It is an impolitic demand, then, in the sense of not being shrewd or judicious certainly, but also im-political in the sense that the demand corresponds to no traditional political ideal, neither of universality or economic self interest, other than to be treated as one-all-alone. It is a demand to be accorded a special deal on the basis that ‘we’re exceptional’: we should be able to have total access to the single market with no free movement of peoples, no Schengen, no Euro, no regulation, no law than our own. ‘We’ are now pure headless drive, acephalic, pulsating around a hole marked ‘Brexit’. There is no plan, no idea, but people are certainly enjoying themselves. Happiest at the time of writing seems to be Jeremy Corbyn. (Indeed a late night political programme on Thursday played Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ over a montage of recent images). Corbyn has got everything he wanted: the right result and a purge of all his enemies in the shadow cabinet.(1) The old rebel is back with a megaphone, stirring his legion of supporters to denounce the Parliamentary Labour Party, the Opposition that he’s supposed to be leading, as he has done throughout his long career as a professional protester. He’ll be back, but when he can lead the right people.
One of the more curious aspects of the EU referendum was that two of the main partisans for ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ were working secretly for the opposing side. It has long been suspected that Boris Johnson’s late uptake of the anti-European cause was primarily fuelled by his ambition to lead the Conservative Party – or as he also said at the beginning of the campaign, to ensure the best outcome which would be to remain in the EU after a second referendum had approved a new deal that would only be forthcoming after the reality of a first ‘Leave’ vote. It was this and his public backsliding on the question of immigration that did for him, as his lieutenant Michael Gove plunged the knife of his own ambition into his back, thereby satisfying the revenge of Cameron and his previous mentor George Osborne.
As many have noted, this referendum campaign has been another example of ‘post-truth’ politics, given such spectacular definition most recently by Donald Trump, in which statements are not about meaning but the production of effects generated by appeals to surplus jouissance. It is the politics of delusion in which critique, interpretation, reference to self-interest or the pointing out of contradiction, have no purchase. In the place of ‘truth’ is a scornful rejection of the ‘political elite’ and ‘experts’. It has been a revolt against imagined authorities long devoid of any symbolic weight. It is perhaps a revolt of the ‘dispossessed’, but not necessarily in material terms. In fact the largest demographic of Leave voters were also the most comfortable. While the vote exposed many deep divisions in the UK between different nations in the Kingdom, between London and the regions, between people with different educational backgrounds, perhaps the most concerning is the division between young and old. While ‘young people overwhelmingly wanted to stay in the EU, with three quarters of 18-24 year olds voting to Remain, … two thirds of pensioners voted to sever ties. Younger people are saddled with student debts, low pay and cannot get a foot on the housing ladder, [while] many over 65s live in large and valuable houses, have generous final-salary pensions and a host of other benefits’.(2) Yet it was the older generation, not the young who rebelled. But this generation was always rebellious, let us remember. On the day before the vote, Roger Daltrey, rock ‘legend’ and singer of The Who told The Daily Mirror that his intention to vote ‘Leave’, was related to his nostalgia for the 1960s when Britain was ‘swinging’ and led the world.(3) Though he claimed to not necessarily be speaking, as once he did, for his generation, most of them voted in the same way, expressing similar regrets about what the nation had lost. Though not always citing sex, drugs and rock and roll, at stake remains the nostalgia for lost enjoyment in the form of the fruits once brought by Empire. ‘They remember a time’, reported Rosemary Bennett of The Times, when Britain was a very rich country compared with much of Europe and you could get 10 francs to the pound and have very cheap holidays in Spain and Italy. … They believed in the Brexit promise that Britain can be great again, but we were living off the proceeds of the end of Empire back then. They believe that the shipyards will reopen, but sadly they won’t’. (4)
In 1968 when The Who were at their peak and The Rolling Stones were complaining that sleepy London Town was ‘no place for a street fighting man’, Lacan famously characterized the students protesting at Vincennes as hysterics in search of a master. If their British counterparts, now in their 70s and in retirement, are anything to go by, they are still looking. Complaints about the ‘elite’ or the ‘establishment’, ubiquitous throughout the campaign are evidently instances of a repetition of the hysterical revolt against the master’s surplus enjoyment that keeps him out of touch and indifferent to the plight of ‘ordinary, decent people’, in the words of Nigel Farage. However, as the popularity of this example shows, the problem is not that there is a political elite, but rather that this elite is not masterful enough, won’t properly incarnate the signifier of English identity and law. In the absence of such an effective master signifier, as Freud noted, hatred for other people can substitute for the leader as a principle of unification that enables a social bond. In his piece ‘Racism 2.0’, Eric Laurent writes how Lacan predicted that the post-1968 period that buzzed with ‘the talk of the end of paternal power … that found the principle of its fraternity in the hedonism of the body’, would be precisely where a new type of racism would take root.(5) Always driven by the pursuit of happiness in the form of consumption and the satisfactions of the body, happiness has proved rather difficult for this generation. In their advancing age they are increasingly confronted with the impasse of their pleasure. Perhaps the depression that characterizes many of them is not because they are dispossessed, but because they are possessed of so much, too many complicated gadgets of a new technological world that is experienced as invasive and ravaging – an experience that finds its correlate in distress at the proximity of foreign bodies and their unfamiliar speech.
As Daltrey attests, the generation that neglected to die before they got old have now lost their youth and the benefits of Empire; they’ve lost their ‘swing’. But it is only in this sense that theirs is a ‘revolt of the dispossessed’. The imaginary deficit has produced a plus-de-jouir in the resentment towards immigrants, specifically their ‘benefits’ that are guaranteed by the EU, such as access to health care, schools and so on. The Leave campaign was of course fought and won on the issue of immigration. There was in the end no other issue that was effective, and it really was effective. It wasn’t the economy, stupid, but jouissance that’s gone way off track. Is that now the future of politics?
Alas for the xenophobes, the UK’s perfidious politicians promising ‘control’ have actually no intention of radically reducing immigration, as Tory minister and leading Brexiteer Daniel Hannan let slip the day after the election. But they do acknowledge the problem of these ‘benefits’ that attach themselves to the principle of the free movement of labour. What is important for these politicians is not the movement of labour within Europe as such, but the opportunity of a global free market in which the price of labour can be driven down as far as possible, migrant workers perhaps being bussed in and out, as in China. This is the ‘control’ on immigration that is offered by the market. If the UK does not effectively remain in the EU (perhaps via the mechanism of some second referendum), the promise is ‘a country reduced to little more than an offshore piggy bank for clandestine foreign capital, administered by an ascendant class … with a wish to manage a sort of service hub for the emerging global oligarchy. Think Monaco with crap weather’.(6) Used to the weather, it is a prospect that UKIP and many in the Conservative Party will welcome.
And then there’s the Party supposed to represent labour that appears to be in meltdown – or perhaps about to undergo a much more radical, progressive transformation. Corbyn and his inner circle are lifelong Eurosceptics and if they did not positively sabotage the Remain cause, they supported it in accordance with official Labour policy reluctantly and without enthusiasm. The relatively ineffectual nature of this campaign and the impression of incompetence has however proved to be a spectacular success in clearing the Party of its shadow cabinet and outing its renegade MPs. Irrespective of any new leadership challenge, Corbyn will win given the overwhelming support of new Labour members. The traditional Labour Party has committed suicide, and we will presumably see the rapid de-selection of the Labour MPs in favour of a new generation drawn from his supporters. At that point Corbyn’s work is done. These new members are justifiably angry and frustrated at the status quo, but I wonder if they are truly aware what direction the new re-invigorated Party will take, steered by Corbyn’s generation of old Cold War Warriors. Following the lead of Corbyn, Seamus Milne and John McDonnell it will now be unabashed in its Anti-American, anti-Israel, anti-EU position. It will promise to withdraw from NATO and give up Britain’s nuclear deterrent. But is it possible to be elected on this platform?
The future under the Tories will be increasingly bleak, but wiped out in Scotland (who will in any case likely secede from the Union), the problem for Labour is to somehow unify their support in the ethnically diverse urban centres and in the largely de-industrialized regions particularly in the North of England, areas that voted in opposing ways in the referendum, and that seem to share very different values, particularly regarding diversity. If they are not completely delusional, Corbyn’s closest colleagues know that he is not such a unity candidate. He will need to make way for a different kind of leader, someone who can discipline the young and appeal directly to the working classes and their concerns, someone perceived as ‘strong’, perhaps, someone who can, in the absence of a master signifier, at least simulate the semblance of lost mastery through an appeal to the jouissance of the body unified in a fragile image of corporate narcissism – in effect, the kind of psychotic nationalism we see proliferating everywhere. But maybe England can link with someone, if not the EU or Scotland. Seamus Milne, Corbyn’s chief advisor, is a good friend of Vladimir Putin, someone who would clearly have valuable advice about the leadership qualities required, and welcome Labour’s new direction in international relations. At the annual Valdai discussion meeting in Sochi in 2014, Milne questioned the Russian leader about his international strategy and goals, suggesting that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia ‘can’t lead in the current global order, but it can decide who leads’.(7)
1 A Eurosceptic since the 1970s and notorious for not having changed a political view or position in his life, Corbyn has openly admitted to having voted ‘no’ in the original 1975 ECC referendum and against the ratification of the Maastrict Treaty in 1993 and the Lisbon Treaty of 2009. According to The Times, on the evening of the referendum, the Labour leader told a fellow diner that he was voting out. (The Times, 28.06.16: 7)
2 Polly Toynbee. ‘This is now Project Betrayal and we are all victims’, The Guardian. 27.06.16.
3 Editorial, ‘Boris in Denial’ The Times. 28.06.16
4 Rosemary Bennett, The Times. 25.06.16.
5 Roger Daltrey, ‘Why I’m Voting Leave’, The Daily Mirror. 22.06.16.
7 Peter Wilby, ‘The Thin Controller’, The New Statesman. 16.04.16.