I wrote this essay in mid-July after being commissioned to do so by the Brazilian cultural magazine piauí. It appears in Portuguese here. Since the magazine have kindly given me permission to publish it in English on my blog, I thought I may as well do so; however I understand it may be of little interest considering that the destruction of the country is basically over and the news agenda has now moved on to the far more important business of the Labour party.
(apologies also for moments of over-explication; obviously, this is aimed at a Brazilian audience – an audience who may, quite realistically, be expected not to spend their every waking moment thinking about UK politics).
What does Brexit feel like?
One suggestion: it feels like being punched in the face, only very slowly. We should have seen the fist coming towards us – the referendum had been on the cards since January 2013 – but we ignored it, we didn’t spot it until it was too late, and only the horrible crunch of knuckles on teeth, the wrench of our lip splitting, the taste of blood in our mouth, alerted us to what was really going on. Nobody really thought we’d vote to leave the European Union – and now we have.
Another suggestion: Brexit feels like you’re a trapped animal, whose prison is beginning to fill up with water. You start to panic, your heart races, you scuttle around trying to look for a way out, you scurry up the walls, you make strange chittering noises in fear and in pain. Eventually, you realise that the accident which has caused your cage to flood has also blocked off the one means by which you might have been able to escape. Your best course of action would be to accommodate yourself to a reality in which you can no longer breathe. This is what it is like to be a citizen of the UK, now that the fact of Brexit has been established.
In the days following the Brexit vote, I felt like I was spending my whole time in a state of elevated sensory consciousness, a troubling high from which there was no coming down. Everything was too big, too loud, too close, and too much of it was happening at once. The Prime Minister had resigned, and it was only item two or three on the news. The pound had crashed – worse than it had ever crashed before – the economy was on the verge of collapse, and the public had just given us a democratic mandate – a mandate which we must respect, everyone insists – to compound the damage. The official opposition, far from taking the opportunity to assert its own credentials to govern, was busy mounting a bizarre, clearly futile coup attempt against its hugely popular leader. The previous week, an outspokenly pro-immigration MP had been murdered – shot – by a neo-fascist; after the Leave vote, there had been a marked upsurge in reports of racist attacks.
“I didn’t really think we’d leave,” the chorus of any number of hapless Leave voters on the news. “I just wanted to shake things up.” The world had been plunged, apparently deliberately, into stupidity and chaos. I, personally, felt like I was spiralling out of control. I couldn’t sleep, I could barely eat, I wasn’t exercising; I was just sat at my computer all day refreshing the news, refreshing social media, waiting for events to become clearer. I felt like I wanted to move forward, not in any particular direction, maybe in every direction at once, just go somewhere, do something. If I wasn’t in a relationship, I would probably have tried to have sex with a stranger. What options were left open to me? Maybe I could throw myself, hard, into a wall.
The fact of ‘Brexit despair’ is already well-established. I was not the only one who had been jolted, by the result, into this particular state of fevered anxiety: I know that these feelings are shared, almost universally across everyone I love or know, or at least amongst those people who are roughly the same age as me. Beyond the anecdotal, a poll by the London School of Economics has revealed that 55% of Remain voters “cried or felt like crying” when they discovered the result. 67% of voters under the age of 40 said they felt “angry” at the result; 72% that they were “frustrated”; 61% “disgusted”.
Who does Brexit despair typically effect? Well, I suppose I would say: ‘people like me’. By which I mean: people who are young, typically urban-dwelling, liberal or leftist, well-educated – from middle-class backgrounds – and poor – crucially, we are (in general) poorer than our parents were at an equivalent age, and we have little if any prospect of getting any richer. We are the children of the financial crisis – the events of 2008 have marked our identities indelibly.
We were raised, I think, to seek security: this was always the message we had hammered home to us at school, that if we worked hard, and went to university, we would probably avoid ever being unemployed, the bare minimum for us would be a steady – if unfulfilling – job. By 30, we would probably own houses, have pensions, and be solidly partnered or married, with the prospect of children. But all of this seems impossibly distant to us now. As soon as we started university, or maybe as soon as we graduated, all possibilities of long-term security seemed to vanish. And even as the economy – however slowly – mended itself, the free-market ideologues in the Cameron government made sure that this security would not, for people like us, ever return. Pick any career that you might conceivably wish to pursue – I mean wish to pursue because you are motivated not solely by money. Think journalism, academia, technology, teaching, medicine, the arts. Well, it is almost certainly the case that you will never, in this world, experience a moment where you can both pursue this career successfully, and have a chance to stop and catch your breath – unless of course you are one of the lucky few, so blessed that your life almost seems like it must be inhuman. At best you must keep constantly running forward, just to stay in the same place.
This, at any rate, is how I have experienced adult life. Largely out of a fear of stopping entirely (which is mostly a fear of never being allowed to start again), I have never stopped working at my chosen career – academia. I finished my PhD thesis in three years, but I have, to be honest, ruined my health: my muscles ache all the time now; I walk with a limp; I have developed psoriasis all over my scalp and thighs; an acid reflux problem has eroded all the enamel on the back of my teeth – I can’t afford the dental work I need to stop my front teeth from collapsing. My whole physical existence in the world is characterised by constant low-key pain. And still I can’t stop, still I am in no way established as an academic, still I cannot even secure interviews for anything more lucrative than temporary adjunct teaching work. The vertigo of inertia still threatens.
Having grown up through experiences like these, I am not sure that we ever really can be secure – even if we obtained our goal, I am not sure that we would ever feel like we had really, properly achieved it – I mean to the extent that we can relax. Home ownership, having a pension… these are not the sort of things that I will ever really think could possibly be ‘for me’. Maybe having children is, I can see that: but then I think this is possibly just a quirk of my own life history, resultant from my partner having been a nanny, when we first met, and my having enjoyed helping her take care, on occasion, of the little girls she looked after.
So what do we look for, what do we pursue? Why do we bother working at all? Generally speaking, I think, without the prospect of security we have picked ‘experience’. We will never have enough money to be prosperous, but – and in particular, with the safety net of the private property that our parents do own – we have enough to try and be interesting. And so we live in a way that allows us to accumulate experiences, of whatever sort. We spend our money on going out, going on holiday, on frivolous luxuries, on supporting ourselves through doomed forays into the creative arts, on studying for Master’s degrees that will make us less rather than more employable. And, of course, a lot of this involves taking advantage of the freedom of movement that our EU citizenship provides: for our parents’ generation, Eastern Europe in particular was like another, alien world – for us, the whole continent is just part of our back-garden, and it feels quite natural for us not only to go travelling there, but to live there as well (for instance, as an example from personal experience: I met my partner, also a UK citizen, while we were both living in Berlin).
This is, I think, a large part of what we are despairing over. Denied security by the powers that be, we have swapped it for experience: but now the possibilities of experience, too, are being eroded. And this is not necessarily just about freedom of movement, either: the prospect of a new financial crisis also looms – and, with it, still fewer opportunities, even to make enough money to explore the world. The trapped animal is clawing at the sides of its prison, desperately trying to find some way to burrow out, as the water starts rising, with increasing rapidity. It shakes and mewls and whines, somehow hoping that this might stave off its doom.
“This is just bourgeois moaning,” my friend David tells me when I discuss this with him, increasingly belligerent despite our being only two pints in. “Your despair isn’t real: you’re just afraid that you won’t be able to move back to Berlin whenever you want to. But, for one thing: that’s fucking ridiculous anyway. You have a PhD, you could easily get a job there. And then even if they did take away our freedom of movement, you’d still be allowed to go. And moreover: we probably won’t even end freedom of movement anyway. As if the Tories would allow that, given that it goes against the interests of their constituents – which it does, since it disproportionately effects middle-class people. You need to think of the people who voted Leave. As if the young people who voted Leave ever saw moving to Europe as an option to begin with. Freedom of movement was a bad thing for them, and they’re the ones who would be more effected by another financial crash anyway.”
There is an element of this to our Brexit despair, of course. It is a despair that has, in many ways, been produced by our privilege – both cultural and educational. It was because of our privileged class background that we were able to exist in this ‘open’ way towards Europe in the first place – which allowed us to benefit from it, which thus allows us to feel the loss of our EU citizenship precisely as a loss. The people who voted to Leave were, a lot of them, not nearly as lucky as we have been. And if there really is another crisis, then it’s these young people who will be – in particular – fucked: not just ‘moving in with your parents’ fucked but homeless, can’t feed your family fucked.
Having said that: I think that the sources of Brexit despair probably do go deeper than this. For one thing, it still exists amongst British people I know who have dual citizenship with other EU nations; as well as amongst EU migrants I know, many of whom have spent a significant amount of their lives in the UK, hence identifying with Britain in some important way. The despair isn’t just about whether or not you or I as individuals can leave the UK, or are free to explore the world or live our lives however we might wish to or whatever; it is about what the Brexit vote says about Britain, about what the UK has become.
What does Brexit say about the UK?
To understand what Brexit says about the UK, we have to understand what people were actually voting for. The EU referendum campaign was a messy, amorphous, undefined thing – as my friend Sam Kriss has observed, you might as well have just given everyone a ballot paper that said ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, with no question on it asking them what they were saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to. Do you want to reject reality? Vote No. Affirm it? Vote Yes. This, then – according to Sam – is why Brexit won: because more people wanted to reject rather than affirm whatever presently exists. To my mind however, there are at least two things that people actually voted Leave to achieve. They wanted to limit immigration, and they wanted to ‘Take Back Control’ (as the Leave campaign’s slogan went) from the European Union.
Certainly, one can sympathise with this desire to take back control from the EU. The EU is a corrupt, anti-democratic, technocratic hell-organisation, whose overarching purpose is to promote and preserve a neoliberal consensus across its member states, often using economic violence to enforce this consensus. It is entirely appropriate to look at the EU and think: this is an organisation that needs reform; to look at its recent actions in Greece and Portugal and think: someone needs to send a strong message to this organisation, that it cannot carry on treating its member states like this. Hence, the ‘left-wing’ case for voting to Leave the European Union, voiced at the outset of the campaign by the likes of Aaron Bastani and Paul Mason (although Mason – it should be added – did not actually support a Leave vote).
This desire to ‘take back control’ expresses a form of alienation: the EU is a distant, inscrutable thing with a law all of its own, which we do not understand, which we cannot hope to shape in any way. The instinct to take back control is the instinct to bring the law back down to earth, to make it something that we are freely – hence, potentially transformatively – oriented towards. Thus, to close the democratic deficit that exists between member states and the EU. This is the instinct behind ‘Lexit’; it is also, interestingly, the instinct behind a lot of the traditional right-wing case to Leave the European Union, the cause that has existed since the Tory right were defeated by John Major over Maastricht – the EU of ‘banana-straightening’ fame, who exist solely to impose a bizarre canon of arcane rules and regulations, needlessly bulldozing over good old-fashioned British common sense.
But in the context of the referendum campaign, this was not in fact what ‘taking back control’ turned out to amount to. Technically, the EU referendum was about considering the option to Leave against David Cameron’s ‘renegotiated’ EU deal, a package which was almost entirely focused on limiting immigration – in particular, attempting to disincentivise immigration to the UK by limiting the sorts of rights and benefits that EU migrants can claim here. Hence, the EU always figured within the referendum debate as an organisation which specifically prevents the UK from controlling its own borders – and this is what, in the context of the Leave campaign, we needed to ‘take back control’ from.
This allowed the debate to become dominated by anti-immigrant rhetoric, encouraged by the likes of Leave figurehead Boris Johnson – at this point, still cynically angling for the Tory leadership – and UKIP leader Nigel Farage: the man who had, during the Cameron years, pretty much single-handedly made Euroscepticism and xenophobia part of the national political conversation again. On both sides, there was the assumption that immigration was a problem, that present levels of immigration were somehow ‘unsustainable’, that we needed to limit it; that the problems that our economy is presently experiencing could be blamed in some way on immigration from within the EU. The only question, really, was how much immigration needed to be limited, what ‘sensible levels’ of immigration were. Indeed, probably the only major political figure who didn’t pander to UKIP’s setting of the debate was the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, latterly (and, to be honest, almost certainly not uncoincidentally) blamed by his own MPs for not putting in a ‘strong enough performance’ during the campaign.
So, this is what Brexit says about the UK: Brexit says that the UK is becoming increasingly racist, xenophobic, and closed. It is becoming the sort of place that is not welcoming to strangers, to new things, to heterodox cultures or values. Anti-immigrant sentiment has become normalised in the mainstream political debate – to the extent that you need to express ‘concerns’ about immigration to appear, to the media, electorally credible. And this has, of course, trickled down to the streets as well: reports of racist and xenophobic accounts have ceased to be exceptional, and have become everyday.
In short, I think, Brexit despair results in no small part from the fact that Britain is becoming the sort of place that ‘the likes of us’ – the educated, the cosmopolitan, the young, who are experiencing Brexit despair – would no longer wish to affirm, that we find ourselves unable to identify with. And that, simultaneously, the moment in which our estrangement from Britain as it now exists has been confirmed – the vote to Leave – has cut us off from something else which we could have looked to, to form something like an alternative identity, based on our European citizenship, or on some notion of (a more open, a more liberal) ‘Britain within Europe’. Hence, this despair is resultant from a sense that we have now become alienated from the political community in which we are forced to exist – and will continue to be forced to exist in for the foreseeable future. If not a literal prison, then Britain is a weight that we have had tied to our legs, that we are forced to drag along with us at all times: our British identity has become nothing other than disabling, an obstacle to be negotiated around.
“But think about the people who voted to Leave in Clacton,” my friend David again, referring to the impoverished seaside town about twenty minutes on the train from where we are, represented in parliament by Douglas Carswell, the UK’s sole UKIP MP. “They were already alienated. And their alienation is much worse.” I’ve barely even said anything, but I know that I’m being accused. Where is my solidarity?
Post-Brexit, the news has regularly wheeled out segments treating us to the startling sight of ‘working class’ people who voted to Leave – the typical version of this segment involves the reporter visiting a ‘deprived’ area with a high Leave vote, where they will then set about looking for the palest, most wretched, most withered-looking individual in town to hold up as a freak, to get them to spout the most incoherent, formally contradictory nonsense possible about how immigrants are taking their jobs (especially the ones who don’t have jobs), about how we need to send them all home, back to their own country (especially the ones who were born here), about how Britain needs to be for the British (the white British) once again (for a document that mingles this style of reportage with serious and enlightening reflection, see this from Novara media). These people are clearly the victims of generations of exclusionary government policies, which have failed to provide for their communities in even the most basic way; which have failed to give them jobs or proper healthcare or access to good education, or to anything that might give their lives meaning.
So I do not want to dispute that anti-immigrant sentiment has been able to gain a foothold in the UK as a result of the way in which people – including working class people – feel alienated from their political community: aware that they need to ‘take back control’ from something, a lot of people have (mistakenly) settled on immigrants – hence, the EU – as the object which they need to overcome (as opposed to say, the Tories’ destructive economic policies). What I do want to dispute is that this alienation is something solely experienced by members of the traditional working class, hence that it is these people – the jobless, the uneducated, the 11-childrened, the unwashed – who can now be blamed for what has happened. Brexit didn’t happen just because it was voted for by a bunch of idiotic povvos with clownishly false consciousnesses: a lot of middle-class people voted for it too – in particular older people, and people who live outside of major cities. The focus on the traditional working classes – which has resulted, I think, because a lot of experts were surprised that these people voted at all, whereas we always knew the elderly were Eurosceptic – has, aside from threatening to turn into a freak show, in many ways let these other people off the hook.
Why did the UK vote for Brexit?
The alienation of the working classes is primarily economic. The middle classes, no matter where they live, are not alienated from the economic system: they can afford healthcare, education, good houses. They have professional jobs, they go on holiday. But in the UK, the provincial working and middle classes share a form of alienation: a distinctive form of cultural alienation.
This cultural alienation can be seen all around us, just not in the places that ‘people like us’ – educated, cosmopolitan, young people – would ever seriously look. It is as if it is under every rock. It is manifested in the facebook statuses that your mad aunt posts, or your friends who never left your hometown. It is the world described in the Daily Express newspaper, where we are supposed to be constantly under threat from refugees, gay people, even ghosts. It can be overheard in provincial pubs, in queues at the shop, at bus stops. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown encountered it when he met Gillian Duffy, the moment which arguably derailed his 2010 general election campaign.
Isolated in the provinces, where their thinking and experience can pretty much spin frictionless from reality, these people have developed a radically different understanding – to how ‘people like us’ have – of how the modern world actually is. They think that people can earn hundreds of thousands of pounds a year on state benefits if they ‘choose’ not to work; they think that a majority of five year-olds can’t speak any English; they think that heterosexual marriages are about to be banned. They aren’t typically religious, but they are credulous to reports from psychics and past lives. They are drawn to conspiracy theories. During the referendum, a pamphlet circulated from Hemel Hempstead’s UKIP branch claiming that a vote for Remain would mean that the National Health Service would be privatised, the British Army disbanded, and that we would abolish the Queen. The Brexit campaign has been described as the bastion of a new, ‘post-facts’ politics. This is really what this means: cultural alienation has allowed these people to inhabit an entirely different symbolic order from their largely urban, culturally unalienated fellow citizens.
It is this alternative, ‘mainstream’ reality that people in the provinces have voted overwhelmingly to reject. Hence why the likes of Boris Johnson – once head boy at Eton, England’s poshest private school – and Nigel Farage, a millionaire former stockbroker – can plausibly describe their campaign as being about “kicking out the elites.” Once the elites are gone – the mainstream understanding of the world which you are alienated from – you will be allowed to believe whatever you want about Muslims, about gay people, and about what ‘black-eyed ghost children’ might be about to do to your dog.
All of this is, thus, about ‘taking back control’. And specifically, I think, it is about trying to ‘take back control’ by severing Britain from the modern world, the world that has left the provinces – either economically or culturally – behind. Sometimes I think that the most telling misconception that these people have is that Britain is a “small island” – you will hear this line repeated a lot – or that it is “too full.” Britain is just an island, but it is in fact a fairly large one, and it is by no means full: it is for instance only marginally more densely populated than Germany. This is, incidentally, why most people will tell you we can’t afford to take in any more immigrants: that we just don’t have the space for them, there aren’t enough houses, not enough schools, enough hospitals. But this is a logistical issue: the correct response ought to be to expand our capacity, to build more. Brexit, by contrast, will shrink the economy, make us smaller.
But then, ‘smaller’ is, I think, exactly what these alienated people want. Alienation, indeed, typically manifests itself in a feeling that the alien structure is too big, too huge to understand: just think of the sort of institutions described by Kafka, the great writer of alienation – his portrayal, in ‘The Great Wall of China’, of the imperial court as something so vast that, even if the emperor wanted to communicate with you (you personally), it would take the whole of the messenger’s lifetime just for him to exit the innermost palace – and that is nothing compared to the insurmountable distance he would have to travel in order to actually reach you in the provinces. Hence, it seems quite natural to attempt to overcome alienation by shrinking the structures we are attempting to grapple with: to make them small enough to seem familiar, so that we can understand them.
This is really, I think, the same logic that – during the Cameron years up until the Brexit vote – informed austerity (I mean that it was, as it were, austerity’s libidinal appeal). The state is too big, it is ‘out of control’, so we must shrink it to get it back under control. Brexit is austerity as foreign policy: since Britain is too full up, we must sever it from the global bloodstream, shrink it to a healthy size. This is the same sort of common sense that made leeching, to the medieval imagination, seem like it ought to be an effective form of medical treatment.
Call this a drive towards ‘closedness’. These people, the Brexiters, want to suck as much energy from reality as possible – they probably would have honestly preferred it when there had been nothing in existence at all. They want to live in a country that is as closed to the world as they are; they want to cordon themselves off from it, to be pure and clean, just on their own. This is the end-game of Thatcher’s “there is no society, just individuals and their families” – these people are the ‘atomised individuals’ you hear about; and their only wish is for a world in which they can be still more atomised, where nobody can touch them, where nobody can hold them to account. Hence why these people are also closed to facts, and indeed to the whole practice of reason-giving in the context of a debate – they will not listen to anything that contradicts their worldview. For the bigoted relative who you foolishly attempt to argue with on facebook, everything will resolve into a “well that’s just my opinion, isn’t it?”
It is just for this reason, too, that Brexit is not exactly a matter of false consciousness. It will be economically disastrous, it will damage the working classes immensely: but it will probably deliver exactly what these provincial, middle-class Brexiters really want. They can take the economic hit; they are willing to pay good money to be this isolated.
This is also why we are right, I think – to return to ‘people like me’ for a moment – to feel such despair over the Leave vote. Whilst there may well be an element to the Leave vote of the working classes kicking back against austerity, the primary drive behind it is a worldview of closedness, isolation – provincial British nihilism. This worldview now stands triumphant over us all; even with Theresa May – rather than the Brexit true believer Andrea Leadsom, her closest contender for the Tory leadership – as Prime Minister, it will set the political agenda for years to come.
Snip, our link to Europe will be severed. Crash, the economy will come collapsing down. Puff, our opportunities to make a life away from our parents will disappear. Slump, we will be forced to drag ourselves back into our parents’ spare rooms, unable to afford a place to live of our own. Back, for the most part, to the suburbs, where there is nothing, and where nothing is to be preferred. Back into the gilded prison, of the houses we grew up in, the homes which will become our tombs.