many people in London right now the supposedly multicultural and cross-class aspects of their lives are actually represented by their staff—nannies, cleaners—by the people who pour their coffees and drive their cabs, or else the handful of ubiquitous Nigerian princes you meet in the private schools. The painful truth is that fences are being raised everywhere in London. Around school districts, around neighborhoods, around lives. One useful consequence of Brexit is to finally and openly reveal a deep fracture in British society that has been thirty years in the making. The gaps between north and south, between the social classes, between Londoners and everyone else, between rich Londoners and poor Londoners, and between white and brown and black are real and need to be confronted by all of us, not only those who voted Leave.
"EXTREME INEQUALITY FRACTURES COMMUNITIES"
Who wouldn't pay £5,000 for the Savoy's Sazerac cocktail?
Not just does inequality fracture communities, Zadie writes, but "after a while the cracks gape so wide the whole edifice comes tumbling down."
In this process everybody has been losing for some time, but perhaps no one quite as much as the white working classes who really have nothing, not even the perceived moral elevation that comes with acknowledged trauma or recognized victimhood. The left is thoroughly ashamed of them. The right sees them only as a useful tool for its own personal ambitions. This inconvenient working-class revolution we are now witnessing has been accused of stupidity—I cursed it myself the day it happened—but the longer you look at it, you realize that in another sense it has the touch of genius, for it intuited the weaknesses of its enemies and effectively exploited them. The middle-class left so delights in being right! And so much of the disenfranchised working class has chosen to be flagrantly, shamelessly wrong.She has some trenchant observations about the way "the neoliberal middle and upper-middle class" has "shafted itself" as surely as the poor, who are regularly ridiculed for "voting against their interests."
[G]o up to Notting Hill and watch the private security vehicles, paid for by private residents, slowly patrolling up and down the streets, in front of all those £20 million residences, nervous perhaps of the council house residents still clinging on, the other side of the Portobello Road. Or go up to the Savoy and have a gander at the vintage cocktail list on which the cheapest drink on offer goes for £100 (the most pricey is something called the Sazerac—which claims to be the most expensive cocktail in the world—coming in at £5,000). Strange times.In "wealthy London," Zadie observes, where it's great sport to "lecture the rest of the country on its narrow-mindedness": " 'Them' and 'us' never actually meet except in symbol."
Of course that cocktail list is only another stupid symbol, but it is of its time and place. There has been a kind of money madness in London for some time and for the rest of us looking on it’s hard to find in such symbols any sign of a beautiful, harmonious, or even happy life (what kind of happy person needs to be seen ordering a £5,000 cocktail?), though at least when you are this rich you can comfortably fool yourself that you are happy, utilizing what the old North London Marxists used to call your “false consciousness.” That crusty standby won’t work anymore for describing the economically and socially disenfranchised of this nation: they are struggling, deeply unhappy, and they know it.
We may walk past “them” very often in the street and get into their cabs and eat their food in their ethnic restaurants, but the truth is that more often than not they are not in our schools, or in our social circles, and they very rarely enter our houses—unless they’ve come to work on our endlessly remodeled kitchens.
Elsewhere in Britain people really do live cheek-by-jowl with the recently migrated, and experience the undercutting of their wages by newcomers. They really do have to fight for resources under an austerity government that makes it all too easy to blame your unavailable hospital bed on the migrant family next door, or on an oblique bureaucracy across the Channel, which the nitwit demagogues on the TV keep telling you is the reason there’s not enough money in the NHS. In this atmosphere of hypocrisy and outright deceit, should the working-class poor have shown themselves to be the “better man” when all around them is corruption and venality? When everyone’s building a fence, isn’t it a true fool who lives out in the open?
"IN BRITAIN NIGELS COME AND
GO, BUT RUPERTS ARE FOREVER"
NYRB caption: "Nigel Farage canvassing for ‘Leave’ votes during the Brexit campaign, London, May 2016. He resigned as leader of the UK Independence Party on July 4, shortly after the referendum."
Zadie takes pointed note of the influence of the mega-rich right-wing media barons.
My life and the lives of my fellow Britons are at all times at least partially governed by a permanent, unelected billionaire class, who own the newspapers and much of the TV, and through which absurd figures like Farage are easily puffed up, thus swinging elections and shaping policy.And she notes the lesson from Brexit that "the postwar British compact between government and people is not guaranteed,"
and it can be collectively unraveled, or trampled over by a few malign actors. Therefore the civilizing liberal arguments that established a universal health care system, state education, and public housing out of the ruins of war now need a party willing to make those arguments afresh in a new age of global capitalism, though whether that party will still even bear the name “Labour” remains to be seen.It's "this patrimony," she argues, that has drawn "the recently migrated," and she allows that "some have come merely to exploit it."
But the great majority have come to participate: they enroll their kids in our state schools, they pay their British taxes, they try to make their way. It is certainly not a crime or a sin to seek a better life abroad, or to flee from countries riven by wars, many of which we ourselves had a hand in. Whether we still know, in Britain, what a better life is, what its necessary conditions are and how to achieve them, is what’s now in doubt.
OF COURSE THIS IS ALL FROM A U.K. PERSPECTIVE
But I don't think it's that hard to translate it to a U.S. one.