Brexit: the revenge of the Real

Brexit seems to have produced all number of contradictions, not least that in order to ‘take back control’ of British democracy, it now seems necessary to suspend it, at least temporarily. I’m referring, of course, to Boris Johnson’s attempt to prorogue Parliament for five weeks in order to ensure, it would appear, that MPs opposed to ‘no-deal’ have minimal time to block it.

However, such a draconian move only seems to confirm that we live in politically draconian times. And perhaps this is the real point about Brexit, which is that it has exposed the underlying ideological and political fissures in British society. In this sense, Brexit is only a symptom of a much more fundamental malaise, a fundamental antagonism that lies at the heart of British culture.

From a Lacanian position, this fundamental antagonism equates with the Real. It also equates with what Claude Lefort defined as ‘the political’, as opposed to ‘politics’.[1] This distinction between ‘the political’ and ‘politics’ is crucial, in my view, when it comes to trying to make sense of Brexit. More fundamentally, such a distinction is critical in getting to grips with populist movements, especially on the right. One of the problems that many commentators have with right-wing populism is that it does not appear to adhere to the ‘normal rules’ of politics, which is what makes such movements so powerful – and dangerous.

The key point here is that ‘politics’ is all about following the ‘normal rules’, for example, respecting the rule of law, recognising the sovereignty of Parliament, holding regular elections, etc. However, all these rules and conventions now appear to be being called into question, and essentially represent a fracturing of politics and an emergence of the political in its raw (Real) state.

As Yannis Stavrakakis reminds us, the Real is a structural lack in the symbolic order – the world of the social and the world of politics, and the political can be seen as a particular modality or expression of the Real. Politics is the attempt to symbolise (the Real of) the political – which is an attempt to address the structural lack in the Symbolic.[2] Such a lack generates intense anxiety, which in turn generates Symbolic and Imaginary constructs. However, the political is always subverting and dislocating socio-political reality (including politics) – which attempts to cover over its inherent lack with fantasy, which includes the construction of social and political institutions.

So in this sense, Brexit – or rather, the attempts to bring it about, might be seen as the ‘revenge of the Real’. Or, to put it another way, Brexit is the manifestation of a fundamental antagonism within British (and more particularly English) society, which has been kept reasonably under control at least since, I would argue, the Civil Wars of the mid-seventeenth century. I refer to the Civil Wars (technically, there were three of them) because although there have been many civil conflicts since, particularly from the early nineteenth century onward, there seems to be something rather peculiar about this present one.

To start with, Brexit is not a class conflict, even though it could be argued that there is a neo-liberal conservative faction who are trying to exploit it for their own ends (I’m thinking here especially of the European Research Group). Ironically, it would appear that Brexit was largely brought about by disenchanted working class (ex) Labour voters who felt totally alienated from the ‘liberal elites’ in both Westminster and Brussels. It is also important to recognise that, ideologically, Jeremy Corbyn, along with his closest allies, is probably far more of a ‘Brexiteer’ than Boris Johnson is, who appears to have embraced the Brexit cause purely for opportunistic reasons. In other words, Brexit appears to transcend traditional class boundaries.

Which brings us to the sticky problem of whether it is a manifestation of right-wing populism. Certainly, Brexit is now being framed as a ‘people versus the elite’ confrontation as its supporters increasingly adopt a populist rhetoric. In the process, though, it is becoming more and more difficult to ascertain who exactly ‘the people’ are in this case. Furthermore, and notwithstanding my earlier remarks about Jeremy Corbyn, ‘Brexiteers’ do appear to lack a coherent ideology, which at best probably conforms to what Cas Mudde defines as a ‘thin-centred’ one, which means it is highly adaptable and can attach itself to a range of more traditional political positions.[3]

But even if it can be established that Brexit is a manifestation of right-wing populism, or at least displays a number of right-wing populist characteristics, is it, in fact, an example of ‘the revenge of the Real’ that I referred to earlier? In other words, with Brexit are we now in the realm of the political rather than politics? I would argue that we are, precisely because the ‘normal rules’ of politics no longer seem to be working. This is a sign that something has been awakened that can no longer be contained by politics; or at least not in its conventional sense. The problem for the opponents of Brexit is that even now they do not seem to have woken up to the fact that the ‘normal rules’ no longer apply.


  1. Claude Lefort, Democracy and Political Theory (Oxford: Polity Press, 1988).
  2. Yannis Stavrakakis, Lacan and the Political (London: Routledge, 1999).
  3. Cas Mudde, ‘The Populist Zeitgeist’, Government and Opposition, 39.4 (2004), 541–63.