I will admit I recently fell into a bit of a political slump. Usually I’ve maintained, despite volatility, an optimism and a confidence in the left’s capacity to win, and the potential to build a future, but the labyrinthine collapse into personal grievances and polarized trench warfare that the issue of Brexit provokes has really tested that optimism with a choking, persistent aura of dread. Now that positions have calcified around an all or nothing scenario it’s difficult to see past the pissing contest that ensues, and attempting to do so has practically left me with a migraine… this, coupled with my creeping thoughts regarding the catastrophic consequences should the left be defeated again, has led me also to an exasperation; at the Remain camp as much as the leavers, if not more. Despite this, I’ll attempt to unravel my thoughts somewhat, if only to get this crushing feeling out of my head.
I oppose Brexit. I think it is, as it stands, something borne out of reactionary fantasy and mired in impossible promises, a conjured chimera presented as a kind of backward-looking medicine for our troubled times. This said, it didn’t emerge out of a vacuum; we have to understand our politics in terms of structures and networks of affect, not simply a series of events that happen out of the blue yonder, and Brexit is no different. It emerged due to a number of factors, promises made and campaign lines run on, but the core libidinal attractor of the Brexit vote was a distinct disaffection and sense of impotence. The lesson we can pull more broadly from the rise of the far right, of styled eccentric populism, of reactionary sentiment both here and across the atlantic, is a desire for change, and as it happens what precise form that change takes becomes of little importance. This is why Farage and others have found it so easy to appeal to their followers on the most simple terms, they have an understanding of what people are looking for, that being a way out of their predicament, and they have at their disposal a cabinet full of nice easy solutions for a cheap price.
In this regard, the fundamental error of the remain campaign, one that aligns with the error of the Clinton campaign, contradicts the initial surge of Corbynism, and one that has been made again and again, that we show no clear signs of learning from, is the lack of positive solutions. What Farage is increasingly pushing now is not only pulling on the disaffection soaking the very ground we stand on, but an optimistic vision and promise of how to escape it. Now from this position we can tell he’s selling snake oil, but that doesn’t belie precisely how well he’s selling the stuff, shifting boatloads not because “people are idiots” but because he knows, like any good capitalist, how to take hold of people’s desire, to fashion it into profit. This has been the major impasse of the left for some time now, the failure to deliver a positive vision. If we continue to campaign on the back of “we’re not those guys” or “not that”, we will fail, fail, and fail again, as this simply misunderstands where we’re at, through appealing instead of to a desire for change, to the desire of the bourgeoisie for things to stay the same.
This of course feeds into a widespread fantasy, one where we can speak magic, consign Brexit to some crazy episode of history and everything will revert back to a pre-brexit state where things definitely seemed more stable. Did they? We seem to have lost our memory. Surely this is the only explanation as to why we are so quick to reconcile none other than Alistair Campbell, key figure of the left’s neoliberal capitulation and architect of Blairite limbo, speaking as if he is some noble, beset upon figure. What of the Liberal Democrats. They have become no more convincing in their utter lack of conviction, refusal to stand for anything and readiness to say anything if it might lead to election success.. have we forgotten the part they played in ushering in the best part of a decade of Conservative rule? That despite their current opportunistic anti-Brexit platform they had been pushing for an EU referendum since about 2008? What do they represent more than some petit-bourgeois protest party? We claim to vote for them based on their lack of fence-sitting over Brexit while they are a party of fence-sitters. They do practically nothing but sit on fences all day and only announce a position if it might garner them more votes, making sure they can nimbly hop back onto the fence again at the first sign of difficulty, the Lib Dems are an answer to nothing and a home to nobody. They offer nothing but more of the same, turgid, grey dystopia, a melancholic attachment to the neoliberal boom of the 2000s.
And so this is the root of my fear, that due to the total dominance of Brexit as an issue we have completely lost sight of any kind of slightly large picture, that we will happily jump behind anyone, no matter how dubious their political aims if they support a remain position. It seems, based on recent outcomes, that we will happily risk scuppering the left’s chances of victory and opening the floodgates for the far right if we get our personal wishes on Brexit validated. The famous Rosa Luxemburg quote has repeatedly come back to me at this moment; “Bourgeois society stands at the crossroads, either transition to Socialism or regression into Barbarism.” It strikes me that we stand at just such a crossroads, and that the left simply cannot afford to fail, lest instead of collectively building the future we regress through individual fragmentation into a fascist resurgence. The centre has died, and it will not wake up again no matter how many times we try to resuscitate it.
This all seems to represent nothing less than one giant hangover from Thatcherism, the neoliberal doctrine that languishes now in a state of terminal decline economically and yet still maintains a spectral hold on our consciousness. We still think in terms of individual preference, of voter as consumer, of the nicely packaged individual psychology wherein our subconscious musings stem from us and us alone, where the political can sit in comfortable distance separate from the personal. This is how we justifiably expect a political movement, instead of moving us towards a broader aim, towards changing society, to simply give us what we want. The consumer logic that drives an ostensibly free market applies here to the ways in which, rather than think in terms of collective transformation, politics resembles instead the segmented, individualised and yet notably formulaic factories of social media, where the illusion of that mythical beast, individual autonomy, takes hold of our psyches in the darkness of cyberspace.
I still maintain confidence. It is definitely true that anti-capitalism is inching its way into mainstream discourse, and that there is a general sense that things cannot proceed as they are for much longer, especially set against the looming threat of ecological collapse. What is essential now, if we are to progress, and to move towards an imagined collective future in earnest, is a psychological re-orientation, nothing less than to change what Thatcher addressed as the “heart and soul”. What is needed is a reconstitution of solidarity, abstract political belonging and ultimately comradeship as Jodi Dean outlines it, for unless we can meaningfully unite as a political entity this left future is but an individual fantasy, consigned to the scrapheap to be ground up into paste under the ironclad boots of the future war machine. We must on top of this realise precisely what is at stake, the serious polarity of the situation and the cost of failure, to pull from this crushing negativity a reason to continue.