Waking up to a slightly different Britain, there are worrying signs on a shifting horizon. The electorate’s decision to ‘leave’ reflects something quite interesting, and in my opinion, worrying. The decision to leave has been marked by campaigns of dis and over-information about an issue which, dare I categorise this way, everyday people didn’t realise was an issue until the fabrication of anti-European sentiment was in full motion. The campaign was littered, characterised by a sea of vagueness, generalities, as expressions such as ‘Brussels political elite’ (out of the mouths of non-Brussels elites of course), ‘take back…’, ‘control’, ‘our borders’, ‘immigrants’, ‘over-run’, and ‘sovereign’ dampened the contemporary air with their vacuous poison.
The decision to ‘leave’ in most situations in human emotional, psychological, cultural life is the beginning of one journey not simply and wholly defined by the ending of another. It is usually also defined, potentially by the generation of new possibilities that propel human development, however clumsy that movement forwards might be. And yet through the so-called ‘Referendum debate’, what we have witnessed is the façade of democratic principles and power, belying sophisticated machineries of deception and anti-democratic realities. The great democratic decision to leave has been fuelled by political and economic elite whose vested interests are situated in places far beyond the direct control of ‘Brussels’ / face-less entity (delete as appropriate). Those parts of the electorate who voted to leave the EU who are not part of those groups whose lives are characterised by financial, social and cultural stability. They have been seduced by this notion of ‘leaving’, without processing the requisite social, cultural and emotional baggage that ‘leaving’ requires. Leaving a situation signifies an end, and marks the death or potential demise of something – a situation which cannot be resolved or given the parameters of change in any given situation at the time, cannot result in a compromise. Most adult developmental life is marked by our ability to work at issues, process changes within ourselves, re-define what we were and are to become. Why can’t this apply to leaving the EU one might ask? Surely now that the UK population has voted to leave, it can simply do all these things to re-make its non-European identity? The answer is that in addition to these qualities, there is one more that is really quite crucial to a civil society defined by democracy, pluralism, and equality: working with other, sentient human beings.
Barack Obama during his election and re-election campaigns remarked that we need to ‘recognise ourselves in others’. I won’t reference sociology or political science or psychology to affirm this. There’s no need. The recognition of self in others defies those intellectual and anti-intellectual movements that profess insular, singular and unitary notions of selfhood. This fundamental social quality relies on our ability to remain in the moment, stay with a problem and work out how we re-define any preconceived limits of cooperation. The notion of leaving, as exemplified here in this campaign and now in this mass decision is, of course on the face of it, democracy in action. But this is far too simplistic. Time and again the news media over the past 6 months has foraged around in the complicated arena of lay voices around the country, asking people what they thought, and why. Time and again the responses were, if you cast your eyes back to the top of this page, a series of mantras and chants that functioned as a form of dissatisfaction-catharsis: ‘bring back control’, ‘control our borders’, ‘get out and get our sovereignty back’, etc. It seemed to work in a symbiotic relation to the vile and poisonous toxins that emanated from some of the more far-leaning Leave campaigners. The more their campaigns used toxicity against immigration, the more the public’s anger became fuelled, the more the campaign lurched towards a reductionist and xenophobic position. Importantly however, this symbiosis mobilised what I have termed elsewhere, as a Politics of Reasonable Prejudice. Hating, disliking, violating, ignoring human rights, racism all gained forms of validation. ‘Suddenly’ it was ok to hate foreigners, because there’s an official campaign that hates foreigners.
The structures and content of people’s arguments rarely extended beyond these stereotypical populist manifestations of political marginalisation. We’ve seen this again and again in the UK and around Europe so we don’t need to rehearse the history here. But here’s where it also becomes fascinating. These categories of validated dissent became a chant, almost a mantra in the sense of the ancient religious rites invoked in rituals, performed either regularly or at special occasions where a ‘cleansing’ of evil spirits was required, or simply in regular worship. Watch the news media footage. Read the newspapers. Talk to people. Mantras and chants, religiously adhered to for some sense of certainty, some anchorage in a turbulent sea. They are spoken, re-spoken, shouted, printed, until there is nothing left in popular consciousness but the mantras. Growing up the 1970s, the everyday politics of race and racism fundamentally relied on these mantras of hate.
I do not make any necessary connection between religion, religious rituals per se and xenophobia, since politics and power usually pervert the genuine aims of all collective solidarity movements like religion. But the ancient religious mantras embedded within all organised religions do not exist in vacuums. They are metonymically situated to evoke histories, glorious pasts, purities, and most of all to define the limits and parameters of legitimate self-hood. The words, mantras, chants, slogans – the label is not significant – become directly fixated to represent packages of sentiment, feeling, dissatisfaction, anger, hate and this becomes the new self-hood. It works very simply actually. You can witness this in religious rituals the world over. Embodied actions take place at particular sites – macro structural like a church or temple, or micro, like a shrine within a particular home, or cognitively like a prayer that is chanted whilst mobile – sometimes a combination. The words need to be said, spoken repeatedly, and with genuine belief behind them, but the belief doesn’t necessarily come first. The words come first, and after a period of time, the package of ideas that the words relate to might start to connect with personal experiences in life – usually negative ones. This can mobilise belief. Once belief and faith are generated, the words simply perform all of the metonymic machinery automatically. That’s why the phrase ‘control our borders’ is so powerfully loaded, problematic and damaging. It is thrown around as a reason to ‘leave’, and yet the machinery and baggage behind it is rendered invisible. Thoughtful democratic decision making.
And so here we are, as David Cameron resigns as Prime Minister, no longer able to carry the weight of the choice he and his government initiated for the British public, the ‘leavers’ rejoice in…leaving. I return to my earlier point, leaving requires the submission to redefine one’s identity, and to reflect thoughtfully on what this means. I wonder how many of the 17 million people genuinely were the kind of people who saw no compromise, no thinking through, no working with others, no sense of united futures and no global, humanitarian project that could be better together? I wonder how many of these people, if quizzed about the issues that appeared to be at the forefront of the decision making, actually know the details of these issues? I don’t mean how many are political scientists, economists, or cultural theorists. I mean know the issues beyond the mantra? Beyond the chant?
The enduring, sad and problematic legacies of colonial and imperial power stalk the corridors of these sentiments. Call it Postcolonial Melancholy (Gilroy 2004), or the ‘twitchings’ of the amputated limb of colonial sovereignty’ (Rushdie 1991), in every empty repetition of anti-migration, economic-national-border defined sovereignty fueled chant, sits a thousand years of problematic processing of the ‘other’. Some might point the finger of blame firmly at the everyday, non-elite voting classes for being xenophobic, racist and anti-European, this is not to be ignored. But the wider, bigger machinery of political representation and the resultant massive economic neglect endured by most of the electorate in Britain are completely tied together. In ‘Requiem for an American Dream’, Noam Chomsky makes sense of the plight of American democracy by referring to a set of principles mobilised by political and economic elite to further this destruction of civil society. In this he points out very clearly and systematically that the economic and political plutocracy that has developed over the last 40 years has fundamentally damaged not just the US, but the world we live in. I can’t help but feel that we have all been let down, in a way which parallels the US.
The UK’s position in the EU was always a complicated picture, and one which was far removed from everyday voters. The illusion is that by voting ‘leave’, some of the electorate may believe they are now engaged with a series of important political, civil, economic, and social processes, and they might well be. Perhaps if people chant ‘leave’ enough times, or celebrate the great British ‘leave-off’ in pubs and restaurants (more rituals) for long enough, they will be convinced ‘their’ country will be ‘theirs’ again. And perhaps their belief will be enough to return to the mundanity of everyday life. But the machine is moving. Economic, social and political changes will probably be on the way, and the option to carve out a British identity necessarily, and positively melded to others around the world has been cast as a wasted opportunity.
We cannot ignore the ways in which the complexity of political participation, and the deceptive machinery that has been whirring away for many decades has attempted to reduce, in the most insidious, anti-democratic way imaginable, all our lives to a politics of reasonable prejudice.