Lexit: the Disaster Utopia
- March 21, 2019
There is in every society , and at every historical period, a yearning for collapse and calamity – or at least a fascination with these possibilities. Our fascination with things falling apart is sometimes based on a vague awareness that the prospect of disaster is never as far away as we think. But there is also a political tradition – to which both right and left are prone – which sees the complete unraveling of the established order as an essential prerequisite for creating the conditions through which something better or merely different can emerge.
Such expectations can build up over years of frustration, boredom, impatience and indignation with things-as-they-are, with the run-of-the-mill compromises that more often than not are part of how society functions. Rebecca Solnit has written of
the ability of disasters to topple old orders and open new possibilities. This broader effect is what disaster does to society. In the moment of disaster, the old order no longer exists and people improvise rescues, shelters, and communities. Thereafter, a struggle takes place over whether the old order with all its shortcomings and injustices will be reimposed or a new one, perhaps more oppressive or perhaps more just and free, like the disaster utopia, will arise.
There is no doubt that the extraordinary situation in which the UK now finds itself is in part due to such expectations. Amazingly, we are now just over a week from crashing out of the EU without a deal – even though parliament has just voted against precisely this possibility. A prime minister without a shred of authority, decency or integrity is now seeking to circumvent and undermine parliamentary democracy by appealing directly to ‘the people’ over the heads of their elected representatives.
Government has effectively collapsed and parliament has shown itself unable to pick up the slack, and agree on or impose a common response that can mitigate the grotesque act of national self-harm that the country is now about to inflict on itself.
Just to be absolutely clear: this atrocious political car-crash is almost entirely due to the right – both inside and outside the Tory Party. Brexit is a hard-right political project first and foremost and nothing will ever change that. But the British left – or at least parts of it – also bears some responsibility for what has happened and what is about to happen.
Where the romantic ‘disaster utopians’ of the right see Brexit as an opportunity to revisit lost episodes of national greatness or wartime resilience – and transform the UK into a deregulated ethnonationalist island fortress, there are those on the left who think that socialism is coming and that Brexit will speed its arrival. Consider this tweet, which appeared yesterday and will remain anonymous:
The left will have to adopt the tenets of economic nationalism, compromise with the centre-right to defeat ethnic nationalists, and act as the stewards of internationalism. It’s clear the future belongs to the left. And the right will surely fragment.
I’ve come across commentary like this again and again since the referendum campaign, and it sounds particularly hollow and grating this week. Usually the same people who make predictions like this are also the ones who used to say that parliament was a bourgeois smokescreen; that ‘real’ power was in the streets and the workplace; that if voting could change anything it would be illegal. Yet since 2016 we have found them hailing the imminent triumph of the left and proclaiming a flawed referendum result as the ultimate expression of democracy which cannot be revisited.
These are the ones who argue that the EU has neoliberalism ‘baked into it’, that state aid rules make ‘socialism’ or even nationalisation impossible; that hail Jeremy Corbyn’s strategic brilliance at every turn and dismiss any criticisms of his leadership as an anti-socialist plot.
None of this would matter that much, were it not for the fact that this is the left that appears to have been directing the Labour Party’s position on Brexit for the last two and a half years. It is foolish to claim, as some of Corbyn’s detractors have done, that he could have ‘stopped Brexit.’ The Labour Party has never had that power, either inside or outside parliament.
Brexit should not be ‘stopped’ by parliamentary fiat, but it could and should have been revisited in another public consultation. What we have needed for the last two and a half years is an opposition with the ability to separate what is desirable from what is realistically possible, and with the courage to explain to the public why the expectations that led to the referendum cannot be realised – without seriously damaging the country.
The Labour leadership has done none of these things. Again and again it has looked at Brexit only in terms of what it could get out of it for itself politically
Behind these manoeuvres, it is impossible to shake off the suspicion that Corbyn is surrounded by a clique that appears to believe – no less fervently than the right – that Brexit is a kind of liberation and an opportunity.
Unlike the right, Corbyn won’t say this openly, and this is one reason why Labour has adopted the ‘strategic ambivalence’ which long ago passed its sell-by date. The result is a real stench of bad faith that will last a long time. If Brexit is a disaster for the country, it will also, I fear, turn out to be a disaster for the left.
In May extreme-right and populist parties from all over Europe are looking to take over the European Parliament, and turn the EU into a ‘Europe of nations.’ The left should be in that fight, campaigning for a very different outcome.
Instead it will be isolated in an embittered, failing and dangerously divided country that shows no sign of turning to ‘socialism’ and which is already becoming a freakish irrelevance and a political cautionary tale to the rest of the world.
Not for the first time, the left has overplayed its hand, and when the Brexit backlash begins, those who effectively colluded with the right to make this ‘disaster utopia’ happen are unlikely to find that they – or the rest of us – have benefited from it.