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The Bartlett Development Planning Unit


Collective reflections about development practice and cities


Brexit and Its Malcontents

By Liza Griffin, on 12 July 2016

The hateful Brexit campaign has a lot to answer for. The few at its helm have emboldened racists and racist acts and have caused many to be fearful and many more to feel unwelcome or reviled. This is a tragedy that can’t be wished away.


But I fear that the outcry after the result is patronising to the very many who voted to come out of Europe for a multitude of reasons or whom  felt excluded from the EU as a set of institutions. While the issues may have been poorly drawn by mainstream media and presented ineffectually by campaigners; I’ve no doubt that millions voted as a result of a careful evaluation of the issues as they saw them.

In my view, there needs to be a legitimate space for airing and discussing those feelings as well as, and in relation to, the fears and attitudes concerning racism and xenophobia.

It is both depressing and concerning that these views have been pitted against one another. It is also alarming that those choosing to leave the EU have been tarred with the same brush as the Brexit campaign itself. The campaign revealed itself to be mendacious and its central strategy was to stir up animosity.

However, choosing to leave the EU was not an automatic vote of support for this invidious campaign. Voters were asked about membership of an institution with contradictory policy objectives and a multifaceted identity. It was a straightforward question – in or out –  but the choice itself was not straightforward.

The EU is undeniably multiple: it is at once a commitment to peace between historically volatile nations; an expression of open borders and a series of safeguards against social and environmental harm. Other imaginaries perceive  it rather differently; as is an elitist entity, an instrument of neoliberalism, an interfering authority or a self-serving confederation facilitating the plunder of sovereign states’ wealth and consuming resources at a time when public spending is being squeezed. For many others, myself included, the Union has symbolised several of these conflicting perspectives.

Whichever imaginaries voters were drawn to, there is little doubt that many were ignorant of the history and finer workings of the EU and its political economy – but this goes for both the brexit and remain supporters. For these reasons, the complexity of the issues at stake and the multiple imaginaries at play inevitably belie any simplistic analysis of the referendum result.

In trying to make sense of the result for myself, I particularly enjoyed Emejulu’s piece on the whiteness of brexit. http://www.versobooks.com/blogs/2733-on-the-hideous-whiteness-of-brexit-let-us-be-honest-about-our-past-and-our-present-if-we-truly-seek-to-dismantle-white-supremacy

She argues that issues of race are inherent to EU politics and have infused this referendum but I don’t take from her piece that all ‘no votes’ are simply racist votes. The article doesn’t set up a crude division between broadmindedness and prejudice, a division which has been all too prevalent in the last few days of Brexit reportage.

Attention to whiteness by contrast opens up a space for a conversation not simply about where people situate themselves in arguments on immigration and multiculturalism. Attention to whiteness is one powerful way to destabilise some of the unhelpful and inevitably marginalising rhetoric we’ve been subject to. She asks instead ‘What does it mean that those who now are expressing ‘concern’ about a surge in xenophobia have previously had little to say about everyday and institutionalised racism and violence that people of colour experience?.’

I believe that, like race, class is imbricated in the referendum fall out. The EU is above all a set of institutions which regulate the nature, rhythms and movements of workers’ bodies –  black and white bodies.

And yet different people’s experiences of this regulation will inevitably be diverse and divisive. Another reason why the analysis has to be nuanced; to allow those experiences and grievances – which are not the same for us all – to be validated. Those disenfranchised on low wages and, or those marginalised by the not so subtle codings of racism must be heard and understood with respect to complex social relations, not pitted against one another in a story of heroes and villains.

What initially concerned me about the early referendum reportage is the way it has played out like a game of top trumps: who is the biggest felon or the most put upon victim group – and who has the most legitimate grievance? Are the (mostly white) residents of Seaburn in Sunderland working class heroes who have simply had enough of austerity or are they hatemongering proto-nationalists? And too much coverage talks in terms of ‘they’ when, as I see it, the publics are not clearly interpellated by the poorly orchestrated debate.

Of course I am not so naïve as to think that at least some of the public discussion wont cause conflict or be hateful or racist. And I am one of the last to romanticise the ‘working classes’.  Surely there is a class and race geography to the voting, but it is far from clear-cut.

I also know that there wont be one truth to explain what has happened or a single social movement to coalesce around going forward, but trying to make sense of this confusing and divided time seems important.

Another so-called split I haven’t yet started to get to grips with to is the apparent division between the ‘younger’ and the ‘older’ voters – with disproportionate older voters seeking  Brexit and many younger ones favouring the current arrangements. In a climate of pension crises, youth unemployment, onsies and adult colouring books what does this mean I wonder?

But I guess what I am left really pondering is whether there is a way to acknowledge the fear and bad feeling caused by the apparent shock result while also thinking about what an alternative kinder and more open politics could look like? One that acknowledges how unhappy some folk are about the status quo , but that doesn’t white wash a history of colonialism and marginalisation ? I do hope so. And I hope too that any emerging solidarity first gives room for the expression of manifold, conflicting and complex feelings of those celebrating the result or grieving this separation.


Liza Griffin is a lecturer in political ecology and director of studies at DPU

2 Responses to “Brexit and Its Malcontents”

  • 1
    Giovana Helena de Miranda Monteiro wrote on 16 July 2016:

    Brilliant words, Lisa, as usual. 🙂 Your words made me think of the productive indeterminacy that Freud leaves open in the last lines of “Unbehagen in der Kultur”. I suppose it also occurred to you, given the post title. The speculation of ‘who knows what’s being unfold through this?’ seems to be the nearest we can get to the ‘banquet of consequences’ that might come next. Including the intangible banquet of everyday anxieties, like the ones produced through the perceptions of not feeling at ease in a certain place, feelings of displacement and lack-of-place; which, according to the Brazilian psychoanalyst Christian Ingo Lenz Dunker, are embedded in the sense Freud meant by “Unbehagen” in the original title. This includes the lack of ‘room for discussion’ that you underlined and that I connect to another of Freud’s texts: The Book of Jokes. When he dissects the jokes – as we try to dissect our feelings, projections, anxieties when there’s enough ‘room for discussion’ in our everyday lives; or dissect our research findings in our professional lives – he brings to light how naive people can be and remain so when such discussion space is denied to them. Heidegger seems to reinforce this spatial reference when he claims that we need to dwell on our thoughts and language otherwise we’d be submitting ourselves to homelessness. And he even points a way out of it: “Yet as soon as man gives thought to his homelessness it is a misery no longer.” At the same time, in dialogue with the banquet of insights and optimism you inspired us with through this post, I recall the last lines in Paul Feyerabend’s “Against Method” (1975): “There is no need to fear that such a way of arranging society will lead to undesirable results. Science itself uses the method of ballot, discussion, vote, though without a clear grasp of its mechanism, and in a heavily biased way. But the rationality of our beliefs will certainly be considerably increased.” I like the way he suggests that there is no need to assume that this arrangement will necessarily be worse than the present one. This observation can help face people’s tendencies to deny fear through formation of neurotic and paranoid symptoms as isolation and persecution. Part of what Brexit revealed, in my understanding, reminds me of what happened in Brazil when ENEM exam was adopted as a national unified entry exam to public higher education. When registering for this exam, students need to identify themselves within one in a few options of the fifty million shades of skin Brazil should be more than proud of having combined in the last five centuries. Moreover, they were asked to identify themselves as having had public or private-system educational backgrounds. This double-deterministic identifications demand profound discussions as they confine students within reduced and reductionist “grammars of recognition”, another element in Dunker’s lexicon. The institutionalization of this exam is highly discussed with and without research data, and has both positive and negative consequences occurring at the same time in the educational system, in society, in personal and professional lives of individuals. But the main reason why I mention it here is the fact that it brought to light a division, a malaise, a malcontent within the fields of prejudice and education issues that might not have had enough opportunity to make themselves evident until then. This is what I think Brexit ended up doing, and towards which our duty might be now to make the most of its revelations, whatever they might be, and to avoid the grammars inscribed in it to become predominantly the reductionist ones. Revelations of malcontents that had been repressed so far, and that should not remain under the carpet, so to speak. It resonates with an idea found in Caetano Veloso (“Acrilírico”,1969): we must face our issues without forgetting to recognize our illnesses, for it is bad to want to hide them. I hope that the room for discussion that you suggest and leave open through this post can help us to improve our capacity to discuss our issues and virtues as Freud recommends, to mourn our losses and to celebrate our gains, in a highly intellectual way. This does not mean to summon the defence mechanism of intellectualization, but to be able to convert fears, anxieties, good and bad feelings into speech, and discuss about them along our way to the democratic ballots. Thank you very much for the post and for the opportunity it created for reflection, and, please, keep them coming!

  • 2
    Christian Stuart Keegan wrote on 24 September 2016:

    A great blog post full of interesting points. I fully agree with Lisa that there was a plethora of complex and nuanced reasons for both the people who voted to remain and the people who voted to leave. I also suspect that many of the people who voted (and many of the people who did not vote) were torn between voting to remain and voting to leave. I am optimistic that an enunciation of the reasons of why people voted how they did (and why people did not vote) would help to reconcile the differences between the people who voted to remain and the people who voted to leave (and the people who did not vote).

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