It is a fitting irony that in the same week that the British government agreed to negotiate compensation for the torture of thousands of Kenyans under colonialism, a right-wing party devoted to returning the nation to its former glory would emerge as the major victor in local elections. The United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won 147 council seats in recent midterm elections, coming in third in the national popular vote and perilously close to defeating the ruling Conservatives. It is a party in favor of a monocultural Britain and against immigration, multiculturalism and membership in the European Union. To demand that Britain be Great again, as UKIP leader Nigel Farage does, willfully disregards how that greatness came about and who paid for it. As the nineteenth-century French philosopher Ernest Renan wrote, “The essential characteristic of a nation is that all its individuals must have many things in common and must have forgotten many things as well.”
The success of the UKIP rests on nostalgia for a brutal past shrouded in mythology, as well as fear of a future buffeted by neoliberal globalization. The party’s electoral base comprises older, less-qualified blue-collar workers drawn primarily from the Conservatives. Farage, a former commodities trader and nationalist “libertarian” whose buffoonery has been mistaken for authenticity, appeals to many of those disaffected from politics and disillusioned with the political class.
The UKIP’s particular blend of cultural atavism, political populism and economic nationalism may be unique to Britain. But its broad agenda is emblematic of a trend that spans everything from the Tea Party to the French National Front. Across the Western world, a sizable section of the white working and middle class is terrified. Their wages have stalled; their welfare is being slashed; their jobs are emigrating; labor, skilled and unskilled, is immigrating. A 2010 New York Times poll showed that more than half of self-described Tea Partiers were concerned that someone in their household would be out of a job in the next year, while more than two-thirds said the recession has been difficult or caused hardship and major life changes. In recent years, the most marked slump in support for foreign trade and the sharpest increase in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment has been among Republicans in general and white people in particular.
Meanwhile, the institutions they once might have counted on to defend their interests—particularly labor unions—have been decimated. The basic unit of democratic engagement, the nation-state, has been undermined by unfettered international capital. “The big question is whether any political force is capable of stemming the tides of globalisation,” writes sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, “while having at [its] disposal solely the means of a single state.”
Their political classes have actively colluded in these developments. Both Labour and Conservatives, like most of Europe’s establishment parties, want to remain in the European Union. In the United States, it was the Democrats who introduced NAFTA and deregulated finance.
Looking for alternatives, some have sought solidarity across racial and national boundaries to combat these increasingly enmeshed political and financial interests. In some places, like Greece with Syrzia or France with the Left Front party, this has taken on an electoral expression, with varying degrees of success. That, among other things, was what the Occupy movement was all about: a global articulation of resistance to this crisis that identified the enemy as the powerful, not the powerless.