Psychoanalysis and Brexit

Since the EU referendum in June 2016 there have been a number of attempts, including my own contributions on this site, to look at how psychoanalysis can help us make sense of Brexit.  I think at this point 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 the psychical forces and structures that stand behind Brexit.

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.  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 easy 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 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.  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).

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.

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.

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 right-wing populism, in terms of these three registers.

In previous writings I have argued that Brexit can be seen as a symptom of an underlying antagonism at the heart of British society.  This 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 have argued many times, is a manifestation of the Real?

As Tom Eyers points out in his book Lacan and the Concept of the Real, 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.

Eyers is arguing this in the context of Lacan’s paper on the Mirror Phase, which forms the basis of his 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 as I argued in my previous writing on Brexit, 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’.

In the context of Brexit, each ‘side’ has its own ideology and its own enemy.  For the Brexiteers, the ideology revolves around a particular sense of national identity, of ‘Englishness’, which is always being threatened by the Other of the EU, which manifests itself in concrete form in the figure of the migrant (even though, of course, most immigrants and all asylum seekers come from outside of the EU).  For the Remainers, the ideology revolves around a sense of European/trans-national identity, underpinned by universal values, which is being constantly threatened by ‘the right’, nationalism and anti-liberalism.

It is clear that in this scenario, each ‘side’ needs the other to sustain their own (precarious) existence.  In other words, it is not a case of one side being ‘right’ and the other being ‘wrong’; rather, this antagonism is built into the structure itself.  In this sense Rafael is (half) right when he argues that whatever the outcome, those who voted for Brexit will be deeply disappointed and full of resentment.  The point is, though, so will those who voted to remain in EU, because whatever the outcome, the fundamental antagonism of the Real will still be there.