by Colin Gordon, Oxford for Europe.
How should Pro-EU campaigners in the UK work with EU citizens after Brexit?
Who and what was Brexit about and what will its backers attempt next?
Morals for Remainers: battle-fatigue, bad advice and reasons to resist.
Brexit is an act of violence, against truth and democracy, against human lives and ties, against civility and public decency. It is an enterprise of massive corruption and organised radicalisation, converting the vulnerable into addicts of hate.
Much of the world outside sees clearly enough what has happened to us, as clearly as uncorrupted observers in the UK. It is bemused, saddened, shocked by what it sees. Most world opinion does not see our recent history as a natural episode in a nation’s life. EU opinion is not indifferent, but neither is it disarrayed. The European bus does not stop because we have got off. There are many other cases within the EU which bear some similarity to ours, and a number which are worse, or more menacing, or both. Right now, it is a good thing for the world that we are not as important as we wish to imagine.
Some of us see the Brexit story less as a moral tale of the inglorious sequel to our past national arrogance and impunity. We, the UK, were the imperial predator and despoiler of the globe; now we are the capital of the offshore, the pariah banker of oligarchs and kleptocrats, with Brexiter sovereignty our protecting barrier against unwanted inspection by international rule-based order.
Our European neighbours have shown commendable, indeed remarkable serenity, resolution and stoicism in responding to the shock of Brexit. They have risen to the occasion and passed their test, at least so far. They have kept faith with their values and rules. They have recognised a threat, and their response is so far coordinated and purposive. Nevertheless, Brexit and what it does to the UK is not nothing. Until yesterday German opinion leaders saw the UK as a bastion or beacon of reason. Now, we are liable be re-categorised as a source of contagion, an exemplar of bad practice, a cautionary tale. The EU does not see Brexit as a rebuke to its failings, or failure to cater for Britain’s special needs, but as a warning sign of threats and tendencies to which the EU is also not immune and which its own survival requires it to check.
Brexit has not been a rerun of WW2, and New Year 2021 is not another 1945; it does not call for a new UN, a new Bretton Woods, a new NATO or a new EU.
Our friends in Europe and the democratic world community are not looking for a grand bargain which splits the difference between the values of the EU and the values of Trump and Brexiters. The world did not (in most cases) talk in 1945 of reconciling the values of democracy and genocide. The true friends who share our values, who pro-European UK democrats desire and need to work with, will work with us more seriously and purposefully if they find we share their values, beginning with the respect for truth. Truth and Reconciliation has been an acclaimed formula for civil healing following the defeat of tyranny. It is important to stress that the value of truth mattered here as much as the work of reconciliation. So it must be in our recovery from Brexit. People who offer to triangulate between a government of lies and democratic values are free to ply their trade; they will doubtless always find sponsors. Would-be peacemakers whose first compromise offer is to compromise the truth do not represent us, and should not be allowed to claim to do so.
Our friends abroad will doubtless analyse, often more percipiently than us, the case history of Brexit, its precursors and influences, its technicians, string pullers and paymasters. The sad truth is that the world’s best critical intelligences do not see the UK’s problems as their core concern, while our own flickering luminaries and their faltering critical integrity and sluggish investigative intelligence seem too often victim to the intimidated or media-sedated torpor of the general population – and/or too willing to adjust their narrative to the scripts of power. International political science for its part offers bland depoliticised classifications and definitions of populism which filter out the urgency, singularity and violence of the particular present.
What our friends see is what we can see ourselves, at least on a good day: Trumpism and Brexit are kindred and allied projects and products. Trumpism is and has been part of a concerted wider assault on democracy and legality in the USA, sponsored by oligarchic and state actors. Trumpism has – apparently, and at least for the moment – been denied its decisive triumph. Here, the power-machine of Brexit, the Brit-Trumpism of Johnson, has captured the UK state, at least for now.
For those who imagine Brexit’s only goal was Brexit, and that we have therefore now reached its nadir, 2021 and beyond may have some unpleasant shocks in store. It remains to be seen whether the antiquated and effete UK civil polity can muster the democratic will and resilience which in the US appear (for now, this time) to have denied Trump his dictatorship. It would almost certainly be wrong and complacent to anticipate that the nominal completion of Brexit will satisfy the ambitions of its backers. The nominal success, arguably, masks a real defeat, and possibly but not necessarily an immediate or slow implosion or collapse, or a slow relapse into the gravitational economic domination of the EU. The driving fuel of Brexit is sustained aggression and weaponised mass resentments. To retain its current hegemony, and secure some return on investment in terms of its core business ideological agenda, this enterprise must be seen to deliver further change over and above the symbolic gratification of “independence”, and it must fortify its hold on power against the threat of future criminal sanctions. The road to right-wing demagogic unfreedom stands open, and there will be incentives for the current regime, whose inclinations have already been well signalled, to double down on them, if they are allowed to do so.
The best and bravest academics, investigators and whistle-blowers have uncovered enough of the oligarchic interests and power machineries underpinning the Brexit enterprise to give those who are so minded a chance of mounting more effective defences and democratic countermeasures. Students of Russia and Turkey, to name two examples, have given us valuable warning accounts of actual roads taken to unfreedom. We have enough data in granular detail on some of the story of how hard-right business money in the US built a machine to capture US politics and sponsored a machine to do the same in the UK. In the USA, the Kochs and their allies bought and captured the GOP. In the UK, the Kochs with their UK and US allies and proxies, Murdoch and Putin have, at least for now, bought, or captured, the Tory party, and, through it, our state. Our political cultures should still be capable of investigating and exposing this story, but since the referendum (if not before) there is an impression in the UK of people behaving as though they have been warned off from addressing this task in earnest. A new collaboration between the resistance to Brexit in the UK and its political allies in Europe and beyond should focus, as one of its major challenges, on assembling the supplement of courage needed to break this barrier: to name the unnameable, and make the invisible visible.
For while the response of the EU to Brexit has been acknowledged to have shown impressive and (for some) unexpected discipline and resolution, it is not clear whether the EU’s thinkers and voices, and the intelligent EU media commentariat which UK citizens may now have some reason to admire and envy, have discerned the core motive and purpose of the Brexit enterprise.
Brexit fundamentally is not about an ingrained imperial and anti-European exceptionalism of the UK national mentality. Consequently, our task in resisting Brexit is not to reconcile ourselves with Europe, it is to see off malicious attempts to isolate and divide us. UK exceptionalism is a fake debate, a trap for fools. Nor is Brexit, except in a contingent and exploitative sense, intrinsically about the (very real) resentments of despoiled losers in the lottery of neoliberal globalisation and its exacerbation since 2007-8. Brexit is not even primarily an enterprise to change the UK. What Brexit has been primarily about is a weaponising of the UK as an enterprise to attack and break the EU. Johnson and Gove were, for a moment, naively candid about this in their moment of victory on the morrow of the 2016 vote. ‘Independence day’, it transpired, was really ‘Victory over EU day’, day one of the planned degradation, destruction and dismantling of the EU as a serious challenge or hindrance to a consortium of Brexit-sponsoring corporate, ideological and state-mafia interests.
This became once again clear at the moment of truth of UK-EU trade deal negotiations in recent days and weeks. ‘Sovereignty’ trumped UK economic interest in the UK negotiating posture, because this (UK-specific) idea of sovereignty effectively implied the political illegitimacy of the European Union. As some legal experts have recently been at pains to remind us, the EU is not a state but a supranational legal artefact, and in consequence lacks some of the weapons and tools for offence and defence available to the national or imperial state – such as a full propagandist complement of ideological officiants of legitimacy and official historiographers. This is an engaging peculiarity of the EU, not unrelated to the paradox of why the EU can be at once (for many, in normal times) profoundly uninspiring, yet also in other respects essential and admirable. Hence, perhaps, the EU’s tacit pragmatic instinct not to overtly acknowledge the hostile intention which is the only true rationale of Brexit.
Brexit never was just about Brexit. Brexit is primarily a war-machine of the business and State-mafia alt-right against the EU. The EU is an imperfect, mortal and fallible entity but the current assault on the EU, of which Brexit has been a key strategic part, is one of the significant struggles of our time which we may be entitled to think of as having, even in a period of declining Western hegemony, some universal and world-historical meaning. And it is within this shared strategic context that serious consultation between pro-European British citizens and their friends in Europe and beyond should now be conducted.
There is after all, even on 1.1.2021, some reason for engaging this dialogue in a mood of hope. Arguably, the treaty now provisionally ratified between the EU and the UK has been a historic defeat for the Brexiter enterprise, now proven through its trial by negotiating combat to have been mendacious in its promises and impotent in its aggressive desire to harm (though prolific in its capacity for the knowing infliction of national economic self-harm). There is hope in the UK, even under Johnson, just as there is hope in the US, even in the face of fascist violence. Several EU states have seen off, at least for now, invasive challenges from the alt-right. Others may be under renewed threat. In others, the EU may possibly be able to repel back certain current and blatant challenges to the democratic legal order. The key issue is not just about whether, when and how the UK will rejoin the EU. The larger question of what the UK and the EU will be, and how to win the war over this issue, is the one around which democratic, civic dialogue between UK and EU citizens should be centred. Citizen activists and truth campaigners in the UK should not be passive beneficiaries of solidarity dispensed by their EU friends. They should be able to share their own experience of struggle for democratic renewal, while learning from and engaging with struggles in other EU nations to defend against assaults on truth and democracy.
In the UK now, pro-EU campaigners face what can be draining challenges to their morale and resolution. A grassroots political movement made up of often previously unpolitical citizens, motivated often by personal lived experience for a cause which commands variable and uncertain resources in the conventional political culture, and which is vulnerable to invasion or capture by external actors and forces, has fought an ongoing struggle to exist, to be heard, and to act effectively. For its efforts, it has been rewarded by the regular supercilious disparagement and mockery, not only of its powerful, media-entrenched and state-sponsored ideological antagonists, but often and even increasingly by the liberal republic of letters: disengaged pundits, commentators, public intellectuals and media-friendly academics. It has been remarkable, precisely at the moment when the Brexit enterprise had been exposed as never before in its intrinsic mendacity, how elements in the triangulating punditocracy have chosen to step forward to disparage the pro-EU People’s Vote campaign for its errors, its splits, its impotence and its failure.
Remainers are informed (as they have been since 24 June 2016), that they are suffering, and in need of recovery, from a quasi-clinical condition of ‘mourning’ and ‘resentment’. They are informed that they have lived, over years of campaigning activism, in a ‘bubble’ – a closed, privileged and artificial social media world with its closed version of truth which is symmetrical to and (by implication) epistemically and morally on a par with the opposite truth of Brexiters.
Remainers need to take a closer look at the people who are offering them this advice.
The question of harm, emotion, mental health and alt-right politics is complex, in part new, and fraught with traps for the unwary. The social media and data-powered methods of the alt-right (Breitbart, Murdoch, Banner, Putin, Surkov, Cummings et al) compromise the mental health both of its target support base, and of the opponents it targets and would like to silence. Governments wage a psy-ops and gaslighting war on their own population, designed to confuse, demoralise and disrupt democratic challenge. Damaged and vulnerable individuals are seduced by, and addicted to, tropes of stolen supremacy, resentment and hate. Pro-Europeans who are directly assaulted by these tropes, even in their actual fundamental personal and relational existences, are at risk of being deceived into interpreting their relation to reality primarily in terms of bereavement and grief, linked in turn to theories of the phases of reaction and adaptation to a traumatic experience. Unfortunately some of the exploitative and predatory potential of the use or abuse of such theories and metaphors has bypassed our defences: the idea that Brexit and its harms are a reality to which we are required to adapt, the idea that resentment of and resistance to Brexit are failed responses to trauma or failures of adaptation to reality – the idea of ‘Remoaners’ – are notions which some vulnerable individuals are liable to internalise and accept as reasons to disparage resistance and to legitimate surrender and resignation. In an era of commercialised self-help, it is worth affirming that to resist and practice solidarity in resistance is not only a good and sometimes a duty, it is also good for us. Brexit and Trump are real mental health hazards (and Covid-19 is another). We are in a time of damaged mental life. The art and science of public and political mental health are important and necessary parts our equipment for future struggle.
This is part of the story; it is not the whole or main story.
The main story is the malignant actors, and the accomplishment of their defeat.
Our societies – certainly the UK and the USA – have now been for some decades prey to industrial-scale enterprises of mass right-wing radicalisation. These projects are based on the codification of resentful and hateful victimhood, the violence of fake truth, and various forms of fake exceptionalism, racial supremacism and phobia of the other. The inauthenticity of their pretended radical revolt is total – they are manipulated, owned and controlled by plutocratic oligarchs and state mafias. They are not a governmental rationality – they are a ‘deconstruction of the administrative state’ (Bannon). They pursue a liquidation of the public sphere (with a particular, focussed hatred of public healthcare) and of any conception of the public good distinct from plutocratic and criminal interest, a malefic repurposing of government against government and against the governed, powered and armoured by fake science and calculated irrationality and mendacity. Their corruption, the organised spoliation of state assets, is method (contagion, collusion, compromise, co-option) as well as raw insolent vice. These are without doubt products and forms of the shock doctrine described by Naomi Klein, the method of violent surprise and shameless rapacity, exploiting in moments of exception the incapacity of the governed to grasp with sufficient speed that they are now in the care of criminals, not of benign shepherds.
Too many of our liberal intelligentsia still refuse to see or name this enterprise. They fear to recognise their enemy, and dismiss warning truth-tellers as conspiracy theorists. Their pundits dissolve strategic analysis into a diffuse moral epidemiology of modernity, mass society and digital life, a diagnosis of a latent micro-fascism of our species, lurking within each one of us. Humbly resigned to our inherent vice, we thus normalise our ruin.
This is one mental habit we must resolve to break, not alone and unaided but hopefully assisted during the next years by international solidarity with democratic allies to develop more concerted strategies for combatting, disarming and disempowering our common adversaries. Such a democratic alliance could be one of the key and necessary forces in making possible by the end of this decade the other overall objective we should from now on be working towards: a negotiated re-entry of the UK to the European Union.
Ari Rabin-Havt and Media Matters For America: Lies, Incorporated. The World of Post-Truth Politics
Naomi Klein: The Shock Doctrine. The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
Nancy Maclean: Democracy in Chains. The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America
Jane Mayer: Dark Money. How a Secretive Group of Billionaires Is Trying to Buy Political Control in the US
Timothy Snyder: The Road to Unfreedom. Russia, Europe, America
Oliver Bullough: Moneylands
Peter Geoghegan: Democracy For Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics
Nicholas Shaxson: Treasure Islands
Ece Temelkuran: How to Lose a Country: The 7 Steps from Democracy to Dictatorship
Colin Gordon: “The Road to Rejoin”, North East Bylines, Issue 25, January 2021