No-deal Brexit and ‘acting as if’


I’m sure someone like Zizek would have something of interest to say about the government’s almost certainly ill-fated pretence that they are serious about leaving the EU without a deal. It may go something like this: the purported audience for the no-deal charade is the EU leadership. (I think threatening them to renegotiate might be what linguists call the illocutionary force.) However, as John Harris has reported here, the actual (unintended) audience for the no-deal rhetoric is lots of angry people across the UK who voted to leave but who no longer trust anything the liberal media tells them*. (That’s the perlocutionary effect.) They now believe that no-deal is not just a plausible but a desirable option, and are immune to any appeal based on pointing out that their desire to get Brexit over with so we can all get on with our lives will make it impossible to get on with our lives. Major companies are also putting contingency plans together, including, one can only assume, sacking all their UK staff, despite Philip Hapless Hammond having phoned them up last week to tell them it was all a big massive jape. This plays straight into the hands of the full-on ideological psychopaths who never actually wanted Brexit to ‘work’, but who see it as an excellent means to create chaos, seize power and implement their Pol Pot-esque Shock Doctrine agenda: Farage, Raab, Cummings, Rees-Mogg and so on. (You could also add to that list certain power-crazed sociopaths who genuinely do not give a fuck what happens as long as they stand a chance of becoming PM – no need to name names on that score.)

In recovery fellowships they talk about ‘acting as if’: pretend that you’re an emotionally healthy person who doesn’t need a drink to get out of bed, and eventually, one day at a time, you will be. In various other fables, the wind suddenly backfires and the wolf mask you only ever donned for a lark is stuck to your face for good, and so on. Or, in the more deftly-chosen words of Kurt Vonnegut, “we are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be”. Ultimately, once the government has stopped absolutely wasting everyone’s fucking time, the country will end up doing whatever suits the interests and prejudices of Rupert Murdoch and his friend Steve Bannon, although in this case it will, bizarrely, be the SWP and the Morning Star wot believe they won it. The question of whether Prime Minister Rees-Mogg will end austerity overnight and appoint George Galloway Minister for Catsuits first thing in the morning is, at this point, moot. (I’d imagine he’ll probably enjoy a leisurely breakfast of duck-eggs-on-soldiers served up by “nanny”, surveying his legoland country estate, as the rest of the country starts to riot and starve to death.) But the pro-Brexit Left certainly deserves some sort of reward, because if it hadn’t been for the feinted left hook that was the ‘Lexit’ campaign, the hard right wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as it has been in implementing what is basically a slow-motion coup au visage de la démocratie, the eventual outcome of which will lie somewhere between Pinochet 1973 and Johnson 2005.

As for Corbyn, his party’s manoeuvres to stave off a nightmare Brexit are welcome, but if Labour had started much earlier on demolishing the case against a no-deal outcome, it might have stood much more of a chance of success. Right now he’s going against the tide – starting today’s PMQs by mentioning Holocaust Memorial Day is bound to be greeted in some quarters with fears that he might, heaven forfend, upset the far-right….

*Although of course they’re happy to take as gospel any old shit Russia Today posts on their Facebook feeds, and as for The Sun, well it’s the Sun innit.

Changing the rules of the game

Over a million people under 25 are currently unemployed in the UK. These are young people brought up in an environment in which every part of their lives is determined by their ability to compete with each other and with people on the other side of the world. Do the recent student protests mean that they have come to reject this whole social model? I don’t think we have reached such a  point. But a great deal of people under the age of 21 are angry that the rules of the game have suddenly been changed in order to make it harder for them to compete.

People clearly want to believe that they stand a chance, or, in other terms, they demand the right to be able to pretend that they stand a chance. Recently, particularly around campaigns like UK Uncut, there has been a lot of discussion of fairness, a rather nebulous category. Of course no-one would claim that the world we live in is fair, but a belief in the brutal fairy tale world of The Apprentice, where through hard work and determination we can enter the world of the superconsumer, or at least can achieve some measure of security and escape the precarity that conditions every aspect of our lives, is becoming impossible. That sense of the individual and collective precarity of our social existence is becoming unavoidable, and the inescapable truth staring young people in the face is that, in the words of Marlo from The Wire, the game is fixed. But it does not automatically follow that they want to rules of the game to be changed, or aspire to changing them themselves. They still for the most part want to play the game, but they want the rules (tax, regulation, trade) to be more strictly enforced.

Criminals like Marlo understand that the game is fixed, but their solution is to play it with more intensity and brutality, to adapt to the underlying logic of capital and act without sentimentality or long-term concerns. Others suggest that the answer, the only means of survival, is to abandon the game altogether, or in real terms, to develop new forms of society within the intersticies of the present one, to ignore power rather than to challenge it.

Such a solution is no more available to the overwhelming majority of working people around the globe than is the ‘option’ of becoming millionaires through hard work and good fortune. The reality is that we all depend to a very great extent on the institutions of the state and the market. The only meaningful option we have is the political one: we have to change the rules of the game. This is exactly what the managerial post-politics of failed social democrats like the Labour Party singularly refuses to do.

So where is this movement to seize control of the game and change the rules to our advantage going to emerge from? For the moment I am still a little inclined to reserve my judgement about the student movement, UK Uncut, and so on. It is by no means inevitable that the mood of the last few months will develop or deepen, and the UK Uncut campaign has already shown signs of a potential collapse into Jubilee 2000-style lobbying rather than direct action. In terms of the students the strategy of the state is to use brute force for the moment, and hope that the students knuckle down once they realise their individual fate is at stake. We live in an age not just of hypercapitalism but of hyperprecarity – the students of 1968 had for the most part pretty secure futures ahead of them, whereas this generation face the prospect of lives of frantic insecurity and the drudgery of endless debt.

This might lead to the development of a culture of devil-may-care radicalism, or it might not. Optimists including Laurie Penny, Billy Bragg and the SWP share the belief that a new political subject has emerged, with an intuitive grasp of the need for solidarity and a voracious appetite for ideas about how things can be made different. As I have argued here, there are certainly a great deal of people angry at their individual plight, some of whom have come into contact for the first time with the stark reality that power does not always have their best interests at heart. But as Laurie Penny has also helpfully pointed out, the media and the language which those of us who believe we have the answers for the students’ plight employ to address and engage with those students are often moribund, ineffective and paternalistic. New means urgently need to be exploited in order to draw out the obvious links between a group of individuals drawn into unanticipated conflict with their circumstances and a wider world in turmoil and in desperate need of fundamental transformation. It is not enough to call for fair play, or to campaign for the rules of the game to be changed – instead we must seize control of the game and change them ourselves.