A crisis is always good for humor. The English satirical magazine Private Eye caught the spirit of uncertainty and the possible tragedy of Brexit—that many of those who voted for it may have intensified their abjection as a result. One spoof comment for The Daily Turkeygraph (a composite of the conservative Daily Mail and Telegraph papers) written by Jeremy Paxo (a reference to the news commentator Jeremy Paxman, also a brand of stuffing mix) was headlined “TURKEYS VOTE FOR CHRISTMAS IN REFERENDUM CLIFFHANGE.R. Another for The Indepandent (sic, The Independent, a liberal/conservative paper) headlined “BRITAIN VOTES TO LEAVE FRYING PAN AND JUMP INTO FIRE.”
Karl Marx might have made much of Brexit and the tragedy and farce of its still unfolding events. Indeed, for many commentators it fits into a global pattern, echoing, in some of its key respects, what is happening elsewhere in this era of globalization. In other words, Brexit is one act in a global theater of the absurd that receives enthusiastic applause in some quarters and cries of grim foreboding in others. The characters of its play share qualities with others elsewhere as does its narrative. In combination, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage bear comparison with Donald Trump whose opponent, Hillary Clinton, increasingly parallels the establishment-saving direction of the Tory shape change from David Cameron to Theresa May, perhaps the shadow of Margaret Thatcher in more patronizing and empathetic gloss. The plot line—virtually Shakespearian in proportion, as many comment—is of ruling elites, the “Establishment,” in crisis.
The Brexit/Remain fight began as a struggle for control of the executive machinery of state within bourgeois fractions of the Tory right. This was/is mirrored in similar in-fighting and backstabbing among bourgeois factions of the Labour Party. The struggles as a whole developed in an effort to win the support of the general population of cross-cutting and opposed class interests, especially of the economically and occupationally vulnerable, most significantly, those in the deindustrialized areas extending from the Midlands into the North of England. This, indeed, echoes in certain broad structural respects, what Marx wrote regarding the events after 1848 leading to Louis Napoleon’s dictatorial counter coup in which alliances and commitments, made by elements of the bourgeoisie with the excluded and the exploited (farmers, peasants, and urban proletariat) in France at the time, were broken, and oppressive forces at the root of the problems extended their sway.
The farcical tragedy of Louis Napoleon occurred in the early stages of the formation of the nation-state and one kind of democratic parliamentary system in the making. Its flaws were exposed in its bourgeois subversion. Brexit’s farcical tragedy and the events reverberating from it are one further instance of the crisis of the nation-state and of its democratic claims at a moment very probably at the end of its cycle and the emergence of new assemblages of the political on the ever transforming or transmutational bed of capital.
The Brexit/Remain rhetoric expressed contradictions at the heart of the social order of the nation-state driven by the further expansion of corporate power: the corporations being institutions for the protection and pursuit of bourgeois economic interest (including a degree of unity with other class interests) outside those of the executive machinery of the state. When Marx wrote, and for a long time after, the bourgeoisie needed the apparatuses of the state and fought over it. They still do, of course, but the development of the modern banking, business, and industrial corporation has assumed virtual political-societal proportion of its own to rival that of nation-states. Nation-states themselves have been infiltrated by corporatism, their bureaucratic infrastructure is reflecting this supported by the ideology of neoliberalism. The Brexit/Remain opposition is the manifestation of the contradiction of the nation-state by the corporate state, the EU.
This was lurking in the bowels of the nation-state (certainly its Western forms but also in different manner in state orders elsewhere in the world) from its development, and before.
The antecedents of many contemporary corporations, at least in practice, were free-booting virtually piratical bands, or privateering organizations, working outside or at the edges of the political orders of states, often their unregulated extension but operating with state protection. The most powerful manifestations of this were the joint stock companies operating from the sixteenth century in Asia, America, the Pacific, and so on. They were the raw face of capitalism, legendary in their greed for profit and the corruption of the polities they constructed (or infiltrated) for the pursuit of their enterprise. Elizabethan England, if not a pirate state was a pirate haven that preyed on imperial states such as Spain who unsuccessfully launched its Armada in an effort of suppression. What began with a bang of England’s modern imperial beginnings might now look a little like ending with the whimper of Brexit—England (the United Kingdom threatened with collapse) cast outside larger agglomerates of state-ordered or protected enterprise but potentially reverting to a kind of pirate haven of before, a place for relatively unregulated piratical or privateering corporate organizations to operate freely in the plundering for profit. Hence, the city of London might eventually thrive under Brexit. There are reports that London has long been a major global hub for the Mafia anyway and certainly a sanctuary for Russian oligarchs—the equivalent of the robber barons (past and more recent) vital in the building of US corporate power and its ruling bourgeoisie.
It was Thomas Hobbes, strange as it might seem to many, who saw the imminent threat of the corporate bodies (business/commercial/mercantile conglomerates) to the state and also to society. His imagination of the destructive, fragmenting forces of society—an essential, natural, tension against social coherence born of individual/group self-interested competition—is produced in part by Hobbes’s observation of merchant corporations at the time. Hobbes’s stress on a transcendent sovereign polity as the condition for an ordered society (wherein its economic forces are subdued) can be read not only as a recommendation for the subordination of the economic to the political for the pursuit of the commonweal but also as recognition of the contradiction of state political (social) order by the corporate.
But back to Brexit.
The absurdity of the present moment, not to say its bathos, is of various fractions of the ruling or would-be ruling bourgeoisie fighting over the control of apparatuses connected to state function. The Tories under Theresa May have done a momentary patch-up job (a fragile unity of conflicting elements) whereas Labour’s factional contest is widening with deepening impotent effect. This is likely to continue with the camp around Jeremy Corbyn, the pious principled center, in sharpening conflict with the parliamentary members of Labour. This is part of the effort to reconnect, as with May for the Tories, with those alienated from the bourgeoisie of the parliamentary establishment. This move within the ranks of Labour (and apparently drawing anew from youth across the classes—themselves alienated as indicated in the 2011 London riots) is an intimation and reflection of a much broader—international in fact—disillusionment and discontent with the “democratic” institutions of the nation-state.
The foregoing brawling within the bourgeoisie masks another and more sinister bourgeois and class process, that of the economic political order of the corporations. They more than rival state power. They are, in many respects, in their social organizational dimensions, social systems in themselves with structures of sociopolitical mobility within (vertical) and between (horizontal) them—the circulation or musical chairs of CEOs across corporations. The corporations and the system they are increasingly coming to form (like the capitalism of their foundation) continually expand and transform through their logics of competition. There is a tendency, I suggest, to the formation of socioeconomic orders parallel to those of nation-states, expressive of the crisis of their contradictions and the hardening social cleavages.
Schismatic tendencies are indicated—an in-society of the corporate and an out-society of those at the fringe. The populations of the latter are placed virtually outside the society corporate and left to fend or forage for themselves. This often seems to be the meaning of privatization, austerity. It is among the outs that the Uber economies are developing that express a corporate business ethos—the new false consciousness of ideological inclusion masking and facilitating the forces of the social cleavage that is occurring. In this regard, such populist TV shows as The Apprentice and Dragon’s Den, with their message of ruthless social and moral indifference, achieve great ideological significance. The in-society of increasingly corporate domination is the truly disciplined society made famous by Foucault. Once a dimension of the world of the industrialized realities antecedent to contemporary corporate orders (I am thinking of company towns, the social orders of the Levittowners in the United States, postwar New Towns and Garden Cities in Britain, like Letchworth), the disciplinary process of the corporation is directed to the disciplining of the middle and professional classes rather than the working classes (for whom the Uber economies and a business ethos are becoming relevant as they are being made redundant in the wake of corporate collapse and takeover). The celebritization of intellectuals is an aspect of the expansion and disciplinary control of the societal corporatizing process as Sheldon Wolin has excellently described in Democracy Incorporated. The corporations overall may be understood as machines of bourgeois domestication and for the production of more members of the bourgeoisie (at least in style of life and attitude) reinventing society in the image of the ideals of corporate order—the current transformations occurring in the universities, their corporatization, is an example worth considering.
The old bourgeoisie is scrapping over the fast diminishing potency of the machineries of the nation state. But new fractions of the bourgeoisie have arisen, those dominant within them capturing control over the executive functions of the nation state but without any need to participate in electoral processes. The Brexit campaigners played to such a consciousness in highlighting EU bureaucratic rule, and it is a strong aspect of the anti-Establishment resentment that often confuses or mixes the new Establishment with the old. The anger expressed at London and Westminster, it might be suggested, is not so much a continuing fury at the “Great Wen,” in Cobbett’s sense, but a recognition that London is a center of the kind of corporate power, antidemocratic managerial force, that has supplanted the political orders of an older traditionalist bourgeoisie. The corporate is antipolitics and/or uses the political to subvert its processes—engaging democratic practice often in an effort to subvert it (what Wolin refers to as inverted totalitarianism).
Unlike in the context of Marx’s analysis of the bourgeois crisis surrounding Louis Napoleon, the new corporate bourgeoisie can operate outside the executive structures of the state (or infuse themselves into it via privatization policies) and without forming class alliances. Rather they target individuals and sectional interests, buying their acquiescence or commitment, tying them to contract by legal means or thuggish threat, with the effect of dividing class action and fracturing communities. The way was cleared by Thatcher and compounded by Blair and his minions in their attacks on the power of the unions. Corbyn’s Labour is attempting to overcome this legacy but may be hopelessly and stagnantly gripped in a party order that has itself been corporatized.
The farce of the Brexit/Remain event is also its tragedy. The whole opposition is a false one—a blowup of a factional fight within one political party whose effect is the paralyzing of those who might best contest it, leading to the social and political field being held by forces that will probably intensify much of the distress to which Brexit/Remain gave rise. Some of the tragedy of the farce is undoubtedly the racism excited by the jingoism of an imperialist rhetoric of yore, bent further as a false consciousness misdirecting class anxieties of the present. The Brexit leaders certainly put such a false consciousness (“Make Britain Great Again,” immigrants as scapegoats of class anguish) if ever there is one, to great use. The racism is an ever-present rhetorical resource of prejudice (harbored in different ways across the classes) spawned by an imperial history that is at an end, and, if not, likely hastened by Brexit itself. But the full tragedy of the event (I leave aside the real likelihood that Brexit may not happen, at least as many might imagine, see Douglas Holmes’s FocaalBlog contribution) has shades of what Marx discussed in The Eighteenth Brumaire—the takeover by antidemocratic forces in the shape of the corporate and its bourgeoisie (composed of new and old elements), the new puppet masters of political institutions of the nation-state emptied of any democratic potency and even more alienated from the populace they are intended to serve.
Brexit and Remain in this view are different sides of the same coin, very possibly contributing to a new age of reaction that is being manifested in various ways across the globe.
Bruce Kapferer is Emeritus Professor in Social Anthropology, University of Bergen, and Honorary Professor, Anthropology, University College London. He is currently Director of the ERC Advanced Project on Egalitarianism.
Cite as: Kapferer, Bruce. 2016. “Brexit and Remain: A pox on all their houses.” FocaalBlog, 19 August. www.focaalblog.com/2016/08/19/bruce-kapferer-brexit-and-remain-a-pox-on-all-their-houses.