Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Thu, 10 Jun 2021, 2:45 PM


Farage's dangerous appeal

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Nigel Farage's effort to rebrand the Brexit party as an anti-lockdown faction poses the question: what's the link between being pro-Brexit and anti-lockdown?

It might seem there's none. Sure, anti-lockdowners are proclaiming the virtues of freedom. But the anti-migrant sentiment Farage stirred up during the Brexit referendum is the antithesis of libertarianism. If we put it nicely, Reform UK is an unstable coalition between cultural conservatives and libertarians. Less nicely, it's just another toxic grift.

Perhaps, though, there is a common theme between hostility to migrants and the lockdown. It lies in something Richard Sennett wrote fifty years ago in The Uses of Disorder. Social life, he said, is a process of awkward encounters not just with other people but with a reality that is other than we'd like it to be. Many people cope with this by developing a "purified identity" that denies dissonances and discomfort:

The threat of being overwhelmed by difficult social interactions is dealt with by fixing a self-image in advance, by making oneself a fixed object rather than an open person liable to be touched by a social situation.

Such a self-identity, said Sennett, is "a fearful defence against the unknown future" which arises from "a fear of the sources of human diversity that create history." Breaking

Farage's reaction to feeling "awkward" on hearing foreign languages on a train exemplifies this. It was not to celebrate the freedom that people have to come to the UK, nor to wonder what benefits diversity brings. Instead, it is to resist such migration. His fixed identity must have priority over dissonant reality. (We might add that this fits Perry Anderson's idea of "imagined communities." As Sennett says, "the myth of community solidarity is a purification ritual.")

In the same way, rather than see the lockdown and mask-wearing as the price we must pay to combat the virus, Farage resists it. He wants to screen out dissonance and assert the priority of his preferences over the imperfect solution to a collective action problem. This is the attitude of a narcissistic toddler throwing a tantrum because he is unable to accept that the world is not as he wants it to be.

To put this point into sharper focus, we can contrast this to two other attitudes. One is expressed in Dar Williams' astounding song
After All. "Once upon a time I had control and reined my soul in tight" she sings. This purified identity however led her to the brink of suicide. But, she continues:

Cause when you live in a world
Well it gets in to who you thought you'd be
And now I laugh at how the world changed me

Our fixed identity can jeopardize our mental health. Throwing it off and embracing dissonance enables personal change and growth - and survival.

But the hatred caused by dissonance need not always be channeled inwards. It can also be directed outwards. Noreena Hertz, following Hannah Arendt, argues that loneliness and isolation, and an inability to engage with the world as it is, fuels populism. Farage is tapping into this, and not in its most toxic form: think also of "incels" and perhaps Islamist terrorists.

My second point of contrast is with Friedrich Hayek. The thing about freedom, he said, is that we cannot foresee its benefits:

Since the value of freedom rests on the opportunities it provides for unforeseeable and unpredictable actions, we will rarely know what we lose through a particular restriction of freedom. Any such restriction, any coercion other than the enforcement of general rules, will aim at the achievement of some foreseeable particular result, but what is prevented by it will usually not be known. (Law Legislation and Liberty Vol I, p56-57.)

If we are to truly embrace freedom, with the benefits it brings (many of which are non-economic) we must therefore be prepared to tolerate some disorder, sights and sounds that some fixed identities would resist - be it foreign languages on a train or same-sex couples dancing on Strictly.

Which brings me to a paradox. The right sometimes accuse students and the left of being "snowflakes" - of having a Sennettian fixed identity which seeks safe spaces against uncomfortable interactions. Maybe this is right, maybe not - though as I am past the age of 21 student politics no longer interests me. Such an accusation, however, applies just as much to many on the right. And perhaps it does more social damage there.

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