As reactionary identity politics triumph, I wonder: were our years of liberal progress simply a blip?

Trump and Brexit have shocked—but we can't discount the possibility humanity is making an unwelcome return to form

August 07, 2017
Nigel Farage visits Trump Tower. Photo: PA
Nigel Farage visits Trump Tower. Photo: PA

As a self-styled progressive and socially-styled second-generation immigrant, witnessing recent political developments has been a sobering experience. (Albeit sobering in a way that makes actual sobriety next to impossible.) What once felt like my optimistic assumptions for the future now appear dangerously naïve; battles I thought my parents and grandparents had successfully fought and won seem as though they will have to be relitigated; my beliefs about the country I live in have come into stark conflict with the reality.

Importantly, this is in no way what I was promised. I am a 20-something, left-leaning member of an ethnic minority; I had been reliably informed by the Daily Mail that I was taking over. I am normally thrilled when the Mail is proven wrong, if only because it saves me from believing that everything in a three-mile radius of my flat has been engineered to give me cancer, but in this instance its inaccuracy has been galling.

Since Britain’s referendum on the European Union and the United States’s referendum on sanity, time seems to have elapsed in dog years. The two outcomes—Brexit and President Donald Trump—are seen the world over as different spasms of the same impulse, the main difference being that people in other countries see what Britain is doing to itself as hilarious, as opposed to America’s situation, which is hilarious and the apocalypse.

In the UK, we understandably seek to downplay the similarities between our current state and the predicament across the pond. Trump was elected on a campaign which rendered explicit things that were kept implicit enough during the “Leave” campaign to allow respectable types to pretend they didn’t notice them. Bigotry front and centre, we tell ourselves, is wholly different to bigotry that we feel comfortable dismissing as a regrettable aside. To acknowledge the commonalities now would be to own up to our own, comparatively genteel, Trumpism.

On both sides of the Atlantic, we are living through potentially generation-defining victories for reactionary identity politics. This is rarely spoken about and easily ignored, because the identity being asserted is the dominant one. It is, therefore, in some sense the only identity privileged enough to believe it doesn’t exist; the only identity lucky enough to go without saying.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that progressives have been blindsided by this. No-one denies that there have been tremendous changes in societal attitudes in recent decades, at least to the extent that previously mainstream views have now become socially unacceptable to air in public. A graph of my family’s time in the UK with an x-axis showing “The Year,” against a y-axis of “How Often One Of Us Gets Called A Paki On The Street” would show a definite downward trend. I’m happy about that. But I am also more concerned than I was at the beginning of last year that such changes may be a superficial distraction from stubborn structural problems.

Progress, it hardly needs saying, is not about what I deem to be nice and new. I have seen WiFi-enabled kettles and I wish to destroy them with bats. But there have been societal advances that are, surely, an unalloyed good. Among these, in the last half century, has been the hard-won widening of the assumption that humanity is an automatic qualification for certain rights and certain respect, something that does not require caveat or condition. It is this that I believe may come increasingly under threat. We now live in a weird liminal stage; I’m clueless about how things will pan out. Insisting on the inevitability of equality feels like wishful thinking; a studied pessimism seems hopelessly unproductive and unproductively hopeless.

When Britain’s nostalgic imperial fantasies come into full contact with Britain’s post-imperial reality, or when the US discovers anew that it cannot be run on white resentment, perhaps there’ll be a change of direction. But perhaps we’ll double down.

Let us hope that the victory of reactionary forces will be brief; that before long there will be a better world for all, irrespective of narrow domestic walls. I fear the darker possibility—that the decades of movement toward liberation and toleration were the aberration. It would be irresponsible not to consider the possibility that humanity may be living through an unwelcome return to form.

Ahir Shah is performing at Cabaret Voltaire in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until the end of August