The Hypernormalisation of Brexit
People say that in times of real crisis time slows down and you can watch the world in Matrix-like slow-mo. People also say that in accidents and times of trauma things go by in a flash and they remember almost nothing. Brexit feels like this: the process appearing simultaneously grindingly slow and also flashing past as we are thrown against the economic and psychological brick-wall of No Deal.
Into this moment, in an atmosphere of febrile panic, after two years of chaos and with nine days till we crash out with no deal, steps Jeremy Corbyn. Theresa May has in her moment of crisis and isolation offered the Labour leader a poisoned chalice. It is however a chalice that offers some rehabiliation for Corbyn, a figure that the fevered imagination of the Tories and their media network has elevated to a position of Major Marxist Threat and Vile Extremist. Priti Patel today squealed: “A man who sides with terrorists and socialist dictators, would surrender our nuclear deterrent, has let anti-Semitism run rife in his Party and would bankrupt Britain has now been given the keys to Brexit.” In reality Corbyn is a left-wing social democrat. In most of Europe his policies would be deemed not particularly unusual or threatening or radical.
Brexit has told us a lot about the state we’re in:
- There is mass confusion and disorientation. All parties are split, or facing internal crisis, including the SNP. We are split and divided by nation, as well as by geography, generation and class. In this situation reactionary forces of the far-right are at play, with substantial resources behind them. This is an international phenomenon which is manifesting itself in England. It has distinct and concrete forms and actors:. In “How Fascists Operationalize Left Resentment”, Alexander Reid Ross writes: “During his recent tour of Europe, disgraced former Trump strategist Steve Bannon declared “Italy is in the lead.” Amid the historic resurgence of the Italian far right that returned right-wing populist Silvio Berlusconi to prominence, Bannon fantasized about “the ultimate dream” of unifying the anti-establishment Five Star Movement with the far-right League (formerly the Northern League) through a populist movement. Bannon’s international vision of nationalist populist movements is locked into the Kremlin’s geopolitical ideology of a “multipolar world.”
- The lack of a written constitution and the lack of robust transparent and reformed political institutions makes Britain vulnerable to chaos in crisis. Britain’s continual inability to reform its feudal structures leaves it decaying and decrepit and open to the sort of Executive shambles we have seen in the last two years. Britain – as a functioning polity – is irredeemable. Both economic and constitutional power is highly concentrated and centralised through elite structures in London.
- As has been suggested for some time, the forces of Scottish, or Welsh or Irish self-determination, will not on their own be enough to break up Britain. Now these movements are joined by the rise of English nationalism. These forces have different energies, histories and are at very different stages of development. There may be elements within each of these movements which are regressive and reactionary and elements which are progressive and radical. There are elements within English political movements which are far more radical and subversive than anything in Scotland.Making alliances across radical forces in common cause for the creative dismantling of the British state is now more possible, and essential, than ever before. As we saw with the use of Loyalist groups in both the independence referendum and recently in London, this is precisely what the far right and the forces of unionism do, they enlist cultural symbols and the threat of physical violence from elements they would normally deem to be beyond the pale.
- Despite the relentless churning media gaze at Britain’s political and constitutional breakdown, beneath this is a social crisis of poverty inequality and hunger where basic needs like housing and food are in crisis (‘Food crisis UK – almost four million children don’t have enough money for a healthy diet’). Any economic collapse resulting from the Brexit process will land in the context of existing social breakdown.
- There is both danger and opportunity out of the Brexit crisis as the forces of power that run Britain are exposed and unraveling. The opportunity lies in the creative disintegration of the British state and it’s reformation into functioning democratic entities. The danger lies in the political collapse leading directly to economic collapse and in the chaos and confusion becoming all-consuming and preventing radical change breaking-through.Crisis is not always opportunity, the danger lies in what Adam Curtis called hypernormalisation. The term derives originally from Alexei Yurchak, a professor of anthropology from Leningrad. He introduced the word in his book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation (2006), which describes paradoxes of life in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s. He argued that everyone in the Soviet Union knew the system was failing, but no one could imagine an alternative to the status quo, and politicians and citizens alike were resigned to maintaining the pretense of a functioning society. Over time, this delusion became a self-fulfilling prophecy and the fakeness was accepted by everyone as real, an effect that Yurchak termed hypernormalisation.
The forces that have driven us into this situation are undoubtedly economic and cultural, but it is unrealistic and unhelpful to ignore the issue of English nationalism. All countries have the right to self-determination and England should be supported to establish its own parliament if it wishes. There seems to be no political energy for this and we need to look at the political dimensions and consequences of resurgent English nationalism in office because English nationalism is in power and it’s actions have consequences for democracy in the other nations that make up the UK.
Brexit is a manifestation of English nationalism driven by a culture of exceptionalism and denial. This has direct consequences for Scotland and Ireland and it shatters the myth that was the bedrock of the Unionist case – that the UK is somehow a “family of nations”.
The Political Editor of BBC Newsnight Nicholas Watt reported this week that:
“An ally of Nick Boles tells he was so angry with Conservatives because Theresa May ordered a particularly aggressive whipping operation against his Common Market 2.0 proposal … PM’s objection to Nick Boles idea: familiar criticism that it would oblige UK to accept free movement. PM thinks the emergency brake allowed under his EEA proposal is meaningless bc it has never be invoked by current members and would involve EU retaliation if invoked. But……PM had another objection to Nick Boles idea which rang true even to some Remain Tories: it could threaten integrity of UK. PM feared that if UK stayed in single market through EFTA pillar of EEA that could increase support for Scottish independence…”
This was a significant revelation. Effectively the Prime Minister would rather damage Scotland’s economy than give us a choice about our future. It is significant that we have moved from the confident patrician Cameron to the beleaguered and desperate Theresa May.
As the artist Alec Finlay has commented: “The primary block on the English Nationalist right agreeing to the Boles compromise is to prevent Scotland voting to be independent. Unionism is now Trumpism, with Labour policy constrained by racism and the Tories putting Empire above rapprochement. England, the truth is that since 2014 your politics has descended into bitterness and malign stupidity.”
The same attitudes can be seen towards Ireland and Northern Ireland. Only last month the Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley stated that the killings committed by the security forces during the Troubles were somehow “not crimes”.
Instead, she went on, they were the actions of “people acting under orders and instructions, fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way”.
This is an astonishing thing for a Cabinet Minister to say and still be in post, and the pivotal role of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the Brexit process is no coincidence.
Robert Peston reported today that:
“According to ministers the defining issue was that if there was a no-deal Brexit “we’d have to go to direct rule in Northern Ireland” says one. “Disaster. Huge risk. Of all legacies, the break-up of the Union [of the UK], the worst for a PM. She’ll never do no deal now”. And…I am told that “Andrea [Leadsom] requested that we go ahead with the risk of direct rule but call it something else”.
These actions and statements, revealing as they are of attitudes of contempt and ignorance within politicians are the consequences of desperate individuals operating out of their depth in times of crisis. But it is attitudes within English society that are in a way more worrying.
Vincent Boland has written (“English nationalism is a threat to the union”):
“For a large slice of English voters, Brexit identity now matters more than party identity. Three quarters of English Tory voters are ready to sacrifice both Scotland and the Northern Ireland peace process to secure Brexit, according to a survey last October by the Centre on Constitutional Change at the University of Edinburgh. Those Tory MPs who, in their ferocious opposition to the “backstop” — the special arrangements for Northern Ireland set out in the EU-UK withdrawal agreement — profess their undying love for the union do so in the teeth of indifference bordering on hostility to that very union from their own voters.”
Brexit has thrown out a number of paradoxes and revelations. Here’s one identified by Boland: “Irish nationalism is no longer a threat to the union. It was consigned to history in 1998. The menace to the union today is a new and more potent nationalism. Brexit is the result of many factors, but it is emphatically a manifestation of English nationalism. Majorities of Scots and Northern Irish are comfortable in the EU; a majority of the English are not.”
He goes on:
“A century ago, Irish nationalists broke the union of Britain and Ireland. Scottish nationalists tried, and narrowly failed, in a very modern way — by referendum — in 2014. Now it is the turn of English nationalists, and they are numerous, vocal and deeply unhappy. We are only at the beginning of this uprising of English national sentiment, but of one thing we can be sure. If the union of Britain and Northern Ireland is destroyed, it will be by English, not Irish nationalism.”
This is true despite the fact that English nationalism is a confused and chaotic phenomenon. “Take Back Control” doesn’t demand an English parliament, it can’t even abide parliamentary sovereignty at Westminster. The constant confusion and conflation between Britain and England is a hangover, a remnant Category Error, a folk-memory that is daily reinforced by the overlay of England/Britain in broadcast and media.
Much of this is due to an imagined persecution that just doesn’t exist.
Douglas Carswell expressed this beautifully saying:
“Imagine that there was a union of free nations, but that it then attempted to punish one of its members for wanting to leave it? What might that say about the moral claims of such a union? The big casualty of Brexit is the EU’s claims of moral legitimacy.”
Apart from the obvious relish in which pro-independence campaigners seized on this gem, it does contain within the line that the EU is somehow “punishing” Britain for voting to Leave when all the evidence suggests the EU27 have been endlessly patient and remarkably accommodating despite enduring waves of xenophobic rhetoric and bile in their direction.
English nationalism and Brexitmania is driven by a concurrent superiority-inferiority complex.
As Eli Zaretsky has written (“The Mass Psychology of Brexit”):
“In England – the propulsive force behind Brexit – we are dealing with the psychology of a favoured, even chosen people. When ‘God is decreeing to begin some new and great period,’ Milton wrote in Areopagitica, ‘what does he then but reveal Himself … first, to his Englishmen?’ And in The Tenure of Kings and Magistrates, he wrote that ‘we have the honour to precede other nations who are now labouring to be our followers.’
“The Tory Leave mentality that precipitated Brexit drew on the long-standing tradition of English exceptionalism … The mechanism underlying the cult of heroic failure is regression to narcissism. Just as a child trying to cope with his parent’s absence or the birth of a sibling may fall back on a supposed golden age in which ‘His Majesty, the Baby’ reigned, so too may a nation in difficulty seek to regain a storied past. In both cases the aim is to restore narcissistic equilibrium. The Leave slogan ‘Take Back Control,’ like Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again,’ reflects the idea that one moves forward only by passing through an earlier greatness.”
There is a lot at stake.
A report from 2018 warned that a hard Brexit, in which the UK falls back on World Trade Organisation rules, would cost Scotland up to £12.7bn and cause real household incomes to fall by 9.6%, or £2,263 per head. The report said that the decision to leave the EU would cost £16bn – more than 10% of Scottish GDP. As previously stated any economic collapse resulting from the Brexit process will land in the context of existing social breakdown. This is a country already suffering from decades of British misrule and recovering from trying to offset the worst ravages of Tory austerity.
The consequences for people in Ireland are more brutal. Eoin McNamee argues that “We cannot go back to a hard Border any more than Berlin could return to the Wall”. He writes:
“On television you see fields, cows, a man in a cap looks over a gate, talks about smuggling butter, the thing is cast as pastoral, the wrong genre, deliberately the wrong genre. The real genre was dystopia, society in dissolution, everything broken down. It is Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Death’s corps are in charge, they patrol the night. Militias emerge from the darkness and return to it. Everybody is watching everybody else and you can’t get a grip on any of it. Things happen, people get killed, human viscera hanging from telegraph wires and the real story doesn’t get out. You’re hemmed in by checkpoints, by control towers. The roadside corpses are booby-trapped.”
The toxicity of British public life, today personified by the revelations of the British army shooting at an image of Jeremy Corbyn, has been marked in the last few years. This week it was revealed that the banned National Action group planned to murder the Labour MP Rosie Cooper, and had discussed “exterminating vermin” in a synagogue. Although the plot has been reported it has not made the splash one would expect. This is a barometer of how far we have descended into a political realm dominated by violence and threat.
The potential for this process to tip into further extremes is obvious as the forces that drive Brexit become inflamed by the tabloid media and the silo algorithms of social media. The language of the far-right and Brexit is littered with “treason” and “traitor” and notions of “freedom” and “vassal state” and “slavery”. It is laced with fear of foreigners and hatred of the media and garnished with a vision of future greatness.
May’s last desperate act – to reach out to Jeremy Corbyn has the potential to “fix” a broken process, though it can’t “fix” a broken Britain.
She is the victim of her own hubris and the bizarre language she and her colleagues have cultivated.
“Theresa May is being accused of ‘treason’. Her right-wing base is denouncing her negotiation with an anti-British ‘communist’, ‘Marxist’, ‘terrorist lover’. She made this situation. Her language, and that of her base, has encouraged right-wing political violence.”
Whether the Prime Ministers late appeal to other parties can save the catastrophe in slow motion remains to be seen. It seems highly unlikely given the level of crisis and the state of disorientation we are experiencing.
In Alexei Yurchak’s book Everything Was Forever, Until It Was No More: The Last Soviet Generation , he describes the fact that everyone in the former Soviet Union knew the system was falling apart, but people were resigned to maintaining the pretense that everythimng was functioning just fine. Sort of UK: OK on a much bigger scale. At least now with Brexit we are beyond that.