On the anti-Semitic origins of the “Citizens of nowhere” trope. An alarming discourse.
First published in June 2018.
“Citizens of nowhere.”
“People who are at home everywhere and nowhere.”
We hear these phrases being thrown around in the debates following the Brexit vote. What is less well known is that charges of “rootless cosmopolitanism”, “citizen of nowhere”, and “international elite”, are anti-semitic tropes, which have been used throughout the 20th century to question to cast aspersions on Jews. Now those same old tropes are being used to call the loyalty into question, not only of immigrants in the UK and British expats, but also of well-educated British people who feel cosmopolitan, or who dare to have an ethnically diverse workforce.
For example, take Theresa May’s closing speech to the Conservative Party conference, symptomatic of a deep shift in Britain's attitudes to cosmopolitans.
To recall the relevant part:
“... today, too many people in positions of power behave as though they have more in common with international elites than with the people down the road, the people they employ, the people they pass in the street. But if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.”
The Conservatives were quick to point out this charge wasn’t against people who felt international, but merely against those “international elites”. But “international elites” was also an anti-semitic trope.
Anti-Semitic caricature of the rootless cosmopolitan Jew,
Soviet anti-Semites in the 1940s and 1950s used the term “rootless cosmopolitan” to refer to Jewish intellectuals, who were regarded as not being committed enough to the Soviet Union. The caricature of the cosmopolitan Jew was someone who was very rich, and who was at home everywhere and nowhere, as this 1949 picture shows.
We can go even further back, into the Weimar Republic, where Hitler and others used charges of cosmopolitanism against Jews, pitting them against the native-born population, described by Hitler in his 1933 campaign speech to Siemens factory workers as:
“people [who] are bounded to their soil, bounded to its fatherland, bounded to the possibilities of life that the state... offers.”
By contrast, Hitler described Jews as:
“... a small, rootless, international clique that is turning the people against each other, that does not want them to have peace. It is the people who are at home both nowhere and everywhere, who do not have anywhere a soil on which they have grown up, but who live in Berlin today, in Brussels tomorrow, Paris the day after that, and then again in Prague or Vienna or London, and who feel at home everywhere.”
This sort of speech is now, alarmingly, becoming part of ordinary discourse.
Take, for instance, David Goodhart’s distinction between the “somewheres” and the “anywheres”. The anywheres (aka international elite, aka citizens of nowhere) are well-educated cosmopolitan individuals, which, in Goodhart’s view, have unfairly dominated discourse because of their education. “Such people have portable ‘achieved’ identities, based on educational and career success.”
On the other hand, there are the somewheres, who are “more rooted in geographical identity — the Scottish farmer, working-class Geordie, Cornish housewife — who find the rapid changes of the modern world unsettling.” So unsettling they voted for Brexit.
This discourse is not restricted to the political right. For instance, recently Gordon Brown said that the UK needs to take a tougher stance on migration, because that would address “concerns about stagnant wages, left-behind communities, migration pressures, sovereignty and the state of the NHS”, which led to the Brexit vote.
In different words: “Don’t worry, white authentic native people who feel left behind! We’ve got your back! We will deport those immigrants if they can’t find jobs asap, we’ll take a tough stance so they won’t steal your jobs!”
Some people see Brexit as a welcome swing back from a state that overly advantaged cosmopolitan, well educated people, while neglecting people who were less mobile, less educated. But I am skeptical. For one thing, it is quite frankly alarming to see anti-Semitic tropes creep into mainstream speech, especially given the recent rise of anti-Semitism in the UK.
There is also a worrying trend to equate authenticity, working class, and white native-born British. This is a hugely problematic discourse that is conducive to racism and will not help the white working class. Moreover, if the concern for the left behind is so pressing, why haven't the Conservatives ended austerity?
It is likely that the main benefactors of the new nativist discourse, and the expansion of anti-Semitic tropes to immigrants and people with an international identity, are not the white working class. Rather, they will be white, well-off conservatives who already now have great economic power and who can use this discourse as an means to load the dice against enterprising, well-educated immigrants who would take positions they’ve exclusively reserved for themselves. For example, EU citizens currently are highly represented in the prestigious Russell Group universities – it would be handy for white, well-off middle class and upper class British if they could have preferential access to these jobs, and not have to worry about the competition of Italian, Belgian, and other EU nationals who now regularly win such positions on a competitive basis.
Those politicians who try to turn British-born people against their Polish plumber neighbour (“international elites!”) are the ones who use tax havens to put their money away, thus further undermining the structure of the nation state, as argued by Rana Dasgupta. As Dasgupta argues, nativist discourses are not a revival of the nation state but indicative of the crisis it’s in, “Today’s failure of national political authority, after all, derives in large part from the loss of control over money flows.” – money flows of the rich parking their assets in off-shore tax havens.
The “rootless cosmopolitan”, the migrant who so-called doesn’t care about the country she lives in, is a handy scapegoat to attract attention away from this. Meanwhile, Brexit will allow the rich to continue putting their money in tax havens, and to escape the tougher EU regulation on tax havens to be introduced in 2019 (see also here).
In a sense, one has to admire the chutzpah with which politicians and other British stakeholders point the finger at your Polish plumber, Italian lecturer, Indian IT worker, as somehow less deserving of rights and conspiring against the authentic natives, while they syphon away their wealth from the clutches of HMRC. All taken, and expanded, from the anti-Semitic playbook.🔷
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