Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Brexit is a Simulation

The craftiest thing Theresa May's government could do right now is follow through with exactly what it's promising. To disguise itself as itself. Where the default position is cynicism, no one will ever expect the Tories not to be lying, not to be concealing some hidden motive.

Official Brexit so far has been tantalisingly, provocatively ambiguous. 'Brexit means Brexit' had a double function - as a reassurance to leave voters, and as a sort of coy provocation to the press. All the liberal hair pulling last year about this slippery turn of phrase was really just a refusal to see the obvious. Brexit means 'hard Brexit.' The opposition of the latter to some fantastic alternative -'soft Brexit', 'non-Brexit' - was always a mere disavowed hope of despairing liberals.

Brexit means hard Brexit because there was never really any other Brexit - speak to anyone, especially the angry pleb-types on Question Time, and they knew what they meant by Brexit. This was the problem with the assumption that Brexit could be shaped, because it was just a 'howl of pain from the void', one that could be answered with either the angelic voice of liberalism or the angry puffed up face of populism. People knew exactly what they wanted and the issues weren't 'too complex for democracy.' People assumed the economic hit of leaving the single market was worth the punt. And that's what the government is now doing - with 39 percent backing. That figure represents both those who now back a hard Brexit and the Tories' current vote share. There's a near perfect, reactionary alignment on the right of politics. And it means Brexit.

Voters back the Tories over Labour by a ratio of three to one deliver on the Brexit referendum. Sceptical remainers warned this would happen: leaving the EU would re-unite the Tories, much of the British establishment, and many of the voters who left them for UKIP. It would leave an already weakened centre-left floundering and embittered, while the radical left would be the primary victim for its frustrations. As long as Brexit remains the key divide in British politics, Labour is bound to lose. Brexit added to an infection that was already debilitating for Labour - coarsening a split amongst its factions that might otherwise have stayed hidden. Just as the right has stiffened its resolve, the left of British politics and its old alliances with the liberal centre are, structurally speaking, a mess.

But to paraphrase that most cliched of pop-postmodernists (after all we live in a cliched version of a postmodern dystopia) Jean Baudrillard: Brexit is a simulation - it relates to no underlying Real. As any philosophy bro waxing lyrical about Nietzsche and shit at your first year party will tell you, reality no longer exists.

"To dissimulate is to pretend not to have what one has. To simulate is to feign to have what one doesn't have. One implies a presence, the other an absence," Baudrillard (probably) says. All I'm arguing is that we should openly partake of this honest naivety. Today's critics of May all leapt at the chance to accuse her of wanting to have her cake and eat it. Well, why not? What else is she supposed to want? What's the alternative? The faux-realism of the 'grown-ups' - the AC Graylings of the world - who keep piously insisting that Brexiters will crash back down to earth when they realise they've shaved a couple of percent off GDP? I'd rather the apocalyptic naivety. It's always far better in politics to promise the impossible than tut and tell people to grow up. Politics is fuelled not by sensible men saying sensible things but precisely by impossible demands. 

But of course there is a Real and it's my belief that the Real comes back to bite you. Not in the form of the apocalypse - the climate crisis is taking care of that - but as a world-historical anti-climax. Brexit - to Grayling's credit - probably does mean two percent shaved off some phantasm of projected future wealth (what better example of a simulation?). It probably does mean a hit to the British economy. And it means other bad things too, though that depends on your subject position: for migrants, for the poor, for those who don't have savings or investments or property. For me. But fuck all that - Brexit really means something slightly tedious for most. It means some imaginary future Polish shop won't open. It means an imaginary future Labour government won't get elected. It means the minimal change May can make to our migration policies and the minimal hit to the economy she can get away with. It means Germany looking just tough enough and controls on immigration looking just militarised enough.

But enough is never enough. It never hits the spot. Because the more you crack down on migration, the more the thirst for it grows. That's the problem with a perverse fixation - you don't cure it by feeding it. Each hit needs to be bigger. 

Brexit will mean the Tories win the next election. Brexit will do just enough to keep reality feeling real. And then the same lingering disappointment with our shitty lives will kick in and we'll want to do something else, something more. And we'll go stumbling in to the next world-shaking crisis. Want to imagine the future? Imagine the tedium of Tory government forever, rocked only occasionally by sudden, inexplicable spasms of rage, before life returns to dull normality, only this time a little crueler. 

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