The simulacrum now hides, not the truth, but the fact that there is none, that is to say, the continuation of Nothingness.
– Jean Baudrillard, “Radical Thought”
Four theses on Brexit:
- Brexit is not taking place.
The referendum was the perfect platform for the expression of abstract anger, because it was a completely abstract proposition. Nobody was ever really clear on what the nature of Britain’s relationship to the EU was – there was a lot of talk of ‘unelected’ politicians, but never a concrete exposition of exactly what impact these people had on Britain’s governance and economy, and consequently there was never any image of what leaving the EU actually meant, beyond empty sloganeering. The figure of £350 million sent to Brussels each week was the statistic most readily bandied around, and it doesn’t even really matter that the real figure is probably only 40% of this, because when numbers are that big, nobody can actually conceptualise them anymore, let alone in relation to the vast sums which characterize the economy of a wealthy nation. At that point all you have is a big number. Of course, it was never in the interest of the Leave camp to provide genuine specificity, when it was so much easier to fan the flames of broad national discontent. ‘Brexit’ became a mercurial signifier, to which could be attached any kind of frustration: with government, with the state of the country’s institutions, with social change, with whatever the British ‘way of life’ had become. Convince people that at least some of their problems are attached to an alien force – be it the EU or immigrants (more on them later) – and they will jump at the chance to excise it.
This is the sense in which Brexit is not taking place: the same sense in which Jean Baudrillard famously proclaimed that the Gulf War did not take place. ‘Brexit’ is meaningless. Nobody knows what it actually looks like. So, immediately after the vote we heard Nigel Farage disavowing the claim, strongly associated with Leave and distributed in their campaign material, that the money Britain provided to the EU could be transferred wholesale to the NHS. Likewise, Leave campaigner Daniel Hannan MEP quashed the idea that Brexit meant an end to free movement of labour from the EU. Nobody seems sure when Article 50 is going to be triggered, and nobody knows who is going to do it. With the Tory leadership in limbo, there isn’t currently anyone in place to lead this strange manoeuvre. Unlike in a general election, there is no manifesto, nothing to explain what the future is supposed to be, what the relationship between Britain and Europe is supposed to look like now. We can’t attach any concrete meaning to the word ‘Brexit’. It’s everything and nothing at all, a simulacrum hiding, not the reality of leaving, but the reality of a political void.
- The conceptual immigrant is the fantasy at the heart of Brexit.
I am tempted to say that immigration is the Real of Brexit. Lord Ashcroft’s polls, as well as the vox pops across the news channels in the wake of the vote, seem to suggest that it was central to the reasoning behind a great number of leave votes, and while some voices on the leave side have been keen to declare that there were several other reasons to exit the Union, the campaign has certainly been conducted in the register of anti-immigration zeal. The idea that immigrants are the cause of the problems faced by people in the poorer parts of the United Kingdom is one of the most insidious lies ever to gain traction in the media, and its dissemination has been allowed to go unchecked, even to snowball, because it is much more convenient for the government to have the blame placed on a homogeneous foreign body than on the tremendous social damage entailed by austerity and neoliberal policy. Our immigrant is the ‘conceptual immigrant’, much like Zizek’s ‘conceptual Jew’ – an obscure object, an empty framework within which fantasy, in the strict psychoanalytic sense, operates; simultaneously a welfare scrounger and a thief of jobs, dehumanised and yet quietly powerful. As Sean Homer writes (after Zizek), within such a fantasy, “what holds communities together is the attribution of excessive enjoyment to other or alien groups”. It’s the immigrants who are experiencing the enjoyment which rightly belongs to us, the British. Leave voters have spoken of a loss of identity, and one of the lessons of psychoanalysis is that identity is nothing but an imaginary construct, putty in the hands of ideological narratives. The fantasy of a return to a harmonious, pre-EU social whole can only be sustained if the immigrant is imputed this power, the power to both threaten identity and appropriate enjoyment. As demonstrated by the fact that anti-immigration sentiment is strongest in areas with the fewest immigrants, the ‘conceptual immigrant’ of British discourse is an empty fiction.
- ‘Old people are racist’ is a flawed conclusion.
I will admit that I was one of many young people whose immediate reaction to the vote was a feeling that my future had been hijacked by a generation who won’t have to live with consequences of what has happened. But complaints about ‘old, white racists’, which have become the go-to for certain factions of the liberal commentariat, are extremely limited. For one, they demonize a social group who are in the most vulnerable position they have ever been, victims of the scythe of austerity slicing through social care. But more fundamentally, they eschew any kind of structural analysis of why anti-immigration and anti-globalisation fervour has gripped so much of the population (and not just the elderly). One elderly leave voter interviewed by the BBC in Sheffield referred to the lack of industry in the city: “everything’s gone, everything’s going” was her summary. “We should come first”, said another. Clearly what has animated these voters’ decisions is not blind racism, but the feeling that vast swathes of the country have simply been left behind. These people feel they count for nothing in the grand scheme of Westminster politics. The vacuum left by the gutting of industry in the 1980s has not been replaced with anything at all, and austerity has only intensified national inequality. While we can say that this abstract frustration was misdirected at the EU, converting it into a free-floating xenophobia, devoid of any relation to economic conditions and government policy, is equally shortsighted, and anathema to the kind of analysis which the Left should be conducting.
- The centre cannot hold.
Mao wrote that “everything under heaven is in utter chaos: the situation is excellent.” The idea is that moments of uncertainty open up gaps in the social fabric, in which radical movements can install themselves, capitalising on the fragility of the political edifice. I wish I could share his revolutionary enthusiasm at this moment in British history, but all signs seem to be pointing towards Brexit being a boon for the far right, not the far left. The tenor with which the campaign was conducted, and its inescapable association with Nigel Farage – the loudest and most long-established Eurosceptic in current British politics – mean that the vote will be (and indeed already has been) taken as a sign that far right politics is back on the table in Britain. Already, we have heard numerous reports of racist abuse across the country. Far right demonstrators in Newcastle have called for repatriation. Eurosceptics Tories, emboldened by this result, generally represent the right wing of their right wing party. David Cameron, the emblem of the management-professional Tory, the soi-disant “liberal conservative” who supported causes like gay marriage, has been dethroned by a gamble he took in the belief that the Eurosceptic wing of his party could never rally the national support they needed. This moment has to be read as a collapsing of the centre of British politics.
This is why the behaviour of the Labour right in the aftermath of the vote has been so craven and foolish. An apparent mandate for quasi-fascism does not signal that it is time to kick out the socialists, and chatter over Jeremy Corbyn’s “competence” is meaningless. Corbyn was elected with an enormous majority, and in his time as Leader of the Opposition has attracted a party membership boom, instituted a majority-female Shadow Cabinet, helped force U-turns on Saudi prisons, blocked Osborne’s £4.5bn welfare cuts plan, got firefighters to re-affiliate with the party after 11 years, reinstituted nationalisation of the railways as party policy, and exposed Cameron’s weaknesses time and time again in PMQs. He was consistently clear on Labour’s position: remain and reform. The fact that he refused to base Labour’s campaign around immigration is a credit to him, not a weakness. A return to the centre means giving up ground to neoliberal economic policy and legitimised xenophobia. This move failed spectacularly for Miliband, so it is hard to understand why members of the PLP think it will work now. A Labour party which assumes the position of ‘conservatism with a human face’ will only ensure Tory power for decades. What is needed now is thinking on a bigger scale. ‘Reconnecting with voters’ cannot be used as code for drifting rightwards. The misery of the British population is directly related to the effects of austerity, and only unabashedly socialist policy is able to address this. A centrist Labour party will only prolong the wider national problem; it cannot conceivably solve it. Whether the parliamentary Labour party is going to be the platform to deliver the opposition needed is uncertain: although the membership are clearly in favour, so many of Corbyn’s MPs are so vehemently opposed to their leader, so rabid in their pursuit of any opportunity to oust him, that it will be difficult to cement Labour as a truly socialist organisation. But a socialist opposition is the only Left solution, and it is the only solution left.