Brexit as trauma narrative

In my previous post on Brexit I made reference to what Samuel Hynes has described as the ‘Myth of the (Great) War’.  This is the now widely accepted idea that one of the main legacies of the First World War was a lost, disillusioned and traumatised generation for whom all the old certainties of pre-War England lay in ruins.  Essentially though, this ‘myth’ represents a ‘working-through’ of the trauma of the Great War; and this is a process that still continues today.

One of the key things about this myth, which we could call a trauma narrative, is that incorporates trauma into its own story.  In other words, this is a history that places trauma at its very core; and this is not just on an individual level, but at a cultural one too.  However, and as I indicated above, there is something reparative and ‘therapeutic’ about the structure of this narrative.  It not only acknowledges the trauma of the Great War and its aftermath, but it also puts it to work, so to speak.

And an important part of this ‘work’ is a coming-to-terms, at a social and cultural level, of Britain’s new position in the world post-1918.  This is very much about acknowledging the end of Empire and the idea of a ‘managed decline’ in terms of Britain’s economic and political influence in the new world order.  And, of course, membership of what was originally called the Common Market and is now the European Union was an important part of that process. I.e. becoming part of a new, quasi-empire.

It could also be argued that at a cultural level the focus was now on constructing a stable and relatively prosperous society, with the emphasis on happiness and personal fulfilment.  In other words, creating the ‘good life’ where everyone, in principle at least, would be able to achieve their personal goals.  This is a world in which ‘we are all middle class now’, and one based on the acceptance of universal values, rights and responsibilities; everything from universal human rights to addressing issues climate change and global conflict.  In political terms this is essentially grounded in the narrative of liberal democracy, which has managed to survive, in one form or another, since 1945 – at least in the ‘West’.

Of course, this is a process that has taken many decades, but one which, until the end of the twentieth century at least, appeared to be making steady progress.  And ‘appeared’ is the operative term here, because in reality things were never that simple and in many ways this idea of steady progress towards a better today (let alone tomorrow) was (and still is) based on an illusion.  In Britain, as in many other liberal democracies, other forces have always been at work, and other narratives have always been circulating.  Up until recently though, it has always been possible to contain such forces and narratives; now, however, this ‘containment’ has to be seriously called into question.

However, in my previous post I also argued that there has always been an ‘alternative version’ to the ‘standard’ trauma narrative, first encapsulated in the Myth of the Great War.  This ‘unofficial’ version not only has a different content but also a different structure.  Essentially, whereas the ‘standard version’ attempts to articulate and work-through the trauma, to try and make sense and learn from it, the alternative version attempts to keep on trying to ‘enact’ the trauma itself.  Rather than a narrative of trauma, there is instead a traumatised narrative.

But where did this ‘other’ narrative come from in the first place.  Within the context of Brexit I would suggest that it is grounded in the erosion of social identity that occurred in the wake of the First World War.  And this erosion initially impacted especially hard on both the established ruling class and the emerging working class.  I say ‘initially’ because gradually over the next century this ‘crisis of identity’ has spread to the middle and professional classes as well, and is linked to the spread of globalisation in both its economic and socio-cultural forms.  We are now at a point where we can concur with Lacan’s proclamation in the 1970s that ‘we are all proletarians now’, which in formal, Lacanian terms can be conceptualised in terms of Lacan’s ‘fifth’ discourse: the discourse of the capitalist.

To put it simply, in a world of globalised capitalism, it has become increasingly difficult for individuals and communities to construct and sustain a stable identity, an ‘anchorage’, a place in the world.  Hence the rise of identity politics and political correctness, which at root are defences against the erosion of identity.  Essentially, subjectivity itself is increasingly under threat, and along with it the erosion of the social bond.  In fact, it could be argued that the real meaning of cultural or social trauma is the trauma of the social itself.  In other words, globalisation and the ‘proletariatisation’ of the population has led to a dissolution of the ‘social’.  We are all just consumers now, serving the global machine of production.

Furthermore,  following the end of the Great War all the ‘unfinished business’ that had effectively been put on hold for the duration of the conflict (though not entirely) reasserted itself: the Irish question, labour struggles, the fight for women’s suffrage.  And, behind all of this was the psychical and cultural legacy of the War, which eventually manifested itself in the Myth of the War, and was structured around the (trauma) narrative of a lost, disillusioned and deeply wounded generation.

However, as I have argued already, this Myth, this trauma narrative, is not what lies behind Brexit.  In fact, as I suggested earlier, the Myth is what lies behind Britain’s decision, in the aftermath of yet another European catastrophe, to join what eventually became the European Union, albeit somewhat half-heartedly.  And yet, perhaps this half-heartedness, this lack of any real enthusiasm for the European project, betrays another narrative, and perhaps even another, more fundamental, Myth; one that resonated (and continues to resonate) particularly strongly with both the old ruling class and the (industrial) working class.

At this point I would like to begin to develop a ‘working hypothesis’, which is that the Great War itself is not the ‘root’ of the trauma that gave rise to the Myth of the War and its underlying trauma narrative.  Rather, the Great War functioned as an ‘anchoring point’ which created a ‘temporal loop’ back to an ‘earlier’, unsymbolised Event.  In Freudian-Lacanian terms we could think of this as the ‘Nachträglichkeit effect’; trauma constructed retroactively and within the Symbolic register, but having Real effects.

The key point here, if we follow the logic of Nachträglichkeit through, is that there is no actual original trauma, in the sense that there is a particular historical point when the world came apart.  The whole point about history and historical moments is that they are symbolic constructions, which means that when they attempt to describe traumatic events, they are already ‘making sense’ of something which, by definition, cannot be made sense of.  So whatever it is that such history is describing it is not, strictly speaking, trauma itself, as a manifestation of the Real.  Rather, it might be better to speak of a ‘rupture’ or ‘tear’ in the fabric of history itself, in the Symbolic order itself.

Of course, wars, and other major historical events, appear at first sight to be prime candidates for trauma, in the sense that they are themselves ‘disruptions’ in the ‘flow’ of history, and often major turning points in such a ‘flow’.  However, this view itself betrays a somewhat ‘Hegelian’ view of history, that is, it is moving or ‘flowing’ in a particular direction.  And, more to the point, wars and other events do not ‘just happen’; the Great War did not ‘just happen’, and neither did the Holocaust.  In fact, and to paraphrase von Clausewitz, we could argue that such events, horrific as they are, are simply ‘extreme politics’; policy pursued by other (violent) means.  Furthermore, this also raises a more fundamental and potentially disturbing question about the nature of the ‘political’ itself, and the extent to which it is itself grounded in trauma, in the Real.

It is important to remember that a key aspect of the Myth of the War is that until the War ‘happened’ history was progressing nicely, onwards and upwards towards a better tomorrow.  In other words, the Great War was a shattering of the Peace, which, according to some historians, had reigned in Europe since 1815.  And, of course, one of the ‘products’ of this myth is another one: that of the ‘Edwardian Summer’ that was so brutally curtailed by the events of 1914.  So what we have here is essentially the myth, the narrative, of a ‘lost Peace’, a ‘lost innocence’, a world forever changed.

The problem here is that this is complete (historical) nonsense; there never has been a ‘golden age of Peace’, a time of ‘innocence’.  Even the so-called ‘Edwardian Summer’ was a time of political upheaval, an arms race, multiple ‘mini-wars’, and a preparation for a wider European conflict.

And yet…the stronger the reality the more powerful the myth.  The key point here, though, is that the ‘Myth of the Peace’, for want of a better term, is essentially a function of the ‘Myth of the War’.  In other words, the Myth of the War ‘produces’ the Myth of the Peace; in fact, it is a necessary ‘product’, in order for the broader myth to make sense.  Otherwise it might start to appear that the Great War was not as ‘shattering’ as it is usually portrayed to be; that there was not, in fact, such a clear demarcation between ‘before’ (the War) and ‘after’, which is a key narrative within the Myth of the War.

Coming back to the trauma narrative that lies behind Brexit, I earlier suggested that this was different from the ‘official’ or ‘standard’ trauma narrative of the Great War (the lost, disillusioned and traumatised generation, etc).  The key thing about this ‘standard version’ is that it essentially paved the way, via another world war, the Holocaust and the Cold War, to Britain’s membership of the European Union, and an acceptance that Britain was no longer a major player on the world stage.  However, this ‘standard version’ is reliant on the idea that the Great War marked the beginning of Britain’s ‘managed decline’, due to its catastrophic nature.

The Brexit trauma, however, is based on a rejection of this ‘standard version’.  However, it is not a denial that the War took place or to deny that it was indeed catastrophic.  Rather, it’s a rejection of the basic premise of the ‘standard version’, which is the idea that the War represents a trauma; a trauma that changed everything, so that ‘after’ could never be the same as ‘before’.   But, the twist here is that this rejection of the basic premise regarding the ‘traumatic’ nature of the War is based on the idea that all human life, all human existence, is traumatic.  This being the case, there is little point in singling out a particular moment in history as ‘traumatic’.

If human existence is grounded in trauma then history itself takes on a different meaning.  Rather than being a narrative of progress, ‘punctuated’ by wars and other ‘disrupting’ events which need to ‘managed’ and learnt from, history becomes a continuous and retroactive articulation of trauma; a form of ‘meta-Nachträglichkeit’.   Of course, the ‘standard’ trauma narrative itself is grounded in this retroactive articulation of trauma, but fails to recognise it.

And this is the key point: the ‘standard version’ historicises trauma without recognising it as a lived experience.  By this I mean that although the ‘standard version’ incorporates the idea of trauma into itself, in the process it detraumatises it.  The trauma becomes something that happened ‘then’, in the ‘past’, and although it has shaped what comes afterwards for years, decades or even centuries, in essence it is ‘elsewhere’ and the focus now is to come to terms with it and work through it.  This applies both on an individual and a cultural level.

The ‘alternative’ or ‘unofficial’ version of the trauma narrative is very different.  In essence the trauma is a lived experience, not something tucked away in the ‘past’.  From this perspective, the (Great) War not only never ended, but it was always already ongoing.  And in this sense, Brexit itself is simply the latest ‘episode’ in this War that never ends, this trauma without end.