Brexitism

Alan Finlayson

Talk with Brexit enthusiasts for long enough and you begin to perceive the outlines of an unusual political philosophy. It makes use of the concepts you would expect – freedom, equality, authority and so on – but has, at its core, something surprising: the conviction that the future is unknowable. ‘You don’t know what will happen,’ these Brexiters will say if they catch you speculating as to the likely negotiating position of Estonia or the prospect of continued passporting rights for London-based banks. ‘Nobody can know the future.’ For the confirmed Brexiter there is no such thing as a more or less reasonable judgment of things to come. If you don’t know everything – about climate change, the economy or the political trajectory of Slovenia – then you know nothing. A line unambiguously divides the known from the unknowable. Cross it and you confirm the Brexiter’s prejudices: that you are a liar, an arrogant liberal intellectual, a ‘virtue-signaller’. The passionate intensity of Brexit’s true believers comes at least in part from their certainty that you can’t and don’t know what you are talking about.

This political philosophy – call it Brexitism – has congealed into something about so much more and yet so much less than Brexit. It is now a central feature of our political landscape: an anti-political politics organised around resentment at past losses and scepticism about promised futures. Modern politics has been intrinsically concerned with the future: with the way actions and decisions taken today could make tomorrow better or worse, safer or more threatened. ‘Progress’ and ‘development’ have been among its guiding concepts (in 2005, Tony Blair was able to win a general election with the vacuous campaign slogan ‘Forward not back’). In rejecting knowledge of the future, Brexitists are saying no to such a politics and to the assumptions about social change on which it rests. Theirs is an inquisitorial politics which fixes on the past in order to identify the crimes and betrayals that happened there, to name the guilty parties and demand that they be punished.

In rejecting the possibility of making reasonable judgments about the future effects of our actions, Brexitists implicitly (and sometimes, in my experience, explicitly) favour submission to Providence. Edmund Burke and Brexitists ought not to agree on much, but Brexitists do seem to share Burke’s belief that ‘the awful Author of our Being is the Author of our place in the order of existence … Having disposed and marshalled us by a divine tactic, not according to our will, but according to His, He has, in and by that disposition, virtually subjected us to act the part which belongs to the place assigned us.’ The Brexitist senses that we can and will be judged by how well we play that part and by how faithfully we embrace our fate. The righteous are cheerful and optimistic. They don’t talk things down. With their doubt and caution ‘Remoaners’ expose how much they are gripped by a fear common to sinners and unbelievers. They are treasonous, enemies of the people, saboteurs.

Such providentalism cannot be separated from the millenarian and apocalyptic spirits that haunt so much of our political culture: the alt-right fear of ungodly hordes about to break through the gates of Vienna; the Californian venture capitalist’s belief in the coming Singularity; deep Green projections of ecosystem collapse; medics’ warnings of antibiotic resistance; the ever present threat of financial meltdown. These visions of catastrophic change are a dramatisation, on the largest scale, of the disasters that shape people’s everyday lives: the wiping out, within the frame of our lifetime, of workplaces and communities; the familiar signs in the high street gone and not replaced; the children and grandchildren who had to move away to make some kind of a living; the school exam, the fitness to work test, the job interview we did not pass. All these things contribute to what the late Mark Fisher called ‘the privatisation of stress’. We alone are responsible for our future yet feel powerless to shape it; ‘they’ have the power and in the future they are planning there is no place for us. Brexitism articulates a refusal of that future with a kind of negative egalitarianism; it doesn’t say ‘We’re all in this together’ but ‘You’re as clueless as we are,’ with the implication that ‘Since we know what we don’t know, you are the bigger fool.’ ‘No future, no future, no future for you’ the Sex Pistols’ John Lydon sang in 1977’s ‘God Save the Queen’ (subsequently featured at the opening ceremony for the London Olympics in 2012). It’s no surprise he’s come out as a Brexitist.

A core sentiment of Brexitism has been expressed to me as the worry that unless we change our ways, in the future ‘Our children won’t know who they are any more.’ It’s a complicated feeling: a small ‘c’ conservative worry about the loss of tradition as well as a personal anxiety about the shape of a future from which – this is one thing we know for sure – we will be absent; a nationalist, nativist anxiety that (white) English kids will lose their identity when they are forced to become cosmopolitan citizens of the world (and therefore ‘citizens of nowhere’ as Theresa May would say); a theological fear that the children of God are becoming lost in the secular void (as Theresa May might say). It’s also a political intuition worth taking seriously. A people has to know itself as such if it is to be in charge of itself: to be the demos in a democracy, sovereign and taking control. Do we ‘the people’ know who we are?

A people’s knowledge of itself is always a combination of historical and sociological facts, simplified and mixed with a sentimental imagination. That knowledge has connected people to their politics and to the government they legitimate. It has given them political goals and a sense not only of where they have come from but also of how they might continue into the future. Imperialists tend to imagine themselves as the culmination of a history, as having achieved what was implicit in the visions of the founders. Ethnic nationalists think in terms of rebirth: the return to a timeless origin, the reclaiming of a land that had been lost. Modern civic nations, as Benedict Anderson identified, are conceived as ‘a solid community moving steadily down (or up) history’. The Brexitist conviction that there is no knowable future is symptomatic of a more widespread collapse in what we might think of as the political epistemology of modern civic nationhood. The Brexitist thinks that national peoples and their states are no longer the effective agents of history that they should be, and that events can’t now be explained in terms of the developmental trajectory of peoples – our Greatness has been taken from us. Instead some Brexitists might think in terms of a pure utopianism: anything is possible, now that control has been taken back, if we all think good things and put our shoulders to the wheel. Others emphasise that to ‘know’ political events is to recognise the dark forces conspiring to arrange them (the Illuminati, the Bilderberg Group, ‘Davos man’). And others, the more individualist Brexitists, think that history is the outcome of the efforts of heroic individuals (self-made men like them, free thinkers, the ‘legendary’ Boris), or, if more alt-right fascist than alt-right libertarian, the struggle between races.

The collapse of this modern political epistemology and the collective self-understanding of which it was a part is the defining event of our times. Our current political chaos has to be seen in the light of it. Modern democracy was an answer to a social and political problem. If they were to function at all, complex mass societies needed to produce information and knowledge about their territories, their resources and themselves. They needed to get that knowledge to the right places, make sure it was understood and then use it to form and implement decisions. Sociology, econometrics, demography, epidemiology – fields of expertise of the sort now derided by both the public and politicians – were part of that. They helped to predict future social problems and could inform political decisions about what should be done in the present to allay them. At the same time, mass democratic institutions such as trade unions, political parties, regional authorities, civic universities and local and national newspapers could generate information and knowledge about local situations and conditions, what could be done to improve things, what was and wasn’t working, and could make it known and intelligible to others. They could also scrutinise information and ideas so that decisions might be given legitimacy and, more important, be effectively implemented by people who understood them. Democratic institutions were, in this way, a means of forming, extending and governing our collective intelligence. That, at least, was the theory.

When, a decade ago, Conservative politicians and ‘gurus’ such as Michael Gove and Steve Hilton heralded the ‘post-bureaucratic age’, what they were claiming (in common with the Silicon Valley techno-utopians who inspired them) was that the institutions and academic disciplines of the age of mass democracy had become hindrances to the exercise of power and the conduct of government. They thought this for two reasons. First, they believed more in individual genius (especially their own and that of their friends) than in the collective intelligence of everyone. They often appeared to position themselves on the side of ‘the people’ against ‘self-appointed’ experts, but they did not understand the ‘wisdom of crowds’ as collective intelligence. On the contrary, it was the unintended byproduct of individual choices. Old elites, on this view, wanted to police those choices to make them congruent with their own social-liberal ideology. The post-bureaucrats, building on the beliefs of some of the Blairites before them, thought that the effective use of power required an ability to perceive the patterns in amassed individual choices, and to work out ways to exploit that knowledge.

Newer, better and rapidly expanding means of creating, harvesting and analysing data about human beings’ behaviour and choices were now available. Hence the second reason the post-bureaucrats didn’t believe in old-fashioned democracy. You don’t need clumsy things like parties, trade unions and newspapers if information about what people think, want, feel and expect is available continuously and in real time from every click and keystroke, online purchase and below-the-line comment. This is a politics that doesn’t prize knowledge of society (there is no such thing). It values the generation and interpretation of facts about individuals’ behaviours and interactions – what they signify or might herald, how to manage and manipulate them. In this world, the people do not need to know and understand things about themselves: they are the things to be known about. And they will be known about by a new class of guardians described by the leading Leave campaigner Dominic Cummings as ‘synthesisers’, unchained from the dead weight of the PPE curriculum, able to combine ‘trans-disciplinary’ thinking with ‘a cool Thucydidean courage to face reality’. Making rapid decisions and just as rapidly revising them in response to new information, they will, Cummings thinks, be able to create institutions that work like immune systems, protecting the rest of us from the risks and threats of our own and others’ untrained stupidity.

The transformations in our current era of the ways we produce information and knowledge have challenged our ideas of who is thought to be someone who knows and who, therefore, should rule. That challenge started inside government, in the New Labour era, in the form of opposition to established expertise: the view, for example, that there is no need for professionally trained teachers when you can run endless experiments on ‘what works’ and then measure how fully individual teachers comply with the findings. The New Labour years also saw the tiresome business of informing and persuading people replaced by psychological techniques designed to ‘nudge’ us in the right direction. The Cameron government intensified this approach in 2010 through the formation of the Behavioural Insights Team in the Cabinet Office. The application of such techniques to politics in general – to electoral and referendum campaigns but also and in particular to the kind of anti-feminist and anti-liberal protest politics associated with online trolls, ‘men’s rights’ activists and alt-right celebrities such as the now disgraced Milo Yiannopoulos – has led to the emergence and rapid growth of ways of doing politics that aren’t concerned with the formation of ‘a people’ but with the activation of momentary ‘swarms’ around assertions of identity or grievance, the demand for recognition of pain or enthusiasm, anger or vaporous hope. In the emergent system of communication and information, power doesn’t consist in the capacity to structure or direct what is thought and said, ‘hegemonising’ it and connecting it to a system of decision-making which is thereby legitimated. Instead it rests on the ability to read the ebbs and flows of mood and opinion so as to anticipate what is coming, find a wave that it is useful to amplify, and capitalise on the temporary force and intensity of numbers. It is a practice of politics analogous (not coincidentally) to high-frequency trading on financial markets or venture capital speculation. And it is the political right that has so far been best able to exploit it.

Much of the political content of Brexitist demands – ethnicised nationalism, economic protection, blue passports – is in contradiction to the political outlook of those who think they can rule the world by reading the runes of big data. The latter are globalists through and through, and convinced that the future is what they decide to make of it. But ideological affinity is often about form rather than content. The tragic aspect of Brexitism is that, like so many successful rebellions, it is not making history but going with its flow, not expropriating but empowering a rising class of libertarian enthusiasts who own the means of data production – the Silicon Valley venture capitalists and tech entrepreneurs who may be selling you a service but whose real business is mining the rich seam of information left in your digital footprint. Brexitism and elite ‘post-bureaucratic’ politics converge on a shared hostility to traditional forms of professional political expertise and to the liberal, progressive ideologies associated with them, and both are committed to clearing out ideological and cultural objections to the ‘post-democratic’ politics forming around us. Arron Banks – the insurance millionaire who funded Leave.EU – describes his as ‘a very simple agenda: to destroy the professional politician’, complementing the opposition to public service professionals that has long characterised the political thinking of someone like Michael Gove. There is an overlap too with the ideology of the PayPal billionaire and Trump adviser Peter Thiel, to whose mind politicians and public servants are far too influenced by people to whom they owe too much, such as welfare beneficiaries and women, two constituencies he describes as ‘notoriously tough for libertarians’. And then there is Cummings’s view (not entirely incorrect) that political institutions are ‘dominated by narcissists and bureaucrats’, who succeed by being cunning and eloquent in meetings, and through their capacity for what he calls ‘chimp politics’ – forming gangs and going after enemies. These politicians are, he says, focused on building approval ratings rather than building things; they lack the abilities of ‘venture capitalists, start-up entrepreneurs and small businesspeople’.

The politics of continual referendums and recalls (advocated by Brexitists and by Arron Banks under the banner of the Patriotic Alliance, which is taking advice from Steve Hilton) is an attempt to give this kind of anti-politics a stable institutional form adapted to the conditions of the UK. One of its guiding strategies is to stall action by elected politicians (‘draining the swamp’), leaving the way clear for others to exercise power in their place. Brexit will make it easier to remove legal and political obstacles to the establishment of this new regime. For example, EU regulations restricting the retention, processing and sale of our personal data were agreed in 2016 and come into effect in 2018 – but not in the UK, which is now free of such shackles. That will increase the power of those who own the data and those who will use it to win support for their politics. They will know us better than we know ourselves. Brexitists are right that we cannot know everything about the future before it is here. But they are wrong that we can have no idea at all of the shape it will take. We ‘experts’, now condemned like Cassandra, can see that shape very clearly indeed.