The psychopathology of Brexit (part 1)

And before all the those Brexiteers out there reach for their side arms this is not criticism of those who exercised their democratic right last June to ‘redefine’ our relationship with the EU.  Rather, it’s an attempt to try and make some sort of sense of what’s going in the British (or in this case, perhaps, the English) psyche, and of which the Brexit vote, in my opinion, is a symptom rather than a cause.  I realise this is not a especially new argument; in fact, ever since that fateful day last summer the commentariat have been kept very busy trying to make sense of first Brexit and now Trump.  And who knows, within the next couple of years they may be working overtime to try and work out what happened in France, the Netherlands, Greece and perhaps even Germany.

There has been a lot of stuff written about ‘the left behind’, the disaffected (white, male) working class, those who have yet to benefit from globalisation (of which the EU is a major incarnation), those who want to put two fingers up at the ‘liberal establishment’ and the ‘metropolitan elite’, and so on.  However, within weeks of the referendum Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, was pointing out that the Brexit vote was far more about personal values than economic inequality.1  The same argument, according to Kaufmann, applies to the Trump vote.2.  He writes:

The Trump and Brexit votes are the opening shots which define a new political era in which the values divide between voters – especially among whites – is the main axis of politics. In a period of rapid ethnic change, this cleavage separates those who prefer cultural continuity and order from novelty-seekers open to diversity. Policymakers and pundits should face this instead of imagining that old remedies – schools, hospitals, jobs – will put the populist genie back in the bottle.

In other words, populism, for want of a better term, is primarily about values and, I would argue, ideology, rather than about economic prosperity, bearing in mind that there is absolutely no evidence that Brexit will economically benefit the majority of those who voted to leave the EU, whereas it is already a victory for nationalism, social conservatism and, to a certain extent, authoritarianism.

However, perhaps the real problem is that, in spite the types of argument put forward by people like Kaufmann, a lot of ‘remainers’ still don’t get it.  This was highlighted very recently in an article by Abi Wilkinson in the Guardian in which she criticised those ‘remainers’ who still seem to think that all ‘leave’ voters are ignorant northerners. 3 In other words, those who don’t share the values and ideology of ‘remain’ are stupid, ignorant, uneducated, etc.  The irony here, of course, is that those very same people who criticise the ‘Brexiteers’ for being all these things are the first to espouse the liberal values of tolerance, respect for difference and diversity, etc.  In other words, diversity and difference is fine – as long as you agree with my particular version of it.  Funnily enough, this respect for diversity and difference does not extend, or so it would seem, to white, male, working class individuals, English nationalists, neo-Nazis, and so on.

In many ways this touches on an even more fundamental question, and one which politics (of all shades) is an attempt to deal with: how to reconcile the irreconcilable, how to accommodate diametrically opposed ideas and values.  Not for nothing did Freud describe politics as one of the three ‘impossible professions’ (the other two being education and psychoanalysis).

And this notion of impossibility brings us to the question of psychopathology.  At the end of his life Lacan, citing Freud, said that ‘we are all mad’, we are all delusional.  What Lacan actually meant by this statement is still a ‘work-in-progress’, but perhaps it is a salutary reminder that no-one can take a God-like position and pronounce other people who do not happen to share their values and ideas as ‘mad’, ‘stupid’, ‘uneducated’, and so on.  This is in spite of the fact that psychiatry has been doing this for years with regards to individuals whose behaviour and thought processes do not conform to the norms of society.

In other words, the ‘psychopathology’ of Brexit is not that some people are ‘crazy’ for voting ‘leave’ (or perhaps even voting ‘remain’), but rather that the Brexit vote has exposed deep fissures and contradictions within the British psyche; ones, perhaps, that are indeed irreconcilable.

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  1. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/personal-values-brexit-vote/ []
  2. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/trump-and-brexit-why-its-again-not-the-economy-stupid/ []
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/14/leave-voters-london-voted-remain-eu []