The ideology of Brexit

In my previous post on this subject I briefly explored the ideas of Robert Ford and Mathew Goodwin as laid out in their book on the growth of UKIP and the radical right in Britain.1

As I noted in that post, Ford and Goodwin’s argument was essentially that, contrary to received wisdom, UKIP was gaining supported from disaffected working class voters, who might have once voted for Labour, but who now felt totally marginalised and excluded from the liberal cosmopolitan, globalised economy and society, of which the European Union was a particular manifestation. It was this particular social grouping that Ford and Goodwin identified as the ‘left behind’.

As I suggested at the end of the post, there are a number of different meanings that can be attributed to the term ‘left behind’.  One meaning, and the one that Ford and Goodwin seem to favour, is indeed the idea of marginalised (predominately white, male) working class who have few if any qualifications, are in low paid/ precariat type positions, have a pessimistic view of the future, and for whom the EU stands for everything that is wrong with Britain, although their real gripe is immigration and, linked to this, the perceived threat to national identity.

However, I went on to argue that another meaning for ‘left behind’, which referred to what had been left behind or lost in the minds of those who fitted into this category. This resonates with the idea of a ‘lost world’, or, more specifically perhaps, a lost England.  Using the term ‘left behind’ in this context means we could incorporate not only the disaffected and marginalised working class, but also those who are traditionally seen as being on the Tory right, who hark back to a time when Britain was truly ‘Great’.

This essentially brings us into the realm of ideology, and is a field within which Lacanian psychoanalysis can, in my view, make a very useful contribution. And although I think it would be naïve to suggest that this is purely a matter of looking at right-wing ideology, or more precisely, right-wing populist ideology, this is certainly an important aspect of it, and is probably a good place to start. However, before doing this I want to briefly explore the concept of ideology itself.

A number of writers have argued that the function of ideology is to reconcile the irreconcilable, to ‘resolve’ the underlying contradictions that lie at the heart of society. In fact, some of these writers, for example Ernesto Laclau, would argue that the whole concept of society itself is an ideological formation.2 This links closely to Žižek’s idea that ideology is a social fantasy, by which he means that the idea of the ‘social’ itself is a fantasy, rather than ideology being a shared or collective fantasy.3

The key point here is that social life is complex and full of contradictions. This has always been the case but perhaps in recent times ‘the social’ has been even more complex and contradictory. But at the heart of ‘the social’ lies a void, a ‘kernel’ of the Real, which means that symbolic-imaginary network (the ‘social’) can never be fully reconciled. Politics (or to be more precise, ‘the political’) is an attempt to realise ‘the social’, to create an illusory harmony, and ideology is one of its key weapons in trying to achieve this.

The other key concept is that of interpellation, which, in the context of ideology, was originally formalised by Louis Althusser.4 This is the process by which ideology is ‘internalised’ by the subject; in fact, following Althusser, it is the process by which ideology constructs, constitutes, the subject.

As I pointed out in a previous post on ideology, and drawing on the ideas of Mladen Dolar, interpellation is never a total success, and there is never a ‘clean cut’ between ‘pre-interpellated’ and ‘post-interpellated’ subjects. 5 However, neither is interpellation a total failure, otherwise there would be no problems relating to radicalisation – both with regards to radical Islam and to its nemesis, the radical right.

The critical point about interpellation, in my view, is that it offers a way to explain how individuals come to believe what they do. It is important to realise at this point that we are all subject to ideological interpellation, and it is a process that begins at birth and only ends at death. Even if we are sceptical about Althusser’s Ideological State Apparatus as the ‘mechanism’ for ideological interpellation, we are all enmeshed within a dense semiotic network and are being bombarded constantly with messages regarding every aspect of our lives and our identity.

However, some messages seem to resonate more than others with particular individuals, and this is where it becomes important to look at what these particular messages are and why they resonate so much with certain individuals and social groups. At this point I think it would be useful to start exploring a particular ideological formation, namely that of right-wing populism, which seems to be the ideology that resonates most closely with the movement behind Brexit.

Ruth Wodak defines right-wing populism as:

…. a political ideology that rejects existing political consensus and usually combines laissez-faire liberalism and anti-elitism. It is considered populism because of its appeal to the ‘common man/ woman’ as opposed to the elites; this appeal to a quasi-homogenous demos is regarded as salient for such movements.6


Wodak goes on to argue that right-wing populism is characterised by a:

….fear of strangers related to vehement nativist nationalism built on the populist myth of a quasi-homogenous nation state which has to be preserved and protected against (usually fictive) external or internal dangers.7

As Wodak acknowledges, this fear of strangers is essentially the fear of the Other, which in the case of Brexit is incarnated in the person of the (EU) immigrant.

In the research literature there seems to be general agreement about the way ideas of right-wing populism are propagated, which tends to involve the extensive use of both ‘traditional’ and social media. As mentioned earlier, such propagation is part of the mechanism of ideological interpellation and is something that authors such as Wodak explore in some depth. However, this still doesn’t explain what it is about such material, much of it presented in the form of social media postings and articles in right-wing newspapers, that resonates so much with particular individuals.

A somewhat simplistic notion of interpellation would be that the individual is essentially ‘brainwashed’ by continual exposure to a never ending deluge of signifiers which are generated by various components of the ideological state apparatus, including the media, the education system, the church (in some cases), and even the family.  However, there are a number of problems with this argument, not least that it implies that the human subjectivity is simply an ‘effect’ of the ideological state apparatus.8  However, there is another problem, which I touched upon earlier, in that interpellation never quite succeeds, that the ‘external’ is never quite ‘internalised’.  Dolar argues that it is precisely this failure of interpellation that gives birth to the psychoanalytic subject.  And both he and Žižek, in different ways, argue that, paradoxically perhaps, the reason that ideology ‘works’ in the first place is because there is always a remainder, a kernel of the Real at its centre.

Having said all that, what if our hypothetical individual, who has been exposed to all that right-wing populist ideology can throw at them, actually does end up holding and espousing such views, and does, when the opportunity presents itself, end up voting for Brexit?  It would seem that ideological interpellation ‘works’ after all.

Of course, it’s actually very hard to prove this type of ‘causation’, and there may a number of different factors involved in their decision.  However, I would argue that this could be a sign that the ideology has ‘worked’ to the extent that interpellation has ‘failed’ (or only partially ‘succeeded’).  Such a ‘failure’ of interpellation opens up a void in the subject, which can also be conceptualised as the kernel of the Real (Lacan’s objet a).

Ironically, it’s precisely this void in the subject that ideology is trying to fill through the process of interpellation; and yet it’s the void itself, this kernel of the Real, that is what really captivates the subject, because it creates a longing for something lost.  And this loss can manifest itself in an infinite number of ways, for example in the idea of Heimlich, homeland, the Nation, Britishness, a lost Arcadia, the English Pastoral…….

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  1. Ford, R. and Goodwin, M. (2014) Revolt on the Right: Explaining support for the radical right in Britain. Kindle Edition: Routledge. []
  2. Laclau, E. (1990) New Reflections on the Revolution of Our Time. London: Verso []
  3. Žižek, S. (1989) The Sublime Object of Ideology. London: Verso []
  4. Althusser, L. (2001) Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus (Notes towards an Investigation), in: Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press. []
  5. Dolar, M. (1993) Beyond Interpellation, Qui Parle, 6 (2), pp. 75–96. []
  6. Wodak, R. (2015) The Politics of Fear What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean. Kindle Edition: Sage Publications, p.7 []
  7. ibid, p.31, italics in original []
  8. Which of course is precisely what structural Marxists such as Althusser did think. []