Foreignness: A Vice not a Crime in Brexit Britain

The British press has recently been full of worrying Brexit-related stories of foreigners who are threatened with deportation in spite of clearly having built their lives in Britain. These stories tell of citizens of EU- and other countries who had their application for permanent residency rejected and were advised - in a now famous turn of phrase - to 'make preparations to leave' the country. What is shocking about these stories is that the rejections do not only concern recent arrivals to the country, but in several cases people who have lived here for decades, built their lives here, and have clearly become well-integrated and active – dare I say ‘useful’? – members of British society. It is not enough to be a Professor at a prestigious University, paying taxes, educating British students, being married to a British women and father of British kids; not enough to be a wife and mother who has lived her with a British husband for more than two decades, raised two British kids, and never had – for all we know – any troubles with the law; not enough, either, to be a granny of British children to have earned the right to stay in the country. The latest case in point is the one of Stojan Jankovic, a shop worker in Kentish Town – a shop where I do my grocery shopping quite regularly –, who has lived in the UK for 26 years, but was arrested after a routine visit to the immigration reporting centre, and is now detained in the Dorset immigration removal centre facing deportation within two weeks (read his story here).

One way of understanding this seemingly unreasonably harsh treatment of foreigners by the British government is by referring to a distinction Hannah Arendt made in her book on the Origins of Totalitarianism. Talking about the cases of Jews and homosexuals in 19th century Europe, she explains that a shift had taken place sometime during the century from seeing these groups of people as guilty of some kind of crime, toward seeing them as being afflicted with some inherent vice. The difference is this: A crime is consciously committed by someone. It is a choice to become criminal or not. A vice, on the other hand, is beyond the individual’s control. It is something that emanates from the person's nature and is transmitted at birth. At first glance, this may seem like a more lenient view of a person’s socially unacceptable traits, because the person is not blamed for ‘choosing’ to be what they are. However, Arendt explains in her usual brilliant way, that this makes matters worse for the groups concerned. Thus, while the 18th and early 19th century Jews could do away with their Judaism by converting to Christianity and become an assimilated and (more or less) accepted member of society. By the late 19th century “Judaism” had become “Jewishness.” Rather than a religious choice, it now was considered a fundamental, inherent trait of an individual that could not be erased by religious conversion. Thus, the rejection of Judaism (or homosexuality) stopped being a politico-legal issue and became a social one, detached from any legal considerations.

Foreignness in Brexit Britain seems to have undergone a similar shift from being considered as a 'crime' to a 'vice'. Foreigners used to commit the crime of foreignness by living in this country, but refusing to accept certain basic values, to become a ‘useful’ part of society by working and paying taxes, and hence by refusing to be integrated. Yet, once integrated into society, you were absolved of the crime of foreignness. The stories that are littering the British press at the moment clearly show that we have moved away from such an understanding of foreignness. The wrath of the Brexiteers does not only strike those who are not willing to be integrated into British society. The wrath of Brexiteers and their government hits anyone who wasn't born in this country (or even whose parents weren't born in this country). This implies a shift from foreignness as a crime towards foreignness as a vice: It is not enough to integrate into British society, accept and play by its rules, contribute to its economy and culture. The vice of foreignness stick to you whatever your behaviours. Just like ‘Jewishness’ in 19th century Europe, it is a stain passed on at birth. You cannot rid yourself of that stain. It is a question that is beyond the political and the legal. No degree of assimilation, no legal procedure of naturalisation will absolve you from the sin of foreignness. Stojan Jankovics’s desperate statement – made in an interview with the Camden New Journal from his cell in Dorset – illustrates this perfectly: “I see myself as completely assimilated. I don’t know what more I can do in that respect. This is my neighbourhood, my culture.”

The really worrying bit, however, is that it is precisely in this shift from crime to vice that Hannah Arendt locates the seed of the extreme antisemitism of the 20th century, which ultimately would lead to Auschwitz. Indeed, as personal characteristics such as religion or sexual orientation come to be considered like vices rather than crimes, the treatment of these issues changes: A crime can be punished by the state based on individual responsibility for committing an unlawful act. A vice, on the other hand cannot be punished, because it is linked to behaviours that the individual cannot control and for which they therefore cannot be held responsible. Vices cannot be punished. The only remedy against vices is to eradicate them together with their bearer. Therefore, it is the shift from 'crime' to 'vice' that ultimately explains how vile, but relatively inoffensive, 19th century antisemitism degenerated into 20th genocide.

What is interesting is the explanation that Arendt gives for why this shift took place in the 19th century. Based on the Dreyfus affair in France during the 3rd Republic, she argues that in late 19th century France, 'social factors' increasingly penetrated the political and the legal. As long as we are in the realm of the politico-legal, even the harshest law recognises that the 'crime' is perpetrated by a responsible individual. When the political gets colonised by social factors, the same despised behaviours come to be seen as the result of inherent and essential attributes of a given group in society. This essentialisation happens according to Arendt in phases where society 'decays into cliques.' The decay of society into cliques leads to 'us-versus-them' dynamics – be it among social classes, ethnical groups, races, or any other groups.

One could argue, Britain has recently experience a similar decay of society into cliques. Already in 1987 PM Thatcher declared in an interview that there was ‘no such thing as society.’ Ever since, British society seems to have disintegrated, while tensions between various groups have increased. While one fault line was the labour versus capital cleavage, the decline of organised labour since the 1970s and the defection of the working classes from left-wing parties and ideologies made this opposition increasingly irrelevant. The main tensions shifted for a short while from capital versus labour to ‘haves’ – the 'out of touch' elite of the 2010 General Election – versus the ‘have nots’ (not all of whom are in work!). Yet, in more recent years the decay of society has taken an increasingly nationalistic turn and pitched Brits versus foreigners. The resurgent “underclass” nationalism – for want of a better term – constitutes a welcome diversion for parts of the elite from other cleavages. Yet, the decay of society also affects the elite itself. As Glenn Morgan recently noted in an excellent symposium on Brexit published in Socio-Economic Review, the very fact that Brexit is happening may in itself be the result of the elite underestimating its fragmentation: 

"Cameron mistakenly believed there was still a sufficiently cohesive elite which would support him and which would help him persuade the public in the referendum. But in spite of the fact that that elite had benefited so much from the policies of the last 30 years, it lacked an interest in or a capacity for playing such a role. Instead the opportunity arose for the foxes in the elite to mobilize popular concerns about immigration, austerity and alienation from the political class and to focus them on Brexit as a solution without actually spelling out what that meant in practice."

Morgan’s analysis of the Brexit referendum frighteningly reminds one of the colonisation of the political by the social as Arendt described it referring to the period of the rise of imperialism, racism, fascism, and ultimately Nazism and Stalinist communism since the late 19th century. When the social takes over the political, the political elite is no longer able to temper and moderate the – at times unreasonable – demands and desires of the people. Certain elements within the elite – what Morgan calls “the foxes” Farage, Johnson, etc. – may exploit this situation for personal career advancement.

In a first instance, the latter phenomenon may seemingly lead to rallying different groups of a decaying society around national feelings, which Arendt also observed in 19th century Europe and described as consisting 'primarily in a complete whitewash of one's own people and a sweeping condemnation of all others' (p.129). In spite of all the anti-elitism’, Brexit does seem to move the country into that direction. No one in the North of England, no one in the deindustrialised areas of Wales, no one in east Kent puts the blame for their current economic struggles on the British “Non-doms”, who live and work in London, but are considered to live abroad for tax purposes; or on the British business man, who bankrupts a 90-year old British company, loses most of its pension money, and then goes sailing on his luxury yacht; or on the bankers who caused the financial crisis. Rather, Brits now point their fingers at the Poles, the Romanians, and the Bulgarians who mainly came to this country to make a living by building our houses, cleaning our toilets, making our coffee, and fixing our drains.

Yet, the current unity of the pro-Brexit haves and have notes around nationalist feelings may be short-lived. Morgan points out that

‘[e]lites can lose control of societies because their disagreements spill out into the wider society. These moments when the splits become visible are often the first sign of the weakening of an existing order because they awaken other social actors from taking for granted their subordination and instead encourage them to act on the political stage.’

To be sure, we are still miles away from the radicalisation that the shift from 'crime' to 'vice' has caused in 19th and early 20th century Europe. But clearly, all the ingredients are there and some signs are very worrying indeed. That in itself should be reason enough to take the slow decay of British – and possibly other European – societies seriously and revolt against the treatment of foreignness as a vice.