Jake Belsten, University of Warwick
The documentary maker Adam Curtis, argued succinctly in a short film for VICE Media in 2016, ‘[The vote to Leave] showed that all the people who are supposed to tell us about the world – the journalists, the politicians, the think tank experts – know nothing.’ In this film, and in his larger film HyperNormalisation (also released in 2016), he argues that the world of neoliberalism that has constructed the last forty years, is fake. In theory, neoliberalism is characterised by a support for minimal state regulation of the financial sector, extreme individualism, and a society based on merit, not birth. Curtis, like other critics of neoliberalism, perceives it instead as a faceless system comparable to that of the Soviet Union; one governed by impersonal global markets and technological forces that are arguably ‘bigger’ and more powerful than human actors. The vote to Leave the European Union delivered an unexpected blow to this seemingly indestructible system, one that exposed the political and media elites to the fact that they are not all-powerful, but instead labouring under an illusion of control.
However, this problem is not exclusive to the liberal internationalist, Remain-supporting side of the debate; it is rooted in the very language upon which the debate is built. This dilemma may be acknowledged more confidently by taking a closer look at two interlinked but crucial terms: sovereignty and power. Sovereignty is the most important word in this debate. It implies control: over your own affairs, and often over others’ affairs. In a modern democratic society, it also implies rightful or justified control, usually based on consent. Such right to control is centralised in an institution which has absolute power over a designated territory (which can encompass one or several nations). Beyond that, sovereignty is a catch-all term. In the post-war West, sovereignty has been ceded and claimed by a variety of governmental layers in a number of territories. In 1975, the UK ceded a measure of sovereignty to the then-European Community. In the last forty years, Brits have instead decided that this institution – now the EU – has been given too much sovereignty, and we have since claimed it back. At a lower governmental and territorial level, the national communities of Scotland in the UK and Catalonia in Spain have also been given carefully regulated sovereignty in recent decades, and have since decided they would like an opportunity to acquire absolute sovereignty – one of these attempts was unsuccessful, the other has yet to be resolved. Claims about sovereignty underpin much current political debate. Yet, a misunderstanding of the term sovereignty means it is much harder to achieve than first thought. The key to understanding this problem lies in the second term of the debate.
Power may be understood as the ability to wield sovereignty; to convert absolute and rightful authority into action. The issues discussed above are inevitable effects of the layers of power that have been built up since 1945 – on international, national and regional levels. This stretching of power has made the term more fluid and ambiguous. The European Union claims to have power, as do the 28 member states and their regional communities (albeit to varying degrees). Sovereignty and the power that comes with it is the most sought-after political commodity in Europe, whether it be the EU with its population of over 700 million, or Catalonia with just 7 million.
The contestable nature of these terms is the key to Adam Curtis’ belief – that sovereign power is not held by states at all; neither is it constrained by territory. Whilst different regional governments squabble over where borders should be drawn, the real international game is being set by the markets of neoliberalism. It is bankers and speculators who cause events; politicians are mere sideshow acts that coordinate damage control. Under this interpretation, politicians such as the Brexiteers and Marine Le Pen are barking up the wrong tree; to achieve real sovereignty, they should be pursuing the hegemony of the markets. Here is where the contradiction in terms becomes apparent. Politicians such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are not anti-market by any stretch of the imagination. Donald Trump – another politician who claims to want to break away from the international system – built his whole career on neoliberal ideology. These politicians are pursuing sovereignty in name only. They are doing this because sovereignty is an emotive word. It has an immediate effect in conjuring up images of attachment to a plot of land – a plot of land that belongs to you. That personal aspect is crucial, because the popularity of these movements is based upon an appeal to an individual desire for control and order in a world that, from the ground, appears increasingly out of control and disorderly. The slogans that they have produced - ‘Take Back Control’, ‘Make America Great Again’ – have that paradoxical but campaign-winning value (like sovereignty itself) of meaning both everything and nothing at the same time. An individual sees their own desires reflected in it, and votes for it.
This means that the type of control pursued by the Brexiteers is just as illusory as the control that the elites of the present international system claim to possess. At the referendum, we were therefore choosing between two fictionalised accounts of the world: one that said the present system was sufficient because, whilst ceding some political sovereignty to the EU, the elites still had absolute sovereignty over the markets; and the other recognised the problems of this system and instead offered an alternative which, while based on romanticised, over-personalised rhetoric, would still be working within that same uncontrollable system.
Brexit (as well as the ambitions of Donald Trump and his European counterparts) will therefore always be a failure in the eyes of many of it’s most vocal advocates, because it is based upon a principle that is a relic of a pre-neoliberal world. We cannot take back control when ‘control’ is itself a mirage in the desert. Until this is recognised, any attempt at insular change – Brexit-related or otherwise – will be chasing after something that no longer exists.