Brexit, Exit and The Unthinkable

In 2010, Eugene Thacker of New York’s The New School, published the first instalment of his Horror of Philosophy series entitled In The Dust Of This Planet. By using the theme of horror as a starting point, Thacker intended to examine and explore the idea of a world becoming increasingly unthinkable, one regularly confronted with emerging pandemics, planetary disasters and looming above everything the eschaton. Whilst it would be somewhat hyperbolic to place Brexit within this category, I believe there might be something to be gained by examining how these themes might still have some relevance to the current conversation. 

In polls taken almost immediately after the vote, Lord Ashcroft released a report which detailed the priorities of those who had voted to leave the European Union. 

Leave vs Remain podium rankings

Common to both Conservative Leave voters and Labour Leave voters was the desire for decisions that were about the UK to be taken in the UK and indeed one of the common themes of the Leave campaign was the idea of Taking Back Control a phrase which became the clarion cry of the Leave Campaign. Indeed in 1975 much of the resistance from both the left and right was on a similar basis, who can forget Peter Shores impassioned speech to vote against Britains membership of the common market for fear of imperilling the democracy of the United Kingdom. Meanwhile on side of those voting to stay in the common market for the promise of riches to come, trade deals to enliven a United Kingdom that had undergone almost a decade of economic decline.

There is much to be said about either argument however inherent within Shores point, is something considerably more crucial the concept of self-determination. I’ve written elsewhere about the issues with assumptions held within this, can democracy as originally conceived, be truly represented by parliamentary structures, and by plebiscite alone yet this concept held firm in 1975 against what was then deemed to be the undemocratic construct of the EEC. In 2016 however, the picture had changed the bureaucratic structures of the EU whilst hugely expanded, had at least temporarily lead to a period of economic revival, but not without cost. Many heard of the IMF enforced austerity of Greece, the often unassailable barrier of fortress Europe, the shadowy informal meetings of the heads of finance of each euro adopting member state known as the Eurogroup, the thousands of lobbyists often responsible for influencing legislation generated by the EU Commission.

The increasing complexity of this state of affairs often made it difficult to locate the real source of power within the EU, whilst the Greek minister Yanis Varafakis and his former colleague Costas Lapavitsas reached fairly different conclusions one constant remained clear. Despite the ostensibly social democratic appearance the EU appeared to serve one true master, Capital. This seems damning at first, but it shouldn’t be neoliberalism as an excellent article by Stephen Metcalf points out, has in a short time become the dominant ideology encompassing most of the globe. It’s ideas, are uncritically championed by many on both right and left and despite the fact that the current wave of populism continues to reject many of its presuppositions, it continues to be so. Neoliberalism, as the article points out constrains the range of our thought and our broader politics, to the vagaries of the market.

In Thacker’s setting out of terminology that appears frequently throughout In The Dust Of This Planet, he defines three core terms. World, as in the world-for-us, the world that human beings interpret and give meaning to, the world that we either identify with or feel alienated from. Earth, the world-in-itself the world as an object, perceived through the fields of geography, climate science, meterology and so on and finally Planet, the world-without-us. Within the description of World is the implication of human perspective but also at its limits the boundaries of the human, the not human or the inhuman the idea that there can be a world that is not for-us. This can be understood simply as that which cannot be controlled or predicted and generally, this is used to describe various meteorological phenomena, seismic events, volcanic eruptions however I believe could be of interest is applying this perspective to the economy, to markets and to capital. 

This might at first seem somewhat counterintuitive, these ideas, after all, are still a part of the world for us, they are fundamentally rooted in human perspective and human error but following Thacker’s example given the non-human composition of humans, in bacteria, fungi, viruses and other single-celled organism is it possible that thought itself is not human? In attempting to conceptualize the world in itself perhaps we could do worse than looking within not only ourselves but the structures of our world. 

In May of 2018 Scott Sumner a writer for The Library of Economic and Liberty wrote an article delving into the problems faced by two of Italy’s populist parties entitled ‘The Markets Are Inhuman (And that’s probably a good thing)’. In the short article he argues against the parties’ descriptions of blackmail by outlining why the stock sell-off precipitated by the call for pre-maastrict treaty policy setting was not “blackmail” but a ‘rational’ market calculation. There are several reasons why Sumner could believe this, not least because economic liberalism requires to some extent a belief in the incorruptibility of markets, but what’s perhaps more key is the perception of the market as something inhuman, abstract from human thought, this is despite the fact that markets themselves are generally served by human participants yet the resultant effects are thought of as being inhuman. In their complaint, the Italian parties take a different approach ascribing a typically human motive to these sell-offs, blackmail, coercion to the negative externalities of the market. 

The same principle appears again in an article in the Irish Times by Breda O’Brien. In reflecting on the 2011 Irish budget O’Brien evokes the Canaanite god, Moloch, the god of human sacrifice. She describes the markets as Moloch’s behaviour made manifest capricious and unpredictable and describes the government’s response as acquiescence to its demands. In Thacker’s description of demonology, demons here described are as a placeholder for non-human, baleful agency. A force acting against the world-for-us a negation of the human.

Withdrawal from this decoupling, destabilizing tendency is, in a way at the heart of Camatte’s work. Faced with the prospect of the revolutionary role of the working class being taken by over capitalism, in his now seminal essay ‘Decline of the Capitalist Mode of Production or Decline of Humanity’ advocates a radical solution the rejection of the class categorizations that occur within capital and a form of struggle not between socioeconomic categories defined by Marx but between humanity and capitalism itself, to ‘leave this world’ and live closer to nature. Whilst such radical sentiment has not appeared within the dialogue around Brexit, there was the fleeting idea of an exit, the Vote Leave campaign spoke of ‘Taking Back Control’, of borders and of laws of existing markets and unions. Only the reality has been a sharp realization of how intertwined the UK is within the fabric of global trade with hundreds of bilateral agreements, free trade deals facilitated by their membership of the European Union and how integrated are its supply chains. The complexity and abstraction of these relationships has lead, in many ways, to one of the only conceivable solutions being their outright rejection.

The scale of what this could mean varies, however in 2017 an article on the Leave HQ site discussed the WTO option, where the UK would leave the EU and trade under WTO rules. A potential scenario is laid out whereby the addition of customs checks the imposition of non-tariff barriers and the disruption of just in time supply chains leads to between 7 or 8 million job losses. By contrast, the 2008 recession led to the wiping out of around 1.3 million jobs being lost. The government’s reports paint a similarly distracting picture with a no-deal forecasting a contraction of around 9.3% of the economy. By contrast in 2008-2009, the economy shrank by around 4.1%. These potential changes to the UK economy seem out of sorts and given the lack of information about future changes to the UKs economy cannot be fully indicative of the future. Similarly, the current administration’s lack of concrete solutions leaves open the horizon of possibility for the unthinkable, the true horror not in action or reaction but in inaction and an evergrowing sense of entering the unknown.


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