It’s a common myth that political outcomes which are disliked must be because of a disaffected working class, they are the scapegoat to which all seem to turn as an explanation. We saw these claims after the Brexit vote, they are being made now about the US election results. These claims are made in response to any unwanted nationalistic outpouring and they are the basis that some tabloids work on, the idea that the working classes are more easily swayed by prejudice, demagoguery and, ultimately, hatred. But the trust we have to remember is that the disaffected working class don’t have the power to create these platforms, merely to respond to then, in terms of understanding how these agendas are shaped, we have to look at a far more complicated situation. And for the Bosnian genocides and the war itself, as with events now, the role of academics and Universities deserves much greater attention.
A quick run down of people’s biographies
Academics should know better […] but in fact the core if the Pale mafia [those who planned, ordered and conducted the genocide] were brilliant intellectuals (di Giovanni, 2004, p.250)
The list could continue, but hopefully you get the idea….
My point here is two-fold. First it is simply wrong to attribution violent nationalism to some kind of “feral underclass” (as Cameron described parts of the UK). Instead violent nationalism is often incited and led by those who are comfortably ensconced in privilege and too often in employment deemed to be “intellectual”. If we look closer to home at those who are spreading divisive ideas about threats to the UK’s national identity (in the name of protecting “Britishness” or “British values” and UK national identity in the singular because that’s how they see it) we same educational elitism is apparent. (Note, I am not drawing a direct parallel between their actions and those of leaders in the Bosnian War – I’m saying we need to examine underlying processes which share characteristics):
- Nigel Farage, for example, who uses an almost comedic representation of the “common man down the pub” as his public persona was educated at the eye-wateringly expensive Dulwich College (fees now around £40,000 per year).
- Moving into even further nationalist extremes Alan Ayling, allegedly the financial backer of the English Defence League (although denied by Stephen Yaxley-Lennon aka Tommy Robinson) was Director of a capital investment management company. He was interviewed by British Police at the request of Norwegian investigations about links to the far-right murderer Anders Behring Breivik.
- Andrew Brons, previously a British National Party MEP and formerly member of the National Front, is a graduate of York University and a Further Education Lecturer in Politics.
- Nick Griffin, former BNP front man, was partly educated at Saint Felix School which charges £27,000 per year fees and at Downing College, Cambridge.
- 48% of the current cabinet was educated at Oxford or Cambridge Universities, admittedly down on the 64% in Cameron’s cabinet. Most of the others are alumni of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Warwick, St Andrews, Southampton, Keele, Exeter and Imperial College – all ‘elite’ institutions. Only one did not attend University and two did not attend ‘elite’ institutions (Bradford and Wales at Newport).
In short, I think we have to ask very serious questions about the role of “elite” educational institutions and the creation of nationalist politics, here and abroad. Before anyone starts to cite Donald Trump as an exception to this, I’d remind them that under the buffoon-exterior Trump was educated at Fordham and Wharton and that his victory is already being discussed as paving the way for success for Marine Le Pen of the French Front Nationale who herself was educated at Pantheon-Assas which is basically the Sorbonne’s law school. In short, just as if you begin to unpick the higher education trajectories of the leaders of the genocide in the Balkans you begin to see the involvement of ‘elite’ educational institutions, then the same happens if you begin to follow the the threads of the education of the UK and Europe’s nationalistic leaders, and those who allow it to happen (about whom more in a later post). Owen Jones argues that we need to pay attention to The Establishment and what they can get away with, but within that we need to think seriously about not just their business links but also their educational links because Universities, like all educational institutions, act as a formative part of attendee’s socialisation; put simply, they encourage a particular set of perspectives about the world and about an individual’s role within it (see here for how this sort of shared perspective grew the Serbian nationalist discourse over the twenty years that led to the Serbian actions during the dissolution of Yugoslavia). Policy makers accept this about schools and, indeed, schools have become one of the forefronts of racist policies at the current time in which Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students are considered in need of education on how to ‘integrate’, ‘British values’ and ‘radicalisation’ whilst white, British students are considered uncontentiously OK despite evidence that the lack of integration is driven largely by white populations and one of the major aspects of radicalisation at the current time is the lurch to a hyper-nationalist, right wing way of thinking. If, as Brecht says, war is like love and always find a way, then we have to start to ask how institutions play a role in making that happen.
My second point is mostly for academics
Following from this, we have to think, as academics, about what our role is in both engaging in public discourse and in challenging colleagues. Some things do set the UK higher education sector apart from the 1990s Yugoslav one, for example the UK has more educational institutions. But it is a highly divided sector with some parts considering themselves elite amongst institutions (measured in highly subjective and highly privileged ways such as student entry grades (which has nothing to do with the relative value of what the higher education institution itself does); research grants (which are heavily skewed by subject areas) and endowments which at least partially are a comment on the monied backgrounds of students coming into the institution rather than an forecast of potential earnings on leaving and which are again skewed by subject area).
My experience is that within those self-proclaimed ‘elite’ institutions and many of those institutions the “elite” would look down upon, there is a very sheltered and sheltering idea of academic community which protects students and staff alike from the real consequences of racism, homophobia, misogyny and classism/elitism. Just as, generously, contemporary higher education across the former Yugoslavia could be described as strangely sheltered from the meaning of their actions, as when earlier this year, a student dorm in Republica Srpska (one of the two areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina was officially named after Radovan Karadžić, just days before his verdict was handed down by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia. In the UK there has been some discussion of the historical legacy of racism within University environment (for example through Rhodes Must Fall and calls for Universities to acknowledge their colonially involved pasts) but generally speaking Universities remain bastions of white privilege racism and misogyny.
Take for example historian David Starkey who during the 2011 unrest in major urban cities, sparked by the shooting of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, declared that “a substantial amount of the chavs have become black” (a statement which manages to combine a virulent sort of elitism with a similarly virulent racism). Last year University of Cambridge, where Starkey was an undergraduate (before transferring to London School of Economics), asked Starkey to front a video appealing for funds, which he duly did. When a body of academics and students challenged the University on this, Starkey responded by daubing anyone who opposed him as anti-free speech.
It raises any question about the nature of academic inquiry and academic freedom, I shall reserve the right to comment freely but without recrimination. – David Starkey
This is a frequent response I’ve seen, that any challenge to the content of what is said by a privileged, white, institutionally embedded person speaking on any topic becomes rewritten as a challenge to free speech. Here Starkey absolutely defends his absolute right to say what he wants despite the fact that as a Tudor period constitutional historian his knowledge of contemporary classed and raced urban existence might be considered somewhat minimal. Remember Mihailo Marković was a Philosophy Lecturer and Nikola Koljević was a Shakespeare studies academic and yet both used their platforms to spread a particular form of Serbian nationalism unchallenged.
This claim by some UK academics that it is imperative that we have some sort of right to absolute freedom of speech without responsibility for what we and without expecting recrimination or challenge for what we say is deeply troubling. For one, it ignores that challenges to the existing power relationships by academics are frequently hostilely questioned. Second, any remaining challenge of racism, elitism or misogyny (etc) frequently becomes mischaracterised as being thin-skinned, lacking moral fibre or being unwilling to hear ‘difficult’ viewpoints. What is scary and reductive about these comments are the ways in which they ignore the realities life in racist, misogynistic society. Young women who oppose being told that rape isn’t the worst thing that could happen to them will often be young women who daily run the gauntlet of misogynistic sexual violence in which rape is used as the absolute pinnacle of threat and of force, they will also, sadly, be the young women who are raped, sexually assaulted and sexually harassed at our Universities. Young Black, Asian and minority ethnic people who are told that no-platforming racists or far-right nationalists is an act of cowardice and they should be ashamed of their lack of engagement in debate are the same young people who have grown up being disproportionately stopped-and-searched, witnessed marches (allowed and illegal) targeting their home areas and who have been spat at, insulted and physically attacked just for who they are. In short, what the entrenched, privileged speakers don’t seem to grasp is that we don’t have a level playing field from which we can ‘politely’ and ‘cultivatedly’ discuss things in dispassionate ways, because whilst they are sheltered in institutions, others are embedded in the everyday logics and practices of racism, misogyny, homophobia and disablism.
This fake notion of the level playing field also appeared in the Bosnian war, as a justification for British non-intervention when Douglas Hurd argued that lifting the arms embargo so that the Free Bosnian Army could fight would have only created a level playing field for the war. In this instance Hurd recognised that the playing field wasn’t level, but argued that it’s very inequality would be the groundwork for ending the war. As Simm later characterised it, Hurd’s insistence that “The civilians have an effect on the combatants, Their interests put pressure on the warring factions to treat for peace.” needs you to “read this disgraceful passage several times before you realise that Hurd was denying sanctuary to the victims of the Serbs (and of his diplomacy) so he could use their misery to force Bosnia to cut a deal with the ethnic cleansers” (Cohen 2001). So this isn’t just about lone wolf style academics who model themselves on some notion of the wild-card, challenging individual (like Starkey, Žižek and Fox), it’s systemic. Universities are as much sites of segregation and racism as the sheltered upper echelons of all our social institutions. And right wing nationalists have no problem using any form of safety measure we put in place to challenge such systems of prejudice for their own ends, Starkey and other racists call for their voices to be included because otherwise they are being no-platformed and that is unjust. In the US, new right wing groups under the broad coalition of Alt Right, are demanding “right-wing safe spaces” be established on College campuses as if calls for non-racist practice threatens a pre-established legitimacy and access for their viewpoints. In the 1980s and 1990s the already dominant and powerful Serbian nationalists demanded that all Serbians be considered united and allowed historic rights of Greater Serbian interests irrespective of the country in which they lived whilst Bosnian nationalist academics propagating the view that all Serbs were being persecuted in their (non-Serbia) home countries. In the global North we see similar such provocations being made by the already powerful, dominant white elite. Serbian nationalists used this as the basis to use state and non-state institutions (such at the military and the media) against these other groups they blamed for undermining and suppressing Serbian interests. In the global North at the current time right-wing nationalists are using their “persecution” as the basis to use state and non-state institutions (such as the Police and the media) against these other groups (immigrants, for example, Europeans and some vague notion of ‘social justice warriors’) that they blame for undermining and suppressing their interests.
Overly pessimistic dystopianism? Perhaps, actually in some ways I really hope it is. But as Primo Levi said about the Nazi Holocaust, “we have collectively witnessed a fundamental unexpected event, fundamental precisely because unexpected, not foreseen by anyone. It happened, therefore it can happen again: this is the core of what we have to say. It can happen, and it can happen everywhere”. His call to listen to survivors of the Holocaust must be entrenched in the ways in which we think about the testimonies of those who survived the genocide in Bosnia – Levi said “we must be listened to: above and beyond our personal experience” – but similarly we must not only listen but question what this means for us, for our society and those within it. And that include those of us in the sheltering institutions of academia.
Cohen, N (2001) “Balkans Betrayed” in The Guardian available here https://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/nov/04/politicalnews.politics
di Giovanni, J (2004) Madness Visible London: Bloomsbury Publishing
Primoratz, I (1999) “Serbian Intellectuals and the War in the Balkans” in Sociological Imagination V36 N2/3 p.143-153