The UK and Europe
Did we vote Brexit out of existential boredom?
Alexander Shea / Jun 2016
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
I stayed up to watch the results out of pure ‘disaster voyeurism.’ I had gotten out of bed in Lyon, France at four a.m. that morning, caught a series of interconnecting trains that dispatched me back to London by midday, and spent fatigue-laden hours canvassing last-minute support for the Remain campaign. So as the results trickled through in protracted, drip-by-drip fashion on the morning of the twenty-fourth, each early result providing a little shot of adrenaline to the system yet still dislocated from any wider sense of which side was to win, I should have been in bed. But I wasn’t.
Instead, I stood transfixed before the television screen, beholden to a sense of watching a political car crash. As one after the other, small, incremental Leave victories piled up in the British post-industrial heartland- in Sunderland, Middlesborough, Coventry and Wales- the little blue dots colored onto the electoral map designating out votes seemed to spill-over into a greater blue tide. And thus, drip-by-drip, splodge of blue by splodge of blue, confidence turned to hope and hope to despair. Leave was going to win. But the worst thing: I was enthralled.
I was not the only one. Watching the BBC analysts converse in increasingly excited tones of a ‘seismic’ event in the history of ‘our island nation’, speaking to my friends in the room who chattered feverishly about the now suddenly ever so real possibility of a Boris Johnson premiership, it was clear that we were all enthralled by this crisis. We wanted Remain to win, but the shock of the new that Leave promised, the radical disjuncture it seemed to encapsulate, made a part of each of us want to see what it would be like just for the thrill. For that same feeling of frisson you get by watching a horror movie. It was as if we yearned for a Remain win, but also the opportunity to put on a virtual reality headset and, just, if even only for forty-five minutes, experience the seismic reverberations of what a Brexit would mean.
Could this disaster voyeurism stem from a sense of deep existential boredom with the present?
My generation of western European millennials seems removed from any reckoning with history, as though there is a lightness to our being. Our parents lived lives that were subsumed within a greater narrative of historical meaning- they were the generation of the Cold War who saw the Berlin Wall come down. Our grandparents’ lives were coloured Indelibly by the Second World War.
For us however, at times it has felt like history in Europe really did end in 1989. Absent of any greater political meaning, the void in our lives presented by the lack of any entrenched civic engagement has been filled with a ‘soft’ pop culture that lacks substance and fetishises celebrity. Consequently, in an era in which our lives seem so much lighter in historical definition than those of prior generations, we guiltily yearn for crises, periods of ‘thickened history’ in which our country leaves the E.U., ousts its Prime Minister and faces a Scottish-led constitutional crisis all in the space of a few hours.
This is symptomatic of something more profound that produced itself across the electorate in this referendum. Consider the arguments that were successful amongst the population in convincing them to vote leave. They were not the utilitarian, cost-benefit arguments concerning whether voting remain would be x number of pounds better or worse for each taxpayer. Nor were they the sober analyses of the net economic gain that immigration brings to the British economy.
Rather, feeling disenfranchised in an era of unmanaged globalisation that has increased in-country wealth differentials, working class voters have transformed the E.U. into a metaphor for the loss of sovereignty they feel in being able to exert control over their own lives. ‘Take back control’ was such an ingenious slogan precisely because it allowed people to project their own disempowerment onto that of their country.
It is not surprising in this regard to see the Brexit campaign led by a man with a degree in classics and history. Johnson seemed to innately ‘get’ that, as has been confirmed in a recent book published by the Oxford academic Ian Goldin, during periods of profound social transformation, reverting to rhetorical strategies that play on voters’ impression of the moral decay of society plus their fear of technological transformation, and that project these anxieties onto a hostile out group, are hugely successful. Johnson aped here the rhetorical styles of classic orators such as Demosthenes and Claudius, juxtaposing a corrupted present with a glorious post-E.U. future.
And so in all of this, there is an inescapable sense that the magnitude of the political decision born last week is actually rooted in elements rather banal and unexceptional. Sentiments of moral decay, disenfranchisement and ethnic anxiety that are cyclical across history have been welded together amongst a coalition of political opportunists and the disempowered. In this roll of the dice, we seem to have gone from the Last Men of History, those plagued by existential ennui in a consumerist culture devoid of any broader social meaning, to the First Men: those willing to resort to the dog-whistle politics of times we wished were behind us. It is a sad moment to be British.