Elements of this might well be seen as redundant in the light of the events of yesterday (Chilcot etc.) – Times correspondent and sometime News Quiz panellist Hugo Rifkind characterised (caricatured?) it as Corbyn finding a square hole for his square peg. Nevertheless these reflect some of my thoughts on the opposition’s response to the Brexit aftermath.
It would appear that the UK Labour Party are not great storytellers. The narrative principle of “show, don’t tell” seems to have passed them by. The Conservatives are in meltdown as Cameron’s attempt to put down a coup by the party’s second-stringers (who now seem dismayed that they actually won the EU Referendum) failed and triggered a leadership battle. Their austerity measures – passed through parliament through the vacillating incompetence and short-termism of the Labour Party (including Peter Kyle, whose own cocksure myopia I’ve previously moaned about) – are being condemned by the UN.
Yet the Labour Party starts a coup of its own. Now, this isn’t to defend Jeremy Corbyn, who has been as useful as a pope in a brothel (well, some popes). But when your main political opponents are collapsing and their policies are under fire from reputable third parties, perhaps that’s the time to put the…
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by Professor William Outhwaite
This is not the title I expected to use on the day after the referendum. I was hoping to begin by saying it was all just a dream. There was indeed, and remains, no realistic, or at least attractive, future for the UK or any of its component parts outside the EU, as documented at length in analyses by almost every expert source. But the dream came true, as when you dream your house is flooded and wake up to find that it actually is.
What we have experienced in the UK is the conjunction of three phenomena: a world problem, a European or EU problem and a British (or, more properly, English and Welsh) problem. The world problem, well illustrated at the same time by the spectacular performance of two outsider candidates in the US presidential election campaign (one of them still in the running), is a widespread disaffection with established political parties, political leaders and political systems as a whole and the rise of (mainly right-wing) populist politics. The sociolinguist Ruth Wodak (2015: 181) wrote that in 2000, when the Austrian far-right FPÖ entered a coalition government, ‘probably very few scholars could have imagined that in 2014, such parties would be able to win the elections for European Parliament in France or the UK…’
The European problem is one of disaffection with the politics of the European Union and to some extent with the EU as a whole. This is most extreme in the UK, which now follows Greenland into withdrawal, but can be found to varying degrees across the Union. The same goes for the populist politics mobilised against it. Boris Johnson’s comparison of the EU’s integration strategy with those of Napoleon and Hitler was prefigured in 2014 by an Austrian MEP who called it a dictatorship, compared to which the ‘Third Reich was probably informal and liberal’ and that it was also a ‘conglomerate of negroes’. (Wodak 2015: 63-4) He later apologised, unlike Johnson, who merely complained about the way the campaign had been dominated by sound-bites and twitter storms.
The British/English problem, a widespread unwillingness to see EU membership as a fact of life and a permanent ambivalence about the UK’s membership, culminating in an even balance of opinion in the referendum campaign and a narrow majority for the leave option, can be seen in a broader context as the failure of the EU to attract three western European states and, so far at least, to reach a stable accommodation with others further east. Two of the westerners, Norway and Switzerland, remain outside the EU, but either a member of, or closely associated with, the European Economic Area and with both of them members of the Schengen area. It remains to be seen whether the EEA road, however unsatisfactory it has proved in both countries, will be taken by the UK, where anti-EU voters were misled to expect a fall in EU immigration. This could indeed be achieved, but not within the EEA, though the economic collapse which is likely to result from Brexit would reduce the appeal of England as a destination, and this may enable some sort of fudge which keeps the UK at least in the EEA. The Canadian/Singapore/Hong Kong alternative suggestions are really for the fairies, as the WTO chairman made clear some weeks ago.
The implications for the UK are radically open between a range of bad outcomes. For the EU, it sharpens up the issue of the Union’s variable geometry or differentiated integration model. This is particularly important in relation to the euro, in terms of both widening (its prospective extension to all EU member states except Denmark, whose currency is pegged to the euro and likely to remain so) and deepening (the closer integration of the Eurozone which all observers agree is required).
There was considerable debate in the long months preceding the UK referendum about a possible domino effect of Brexit, though less about a similar domino effect or, better, Pandora’s box from Bremain. In either event, and we now know which is the reality, other member states might demand the same sort of special treatment afforded to the UK, with the threat of a popular referendum in the background. The failure of these (admittedly trivial) ‘concessions’ to persuade the UK to remain has done little to change this. Nothing is easier than for member states to defer indefinitely their adoption of the euro, even if they are officially committed to it. Any plans for more intrusive surveillance and supervision within the Eurozone could be expected to reinforce this unwillingness to participate. The Schengen area is in some disarray, and another obvious area for opting out.
How all this will pan out for whatever is left of the UK remains to be seen. It is hard to envisage much willingness in the rest of the EU to concoct a special position for a state which voted to leave it. What the UK has done is to place exit as an agenda item for the whole of the Union. This can be found here and there in the rhetoric of some populist parties, but the UK’s departure, however disastrous it turns out to be, does at least show that it is possible. This cuts more ice, as it were, than the departure of Greenland in 1985. Just as the Scottish referendum in 2014 made it harder for Madrid to resist one in Catalonia, it is now hard to see how any member state could resist one if there were a significant demand for it, as some recent polls have suggested.
Media bias was also important. Unlike the situation in the Scottish referendum, the UK press massively supported Brexit. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jun/17/eu-referendum-battle-press-versus-democracy The UK, along with Austria has long stood out for its eurosceptical press coverage, just as the UK and Latvia stood out in 2015 for their level of ignorance.
The BBC felt itself obliged to take a neutral position between the two camps. In what became a standard pattern, expert analyses were ‘balanced’ by a perfunctory rebuttal, often based on ‘facts’ which had long been shown to be false or misleading. Michael Dougan, an expert on EU law, aptly compared the so-called debate to one between evolutionary biologists and creationists. (SLSJ YouTube)
Separatist nationalism, to which the Brexit campaign can in some ways be assimilated, divides according to whether independence is valued whatever the cost or, alternatively, is seen as in any case the least costly option. Richer sub-states, like Slovenia in Yugoslavia and Catalonia in Spain, have typically stressed the benefits of getting out from under an economically weaker union. This was contentious in the Scottish case, and the current lower oil price, as well as the depletion of the remaining fields, has made the issue more problematic. In the Brexit referendum, the EU was variously portrayed as threatening and as itself threatened by economic decline and political collapse. In a milder version of the second position, membership was seen as something possibly beneficial in the past but which the UK, its economic fortunes revived by Thatcherism, no longer needed or benefited from. This was typically conjoined with the better grounded argument that the character of what is now the EU had changed since the 1975 referendum, or at least since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992.
In the UK, however, the separatist vote was largely indifferent to the almost unanimous warnings of economic disaster which are already being borne out. However badly the result turns out for England and Wales, voters elsewhere in the EU may choose to follow suit. The UK, which had a great deal to offer the EU and Europe as a whole, and in the recent past substantially reshaped the EU according to its neoliberal priorities, has now little to offer to either except disruption and dissension. At worst, it could cause the EU to develop into the shape favoured by the extreme right and its supporters in Russia, which might politely be called Gaullist: a loose association of (so-called) sovereign states.
How did it come to this? We might separate the short-term explanations (migration, austerity, etc.) from longer-term considerations. The longer-term explanation takes us back to the UK’s initial unwillingness to join what has become the EU, its immediate referendum in 1975, and its ongoing hesitation about its membership. De Gaulle, when he announced his veto in 1963, suggested that it was not a viable prospect. There are three possible answers. One is that the UK should indeed never have been allowed to join, another that membership was useful for the UK (and perhaps also for the Union) for a time, but now no longer, and the third, that a tense but effective partnership was wrecked by an idiotic decision to put membership once again to a vote, in a political culture hopelessly corrupted by an anti-EU press and by politicians happy to blame Europe. The last of these is my view. In the UK’s essentially two-party system, the Conservatives since the late 1980s have nurtured an increasingly anti-EU position earlier represented by Labour, returning it from a fringe obsession to the political mainstream. Sociologists are used to choosing between state-centred and society-centred explanations. Here, I think, the answer is clear: the UK is socially very like the rest of north-western Europe but happened to diverge politically, building on earlier differences and drifting further away from it.
Jürgen Habermas entitled one of his innumerable articles ‘learning from catastrophes’ (and did his best to argue against this one). For the EU, it can hardly be business as usual. To lose one member state (or two if one counts Greenland) might seem like an accident: to lose more would be carelessness. One lesson from the UK is that where electorates are excited by the prospect of an in-out referendum there is little to be gained by negotiated ‘concessions’ or the presentation of expert evidence. A more democratic Union, of the kind I have argued for in DS 2014 and elsewhere, might, I have to admit, be even more prone to populist subversion. The likely break-up of the UK will not frighten voters in Catalonia, the Basque Country, Brittany or Belgium – or even northern Italy. Its economic decline, unless it happens even faster than I expect, will not be soon enough to discourage separatist moves in other member states.
Clutching at straws which might alleviate the gloomy tone of this assessment, I should point out one for the UK and one for the EU. The UK’s exit will be a little easier than it would be for states in the Eurozone. For the EU, the loss of a member state which had been a drag on its already snail-like integration process may free things up, or at least add a sense of urgency to reforms of whatever kind, whether towards closer union or a more variable geometry. On the other hand, having to waste yet more effort on negotiations with the UK will inevitably distract attention from more important matters, just as making special arrangements with Switzerland has taken up a remarkable amount of time which could have been better spent. The EU resisted the temptation to tell Cameron to stuff his negotiating demands, but although there is now nothing to be done but damage limitation this can only be more disruptive, and whatever goodwill remained is now gone for ever.
When people said over the past years that they could not imagine the UK leaving, I reminded them of the Czecho-Slovak divorce in 1992 and the danger of drifting into an outcome which hardly anyone wanted, except for some opportunistic politicians. But whereas there it took two to tango, in this case it is just the British who have danced away to disaster.
Wodak, Ruth (2015) The Politics of Fear. What Right-Wing Populist Discourse Means. London: SAGE.
 Like England, Wales was evenly split. Scotland was quite solidly for remain. In Northern Ireland there was a substantial majority for the remain option, though the politicians supported leave.
If you agree with the points below sign the Parliamentary Petition when it goes live.
We urge the Government to convene a debate in Parliament to reconsider the circumstances and results of the Referendum, offering a free vote on our relationship with the E U. (See Courses of Action below)
The Leave Campaign was flawed for these reasons
1/ The Electorate was confused by false information, inaccuracies, & soundbites.
2/ The choice “Leave” or “Remain” was simplistic. The complexities of the issues could not be fully explained or understood by voters.
3/ Brussels was blamed for stifling our freedom. It was not credited for supporting workers, depressed communities throughout Europe & for brokering peace & stability in Europe, Asia & Africa. It is a bastion of strength in a dangerous world.
4/ The Leave option was seen as a protest opportunity against economic deprivation & disillusion with our democratic accountability.
5/ Voters could not anticipate that the result might precipitate the break up of the United Kingdom.
6/ No-one knew the extent of the damage to our economy nor the years it will take to re-negotiate our agreements if Article 50 is invoked, during which we will trade at a disadvantage with the E U.
7/ The majority of young people voted to remain but it is they who will suffer most and for longest if we leave the EU.
8/ Every day we hear more people who regret the vote they made. A Poll has shown if re-run now, the Brexit result could be reversed. 7% of voters had changed their minds already. There is no 14 day Cooling Off Period for this, the most important decision of the Century. The Brexit conclusion was unsafe. Only 37.4% of the Electorate voted for change to the status quo. This is not a reliable mandate from a clear majority. It is a reflection of a divided nation – North/South – Have & have not. Brexit will not remedy this. Jobs, Houses & Services will help. A bouyant economic framework within the EU & a responsive Government are required. MPs must not hide behind the referendum result but have the courage to recognise it for what it was. Flawed!
9/ Excessive immigration must be solved by the Government working with the EU. Europe cannot hold all who seek a better life!
Parliament could be asked to re-examine the whole issue & to create a Government of National Unity to bring the Country together to repair the damage caused by the Referendum, and create a solution in the best interests of the whole population, whilst supporting the EU & fostering world security & peace.
Gillian Harris Douglas
Theadora Harris Douglas
Gerard Delanty – A Crisis of Governability? Why the Brexit referendum undermines democracy and must be declared illegitimate
by Gerard Delanty
It has been widely commented that the so-called Brexit outcome of the Referendum on 23rd June has led to the most serious political crisis since 1945. The government has no clear plan and the opposition has all but collapsed. At a time when leadership is called for, it is strikingly absent. It is not with hindsight that the decision to call the referendum in the first instance can be said to be truly an example of political folly of the highest order, comparable to the equally disastrous decision of the UK government to go to war against Iraq in 2002. Undoubtedly David Cameron is now regretting his gamble to call a referendum to solve an internal conflict in the Conservative Party. The possibility of the Brexit outcome was always to be reckoned with. The result of such folly is a deeply divided country, a terrifying increase in hate crimes, a huge rift between the UK and the rest of Europe that will not be easy to reconcile, an economic and financial crisis that has massively deflated pension trusts, and above a political and economic crisis that has brought to country to the brink of a serious crisis of governability that will very likely end in the collapse of the UK with the case for Scottish independence gaining momentum. If this comes to pass – it is by no means certain – it will then precipitate a chain of events in Northern Ireland.
These scenarios have been much discussed in the past week. What has been given insufficient attention is the democratic legitimacy of the referendum. I believe there are strong grounds on the basis of democracy for the result to be, if not annulled, debated and voted on by parliament. In making this argument I am not seeking to reverse a decision that I don’t agree with by looking for new rules or seeking a second referendum, for if the first was a mistake a second would be a greater error. The criticism that a parliamentary vote is undemocratic because the people had their say is undoubtedly why many think Brexit is now inevitable. I argue this is not the case and that the Brexit outcome is democratically illegitimate. There are a number of aspects to this which I would like to highlight.
The outcome of a referendum is unlike the outcome of a general election where simple majorities determine the result. A referendum on a matter of major national importance and in which huge constitutional issues are implicated is in itself not decisive. It is consultative. Many countries have rules on the conduct of referenda, such as the size of the majority decision for it to be binding and the percentage of the eligible electorate who voted. The UK does not have such rules. However, the absence of such regulations does not mean that a referendum must be automatically enacted regardless of the consequences and the size of the majority. If the outcome is detrimental to the collective good – and in this case it is demonstrably contrary to the national interest – and leads to undemocratic outcomes, it follows that the argument of majoritarianism does not in itself hold up as the only criterion of legitimacy. The risks to the unity of the UK, the massive reduction of pension trusts following from economic turmoil, the grave implications for peace in Northern Ireland, the catastrophic outcomes for UK universities, are all examples of how the national interest is not served by the outcome. But not only the national interests; there is also the interests of individuals as individuals: Brexit would deny people of rights that they now enjoy as European citizens. In other words, the majority decision must be weighed against other factors and it must also be subject to checks and balances. This is not straightforward, but it is also not something that can be side-stepped.
Much has been said about Brexit as a democratic outcome. Democracy is more complicated than this. Democracy is not simply a matter of a majority ruling. It is one dimension, as in the electoral process. However, democracy is also about the setting limits to what majorities can decide. In the case of the referendum of 23rd June there is the problem that the majority is insufficiently large to warrant implementation. If some 600,000 had voted the other way the situation would be reversed. This cannot be a democratic mandate in view of the magnitude of the consequences that are now manifest. Referenda are blunt instruments that can easily undermine democracy if there are not appropriate checks and balances and mechanisms for establishing consensus. This can happen when there is insufficient debate informing the process and, above all, where the consequences produce undemocratic results. Democracy is also about protecting the misuse of majoritarianism where it has negative consequences for others. This was a strong reason not to hold the referendum in the first instance, since this was a possible outcome and should have been anticipated. Such folly can now be set right.
There are two things to be considered here: the matter put to referendum and the actual procedure of holding the referendum. The question of Brexit was always unsuitable for a referendum, due to the complexity and ramifications of the issue. Voters are asked to
express themselves on a whole range of matters in one single vote. The Leave case was based on several contradictory arguments. The holding of a referendum is appropriate only for singular policy/legislative matters (such as the Irish same-sex marriage referendum) and not on complex societal issues or ones that reverse the status quo in ways have major negative implications for many people. The Brexit referendum was not been set up in a way that maximised public deliberation with due inclusion of expert and political opinions and as a consequence these considerations were not taken into account. Rather, the opposite has happened. In that regard, there is much to agree with the Scottish constitutionalist Stephen Tierney in his argument that is it not the referendum in principle that is undemocratic, but rather that its application produces opposite results.
The referendum is not in itself binding for another reason. It requires parliamentary debate and approval. A peculiarity of the British political system since 1688 is the sovereignty of Westminster (rather in the people, as in the political traditions shaped by modern republicanism). This is of course an anachronistic legacy of the seventeenth century and leaves much to be desired. Yet the fact remains that the UK is a representative democracy in which parliament is sovereign and it follows that parliament should ratify the outcome. The magnitude of the proposed Brexit cannot be left to the Prime Minister to trigger. However, I think the main case is not this anachronistic institution of the sovereignty of Westminster, but the argument for democratic legitimacy. In view of the grave economic crisis and what now has all the signs of a crisis of governability, it is vital that parliament debates and votes on the outcome of the referendum.
The Brexit vote was in part inspired by the claim that the EU is undemocratic. There is some truth to that, but the UK political system is more undemocratic and if the narrow majority holds sway democracy will be yet more compromised. The existence of an unelected upper house, a hereditary head of state, a secret honours system, a political system based on elitism, the office of PM (who can act by royal prerogative), the institution of the crown in parliament, the ‘first past the post’ system, all underline the absurdity that Brexitania is more democratic than the EU. On the issue of loss of sovereignty, it should be noted that (a) national governments still retain sovereignty in almost everything and that most EU legislation comes in the form of directives that are translated into national law in ways that are dictated by national contexts (b) the UK lost complete sovereignty in 1941 when the US entered the war and saved Britain from defeat. Total sovereignty is an illusion. (c) The problem of sovereignty – the locus of power – is certainly a problem for the EU in the case of the single currency, which locks many of the weaker countries into German capitalism. This is not a problem that the UK has and thus does not suffer from the undoubted major structural problem of the EU and (d) on the vexed issue of immigration, which is demand driven, it almost certainly will not be significantly changed in whatever settlement is reached, since this almost certainly involve membership of the EEA. It would in any case require a new hard frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is hard to see how this is political feasible.
It is evident that the Brexit vote was also a protest vote and that the main target was not necessarily the EU. Voters voted leave for different reasons. Clearly one major factor was a protest against decades of neoliberalism and so-called austerity measures. Immigration has nothing to do with this. To the list of major political follies, to which one add the disastrous decision to bail out the RBS in 2008 and not retain ownership. The real target was British elites, many of whom are only partly democratic. Ironically many of those who voted Brexit will bear the worst costs of economic decline and financial crisis and in the end the elites win. In fact a cruel trick was played on them by cynical politicians who produced arguments that had no basis in fact and have already recoiled on several of their manifestos. It is therefore difficult to see how the case can be made for democracy being best served by invoking Article 50. However, simply doing nothing, sometimes a necessary option, is not the solution, since it will cultivate an intolerable level of avoidable uncertainty and with this further social malaise and political unrest.
The Referendum reveals one important sociological truth: the major divisions in Europe are not between countries or with the EU but within countries. This is dramatically highlighted by the Brexit outcome which has produced numerous fault lines. The UK is a broken country facing a severe crisis of governability.
The Referendum needs urgently to be revisited by parliament. This will be only the first step in a new settlement that will have to address the reasons why people voted for this outcome. One of the main obstacles to be overcome is the disproportional influence of UKIP and their hard-line right in the Conservative Party. The Referendum was a failed and misguided attempt of the Prime Minister to sort this problem out but made it worse. The UK political field differs from other European countries in that the populist right – anti-immigration, Euro-sceptical – have a stranglehold over the main centre right party and have now engulfed the entire political system. In fact, there is nothing more European than UKIP which uses democracy to undermine democracy. The first act of sovereignty must be to regain control of the democratic process from this movement and their few supporters in parliament in order that four decades of progress will not be reversed.
Gerard Delanty is Professor of Sociology and Social & Political Thought, University of Sussex. He is the author of more than 100 papers and eleven books, including Inventing Europe: Idea, Identity, Reality (Macmillan, 1995), The Cosmopolitan Imagination: The Renewal of Critical Social Theory (Cambridge University Press, 2009), Formations of European Modernity: A Historical and Political Sociology of Europe (Palgrave 2013).
Gerard Delanty, Department of Sociology, University of Sussex, Brighton, BN1 9QE, UK
The Following is an excerpt from a longer blogpost at Prolapsarian
Mass and Class
The sympathies of the masses, tempered anew by a system of terror, are reawakening more lively than ever. – AB
In the immediate aftermath of the referendum results a race took place to establish a putative class analysis of what had happened. Sociologists dusted off their old ABC1C2DEs in order to establish firmly that “the working class” had done something. More like Linnaeus or Cuvier studying the plants and animals they offered up a taxonomy of social divisions and stratifications in order to deliver an explanation. In the moment of action the population had been held fast like a pinned out specimen. There was, it turned out, no movement, but only demography. This was not surprising insofar as no class action had taken place, or at least no disruption of the class system. Referenda are archetypes of a purely bourgeois politics, in which the polity is allowed to decide as apparently equal and isolated individuals, each treated as bourgeois subjects par excellence. If the class analysis offered was one of frozen classes, this is because of the class nature of this form of political expression.
But the rush towards a class analysis masks another more prominent aspect of the politics that have surrounded the referendum: a silenced, or repressed mass politics. “The masses are stupid/barbarous/violent/brainwashed/inert” are the old slogans. To the bourgeoisie the image of the masses has always been not only detestible but terrifying. And most terrifying is the idea that it might find itself amid its pulsating throngs, discovering its own movements as contingent on the enormous, yet bound, gestures of the crowd. It has for centuries attempted to give expression to its fear in a comparison between its own apparently refined sensibilities (the mask of dominating violence with which they truly govern the masses) and the charged action of the masses. Meanwhile the mass has come to know this, and in a bourgeois society forever is forced deny its mass-character in order to claim for itself refined sensibilities, hoping, like the bourgeoisie, to disguise its own barbarised and barbarous state.
The refined bourgeois individual and the mass are the conjoined twins of capitalism, the struggling progeny of bourgeois history. Just as the bourgeois was displaced by capital at the centre of the cosmos, so at the periphery grows another power. If the particularity of the autonomy of the individual, still dominated by the contingency of capital, still only able to desire freedom in the form of profit, stands at one pole, then at the other stands the mass, as the cultic structure of the people as a whole conjured by the universality of the commodity. Along the axis between these poles – of bourgeois individual and mass – vibrate the egos of this world. At one end they are strong and yet incapable of effecting historical change, their desires attached only to profit, while their strength is expended on resignation to the endurance of the present state of things; at the other end they are weak: the powerful erotics of the mass capable of changing the world are bound and perverted into servitude. One can read these figures in terms of how the referendum has played out as well: on one side are the Guardian-reading critics of ideology who believe they can never be convinced by the lies of the mass media. They gaze disdainfully of at the mass who are taken in and act upon what they are told; yet the guardian readers are fundamentally powerless, condemned only to ever interpret the world, to wistfully sneer, and never to change it.
In the commentary around the referendum this division has been prominent. Every turn has centred on the “patronising” or “belittling” of the mass of the population by a “political, metropolitan establishment.” If once upon a time the bourgeoisie would bear its terror at the mass in public, now any commentary at all is forbidden. This is the result of an attempt to separate these conjoined aspects of the bourgeois world into separate spheres of life. In politics one must act like the bourgeois subject, but in the spheres of culture, of production, of media, of consumption, one must behave like a mass. The great frictions of the last weeks in British politics has been less about some “working class anger” than the antagonisms of these two aspects of capitalist society – the bourgeois individual and the mass – and their cross-contamination in the referendum. The refined bourgeois character hates the fact that the result was governed by the movements of mass culture and media. The accusations that the masses brutal, racist, and xenophobic are just post hoc moralising bywords for this hatred, from a class that has already long proven its brutality, racism, and xenophobia. The bourgeois individuals clean up their own image for a moment and say, “if only you were just like us,” but fail to notice that the dominating force the mass employed was just that. Nonetheless the mass follows suit and says, “we thought about this really hard, we’re not racist.” The mass postulates some “beyond” in thinking for the radio vox pop, giving the assurance that it wasn’t just voting out of totally base, xenophobic fears. Yet they never get there. They try to say “I saw the other side but reasoned it was wrong because of this and this and this” without ever getting to what the “this and this and this” is. And so once again the mass is suppressed, or repressed, and a ban is placed over discussing its behaviour.
To address the erotics of the mass, or the erotics of the masses, might seem undignified. But it remains the only means of putting the argument in a way that does not either scream in terror like the refined bourgeois, nor forbid any discussion. Only in the examination of the mass’s indignity might its dignity be returned to it.
If the structure of the mass has been forced into silence during the course of discussion, if bourgeois repulsion and terror has been hissed only where politeness can be safely abandoned, it has reasserted itself in the wake of the mass’s decision During the days after the referendum calls have come from all quarters not for a new and different politics, but for “better leadership”. The old leaders have been deposed not because they failed to reconcile the divided polity, failed to mediate between individual and society, or between the part and the whole, between the bourgeois individual and the strenuous cultural demands of mass deindividuation, but because they simply weren’t truly of the people, and could not bind and unify them correctly. The raging demand for endless new leaders is the hideous expression left of a muted and perverted mass politics.
The demand for leadership, and of leadership by one of its own, is the classical condition of the mass. In its forlorn and barbarised condition, the mass has been well trained to despise own headlessness, for in its missing head is the promise of the ever transferable mask of bourgeois refinement that conceals the force it knows so well. The good leader of the mass is one the binds the community, that imagines and enforces its limits. As Freud notes in his little book on mass psychology, “the group still wishes to be governed by unrestricted force; it has an extreme passion for authority; in Le Bon’s phrase, it has a thirst for obedience.”
Indeed the mass in capitalist society is obsessed with its limits. Its identity is its self-bondage, founded on the exclusion of the other. The identification of the mass with the leader is grounded in their shared approach to domination, and conceals the fact that in the love of the leader the mass wants to know treated by him just as he (and they) would treat their enemies. It is archetypal of mass politics and mass psychology that it would take as the moment of its self-bondage to be the exclusion of the foreigner, alien, immigrant or refugee. In this sense the politics of the relationship to migration at stake in the referendum needs to be understood doubly: it is not merely the case that the exclusion of the foreigner fulfills an economic role, enriching each member of the mass on the basis of a model of a resource- or job scarcity; but also the exclusion of the foreigner plays an erotic role, in defining the bounds of the mass, and erotogenically binding together its members. The strength of the erotic bonds of the mass are founded on the strength of its collective exclusionary violence; the erotic identification with the mass is founded on the strength of violent disidentification from the other. There is no such thing as society; instead only community a community of little men. The national family, with Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson sat at the head of table, their voices the blend of every bad joke a father ever told. Love him dearly. The figures of Farage and Johnson are those of perverse leaders who reconcile the mass structure of the leader with the individuality of the bourgeois, who reconcile the mass media with individualised bourgeois politics.
In these gestures of self-binding and domination, the mass comes to know not just Johnson or Farage’s body, but also its own body. It finds itself incorporated, ennervated, and excited. It discovers both the pleasures of domination and the discomforts of submission. But more importantly it discovers their inversion: the discomfort of recognising ones own guilt without ever having the capacity to right wrongs, and the pleasure of submitting willingly to authority who, as long as you are obedient, will forgive you. It makes of them a perverse erotics, with capital at its centre. Traditionally the body of this perverse erotics, capable of stimulating and sublating these contradictory excitations, has been known as the nation state.
In a video a woman from Burnley says “I voted leave to stop the immigrants and to save the NHS.” Quickly the country’s biggest employer is transformed from the guarantor of life through the provision of healthcare into the dream of the perverted mass that sees in it a national corporation: a machinery that might adequately foster their erotic energy. And all the better if it serves the lives only of the British. The NHS, in her dream – although she may not notice it – guarantees the health of the Brit insofar as it denies health to the immigrant. She probably calls this “economics.”
While I was briefly in Belfast, a thriving city with no visible Leave or UKIP posters, Jo Cox was horribly murdered and I began to fear the worst. Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and co. had gaily thrown open Pandora’s box, unleashing all the political evils of xenophobia, nationalism, and racism. As in the myth, once the evils were unleashed, to deadly effect, only one hope remained: perhaps her awful murder would make people see what was really happening. I felt guilty for harboring that hope.
Along with the political evils came the endless lies. A week later, the votes were cast and the liars have it. Turkey and Albania are not about to join the EU. 350 million pounds a week will not be used to the fund the NHS. We will not be able to restrict the free movement of EU citizens to Britain with Australian-style immigration controls. Sadly, democratic will of the people is not invalidated when it is based on lies. In politics, winners take all. If you win the vote, you’ve won the argument. Chris Grayling did not blush the following day when blithely claiming it was merely “an aspiration” to spend “part of money” that went to the EU on the NHS. And Johnson stretched credulity by claiming that the Leave campaign had not been about immigration; after Brexit there will still be free movement of people in Europe; and Britons will still have access to the single market.
The people have spoken, and since he has no chance of dissolving them and electing another, David Cameron has resigned and George Osborne, his lieutenant, has started quacking like a lame duck. He has just let out a statement redolent with the rancor and disingenuousness of one who has had his ambitions crushed, and is resigned to a safe seat on the backbenches and a dreary life of lucrative consultancies. “It was not the responsibility of those who wanted to remain in the EU to explain what plan we would follow if we voted to quit the EU”. It was the responsibility of the Government that called the referendum that required only a simple majority, in the context of a longstanding poisonous campaign against EU membership, to plan for both eventualities.
Now with a political vacuum to fill, the Parliamentary Labour Party seizes the moment to take a vote of no confidence in its leader, and Jeremy Corbyn refuses to stand down. This stalemate opens up the prospect of three months of internal party wrangling, as Corbyn fights it out with Angela Eagle. As if it is not enough that we have no effective Government, we now have no effective opposition either. Instead, we have a grand coalition of the unwilling and the unable.
So due to a toxic cocktail of the personal vanity and unconscionable stupidity of our politicians, our country has been plunged into constitutional crisis. Predictably, Brexit has precipitated the imminent breakup of the Union. Nicola Sturgeon announced new plans to hold another independence referendum, and Martin McGuinness has not been slow to realize that many Northern Irish citizens would prefer to remain in the EU as part of a United Ireland, than to exit right with the English and Welsh. (In my view, the latter might be no bad thing, but it is the last thing the Brexiteers wanted.)
And then there is the considerable matter of the economic turmoil into which the UK has been sent spinning. Gove apparently trusts IBJAM (I’m Brilliant Just Ask Me!) more than he does experts. The organizations that had warned against the economic costs of leaving the EU included the Bank of England, the IMF the IFS and the OECD. “People have had enough of experts,” he declared, and “organizations with acronyms saying they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” When Britain voted Leave 3 trillion dollars was wiped off world markets in two days. Maybe even Gove will realize he is not so brilliant as he thought.
Meanwhile he and Johnson have gone to ground, amid bland assurances that there is no need for hasty exit negotiations. Perhaps, after all, they did not expect to win. Perhaps their plan was to lose narrowly, fatally weakening their opponents’ and strengthening their own hands. The only plans they seemed to have was for their respective leadership bids, and even those seem chaotic and ad hoc. It looks as if for them the referendum was merely an opportunity for career development. Once that issue is sorted, they will face the much more challenging task of devising a plan to help them avoid economic disaster and social unrest on the one hand, while keeping up their democratic appearances on the other.
They can hardly call for a General Election. For they will have to state in their Manifesto whether they intend to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. If they do they will be held responsible for the all the economic and political fallout foreseen by the organizations with acronyms, and many of the 16 million who voted Remain. And if, as is likely, they have to accept the free movement of people across the EU as the condition for access to the single market, they will have cheated everyone whose vote they snared with the promise of strict immigration controls. If by any chance they get away without invoking Article 50, they will betray the 17 million people who voted Leave. In either case UKIP and the rabid Tory rump will be resurgent. (And it was partly to shoot the UKIP fox, and appease eurosceptic Tories, that Cameron foolishly allowed the referendum in the first place.)
Short of a political deus ex machina whereby a coalition is elected to Government on the explicit basis that it is against the national interest to ratify the referendum result, there are no good outcomes. It is an open question whether any current politician is brave enough to call for Parliament not to ratify the referendum decision. Boris clearly is not. There are only bad options on the table around which the future leaders of our country presently sit. And though this is to everyone’s misfortune, it is no political tragedy. For tragedies, as Aristotle knew, are stories about the well-intentioned actions of fundamentally good people, not about the reckless miscalculations of unprincipled, over-privileged narcissists. It seems that we have bypassed the historical stage of tragedy and moved straight to the political farce. Only this one is not the least bit funny.