Wednesday 28 May 2014

Family, Politics and Value: The UKIP Question

In large families, siblings can be very different. The advantage this gives to each individual lies in the demand it makes of everyone to take on board the wishes and feelings of those who are fundamentally unlike them, but who they nevertheless love. Recent political events have brought this home to me, and arguing about the UK Independence Party (UKIP)  with close relatives who welcome it has caused me to question my own position and the determination of each of us to "win the argument".

My first question is to myself as to why I find this all so troubling. To me, as to many, UKIP are a nasty bunch of manipulative, privileged Tories who prefer the nastier side of conservatism (and so have found a home outside the conservative party, which is struggling to suppress its militant tendency) and find cynical ways of exploiting hatred among the masses. The arguments of the UK Independence Party are quite powerful: "Let's say we were arguing to join the EU as we know it now: a club costing £55million per day, giving us unfettered immigration, bureaucratic regulation, etc, etc. Who would vote for that?" which was basically the line pursued by Nigel Farage in his first debate with Nick Clegg. Underpinning positions like this are concepts like 'fairness' coupled with discomfort with an invasion from immigration ("I feel like a stranger in my own country"). These are deep worries about personal security and the long-term future.

However, I found myself tending not to listen to the underlying anxieties, but rather tending to oppose the UKIP view (being alarmed that it comes from someone I am so close to) and trying to 'win the argument'. On reflection, I don't think it is possible to 'win the argument' in these circumstances.

The deep problem with the UKIP debate is that it isn't a debate. It is a cultural clash between the self-righteous metropolitan educated elite (i.e. me and people like me) and a social group of largely disenfranchised, fragile and frightened people who are working hard and struggling to cope, with banks, insurers, energy firms, and a manipulative celebrity-soaked media all breathing down their necks.

Why don't they turn on the banks? Why don't they take the 'Occupy' route rather than trying to chase-out Romanians? I think the answer is simple: like the rest of us, they trying to maintain their identity through maintaining equilibrium with their environment. Equally, I might blame the banks, but I haven't yet slapped a banker. Our jobs and mortgages depend on the rich and powerful. And the rich and powerful embody the ethos that the poor hard-workers aspire to. To take on the banks means destabilising the environment that sustains them. Complaining about Romanians (and the EU that brought them here) reinforces stability, whilst establishing solidarity with those who are similarly disenfranchised.

My objection to UKIP is also based on my own desire to maintain a stable state. But my stable state is that of the metropolitan educated elite. This is my discourse and the environment that sustains me. If I thought immigration was the problem, would I dare say so (I'd lose a lot of friends)? UKIP supporters say they "speak the plain truth", and accuse everyone else of not being 'realistic' or even honest. But we are looking at two communities which maintain different discourses which are mutually opposed and which maintain each other through their mutual opposition.

The relationship between an individual's maintenance of a "stable state" and their political values is important. Our contemporary political orthodoxy is strategically anodyne. Politicians of all colours squirm in the face of difficult questions demanding direct answers so as to protect their own identities within the discourse of their party and the newspapers. The rest of us, of course, are not bound by these constraints, and glad to voice our opinion 'freely' (although maintaining our own discursive stability) - leading us to hold our leaders (largely) in contempt. The opposition of these forces is also stable. Double-binds are everywhere.

The "stable state" of discourse is something emergent from childhood. Discourses express values in rationalistic terms, but underneath the rationalism lie deep personal conflicts and insecurities. This is why the sense of belonging to discourse is so strong (UKIP or otherwise): it is a shield from the terror of an uncontrolled and irrational world. It is also probably why challenging anyone's values, no matter how magnanimous they are, will eventually cause an emotional and irrational response. Isaiah Berlin's Value Pluralism begins in the cradle, and I suspect that it is what happens from the cradle to early adulthood that determines the mix of 'values' which each of us hold to, and the communities with whom we associate to reinforce them. The quest for the stable state of the baby leads to ritualised behaviours, which in turn contextualise initial engagements with rational discourse. We all grow up differently - even in the same family - and our values are consequently different, and often incommensurable.

I think it is these mechanisms of discourse and value that underpin our economic life. It is economics and relative poverty that underpins the current rise of the far-right. But to fight UKIP (or their worse incarnations in other countries) we should look at ourselves and at the way we engage in politics. If our politics is broken it is because our economics is broken. The economic fictions that the metropolitan elite tell each other now leave so many unexplained holes that it is not surprising to see unpleasant things growing in the gaps. Most importantly, the narrative is missing that connects economic exchange with personal security, meaningfulness and a sense of purpose.

In a nutshell, we should worry about what people worry about. Not just the UKIP voters, but all of us.

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