A city, like a language, is a living record of all that made it; generations of human constructions and innovations that together create a public space that knits us together in shared codes. Both revolve around formal historical centers but are animated and refreshed by peripheral slang undergrounds of experimentation. They swell and shift as waves of migration bring in new words, changing neighborhoods. Cities, like languages, are constantly evolving: slang can be as transient as an architectural flourish, or can become permanent—a new standard; accents and aesthetics shift slowly and irreversibly, and though the rate of change is imperceptible, you know it’s happening. Cities and languages are built collectively and become the place where we exist together. Neither has any meaning without other people, yet we each have our own, unique, literacy. We read each in our own way. The pleasure of knowing a hidden spot in a city is the same as choosing the perfect word for the moment.
I have not lived in London for ten years. From where I am staying now it looks like Neo-Tokyo: a nightscape of glass towers and construction cranes tipped with red warning lights for passing helicopters. An inconstant constellation of new capital that now lights our night sky.
I can’t sleep at night. The silence is keeping me awake. The sun does not rise here until 8 AM, I’ve already been on Twitter for an hour. It doesn’t stop. But that’s why I’m here: I had to get out of my algorithm.
In the UK’s coming election there will be 3,429 candidates competing in 650 parliamentary constituencies of a median size of 56,000. In each a unique social fabric and a single choice. On December 12 voters will choose between the known quantity of the Conservative establishment, and the unknown of the Labour Party, between a hard-right collection of elite interests and the far-left economic proposals of a party wrenched from two decades of Blairite centrism by Jeremy Corbyn. In each constituency people will be calibrating their judgments against the spectrum of emotions surrounding Brexit; generations of psycho-social constructions about race, history, and gender; years of partisan media messaging and the ever-increasing atomization of opinion on social media.
On the plane I thought I would be touching down in a country primed for a revolution. Or, at least, a city with a little excitement. But London has always been a dark, quiet, private city. That never changes.
What greeted me at the airport was BP, its generous, green advertising vista reassuring us that the fossil fuel giant has renewables in the pipeline. Journeying into London the constant advertising sings a happy chorus of a green city of upcycled art, biodegradable plastic, low-emissions cycling, sustainable fashion, recycled Coca-Cola, and renewable energies.
In Cairo, the drive to the airport had been an altogether lazier advertorial experience. An overpass cuts through the city under billboard after billboard. Billboards squatting on top of crumbling buildings, billboards craning up from destroyed neighborhoods, new billboards erected on top of old billboards: all with the same offer of verdant gated housing compounds for the elite to flee the multiplying masses of the collapsing city.
In both cities, the advertisers are selling salvation.
One might think the same should be true of politics—but the Conservative Party have laid out their pitch and it is a simple one: Get Brexit Done. It is, I am not exaggerating, the only talking point Boris Johnson, the leader of the party, has. The phrase appears thirty-three times in their party manifesto. The words are written on the side of their campaign bus. The Conservatives know that, after nine years of immiserating power, they cannot offer salvation, other than from the European Union.
Corbyn’s radicalized Labour Party, on the other hand, has published an election manifesto that reads like a messianic text and could truly be transformative—not just for Britain, but the world. In it, the party lays out plans for a Green Industrial Revolution; a massive expansion of public spending on health and education; the nationalization of energy, rail, mail, water and broadband; an end to the “hostile environment” for migrants; and an official audit of Britain’s colonial crimes. They, too, are offering to “get Brexit done,” by offering a second referendum with a re-negotiated exit deal on the ballot.
We can read London’s skyline as the prologue to the Book of Brexit. It is the physical manifestation of an ideology that saw 478 libraries close while unpunished bankers bailed out with public money built glass towers in the sky. From north to south we can read the dogma of economic austerity as blocks of council flats are replaced by luxury investments. And to the northwest, our most painful symbol of fiscal violence, its ruins still standing two years after the fire: Grenfell Tower.
On October 30 Jeremy Corbyn wore a green tie to Parliament in memory of those who died in the fire. Conservative members of Parliament, on the other side of the chamber, laughed and jeered at the bright green color. They had no idea what it symbolized. Relatives of the dead were in the public gallery that day.
Six days later, Jacob Rees-Mogg, a prominent Conservative Minister, said those who had died in the fire had lacked “common sense.”
Not according to the Fire Brigades Union:
As Mayor of London, Johnson pushed through the biggest cuts in the London Fire Brigade’s history, closing fire stations and axing firefighter jobs, leading to a deadly increase in response times . . . Austerity has ravaged public service, leaving them desperately underfunded and facing privatisation.
And yet what I see from this window is a river of money flowing toward me, pouring out from the city in towers of transnational capital—the Gherkin, the Shard, the Walkie Talkie, Vauxhall Tower, Nine Elms—a rippling spine of buildings rolling out from the center like a shockwave in steel. The one they call the Walkie Talkie expands as it rises, flexing outward in a glass concave that, when it first opened, reflected and focused sunlight so intensely that it burned the parked cars below.
London, which built itself by prying open protectionist territories to its products, is now being hollowed out by an internationalized world market of its own creation. Londoners, today, are the ones being forced from their homes as a new city grows of buildings built not for living in, but, in Boris Johnson’s words, as “safety deposit boxes in the sky.”
What happens to a city when it is not built for living in?
Growing up in London, the discovery of new slang was a weekly thrill. As I ventured farther from home and later out into the night I would absorb the new language of the city at parties, bus stops, and nightclubs. Prang, cotch, safe, blud, dark. We would pass weekend nights on train platforms, learning to inhale in dark parks and looking for house parties. Bare, fit, tonk, peng, chirps. Words from hip-hop, from Jamaica, from UK garage music, words that became central to the style of the city, to being young in public in the strange drift of the early Blair years. Jack, chat, step, fine. It felt, then, that were we to remain teenagers, we would soon have our own distinct language, entirely incomprehensible to the adults.
I thought, too, that when I grew older I would no longer understand the city’s language. That the beats of the future would be as incomprehensible to me as drum ‘n’ bass to my mother, that the city would wear a new lexical snakeskin—shiny, fresh, full of charm and warning.
But, the strange thing is, nothing really changed.
Garage became grime, dubstep went mainstream, and techno conquered the world while the words of the ’90s became fixtures in the language. Cinema became a looping carousel of fantasy and superheroes, fashion froze, television peaked then turned to classic reruns. The dominant cultural mode became one of kitsch and self-reference, while the commercially avant-garde was confined to technology.
Between 1950 and 1999 the Oxford English Dictionary added 53,417 new words. Between the year 2000 and today, only 593 neologisms have been officially recorded—a notable deceleration. Oxford’s English is growing at about 20 percent of its previous speed, with wholly one third of the language’s expansion from the world of tech.
Is it any wonder that in a century dominated by surveillance, paranoia, terrorism, rendition, financial collapse, and hard borders our language has retreated? Our reality, for years now, has been of individual survival under austerity; the erasure of the public in a city of stagnating wages that in eight years lost half its youth centers and half its nightclubs and saw them replaced with sterile glass towers. One by one London’s houses, monuments, newspapers, and artworks are being eaten up by the searching, liquid capital of Indian steel tycoons and Arab petrolords and Russian disaster capitalists. Of course the language has stopped growing: where are we even supposed to talk to each other now?
Between 1950 and 1999, 148 new words officially arrived in the dictionary from the Caribbean (though, of course, many more actually took root). That’s an average of three a year. Between the years 2000 and 2019 only one new word was registered.
In 1948 the Empire Windrush arrived to Tilbury docks with 492 immigrants from Kingston, Jamaica—the first of a wave of arrivals responding to the invitation to help rebuild the battered nation and granted automatic citizenship by the concurrent passing of the British Nationality Act.
In 2012, Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May introduced the Hostile Environment Policy. “The aim,” she said, “is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.”
In her book on the policy, Maya Goodfellow explains:
The government began to create this hostile environment, stitching immigration checks into every element of people’s lives. Through measures brought in by the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts, a whole host of professionals—from landlords and letting agents to doctors and nurses—were turned into border guards. Regardless of how removed their profession was from the world of immigration policy, the threat of being fined or sentenced to jail time loomed over them if they failed to carry out checks to ensure people they encountered through their work were in the country legally. But they had it easy in comparison to migrants without the right documents, who could lose access to housing, bank accounts, healthcare and even be deported.
The Hostile Environment reached its public apex with the Windrush Scandal, in which it was revealed that men and women who had arrived in the UK in the postwar period of Commonwealth citizenship were being targeted by the government, that at least eighty-three people had been deported, an estimated five thousand had found themselves homeless or unemployed and up to fifty-seven thousand subjected to harassment. People who had arrived in Britain in the post-war years had not been given immigration documents. The only record of their arrival were Landing Cards, which the Home Office had chosen to destroy in 2010.
“We are not here to make life easy for you,” said an official in an immigration reporting center to a man facing deportation. “It’s a challenging environment we have got to make for people. It’s working because it’s pissing you off. Am I right? There you go. That’s my aim at the end of the day, to make it a challenging environment for you. It’s pissing you off. You’re telling me it’s pissed you off. There you go, I’ve done my job.”
Capitalism, they used to say, is a tide that lifts us all. They don’t use that metaphor anymore, in our age of drowning.
I can count forty-seven cranes from here. The river of money coalesces, for now, at Battersea Power Station—a majestic combination of twin brick coal-fired power stations. When it was completed, in 1955, it was the largest building in Europe. When it closed, in 1983, it became the locus of three decades of property speculation as designs were drawn up and discarded for a theme park; hotels, offices; nightclubs; malls; and a football stadium with backers from the US, Hong Kong, and Ireland buying in and dropping out until a pair of Malaysian developers bought the site at auction in 2012. Not long later, the sky filled with cranes as they set to work constructing a vast housing and shopping complex with a new square at its center: Malaysia Square.
I imagine that this is the first time an ex-subject has been given naming rights in the old imperial capital.
Empire lives on in the city in countless ways: the state schools, train networks, major hospitals, canalworks, public library system, street lighting, the Thames Embankment, and the London sewage system were all triumphs of the era of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India. The bailout of 2008 may have shaped London’s skyline, but the bailout of 1833 is threaded more deeply through the sinews of the country. In order to slowly wind down the practice of slavery in the Empire the government took out a loan of £15 million—40 percent of annual income—and set about paying reparations to slave-owners: new money that was then worked back into the UK, building upscale neighborhoods of Fitzrovia and Belgravia, underwriting the national fever for railways, in artworks and sculpture and the expanding merchant banking system. British taxpayers continued to pay off the loan until 2015.
Ten days before the election a new London bank vault announced itself to the public. “We won’t deal with millionaires” the director proudly declared. “Only billionaires.”
International Bank Vaults, which is owned by South African multimillionaire Ashok Sewnarain, said it was opening the London vault owing to increased demand from the world’s wealthiest people fearing a possible reaction against rising inequality . . . The wealthy also fear the possible impact of the climate crisis, and are increasingly storing their wealth in gold bars.
In 2004 there was one food bank in the UK. In 2019 there are 2,040. Sixty thousand children were given charity food supplies in London last year. Around them, international finance flows. The world capital pulls in dirty money looking for a safe home and pulses out exploratory capital hungry for risk and profit. Active money leaves the city and dormant money arrives.
The map of Who Owns England, assembled by the author Guy Shrubsole and the data scientist Anna Powell-Smith, is a striking visualization. The properties in red are owned by offshore companies.
Beginning in the late 1950s, the British Overseas Territories of the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, and Montserrat were developed by London’s bankers as sites through which to run offshore trades. The Empire lives on in the capital, as dark money loops back into politics and property, often disguised in the language of nationalism.
We can see it clearly in the arch-Brexiteers like Rees-Mogg, whose hard-right nativism is underwritten by colonial internationalism. His investment firm boasts of a “geographically unconstrained fund” managed by subsidiaries in the Cayman Islands. Its top ten holdings are Maruti Suzuki; a South Korean semi-conductor supplier; a Chinese liquor company; an Indian mortgage lender; a Chilean drink manufacturer; an Eastern European, Russian and Gulf Arab bank; a Brazilian insurance company; and a Russian retail group. In one version of Brexit the UK simply ends up a corporate tax haven. As Philip Hammond, speaking as chancellor of the Exchequer when Brexit negotiations were ongoing with the EU, bluntly put it:
I personally hope we will be able to remain in the mainstream of European economic and social thinking. But if we are forced to be something different, then we will have to become something different.
We could be forced to change our economic model, and we will have to change our model to regain competitiveness. And you can be sure we will do whatever we have to do.
In preparation for Brexit, Rees-Mogg fund set up a second office in Dublin, so as not to be cut off from European investors.
Before the redevelopment began, you could see all the way to the Houses of Parliament from where I am writing. Now the construction surrounding Battersea Power Station obstructs the view. They have restored the old coal cranes that stand watch over the river Thames.
Some months ago, for the first time since 1882, Britain passed an entire week without using coal. The price of renewables drops year on year. We are now within touching distance of it being cheaper to build new wind and solar than it is to maintain existing thermal plants. 79 percent of European coal generators—undercut by renewable competitors—are already running at a loss. Even by conservative International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates, renewables will match coal outputs within five years. Portugal just set a record low-cost bid for photovoltaic power at its first solar auction. A landmark new report (again, from the conservative IEA), declared that offshore wind has the capacity to meet the entire world’s energy demands eleven times over.
We are at an energy crossroads, and the UK electorate has a clear choice.
Returning the Conservative Party to power would be environmentally disastrous. This is the party that subsidizes fossil fuel companies, has banned crucial renewables while encouraging fracking, proposes timelines to emissions reductions that are two decades too slow, has weakened environmental regulations and blocked crucial legislation, has routinely invested in carbon-intensive areas while denying funding to research, and has maintained a thirty year oil-for-weapons symbiosis with Saudi Arabia.
Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution, on the other hand, promises a massive investment in renewables; jobs and re-training; research; infrastructure efficiency; transportation; urban renewal; animal welfare; and nature conservation that promises not only to meet carbon targets but to revive de-industrialized towns and decentralize power and funding from Westminster toward regional environmental initiatives. The party has laid out plans to impose major taxes on oil companies and to regulate major, transnational polluters by threatening to de-list them from the London Stock Exchange if they don’t meet new criteria.
The Green Industrial Revolution opens the Labour Party manifesto with fourteen detailed pages of plans. It is also accompanied by a second, mini-manifesto: A Plan for Nature. Together they make the most comprehensive, most radical energy proposals ever tabled and could genuinely kick-start the global transition to a sustainable future.
This should be a single-issue election.
Steve Bannon says that he knows Boris Johnson well, has advised him on political speeches, and that Breitbart had “a lot of contact” with him during the Brexit campaign. Donald Trump has expressed his support for Johnson multiple times. Rees-Mogg has retweeted Germany’s neo-fascist AfD and spoken as guest of honor at the far-right Traditional Britain Group. The Conservatives have acted in support of the most anti-Semitic party currently in power in Europe, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz—the latest act in a well-documented history of Conservative anti-Semitism that stretches back to opposing loosening legal restrictions on British Jews in 1830.
The Conservatives have a non-competitive election pact with the Brexit Party and its leader, Nigel Farage, who is in open alliance with the far right in the US. He has made six appearances on Alex Jones’ Infowars and spoken on evangelical Christian television channels about the New World Order and the Great Replacement Theory—white supremacist ideas that have triggered terrorist bloodshed from Christchurch to Charleston. Bannon even proposed that Farage lead a new global far-right alliance, telling him:
You and I together we help knit together this populist nationalist movement throughout the world. So we’ve got guys, cause guys in Egypt are coming to me, Modi’s guys in India, Duterte, you know, and we get Orbán, and we are somehow some sort of a convening authority.
And yet, it is not the Conservatives but the Labour Party that has been engulfed in the longest-running political crisis in memory over accusations of anti-Semitism within the party.
For four years now accusations have been hurled at the party of institutional anti-Semitism. The charges range from Corbyn himself being an anti-Semite, to the party leadership being obstructionist in disciplinary hearings on accusations of anti-Semitism, to claims that the massive influx of new members under Corbyn’s leadership brought with it a flood of anti-Semites who have created a toxic atmosphere. The accusations have been met with as many rebuttals, resulting in what Rachel Shabi has described, painfully, as an “anti-Semitism arms race,” a zero-sum game in which Corbyn’s Labour is either entirely corrupt or completely blameless.1
There is little doubt that there are anti-Semites within the 500,000 members of the Labour Party, as there are across British society. But when Labour should have reacted with openness and urgency to the highlighted cases they instead doubled down and became defensive while supporters cited establishment media bias, intra-party sabotage, partisan sidelining of Conservative racism and referring constantly to their improving internal processes.
After thousands of stories over four years the public now returns polling results suggesting that a third of Labour members have been perceived as anti-Semitic, while Corbyn’s defenders argue that the number is much closer to the 0.1 percent of the membership that have actually been sanctioned.
Clearly there is a stark gap between statistical data and emotional perception. It is in that gap where Labour have most resolutely failed. By not being seen to act urgently and emotionally the party has allowed space for doubt to creep in, which has created a feedback loop of increasing suspicion and an ever-deeper bunker mentality in response.
The launch of Labour’s Race & Faith Manifesto was held in a performing arts center in Tottenham, North London, named after Bernie Grant, one of the first Black MPs. Outside stood a handful of activists carrying placards that read Anti Zionism is Anti Semitism and Racist Corbyn unfit to be PM. Parked on the street were three red advertising vans—that drive around with billboards on them—each with an anti-Corbyn slogan. Keep Antisemisitm out of Downing Street.
One man—older, Black—approached the protesters.
“What evidence do you have that Corbyn’s an anti-Semite?”
“He’s going to ban circumcision and kosher and halal.”
“So this isn’t about his support for Palestine?”
“What do you mean?”
“Where’s Palestine, sorry?”
“Oh you’re gonna start with colonialism, are you?”
Another protester, a middle-aged man, stepped toward the conversation, his finger raised. “Israel” he said, pointing his finger: “Israel.”
The national press were gathered inside the Bernie Grant Centre, cameras on tripods placed in the front row, obscuring the view for the central seats of the auditorium. Members of the Labour Party drifted in, candidates in the elections and their campaign staff, weathered activists. It was half an hour past the announced start time when a small choir of six young people took up positions and started singing “Stand By Me,” moved through “Lean on Me,” and segued into Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin ‘Bout A Revolution.” The choir tried to bring in the audience, someone had a whistle, there were some half-hearted, very British, attempts at clapping.
But in the climate of extreme tension over race and racism in the country the tone felt deeply uncomfortable. The choir implored people to sing “It’s time for Labour, Labour, Labour.”
The proceedings began with a video. Shots of racially variegated Britons with the voice of Dawn Butler—the Labour MP—laid on top:
If you are in social housing, if you are LGBT+, if you are straight, if you are a traveler, if you struggle to pay the rent, if you wear a hijab, turban, cross, if you are Black, white, Asian, if you are disabled, if you are old, if you are young, if you don’t have a trust fund, if you didn’t go to Oxbridge, if you are working class, if you are under 18 . . .
I felt something like panic set in as it became clear there would not be any mention of Jewish people. The monologue went on for a whole minute. Nothing.
David Lammy, the popular MP, took the stage and welcomed everyone to the “most diverse postcode in the country.” He was followed by a Muslim housing rights activist, a Sikh MP, a Black barbershop owner, and Diane Abbott, the first female Black MP. Finally, a representative of the Jewish experience took the stage: Sir Alf Dubs, migrant activist and the most famous refugee arrival on the Kindertransport. Dubs is a venerable and significant figure. But he breezed over the question of anti-Semitism, saying only that it should have been dealt with faster.
At an event that was intended to celebrate the Labour Party’s capacity for empathy, the party personalized and narrativized Black, Muslim and Sikh experiences while skirting the concerns of Jewish people.
Then Corbyn took the stage.
For months, years even, people have been waiting for a direct, personal, emotional speech from Corbyn in which he lays out his history of activism; his support for justice in Palestine; his opposition to apartheid, to the Iraq War, to Pinochet, and so on. In which he speaks about his long, recorded history of standing with Jewish people—from standing against a neo-Nazi march in Wood Green in 1977, to the twenty motions he signed in Parliament against various forms of anti-Semitism, or the decades of anti-fascist and anti-neo-Nazi positions he’s taken not only in Westminster but on the streets.
Just over a decade ago, when Barack Obama was under heavy fire in the press for his relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama gave the defining speech of his candidacy, in Philadelphia. First, he neutralized the question of Wright with an eloquent ten-minute discussion of the nature of the Black church, the complexities of Reverend Wright not relayed by the media, his own grandmother’s passing suspicion of Black men, and how they are all constituent and necessary parts of the experiences that made him who he is today. It was masterful, and could have stopped there. But, instead, Obama went on, transcending the position of candidate to become presidential, facing head on the fundamental question of race in the United States and, finally, offering himself up as the redeemer for the nation’s original sin.
We have waited for the same from Corbyn. The stage is set for a similarly transformative public intervention that lays out Britain’s colonial past and traces how it continues to manifest itself today, that engages with the question of Palestine as one that requires an urgent solution—not only for Britain’s historical responsibility as the imperial steward of early Zionism within its broader anti-Ottoman maneuverings but as a necessary precursor to any sustainable future—and that explains the vast difference between opposing Israel’s actions and harboring racist feelings against Jewish people.
But the speech did not come. Perhaps his inner circle thinks that it is pointless, that the attacks will continue regardless, and so they focus instead on positive policies. Corbyn has been attacked throughout his career—and has pressed on regardless. As he has gotten closer to power the attacks have increased exponentially—and he has pressed on. Instead of providing the televised mea culpa needed for a redemption, he just presses on.
This failure to speak emotionally about anti-Semitism—whether in the world or his own party—was thrown into sharp counterpoint when Corbyn was asked a question from the press about Islamophobia: he slowed down, took a breath, and went into a heartfelt story about the imam of Finsbury Park Mosque and his incredible bravery when he defended the white, car-ramming, terrorist from the mob after his attack.
The Iraq War began when I was 17, and as I emerged into adulthood in London I found myself circling questions of narrative and experience. I remember thinking that if people were as culturally familiar with Arab or Palestinian or Iraqi lives as they were with American suburban ones, then wars would be much harder to wage. Later I would learn the word for that idea is “representation.”
In 2011 I settled in Cairo, where the revolution’s politics sidelined questions of identity and culture in favor of mass mobilization, macro-economics, and geopolitics. At the time, it felt obvious: first the regime would be defeated, then a new culture would be built. In hindsight, these absences created crucial weaknesses: questions of gender were deprioritized, so when sexual attacks began on protesters the Left was deeply divided as to both cause and response; nationalism and patriotism were never challenged, which maintained the emotional bridge for the military coup to come; minority concerns were bundled into a One Nation fervor and forgotten, mutating later into a full-scale insurgency in Sinai; meaningful international solidarity was sidestepped to avoid accusations of being unpatriotic, and our national struggles remain divided to this day.
Two years after the military coup my partner and I were living in New York, where the issue of representation was in full force. We watched #OscarsSoWhite in a gentrifying bar in Bushwick and debated the position of class in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s writing and held our breath as the city fell silent on the night of Donald Trump’s election. The next night, sitting with two friends with tears in their eyes, I recognized their feeling exactly from post-coup Cairo: what is this place? Who are these people that we live among?
So here we are, back at the Bernie Grant Arts Centre, listening to the moving, personalized narrative of the brave imam of Finsbury Park Mosque. Generations of effort to elevate the experiences of migrants and minorities have built to this moment, to the possibility of these narratives taking over government, to a political manifesto that promises to “conduct an audit of the impact of Britain’s colonial legacy.”
And, yet, it is a bitter pill because this one experience is either being held up—in the best case—to the exclusion of another or—in the worst—in competition with it.
When I leave the event I feel at a loss. I wander around Tottenham for hours, working it over. Was the event just tone deaf? After four years of attacks? After years, as Muslims, as Black people, as the ones who watched Tony Blair and George Bush returned to power, who have watched our people drown in the Mediterranean, who have been so collectively vilified for so long that we sometimes struggle to recognize ourselves—are we now supposed to do the same thing to British Jews—to ignore their fears, to denarrativize them, to sideline them as political opposition?
How well can a person who is not Jewish understand the word anti-Semitism? They will never understand it fully, but they could likely understand it more. I turn to April Rosenblum’s powerful 2007 pamphlet, The Past Didn’t Go Anywhere. Anti-Semitism, she argues, is different from other racisms because:
Anti-Semitism’s job is to make ruling classes invisible. It protects ruling class power structures, diverting anger at injustice toward Jews instead.
Regardless of the election result, what is needed now is for non-Jews to pause and think deeply about how Jewish people must be feeling in this atmosphere, to take seriously their fears, to not dismiss them. An expansion of empathy, a deepening of language, a sharing of the city.
At the same time, it is reasonable for minorities and the disadvantaged to be extended that same empathy from the rest of the country, to understand the real and living threat an extension of Conservative rule poses.
In 1905, under the Conservative premiership of Arthur Balfour, the UK Parliament passed the Aliens Act, creating the first official law anywhere restricting immigration. After years of low-level Jewish immigration as men and women fled pogroms, the Pale of Settlement, and increasing Russian restrictions therein, there was a building crescendo of white panic over the new arrivals.
That agitation will be familiar to anyone who reads the newspapers today. Immigrants then, as now, were accused of taking natives’ jobs, failing to assimilate, lacking in hygiene and education. In 2016 the Daily Mail and Daily Express ran a combined average of five stories about “immigrants” per day—nearly all were negative.
At the time, Britain was primarily a source of emigration and transmigration, with rates of people leaving to the New World far higher than arrivals. But by 1905 the Gilded Age was far past its productive peak, the economy was in downturn, and Britain was being squeezed from both East and West by the rapid growth of both American and German manufacturing. Immigrants were an easy target.
In nine years the long economic cycle would come to its confrontational conclusion with the outbreak of World War I.
Twenty-three years after the first of the Windrush generation arrived in the UK, the country’s mood of reconstructive necessity had faded and white panic had set in. Workers from Jamaica and India had made lives and had children and clearly were not planning on going “home.” Postwar modernization had slowed; housing was in short supply; the reconstructed export economies of West Germany, France, Japan, and Italy were outpacing British products; previously secure markets were being lost to decolonization; the Sterling was overvalued and the government was laissez-faire.
In response, a rising pitch of blame was directed at “immigrants.” Once again, the press were focused and relentlessly negative. Once again, there were actually more people leaving the country than staying as people left Britain for Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. And, once again, a new Immigration Act was passed, ending automatic citizenship for members of the Commonwealth.
In eight years the postwar economic chapter would come to a decisive end with the election of Margaret Thatcher and, the year after, Ronald Reagan.
In 2012, with British exports decimated by competition with the Global South and the government dogmatically committed to deficit-reduction by dramatically slashing public services attention was turned toward “immigrants” with Theresa May’s Hostile Environment policy.
Now, seven years later, our economic chapter—which we could define as austerity’s long epilogue to the crash of 2008—is coming to a close. And, once again, immigrants and refugees are paying the price.
Jeremy Corbyn’s lifelong commitment to anti-imperialism undeniably put him on the right side of history in opposing the Iraq War. He has held principled positions against apartheid in South Africa and Israel and has been a tireless backbencher for decades. Reading about Corbyn, one sentence appears in the record again and again: “The only two MPs who stood with us were Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell [Corbyn’s Shadow Chancellor].”
From the Fire Brigades Union, disability campaigners, anti-Pinochet Chileans, housing activists, LGBT activists, to student strikers there are many issues that Corbyn’s moral compass got right long before the rest of Parliament caught up.
That unswervingness, however, has limitations, and an anti-imperialism that calculates its positions solely in relation to American hegemony (or its lapdog, Blairism) may not be suited to the multipolar realities of a world which has changed dramatically since the failed marches of 2003. Though we have seen the clear (re)emergence of Russia and China as global players there remains a strand of thinking on the Left—of which Corbyn and his key advisers are clearly part of—that simply refuses to see Russia as a hostile actor even though it has taken over as the principal power broker in the Middle East, it is occupying Syria, it has troops in Libya, it has annexed Crimea, it goes toe-to-toe with NATO at every opportunity, it has a sophisticated disinformation program and a record of electoral interference from Estonia to the USA, it regularly assassinates political exiles and clearly plays a coordinating and financing role within the emerging networks of far-right groups competing for political power around the world.
In 2015 German Chancellor Angela Merkel opened her country’s doors to refugees fleeing war, an act of compassion that was immediately followed by a surge in the Russian bombing campaign of Syria—an intensification designed to drive refugees into Europe. As in the 1900s, Russia drove refugees West across the continent to be met with panic and quickly tightening borders. Only now, after one hundred years of border regimes, Vladimir Putin is wagering that some three million people might be enough to bring down the entire European project.
Part of Corbyn’s anti-Atlantic imperialism is a commitment to anti-interventionism. Again, in Iraq, the moral validity of that position is beyond doubt. But the judgment of history on the Bosnian war is heavier: civilians were begging for help in the face of imminent slaughter and abstention from the West was a key decision on the road to Srebrenica.
The judgment on Syria will be similar. As red lines were removed, Assad advanced. As it became clear there would be no reaction, Russian and Iranian troops flooded the power vacuum. The slaughter has been relentless. Years of appeal for help have fallen on deaf ears. As late as 2018 Corbyn was writing articles placing the crimes of Bashar al-Assad in parallel with “western-backed” armed opposition. I can understand why the Syrians will not forgive him.
Corbyn’s anti-Atlantic imperialism is likely what was behind his notorious introduction of members of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”—a word that has sat at the heart of the accusations of anti-Semitism. Again, what has been absent in the 5,500 newspaper articles published on the topic in the last five years, is any mention of what Hamas or Hezbollah represent to the people of Gaza or Southern Lebanon—where they run complex but undemocratic regimes that manage to be simultaneously unpopular and accepted as a necessity because they are organized enough to defend their territories—and how they might feel about a word such as “friend.”
From a Yemeni perspective, Corbyn’s stated opposition to arms sales to Saudi Arabia would be welcome. The bombing sorties which have induced the world’s deepest famine and worst cholera epidemic in modern times would currently be impossible without British military support.
After the election I will return to Cairo. We know what a Johnson victory will mean: clear and unbending support for the Sisi dictatorship. And Corbyn? Cairo is a crossroads of international intrigue with every major power invested in the new regime. Sisi has taken out eye-watering public debts to diversify the country’s imports—buying more weapons from France than any other state, signing the largest deal in the history of Germany’s Siemens, and inking contracts for a Russian nuclear reactor. How would Corbyn’s anti-Atlanticism translate in this case?
Or, more importantly, how could a Green Industrial Revolution translate the case altogether?
The arrival of decentralized, renewable energy supplies will radically alter the status quo across the world. In North Africa / West Asia, control of hydro-carbon resources is a defining feature of the Algerian military regime; the Libyan fragmentation; the intra-Sudanese hostility; Turkish military posturing in the Eastern Mediterranean; Kurdistani territorial suppression; Saudi Arabia’s vast proxy network of ideologues and reactionaries; the Saudi-Iranian cold war; Trump’s “take the oil” Syria policy; Emirati and Qatari proto-imperialism; the destruction of Iraq; and the Azeri, Kazakh, Turkmen and Uzbek dictatorships.
Energy democracy has the potential to transform our entire world.
On October 27, 2018 a 46-year-old white male entered the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and opened fire. He believed that members of the synagogue had been helping people (“immigrants”) enter the country, that they were part of a conspiracy to undermine the white race. He believed in the “Great Replacement” theory cited by Farage and so many others. He killed eleven people.
I turn us, again, to April Rosenblum, who wrote this on the massacre’s first anniversary:
Today, white nationalist violence is speeding up toward so many of us. Like black communities in Charleston and Jeffersontown, Muslims in Quebec City and Christchurch, and Mexican Americans in El Paso, Jews are grappling with how to achieve safety . . .
Two things are clear to me. First, we can only get through this together. Jews can only survive this with our many allies from other targeted groups fighting at our sides — and we need to realize that anyone who targets our allies is no real friend of ours. Second, no top-down solution will be enough to fix this.
Luckily, one of the best ways to fight anti-Semitism is also free and accessible to all. It’s one of the simplest tools we have, and it can preempt attacks: We need to talk openly about how inequality works.
1,162 people have drowned in the Mediterranean this year. Thirty-nine people suffocated to death in a truck east of London. Four men and one woman have drowned in the English channel. One man’s body, long dead, fell out of the landing gear of an inbound plane. A thirty minute walk from where I’m writing.
The Mediterranean is only the beginning. We are pulling up the drawbridges, we will let whole countries drown. Race is being weaponized in every direction and—one way or another—anti-Semitism is going to disguise the ruling classes. The Conservatives are a genuine, known and open threat to every minority in this country and to the planet as a whole. They are the greater threat to Jewish people because they are in open alliance with stated anti-Semites in the European and American far right, they are in an electoral pact with Britain’s ultra-nationalists. If they win the election, a small portion of the Left will blame Jewish people, a larger portion will blame the media and the handling of the anti-Semitism crisis, which will further fracture people at the moment they need to be most physically coherent. A rise in far right street violence will accompany Johnson’s election as surely as it followed his newspaper articles.
The neoliberal consensus, Third Way capitalism, post-Thatcherism—however we define our economic chapter, it is clear that it is collapsing. We are in the interregnum—but what will rise in its place? Further concentration of wealth at the top, massive expansion of surveillance, police powers, and population-control technologies as the earth is strip-mined for its final generations of resources? Or something new? A future in which we harness our technological capacity, drive our political will, and expand our empathetic abilities to take on financial, racial, gender and energy inequality?
Parliamentary politics is just one part of a change that will require all of our commitment. To build a world free of inequality will not come about through Acts of Parliament only, but through acts of collective will as we fundamentally re-shape the way we live together.
One party is guaranteed to increase inequality, the other has staked its entire raison d’être on its reduction. John McDonnell says it the simplest. Labour will engineer an “irreversible shift in wealth and power in favor of working people.”
London is a city of red warning lights on glass towers and red voting districts on electoral maps. A city built in the colonies that now has a Khan for mayor. A city that prides itself on stability that’s long been a home for radicals and their ideas. London is a symbol of both the enduring injustices of empire and their possible reparations: the metropole that now speaks three hundred languages is also the capital of a country at war with itself over its place in the world and its position in history, a country caught in a vise of stasis—cultural, economic, historical—held in place by political dogma. December 12 is a choice between that dogma and Labour’s environmental socialism, a choice that will stretch far into the future and well beyond Brexit and Britain’s borders. And it is this, in the end, that is the most enduring injustice of empire and the starkest responsibility of its inheritors: that the votes of some few thousand people in a handful of parliamentary constituencies have the potential to swing the future of the entire planet.
On the issue of anti-Semitism and the Labour Party I have been grateful for the writings of a number of people and publishers, including, but not limited to: Rachel Shabi, Jewish Currents, Nadine Batchelor-Hunt, Michael Rosen, Eleanor Penny and Jamie Stern-Weiner. ↩