The jouissance of Brexit

Whatever Labour likes to think, the British general election of December 2019 is predominately about Brexit, which is why Boris Johnson called it in the first place. Of course, one of the reasons that Labour in general, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular, would rather it was not about Brexit is because of the party’s, and Corbyn’s, conflicted position on this subject. This is one of the many ironies and contradictions to emerge during the whole Brexit saga, which may now be reaching its endgame: a basically Remainer party (Labour), whose core base is probably more Leave than Remain, and led by a life-long Brexiteer (Corbyn), who now sees a political opportunity in calling for a second referendum.

Interestingly, this is not such a sharp contrast with the Conservatives as Labour would like to portray it. Here we have a parliamentary party that, until recently anyway, was still basically Remain, but whose (relatively small) membership and wider voter base are hard line Brexiteers, and which is led by a leader (Johnson) who is ideologically pro-European, but who for ‘career purposes’ has pitched himself as an arch-Brexiteer, and is in the process of creating the first truly right-wing populist government that this country has ever had.

But coming back to one particular group of people, those Labour, or in many cases, ex-Labour, voters who voted to Leave. In the psychic geography of Brexit, these are the white working class, older males who live in the post-industrial wastelands of the north of England. Of course, in reality this group is far more geographically and demographically dispersed. Apart from anything else, they also live in the Midlands, the East of England, in Wales and, in many other areas of the country. And these are certainly not just white men of a certain age (or even class for that matter).

However, perhaps one common characteristic they do all share is a total disillusionment with politics; or at least with what we might call ‘establishment’ or ‘traditional’ politics. And this is why they voted Leave in the first place; not because of any perceived economic benefit of being ‘free’ from the EU (these are not the ‘Global Brexiteers’ who are awaiting the dawn of the new imperialism), and not because they believe they will benefit from greater sovereignty post-EU membership. Rather, for this particular group, whom we might, for the sake of argument, call the ‘Disillusioned’ or even the ‘Dispossessed’, ‘taking back control’ is essentially about destroying the political establishment.

And the reference to destruction is key here; for this group in particular, Brexit is an act of political nihilism. But it also represents the logical endgame to their experiences over decades, and across the generations. The experience of being ignored, looked down upon by the liberal establishment, of being treated as stupid, of being totally marginalised politically, economically and culturally. These are the people who never bought into the liberal democratic, globalist dream, along with its liberal values, political correctness and all the other trappings of the post-nationalist New (post) Human.

But there is another aspect to such nihilism that has perhaps gone unnoticed – and ironically it applies to both the Disillusioned themselves and their opponents. This is the question of the enjoyment, or rather, jouissance, of such nihilism. As Derek Hook reminds us in his paper on jouissance and politics, jouissance should best be understood as a mode of intensity, rather than as an affect, that is linked to the satisfaction of the drive, in other words, is linked to the Real.[1] With regards to the relationship between jouissance and the drive, this represents a knotting of the libido and the death drive; jouissance is always sexual – but always as an excess, and has little to do with genital sexuality.

Hook also reminds us that at the same time jouissance is linked to the social bond and helps to form a group identity through suffering. Furthermore, as Hook points out, jouissance is always structured by fantasy:

We might refer here to the field of sexuality and ask: Sexual enjoyment is not formless, surely, but is organized precisely by fantasy (fantasmatic scenarios designating who or what is desirable and that define the parameters of enjoyable as opposed to traumatic forms of sexual interaction)? Social modes of jouissance are no exception: They, likewise, are not formless; they occur within precise symbolic coordinates, and they take on distinct forms, forms defined by a particular force of arrangement: that of fantasy.[2]

And there is yet another social factor involved: the idea that the Other has ‘stolen my enjoyment’, which I will come back to shortly.

I would argue that in Brexit, and especially with regards to our Disillusioned Brexiteers, we can see these different aspects of jouissance being played out in front of us. To start with there is the political nihilism I referred to earlier, which is essentially an enactment of the death drive: destruction of the ‘establishment’ for the sheer enjoyment of it. But at the same time, such an enactment of the (death) drive is still a political, i.e. social, act. In other words, there is still an ideological dimension to what appears to simply be an act of deliberate self-harm (in the sense that for those voting for Brexit from this particular group are most likely the ones who are going to be most damaged by it). At this point it is helpful to refer back to Hook’s paper, and especially his focus on racist jouissance as an example of the ideological formation of jouissance:

Racist jouissance…is never simply a spontaneous individual psychological reaction. It is, by contrast, conditioned by precise historical and symbolic conditions. To provide one example—derived from a more extended analysis —the threat that the racial other is thought to pose is invariably defined relative to the ego-ideals of a given society, to those symbolic values for which members of the society are willing to live and die for. Differently put, racist jouissance plays its part in the symbolic labor of consolidating a community, of ensuring a kind of identity.[3]

So perhaps we could argue that ‘Brexit jouissance’, to paraphrase Hook, is not only about the sheer enjoyment of (self) destruction, but also functions to constitute a political identity (of sorts). Even if Brexit is an act of political nihilism, it is still political, it still has political aims, which are essentially to overthrow the ‘old order’ and replace it with….something else. It’s not clear at the moment what this ‘something else’ is, but it appears to revolve around some kind of ‘direct democracy’, with the ‘people’ in charge rather than the ‘elites’; or rather, the ‘elites’ will carry out the ‘will of the people’.

But there is also another aspect of jouissance that I mentioned earlier, which is the idea of ‘the Other stealing my enjoyment’. The Other enjoys – and not only that, he or she has ‘stolen’ this enjoyment which is ‘rightfully’ mine. Going back to the jouissance of racism, a large element of this is based on the fantasy that the (racially) ‘inferior Other’ is enjoying themselves at my expense. Hook cites a quote by the journalist Johann Hari, who is writing about the ‘war on drugs’:

The argument we hear today for the drug war are that we must protect teenagers from drugs, and prevent addiction. . . We assume, looking back, that these were the reasons that this war was launched. . . But they were not. . .. The main reason given for banning drugs—the reason obsessing the men who launched the war—was that blacks, Mexicans and Chinese were using these chemicals, forgetting their place, menacing white people.[4]

As Hook points notes:

The racist agenda here seems to have been driven not only by anger that such minority groups were “forgetting their place,” but also by fury at the fact that they were indulging in an alien and potentially contaminating forms (sic) of enjoyment.[5]

With regards to Brexit jouissance, there seems to be a reciprocal ‘envy’ at work here: on the one hand, the Brexiteers think the liberal, Westminster (and EU) elites have stolen their enjoyment and abandoned them to their post-industrial desolation and misery. On the other hand, and this tends to get less attention in the commentary on Brexit, the Remainers, the pro-European Unionists, resent the Brexiteers, and especially the ones I have labelled as the Disillusioned, for having the nerve to transgress the boundaries of liberal democracy, and to not be ‘playing by its rules’. This in turn ‘legitimates’ their jouissance infused hatred of this group, as any cursory reading of the comments on pro-Remain social media groups will confirm. Needless to say, such sentiments are reciprocated on pro-Brexit sites.

So, what we have here is a mutual and vicious spiral of hatred (jouissance) which may be reaching its endgame in this election. On the other hand, this may only be the beginning, because in many ways up until now Brexit has essentially only been a ‘phony war’. The real Blitzkrieg may be yet to come…

References

  1. Derek Hook, ‘What Is “Enjoyment as a Political Factor”?’, Political Psychology, 38.4 (2017), 605–20.
  2. Ibid, pp.613-14.
  3. Ibid p.614.
  4. Ibid, p.616. The quote is from Hari, J. (2015). The war on Billie Holiday. In these times. http://inthesetimes.com/article/17536/the_war_ on_billie_holiday
  5. Ibid, p.616.