The Blight of Ukania

Photo by Paolo Gamba | CC BY 2.0

Tom Nairn coined the phrase “Ukania” to designate the confused and disorganized hotchpotch of an island-nation off the coast of northern Europe, tottering on the nation-state equivalent of varicose-veined and arthritic legs, and further enfeebled by an unproductive nostalgia for Empire (aka Empire 2.0).

Nairn’s Ukania is a riff on Robert Musil’s fictitious Kakania, a broken-down component of the already dilapidated pre-war World War I Austro-Hungarian empire.

“Dilapidation” is the word to describe the UK today. I was last there in November and will be there again in July. Frequent, indeed daily, contact with family and friends confirms that the UK is indeed Nairn’s “Ukania”.

This week London overtook New York as a “murder capital”. Brits were shocked, because this reversed their notion of the US as a place where gun nuts can kill whenever they want.

I tried to reassure my Brit friends and family that the murder statistics for New York don’t include police killings of unarmed black men, and that inclusion of the latter statistic in the murder toll would probably tell a somewhat different story.

Ukania has stringent gun laws, but nearly all the killings in London are stabbings.  Acid attacks have also become increasingly common.

The causes for this outbreak of knifings and acid-throwing are almost certainly multiple.  A decaying social fabric caused by nearly a decade of Tory austerity, high youth unemployment as well as employed youth who nonetheless dominate the precariat, and savage cuts in police numbers (a result of deliberate Tory policy to hand over policing to private security firms, who in turn donate generously to the Tories), are almost certainly key factors here.

The Tories however have “none of the above” on their list of causes for London’s crime wave.  For them and their allies in the rightwing media, drugs, a form of rap known as UK drill, and social media are to blame!

This ignorance is obviously contrived—absolutely unlike the social media-illiterate geriatric US senators who questioned Mark Zuckerberg on the issue of Facebook’s data leaks, and who in their genuine bafflement were unable to tell the difference between Facebook, Twitter, and WhatsApp, among other things.

Unlike the technologically-senile US senators befuddled by contemporary social media and its associated technologies, the Tories know damn well the underlying conditions for London’s stabbing and acid-throwing epidemic.

Then there is of course the ongoing Brexit shambles.  The inflexible Eurocrats have always only had one position on Brexit:  accept our terms for leaving the EU or you get nothing.

The Ukanians in response alternate hopelessly between faux bravado (“we’re prepared to leave with nothing”) and conciliatory placation (“please, oh please, can we come to a fresh understanding of what’s on the table? “).

The Eurocrats see right through the phony bravado and dismiss it outright, while responding to pleas for a “fresh understanding” with a bored shrug– in effect saying that it is “you deluded Brits who need to understand we are not having negotiations about the terms of your departure, but only about such minutiae as the timetabling of this this or that move that (according to us) needs to be made”.

The intransigent Eurocrats thus insist that negotiations can only be about “process”, while the Ukanian government persists in thinking the door is somehow still open for negotiations about “substance”.

Alas, those who insist on talking about “process” have held all the cards from the beginning.

The Ukanians have not helped themselves by sending absolute third-raters to deal with the meritocratic wolves in Brussels.

The EU wolves make it to the top by speaking two to three, or more, languages fluently, by graduating from Europe’s top schools of international relations and public administration, and by having decades of experience in international diplomacy.

Ukania’s chief Brexit negotiator, David Davies, is a retired special-services commando who was given the job because he is the Conservative’s most dyed-in-the-wool anti-EU ideologue.

Davies sits at the Brussels negotiating table without a piece of paper in front of him, while his guileful and well-schooled EU counterparts consult bulky folders as they take the woefully underprepared and intellectually underwhelming ex-commando to the woodshed.

It is, in sporting terms, the equivalent of the lard-encased Donald Trump presuming he can win an Olympic race against Usain Bolt.

Ukania’s self-deceptions are not confined to its dealings with the wolves of Brussels.

Most of the Brexiteers (not to be confused with Lexiteers, of whom I’ve always been one) are gripped by nostalgic imperial fantasies.

The neo-imperial fantasy of these Brexiteers is that the former members of their Empire will fall in line, dutifully, in order to conclude trading agreements with their ex-imperial master– the Brexiteer hope being that these Empire 2.0 “agreements” will somehow compensate economically for the cessation of trading links with the EU countries.

This is simply not going to happen, given the dynamos driving post-imperial economic development.

The EU exists for the purpose of extending and sustaining the European embodiment of the current neoliberal order, and in so doing maintaining the very comfortable livelihoods of its Eurocratic elite.

But that, or its equivalent, alas, is also the “mission” of the members of the ex-Empire, who are supposed by the Brexiteers to salute and fall in line when asked to do so by their erstwhile imperial master!

The raison d’etre of such countries as India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, etc., is precisely to subserve the exigencies of the forms of capitalist of accumulation prevailing in their countries, forms which in turn coincide more or less with the needs of their national elites.

And this post-imperial raison d’etre is clearly not congruent with daydreamed requirements imposed by a post-Brexit Empire 2.0 nostalgia on the part of Ukania.

Australia and New Zealand now have their economic systems attuned, profitably, to demand from China and the rest of the Pacific Rim; Canada likewise with regard to the US; and India in relation to the economies of the Gulf States; and so on.

Ukania will get nowhere with Empire 2.0 après Brexit unless it can provide terms of trade and revenues matching or surpassing those now available to its former colonies.

Brexit, in what looks like its unavoidable current manifestation, is going to be a costly undertaking for Ukania, for a couple of decades or more at least.

It is most unlikely that a country dealing with Brexit’s significant negative economic impact will be able to provide terms of trade and potential revenues equal to those currently accessed by the above-mentioned countries of the ex-Empire.

Such, though, is the pitiful pipedream of the Brexiteers.

But let’s do a walk-through of this Brexiteer Empire 2.0 fantasy.

The fuel for this fantasy is the conviction that the EU hamstrings Ukania with excessive red-tape, subservience to German (industrial) and French (agricultural) economic imperatives, the need to take-in migrants from eastern European EU nations (who, in rightwing mythology, “steal” British jobs or sponge-off its welfare system), and so forth.

The fantasy serves a double purpose.

On the one hand it confirms older and in general less-educated Brits– “natural” Tory supporters who have never viewed themselves as Europeans– in their xenophobic preconceptions about Teutonic “perfidy” during World War II, French lack of “intestinal fortitude” in that war, as well as their prejudices about “oily” and “treacherous” Mediterraneans, etc.  For these bigots, the EU’s primary function has always been to give “Johnny Foreigner” a damn good deal at Ukania’s expense.

On the other hand, this Empire 2.0 fantasy also serves a more sinister purpose.  The Brexiteer dream is basically a fusion of neo-imperial illusions with a no-holds-barred neoliberalism.

The EU at least insists on health and safety standards that are better than India’s.  But why shouldn’t India’s standards be good enough for Ukania’s pampered workers?  The latter’s ancestors worked in dark satanic mills, so surely these f*@#ers can work in factories recycling toxic metals from discarded computers and mobile phones?

The EU’s food inspection standards are better than China’s, but why should Ukania hold itself to a standard higher than China’s?   Milk “supplemented” with de-icer fluid anyone?

The EU has minimal standards on bank operations and financial transactions– get rid of these and Ukania can be freed to become the world’s premier haven for tax-dodgers and money launderers.  Okay, it already holds the latter title, but Ukania will be able to lower the bar even more on money laundering once it gets rid of the EU’s regulatory shackles.

The Brexiteers believe the ending of trading links with the EU can be countered above all by a trade deal with Donald Trump, who is of course undermining regulation of the US agricultural, and other, sectors as fast as he and his cronies can.  How about a traditional British breakfast of sausage, bacon, and eggs, with GMO-flavoured and hormone-injected meat?  Chicken soaked in chlorine to extend its shelf-life anyone?

The Brexiteers wrap themselves in the moth-eaten draperies of Ukania’s long gone imperial glory, while intending to return its citizens to blighted lives such as they were in the eighteenth century.

A plausible Lexit should be able to offer something better than the rubbish proffered by the Brexiteers, and I hope to address this issue in my next article.

Meanwhile, the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire which killed 71 people continue to be given the predictable bureaucratic run-around (many are still in temporary accommodation), and the inquiry into the many regulatory failures which contributed to the fire’s severity crawls towards an equally predictable whitewash.

The Tories sought to distract from their many problems—May’s weak leadership, the Brexit chaos, the knifing epidemic, the part played by Russian money and Cambridge Analytica in the pro-Brexit side of the referendum campaign, the cash-starved NHS, the growing homelessness crisis, and so on– by joining the blustering Orange Swindler’s reckless and futile missile strike on Syria.  Assad’s strategy and his capacity to wage civil war will not be affected by this missile attack, and it has been supported by only 25% of the British public.

The concerted attempt, using accusations of “antisemitism”, to silence the UK left on Palestine, has succeeded to some extent– the Tories have now drawn level with Labour in the latest opinion poll.

Bread and circuses is of course the age-old way to boost the morale of those blighted by a broken-down social order.

Ukania’s upcoming royal wedding is exactly what’s needed, since as a matter of historical record royal weddings provide a lift in the opinion polls for whichever party is in power (as Americans say: “go figure!”).

Harry Windsor and Meghan Markle broke with tradition by not inviting politicians to their official wedding ceremony.

Just as well.

Jeremy Corbyn, staunchly anti-monarchist, always looks as though he’d rather be having a root canal than hanging out with any member of the royal family.

As for the Maybot, her formidable reputation for sucking the energy out of any room she enters would almost certainly justify a non-invitation for anything except the annual meeting of the UK Undertakers Confederation.

Harry and Meghan also broke with tradition by opening the public part of their wedding to “deserving” members of the public (brave firefighters and paramedics, survivors of attacks by bombs and vehicles used as weapons, disabled individuals struggling against the odds, and so forth).

The private part of the ceremony– a wedding reception hosted by Harry’s dad Charles Windsor– will probably have a very different kind of guest list.

These guests are likely to include the usual assortment of worthless royals, aristocratic wastrels, sports celebrities, pop musicians, Harry’s army pals, Meghan’s Hollywood pals, and for the first hour or so, the family matriarch Elizabeth Windsor.

One can only hope the entire rotten show comes tumbling down like the Berlin Wall.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.