I’ve sometimes wondered what it must be like to live in a time when you can see that your society is wilfully racing towards political disaster – war, say, or violent revolution, or fascist supremacy – and no appeal either to reason or to empathy seems able to stop it. I’m starting to feel that I am living in such a time. On 13 June, as Leave forged ahead in the EU referendum polls, Polly Toynbee wrote in The Guardian about Labour Party volunteers struggling to get Labour voters to listen to the arguments for Remain. These people’s minds were made up; they didn’t want to listen to reason, even when it concerned their own self-interest, let alone the well-being of others. Toynbee’s article ends on a dystopian note, saying that the referendum campaign has whipped up a fury of xenophobia that it will be difficult to tame whichever side wins, and framing the UK situation as part of a broader drive towards right-wing extremism across Europe.
The Leave campaign will dismiss that sort of thing, like other arguments, as ‘scaremongering’. For a science fiction reader, it seems routinely familiar. The descent of society into a nasty libertarian dystopia has become the normative assumption of most near-future science fiction. For many books and films, it’s simply a default ‘dark’ setting for exciting violent action. Others are more critically engaged with what’s at stake. Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island, published back in 1972, depicts Britain collapsing into war and anarchy at a time when huge boatloads of refugees are arriving from Africa. Priest is in no way right-wing, he does not blame the African migrants for what’s happening, but neither does he flinch from depicting the interracial violence that ensues amidst the chaos. His story taps into the tendency, when the going gets tough, for people to take sides with their own tribe against the other. It’s an impulse that Stephen Baxter, in Evolution, his epic novel of human evolution, presents as rooted in a pre-human hostility to the stranger; an instinct that can only be overcome by the cultivation of empathy and cooperation.
It strikes me that much of the stubborn defiance of reason that Toynbee reports is propelled by feelings of resentment towards immigrants which the right-wing press has systematically cultivated for years. It is classic right-wing rhetorical strategy: to create false consciousness – to win the allegiance of ordinary working people to the political interests of a wealthy conservative elite – by misdirecting them to blame their economic frustrations on people even more disadvantaged than themselves, such as immigrants, or people on welfare.
The reason that I will vote Remain is not because I think one option will predictably benefit Britain’s economy more than the other, but because I think that the principle of cooperation – between the states of Europe as well among people of different ethnicity who live alongside each other – is crucial to weathering the economic, environmental, and political crisis in which we’re already embroiled. I fear that Britain’s departure could trigger the unravelling of the EU as a whole and return Europe to an anarchy of competing nation-states in which, as Clausewitz said, ‘war is the continuation of politics by other means’, and there will be scant hope of dealing with challenges like mass migration and the pollution of atmosphere and ocean which demand international cooperation.