‘Take Back Control’

Peter Pomerantsev

Some years ago I interviewed a former catwalk model about suicide in the modelling industry. Elena, who had gone on to train as a psychologist, described spending her late teenage years in a world in which she was constantly on show, but no one encouraged her to articulate her feelings. She could never tell whether the relationships she had, especially with men, were genuine or fake (were they sleeping with her or with the model in the photo?), where the unreal stopped and the real began, where the actual Elena was and where the fantasy girl on the cover of the magazine. And the paradoxical thing, she told me, was that one of the only ways she found she could prove to herself what was real, was by trying to take her own life.

I thought of that interview during and after the Brexit referendum, as people – especially non-English friends – said that the UK seemed to be committing a massive act of self-harm. The constant incantations by certain Brexiters that the country needs to go through a period of difficulty – the Second World War is often invoked – in order to find its true character reminded me of the way Elena had described self-harm as, paradoxically, seeming to offer a way back to her real self. I know that a nation doesn’t experience trauma in the same way as a person, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the Leave campaign’s latching onto the phrase ‘take back control’ hadn’t been not only about appealing to what Dominic Cummings called a desire for ‘loss aversion’, but had also touched on something deeper, darker, more self-destructive.

I searched the internet for ‘take back control’ and ‘self-harm’. The Royal College of Psychiatrists says: ‘You may be more likely to harm yourself if you feel: that people don’t listen to you; hopeless; isolated, alone; out of control; powerless – it feels as though there’s nothing you can do to change anything … Self-harm can help you to feel in control, and reduce uncomfortable feelings of tension and distress.’ A newspaper article from 2009 pointed to a threefold rise in self-harm and suicide in the context of growing economic inequality:

According to new research published by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the growing gap between rich and poor has led to an increase in mental health problems such as depression and self-harm in countries including the UK and US … Rufus May, a clinical psychologist in Bradford, said: ‘Self-harm is a release. It anaesthetises people from the pain of feeling wretched and unworthy. It helps us escape the pain of living in a competitive, self-conscious world where we rarely feel that we are making the grade. It can also be an expression of anger. This is one way to briefly be powerful and take back control.’

Perhaps Google was just confirming my biases: I had, after all, typed ‘take back control’ and ‘self-harm’ into the search bar, so no wonder I was getting results that reinforced that association. I turned to Josh Cohen, a psychoanalyst and writer. He agreed that the urge to take back control was consistent with patients who damage themselves through anorexia or cutting, but he also gave a psychoanalytic account of one kind of suicidal tendency. This typically involves a splitting of oneself into two, a sort of internal hyper-polarisation; one creates a second self onto which one places all one’s problems, and then murders that second self:

This is understood precisely as a way of ‘taking back control’, on the basis that tyrannising someone else for their evil ways is far easier than addressing the same problems in myself. This is also related to what Melanie Klein calls ‘splitting’ of the object – I am good, the object is bad, ‘split off’. Many shrinks have noted how prominent the language of splitting is in Brexit and post-Trump discourse. And again, splitting is one of the most basic mechanisms of control, in that it concentrates everything I fear and dislike in one place.

The strategy of Cummings, Bannon and the rest is based on creating ever more extreme polarisation between the ‘people’ and ‘non-people’ (immigrants, the EU, anyone in London) who are accused of being the source of any problem you may have, everything you ‘fear and dislike in one place’. Targeted online messages allow spin doctors to model their campaigns to satisfy a vast and disparate range of often contradictory grievances. The digital director of Vote Leave once told me that you need about seventy different messages in a population of twenty million. The trick is to connect them to one enemy that is supposedly the cause of the pain from whom one has to ‘take back control’.

But of course all these problems can’t be solved with a simple act of ‘taking back control’. Quite the opposite: it’s set us off on a spiral of self-destruction, with political parties, the UK itself and even families splitting apart. Once again I find myself thinking back to Elena and her suicide attempt:

Just before I jumped I suddenly and strongly understood that this attempt would not actually help solve my problems. I had the sense that it wasn’t the first time I was standing on this stool, and that centuries ago I had stood on the same stool with this same rope round my neck, and will stand for another hundred years if I don’t learn to live another way. I still jumped off, because it had been my decision and I needed to go through with it, finish what I had begun. But before I jumped I knew this wasn’t the end. That if you don’t learn to deal with things differently this will just keep on happening again, from difficulty to difficulty you will be standing on this chair with this rope round your neck and look for a solution that simply doesn’t exist.

She jumped. The hook the rope was wrapped around was torn out of the wall. She hit the floor, passed out, and came round four hours later.

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at


  • 16 October 2019 at 8:29am
    Joe Morison says:
    There seem to be two quite different explanations here in discussing the origins of Brexit: taking back control as a response to the shit stirred up in us by rising inequality (everyone should read ‘The Spirit Level’ on this), and taking back control as an expression of the act of self harm that is Brexit. The first makes total sense, but the second can’t be right because Brexit was uniformly sold by its cheerleaders as something that would be a glorious and tremendously easy success. We were told that once we’d left we’d be free of the shackles of the EU and that they would be obliged to prostrate themselves before our might and offer us all of the advantages of membership with none of the costs; it was to be a return to our mythical former glory when Britannia ruled the waves and all bowed in awe before our brilliance and power. Anything else was the despicable project fear dreamt up by traitorous EU quislings, and lily livered liberals too pathetic to understand Britain’s unique strength and destiny.

    It was only when the truth began to dawn that, if anything, the original project fear had underestimated the catastrophic implications of Brexit that the idea of the need for a purgative period of suffering began to emerge along with all the nostalgic bullshit about the Blitz spirit. Peter Wehner, a former aide to George W. Bush, wrote an article in the Huff Post two days ago about why Trump supporters won’t turn on him despite the disaster of his presidency, replace ‘Trump’ with ‘Brexit’ and it’s a perfect explanation: “Now it’s not just a defense of Trump. It’s a defense of their defense of Trump. To indict him is to indict themselves, and to indict their own judgment, and that’s hard for any human being.” The result: “They will defend him regardless of what happens, come hell or high water.”  This is why we have this new narrative of the need for a period of suffering, it’s the only way Brexit supporters can justify the disaster they are bringing down upon us.

  • 16 October 2019 at 11:52am
    Graucho says:
    Aside from reasons discussed above, another of the several factors that lead to a narrow majority for a leave vote deserves a mention. The whole European project has been steeped in mendacity from the outset on all sides. In 1975 voters were deceived into believing that they were signing up for a commercial project. That they were signing up to the United States of Europe only became apparent when Maastricht was signed. EU passports, EU single currency, EU anthem, EU flag all the trappings of a single country. Little wonder that "take back control" also gained traction with the generation that went to the polls in 1975.

    • 16 October 2019 at 1:31pm
      AndrewL says: @ Graucho
      Steeped in mendacity? Well, UK voters may have been deceived that the EEC was purely a commercial project (and we need to remember why the UK decided to join: the EEC was economically more successful than the UK was with its Commonwealth connections; essentially, we made the wrong choices in the 1950s) and the UK continues to think about the EU in transactional terms - what do we put in, and what do we get back - but Europeans have always understood that the EU was a political project. The very first recital of the Treaty of Rome is: "DETERMINED to establish the foundations of an ever closer union among the European peoples".

    • 22 October 2019 at 6:10pm
      willybach says: @ AndrewL
      I agree. The British public were given distorted informlatioin by the Brexiteers, as has been the case for so long by sections of the media, politicians and lobbyists. leqave.
      See the historical campaign documents:


  • 17 October 2019 at 4:51pm
    XopherO says:
    Interesting that in a number of contributions to blogs about Brexit, from remainers, contributors write about Europe and Europeans as if we were not. Has this always been a part of the way even pro-EU folk talked, or is it a consequence of Brexit itself? Personally I suspect this way of talking, the UK as 'other', has fuelled anti-EU sentiment for years. I have always used the expression 'continental Europe' but even this has a hint of 'the other'.

    • 18 October 2019 at 8:05am
      Joe Morison says: @ XopherO
      British exceptionalism is deeply ingrained in us. Probably all nations feel it, but the combination of the largest empire the world has ever known and two world war victories metastasized it into something grotesquely attractive to nationalists. The fact that the famous headline ‘Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off’ is only apocryphal perfectly illustrates this: it was never written but it so illustrates our attitude to the world that people need to believe it was.

      Yesterday, John le Carré was, re Brexit, talking about the difference between patriotism and nationalism: it being that the former is just love of country whereas the latter needs enemies to hate. And as all nations and communities have unique qualities and achievements, it’s fine to be proud of them. It’s when one sees them as conferring superiority that it becomes so hideously toxic.

    • 18 October 2019 at 8:26am
      Martha12345 says: @ Joe Morison
      High Treason by José Emilio Pacheco (trans. Alastair Reid)

      I don’t love my country. Her abstract glory
      eludes me.
      But (this may sound bad) I would give my life
      for ten of her places, for certain people,
      ports, pine forests, fortresses,
      for a ruined city, gray and monstrous,
      for several of her historical figures,
      for mountains
      (and three or four rivers).

    • 18 October 2019 at 10:55am
      XopherO says: @ Joe Morison
      Of course, George Orwell wrote a celebrated essay on the topic.
      In an interesting and amusing LSE blog 'Boris Johnson, the Brezhnev years'
      Abby Innes remarks "It is a remarkable achievement to sell the obliteration of the post-war democratic state as the final iteration of the Dambuster spirit". And with that spirit England (yes, it is all about England) will win the FA World Cup again, unhindered, like 1966, by those pesky foreigners

    • 20 October 2019 at 1:39pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Martha12345
      That sounds like love of country to me. The only abstract thing I love about Britain is that it’s a country composed of four nations, everything else is particulars.

  • 18 October 2019 at 9:51pm
    Peterson_the man with no name says:
    If we're playing at being psychiatrists today, then dare I suggest that some Remainers may be at risk of projecting their own trauma at losing their European identity onto the nation?

    I don't think we need to explain support for Brexit as a mass desire for self-harm, for the simple reason that, for a large proportion of the population, there has so far been no obvious harm. The predictions of disaster are just that, predictions - and we've heard this stuff before. Notably when Britain left the ERM, and again when we stayed out of the Euro a few years later. It's the same culture of hyperbole that has led every election in my adult lifetime to be described as THE MOST IMPORTANT ELECTION IN A GENERATION (with the sole exception of 2001, which was so obviously a foregone conclusion that there was no need to rally the troops).

    In common with many, my life so far has scarcely been touched by Brexit. The weak pound is a minor annoyance when I want to buy something from abroad, but it's hardly a disaster, and it might have happened anyway (easy to imagine the turmoil that could have followed a narrow vote for Remain). The political class are running around screaming hysterically, but what is that to me? These are people who spent a decade lecturing me on the need for austerity, then decided to chuck away £40 billion on a symbol of Britain's continued status as a world power. (For me, the renewal of Trident, despite the fact that no one even tried to make a serious military case for it, marked the moment when I finally lost my last shred of respect for the nonentities who make up our current political and media elites. Others will have had their epiphanies at different moments, but I think the general feeling is widespread.)

    • 19 October 2019 at 9:32am
      Joe Morison says: @ Peterson_the man with no name
      Well, the first thing to say about your post is that Brexit hasn’t happened yet - the serious effects have not even started; but, nevertheless, there has been more than enough to convince anyone looking at it objectively even if you personally have yet to suffer. First, there’s the economy: the UK has already lost almost £70 billion according to the Centre for European Reform, we’ve gone from the fastest growing economy in the G7 to one of the slowest - this translates in ordinary people’s lives into a lower standard of living (the British Retail Consortium reports consumer spending at its weakest since their records began in the mid 90s) and greater anxiety. I can report two personal anecdotes: my younger daughter works for a large property firm, she deals with the commercial side and is about to qualify as a Chartered Surveyor, her company is suffering serious problems which it blames entirely on Brexit, there is just a lot less investment going on, and the atmosphere in the company has changed dramatically - people are being made to work much longer hours, the fear of redundancy hangs over everyone, and bonuses have dropped through the floor; then there’s my favourite off licence in Soho, I went in yesterday for the first time in a while (I used to be a regular but my galavanting days are behind me) and I have never known them so despondent - the shop has been going since 1985 but for the first time they are in fear for their future, business is slower than it’s ever been and they blame Brexit, on top of the general slowdown which means there has been no autumn pick up in trade, they are terrified of the tariffs on the stuff they import from the EU that will be imposed if we leave.

      Then there is what it’s done to the social fabric of this country. First, there is the rise in racist aggression. My children are mixed race, and my elder received the first racist abuse she has ever experienced in London the day after the referendum: she works in local government and was in the dole office when someone coming in to collect their benefit saw her and shouted, “You’ll be sent back home soon.” Since then she’s received comments like that, in London, more times than she can remember; many many other people I know have similar stories. And there is what it’s done to the social fabric of the country: we are more bitterly divided than at any time since the Civil War, political discourse has a viciousness unknown in living memory, and Brexit has given us the most hard right government of the last 100 years and a Prime Minister less fit for the job than any in our lifetimes, and I know of many friendships that have foundered and even marriages that are in trouble because of it. Then there is what it’s done to our international reputation, the cultural capital we have squandered: I had lunch yesterday with an old friend who works for the Department of International Development, he says that across the world the people he meets are absolutely baffled by what is universally seen as an act of inexplicable self-harm. This country used to be hugely admired for its stability and common sense, the world now sees a disfunctional basket case tearing itself to bits.

      Finally, there is what is to come. It’s almost universally accepted amongst economists that Brexit is going to fuck our economy. The idea that we can replace frictionless trade with our near neighbours who constitute the world’s largest free trade zone with as yet to be negotiated deals with countries thousands of miles away is absurd (to say nothing about all the extra carbon that the long distance transportation will release into the atmosphere). On even the most optimistic forecasts, our economy will take a massive hit. Then there is the erosion of workers’ rights and environmental protections that are guaranteed by the EU and will have to go if we are to replace EU trade. The 1% have always hated the EU for this which is why the press they own has been dripping poisonous lies about the EU into the British public’s ears for decades. We’ve already seen the Department for International Trade pushing for alignment with US food safety standards in order to facilitate a trade deal; hormone fed meat and chlorinated chicken are just the start, I suggest you have a look at the FDA’s Food Defect Levels Handbook which lays out what’s allowed in the US, it includes such delights as 10 mg of mammal faeces per pound of chocolate, up to 75 insect fragments and 11 rodent hairs per pound of paprika, and up to four pellets of rodent faeces per serving of popcorn in cinemas (the EU allows none of this). Then there’s the loss of our right to travel and work freely in the EU, the devastation to scientific research, and the loss of participation in such projects as the Galileo GPS system. All this is just the tip of the iceberg, the whole thing is an absolute clusterfuck and the mere fact that for the moment you can smugly crow, “I’m alright, Jack” is utterly irrelevant.

    • 19 October 2019 at 9:48am
      XopherO says: @ Peterson_the man with no name
      Whilst I agree that Trident is a total waste of money - as Corbyn believes - and it is more like £60 billion with half going to the USA for bits (notably launch tubes and missiles) which rather undermines the 'economic' arguments, I think the rest of your observations are rather superficial. Leaving the ERM and not joining the Euro were dictated by the UK's need to continuously devalue the pound to remain competitive. This is because of under-investment, lack of skills and thus poor productivity, which in turn requires low wages to remain competitive using less-efficient means. This is gradual, and the effects are in not instantly evident because undramatic. And they mainly affect the poor. So we can see it in some of the worst child poverty among developed and some developing nations, 14 million people living below the poverty line, insecure employment etc. Already Brexit has halved incoming investment, and stalled domestic investment, estimated to have reduced GDP by 30 billion over the three years. Again, the consequences will be slow to appear, but appear they will, hitting hardest the poorest but also the middle class. Don't be so blase from the comfort of your armchair in your nice house.

  • 18 October 2019 at 10:33pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    Well, here’s the view from abroad, this time from an “Irish-American” (a misnomer in itself, since, in terms of ancestry, I’m at least three-eighths German and one eighth Polish, the typical American mutt status; but, paternal lines of descent obscure this). Pomerantsev is trying to meld two distinct streams of thought (nothing the matter with this). The first has to do with self-harm (in the extreme, suicide), as generalized from individuals to collective groups (a tribe, or a tribe writ large, i.e., a nation). The ideas about why individuals do this, as described by the author, make a good deal of sense. A good writer (Jean Amery, born in Austria as Johann Mayer) described the decision for suicide in terms of life viewed as a game of chess: those who choose to take their own lives feel that they have been “checkmated” in this game, often unfairly or arbitrarily. This damages their self-esteem profoundly. The best way out is to leave the game (take one’s own life). He, a man of considerable attainments and public reputation, did it himself, because he could never arrive at a rational understanding of why he had been persecuted as a Jew. (Of course, he may have been suffering a long-term depression caused by his particular experience of life.) But the question is, can you really generalize from individual psycho-dynamics to the collective ideas of large social groups? I don’t know the correct answer to this question`
    The second is an ‘identity issue’: what makes me as an Englishman (or woman) unique? Not much I would say, on two grounds: (1) people are fairly generic, all around the globe; after all, we are all the descendants of clever and resourceful apes, and (2) national history and the ‘legends of the collective self’ that go along with this are a repository of the intentions and decisions of the chosen few who manage to dominate political and economic life – what the hell does this have to do with you or me as an individual? Very little, until we are swept up in collective morale-raising exercises and thereby feel we belong to something bigger and more important than ourselves (religion does too, and we're living in an age of secular religions). The same considerations apply to American exceptionalism (or Iranian or Chinese or whatever exceptionalism).
    Personally I think the Brexit mania that afflicts its adherents is better explained by manipulative political machinations. The same applies to “Trump, do or die” sentiments. In both cases all kinds of special group interests are buried beneath populist rhetoric. Unfortunately, people are overly emotional and insufficiently rational when it comes to phenomena like this, so the seed of misrule falls on fertile ground. We clever apes aren’t that intelligent after all, as our destruction of our own habitat clearly illustrates.

  • 21 October 2019 at 12:25pm
    Simon Wood says:
    Brilliant post, did not deserve to elicit a blizzard of lies and excuses. A simple point well made.

  • 23 October 2019 at 10:39am
    Neil Foxlee says:
    I'm surprised that nobody's mentioned Fintan O'Toole's excellent Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain, which also discusses Brexit as self-harm (e.g. p. 129ff).

    • 24 October 2019 at 10:53am
      Neil Foxlee says: @ Neil Foxlee
      See also this piece by William Davies, written the week after the referendum result:

      "Studies of conspiracy theories in Britain show that a majority of people don’t believe that democracy has any influence on who holds power, and that the E.U. is trying to take over all British law-making powers.

      "Other studies have found another distinctive characteristic among Leave voters. They share a belief in harsh and even humiliating punishment for criminals, including support for the death penalty (outlawed in Britain in 1969) and public whipping of sex offenders.

      "Taking all of this together, a typical Leave voter has authoritarian beliefs, yet no faith in the political system to implement authoritarian policies or to improve society some other way. Under these circumstances, individuals display what sociologists call “negative solidarity,” a feeling that if they’re to suffer, then everyone should, too. Psychologically, it is perhaps easier to experience feelings of despair and powerlessness if they are collective conditions, rather than private ones." .

      Or as Randy Newman

    • 24 October 2019 at 11:01am
      Neil Foxlee says: @ Neil Foxlee
      (Sorry) Or as a song by the great Randy Newman puts it, "I Want You To Hurt Like I Do"

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