Dreams of Empire

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Leslie Chapman

Introduction: a psychoanalysis of Brexit?

This publication is essentially an attempt to make sense of Brexit within the framework of psychoanalytic theory. Since the EU referendum in June 2016 there have been relatively few attempts, to my knowledge, to apply psychoanalytic ideas to the whole ‘Brexit phenomenon’, although there appears to be quite a lot of anecdotal evidence to suggest that Brexit has featured strongly as a topic of conversation, (and great anxiety) in many a therapist’s consulting room. At the same time, I want to try and place Brexit within the wider context of a resurgent nationalism, often linked to right-wing populism, that is currently making serious inroads in many European countries and beyond.

In this text I hope to make at least a start at developing a psychoanalysis of Brexit and, in the process, a psychoanalysis of nationalism. And by way of conclusion I would also like address the question of whether it makes sense to speak of a ‘psychopathology of Brexit’, a term I have used in a number of my blog postings. Although I will be exploring what the term ‘psychopathology’ means in this context in more detail later on, at this point I just want to say that it is not meant to convey the idea that people who voted ‘Leave’ are somehow psychologically disturbed, any more than are those who voted ‘Remain’. Rather, it is to look at the specific psychical mechanisms and process that may have been (are still are) at play in the Brexit ‘debate’, which in many cases has become very acrimonious.

However, before exploring some of these psychical mechanisms and processes in more depth, I think it might be helpful to take a closer look at the kinds of questions that psychoanalysis, and especially a psychoanalysis based on the Lacanian tradition, can usefully formulate in terms of trying to gain a better understanding of such mechanisms and processes in this context.

There are a number of interesting contributions to this debate online, and two of them in particular have stood out for me. The first is a posting by David Morgan which looks at Brexit from a broadly object relations position.[1] Morgan focuses specifically on the question of xenophobia and how the Brexit vote seemed to be characterised, in part at least, by the use of xenophobic language and rhetoric:

Attempts to understand this phenomenon have involved everything from deconstructing the psychology of the politicians championing exit to conceiving of the hate speech directed towards migrants as a byproduct of unchecked political ambition. However, a deeper explanation for why this inflammatory speech has become so widely promulgated may lie in considering how “bodies” – both individual ones as well as the body politic they constitute – attempt to stay safe under conditions of perceived threat. And moreover, how politicians manipulate groups of people by priming them with this fear.

Morgan argues that globalisation and global inequality create a sense of anxiety in the individual and in communities which is then projected onto the migrant, who functions as the Other, the outsider. The presence of the migrant, according to Morgan, reminds the ‘native’ population that there may not be enough to go round (EU workers taking British jobs, etc) and that the individuals who already live in these communities may be surplus to (economic) requirements. Rather than confronting the real problems of globalisation it is much easier simply to project these fears and anxieties on to an obvious target, i.e. the figure of the immigrant and the asylum seeker.

Morgan points out that many British psychoanalysts, because of their own privileged socio-economic position, have problems in understanding the plight of those worse off them themselves, especially, one assumes, those migrants and asylum seekers from poor and/or war torn parts of the world (most of which are outside of the EU of course). According to Morgan, psychoanalysis:

…can help understand the political crisis we’re in; projective identification is used to evacuate knowingly or unknowingly into the other all we do not want to know in ourselves. This includes our knowledge of our own state’s economic exploitation, our complacency, and relative ignorance of the many other countries these people come from.

However, this understanding, according to Morgan, is made more difficult because of the position of many analysts within their own culture. In spite of this, Morgan ends his article on a positive note regarding the potential value of psychoanalysis for providing a way of helping us analyse the problems of the migrant:

The catastrophic changes which the migrant faces are not on the margins of modern life but are absolutely central to it, presenting a mode of living that pervades the countries of the West and yet is catastrophically excluded from them. Psychoanalytic ideas help us to understand that there exists a part of our culture that that requires a projection bucket – an ‘in/out’ vote to evacuate unwanted elements into.

Rafael Behr’s Guardian article has a somewhat different take on Brexit but still utilises psychoanalytic ideas to help explain it.[2] His main contention is that Brexit is rooted in the loss of empire and the corresponding power and influence that Britain once had in the world, and the fact that in order to try and hold onto at least some of that power and influence, Britain had to join the EEC (as it then was) in 1973. This, for many Britons at least, represented a massive humiliation and shaming of their country and its values. Brexit, in this scenario, is an attempt to overcome such humiliation and shame. Interestingly, Behr makes comparisons with the British evacuation at Dunkirk in 1940, which was militarily a major disaster for the country, but was then re-cast as a ‘miracle’ and a ‘triumph’ – in the sense that four years later Britain returned to mainland Europe and won the war (with more than a little help from the Americans and the Russians of course). This idea of a ‘lost’ greatness, which is linked to the idea of ‘lost Empire’, is something I will be returning to in more detail shortly.

The reference to Dunkirk and the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ is a complex one: on the one hand, it represents the shame and humiliation of defeat, which, as I mentioned earlier, Rafael equates with the necessity of Britain’s joining the EEC in the first place. On the other hand, Brexit can be seen as a triumph of the ‘Dunkirk spirit’ in which Britain will ‘muddle through’, as it always does, and in the end will be victorious:

…in psychoanalytic terms, shame is a kind of violent impulse directed inwards. Brexit, in this conception, is not a rational expression of cost-benefit equations based on considerations of trade. It is self-harm, born of a neurotic urge to expiate an imaginary guilt: the sin of having been obliged to join the enterprise in the first place.

In this quote, Rafael seems to come close to defining Brexit as a form of psychopathology – an idea that is at the centre of this current publication.

However, Rafael is quick to point out that Brexit may simply mark the beginning of a new cycle of shame, humiliation and resentment, when the reality of Britain’s (post-Brexit) diminished place in the world becomes evident, and/or there is an attempt to go grovelling back to Brussels and pleading to be let back in again.

Either way, there is disappointment in store for many leave voters who anticipate a national renaissance. If they don’t get Brexit, their democratic will is denied; if they do, and it makes them poorer, their faith is betrayed. Each path risks incubating more bitterness.

In terms of the (psychoanalytic) light that these two arguments shed on Brexit, I think each has its merits, but also its problems. Morgan’s argument seems to focus a bit too exclusively on the question of the fear of the migrant as the Other, whereas in fact immigration was only one (albeit highly significant) factor in the Brexit vote. At the same time, though, fear of radical difference, of the Other, does run deep in the human psyche, which helps explain the appeal of nationalist ideologies and a focus on national identity. This is something I will explore in more detail further on in the text.

With regards to Rafael’s argument, in many ways it’s another way to look at Morgan’s basic thesis, which is that xenophobia is rooted in one’s own insecurities, brought about by the effects of globalisation. Here, the focus is on the shame and humiliation of loss of empire/power, brought about by globalisation, and the need to rely on membership of the EU as a way to retain any kind of influence on the world stage. But there seems to be a more fundamental (and unanswered) question here: how to explain the deep rooted sense of ‘Englishness’ in a country whose identity has been formed out of perpetual waves of migration, and a longstanding history of involvement in mainland European affairs. Of course, it may be precisely because of this history that the current inhabitants of the British Isles feel so insecure about their identity and are desperately looking for something more ‘solid’ and permanent. In this sense we are back to Morgan’s argument that we project our own insecurities onto a scapegoat, onto an Other.

However, there is another way to look at Brexit through the ‘lens’ of psychoanalysis, so to speak. One of the problems with the arguments of Morgan and Rafael is that they both tend to psychologise what is actually a very complex psychical process. Both approaches appear to rely on a concept of the ‘social’ which is actually a collection of individual egos, who then ‘project’ their fears and anxieties onto a convenient scapegoat, and who can collectively feel shame and humiliation at being ‘forced’ to join an ‘alien’ collective such as the EU.

Lacan, however, is very clear that psychoanalysis is not a psychology, which is essentially in the domain of the Imaginary with its notion of the ‘self’ or ‘ego’ as the centre of the human subject. For Lacan, the human subject is to be discovered in the intersection between the Real, Symbolic and the Imaginary, whereas the ego is essentially a set of Imaginary identifications. With this is mind it might be more helpful to explore Brexit, and indeed the whole question of nationalism, in terms of these three registers.

I would argue that Brexit can be seen as a symptom of an underlying antagonism at the heart of British society. This is also applies to the whole phenomenon of right-wing populism, of which I would argue Brexit is itself a manifestation of. The question then arises: how can such an antagonism be conceptualised in terms of the three registers (Real, Symbolic, Imaginary)? Furthermore, is there a relationship between Brexit and trauma, which, as I point out later in the text, is a manifestation of the Real?


A British Psyche?

One of the things that seems to be a stake in the whole Brexit ‘debate’ is the idea that somehow the European Union is a threat to ‘Britishness’ – or more specifically perhaps, bearing in mind the demographics of referendum, ‘Englishness’. But what does ‘Britishness’/’Englishness’ actually mean in this context? Taking this one step further, and in keeping with the psychoanalytic focus of this text, are we talking about a British/English psyche?

Before going any further perhaps it might be worth reflecting for a moment on whether it makes sense to use the term ‘psyche’ here. One could argue that ‘culture’ might be a better term here, but in some ways psyche (Greek ψυχή) seems a more apt word: this is about the soul of a nation or society, whereas culture has a broader meaning and encompasses fundamental values, identities and meanings. The problem here is that no-one has ever been able to adequately define the term ‘soul’ in the individual sense (as in the human soul), let alone in any other context, which is why psychologists and other social scientists tend to steer clear of it (along with the term psyche itself.) On the other hand, and somewhat paradoxically perhaps given the problems of definition, the term ‘soul’ (whether used in an individual or collective sense) does seem to resonate with many people.

But if we are going to speak about the ‘soul of the nation’, aren’t we really talking about national identity? Perhaps in one sense, yes, but the problem here is that the term ‘identity’, especially in a cultural or social sense, has now become entangled with the whole issue of identity politics, which is one of the reasons I would rather steer clear of it in this context. One of the main problems with identity politics when it comes to the question of a national identity is that, by its very nature, it is based on the idea of contested identities; in other words, the reason identity is political is precisely because one or more social groups perceive (often with good reason) that they are being marginalised, not listened to and, in more extreme cases, deliberately oppressed and persecuted. The whole purpose of identity politics is to ensure that such groups are given a voice, and can have real political influence in society. Identity politics also, unfortunately in my view, tends to be associated with the idea of victimhood, which is perhaps hardly surprising as such identities are usually defined in terms of being marginalised or persecuted by a more powerful and dominant group. One good example of this, of course, is the idea of women being oppressed by powerful men in a patriarchal society; another is black and ethnic minority populations being oppressed and marginalised by white culture.

Both identity politics and victimhood contradict the idea of ein volk ein reich ein führer or variants thereof, which is often at the root of any sense of national identity. If we are indeed all one people, one nation/empire with one leader then it makes no sense to talk of multiple and contested group identities. Of course ein volk ein reich ein führer does imply another form of identity, that is, between ‘the people’, ‘the nation’ and ‘the leader’, and this is something I will explore in more detail later. At this point I would just like to point out that here we are talking about what might be described (in very non-poststructuralist terminology) as the essence of the nation; something sublime and beyond meaning. In humanistic psychology/therapy and with reference to individual human beings, this would be described in terms of the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ self.


Dreams of (a lost) empire

In a fascinating article in the London Review of Books William Davies poses an interesting question: why are so many right-wing Conservatives willing to risk leaving the EU and potentially inflict great damage on the economy; and, it would seem, risk upsetting their traditional allies in finance and big business, most of whom are firmly against Brexit?[3] One possible answer, according to Davies, is that many on the Tory right are only too aware of the potential hardships to come (although they would never admit this in public) but actually revel in the idea. For them this would be a way to complete the unfinished project of austerity and to put the final nail in the coffin of post-war welfarism. Brexit is a way to make Britain both great and tough again.

This touches on a more fundamental, and in some ways paradoxical, issue. If we are to believe the voting statistics of the EU referendum then many people in the traditional northern Labour heartlands voted to leave, whilst many in the ‘Tory south-east’ voted to remain. This has led some commentators to posit the theory of the ‘left behind’, which I shall come onto shortly. In other words, those traditionally working class Labour voters who live in the ruins of the Industrial Revolution feel that the EU has never done anything for them economically and is simply an embodiment of the liberal political elite (of which Westminster and the south-east metropolis is another) who see the white working class as an embarrassment.

And yet, if Brexit is more about nationhood and national identity than hardnosed economics, isn’t there something of a paradox here as far as the white working class goes? After all, what did nationalism and empire ever do for the proletariat? This is a question that Simon Winlow and colleagues rather skirt around in their otherwise excellent and penetrating study of the white working class and the English Defence League (EDL).[4]

What’s clear from this study is that many members of the white working class, having becomes totally disillusioned with the Labour party, are now embracing radical right politics and ideas of nationalism and national identity. One way to look at the appeal of nationalism and empire is that the fantasy of empire engenders a sense of greatness and belonging even (and perhaps especially) in those who are most disempowered and most alienated from the mainstream liberal democratic global project. Furthermore, dreams of empire also deflect attention away from the precarious situation that many white working class members find themselves in onto hostility towards ‘foreigners’ and ‘aliens’ from other lands. The savage irony is that such individuals have become foreigners in their own land.

At the same time it’s also an opportunity for the white working class to strike back at what they perceive to be the ills, evils and injustices of globalisation and cultural Marxism. The paradox here, of course, is that globalisation, in both its economic and cultural forms, is itself the legacy of empire. And herein perhaps lies an even more fundamental contradiction when it comes to Brexit: on the one hand there appears to be a desire for more ‘sovereignty’ and control, and yet on the other hand there is the desire, at least amongst the Tory Brexiteers, for even more global trade, even more globalisation. But is this perhaps to misread the logic of Brexit and the dreams of empire? In the days of the British Empire, there was indeed trade right across the globe, and there was indeed a form of cultural colonialization, that is, the attempt to spread British values across all parts of the globe. The key point here, of course, is that this was on British terms, not the European Union’s or any other latter-day ‘empire’. So it’s OK to civilise the natives of the world with British values, but not those of anyone else’s. In this sense, empire is simply nationalism writ large.

One of Winlow and colleagues’ key arguments is that understandable as nationalism amongst the white working class may be, it is essentially misplaced. They argue that the real problem for this particular group is the structural inequality of (global) capitalism. In other words, the problems for the white working class is their particular relation to the means of production, which nowadays is extremely precarious. However, what this analysis fails to grasp is that ultimately class relations are political rather than economic. Looking at things from a classical Marxist perspective, those who own the means of production do so by virtue of their political (and legal) power. Another way to look at this is to say that economic relations are essentially (abstract) social relations.


The left behind?

There has been a lot of stuff written about ‘the left behind’ in the wake of the Brexit vote. These are the disaffected (white, male) working class, those who have yet to benefit from globalisation (of which the EU is a major incarnation), those who want to put two fingers up at the ‘liberal establishment’ and the ‘metropolitan elite’, and so on. However, within weeks of the referendum Eric Kaufmann, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck College, was pointing out that the Brexit vote was far more about personal values than economic inequality.[5] The same argument, according to Kaufmann, applies to the Trump vote.[6] He writes:

The Trump and Brexit votes are the opening shots which define a new political era in which the values divide between voters – especially among whites – is the main axis of politics. In a period of rapid ethnic change, this cleavage separates those who prefer cultural continuity and order from novelty-seekers open to diversity. Policymakers and pundits should face this instead of imagining that old remedies – schools, hospitals, jobs – will put the populist genie back in the bottle.

In other words, populism, for want of a better term, is primarily about values and, I would argue, ideology, rather than about economic prosperity, bearing in mind that there is absolutely no evidence that Brexit will economically benefit the majority of those who voted to leave the EU, whereas it is already a victory for nationalism, social conservatism and, to a certain extent, authoritarianism.

However, perhaps the real problem is that, in spite the types of argument put forward by people like Kaufmann, a lot of ‘remainers’ still don’t get it. This was highlighted in an article by Abi Wilkinson in The Guardian in which she criticised those ‘remainers’ who still seem to think that all ‘leave’ voters are ignorant northerners.[7]  In other words, those who don’t share the values and ideology of ‘remain’ are stupid, ignorant, uneducated, etc. The irony here, of course, is that those very same people who criticise the ‘Brexiteers’ for being all these things are the first to espouse the liberal values of tolerance, respect for difference and diversity, etc. In other words, diversity and difference is fine – as long as you agree with my particular version of it. Funnily enough, this respect for diversity and difference does not extend, or so it would seem, to white, male, working class individuals, English nationalists, neo-Nazis, and so on.

In many ways this touches on an even more fundamental question, and one which politics (of all shades) is an attempt to deal with: how to reconcile the irreconcilable, how to accommodate diametrically opposed ideas and values. Not for nothing did Freud describe politics as one of the three ‘impossible professions’ (the other two being education and psychoanalysis).

The idea of the ‘left behind’ is really a way to try and explain the fact that a significant number of the British population, and especially the English, do not subscribe to the fundamental values of the European project, of which the EU is simply a particular manifestation. And, of course, the people most eager to try and explain this fact tend to be those who do subscribe to such a project. It’s probably a bit simplistic to label such subscribers as ‘liberal metropolitan’ or even ‘liberal left’, but on the other hand they do appear to be the ones with the most to gain from the EU.

The problem for the liberal metropolitans is that they really cannot understand why such a substantial part of the UK population have not bought into the values of economic and cultural globalisation, of which the EU is a prime example. These values include universalism, meliorism (the idea that history is progressive, and that things will always get better overall), and equality. For them, ideas such as nationalism are totally regressive and a throwback to some romanticised idea of ‘Great’ Britain and its Empire.

Winlow and colleagues argue that such a ‘regression’, though totally understandable, is misplaced. From their point of view, those individuals and local communities who feel they are gaining nothing from the current political and economic system should focus on finding ways to change such a system, and this is best achieved, in their view, by campaigning for a truly socialist politics and government. There is a fundamental problem, however, with this idea of nationalism as a ‘displacement’ from socialism. Nationalism is essentially based on a completely difference way of experiencing, and being-in, the world. Socialism, at the end of the day, is simply capitalism remediated. In other words, and as many (Hegelian) Marxists would point out, socialism is the final stage of history, preceded by global capitalism. So basically, the aim of the socialist revolution is to finish the job of the bourgeois revolutions that began in the seventeenth century and which continued into the twentieth.

This being the case, then essentially many of the mechanisms, structures and processes (and values) for the socialist new order are already in place. There is already a globalised network of communication and trade, and there is also an increasingly globalised culture based on equivalence of (cultural) exchange. In other words, different cultures, based on different sets of values are all absorbed into one, homogenised global Culture. Different religions, different political ideas, different sexual practices, all have the same equivalence of exchange, they can all be traded on the global cultural market.

A recent (March 2018) example of this is the BBC 2 remake of Civilisation, which was first broadcast in 1969 and presented by Kenneth Clark. The (post) modern version, Civilisations, is essentially the multi-cultural (and politically correct) retelling of the story. Whereas Clark focused on Christian civilisation, the revised version, with intellectual media celebrities such as Mary Beard and Simon Schama, try to take a more ‘balanced’ and ‘comparative’ (and globalised) approach. So, for example, when looking at the connection between art and religion, Beard focuses as much on the development of Islamic, Hindu and Judaic art, as she does on Christian.

The problem with this approach is that it has to create a ‘meta-discourse’ of comparative analysis in order to accommodate what are, in fact, ultimately mutually exclusive experiences and ways of being-in-the-world. And the problem here is that such a ‘meta-discourse’ ends up providing a very bland and abstract ‘analysis’ of what are very complex, rich and deep forms of human experience. Such a discourse has to create its own set of categories and reference points in order to be able to compare what is essentially incomparable.

I mention all this because it is an example of the problems of taking a universalistic approach to social reality. Universalism requires a degree of abstraction that essentially reduces the complexities and contradictions of concrete human experience and relations to a set of fairly meaningless principles, for example ‘universal human rights’. The other problem with universalism is that it is, paradoxically, based on the principle of exclusion. Although this itself may appear to be a very abstract philosophical problem, in political terms it has very practical and far reaching consequences, especially when it comes to question of identity politics, which in many ways can be seen as the cultural product of globalisation. One of the key aims of any particular group that defines itself in terms of a particular identity, be it ‘gay’, ‘Black’, ‘disabled’, ‘abuse survivor’, and so on, is to enjoy the same recognition and rights as everyone else in society, which are perceived as being ‘universal’. The problem here is that such ‘universals’ can only function as such by virtue of their exceptions, by what is excluded from them. Žižek argues that such ‘exceptions’ can be thought of in terms of ‘symptoms’, which are effectively the negation of the particular ‘universal’ in question:

When one is dealing with a universal structuring principle, one always automatically assumes that—in principle, precisely—it is possible to apply this principle to all its potential elements, and that the empirical non-realization of the principle is merely a matter of contingent circumstances. A symptom, however, is an element which—although the non-realization of the universal principle in it appears to hinge on contingent circumstances—has to remain an exception, that is, the point of suspension of the universal principle: if the universal principle were to apply also to this point, the universal system itself would disintegrate.[8]

In other words, and applying this concept to identity politics, there have to be one or more identities that are excluded from the ‘universe’ in question, which nowadays usually refers to Western liberal democratic society. This is because any ‘universe’, which can also be thought of in terms of being a ‘set’ or ‘class’, is defined by a point external to it. In political terms, what Žižek is getting at here is that it is no accident that some groups (identities) are excluded from ‘society’, be they the homeless, the ‘precariat’, Islamic jihadists, neo-Nazis, and so on. But don’t these groups also constitute ‘identities’ that deserve a ‘voice’? Apparently not – and for the very simple reason they serve are very particular function in the era of globalisation and identity politics. Paradoxically, perhaps, they are what make identity politics possible in the first place.

All these tricky questions are, however, swept under the carpet by the liberal (left) metropolitans. For them, the job of socialism is to ensure that everyone benefits from a globalised economic, political and cultural system, rather than just the minority. What’s not being questioned here, or so it would seem, are the underlying principles and values that sustain such a global system and the fact that not everyone feels comfortable with them. And neither are they addressing the conceptual problems, which I touched upon just now, regarding the way that certain ‘identities’ need to be excluded for others to be recognised.


The (right) side of history

This raises an important question: who is really ‘being left behind’? Who is really on the wrong (or right) side of history? As I touched upon earlier, the liberal left’s view of nationalism seems to be that it is both regressive and misplaced. In their view, those who subscribe to nationalist beliefs and ideologies, including many who voted for Brexit, are not (necessarily) stupid or ignorant, but, rather, misguided. And in being so, they are on the wrong side of history; they are truly ‘left behind’ in the inexorable march of progress towards a sunnier tomorrow.

But this belief in the inexorable march of progress towards a better tomorrow is essentially a left liberal fantasy itself. The history of the twentieth century (and the early part of the twenty first) paints a very different picture. There is nothing inevitable about progress, at least not in the human and social sense. In the wake of the fall of communism, of course, the liberal intelligentsia were quick to interpret this as the inevitable triumph of liberal democracy, forgetting that a generation or so earlier the self-same liberal intelligentsia were saying exactly the same thing about the inevitable triumph of socialism. Now, in the wake of Brexit, Trump, a resurgent Russia, and the rise of right-wing populism across Europe, the liberal intelligentsia are not so sure about the inevitable march of progress.

And perhaps one of the serious problems for the liberal democratic view of the world, and its socialist remediation, which is often overlooked, is that its basic concepts and values are somewhat abstract. Take the one I’ve just mentioned, for example: the belief in progress (meliorism). There is nothing especially obvious about it, and as I pointed out just now, history would seem to tell another story. Another one is universalism, which as I also pointed out earlier, contains an equally abstract contradiction, that is, it is defined by an exclusion. The difficulty with these kinds of abstract principles is that it is hard for human beings to use them in order to establish any real sense of identity or existential ‘anchorage’ in the world. In other words, they are so generalised, and in some cases so blatantly metaphysical, that they appear to have no relevance or meaning to real individuals in real, concrete situations.

On the other hand, concepts such as Blut und Bloden (blood and soil), ein volk ein reich ein führer, and so on, can resonate at a much more fundamental and concrete level. When it comes to the European Union, things get a bit more complicated, especially as one of the early proponents of such a union was none other than Adolf Hitler himself, which he saw as acting as a bastion against the Asiatic/ Bolshevik hordes from the east (a view that Churchill was also sympathetic to). Perhaps the real problem with the EU for many nationalists and Brexiteers is not that it is viewed as an abstraction, but rather as a real, concrete threat to their identity, especially as the main drivers of the European project, France and Germany, resonate in the English psyche as the Old Enemy.

And herein lies another problem with the European project, and the idea of a shared, European identity. The idea of a united Europe (Hitler notwithstanding) emerged from the ashes of a continent devastated by war and division. And yet it could be argued that such a conflict was the culmination of nearly three decades of nationalist conflict and the search for national identity. The First World War not only represented the collapse of the old empires but the emergence of many new nation states leading to what was effectively a new European civil war that lasted until 1945. The aim of a European union was to ensure that this never happened again by installing a system of collective economic and political security and co-operation. However, what it failed to do was to address the underlying nationalist tensions and antagonisms that were still resonating just beneath the surface. Rather, these were simply repressed and swept under the carpet – on both sides of the Iron Curtain. The collapse of communism heralded, in Freudian terms, a return of the repressed on a pan-European scale.


Nationalism and trauma

In Lacanian terms, and as Lacan makes clear in Seminar XI, trauma is essentially an encounter with the Real.[9] Although the Real is often conceived in terms of being ‘outside’ of the Symbolic order, ‘outside’ of language, this is somewhat misleading insofar as ‘outside’ is essentially being used as a spatial metaphor for something that is not spatial, at least not in the Imaginary sense. But neither is it particularly helpful to think of the Real as some kind of ‘limit’ to the Symbolic order. Rather, it is perhaps better to start with defining the Symbolic itself as a chain or network of signifiers. This is what Tom Eyers describes as the signifier-in-relation.[10]  But the concept of the signifier-in-relation immediately presupposes the signifier-in-isolation, which the term Eyers uses to describe a single signifier, which is essentially a material entity. And this is how we can perhaps best think of the Real: as isolated signifiers.

If we think of the Real in this way then clearly it becomes impossible to construct a system of meaning, of signification – which is essentially what the Symbolic order is. However, and as I indicated just now, this does not place the Real ‘outside’ of meaning; rather, meaning collapses into the Real, into a pile of isolated signifiers. In this sense, trauma, as a manifestation of the Real, is the ruination of meaning.

There is, however, another rather peculiar aspect of trauma which is often overlooked: Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit, which is probably best translated as ‘afterwardness’, but often mistranslated as ‘deferred action’. This is the idea that trauma is essentially a retroactive process. There is an original event which is not registered by the subject as ‘traumatic’ – because basically it is not registered at all in any meaningful sense. But later on, often many years or even decades later, another event occurs which creates a ‘looping-back’ of signification to the original event, and at this point the subject becomes traumatised. However, this should not be thought of in terms of some kind of ‘delayed triggering’ of an original trauma; rather, the trauma only comes into being at the point that the second event creates an associative link ‘back’ to the original event.

The concept of Nachträglichkeit creates something of a paradox with regards to trauma (and the Real itself). On the one hand trauma is something that makes no sense, is ‘the ruins of meaning’; and yet on the other hand, according to the theory of Nachträglichkeit trauma is a retroactive construction – and by implication, so is the Real itself. But we need to be careful here: to say that trauma is constructed retroactively is not quite the same as arguing that it therefore has meaning. Rather, it is say that the process of Nachträglichkeit traumatises the subject. In other words, the associative ‘looping-back’ from the second event to the first is experienced as traumatic by the subject. This gives rise to the rather peculiar idea that an associative chain, a chain of signification, can actually produce trauma.

In the context of Brexit Nachträglichkeit matters because it might help explain at least some of the nationalist fervor that was stoked up by the referendum. However, this should not be interpreted simply in the sense that the referendum ‘triggered’ some underlying trauma relating to how people felt about the EU, immigrants, etc. Rather, the referendum, and all the political and media furore surrounding it, constructed the ‘trauma narrative’ that was necessary for the ‘Brexit trauma’ to come into being in the first place. In other words, Brexit (as in the referendum and associated political and media furore) (re)constructed a particular version of British/English history, of ‘the Island Story’, that was too much to bear for a lot of people. Cultural memories of the Battle of Britain, ‘Britain standing alone’, ‘Nazi tyranny’, and so on, which never seem to be that far from the surface at the best of times, reappeared with a vengeance.

The critical point here, however, is that such memories are not ‘traumatic’ in themselves; rather there is something within them, like the kernel of the Freudian dream, that is too much to bear, too Real, too traumatic. And this is the paradox of Nachträglichkeit itself: at the heart of signification there is a ‘black hole’ of the Real, which eludes meaning. In this sense, the emboldened nationalism stirred up by Brexit, just as much as the attempts to ‘reverse’ Brexit, are ways to try and ‘fill’ that black hole of the Real, to circumscribe it, to make the trauma go away.

However, what these attempts to circumscribe the ‘Brexit trauma’ all ignore is that Brexit is symptomatic, for want of a better word’, of an underlying antagonism that lies at the heart of the social fabric, and at the heart of human subjectivity itself. The important thing to remember here, though, is not that such an antagonism causes trauma; rather, it is the trauma.

As Tom Eyers points out, we can think about an antagonism of the Real, which is:

… produced in and through egoic identification as a constitutive impasse or tension, generated negatively between rival sources and aims of identification, or, rather, in the very opacity of the distinction between the sources and aims of identification as such.[11]

Eyers is arguing this in the context of Lacan’s paper on the Mirror Phase (which I will refer to again shortly), which forms the basis of Lacan’s theory of the formation of the ego. Essentially, the process of ego formation generates a tension (the antagonism of the Real) which at the level of the Imaginary is the tension between the assumption of (illusory) totality that the subject experiences by confronting his or her image, and the aggressivity that is inherent within this totality. In object relations terms, such aggressivity equates with phantasies of mutilation, dismemberment, fragmentation, and castration, which are then ‘projected’ outwards. However, what’s critical in this account is that even at this early stage of subject formation, the Symbolic is present, albeit in an embryonic form, and is critical in the constitution of the ego.

Eyers argues that there is a ‘…a primary disjunction generative of the Real…between the Imaginary and Symbolic elements of identification…’ However, I would also argue that this primary disjunction points to an inherent instability in the Symbolic order itself. And it’s worth pointing out that the concept of ‘the social’ itself is essentially an ideological construction aimed at creating an Imaginary sense of harmony, which is constantly being threatened by an Imaginary ‘enemy’.

But how does all this relate to Brexit and the idea that it has highlighted fundamental divisions within British society? Can the concept of trauma (‘the Trauma of Brexit’, perhaps) help explain what appears to be a fundamental antagonism between many of those who voted ‘leave’ in June 2016 and those who voted ‘remain’? As I mentioned earlier, to view Brexit as a ‘clash of values’ or even a ‘clash of ideologies’ is not particularly helpful, because in order to analysis such a ‘clash’ it is necessary to keep them on the same axis, so to speak and to construct some form of ‘meta-discourse’ in order to analyse the differences between them. But this is precisely the problem: there is no ‘meta-discourse’ that can achieve this, and there is no common axis.

Rather, the fundamental antagonism behind Brexit is the fragility of meaning itself, which is an effect of the Real. As Lacan pointed out early on in his work, meaning is in the register of the Imaginary. And it is also in the Imaginary that the subject can find a sense of identity, as Lacan pointed out in his famous paper on the Mirror Stage.[12] The problem here is that such a sense of meaning, of identity, is always precarious. In classical Lacanian theory, the signifier of the Name-of-the-Father provides an ‘anchorage’ for the subject in the Symbolic order. Later on, and especially in the context of his theory of the Borromean knot, Lacan will argue that the Name-of-the-Father is but one instance of the sinthome, a knotting together of the registers of the Real, Symbolic and Imaginary.

And perhaps we might argue that for many ‘Remainers’ the EU is itself an ideological sinthome that gives them a sense of meaning, a place in the world. Following the same argument, does this mean that for many ‘Brexiteers’ leaving the EU will provide them with another type of ideological sinthome – one that might perhaps be defined as ‘Britishness’ and all the connotations surrounding it? Possibly, but I would argue that this is fall into the trap I highlighted earlier of trying to understand Brexit as a clash of values and ideologies. Rather, I would say that Brexit, as a manifestation of nationalism, is a radically different way to confront the fundamental trauma that lies at the heart of human subjectivity. Whereas the liberal left might seek to construct an ideological sinthome around the European project as a way circumscribe such a fundamental trauma, nationalism takes a rather different approach: essentially it embodies the trauma itself, embodies the fundamental antagonism that’s at the heart of the Symbolic order. Rather than trying to give meaning to trauma in the sense of constructing meaning, nationalism enacts it.

Perhaps the best example of this nationalist enactment of trauma, this enactment of the Real, is National Socialism itself. Although there have been many attempts to try and explain ‘Nazi ideology’, in many ways this is miss the point entirely. National Socialism was not an ideology in the strict sense of the word; rather it was an enactment of the violence of the Real. It is no coincidence that many of the leading proponents and key players in the National Socialist movement were veterans of that previous European trauma, the Great War – including, of course, Adolf Hitler himself. For them, the War never ended, but simply morphed into endless civil war and political struggle, culminating in another European catastrophe. One might argue that in some ways there are eerie resonances with the situation in Europe today. A liberal democratic project in retreat and a resurgent nationalism all across the continent. Think Weimar Republic writ large, perhaps.


Conclusion: a psychopathology of Brexit?

But does all this add up to the ‘psychopathology of Brexit’, as hinted at in the introduction? And this brings us back to the question as to whether it helps to use psychoanalytic ideas to explore what are essentially complex political, social and cultural questions.

The first thing to point out is that the terms ‘psychopathology’ and ‘psychopathological’ have nothing to do with so-called ‘psychopaths’, which is essentially an invention of modern day psychiatry and clinical psychology. From a Lacanian position most (though not all) ‘psychopaths’ would be viewed as having a psychotic structure. Rather, the term ‘psychopathology’ should be read more in the context of Freud’s Psychopathology of Everyday Life.[13]  Here Freud examines a number of supposedly ‘ordinary’ phenomena such as the forgetting of names and other words, slips of the tongue and pen, bungled actions, belief in chance and superstition, and so on, and argues that they are all, in some way, ‘pathological’, in the sense that they are all the consequence of (neurotic) psychical mechanisms which are simultaneously dysfunctional and functional for the subject. In other words, although such phenomena may cause the subject (sometimes acute) embarrassment and possibly worse, they also serve an important psychical function, which is often related to the negation of troubling memories.

At this point it’s probably almost too easy to jump to the conclusion that the vote for Brexit would fit this definition of ‘pathological’ perfectly, in the sense that the consequences of such a vote are likely to cause a number of serious economic, political and social problems, at least in the short term; and yet would also appear to be satisfying a deep need in the British (or rather, the English) psyche. However, this is not to say there isn’t something in this argument. Otherwise, why would a large number of apparently rational individuals be voting for something which is most likely to leave them worse off, at least in economic terms?

Because, of course, there is more than one ‘rationality’ at play here; in fact, there is a much deeper ‘rationality’ than a purely economic one. Furthermore, it’s probably not too much of a sweeping generalisation to argue that many of those who voted for Brexit were not really getting that much out of EU membership in the first place. It’s also important to remember that this argument works the other way round as well; in other words, what psychical function was being served for those who voted to ‘remain’? And before anyone says that this decision was based on a purely economic rationality perhaps we need to remember that ‘purely economic’ arguments serve more fundamental human needs and desires. Being a ‘global citizen’, in both economic and cultural terms, could be seen as an expression of a desire to be part of a greater whole, and of a deference to the Other. Or, to put it another way, different economic rationalities are rooted in more fundamental, and often unconscious, logics and ideologies. The ‘leave logic’ is based on a rather peculiar mixture of nationalism and imperialism, whereas the ‘remain logic’ is based on some rather ill-defined notion of universalism and globalisation – both economic and cultural.

Brexit could be seen as a symptom of more fundamental antagonism at the heart of society, and in this text this is precisely what I have been trying to demonstrate. The argument that Brexit was simply about the division between the ‘left behind’ and the ‘progressive liberals’ is a gross simplification, but perhaps in one sense there is some truth in it, especially if we substitute cultural and political values for economic ones. Some Brexiteers in northern (Labour) held areas have told the media that basically they don’t really care about the economic impact of Brexit, because they are already in pretty desperate straits anyway, and in many ways the more formal research conducted by Winlow and colleagues backs this up. In other words, what did the European Union, globalisation and liberal values ever do for them? And the key point here is not what did the EU ever do for them economically, but what did it ever do for their sense of identity, of belonging?

To conclude, the reference to the ‘psychopathology’ of Brexit is not to argue that some people are ‘crazy’ for voting ‘leave’ (or perhaps even voting ‘remain’), but rather that the Brexit vote has exposed deep fissures and contradictions within the British psyche; ones, perhaps, that are indeed irreconcilable.



[1] Morgan, D. (2016, October 26) How psychoanalysis can help us make sense of Brexit, British Politics and Policy at LSE. Available from: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/how-psychoanalysis-can-help-us-make-sense-of-brexit/

[2] Behr, R. (2017) Dunkirk reveals the spirit that has driven Brexit. The Guardian, 26 July 2017 Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jul/26/dunkirk-brexit-retreat-europe-britain-eec

[3] Davies, W. (2018) What are they after?, London Review of Books, 40 (5), pp. 3–5

[4] Winlow, S., Hill, S. and Treadwell, J. (2016) The Rise of the Right English Nationalism and the transformation of working-class politics. Kindle edition. Bristol: Policy Press

[5] Kaufmann, E. (2016a, July 7) It’s NOT the economy, stupid: Brexit as a story of personal values, British Politics and Policy at LSE. Available from: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/personal-values-brexit-vote/

[6] Kaufmann, E. (2016b, November) Trump and Brexit: why it’s again NOT the economy, stupid, British Politics and Policy at LSE. Available from: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/trump-and-brexit-why-its-again-not-the-economy-stupid/

[7] Wilkinson, A. (2017) Leave voters are not all idiots – some Londoners still don’t get it , The Guardian, 14 February, 2017 Available from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/feb/14/leave-voters-london-voted-remain-eu

[8] Žižek, S. (1997) Multiculturalism or the cultural logic of multinational capitalism?, New Left Review, (225), pp. 28–51

[9] Lacan, J. (1979) The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. London: Penguin

[10] Eyers, T. (2012) Lacan and the Concept of the ‘Real’. Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

[11] Ibid p.30

[12] Lacan, J. (1949) The Mirror Stage as Formative of the I Function as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience, in: Fink, B. (trans.) Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, pp. 93–81

[13] Freud, S. (1901) ‘The Psychopathology of Everyday Life’, in: Strachey, J. (ed.) The Standard Edition. London: Vintage/Hogarth Press, vol 6 []


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