Brexit as Trauma

For many people who voted ‘Remain’ in the referendum of June 2016, the decision of the UK to leave the European Union after forty five years has been something of a trauma. By this I mean the Brexit decision is something that many people just cannot comprehend or come to terms with. In other words, Brexit doesn’t make sense, and this is one way to define a psychological trauma. There is even anecdotal evidence to suggest that many despairing ‘Remainers’ are bringing their angst and confusion regarding Brexit to the therapeutic clinic. And certainly there has been a great deal of anger and despair on social media, with a number of groups on Facebook, for example, seemingly devoted to vilifying those who voted for Brexit. The irony is, of course, it’s precisely this reaction by many ‘Remainers’ that, in the eyes of those who voted ‘Leave’, vindicates their decision. In other words, the more ‘Brexiteers’ are vilified, insulted and raged against, the more this proves in their eyes that ‘Remainers’ are out of touch with the ‘people’.

But coming back to the ‘trauma of Brexit, one thing that seems to have received a lot less, if any, attention, is the possibility that Brexit itself might be a response to a more fundamental trauma. Although there has been research that suggests that many (though by no means all) of those who voted for Brexit are both economically and educationally marginalised, and hold socially conservative values, little or no attention appears to have been given to the subjective positions of such marginalised and socially conservative individuals. Or, to put it another way, what brought such individuals (and in many cases, whole communities) into such a marginalised and socially conservative position in the first place?

But if we are to take seriously the idea that there might be a trauma behind Brexit, as opposed simply to Brexit ‘being traumatic’, then we need to have some form of conceptual framework in order to theorise what this trauma might be. And I think a useful starting point is the concept of cultural trauma, and especially the work of Jeffrey Alexander in this field. In his book Trauma: A Social Theory Alexander introduces the concept of cultural trauma by arguing that:

Cultural trauma occurs when members of a collectivity feel they have been subjected to a horrendous event that leaves indelible marks upon their group consciousness, marking their memories forever and changing their future identity in fundamental and irrevocable ways.1

He then goes onto argue that:

It is by constructing cultural traumas that social groups, national societies, and sometimes even entire civilizations not only cognitively identify the existence and source of human suffering but may also take on board some significant responsibility for it. Insofar as they identify the cause of trauma in a manner that assumes such moral responsibility, members of collectivities define their solidary relationships in ways that, in principle, allow them to share the suffering of others.2

Although, as I will argue below, I think there is a problem with Alexander’s concept of ‘collectivity’, these two quotes neatly encapsulate the idea that trauma is not something that is simply confined to individual experience (and in fact, may never be) and that identification, at a social level, is a fundamental mechanism by which trauma becomes socially constructed. Now, the idea that trauma is a social construction may appear at first sight to be counter-intuitive; surely, trauma is something that happens to (unfortunate) individuals or groups of individuals? However, as I have already argued elsewhere, the idea that trauma is a construction is already there in Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit.

Before examining more closely how a psychoanalytic concept of trauma might relate to a cultural one, it will be helpful to look how, according to Alexander, trauma is socially constructed and how trauma comes to be represented. The social or cultural construction of trauma, he argues, follows a clearly defined process which begins with the idea of claim making. By this Alexander means that for a traumatic experience to become trauma there needs to be a claim made by a particular group or community regarding:

…some fundamental injury, an exclamation of the terrifying profanation of some sacred value, a narrative about a horribly destructive social process, and a demand for emotional, institutional, and symbolic reparation and reconstitution.3

Such claims, are made by what Alexander, following Max Weber, calls carrier groups. However, it is not clear in Alexander’s argument whether such groups necessarily have to be constituted by those who have actually experienced the events that later become represented as trauma. Or to put it another way, it would seem possible that such claims can be made on behalf of those who were ‘actually there’, who experienced the actual event. Either way, the goal of the carrier group is to persuade a wider audience, which could be the wider community or the world itself, that either they, or those that they represent, have been subjected to a traumatising event.

Before such a claim can have any real success of being taken seriously, either by the carrier group itself or the ‘wider audience’, it has to be made into what Alexander calls a ‘new master narrative’:

Bridging the gap between event and representation depends upon what Kenneth Thompson has called, in reference to moral panics, a “spiral of signification”…Representation of trauma depends on constructing a compelling framework of cultural classification. In one sense, this is simply telling a new story. Yet this storytelling is, at the same time, a complex and multivalent symbolic process that is contingent, contested, and sometimes highly polarizing. For the wider audience to become persuaded that they, too, have become traumatized by an experience or an event, the carrier group needs to engage in successful meaning making work.4

And for such a new master (trauma) narrative to be constructed, there are four key questions that have to be addressed: the nature of the pain (what actually happened?); the nature of the victim (who is affected?); the relation of the trauma victim to the wider audience (does such an audience identify with the victims?); and attribution of responsibility (who are the perpetrators?).

However, such meaning making does not take place in a vacuum; rather, it is always constituted within a particular institutional arena, which may be religious, aesthetic, the mass media (and now, of course, social media), and/or state bureaucracy. For example, trauma may be represented through theatre or literature (the aesthetic arena) which can lead to identification with the victims and produce a powerful emotional catharsis. On the other hand, the government of a particular country may appoint a commission of inquiry to look into a particular ‘trauma claim’ (the arena of state bureaucracy). Needless to say, such arenas themselves can be subject to severe constraint; for example, the media, or parts of the media, may choose to ignore particular claims but promote others, and the same goes for governments.

Of course, the most (in)famous example of such a trauma narrative is that of the Jewish Holocaust. What began life as an atrocity story carefully managed by the US government eventually evolved into the ‘template’ for all subsequent trauma narratives. And in the process, the United States itself, especially in the wake of Vietnam, became identified as a ‘perpetrator’ on a par with Nazi Germany. But Alexander reminds us that there have been many other cultural traumas in history, and in his book he singles out two others which are perhaps not quite so well appreciated in the annuls of trauma: the Nanjing massacre in China in 1937, and the partition of India and Pakistan in 1947. Others include the virtual annihilation of the Native Americans in the nineteenth century, and, more recently, the conflicts in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

And one of the key aspects of all these trauma narratives is that they cast serious doubt on the idea of history as progress; the notion that ‘tomorrow will always be better’. This idea, philosophically defined as meliorism, essentially views history as a one way street towards a better future.5 The paradox, of course, is that history seems to suggest the complete opposite.

Furthermore, trauma narratives tend to ‘universalise’ the concept of trauma along with the idea that anyone can become a victim – and a perpetrator. In fact, and this is a key part of Alexander’s argument, it is essential for the ‘success’ of the trauma narrative that it does become universal, through a process of identification. Going back to the example of the Holocaust, when the concentration camps were first discovered by the Allies they were presented, especially by the Americans, as a yet another, albeit extreme, example of Nazi brutality and atrocity. And this fitted neatly into the ‘progressive’ narrative of the Americans as liberators and protector of civilised values. However, and as I touched upon earlier, by the late 1960s questions were beginning to be asked about the role of the US as the bastion of civilisation and progress. At the same time, survivors of the Holocaust were starting to come forward in increasingly large numbers to tell their stories. Taking these two factors together meant that the USA had (literally) ‘lost the plot’, and handed it over to the survivors of trauma and those who advocated for them. And in the process, the concepts of trauma ‘victim’ and ‘survivor’ underwent a transformation. Whereas previously victims and survivors were regarded as a particular group or community that had suffered traumatic experiences, now the idea began to emerge of trauma as something that could happen to anyone, and therefore we are all potentially victims and survivors.

Although I think there are a number of serious conceptual problems with Alexander’s argument, which I will explore in more detail in the next post on this subject, it does provide a useful starting point for reappraising Brexit from the point of view of trauma. However, just to briefly touch upon the conceptual problems with Alexander’s argument, the central one, in my view, is that he appears to equate ‘culture’ and ‘social’ with ‘collectivity’, and in doing so (inadvertently perhaps) ends up ‘reducing’ the ‘social’ to a form of group psychology. Furthermore, although he rightly spends a lot of time on elaborating his argument that (cultural) trauma is a construction, he is missing the point that all trauma is such. In other words, it is misleading to differentiate between individual trauma on the one hand and social/cultural trauma on the other, if ‘constructionism’ is to be the main differentiating characteristic.

Notwithstanding these question, which I will return to in my next piece, how can the concept of cultural trauma help us with the idea of Brexit as trauma (as opposed to the trauma of Brexit)? In order to begin to address this question, I think we need to start by exploring where this trauma might originate from. Of course, trying to ‘fix’ the origin of anything is a risky business, because there is a tendency to end up continually pushing back the point to origin to somewhere earlier; and in the end we end up ‘back’ in the realms of myth and the fantasy of a ‘lost paradise’. On the other hand, in order to elaborate any argument regarding trauma, we need to start somewhere, whilst bearing in mind the caveats I’ve just mentioned.

So if, for the sake of such an argument, we start at 1918 (or thereabouts) what do we find? On the one hand, a Britain that has just emerged victorious from a catastrophic four years of conflict (along with more than a little help from the French and the Americans), and, or so it would seem, with its Empire intact. On the other hand we find a nation totally exhausted, both economically and psychologically, and with a whole raft of unresolved political, cultural and social issues that were effectively put on hold (to a certain extent) for the duration of the War. And what we also find is the beginnings of a cultural-historical myth: ‘The Myth of the War’, to use Samuel Hynes’ evocative term.6 A key element of this myth is the idea of a lost and traumatised generation; one forever changed by the experience of the War.

In many ways the myth follows a similar path of construction to that of cultural trauma described by Alexander. For example, the ‘official’ history of the conflict, as told by victorious Allies, soon became supplemented and, to a certain extent superseded, by the ‘people’s’ version, which told a rather different story. This was the story of the artists, the intellectuals, the writers and the poets, many of whom had served on the front line. This ‘counter-narrative’ developed within the milieu of what Frank Furedi has described as ‘the other 1960s’, one of the earlier examples of British twentieth century ‘counter-culture’.7

This was the narrative of disillusionment, of the betrayal of Britain’s youth by its generals and politicians, of a cultural and spiritual wasteland. It was also a narrative that led to a widespread commitment to pacifism and appeasement, which was particularly prevalent in the 1930s. And in many ways The Myth has stayed with us ever since. The Great War is rarely remembered for its military strategy (except in its negative sense) or as a war of liberation, of ‘good versus evil’. Rather, and in spite of a number of revisionist histories, it is mainly remembered as a pointless slaughter, of ‘lions led by donkeys’, of trauma on an industrialised scale. This was also the period which marked the beginning of the end the British Empire and the advent of long-term industrial decline.

Although there is more than enough material here to form a proper ‘trauma narrative’ in Alexander’s sense, I would argue that there is another narrative lurking in the shadows. This could be described as the ‘alternative trauma narrative’ or even the ‘unofficial version’ of the ‘standard’ trauma narrative. The key point here is that this was not a negation of the ‘standard’ narrative, in the sense of denying that the Great War had been a catastrophic and traumatic event, and had left an economic and cultural wasteland in its wake. Rather, it was the embracing of such a trauma.

A parallel example from another country in the same period might help to make this clear. In the wake of the defeat of the German army in 1918 many Germans turned towards more radical political ideas, on both the left and the right. Indeed, at one point it appeared that a Soviet-type revolution might prevail, only to be put down by more conservative forces. Even so, an extremely un-Prussian political settlement emerged in the form of the Weimar Republic, which in its own way incorporated some of the more ‘liberal’ aspects of the Russian Revolution, especially on the cultural front.

At the same time, though, there was a response from the far-right. This took the form of a range of right-wing political parties, including of course the embryonic National Socialist party; and also the paramilitary Freikorps, who saw action not only in the Russian Civil War, but also on the streets of many German cities fighting the communists. Many of the Freikorps members were battle-hardened veterans of the War, and it’s probably fair to say that many were also extremely disillusioned and traumatised. And this was due not only to their combat experiences but also because of what they saw as the betrayal of the Reich by weak civilian politicians, Bolsheviks, Jews, and (in their eyes) various other ‘degenerate’ elements of the population.

The key point here is not that members of the Freikorps were under any illusions about the scale of the defeat and the devastation it had wrought on Germany. Rather, it’s how they responded to it that matters, both subjectively and in terms of political action. Whereas many on the left sought to remake a new world and a new society out of the ruins of the old one, many of those on the far-right, and especially those attracted to paramilitary groups such as the Freikorps, seemed more interested in ‘enacting’ their trauma in the form of political and military violence. Of course, there was no shortage of such violence on the left, but I think it’s fair to argue that this was a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

And I would argue that it’s the subjective dimension of the response to traumatic events that marks out the key difference between the ‘standard’ trauma narrative and the ‘counter’ or ‘unofficial’ version. The ‘standard version’ tries to make sense of what’s happened, to articulate, often in great detail, the nature of the experiences and how they have impacted on those involved. And from these articulations a new (discursive) world emerges, with a view to ensuring that such experiences never have to be relived. This is essentially the ‘logic’ of the Myth of the War. Yes, the War was terrible, a literal wound (trauma) in the fabric of history; yes, it devastated minds and bodies on an industrial scale; yes, it called into question everything that society had taken for granted. However, out of the ruins something new, and hopefully better, could emerge. Or, failing that, at least a world and a society which could better manage the tensions, conflicts, and indeed traumas, that had led to such a catastrophic war.

The alternative version to this trauma narrative is very different in both content and form. At a superficial level it might be argued that this was simply the perpetuation of the narrative of violence and militarism that was already present prior to the War; here, war was essentially a ‘cleansing’ operation that would rid society of cultural decadence and decline. However, in the aftermath of the War, it was obvious that such a ‘cultural cleansing’ had failed miserably, and if anything the situation was even worse than it had been in 1914. Furthermore, the devastation wrought by the War was only too real, and so was its trauma.

But if the devastation and trauma are real, what else is there but to create a trauma narrative along the lines suggested above, i.e. based on the Myth of the War? I would argue that the alternative is to actually embrace the trauma and devastation, just as the Freikorps (and following them, the Nazi party) did in post-Great War Germany. In other words, rather than trying to articulate a trauma narrative in order to try and make sense of what had happened, and perhaps even to ensure it never happened again, the alternative version attempted to enact the trauma itself. Rather than a narrative of trauma what we have here is a traumatised narrative.

With regards to the question of Brexit as trauma (as opposed to the trauma of Brexit), to what extent can it be argued that Brexit is a manifestation of an ‘alternative version’ of the standard trauma narrative, which began life as the Myth of the (Great) War, and has continued in one shape or another ever since? According to my reasoning above, such an ‘alternative version’ would be an enactment of trauma as opposed to an attempt to narrativise it in terms of trying to make sense of traumatic experiences.

I would certainly argue that there appears to be elements of such an enactment in the desire amongst many hardline Brexiteers for the UK to commit economic (and political) suicide by crashing out the EU without a deal. Of course, there are some hardline Brexiteers, and especially those on the extreme right of the Tory party, who see Brexit as an opportunity to ‘finish the job’ begun by Margaret Thatcher by creating a low-tax, deregulated, free-market off-shore economy. However, I would argue that behind this ultra-neoliberal fantasy lies an ideological and political void. Such a vision, if enacted, would not survive the reality of a globalized and interdependent economy. But perhaps this is the whole point; the hardline Brexiteers in the Tory party, although doing very well out of globalisation themselves in a material sense, appear to want to press the self-destruct button and bring the whole edifice down on top of themselves and everyone else.

And what of the Brexit foot soldiers, that is, all those millions who have no particular adherence to globalisation and liberal democracy, for the simple reason it never did anything for them? Behind all the talk of ‘taking back control’, behind the xenophobia, etc, there also appears to be a void; a void born out of desperation and fear. For many people who voted Brexit there appears to be very little left to lose, because they never bought into the idea (which is essentially based on another type of fantasy) of a federal Europe, a globalised world, in the first place. But in order to truly appreciate the extent and nature of this failure to ‘buy-in’ to the European dream we need to dig deeper into the underlying subjectivity that stands behind it. And, I would argue, in order to do this we need to now turn to psychoanalysis…

  1. Jeffrey C Alexander 2012. Trauma: A Social Theory. Cambridge: Polity Press, p.8 []
  2. ibid p.8 []
  3. Alexander op cit, p.16 []
  4. ibid p.17 []
  5. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meliorism []
  6. Hynes, S. (1990) A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture. London: The Bodley Head Ltd. []
  7. Furedi, F. (1992) Mythical Past, Elusive Future: History and Society in an Anxious Age. London: Pluto Press. []