Think about the Leave voters and what unites them. Are they people genuinely united by a common passion? A new-found desire for blue passports? A patriotism for a golden UK that never existed? Or are they more of an amorphous mass?
First published in December 2017 | Updated in February 2020.
Brexit voters are a diverse, not clearly connected mass without a common cause. They include left-wing Eurosceptics who do not like what they perceived as the neoliberal agenda of the EU. Wealthy southeast English older voters who do not like the increasing cosmopolitanism of the UK, and who are (mistakenly) worried about immigrants straining the NHS and public services. Impoverished inhabitants of left-behind towns and villages who think EU citizens are stealing their jobs and the EU receives too much money.
Trying to reduce the Leave vote to any of these categories (wealthy boomers, the left behind, etc.) is an oversimplification and invariably fails, because Leave voters do not have a unified profile.
Even now, the Leave voters have no common project — they want to leave the EU but they have no destination. They are not a grassroots group but what the philosopher Hannah Arendt termed a “mass”. She distinguished between different groups of people: classes, mobs, and masses (see this link for a good overview). In Arendt's terminology, masses are easily swayed and have no clear common identity.
As she writes in her Origins of totalitarianism (1951),
“The term masses applies only when we deal with people who either because of their sheer numbers, or indifference, or a combination of both, cannot be integrated into any organization based on common interest.”
In her book, Arendt sought to explain how otherwise sensible people could come in the thralls of totalitarian regimes. She focused on nazism and stalinism. The UK now is (thankfully!) not in the grips of a totalitarian regime. There is still freedom of speech, for example. Nevertheless, her analysis can help shed light on what is happening and help us to identify early warning signs.
According to Arendt, masses are moved by superficial and empty rhetoric, they are not truly mobilized, as genuine grassroots movements are. Instead, they are being played. As Paul Mason wrote in a prophetic article before the Referendum,
“I also know what a real revolt looks like. The miners strike; the Arab spring… So, to people getting ready for the mother of all revolts on Thursday, I want to point out the crucial difference between a real revolt and a fake one. The elite does not usually lead the real ones. In a real revolt, the rich and powerful usually head for the hills, terrified. Nor are the Sun and the Daily Mail usually to be found egging on a real insurrection.”
The Leave voters were vulnerable to the propaganda, the lies on the bus, the anti-immigrant rhetoric, because they were apathetic. How can this happen? According to Arendt, if the structures that hold people together in society collapse, the inhabitants are turned into a mass of isolated individuals, a bit like a house that collapses and leaves people isolated in the separate apartments, to use Arendt’s metaphor.
Vote Leave NHS promotional video. -- Note the subtle reference to pressures through immigration (the full waiting room).
Isolated, apathetic individuals become loyal to the “will of the people” (Brexit) regardless of what it brings or doesn’t bring, regardless of what it looks like. This explains also why those who voted for Brexit don’t change their minds, even though its advantages — better funding for the NHS, for example — won’t materialise. Not because they all of a sudden have a deep desire for blue passports, but because they are apathetic and in the thralls of an effective propaganda machine*.
Arendt argues that totalitarian regimes succeed because isolated, atomized individuals get a “sense of having a place in the world”. Brexit gives a false, short-lived sense of identity, hence all the cheering about blue passports. The blue passports are tangible, and it does not matter ultimately where it was possible for the UK to have them while in the EU, or that they will raise rather than lower barriers for travel (already now in the EU, UK passports are less desirable than a range of other EU passports. In the future, this will further worsen due to a reduced ability to travel visa-free and to study, work, and retire in other countries).
Totalitarian regimes create “fictitious worlds”, a web of lies and bullshit in which no one believes, but which guide our behaviour. This can explain why the vote to uphold Parliamentary democracy (Amendment 7) by 11 Conservative MPs was seen as an extraordinary act of bravery rather than the cautious safeguarding of democracy. The fictitious world of Brexit does not tolerate deviation, and will brand anyone who dares to challenge it a traitor, or an enemy of the people. This is not normal public discourse. But it arises when the masses are mobilised to buy into the fictitious worlds created by the regimes. Judges who decide that Art 50 needs parliamentary approval, or MPs who vote for sensible amendments to the withdrawal bill are a threat to such worlds because they break the web of illusions.
The Daily Mail headline, “Enemies of the People”
How do we counter the indifference of the masses? The first thing to do is not to let Brexit isolate and divide us further. Seek out to speak to your Leave voting friends and family. To fix Brexit, to fix the UK’s potential vulnerability to other extreme ideologies, we need to fix British fractured society. This is the only long-term fix.
This is surely a tall order, but we can start small by reaching out locally and in communities we can reach. Try to repair the decline of civic participation and community. Organize in local communities. Follow back #FBPE twitter feeds. Educators “should encourage dialogue and thoughtfulness from our students, especially in the age of Twitter politics” writes Dana Mills.
Because while there is apathy, there is thankfully still resistance.🔷
*In Arendt’s theory there is a further element which is lacking in Brexit, which would help make the turn towards totalitarianism complete, namely charismatic leaders. We should probably be grateful that Theresa May is such an uncharismatic personality, and that Boris Johnson, Gove and co. are not much better.