Like I said, I didn’t pay much attention to the Brexit debate. Partly because I was busy, but mostly because I thought there was zero chance the UK electorate would vote to change the status quo (I’m still a little sceptical that organised capital will allow it to happen). So I didn’t track any of the polling, or arguments. Since the result I’ve been reading various op-eds and think-pieces, and loads of left-wing columnists, mostly UK based. The New Statesman. The Guardian. Viral comments on social media, etc.
I’ve been pretty unimpressed with the state of left-wing ‘analysis’, which mostly consists of a single inchoate sneer of petulant, elitist rage at the stupidity of the ignorant, racist voters for not voting the way their intellectual superiors told them to. There was obvious glee at the panic in the financial markets, which are suddenly an arbiter of left-wing political wisdom, somehow. Countless claims that the moronic Leave voters didn’t understand what they were voting for, and now regretted it, which is not borne out post-referendum opinion polls which indicate strong sustained support for their decision. Anti-democratic arguments that because the young voted Remain, the Leave votes of older voters were somehow invalid, even though turnout among young voters was abysmal.
But I did think this Will Davies piece on ‘The Sociology of Brexit’ was very good. You should read the whole thing. But this struck me as plausible:
More bizarrely, it has since emerged that regions with the closest economic ties to the EU in general (and not just of the subsidised variety) were most likely to vote Leave.
While it may be one thing for an investment banker to understand that they ‘benefit from the EU’ in regulatory terms, it is quite another to encourage poor and culturally marginalised people to feel grateful towards the elites that sustain them through handouts, month by month. Resentment develops not in spite of this generosity, but arguably because of it. This isn’t to discredit what the EU does in terms of redistribution, but pointing to handouts is a psychologically and politically naïve basis on which to justify remaining in the EU.
In this context, the slogan ‘take back control’ was a piece of political genius. It worked on every level between the macroeconomic and the psychoanalytic. Think of what it means on an individual level to rediscover control. To be a person without control (for instance to suffer incontinence or a facial tick) is to be the butt of cruel jokes, to be potentially embarrassed in public. It potentially reduces one’s independence. What was so clever about the language of the Leave campaign was that it spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it. The promise had nothing to do with economics or policy, but everything to do with the psychological allure of autonomy and self-respect. Farrage’s political strategy was to take seriously communities who’d otherwise been taken for granted for much of the past 50 years.
I get that there was a lot of racism and xenophobia in the Leave campaign, but to merely dismiss it and its success as the fruits of racism explains nothing. Also, this:
One of the most insightful things I saw in the run-up to the referendum was this video produced by openDemocracy’s Adam Ramsey and Anthony Barnett discussing their visit to Doncaster, another Labour heartland. They chose Doncaster because it looked set to be a strong pro-Leave location, and wanted to understand what was at work in this. Crucially, they observed that – in strong contrast to the Scottish ‘Yes’ movement – Brexit was not fuelled by hope for a different future. On the contrary, many Leavers believed that withdrawing from the EU wouldn’t really change things one way or the other, but they still wanted to do it.
This taps into a much broader cultural and political malaise, that also appears to be driving the rise of Donald Trump in the US. Amongst people who have utterly given up on the future, political movements don’t need to promise any desirable and realistic change. If anything, they are more comforting and trustworthy if predicated on the notion that the future is beyond rescue, for that chimes more closely with people’s private experiences.
Tony Blair had an op-ed in the NYT, dumbfounded at the result and the baffling refusal of the voters to listen to ‘the experts’, which is as perfect a piece of irony as you can find. Davies also writes:
The attempt to reduce politics to a utilitarian science (most often, to neo-classical economics) eventually backfires, once the science in question then starts to become politicised. ‘Evidence-based policy’ is now far too long in the tooth to be treated entirely credulously, and people tacitly understand that it often involves a lot of ‘policy-based evidence’. When the Remain camp appealed to their ‘facts’, forecasts, and models, they hoped that these would be judged as outside of the fray of politics. More absurdly, they seemed to imagine that the opinions of bodies such as the IMF might be viewed as ‘independent’. Unfortunately, economics has been such a crucial prop for political authority over the past 35 years that it is now anything but outside of the fray of politics.
Economics is now a branch of political and corporate marketing – in the public sphere at least. When an economist argues something is ‘good for the economy’, what they almost certainly mean is that it’ll be good for whatever sector or interest they represent, and bad for everyone else.
I would have voted ‘Remain’, and I think that Brexit vote will probably be quite bad for the British economy, and many of the people who voted Leave. But I’m basing my analysis on the same experts and conventional wisdom that are routinely misleading or wrong. The experts told Greece that austerity would rebuild their economy. It’s pretty easy to see why an eight-year long combination of austerity, recession and high migration would lead to this outcome in the UK, and why working class voters doubted that the EU Troika had their best interests at heart.
One thing I do know about politics is that when you lose you need to figure out why, and figure out where and how you went wrong; not just throw a sustained tantrum and change nothing.