A Brexit psychopathology?

The first thing to point out is that the term ‘psychopathology’ is not meant in a derogatory sense, i.e. implying that those individuals who voted to leave the EU in June 2016 were somehow ‘deluded’ (and likewise for those who voted to remain).  Rather, it is to explore the possible motivations for such decisions.  However, and especially in the ever increasing antagonistic atmosphere surrounding both the formal and informal discussions and arguments related to Brexit, perhaps it might be worth taking a closer look at the term ‘psychopathology’ itself.

The first thing to point out, of course, 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, where 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.

Earlier I mentioned the ever growing antagonism that has been developing around Brexit, both in the formal discussions relating to Britain’s exit, and to the more informal (and acrimonious) ‘discussions’ in the wider popular discourse.  In this sense Brexit could be seen as a symptom of more fundamental antagonism at the heart of society.  This then raises an even more fundamental (and difficult) question: can such an antagonism at the heart of society be described as ‘pathological’?  In other words, can a society be ‘pathological’ or is this a term that can only be applied to individuals?  But then again,  can the human psyche itself be described as ‘pathological’, bearing in mind the term ‘pathology’ means the study of disease.  This being so, is there such thing as a ‘diseased psyche’ any more than there is such a thing as a ‘diseased society’, or are these both metaphors?

But there is an even more fundamental question here: how are we to define ‘society’ in the first place, let alone a ‘pathological’ one?  If we follow Laclau’s argument then ‘society’ is ‘impossible’, in the sense that it is an ideological construction which functions to reconcile the irreconcilable.  This is also how to read Žižek’s formulation of ideology as a social fantasy: not as a ‘collective’ fantasy but rather in terms of the ‘social’ itself being a fantasy construction – albeit a very necessary one. In this sense, Brexit could be seen in terms of the collapse of that fantasy; and as we know from Lacan, the fantasy is protecting us from something that lurks behind it – the Real.

The idea of a possible ‘Brexit psychopathology’ is only part of a much wider argument relating to what might best be described as the psychodynamics of Brexit, and how this links to questions of nationalism and right-wing populism.  I have written about these issues in a number of different posts on this site and have recently brought together a lot of these ideas and arguments in a short e-book entitled Dreams of Empire: Brexit, Nationalism and Psychoanalysis.  I have also written a short introduction to the book and its key concepts.

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