By Bertie Russell of Plan C Manchester


Writing in the Telegraph at the beginning of April, the now-former Prime Minister framed Brexit as a ‘needless and reckless… act of economic and political self-harm’[i]. The same conclusion was drawn by a Financial Times editorial in the days prior to the referendum; with Brexit amounting to a ‘gratuitous act of self-harm, business leaders [had] a duty to speak up’[ii]. Outside of the UK, Jean-Claude Juncker joined the chorus in pleading for ‘common sense’ to prevail, noting that ‘to leave would be an act of self harm’[iii]. Taking the graphic representation one step further, the Der Spiegel journalist Christoph Schuermann declared that ‘Brexit was no less than an act of deliberate self-mutilation’[iv].

What these perspectives held in common was that the British population was in the process of exposing itself to the risk of severe economic damage. Indeed, in the aftermath, commentators were quick to point towards the apparent paradox of how towns such as Ebbw Vale, one of the foremost recipients of EU funding, could also overwhelmingly vote to leave the EU. Perhaps more ignominious was the sneering directed towards the leader of Cornwall Council who, following the county’s leave vote, looked for guarantees that the investment provided by the EU would be ring-fenced in the next government’s budget[v].

Given the abundant rhetoric of self-harm in the lead-up and analysis of the referendum, it was – perhaps surprisingly – David Cameron that asked the question that most needed to be answered: ‘why on earth would we do this to ourselves?’[vi]. From the perspective of a calculated economic act (which is what pure neoliberal ideologists think is the fundamental character of human thought), to vote Leave in the EU Referendum appears to be an irrational impulse. How and why would people that stand to (potentially) lose so much, expose themselves to such risks? It was after all some of the poorest areas of the UK, many of which also receive the highest amount of EU funding (namely Cornwall, Wales and the North East), that commanded some of the highest Leave votes.

What Cameron missed – along with all the other commentators and politicians – was that the language of self-harm being mobilizing contained an insight into what may have underpinned much of the Leave vote. This referendum was only ever a proxy, a way for a disenfranchised and hopeless sector of society to experience a feeling of control after decades of declining living standards and no feasible method of affecting change. Indeed, the Leave campaign were (at least inadvertently) aware of this hidden subtext to the whole charade, having heavily branded the whole referendum as an opportunity to ‘take back control’.

If progressive leftists are going to develop political projects that are in any way relevant or effective, then we will need to start from understanding and tackling the very conditions that made the referendum possible. This means more than the posturing of political parties, and it means more than providing opportunities to express discontent at the status quo. An effective progressive left must aim for a complete overhaul of the democratic institutions of society, changing how we make decisions and who has a say in making them. It means developing projects that aren’t based on promises or grand-statements, but that are committed to actually taking control.

The binary of self-harm and control

There are dangers in taking an experience (of self-harm) that is usually used in the context of extremely visceral personal experiences, and to scale-it up and consider it as a broader social phenomenon. It is thus surprising that so many commentators and politicians mobilized the phenomenon of self-harm as a way of framing the entire referendum debate. As the managerial-political class delivered their set-piece arguments about economic risk and currency fluctuations, they forgot to consider the fundamental issue of why this collective act of self-harm was occurring.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists – the principle professional organisation for psychiatrists in the UK – summarizes that those who are more likely to harm themselves are those who feel:

  • that people don’t listen to them
  • hopeless
  • isolated, alone
  • out of control
  • powerless – it feels as though there’s nothing you can do to change anything[vii]

As the mental-health charity Mind outline[viii], one possible reason for people to self-harm in response to these feelings is to exert ‘a sense of being in control’. Faced with the visceral experience of hopelessness and an inability to exercise control over ones life, a dangerous or destructive act of self-harm becomes the only way for an individual to feel like they can exercise control and gain a sense of ‘presence’ in the world. However risky or destructive it may be, and however paradoxical or illogical it may appear to the observer, an act of self-harm is commonly a way to experience having agency.

It is important to note that self-harm can take many diverse forms, and that each case is specific to the individual and their broader environmental conditions – it’s important not to attempt to generalize and reduce diverse and extremely personal experiences. Indeed, many of the forms that self-harm can take, and that people often think of when they hear the phrase “self-harm”, do not serve as useful analogies. Acts of self-harm go beyond the more obvious, extending to include consciously ‘putting yourself in risky situations, or not looking after your own physical or emotional needs’[ix].

The collective-social act of self-harm embodied in the referendum is not ‘the same’ as other acts of self-harm – each case is its own, and to try and understand this phenomenon is not the same as understanding other, entirely different cases. Nonetheless, the diversity and specificity of each case does not preclude a commonality in the relationship between a sense of powerless and an act of self-harm.

It’s about Control, stupid

Perhaps the answer to the question of “why on earth would we do this to ourselves?” was buried within the very concept of self-harm that was so often mobilized by the managerial-political class. One reason people commit an act of self-harm is to obtain a sense of feeling control – it’s a deeply emotional response to feelings of hopeless, isolation, that you’re not listened to, and that there’s nothing you can do to change anything.

This is much more than a crude analogy being used to make a political point. It’s to say that for many people, the referendum may have been played out at a deeply emotional level. It’s to say that what may have driven a large number of those that voted Leave was not some calculated cost-benefit decision, but a far more fundamental desire – an opportunity to feel in control. As Jerome Roos has argued:

‘Many of [those who voted leave] are ordinary working class folks who are simply fed up with the erosion of their living standards, the disintegration of their communities, and the lack of responsiveness of their political representatives and the unaccountable technocracy that has “taken control” over their lives. Brexit was first and foremost a political statement by the dispossessed and disempowered.’[x]

Yet whereas a properly political strategy would look to address and alleviate the underlying powerlessness and alienation, the ‘statement’ of the Leave vote offered no real control whatsoever. To the contrary, the Leave vote was a symbolic act that, in the process of providing an opportunity to feel in control, triggered a highly predictable and damaging economic shockwave that would affect most those that were also most likely to vote Leave.

What the Leave vote fundamentally offered – and perhaps the one promise that it didn’t break – was a way for the most disempowered and disenfranchised to experience the ephemeral feeling of being in control. The fact that the campaign was a hatchet job of lies and mistruths, or that the Leave campaign didn’t offer any real control, matters very little in understanding the outcome of the referendum. Indeed, polls suggest the vast majority of Leave voters, despite now being aware of all the lies and ‘mistruths’, wouldn’t change their vote[xi]. The underpinning rationale of the Leave vote cannot be reduced down to misguided economic analysis or a sudden wave of racist sentiment, and any progressive left strategy must begin from a nuanced understanding of what made this referendum possible in the first place.

A country divided?

The outcome of the referendum has resulted in the commonplace assertion that we now live in a ‘divided country’. Analysis conducted by the Centre for Cities found strong voting trends related to both levels of education, and the share of jobs in skilled manual occupations. Their research also found that ‘those cities that had a higher share of jobs in mining and manufacturing in 1981– those jobs most affected by the structural changes to the national economy since the 1970s – tended to have a higher share of votes for leave’[xii]. It’s beyond question that there are demographic trends in how people voted, and that these correlate with cultural understandings of ‘lower’ and ‘middle’ class.

Yet what all this analysis assumes is that the EU Referendum result is evidence of a ‘country divided’, and that buried somewhere amongst all this data are the ‘key variables’ that explain what it is that fundamentally divides us. In other words, such analysis takes the outcome of the referendum at face value, accepting that there are irreconcilable differences between those who voted Remain and those who voted Leave. This is a dangerous if not implausible assumption to make, given the evidence is a simplistic binary choice in a referendum that could only have resulted in an apparently divisive outcome.

There will have of course been those who voted Remain because they (erroneously) believed the EU was a shining light of progressive economics, just as there will have been those who (erroneously) believed that a nationalist turn would somehow lead to an increase in living standards. Yet what the demographic-based analyses broadly overlook is that, for a significant proportion of those who voted, the EU referendum will only ever have been a crude proxy – a prefabricated method of expressing much deeper feelings of powerlessness, discontent and alienation that had very little to do with Brussels.

In the excellent short video entitled Why we voted leave: voices from Northern England[xiii], we follow social worker Sheena Moore around the former mining village of Stainforth, near Doncaster. Pictured against a bleak landscape of a former industrial site, and later in her home, she puts clearly the central theme that underpinned the Leave vote:

“Why did they vote ‘out’? Because that’s all that’s left in this area, there’s nothing left. We can’t see hope, we can’t see aspirations, we can’t see a way out of poverty… it can’t get any worse for us.”

What the demographic analyses would correctly pick-up on is that those who are often referred to as the ‘left-behind’ – often citizens of post-industrial towns across the Midlands and the North – were most likely to vote Leave. Yet it’s not stupidity, racism or lack of information that explains why so many people voted Leave, but a combination of hopelessness and isolation coupled with a collapse in material living conditions.

Conversely, amongst my demographic peer group – an overly educated, relatively secure, under-40, privileged “middle class” – the tendency was to vote Remain. On the surface of it, this fits with the assertion that the country is deeply divided along (cultural) class lines, where the referendum acted as a barometer that revealed the depth of those divisions. Yet this is where the assumption that the referendum is an appropriate barometer of social and political division begins to come unstuck, for what couldn’t be written on the ballot paper was that one could be full of resentment towards the status quo, feel powerless to affect any meaningful change, and still vote Remain.

Whilst the cultural middle-class occupies a materially and culturally less austere position in society, they too have experienced a stagnation of wages, a shift towards increasingly precarious short-term contracts, increasingly high-rents, unobtainable house-prices, and so on. For all those under-40, they too have experienced Politics as nothing but a succession of business-managers presiding over an increasingly unequal society that puts economic growth for the few ahead of social and ecological wellbeing for all. They too feel powerless as they watch ‘their’ EU strangle Greek democracy, enforce austerity agendas on hundreds of millions of people, and leave humans to drown in the Mediterranean.

The condition of hopelessness is endemic in society – it truly defines our age. Yet there are degrees of hopelessness, and degrees of disenfranchisement. Whilst the cultural middle-class living in the leafy suburbs may feel powerless and out of control, they also know things can get much worse. For millions of people such as Sheena, living in a town that’s been left to rot because it doesn’t fit with the finance-driven growth strategy of a disdainful political-managerial elite, it feels like things can’t get any worse. After decades of exclusion and disenfranchisement, coupled with a collapse in material living conditions, people pursued the perfectly logical option. In Sheena’s words, “they’ve been given a vote, and they’ve put two fingers up at the establishment”.

Cometh the hour, cometh the Labour party?

The Leave campaign may well have kept its promise of providing an ephemeral feeling of control to some of the population, yet (self-evidently) neither side of this referendum have any intention of ‘giving control’ to anyone. Instead, we have the mass abdication of the figureheads of the whole charade – the departures of Cameron, Boris, Farage and Osborne – the slashing of corporation tax to 15%, and a new PM in Theresa May that has threatened to deport EU citizens[xiv], an act which could feasibly be considered a ‘crime against humanity’ according to the Charter of the Nuremberg Trials[xv].

So what do we do in the face of this continued lurch to the right by the political elite? In an excellent piece of analysis written immediately after the referendum, Kenan Malik suggests that the ‘main political faultline today is… between those who feel at home in – or at least are willing to accommodate themselves to – the new globalised, technocratic world, and those who feel left out and disempowered’[xvi]. Whilst this is a solid analysis of the referendum result, what it overlooks is that those who are ‘willing to accommodate’ are also, in many cases, those who feel left out and disempowered.

The persistent theory that we live in a divided country is correct, but for the wrong reasons. What split the vote is much smaller than what holds the majority of us together. The division that concerns us is not between those who voted Leave and those who voted Remain, but between those who wish to maintain the status quo, and those who will no longer tolerate living in a society that is entirely out of control. This division could not find its expression in the referendum, yet from the perspective of building a political movement that transcends cultural (and material) class distinctions and that really focuses on taking control of our collective futures, it is this division that matters.

In the week following the referendum, more than one hundred-thousand people signed up to become members of the Labour party, meaning the party now has its largest membership since records began. Allegedly, 80% of those who have joined have done so to express support for the leader of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn[xvii]. Although lacking demographic data for the most recent surge, leaked documents in January found that the last influx (of around 180,000 in the six months after the 2015 general election) came largely from an affluent “middle-class”[xviii]. It’s likely that this trend will have continued in the most recent surge.

A reasonable hypothesis is that this comfortable-middle-class-leafy-suburb surge is not about Jeremy Corbyn or indeed the Labour party per se, but the desire for a ‘real political alternative’[xix]. Just as the Leave vote was a proxy for a disenfranchised, hopeless and powerless cultural working-class that feel ‘things can’t get any worse’, the Corbyn-surge is a proxy for a disenfranchised, hopeless and powerless cultural middle-class that believe things can get a whole lot worse. These are two sides of the same coin. The Leave vote and the Corbyn-surge are a response to an underlying systemic crisis, and thus also the fulcrum on which any effective progressive leftist project must ground itself.

In both cases, what is occurring is a symbolic act. Both voting Leave and joining the surge are an expression of discontent, a desire to ‘gain control’, and a search to find hope in the future. Yet an expression is very different to a method or strategy that will address the underlying crisis that makes these expressions necessary in the first place. Both point towards a fact that will become increasingly evident – the status quo can no longer hold – yet neither offer a coherent method for responding to the underlying powerlessness and lack of belief in a better future.

A method for taking back control

The challenge progressive leftists face is to find a strategy, and a way of organizing, that goes much further than simply providing a way for a predominantly middle-class section of society to express their hopelessness. This needs to be a strategy that provides real control to all – not just a feeling, but structures, institutions and processes in which people are listened to and can change things. This means nothing short of aiming for a complete overhaul of the democratic institutions of society, changing how we make decisions and who has a say in making them. It means producing a politics that deprioritizes elections – and parties – to an afterthought of the day-to-day business of being in control of our collective futures.

Rewind to Sunday 24th May, 2015. Ada Colau, an activist and founder of an anti-evictions organisation, had just been elected as (the first female) mayor of Spain’s second biggest city, Barcelona. One of her first acts in office was to try and reduce the mayoral wage from €140,000 to €28,600 – a move that was blocked by political opponents[xx]. Instead the wage was reduced to €100,000, and she agreed to give the remaining portion of her wage to charity. Colau is the reluctant figurehead of Barcelona en Comú (BComú), a ‘citizens municipal platform’ that was founded less than year before their success in the council elections. In a recent guide entitled How to Win Back the City[xxi], Bcomú lays clear their strategy:

‘For us, “winning back the city” is about much more than winning the local elections. It means putting a new, transparent and participatory model of local government, which is under citizen control, into practice. It also means implementing fair, redistributive and sustainable policies to respond to the economic and political crisis.’

As illustrated by the attempt to reduce the mayoral wage, the political reality is messy. As a governing minority, the citizens platform finds itself having to make compromises with opposition parties, which themselves are finding opportunities to block and overturn some of BComú’s initiatives. Nonetheless, BComú are managing to incrementally introduce methods that change who and how decisions are made.

Earlier this year, more than 22,600 citizens contributed to the production of the Municipal Action Programme. Through an online portal – DecidimBarcelona –supported by more than 430 events, individuals and organisations were able to contribute, debate and support proposals for their city. Some of the most widely supported proposals included a demand for action to reduce noise and pollution from vehicles. The response – a plan to re-zone the city around ‘superblocks’ to help reduce traffic, increase public transport access, and create quasi-pedestrianised mini-neighbourhoods[xxii]. Other widely supported proposals include the remunicipalisation of the water service, and the creation of a municipal energy company[xxiii].

Yet a radical municipal politics doesn’t mean taking the city-limit as its boundaries. Such a restricted political scale would fail to see that so-called ‘rural’ life is largely dictated by the rhythms of the city, and needs to be incorporated as part of the same political movement. Equally, a restricted focus on ‘the’ city would fail to see the large distinctions, and the relationships between, core urban agglomerations (such as Manchester) and less-fashionable towns such as Oldham or Wigan. The scale of a radical urban politics must therefore be at the city-region, which conveniently, is also the political-geographical unit that is at the forefront of the government’s current devolution agenda.

The extent to which radical institutional change, such as that we’re seeing fomenting in Barcelona, will be possible in the face of ‘institutional resistance, corporate and neoliberal opposition and the lack of a formal majority in the council’, remains to be seen[xxiv]. Yet what is certain is that across Europe, citizens are finding cities to be a key site of struggle in attempts to really take back control. Not only that, as conscious attempts are being made to try and network together these citizen-led ‘rebel cities’[xxv], we are seeing the beginning of a new form of urban internationalism. Indeed, one of the key forms of resistance against the imposition of TTIP has come from an international network of local authorities[xxvi]. It is through the focus on the urban that we may begin to find the answer as to what a more just globalization may look like.

The EU referendum has made it painfully evident that our country is divided – but not between those who want to remain in the EU and those who want to leave. The real division is between those who want to maintain the status quo, and those of us who will no longer accept being hopeless, isolated and out of control. As such, the struggle that is being played out in the Labour party can be seen as a microcosm of the broader tectonic shifts in society. Yet whatever the outcome of the Corbyn insurgency, the status quo can no longer hold. We must break with the last 40 years of hopelessness and pursue a radical urban democratic politics that invests citizens with real control of their futures. The alternative does not bear thinking about.


Follow Bert at @alterurbanist

Thanks to the insightful and considered feedback from many Plan C members. All errors and misjudgements are my own.