The Brexit result last month came as a surprise even to the leaders of the Leave campaign. UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage not once but twice conceded a narrow defeat on election night. And pro-Leave Conservative Boris Johnson (who had to scurry past booing protesters outside his house the morning after the vote) looked terribly uncomfortable and conciliatory in the days after his alleged moment of triumph and has since dropped his bid to be prime minister.
Few leading pro-Brexit campaigners appear at all keen to carry out the mandate they have received, and not simply because of how difficult, complicated, and risky the negotiated exit from the European Union is likely to be in technical terms alone.
Within the Left’s dominant pro-Remain elements, the shock has quickly turned to dystopian visions of impending fascism and angry denunciations of backward, racist, and frighteningly non-cosmopolitan older working-class voters who have “stolen” the future of the country’s youth (who were strongly pro-Remain yet turned out in low numbers).
In addition, Labour’s inability to control its working-class voters outside the inner rings of London has led to rapid moves against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, as if he had created this problem rather than merely being a symptom of it. Presumably what Labour needed was more of Polly Toynbee’s approach: ramping up suggestions that degenerate, left-behind working-class voters outside the capital were opening the door to “national socialism” so as to convince those self-same voters to do the opposite.
Observed from the safe distance of Australia, the political reaction looks like a weird kind of political nervous breakdown, with growing calls for the popular vote to be ruled inadmissible or even for a new referendum to be held. In one especially unpleasant version of the argument, a popular democratic vote over an important issue is treated as a rejection of liberal democracy itself.
The number of references to Weimar Germany that I have seen from otherwise very sensible friends on social media mirrors the frenzy the referendum outcome has produced at the top of UK society, in its predominantly cosmopolitan and outward-looking elite circles of politicians, bureaucrats, civil servants, academic experts, and financial sector employees.
But what is this anxiety actually about?
In my view, we are not about to see the collapse of British society or even necessarily an economic crisis. To be sure, the past weeks have seen a sharp uptick in reports of racist and anti-migrant incidents. But that’s not, on the whole, what has unnerved elites.
Rather, it’s that the outcome represented the failure of an overwhelmingly pro-EU elite to herd those they administer into voting the correct way. The Brexit vote has brought out into the open what has been eating away at the foundation of UK politics for decades: the detachment of social bases from the political class.
While the vote has produced an intense crisis for the Tories, in some ways they have always had to manage internal disagreements on Europe (although they must be mortified that their “internal party discipline” problem has spilled into society like this). For Labour, it is more profoundly unsettling because it shows that the party has not only lost Scotland but now most of England and Wales.
In much the same way, the rise of Donald Trump (more on him later) is much less important than the fact that he’s shown just how tenuous a grip the GOP’s leaders and structures have on their own voters.
Against, Not For
Once we get away from sledging all Leave voters as the worst kinds of reactionaries, the parallels with the Scottish independence vote of 2014 become clearer. In each case working-class voters came out to vote in higher numbers than usual, against a largely united establishment that was seen as representing rule from a distant-yet-hostile political center.
The danger was always that voters’ behavior would be interpreted based on the politics of the campaign leaders on each side, rather than as a verdict on the political class and its preferences. Thus in Scotland the Radical Independence Campaign deluded itself into thinking it was the left wing of a powerful new Scottish nationalism and found itself irrelevant (as “RISE”) in this year’s elections.
When it comes to the Brexit vote, many are reading it as a triumph of some new far-right populism, when it was more basic facts (for instance, 75 percent of MPs supported Remain) that made the disconnect between the political class and voters so pronounced.
Of course, those who say that working-class voters supported Leave to protest against the political elites without the possibility of imposing policies more in line with their own neglected social interests are 100 percent correct. The small band of left-wing supporters of Brexit have been wrong to read into the mainly working-class vote an assertion of working-class interests against austerity (for a particularly painful but representative example, see John Pilger), just as many on the Left misread the Greek “Oxi” vote. The Leave vote was a vote “against” and not “for” something, which is why it is now easy for politicos to project their nightmares or fantasies onto it to score points.
The problem is that the referendum was one of the few places that it was possible to send a message that might actually shake things up, however incoherently. The implicit alternative is that those social interests should never be registered until they can be asserted in a “constructive” way; i.e. one that can be safely managed by the political system or “institutions of liberal democracy.”
If one needs to grasp why much of the Left has been so hostile to the “left behind” voters — those it normally claims to stand up for — it is that the political system through which their interests are supposed to be delivered (but mysteriously never are) has been so rudely upset by the plebs.
No wonder there is now a frantic campaign to crush the impact of the vote, and perhaps even find a way out of this mess for the political class.
Trump and Anti-Politics
The ability of Donald Trump to effectively snare the GOP nomination against the predictions of the vast majority of pundits and politicos follows a similar pattern.
In late January, I argued that Trump was taking advantage of the degeneration of the major parties in the US, which was more pronounced on the Republican side. Far from his program (such as it is) being the logical extension of a right-wing radicalization of the GOP, Trump is advocating a mish-mash of positions, including many that break with the free-market orthodoxy of the Republican mainstream. His key stance has been to criticize the failures of the political class, which he portrays as bought off by rich and powerful special interests and as having abandoned US workers.
The point is not to whitewash Trump’s racism and xenophobia, but to locate them in his broader anti-political approach. Trump has flourished in an environment where political parties are severed from their social bases, and where parties’ enfeebled connections to the society they govern has allowed voters to stray from the official line.
The declining ability of the main parties in the US and UK to organize voters around their agendas means that the normal rules have broken down. For the political class, this leads to an increasing frustration with voters who simply refuse to submit. And it’s not like there is a clear political program that could be used to try to incorporate these voters into manageable channels. Hence the increasingly nasty view of voters and the desire to ensure they cannot get away with destabilizing things again.
For those committed to fundamental social change, the situation is more challenging.
Neither Leave nor Trump offers anything remotely progressive to latch onto. But it should be equally clear that lining up with the increasingly anti-democratic maneuvers of the political class against supposedly errant voters is not just counterproductive but reactionary.
This is no time for progressives to be calling for the restoration of order — especially because the causes of disorder are to be found so clearly in the airy realm of politics itself.
An earlier version of this post appeared at Left Flank.