Jacob Bard-Rosenberg on Brexit
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.”