Boris Johnson arrives at the press conference in the German Chancellery, August 2019. Photo: photocosmos1 /

Brexit: conservatism’s last great gamble?

  • February 4, 2020

Capitalism & Crisis

The Conservatives have beaten Corbyn and pulled the UK out of the EU — but is this a sign of strength or might they have just played their last card?

It has been more than three years since the UK voted to leave the EU on June 23, 2016. In that time the Brexit story has been told and re-told, the reasons for the result analyzed and reanalyzed, the consequences for the left considered and reconsidered. Breakthroughs in negotiations have come and gone. Government promises have been made and broken. Governments have formed and collapsed. We have even had an EU election that was not supposed to exist.

And now, finally, we have left. The first stage of a protracted process is behind us. Before us lies at least a year’s worth of trade negotiations, rancor over the English border on the island of Ireland and endless political conjecture.

At some point the whole process acquired a peculiar cadence. Extended periods of media speculation and political indecision were sporadically interrupted by a parliamentary clamor that promised — without ever delivering — a plan, a strategy, a resolution. As the public settled into the ebb and flow of it, Brexit-talk became an irritating low-level background hum that a full third of the British public reports trying to avoid. This practice even has a name: “Brexit fatigue.”

At the same time, news websites have reported record numbers of visitors wanting to read about the latest Brexit developments. For the Guardian, this indicated “that while many people publicly insist that they are avoiding news about the UK’s ongoing political crisis, some may be unable to stop themselves secretly gorging on updates about Britain leaving the EU.”

Psychoanalysis calls this an act of disavowal. Consciously, we might want nothing more to do with Brexit. Perhaps it makes us feel angry, or anxious, or bored, or powerless. Yet time and again — seemingly against our conscious wishes — we find ourselves reading about the latest Brexit developments.

Paradoxically, this suggests that on an unconscious level we just cannot get enough of Brexit. We might complain about it but then even this act of complaining is a source of enjoyment, a way to bond with one and other over a shared predicament: our incompetent ruling class and a departure from the EU that threatens to extend into eternity. After all, following decades of what Mark Fisher called the “privatization of stress” forged through the individualizing logics of neoliberalism, the collectivized stress of Brexit has felt like something of a step forward. A kind of embryonic solidarity.

Our attachment to Brexit has also shown itself in other ways. We have, for instance, been told repeatedly that Brexit is approaching a point of crisis. It has been called a crisis in democracy, in constitutional government, in the economy and in British values. Rather than prompting political action the effect of each successive crisis has been to draw us in and to fix us to the process. Each unbelievable development circulates through social media gathering shares, likes and retweets and accumulating value for the owners of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Incredulity is lucrative in what Jodi Dean calls our system of “communicative capitalism.”

And so, as with Donald Trump’s presidential election — the other big news event of 2016 — what at first appeared to be a crisis in government became a form of government. What looked to be an intractable problem started to function as its own solution. As long as we stayed in Brexit limbo nothing had to change. The occasional stock market dip notwithstanding, the accumulation of value carried on regardless. By some measures the UK economy has even fared comparatively better since the referendum than most other European countries.

For the Conservative Party this was good news for at least two reasons. First, because as long as the pseudo-solution of a media spectacle and parliamentary deadlock held they could avoid confronting the fact that they were in the midst of an existential crisis. Barely holding itself together, the Tories were a party in power without a plan or a program. Their bungled Brexit agreement was stymied by both the “Irish Border Question” — or better, the illegitimate English border on the island of Ireland — and by intense disagreements within the party itself.

Second, because as long as Brexit remained what Mao would call the “principal contradiction” in British capitalism, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and the extra-parliamentary left would be unable to monopolize on the fact that the policies of consecutive New Labour and Conservative governments have been an unmitigated disaster for the UK’s working class.

From Pseudo-Crisis to Crisis

But Brexit limbo was never going to last forever and this is where we will perhaps finally encounter a genuine crisis. Now that Corbyn has been defeated the Conservatives will have to face up to the fact that beneath the Brexit hubbub the UK’s working class has been facing a crisis of its own. After decades of spiteful and vindictive cuts to welfare and public services the UK looks less like an imperialist power or the world’s fifth wealthiest country than a techno-Dickensian nightmare.

As David Cameron, of all people, put it over a decade ago: “While parents worried about childcare, getting the kids to school, balancing work and family life — we were banging on about Europe.” Cameron’s poorly judged wager in 2015 ensured that his party and the political establishment as a whole would “bang on” about Europe for many years to come. His efforts to put an end to his party’s internecine struggles over the EU have, to put it mildly, backfired.

Cameron had never wanted to leave the EU, yet now we find ourselves on our way out. Cameron had wanted to quell dissent from the right flank of his party, yet now they are in control of the country. All the while the UK’s working classes continues to suffer the consequences of austerity and an escalating ecological crisis, neither of which the Conservatives were willing or able to address.

It is in this sense that Brexit has been both a poison and a cure for the Conservative Party. It has torn the party apart but it has also covered over a much deeper and ongoing crisis in British conservatism — its old solutions are no longer working. No one believes that austerity is about “living within our means.” No one believes that “we are all in this together.” And certainly no one believes that British capitalism is a meritocracy.

To make matters worse, the precarious post-2008 neoliberal economic recovery now appears to be in a stage of terminal crisis. Inverted yield curves, the working class’ inability to reproduce itself within capital, predictions of a global recession and burgeoning support for progressive governments on the one hand and the far-right on the other all suggest that we are entering into a period of considerable transformation and opportunity for the left and volatility for British conservatism. The only way out for the Conservatives is to deliver on their promises to “unleash Britain’s potential,” to usher in “the dawn of a new era” of prosperity in post-Brexit Britain.

This is the context that explains the Conservative Party’s support for Brexit and the willingness of some to countenance a no deal Brexit. It is no exaggeration to say that the future of British conservatism lies in making a “success” of Brexit.

But to understand how and why the party has pivoted to support Brexit and what this means for the left we need to situate Brexit within a longer tradition of conservative thought. Though it is often said that Brexit is a populist departure from traditional conservatism, in reality the leave campaign, Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson’s administration are entirely legible as part of the conservative tradition.

Like those before them, today’s conservatives are in the midst of a reactionary struggle to maintain their power and privilege. Delivering Brexit has become the only way to defend the interests of established elites and capital against the threat of a Corbyn-like government and the growing appeal of the extra-parliamentary left. To borrow Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s dictum, British conservatives have learned that “everything must change so that everything can stay the same.” What we are witnessing, then, is a perilous effort to reinvigorate an ailing party. It is an effort that it is well-worth understanding and paying attention to.

Populism, Racism and Xenophobia? That’s Just Traditional conservatism!

Throughout the referendum British media was captivated by the leave campaigns’ overtly racist, nationalist and populist rhetoric. For the right, the campaigns were finally speaking about the real issues that people cared about: immigration and “taking back control.” Critics, however, rightly condemned the campaigns for legitimizing outbursts of racist violence and emboldening fascists across the UK. For some in what Tariq Ali calls the “extreme center,” the campaigns success was part of a worrying “decline in trust in British elites,” a hollowing out of the political middle ground and a generalized slide towards populism.

The leave campaigns were undeniably populist, racist and xenophobic. In these respects and others they have a great deal in common with Trump and Boris Johnson’s young administration. But critics have been too quick to suggest that these figures and events are a departure from the ideas of traditional conservatism. Writing in the Financial Times, for instance, Philip Stephens claims that under the influence of Trump “Brexit has read the rites over British Conservatism.” Yet as Corey Robin argues in The Reactionary Mind, “many of the characteristics that we have come to associate with contemporary conservatism – racism, populism, violence, and a pervasive contempt for custom, convention, law, institutions, and established elites — are not recent or eccentric developments… they are instead constitutive of conservatism, dating back to its origins in the European reaction against the French Revolution.”

For Robin, conservatism is not the respectable and pragmatic tradition that it is often thought to be. Rather, from early proponents like Thomas Hobbes, to Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli, to more recent exponents like Margret Thatcher, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, the purpose of conservatism has been remarkably consistent: to use whatever means necessary to defend the power and privilege of the ruling class against the emancipatory struggles of the oppressed. Conservatism is therefore first and foremost a reactionary or counter-revolutionary tradition. Its apparent pragmatism and moderation are not intrinsic qualities of conservatism but stem from the fact that the existing social order aligns more or less with conservative interests. Why rock the boat when you are winning?

Robin contends that conservatives in today’s Western democracies can only maintain their power and privilege if they can make “privilege popular.” Class exploitation, misogyny, racism and ecocide must be given a popular appeal. People must vote to be oppressed. Robin describes at least three ways that this can be achieved; all of which we have seen at play in the Brexit debacle.

The first is for conservatives to install themselves as the defenders of freedom and democracy. The public must be made to believe that demands for greater freedom, economic redistribution, or the dismantlement of privilege leads to one of two alternatives: chaos or totalitarianism. The militant intervention of a collective subject will end in tragedy and even moderate progressive reforms to capitalism will result in disaster. Think, for example, of the unending right-wing assaults on Jeremy Corbyn for his supposed communist and terrorist sympathies and on the 2019 Labour Manifesto for its supposedly unrealistic, “utopian,” goals.

Second, conservatives exploit reactionary, populist and anti-establishment sentiments that exist among voters. The clearest example of this during the referendum was the leave campaign’s decision to put immigration at the heart of its messaging. Working class hostility to immigration is a displaced criticism of capitalist production; it is not the immigrant that suppresses wages or that ensures a portion of the working class remain unemployed but the violent internal logic of capital accumulation. Yet by exploiting the idea that European immigrants are stealing British jobs, or by implying that essential British values are under threat, conservatives can turn the working class against itself, remove the possibility of international solidarity and build a cross-class alliance between themselves and more reactionary elements of the working class.

Third, conservatives borrow from the struggles of the oppressed. There are two parts to this process. First, conservatives agree with the oppressed that the old institutions, policies and practices are broken. This point is essential if we want to understand Johnson’s “people vs parliament” framing of his Brexit strategy. By breaking with convention and advancing populist critiques of long-standing institutions, conservatives aim to appeal to the frustrations of the oppressed. In this sense, Johnson’s prorogation of parliament last October was an archetypal conservative gesture.

The second stage of this strategy is to sequester some of the less radical ideas of progressive struggles. The aim here is to create a renovated conservatism that will diminish the appeal of more far-reaching demands. This was precisely the approach taken by Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sajid Javid prior to the 2019 election. By introducing what he described as the largest increase in government spending in 15 years the Conservatives are, he claimed, “turning the page on austerity and beginning a new age of renewal.”

Javid is a former investment banker whose affection for Margret Thatcher goes as far as to hang a portrait of her on his office wall. He famously reads the courtroom scene in Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead at least once a year. His election friendly promise to spend on “health, police and schools” — the reactionary equivalent of Lenin’s famous slogan “Peace, Land and Bread” — was not aimed at economic and social renewal but at undermining the electoral appeal of Corbyn’s much more extensive and socially transformative economic policies.

More recently, Johnson has reiterated Javid’s focus on health police and schools by claiming that Brexit “is the moment when we really begin to unite and level up. Defeating crime, transforming our NHS, with better education, with superb technology and with the biggest revival of our infrastructure since the Victorians, we will spread hope and opportunity to every part of the UK.” How, exactly, remains unclear.

Thatcher’s Shadow

As these strategies make clear conservatism at its strongest when it can react against organized left-wing movements. It is therefore no coincidence that contemporary conservatives like Sajid Javid are nostalgic for the “good old days” of Thatcher’s Conservative Party. Judged on its own terms, Thatcher’s administration was one of the most successful governments in 20th century Britain. In just 10 years Thatcher broke Britain’s unions, deregulated the labor market, disempowered local government, dramatically reduced income taxes, privatized state-owned industry and housing, and built a cross-class base of support for the Conservative Party. The result, as Donald Sassoon writes, “was a net distribution of resources from the poorest to the richest, achieved with minimal of social strife.” Thatcher had made privilege popular.

But unlike today’s Conservatives, Thatcher lived in a world where the power and privilege of the capitalist class was threatened by unions at home and the Soviet Union abroad. Thatcher spoke explicitly of “the ideological battle against socialism” and used this battle as an opportunity to drive her reactionary social agenda forward and even to defend the UK’s membership of the EU.

In many ways, today’s conservatives are the victims of Thatcher’s success. Corbyn notwithstanding, without the threat of unions or international communism conservatives have nothing to react against. Having already sold off state assets, they have no way to make their privilege popular.

This has led commentators from across the political spectrum to conclude that contemporary conservatism is in crisis. Yet many analyses of this crisis hinge on an incorrect appraisal of conservative thought. Andy Beckett, for example, describes the Tories as a “zombie party” whose ideas are “dead in the water.” But Beckett incorrectly situates Trump and Farage as populist departures from conservatism and so misses what these figures have contributed to contemporary conservative political strategy.

Similarly, the New Stateman argues that conservatism’s crisis should concern those across the political spectrum. “At their best,” it writes, “conservative parties have acted as a bulwark against nationalists, demagogues and populists. They have helped preserve valued institutions and upheld respect for constitutional norms.” Trump and Johnson, meanwhile, are said to be bent on senseless, nonideological, “wanton vandalism.” But again this underestimates the ways that — consciously or not — Trump, Brexiteers and Johnson have reinvigorated contemporary conservatism. Unless this is understood, the left will be ill-equipped to fight it.

Today’s Conservatives: Oppressors and Victims, too

As Artemy Magun argues in his forthcoming book, Negativity in Ethics, today’s elites increasingly appeal to their base by creating a short-circuit between their position of privilege and the position of victimhood. Though they might be powerful and responsible for the immiseration and exploitation of millions, such leaders appeal to their own oppression by another power to make their privilege popular. Take, for example, Trump’s insistence that he is the victim of “fake news” or that the US — the world’s leading imperialist power — is the victim of “bad trade deals.”

This sleight of hand is everywhere in the Brexit debate. Brexiteers repeatedly assert the intrinsic brilliance of the UK. Our position on the G7 and our powerful economy is said to have less to do with our colonialist past and our imperialist present than with our intrinsic ingenuity. But at exactly the same time they argue that for too long we have been shackled to the undemocratic and economically inhibiting laws and regulations of the EU.

A leading global power and a yet victim. Formidable and yet constrained. This is the message that Brexiteers push. Recall, for instance, Nigel Farage’s description of June 23 as Britain’s “Independence Day.” Or Johnson’s demand during the referendum for voters to “take the chains off the giant, unshackled Britannia and let the Lion roar again!”

It is Ann Widdecombe, however, who has pushed this trope the furthest. In her first speech in the European Parliament she warned with great bombast that: “there is a pattern consistent throughout history of oppressed people turning on the oppressors. Slaves against their owners. The peasantry against the feudal barons. Colonies, Mr Verhofstadt, against their Empires! And that is why Britain is leaving!”

These remarks are a long way from Thatcher’s boastfully imperialist comments in her famous Bruges Speech: “Too often, the history of Europe is described as a series of interminable wars and quarrels. Yet from our perspective today surely what strikes us most is our common experience. For instance, the story of how Europeans explored and colonized — and yes, without apology — civilized much of the world is an extraordinary tale of talent, skill and courage.”

This is a remarkable transition. It seems that having crushed the organized left, today’s conservatives are positioning themselves so that they no longer need emancipatory movements to react against. It is enough, they hope, that there is a more liberally inclined wing of capital.

In the same vein, it seems likely that the inspiration for this short-circuit between oppressor and oppressed lies not in the radical left as we saw above but in today’s liberal left. The strategy bears a striking resemblance to what is often derogatively called “victim politics.” This is the idea that politics begins from one’s particular experiences of oppression and that to be heard we must present ourselves as the victims of capital, of patriarchy, of racism and environmental injustices.

Conservatives most commonly associate this phenomenon with aspects of so-called “campus culture,” but as Alain Badiou argues in his book, Ethics, liberal appeals to victimhood extend well-beyond this. It is, for example, fundamental to the bourgeois discourse of human rights. For Badiou, the discourse of victimhood is profoundly de-politicizing. A “left” that speaks as victims no longer envisions itself as a collective subject or rival to capitalism. It is a victim not a gravedigger. A moralist not a revolutionary. In short, it is a liberal not a leftist.

This, finally, is where today’s conservatives are beginning to depart from their tradition. In the absence of disciplined militant left-wing movements, Johnson and the Brexiteers are reacting against and borrowing from the bourgeois left. It is a solution to conservatism’s troubles that will not last. In the midst of an escalating ecological crisis, with liberalism itself in jeopardy, and without a clear plan for post-Brexit Britain, today’s conservatives may have played their last hand. It is the task of those of us fighting for a world in common to ensure that they have.

Kai Heron

Kai Heron is an organizer and academic. He lives in Manchester, UK.

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