Notes From the Margins…

Rootless Cosmopolitans

  • April 09, 2019
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Readers of this blog will know that I’m not a great fan of the pro-Brexit Left that goes under the portmanteau Lexit.  But there are various kinds of Lexit.  There are those who make compelling and accurate criticisms of the failings of the EU that I actually agree with.  To my mind, such criticisms tend to concentrate too much on the European Union rather than its member states, and they generally ignore or dismiss the negative consequences of the process we are actually embarked upon.

If some Lexiters have effectively tried to attach a socialist trailer to a truck that is driven by the hard (ethno) nationalist right both inside and outside the UK, there is another sector that actively works alongside extreme-right figures and organisations,  and/or uses language and concepts that are often indistinguishable from the far-right.

Take the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) official Paul Embery.  Embery is an outspoken and dogmatic Lexiter.  He is also the national convenor for Trade Unionists Against the EU (TUAEU) – an organisation that received a series of donations from  Arron Banks, whose organisation Leave.EU was responsible for some of the most anti-immigrant ads produced during the referendum campaign.

Embery  has defended Banks in public and he writes for Banks’s Westmonster website.  He has also shared a platform with Nigel Farage, and like Banks and Farage, he frequently rails against  ‘mass immigration’ and ‘globalism’ albeit from a leftwing perspective.

Embery has repeatedly described immigrants and immigration as an economic and cultural threat to the (British) working class, and condemned those who defend migrants as out-of-touch elites and liberal cosmopolitans.

On Sunday Embery’s dogmatic ‘socialist-nativism’ earned him a lot of negative attention on Twitter as the result of comments he made during a debate about Freedom of Movement. The conversation began when Gary Lineker asked why anyone could think that removing FoM was a good thing, to which Embery replied:

This gobsmacking analogy was bad enough, and leaves Theresa May’s designation of EU nationals as ‘queue-jumpers’ standing.  To Embery, the men and women who come to the UK to work or study are not just jumping queues: they have taken your house keys and moved into your home.

When the folksinger Mike Harding tried to make the point that a nation is not a ‘home’ that can be broken into in this way, he received the following reply:

There is so much wrong with this, it’s difficult to know where to begin.  First of all, notice the way Embery has twisted Harding’s response to his own flawed analogy, to suggest that Harding and people like him don’t regard the UK as their home and perhaps don’t belong to it.   Then there is the use of ‘cosmopolitan’ or more specifically ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ as a derogatory term.

This usage has a pretty unedifying history.   It was used by Nazis as an antisemitic insult, to designate Jews as perpetual outsiders who were inside the nation but not part of it.  In Mein Kampf, Hitler writes:

I ceased to be a weak-kneed cosmopolitan and became an anti-Semite … at this time of bitter struggle, the streets of Vienna had provided valuable instruction.’

Cosmopolitanism was also used as an antisemitic dogwhistle by the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union after World War 2, against a variety of targets that were known or assumed to be Jewish.   Thus in 1949 Pravda declared:

An anti-patriotic group has developed in theatrical criticism. It consists of followers of bourgeois aestheticism. They penetrate our press and operate most freely in the pages of the magazine, Teatr, and the newspaper, Sovetskoe iskusstvo. These critics have lost their sense of responsibility to the people. They represent a rootless cosmopolitanism which is deeply repulsive and inimical to Soviet man. They obstruct the development of Soviet literature; the feeling of national Soviet pride is alien to them

It’s not clear whether Embery was aware of this heritage.  He denies that he was, and he may well be sincere, though ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ is such a specific and loaded expression that it’s difficult to believe that it just randomly sprung into his head.   Embery has been heavily criticised for recycling antisemitic tropes, while his defenders have repeated ad infinitum that Embery ‘doesn’t have an antisemitic bone in his body’ etc.

This is probably true.  At least I’ve never seen anything he’s written to suggest otherwise.  But what I find disturbing about his remarks is their binary division between a ‘national’ working class that is supposedly ‘rooted’ and ‘communitarian’ and ‘patriotic’, and a deracinated outsider group that doesn’t feel any sense of community or kinship with the country in which it finds itself.

David Goodhart articulated a similar distinction between ‘people from somewhere’ and ‘people from anywhere’.  And Theresa May also denounced people who regarded themselves as Citizens of the World as Citizens of Nowhere.

In all these cases, the notion that there is something suspect and even corrupt or ‘bohemian’ about those who feel kinship with the world beyond their borders, is juxtaposed with a notion of ‘identity’ fixed in a particular geographical or national space.  Is it not possible to be a citizen of the world and a citizen of your own country?   Can people who feel an attachment to the place they were born or grew up in not also feel affiliations that transcend their community?

Can you not feel part of your country and part of the world at the same time?  Has the ‘communitarian’ working class always been ‘rooted’ in the same place?   Are immigrants and the descendants of immigrants not working class too?  And if so can they belong to the communities and the country they are part of?

These are not questions that Embery has ever shown much interest in asking.  Two weeks ago John Rees from Counterfire disgracefully – and nonsensically – described the Remain march in London as the seedbed of a new fascist movement.

I beg to differ.

And I would suggest that if some kind of fascism does emerge from the political collapse that we are now witnessing, it’s more likely to come from the sectors that Embery represents, where Lexiters work alongside the likes of Nigel Farage and Arron Banks and  espouse reductive, reactionary and xenophobic notions of national identity that proclaim ‘internationalism’ on the one hand and decree certain categories of people to be permanent outsiders and enemies of the nation on the other.


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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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