Following on from his previous article, Mike Wayne analyses the collective breakdown of the liberal middle class as we inch towards Brexit
I’m worried about our collective friend, the liberal middle class. Brexit seems to be causing them a kind of derangement of the senses. It’s understandable in many ways. Brexit is a worry on lots of fronts. It is a process that has always been led by an increasingly dominant nationalist right wing. It is polarising public opinion and may bake in cultural and class divisions for years to come. A no-deal Brexit is likely to be bad news, possibly very bad news, economically.
This would be worrying for anyone, but for the liberal middle class it is an especially trying time. They have lost their reliable partner that has made up the ‘centre-ground’ of politics for several decades (Tariq Ali memorably called this the ‘extreme centre’). Conservatism has always been a partner and a competitor for leadership of British capitalism. Liberalism could rely on conservatism’s muscular dominance of the state to deploy legal-juridical powers and force to protect private property rights. And conservatism has also been able to mobilise a reactionary romanticism that has binded layers of the population to the state-nation (rural England, the freeborn Englishman, the mother of Democracy, the Monarchy, Imperial grandeur, etc).
Since the onset of neoliberalism, this dynamic rested on a common defence of free markets and, once Margaret Thatcher had been dispatched in 1990, tying British capitalism into the multi-national governance structures of the EU.
But lately, the conservative partner has gone, well, batshit crazy, to put it bluntly. A recent YouGov poll found that a significant majority of Conservative party members would rather Brexit took place even if it caused the breakup of the UK, did significant damage to the UK economy or even led to the destruction of the Conservative party itself. Such a willingness to engage in constitutional explosions and political turbulence suggests that liberalism’s former philosophical partner, once a model of traditionalism, caution and stability, has transmogrified into the Conservative Revolutionary Front.
The divorce between liberalism and conservatism has been traumatic, especially for liberalism. There is great concern that without the anchor of conservatism anything could happen as old habits and customs and identities fall away. Now it is the role of liberalism to try and hold the status quo together, to hold the United Kingdom together as its former partner goes on the equivalent of a coke-fuelled bender.
Where would a concerned psychoanalyst look to find symptoms of the liberal middle class on the verge of a nervous breakdown? A good place to start would be the below the line comments on Guardian articles charting the Brexit crisis. The Guardian has played a leading role in giving political and moral leadership to the liberal middle class around the Brexit crisis. Their leading opinion writers have set the terms of the debate and one finds a strong mirroring between the framework for interpreting events provided by the professional writers and the below the line responses of the readership. Brexit as an act of ‘national self-harm’ for example, has become a dominant trope within Guardian reading circles. Whatever one thinks of Brexit, the trope of ‘self-harm’ while rhetorically effective as a way of conveying a moral duty (upon liberalism) to protect the patient and guide them to saner decision making, hardly works as a substantive explanation as to the origins of Brexit.
Indeed, liberalism is the patient as much as the misguided nation that it thinks has lost its wits. One of the causes of psychological problems is an inability to critically know thyself. Introspection, self-doubt, a careful weighing of past mistakes and acknowledgement of culpability in undesirable outcomes has been in short supply. Liberalism’s own investment in neoliberalism, the inequality it has produced and the role of inequality as a driver of a right-wing dominated Brexit, has barely made a dent in the editorial line of the leading organ of liberal opinion. Instead, all the critical energies and ferocious will to tap a keyboard have been directed outward and elsewhere and in two main directions.
Firstly and obviously, the Conservative party and its leadership have come in for plenty of criticism. May’s wooden incompetence and all-round cosmic hopelessness at pretty much anything has produced much scorn. And now that Boris the Clown (but the clown from IT, rather than the traditional circus) is Prime Minister, the bile-ometer on the below the line comments has increased accordingly.
But what makes me worry for the collective mental good health of the liberal middle class is the venom and spittle they also reserve for Jeremy Corbyn and his alleged failures over Brexit. It is as if Corbyn was Mephistopheles himself for daring to suggest that a referendum in which a narrow majority voted for a certain outcome, should, in some way, shape or form, be respected and not simply cancelled by Those Who Know Better.
Besides, it is all Corbyn’s fault from the beginning. The moment the 2016 Referendum result was announced this new narrative emerged and indeed seems to have been wheeled out at the 2016 Gay Pride event where Corbyn was heckled. Corbyn failed to campaign properly in 2016 goes this tune, so is personally responsible for the fact that around 35% of Labour voters voted Leave. Never mind that that 35% had been built up by around twenty years of New Labour contempt for their working class base. Never mind that 61% of Conservative voters voted Leave or even that around 32% of Lib Dem voters also voted Leave! Never mind that support for UKIP went up fourfold after the Lib Dem-Conservative Demolition government got into power in 2010 and initiated Project Austerity. No, it’s as much Corbyn’s fault as Cameron, May, Johnson, Farage, etc.
Besides, Corbyn is, we are told a Brexiteer at heart and so cannot be trusted (on anything). This is a particularly childish temper tantrum and was wheeled out recently when Corbyn offered to table a vote of no confidence in the Johnson government and form a caretaker government with the sole aim of extending Article 50 and calling a General Election. No! cried the hard-liberals on the Guardian website, he can’t be trusted. Do our liberal friends think that any party policy ever simply aligns with the personal belief systems of the leader? Parties are complex organisms and policy is not the result of one person’s wish-list (even if they are leader) but the outcome of multiple interests and compromises. Indeed, whatever Corbyn’s personal beliefs about the EU, his policy reflects the compromise position that the Labour vote is split on Brexit.
Compromise, though, is not what the liberal middle class have got in mind and they hate Corbyn for offering it. If they thought it through though they might realise that in order to have a second referendum, they need to have something on the ballot other than Remain. That something is a deal. A deal needs to be negotiated. A credible deal cannot be negotiated by a party that formally commits to Remain or even more absurdly, negotiates a deal and then campaigns against it.
For the liberal middle-class, membership of the EU is everything. Paul Mason once described the EU as a fetish for the middle class but he now clings onto the self-same fetish. Unfortunately, although our patient exhibits signs of hysteria, liberalism remains influential. For Corbyn, quite correctly, our relationship to the EU is right now a second order issue. In a speech last Monday, Corbyn’s diagnosis was that our problems run much deeper than Brexit and that we need to re-constitute a social democratic state to reign in the market madness that has liberated the millionaires from social obligations and immiserated the millions. It was a good social democratic speech, although one that underplays that it will take a revolution to get some modest reforms.
But the liberal middle class barely heard a word of it. Instead, fingers in their ears and with eyes wide shut, they could not get past Brexit, Corbyn the betrayer, the incompetent, the untrustworthy, the mirror image of Johnson and various other ad hominin attacks worthy of The Sun. Given that the liberal middle class would themselves be beneficiaries of such a social democratic reconstitution, it seems that acts of self-harm are not restricted to their opponents.
Both the liberals and the hard-right nationalists are locked into opposing cultural identities and identifications (the nation vs Europe) but neither want to touch the economic and class essentials. Any decent psychoanalyst will tell them that until they drag unpalatable truths into the light of conscious political choices, their breakdown is only going to get worse.
Mike Wayne is Professor in Media, Brunel University, London.
Author of: England’s Discontents: Political Cultures and National Identities, Pluto Press 2018.
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- The Mick and Eddie Show is the new hit from the trade union movement
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- Don’t mention 2017: Labour, Brexit and last week’s elections
- The revolutionary right: the threat remains
- When Liz Truss speaks a truth, beware