Stephen Frears’ 1985 movie My Beautiful Launderette is a wonderful piece of political cinema. The narrative centres on Omar, a young Pakistani living in South London, who runs a launderette with his secret lover, Johnny, a white fascist played by a young Daniel Day-Lewis.
The launderette is presented to the viewer as a microcosm of Thatcherism, with more nuance the further you look. Ambitious Omar begins the film on the dole, but, when placed in charge of a family business, achieves success through hard work and aspiration. This success, however, is also achieved through several questionable acts he commits with Day-Lewis’ character: selling drugs, robbing houses and manipulating family members. And then there’s the question of race. Omar’s English minority status tunes nicely with the neoliberal ideal expressed by his uncle, Nasser: that there’s ‘no such thing as race in the new enterprise society’. The beating which Johnny, Omar and his Uncle Salim face at the hands of white nationalists suggests otherwise. The racial power structure of England, though diminishing in a post-Imperial context, which remains a powerful reality for those defined outside white national boundaries. Thatcher’s British Nationality Act enshrined these boundaries, and the Falklands War symbolised to those within them that she would defend them by any means possible.
How things change.
Donald Trump has effectively mobilised this sentiment to steer himself in to the Oval Office, while on this side of the pond, Nigel Farage promises to lead a 100 000 strong march in defence of a populism of a distinctly insular identity. Amid the apocalyptic prophecies and general malaise, it can be easy to avoid macro-analysis of how a previously disenfranchised constituent of predominantly white old men came to hold such sway. But data on income growth across the global economy has foreshadowed recent events. It shows that for the bottom 10% of global earners, little has improved since the late 80s (it should be taken in to account that this data only reaches 2008: the proceeding years since the financial collapse have greatly increased these discrepancies). For those between 10% and 75%, growth in that time has been solid; yet above 75% there is a huge drop which doesn’t increase until around percentile 90, before extending near-vertically when reaching 99.
That range – between 75 and 90% – holds within it the vast majority living in first world Western countries. While their incomes have been stagnating and in decline, they are seeing those with greater wealth surge, while traditional industrial and manufacturing jobs are swallowed by the developing world. Moreover, to the white working- and lower-middle classes in Europe and North America, that moneyed elite is becoming increasingly heterogeneous, be it along lines of gender, race or sexuality. These changes pose a threat to a nationalism still influenced by Imperialist and conservative-Christian formulations of normative identity. This is the group mobilised not just by Brexit and Trump, but throughout former colonial powers in the west, from Denmark to Hungary. It is a group which feels both material alienation and loss of identity, and as Johnny is warned by his fascist friend, ‘everyone has to belong’.
At the climax of Frears’ film, one of the fascists takes a metal bin to Omar’s launderette window and hurls it in. They had previously found employment there, yet they felt no connection to their work environment – and were actively repulsed by working for a Pakistani who, as one of them articulates, ‘came over here to work for us’. Could there be a greater symbol than this of recent political events? In the voting booth, many on both sides of the Atlantic have chosen to pick up their own metaphorical missiles and throw it in the direction of an economic system which has failed them, and a liberal identification of power which no longer looks like them.
Throughout the film, the fascists are positioned on the liminal cusp of the action by cinematographer Oliver Stapleton, particularly in the foreboding scene before their attack, where they stand, armed and waiting, around the launderette. This is liberalism’s hubris: to have assumed that xenophobic nationalism would forever remain on the fringe. That it has remained – indeed increased – in conditions of economic stagnation, is neither surprising nor particularly new. The answer is not to renounce democracy and populism as some are suggesting. Nor is it to pander to articulations of xenophobia in attempts to reconnect. Those losing out in the global rat race must share the prosperity of their society. If they aren’t, the next reaction may be more shattering still.
First published on http://novaramedia.com/2016/12/21/globalisation-and-whitelash-examining-my-beautiful-laundrette/in Dec 2016