Brexit and the ideal


A contribution from

Penny Cole

The worker voting to leave the EU is rebelling against certain aspects, the ruling aspects you could say, of social and political culture as transmitted to her through an extensive, lifelong, experience of it, starting with the earliest socialisation and on through life and life roles as child, adult, worker, mother, political animal (voter), etc.

She expresses this rebellion through ideas offered to her by those who present themselves as the alternative – leaders with a voice, to put forward a nationalist, racist and historical explanation of her predicament, and an idealised future outside the EU. She takes this on as a single piece of cloth, momentarily, for the duration of this political episode.

There is a material basis for her decision. Her life as a citizen of the EU is hard; she is poor and sees inequality all around her plus terrible dissonance between what the popular culture tells her life should be and what her income will achieve.

She has been given and has taken the opportunity to become as much part of the current material/political reality as the liberal commentator who despises her. She has entered into history in a new way. It is a limited way; but it has an objective source in her social life. Her vote is her commentary on the neo-liberal ideal she is presented with.

She is therefore a part of a changing ideal if the ideal is seen as the totality of cultural and intellectual life of a society, arising from its history, state, material conditions and capitalist crisis and inseparable from them. Her invisibility is ended for the liberal commentator, but she always existed. The same society that created him, created her. And she represents something new – not necessarily pleasant to nice people.

If a new ideal is emerging, with new ideas stamping themselves on social life and ideology, then there is no going back.

This ideal is more than the fleeting ideas of an individual which can change or transform as material conditions are transformed. Britain leaving the EU would be a break in the WHOLE of the current European reality, both material and ideological, in an interacting development and in all the countries of the EU.

We should say that “Brexit” is not the same as leaving the EU – it contains much more in terms of both people’s life existence and their ideas. It is, for them, a leap in the dark. Why is a leap in the dark preferable to the status quo?

One of the biggest votes for Brexit was in Barnsley, a former mining community in Yorkshire. 68.3% voted leave on a turnout of 73.8% of the electorate. The turnout for the General Election of 2017 was 60.6%, and Labour held the seat, increasing its share of the vote by 8.2%. Barnsley Council has had £145m cut from its annual budget, which is equivalent to £688 a year per head. Oxford – where budgets have actually gone up 14.7% over the last eight years – voted 70% Remain.

Most leftists can see nothing in Brexit but a disaster with the potential to usher in the right-wing. They say it is just “old white men in the golf club”, or as one person put it to me “just an outbreak of Johnny Foreigner hatred”. But the old white men have always been there, with those ideas. They are ossified. What is new is our worker who voted against the rulers.

Others on the left, for example in the Communist Party, support Brexit as an opportunity to return to an imagined past where workers were better off with nationalisation etc., a pre-globalisation world.

We need to avoid both these “leftist” approaches, which are entirely passive in their own ways, and also the liberal horror at the break of the comfortable (for them) status quo. All of these perspectives separate consciousness from its holistic material AND cultural existence. A new ideal of human society is being created as we speak and it is the actions and practical achievements of actual human beings, working in politics, social and cultural initiatives – that will help it to develop.

This is not about the very sparse and inadequate – almost shorthand – ideas expressed on both sides, but of material forces – classes, political structures and unexpected and unavoidable things entering into the equation, like the impacts of climate change and the coming of a new debt crisis.

There is a tendency to think the IDEAS people express in words are their only reality, as opposed to seeing them alongside their existence in society – in the economy, social life, personal life and culture – as an interacting whole. Where did our worker get her idea of British history, of British society? She didn’t invent it in her head.

Her fleeting ideas are taken as the whole expression of her objective existence, as opposed to a more active approach of working out how to take forward the class elements, the economic and political alternatives. Unless capitalism IS the only way for human society, then this alternative MUST be present within this profound change.

The shifts in the social and cultural ideal that represent the end of the current neo-liberal capitalist ideal MUST contain this alternative – as well as the more negative alternatives represented by an emerging right wing movement. This alternative must be present, though it has not entered into existence. But without such an ideological break and disruption, however disgusting you may find the outer form of it, it can never enter the equation.

Is there potential to bring about a transformation as a result of the break-up of the status quo, even when this break up takes unexpected forms? Is it surprising that this moment contains a reference back to one side of the history of Britain? In what way can we nurture and bring into the present, into the new, the other side of that history? What role does the materialist dialectical concept of the ideal have in helping us to solve this conundrum?

22 January 2019

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