In the Face of Defeat

by Richard Seymour

February 2018. A British warship sails through the South China Sea. Ominous. Scary. A ‘Brextremist’ plot?

Yes, says A C Grayling, a higher education entrepreneur who might have stepped from the pages of some J K Rowling fanfic. “A sunk frigate would eclipse EU talks nicely.”

As always in the shadow-world of conspiracies, one never knows who is really pulling the strings, but fingers point at Russia. Liberal broadcaster James O’Brien insists “it was always about Putin” “destabilising the West”.

Ben Bradshaw MP exhorts the government to “come clean about extent of [the] Kremlin’s reach into [the] heart of government”, having previously shared Louise Mensch’s explosive disclosures that “sources” with “links to UK intelligence” said Russian interference caused Brexit.

Journalists like the Observer’s Carole Cadwalladr seek to prove that “Brexit and Trump are entwined. The Trump administration’s links to Russia and Britain are entwined.” Alastair Campbell, piggybacking on these allegations, exhaled wholly un-ironic fury against those “destroying a country on false pretences”.

Time, surely, for some game theory. This British version of #theresistance is conspiracy theory for people formed by Nineties liberalism: Infowars for The West Wing generation.

Ostensibly due to this (hitherto underwhelming) evidence of Kremlin intervention, Hard Remain centrists now call for a People’s Vote on Brexit. One might well ask: wasn’t that the referendum? The referendum they insisted was only ‘advisory’? The referendum whose result prompted them to contrast ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ with mob rule? Wasn’t this what Barry Sheerman MP had in mind when he pointed out that Remain voters are “the better educated people in our country”? Why cede ground to the mob?

Hence the conspiracy theories about Kremlin subversion. It’s a form of ideological displacement, dreamwork, which preserves a sense of democratic decency. You don’t have to berate the thick mob if you can blame it all on nefarious foreigners.

The problem is, the argument that people were misled by Russian sock-puppets and Facebook campaigns, is not neatly separable from the argument that they’re stupid. Or at least naively suggestible in a way that their educated counterparts are not. There is, to give it its due, a kernel of truth to this. Brexit was overtly, if not exclusively, driven by racism, which is as dumb as it gets. That is an unacceptable argument, however, not because it further enrages people who should be patronised and placated, but because it externalises stupidity.

As the Dawkins and Graylings of the world repeatedly teach us, no amount of education insulates one from the human propensity toward self-deceit, self-sabotage, and self-satisfaction: idiocy, in other words. We are all afflicted. And we all find a curious satisfaction, which Lacan called jouissance, in our stupidities. If anything, education can make a certain form of stupidity stubbornly tenacious.

Which brings us back to the Hard Remain cause. There is, besides the anti-Russian counter-subversion campaign, an attempt to stimulate the appearance of a ‘youth movement’ against Brexit. Leading the charge here is a group called Our Future, Our Choice (OFOC).

Its main argument, spelled out by Femi Oluwole, is not that Brexiters are stupid, but that Brexit was forced on Britain by coffin-dodgers, so it should be reversed. He routinely claims to be #askingforageneration. This sociopathic leveraging of generational spite is hardly the best argument for opposing Brexit. But it is what one would expect from a shell company founded by a wealthy PR man and funded by Tory Remain groups. In a recent ‘fact-check’ style video, Oluwole takes to ‘splaining Brussels to Brexit voters, which he says is highly democratic. Oluwole inaccurately claims that the European Parliament is the EU’s executive decision-making body. No unelected bureaucracy to see here.

Also in this milieu is EU Supergirl of the Young European Movement, who really does dress up as Supergirl while strumming a guitar and singing ‘Imagine’. She claims, in so doing, to “represent the youth of Britain”. And she does, in the same way that Fathers4Justice represent the men of Britain – as twats – by dressing up in superhero outfits. EU Supergirl was recently verklempt over being awarded Young European of the Year, an award given to one of a vanishingly tiny pool of young, passionate federalists each year. Which niche fanaticism is supposed, apparently, to strike millions of young idealists in their soul, rousing them to the defence of the Stability and Growth Pact.

Arguably working the same ersatz ‘grassroots’ terrain is the party formed by Economist correspondent, Jeremy Cliffe – The Radicals. Yet another Twitter account calling itself a “movement”, Cliffe claimed it would not only to stop Brexit, but also deepen integration, create an EU army, and put Ken Clarke in charge of the EU Commission. It remains to be seen how such extravagant claims, sincerely made, relate to any real-world set of political forces.

To be fairer to all this than it deserves, at least some of it makes sense as media strategy. Certainly, Oluwole and his allies have appeared in print and on broadcast media. But it is very similar to the pre-referendum Remain campaign, in that it says very little and says it boringly. It is a compilation of slogans and gimmicks. It is chronically averse to treating people as anything but naively suggestible saps to be manipulated by clever ‘messaging’. And while it strives to emulate the visual style of the social movement, it is more visible in the retweets than on the streets.

Why, then, does Hard Remain swerve between xenophobic, Cold-War style paranoia, and such awful, patronising kitsch? Why repeat the same failed ideas, notably in its bland, business-led, centre-hugging, Project Fear-mongering, status quo-affirming message? Why systematically avoid acknowledging the aspects of the EU that might legitimately have alienated people, instead simulating unconvincing fanaticism? Why is it so incurious about the history of anti-EU struggles across the continent, led, not by the racist Right, but by trade unions and the radical left? Why has it nothing to say about the punishment beating inflicted on Greece? Why so unimaginative about its opponents, so lacking in self-awareness, so oblivious of its own, well, repugnance? Why, in other words, is it so stupid and yet so seemingly convinced of its higher intelligence?

This strange jouissance-laden stupidity, I suggest, is linked to a failure to properly register loss. It was understandable for those who were emotionally attached to the European Union or just felt threatened by the forces behind Brexit, to go into denial about the result immediately after. In such circumstances, people say all sorts of crazy things. Ignore the result. Independence for London so it can rejoin the EU. It was not uncommon for people to berate the malice of the elderly, or circulate stories of ‘Bregrets’ to demonstrate how utterly foolish and ill-informed Leave voters were.

At some point, though, one has to get a grip. As a long-marginal leftist, I can help these centrists work through defeat. To fully assimilate defeat is to become more curious, not less, about one’s adversaries. To become more interested, not less, in one’s weaknesses and blindspots. To acquire humility, not become self-righteous and paranoid. Failing that, the Hard Remain sell is not just politically but emotionally detached, spiralling off into its own subcultural niche.


Richard Seymour is a political activist who blogs at Lenin’s tomb. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (Verso Books).

Photography by Tom Medwell