Brexit Anxiety – Can We Reconcile the Extremes?

I’m spending too much time using social media, and feeling thoroughly depressed at the level of debate and discussion in British politics, that exemplifies the spasm of pain that is Brexit. I can’t help but feel somewhat lost and adrift in a sea of claim and counter-claim.

It all feels like an expression of angst from petulant children who are unable to take responsibility for what they say and seem to be incapable of listening to what other people say. I feel shame that I get drawn into the whole morass, and that it plays to my weaker self. It’s not edifying or empowering that is certain.

On the one hand the government is fuelling a delusion of nostalgia and longing for a simpler age, in which an image of national autonomy is projected onto a narrow sense of self-concern and superiority, a superiority complex. The delusion is that this is somehow borne out from a set of historical beliefs that don’t actually stack-up, which are actually a set of narrow political interests that focus on people’s worst anxieties about social change.

We all have inner anxieties about social change and how we deal with change, the problem at the moment is that the Brexit debate seems to focus on a ‘bugger-all’ mentality that sees change as only a loss and a negative. If it feels like a negative for me, so the argument runs, then everyone else is also going to have to suffer as well. To coin a phrase – we are all in it together.

Clearly, some people got this message, sucked it up, and have applied it even in circumstances that are clearly harmful and destructive. A model of disaster capitalism is fuelled by a sense of self-regard that is isolated from the collective spirit, and so all must suffer.

It is ironic that the Tories are now facing the existential angst that comes with social change, and that they are ill-equipped to deal with this change, because the present day Tory mindset was forged in the fires of de-industrialisation in the 1970s and 80s, when they screwed the unions, the miners, the industrial workers and pretty-much most of the British working class, with little or no remorse that the form of change that they proffered had a real effect on the spirit of whole communities.

On the other side, one might expect the Labour party to be able to present a credible opposition to the Tory psychosis. Something positive that can counter the negative destruction of the Tory vision with a positive and cohesive vision capable of rising above this anxiety?

The Labour party succeeds when it can project a common dream of social hope and collective engagement that has a purpose. Not just ideologically or morally, but practically as well. The problem in my mind, however, is that Jeremy Corbyn lacks the charisma and personality traits that can project a suitable persona that enables people to put aside their doubts, so they can share in the collective endeavour the Labour part seeks to represent.

Many people, it seems, have been able to see a somewhat saintly visage in Corbyn. He is the prophet who can do no wrong in many people’s eyes. The problem is that many people still see him as the emperor with no clothes, and that the heroic adulation that surrounds Corbyn lacks authenticity.

Perhaps this is a good thing for British politics. May and Corbyn will be remembered as equally lacking in charisma, though competence and practical capability is usually the backstop in these circumstances, and we seem to be lacking in this regards as well.

For me, the problem is that Corbyn represents a tactical approach to politics, always cutting and dodging, always playing factions off against one another. This is a form of politics that gets lost in strategy and fails to offer vision and a sense of the transformative potential of the political process. If, indeed, you regard the political process as a vehicle for transformative action. I suspect that Corbyn doesn’t see the political process as the ground on which change should be undertaken, but seeks to foster those external-forces that will break the system along the lines that he desires.

I find this approach to be equally delusional and misplaced as that offered by the Tories. We have the political system that we have, and changing it takes effort, hard work and being in power to bring about meaningful change. It can’t be left to wishful thinking and a vague sense of the inevitability of history exposing the contradictions of capitalism.

People’s lives aren’t theoretical constructs of the market or history, they are real, present and should be respected. The fantasy of the free-market that the Tories are promulgating, and the fantasy of socialism that the Labour party is projecting soon rub-up against the harsh reality of practical life.

The problem, I suppose, is how do we reconcile these two extremes of the political situation? The problem for the Tories is that they can’t extricate themselves from the hard-ideology of Brexit and the unending belief in individualism that drives it. The Tories feed on individualism as a form of social isolation, in which we are disconnected from one another, and our dreams are our individual dreams, with no reference or setting that is socially defined.

The rationalism of the marketplace is the only way our dreams can be actualised and realised. The problem is that in order to maintain a coherent political narrative, in the face of practical reality, that the politics of individualism must pray on people’s anxieties and negative instincts. It is someone else who is to blame – immigrants, Muslims, the EU, and so on. No wonder the sense of social isolation an anxiety is the growing characteristic of our society.

If you leave people in isolation, cut off from common visions and dreams of what society can achieve, then you reduce people to instruments of economic calculation. The shared bonds of culture collapse, and people become distrustful and insular. Politics is reduced to the aggregate of opinion and not a discussion of the spirit and values of our age. We are never challenged. We stick to the delusion that we can have our cake and we can eat it, and that the bill will never be presented, and payment never demanded.

But the bill is being presented. If we cut ourselves adrift from our neighbours and unpick the common bonds that have been built over the last seventy years, there will be a cost. This is not just a financial cost, but a psychological cost as well. It is possible to live on one’s delusions for only so long. At some point, however, reality has to intrude, facts have to be faced, and alternative points of view have to be heard.

Leadership in these circumstances is about healing rather than further dividing. If Corbyn is the prophet that many people claim him to be, who is he proselytising for? In my mind we don’t need heroic politicians to come and save us, but look across the Atlantic, and we can see that worse, much worse can happen when we don’t reconcile our differences.

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