We know that building walls of targets will not make anyone safe, but the need to feel part of a group is greater than the truth. Photo: PA/Prospect composite

The fantasy of Theresa May's immigration target

Irrational nationalism demands that we rebuild our sense of shared truth
June 5, 2017

We will build a wall made up of policies and immigration controls, of numbers in the “tens of thousands.” Once erected, it will fortify a landscape of faintly dappled Britishness, in which children will play, and nurses will once again wear caps that make them look like angels.

Theresa May probably really does believe that it is possible to build a “cohesive society” by reducing annual net migration to “the tens of thousands.” It is in her manifesto, where she also promises to ‘bear down’ on non-EU migrants. Many people—including all university vice chancellors, the CBI and the Institute of Directors and, allegedly, some of her cabinet—think not. Even the laziest of PPE undergraduates will tell you that the economic consequences of an arbitrary, uncosted, setting of migration figures are probably not going to be good. Some are asking when taking back control came to mean signing up to the numerological fantasies of a suicide cult.

Fantasy is precisely what we need to understand here. We’ve underestimated the strength of fantasy in our political culture over the past year. Throwing reason at blatant unreason has proved as effective as smashing rotten tomatoes at a blank wall. Reason is not sticking. This isn’t just about falsehoods and fake news. It is about a limen of unreason that has got into our democracy and is putting one of its core principles to the test: reasoned consent to government.

Tony Blair popped up early in the election campaign to argue, not unreasonably, that the public needed educating about what is true about migration and what is deluded. This is what rational democracies do: they make sure everyone knows enough about important things to have an opinion. In the magic kingdom, this seems unlikely to work as a strategy. The fantasy knitting together the dream of ‘social cohesion’ is too strong: numbers, meaning people, must be controlled. “We will, therefore, continue to bear down on immigration…”

We have been here before, in this twilight zone, where borders are believed to keep people safe, delusions turn brutal and democracies falter. In the years before the last century’s refugee ‘crisis’ turned genocidal, Europe witnessed an unprecedented influx of migrants and refugees. The Paris George Orwell lived in in the late 1920s, for instance, absorbed the biggest concentration of refugees, migrants and dissidents in inter-war Europe. France had opened its borders to those fleeing poverty, persecution and war from the pogroms of the East, from Soviet Russia, North Africa, Turkey, Greece, and Armenia with an enthusiasm unrivalled in Europe—not least to meet growing labour demands. Paris was also a world leader in the policing and documenting of migrants. By 1940, the central record hall contained over 1.6 million files, and 2.6 million index cards, a handy, and now infamous, resource for the deportations and murders that followed the Nazi occupation.

As Orwell, as well as Hannah Arendt, herself a refugee, and the French philosopher and mystic, Simone Weil, understood, a new kind of vulnerability had emerged in the world: a geopolitical, existential and psychic uprootedness that was shaping the lives of the supposedly securely nationalized rights-rich as much as those of the displaced and homeless. “Whoever is uprooted himself uproots others,” Weil warned de Gaulle when they were both in exile in Britain, working out a new future for the Free French. This is what the combined force of war, colonialism and capitalism did, Weil argued—it uprooted people in the same way as it dug out minerals and resources from the earth. And because the spoils of conquest are always unevenly distributed, the result was not only ravaged communities, but rage. (In his brilliantly harrowing recent book, The Age of Anger, Pankaj Mishra has updated Weil’s insight to explain the bitter ressentiment, and nihilistic violence, of our own age.)

Both Arendt and Orwell also understood that uprootedness was to do with power, money and acquisition. It was not the migrants or refugees on the doorstep that were the problem—they, after all, were merely the first casualties, the unwilling shock troops of a greater war—but an international political immorality that didn’t seem able to stop itself. This is where the question of fantasy, or, as Orwell and Arendt both understood it, political lying, becomes important in terms of understanding how irrational nationalisms get to flourish.

The dangerous thing about living in a political culture that openly trades in lies and fancies is not that we are duped. We all know that two plus two will never make five, no matter what we might be persuaded to say. The danger is that we no longer have a sense of shared truth. This is the “organised loneliness” that Arendt wrote of in The Origins of Totalitarianism. The original title of Nineteen Eighty-Four was The Last Man in Europe. When you live the lie of a political system that cannot own up to its own violence, genuine political—and moral—community vanishes.

So you make up a version of community instead, which will, perforce, be a lie. Nationalism, Orwell argued in 1945, is the political doctrine of the delusional fantasist. “Every nationalist is capable of the most flagrant dishonesty, but he is also—since he is conscious of serving something bigger than himself—unshakeably certain of being in the right.” It is not so much that the nationalist doesn’t know that two plus two cannot equal five, but the desire to live in a coherent fiction, to banish vulnerability, means that he doesn’t care whether it does or not.

This is also why “flagrant dishonesty” about migration is so powerful: we know that building walls of targets will not make anyone safe, but the panicked desire to identify with a group, and for that group to feel itself to somehow be right, is greater. Fiction not only substitutes for reality; it takes its place.

Orwell, of course, had his own, often suspect, version of English patriotism with which to steady his generation's vertigo. If some of its imagery is past its sell-by date, the desire for a genuine political democracy is certainly not. Promising to build walls of numbers to keep migrants out is a perversion of this desire, and is what makes our current politics cynical as well as delusional.

In The Lion and the Unicorn, Orwell gently disparaged the “naked democracy of the swimming pools”: the new discourses and institutions of equality that were blotting out the England of his youth. Nearly eighty years on, perhaps, we need a new commitment to ‘naked democracy’—or naked equality—to counter the suicidal delusions of a lonely, impotent nationalism. It is, after all, not in walls of numbers that we find our collective humanity, but in the late night cries of the children’s or dementia ward; on the beach; by the municipal pool.