Wednesday, August 28, 2019

In search of lost coherence

The problem with trying to understand Brexit is that it is impossible to pin it down to any one meaning. Critics try and assign the causes to nationalism, racism, 'little England' sentiment, nostalgia, anger, etc., and none of the accusations stick. The same goes with the possible outcomes – from keeping our place in the single market, which we were told by the leave campaign would not be threatened, to the no-deal unilateral abrogation of treaties, defaulting on debts, and isolating ourselves from our main economic partners. There's a reason for this. Brexit isn't a single ideology, it's a cluster of sentiments that have emerged from an oppositional political milieu.

The milieu is a useful concept. My book is about a part of the 19th century radical milieu - libertarian anti-statism. It spread from anarcho-communists to free market anti-capitalists and proto-ecologists. They recognised each other as fellow travellers, if not as allies. The same can be said of Brexit. The common theme of opposition to the European Union was adopted by ethnic nationalists, anti-immigration Powellites, far right racists, Conservative free-market ultras, neo-feudalists, Stalinists, authoritarians, climate change deniers, neo-imperialists, Putin's 'useful idiots,' fascists, Bennite left social democrats, revolutionary defeatists, disaster capitalists, and so on. There is no coherence in a milieu, only a swirl of ideas, each feeding off each other and making and unmaking unlikely alliances. Each strand on its own is negligible, together they produce a noisy minority to challenge the mainstream.

Beguiled by the simplification of the language of a political spectrum, we try and describe this in terms of left/right positioning. I've done the same. But it doesn't fit that well. The strange allies people make within a milieu is sometimes seen as the product of a horseshoe shaped spectrum where extreme left and right meet. But in an anti-establishment milieu, red/brown alliances are natural, they share common hatreds and, above all, view the world as a vast conspiracy and democracy as a sham.

There are several things milieus have in common. They incubate some interesting and creative ideas that can spin off into the mainstream and lose much of their dangerous baggage in the process. However, they also have links with some of the crazier elements of fringe beliefs – 9/11 conspiracy, anti-vaccination, rejection of some science (i.e. GMOs, pharmaceuticals, synthetic chemicals), cultic and esoteric religions, anti-Semitism, and many, many others. 

They share an indiscriminating hostility to all things deemed mainstream. They hero worship anyone, any regime or any movement, that they see as oppositional to the establishment. They maintain their own media to remain uncontaminated. And this leads to something else, they distance themselves from reality. Sometimes they treat facts, evidence, and truth as the enemy.

Finally, they are utopian and that utopianism tends towards the totalitarian style. They have a plan, a future society that will blossom the moment their plan is adopted and its opponents swept away. How many deaths have resulted from such overconfidence? Looked at closely, the ideas are always shallow and ill-informed. And for real lunacy delve into the depths of the Brexit Party.

We can see all this with Brexit. Once Brexiters are confronted with details and important questions like trade relations, service industries, or the Belfast Agreement, they lapse into utopian rhetoric or talk about the Second World War. It can all be solved, believe in Britain, we will become global Britain again. I want to know about my house in Greece, others about their businesses and just-in-time supply chains, yet more need information about the supply of food and medicines, but Brexiters give no details other than a vision of the rosy future that awaits if we leave. All they can say in reply is that 'people voted for it,' regardless of whether it was a good idea or not. They never give us solutions. They can't. That's because they are ignorant of the way the EU works, what it is, and our role in it. They have never tried to learn about it, but have invented a series of fictions to justify their ideological preferences. There is a rock, but there is no way through. The rock is reality. Our government is still trying to wish it away rather than deal with it.

Milieus are not necessarily benign. They are persistent. They can grow and flourish in a crisis, offering simple solutions to complex problems. But these populist groupings are always permanent minorities. There is only one thing that can make them dangerous – an invitation. The energy they provide can be a temptation, either to harness it or to finally quash the movement that produced it. 2015 was the year of the invitation.

There are many examples of mistaken invitations, but the classic one is Hitler. In the second election of 1932, the Nazi vote declined from its high point earlier in the year. If the pattern had been maintained, it is likely that it would have declined further and the Nazis would have become an historical footnote. Hysteria and enthusiasm are hard to sustain. Instead, he was offered the Chancellorship in a coalition government. Fifty million died as a consequence.

Brexit is not analogous, it is not the equivalent of the Nazis. But the invitation into the mainstream was the same process. In this case it was the referendum. They accepted and have now colonised the body politic. At the same time, Labour opened up its leadership election to thousands from outside the party, while MPs implacably opposed to Corbyn nominated him on to the shortlist in order to have a debate. The fringe anti-imperialist milieu seized the opportunity and organised round him. These couldn't have happened without complacency – few expected either Leave or Corbyn to win.

The irony of Brexit is that it is reaching its crisis at the very moment that it is dying. Polls show that it is slipping back into being a minority obsession. Reality refuses to shift. The supposed benefits are non-existent. Empty rhetoric is confronting damaged businesses, lost jobs, impossible situations, and ruined lives. If it is pushed through, dead and impractical though it is, it would be a national calamity. We are entering the endgame which will decide.

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