Brexit, Trump and the Dangerous Condescension of Liberal Elites

This extract from Thoughts on the Sociology of Brexit by Will Davies over at the PERCblog provides an alternative take on Brexit and the role of ridicule and condescension that is so often overtly heaped on the culturally and economically marginalized in England:

By the same token, it seems unlikely that those in these regions (or Cornwall or other economically peripheral spaces) would feel ‘grateful’ to the EU for subsidies. Knowing that your business, farm, family or region is dependent on the beneficence of wealthy liberals is unlikely to be a recipe for satisfaction (see James Meek’s recent essay in the London Review of Books on Europhobic farmers who receive vast subsidies from the EU). More bizarrely, it has since emerged that regions with the closest economic ties to the EU in general (and not just of the subsidised variety) were most likely to vote Leave.

While it may be one thing for an investment banker to understand that they ‘benefit from the EU’ in regulatory terms, it is quite another to encourage poor and culturally marginalised people to feel grateful towards the elites that sustain them through handouts, month by month. Resentment develops not in spite of this generosity, but arguably because of it. This isn’t to discredit what the EU does in terms of redistribution, but pointing to handouts is a psychologically and politically naïve basis on which to justify remaining in the EU.

In this context, the slogan ‘take back control’ was a piece of political genius. It worked on every level between the macroeconomic and the psychoanalytic. Think of what it means on an individual level to rediscover control. To be a person without control (for instance to suffer incontinence or a facial tick) is to be the butt of cruel jokes, to be potentially embarrassed in public. It potentially reduces one’s independence. What was so clever about the language of the Leave campaign was that it spoke directly to this feeling of inadequacy and embarrassment, then promised to eradicate it. The promise had nothing to do with economics or policy, but everything to do with the psychological allure of autonomy and self-respect. Farrage’s political strategy was to take seriously communities who’d otherwise been taken for granted for much of the past 50 years.

This doesn’t necessarily have to translate into nationalistic pride or racism (although might well do), but does at the very least mean no longer being laughed at. Those that have ever laughed at ‘chavs’ (such as the millionaire stars of Little Britain) have something to answer for right now, as Rhian E. Jones’Clampdown argued. The willingness of Nigel Farrage to weather the scornful laughter of metropolitan liberals (for instance through his periodic appearances on Have I Got News For You) could equally have made him look brave in the eyes of many potential Leave voters. I can’t help feeling that every smug, liberal, snobbish barb that Ian Hislop threw his way on that increasingly hateful programme was ensuring that revenge would be all the greater, once it arrived. The giggling, from which Boris Johnson also benefited handsomely, needs to stop.

As this version of Brexit indicates it’s not just people’s pockets that can play a part in decision-making (a view that massively oversimplifies human and social complexity) but an array of emotions informing a sense of dignity and related socially-situated perspectives. A similar vibe is apparent among Trump supporters as detected by the work of Arlie Hochschild and in this fascinating piece by a former member of a rural community where Trump support is strong. Inequality and exclusion it would seem are no longer things the liberal cultural elite can afford to ignore, or worse, ridicule.