‘Brexit means Brexit’: On the Horror of the Other in (Neo)Liberal Britain

Consider the scene: following his victory in the American presidential election Donald Trump begins to call foreign leaders. Where the ‘special relationship’ between America and Britain is concerned, one would imagine his first meeting would be with Prime Minister Theresa May, but this is not what happens. Instead, Trump meets the on / off leader of British populists UKIP (UK Independence Party), Nigel Farage, who has recently led Britain out of the EU, or was at least a key figure in the Leave campaign. The photograph of the pair, smiling in front of a golden elevator in Trump Tower, comes to represent the possible future of the special relationship, a possible future that fills the politicians of the British mainstream with dread, because what it symbolises is the turn to the extreme right and the collapse of the post-World War II consensus which has sustained Britain economically since the Thatcher period.

Before his victory, Trump imagined his own big win in the American election in terms of ‘Brexit times ten’, recognising the significance of the British decision to leave the European Union for the project of neoliberal globalisation, which the British and Americans had constructed from the late 1970s onwards. For the Trump campaign, Brexit came to represent ‘sticking it’ to the establishment, which they suggested had hammered the little man for so long. In this way, Brexit was a symbol of revolutionary change, a symbol of the rise of a politics of ‘real people’, a symbol of hope, but what is the meaning of Brexit for the British? Beyond the general message of Brexit, which concerns the end of the end of history, there is a more complex story behind the decision to leave the EU that I want to explore in this short reflection.

The origins of the EU itself can be traced back to the Treaty of Rome in the late 1950s where the French and Germans first imagined European economic cooperation in the name of the prevention of future war on the continent. In order to end their long struggle, which had endured since at least the early 19th century when Napoleon had fought the Prussians and captured ‘world spirit’ on horseback, the French and Germans built a community of trade to engender cooperation and realise a European form of identity. The British entered the then EEC (European Economic Community) in the early 1970s to promote increased economic prosperity, but I think it would be fair to say that they were sceptical about the wider European project from the very start. While economic cooperation was tolerable, the foundation of the EU in the early 1990s was far more problematic for the British, because its four freedoms (free movement of goods, services, money, and people) and increasing political and legal integration, were seen to undermine state sovereignty for the sake of a political, cultural, and philosophical project that the British could not easily recognise. While the French and Germans have always had an idea of Europe, the British have never had a vision of this kind. By contrast to the philosophy of their neighbours, the British are culturally speaking empiricists. They are positivistic, want to work with what is in front of them, and frown upon metaphysical speculation. Despite their history of empire, the British have no idea, where idea refers to the Platonic notion of an abstract projection of reality that enables theoretical correction of the imperfections of the present, but rather prefer to take materiality on its own terms.

Given this world view, the British signed up to the EU in order to support the neoliberal project of free trade and open borders, which Thatcher had pushed in the name of the globalisation of Adam Smith’s theory of the invisible hand, even though their liberal commitment to individual freedom meant they remained suspicious of the European tendency to realise utopian ideas in totalitarian nightmares. Of course, the British philosophical tradition is the tradition of liberalism and Hobbes, Locke, and Smith were the founders of liberal thought. In this respect we might make the case for a British form of cosmopolitanism based upon individual freedom, but my sense of the liberal tradition is that it represents a fusion of economic freedom, political pragmatism, and centrally a vision of independence suspicious of others who might infringe upon the rights of the free man. Reading the classics from Hobbes through to Smith, there is a sense in which the liberal self is cut off from others who are competitors, collaborators, but essentially always strangers that the self only engages through the abstract medium of regulation or money. In this way, the liberal other is always a kind of objectified self that we resist by keeping them at arm’s length and in this respect uphold the famous British cultural reserve. Where the Germans project their reserve into philosophy and transform the outside into an idea, the British tendency is to objectify and then operate on the basis of base materialism. The other is a thing, rather than an idea. This is probably why the liberal idea is tolerance, which effectively means that we must learn to live with the horror of the other that evokes feelings of revulsion. In the face of these feelings, British reserve requires one to suppress and repress emotion in the emergence of a kind of dire civility based upon a Hobbesian-Freudian cultural theory of the necessary misery of being with others.

We find this tendency to the objectification of the other in British industrial history and particularly the figure Marx (1988) wrote about in terms of the proletarian,[1] which, for Bernard Stiegler,[2] is less a name for a particular set of people and more descriptive of the outcome of a process – a process of proletarianisation, dehumanisation, or objectification through work. Of course, the political problem with this process is that it simultaneously created a work force (an object, a machine, a motor) and a dynamic opposition to capitalism which took the form of the revolutionary group, the union movement, and eventually the Labour Party. Enter the history of class struggle and the story of the dialectical confrontation between workers and bosses that ran through the late 19th and most of the 20th century. But it was precisely this unified oppositional class, the motor of history, the proles, that Thatcher sought to disperse in the 1980s through the deindustrialisation, post-industrialisation, and individualisation of British society. After over a century of class struggle, the neoliberal revolution finally put an end to the history of dialectical materialism through the derealisation of proletarian (non)identity, at least in the minds of the workers. In this period, public services were sold into the hands of private interests, industry was closed down and outsourced to other parts of the world, London and the South East of England became the engine of post-industrial innovation, and the British working classes leapt into the consumer society. Despite the destruction of industry, which would eventually leave many parts of the country with nothing but shopping to provide work, the old workers became proto-middle class owners, consumers of the produce of others, and began to think like individuals. They were no longer part of the proletariat, the class of those objectified by capital, because they now had a self-project beyond labour, which they sought to develop through consumption. Throughout this period, when the British thought things could only keep getting better, Europe was thus a space to be consumed. The foreign holiday became a status symbol and British people were keen to buy exotic European products which could further develop their sense of self.

Despite Black Wednesday (16th September, 1992), when Britain was forced out of the ERM by the weakness of Sterling, Britain maintained its uneasy relationship with Europe through the 1990s on the basis of its ability to maintain a model of capitalism premised on consumption-based growth. Unlike the Germans, who sought to organise European economic policy around ordo-liberal principles of balanced budgets, the British consumption based model of economy was premised on easy credit and faith in the future to enable repayment through continued growth. It is precisely this strategy for the management of debt that caught up with the British in 2008 and wiped out the Blairite consensus that had held since the late 1990s. This model of government, which saw Labour become New Labour, was defined by the search for a third way between public and private, social and individual approaches to political and economic organisation.[3] However, by 2008 it was clear that this strategy that sought to fuse individualism and social conscience had failed because the attempt to support the individual through low taxation and so on had meant that social provision had been paid for by excessive state borrowing. Again, the idea was that this borrowing could be endlessly offset by growth, a fantasy that was cruelly exposed by 2008, and the consequent credit crunch. This is why the situation Cameron and Con-Dem Coalition inherited in 2010 was marked by unsustainable public and private debts that they sought to pay off through harsh austerity measures. In the first instance the turn to austere economics was supported by increasingly violent policy attacks on domestic others who were considered lazy, useless, or unproductive.[4] The young, unemployed, and disabled were variously condemned for their exorbitance and lack of productivity and Britain developed a generalised culture of cruelty marked by a more or less psychopathic lack of empathy for others.

As the impact of the bank bail outs and consequent turn to austerity continued to spread through society hitting the middle classes, Cameron intensified his critique of the public in defence of what he called ‘working people’. In this context ‘working people’ had nothing to do with the ‘working classes’, which is a category that no longer means anything in British society, but rather refers to a group comparable to Nixon’s American silent majority who work hard, pay their taxes, and centrally could be persuaded to blame outsiders of one kind or another for the bleak economic situation. However, the problem for Cameron and the Conservatives is that this political strategy, which swept them to a surprise victory in the 2015 General Election when Labour were favoured to win and govern in a left coalition, came at the cost of unleashing a form of popular authoritarianism that they could not control. After promising to hold a referendum on EU membership he thought he could not lose in order to appease the little Englanders in his own party, Cameron found out to his own cost that the British people were willing to take the risk of a serious economic hit in order to demonstrate their unhappiness about the neoliberal consensus and centrally what they considered the totalitarianism of the European project. At this point the petty authoritarianism Cameron and the Con-Dem coalition had stirred up in the period from 2010 onwards exploded in protest against those European others who wanted to control Britain from afar in the name of the continental super-state. Moreover Europe was held responsible for the problem of the immigrant, driven out of Syria and Libya by war, who became the new scapegoat of austere Britain. Despite the appearance of sympathy for their situation, the British media announced that the country could not support an influx of new people, that public services would soon collapse under the weight of the new immigrants, and that the EU was to blame for uncontrolled immigration. What seemed lost on the British people was that the situation in the middle east was largely the result of Anglo-American mis-adventure in the region in the previous decade and that economic condition of the country was less the result of immigration and more the effect of having to bail out private banks that had become too big to fail to the tune of over £140 billion.

However, regardless of the origins of the problems of the country, Brexit became a rallying point for protest against the neoliberal consensus which had emerged in the 1980s. The leaders of the Leave campaign, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, were particularly adept at on the one hand stirring up a kind of common sense populism that blamed elites for taking advantage of normal working people and on the other hand evoking a vision of Churchillian Britain, a utopia of freedom set against continental totalitarianism (Johnson was author of best-selling biography of Churchill in 2014). While Farage supplied the former, and spoke to the man in the street who has no truck with intellectual elites, Johnson, the bumbling Oxbridge toff, brought the latter to the table and provided the British people with an image of what their country used to look like before the technocrats took control. Although the Scottish and Irish voted in favour of sticking with the EU project, presumably because they preferred the European idea to living under the rule of Westminster, the English were in favour of exit. The exception here was London, where people who have become used to living with others understood that it is not possible to opt out of processes of globalisation in the foundation of some nostalgic utopia when Britain was a world power. By contrast the provinces, the dead zones of neoliberal England, where there is absolutely no affinity with the European project, were in no doubt about the need to leave. In these ruined places, and for these people largely left behind by processes of globalisation, the EU had become a container for every problem and every anxiety facing ‘normal people’. These people declared that they wanted ‘their country’ back.

But this is precisely the problem Theresa May and the Conservatives now face. What does it mean to give the people their country back? It may be the case that Brexit was a vague, poorly articulated protest about the behaviour of the technocratic elites and their strategy of endless liberalisation in the name of cost cutting and profit making, but what was and is still not clear is what Brexit means positively. That is to say that Brexit was always negative, concerned with a refusal of ‘more of the same’ through a rejection of the idea of Europe, and never positively imagined, beyond Johnson’s nostalgic Churchillian utopia where the British send the Euro Nazis packing. In the face of this lack of clarity, May’s problem concerns exactly what a post-Brexit situation would look like. Caught up in seemingly endless debates about the value of hard versus soft Brexit, without any discussion with the European other who refuses to negotiate until the formal announcement of Article 50 (which will trigger exit from the EU), May has continually fallen back upon the tautological mantra, Brexit means Brexit, which effectively means nothing. While the rabble rouser Farage continues to agitate from a position of political irresponsibility, declaring that a betrayal of the Brexit decision would have serious consequences for the Conservatives, the problem for May is that the Brexit decision was a kind of Schmittian political decision without substance. Although Schmitt’s idea of the decision,[5] which would cut through debate and provide a clear guide to action, would appear to be a good theoretical approximation of what happened when the British people voted out of Europe, the effect of this decision has been to throw the country into an entirely undecideable situation marked by indecision, legal challenge, and semiotic farce (‘Brexit means Brexit’, ‘Red, White, and Blue Brexit’, and so on ad nauseam), which calls for a clear vision or idea about its future direction. It is, however, precisely this vision or idea that the British lack, because they remain caught up in a violent rejection of the European other who wants to take away state sovereignty, a refusal of the immigrant who wants to take advantage of unproductive public services, and an absolute inability to conceive of a positive vision of social cooperation beyond the negativity of liberalism where the other is no more than a predator looking to steal scarce resources and infringe the rights of the free individual.



[1] Karl Marx, ‘Estranged Labour’ in The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, (New York: Prometheus Books, 1988), 69-85.

[2] Bernard Stiegler, B. (2010) For a New Critique of Political Economy. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[3] Anthony Giddens, The Third Way: The Renewal of Social Democracy, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999).

[4] Imogen Tyler, Revolting Subjects: Social Abjection and Resistance in Neoliberal Britain, (London: Zed Books, 2013).

[5] Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007).


Mark Featherstone is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Keele University, UK. He is author of Tocqueville’s Virus: Utopia and Dystopia in Western Social and Political Theory (Routledge, 2007), Planet Utopia: Utopia, Dystopia, and the Global Imaginary (Routledge, 2017), and a range of articles in journals including Cultural Politics and CTheory.