What then has this referendum been about? The people of Britain have spoken, but there is still no clarity about just what it is that they are supposed to have said. We wake up to the news of a country more fractured, more divided than ever before – not just in against out, but also North against South, old against young, haves against have nots, them against us. One immediate result of the referendum and its binary choice seems to have been a radical entrenching of positions along with the erosion of any obvious common grounds.
If anything, the people of Britain have said ‘No!’ But are we any better informed now about what they have said no to? The debate, if that is the appropriate term for it, leading up to the referendum has been noteworthy for the absence of factual information, for wild and unchallenged claims from both sides. The right to hold an opinion about the issues at stake in the referendum seems to have given licence on one hand to a discourse of wishful thinking and flagrant denial of reality and on the other hand to the worst kinds of prejudices and xenophobia, the hatred of the Other in all its guises.
In effect, this has been a vote for disconnection. Disconnection from Europe, yes, but also disconnection from the Establishment, from politicians, from experts and advisers of all kinds, and ultimately disconnection from reality itself. Disconnection from the Other and from reality, however, is not without consequences. The assassination of one of our politicians in the week before the referendum was not enough to cause people to reconsider the direction in which we were heading. The Lacanian formula that what is rejected in the symbolic returns in the real remains the most reliable framework for considering where we go next.
We are thus faced with a vote for disconnection that gives voice to a sentiment of disaffection. A self-perpetuating circuit, a closed circle turning around the disaffection associated with the experience of many, the majority apparently, of having been ignored, having been overlooked, betrayed, let down, left behind by those they trusted to take care of their interests. If only there were anything to suggest that the consequences of this vote are likely to do anything other than aggravate the very grievances that led to this outcome in the first place.
But at the same time there has been nothing to suggest that this vote entailed any kind of consideration of consequences. It has rather been a kind of collective tantrum, an ejection of the dummy from the pram without any thought for what comes next. Hence the sense in the aftermath of a bubble bursting, which may in the end turn out to mark the bursting of the bubble of the neo-liberal discourse itself, the discourse that assured us that economic self interest was supposed to trump all other considerations, was supposed to provide the framework of our common good and the rationale of our delayed gratification.
This referendum, supposedly an exercise in democracy, has effectively given rise to an uncontrolled knee-jerk reaction, even if under the guise of giving the politicians a good kicking. The result only serves to accentuate the erosion and loss of credibility of political discourse itself. To some extent the referendum can be taken as a symptom of the decline of representative democracy and its replacement with something that continues to operate under the same name while following a different logic. At the most immediate level it cultivates and legitimates the worst kinds of prejudices dressed up as the right to have a say on any given topic without having to pay regard either to the facts of the matter or to the consequences of what is said.
Are we to consider this exercise of their democratic right by the British people, then, from the angle of an acting out or as a passage to the act? To some extent we might consider the vote for disconnection as a call to the Other, as a paradoxical attempt to shore up the Other, to maintain a notion of an Other from which it might be possible to separate oneself, while remaining connected in some confused or undefined way. Many compromise solutions floated in the aftermath of this result suggest this kind of relation.
The rhetoric of protest politics, after all, relies on the idea of an Other that we might reject, an Other that is the cause and the source of all our woes, whether this Other be Europe or the political Establishment more generally. One of the dominant themes cultivated by British politics over the years, an aspect of the chronic Euroscepticism of the Conservative party, has been this seductive image of Europe as the cause of all our ills. They can hardly now complain when they find this discourse turning against them.
It is more alarming, however, to discover that not only does this Other not exist in the way we believed, but that the very act of disconnection, of striking at the heart of the inconsistencies of this Other, may well have triggered its terminal dissolution. This opens the door to a different kind of politics, a politics of fragmentation and aggression, where we find ourselves struggling to come to terms with a host of little others either all too different or all too like ourselves, but without the stabilising system of representative democracy to contain these divergent tendencies.
One thing that does seem to stand out in the immediate aftermath of this referendum is that the outcome is more than likely to lead to an aggravation of the very problems that gave rise to it in the first place. What will those who voted for this brave new world do when they discover that those who promised them a solution to their ills are unable to deliver on the promises that everyone agrees were unrealistic in the first place? Where will they turn when it turns out they have been let down once again and the very system of political democracy no longer provides a framework for the expression of their grievances? We have all woken up today to a slightly more precarious future.
London, Saturday 25 June, 2016