The Consciousness in Britain and the US: An online conversation with Aditya Sarkar

Oaklandsocialist had an online conversation with Aditya Sarkar about the situation in Britain. Aditya is a labor historian from India, working in Britain. We met through the Ukraine Socialist Solidarity Campaign, but this conversation goes into the mood and consciousness in Britain. We hope to publish more along these lines in the near future:

Oct 10 about the queen’s death:

Oaklandsocialist: I’m curious what you think about the death of the queen there. Obviously, we all know about the monarchy looting the world, etc. But what I’m curious about is this: The NY Times is saying that the queen’s death leaves many in Britain “anxious and unmoored…. unsure of their nation’s identity, its economic and social well-being, or even its role in the world.” Do you agree that that is how many feel in Britain? If so, how do you explain it?

Aditya: I meant to reply but the whole media atmosphere here was so saturated with the monarchy that I needed to just pretend it was all happening on some other planet! The massive circus around it was incredibly nauseating.

It’s a very peculiar country in all sorts of ways. I think that point about people feeling anxious and unmoored is on point. I don’t think it has necessarily been triggered by the queen’s death though – rather, her death is a kind of cipher or a prism through which much deeper anxieties are routed.
My take on it would basically be that Brexit threw everything about Britain into absolute turmoil. Arguably things were already very bad – but ever since Brexit they’ve become much worse. And part of that is a very loud and bullying discourse on national identity, some superficial empire nostalgia combined with a much deadlier and less superficial hatred of refugees and asylum seekers, soaring xenophobia, absolutely mindless populism at the top of the political ladder – and a general sense of things getting both worse and more polarised.

I think the media carnival around the queen’s death – maybe the most absurd thing I’ve ever seen – was in part a response to that. The invocation of some kind of mythical, totally fabricated, sentimental “unity” of the “British people” (in effect, the English). It’s very very hard to judge how deep it goes. Clearly there are millions of avid monarchists who come out of the woodwork on royal occasions.

But at an everyday level life actually seemed to go on as usual (whatever ‘usual’ means these days). I was out at dinner both the day the queen died and the following day and I didn’t notice a trace of any popular mourning. Which doesn’t mean there wasn’t popular mourning – but I do think there’s probably a profound lag between where the state and the media are and where the population as a whole is – not that it’s easy to figure out the latter.

Oct. 21

Oaklandsocialist: I listened to a forum on what’s happening in Britain yesterday [regarding the resignation of Prime Minister Truss]. It seemed to me that they largely missed an important question, which is “what are workers thinking?”

Aditya: Figuring out what workers are thinking is, I think, in some ways especially challenging. Partly because of the fragmented nature of the working class and the great decline in the salience of the labour movement as a real force. Partly, I suspect, because of massive generational divides. And partly because of the poison spread by the Brexit discourse – which was based on appealing to a certain kind of stock ‘figure’ of the worker as imagined in the right wing public sphere. I think society itself has moved to the right quite decisively over the last decade (this might be beginning to reverse because of the Tory shambles) and workers are definitely part of that right wing shift. At the same time the figure of the worker summoned up by the tabloids and much of public discourse is a terribly skewed and caricatural representation.

I mean just now I suspect workers are thinking “Tories out”. But so are most people from other social classes as well.

What would you say workers were actually thinking in America in the Trump years? Or for that matter now?

Oaklandsocialist: Yes, the working class is very divided here also. It is divided along geographical lines, racial lines and also generational lines. But it is not as if all urban workers or all white or black workers think alike either. The most common mood, which exists across all those lines, is almost a sense of fatalism. By this I mean a very low consciousness that we, the working class, all have common interests and that we actually have potential power to change things.
Alongside that goes what could almost be called an intellectual passivity in this sense: There is a feeling that it’s not up to me to struggle to think things through, to figure things out for myself. Instead, I’ll just take what some outside force says and run with it, whether that force be the horrible far right, or liberal Democrats, or whoever. I don’t want to exaggerate. That is not universal, but it is the dominant mood.

Aditya: That makes a lot of sense and corresponds with my sense of how working class people experience things here. A kind of diffuse resentment combined with absolute political passivity and a belief that nothing they do can change things in the slightest. And also – more impressionistic of course – a kind of conspiracism also creeps in as well.

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