On Facing Failure (another bloody Brexit blog...)

So.  The five stages of grief (let’s assume, for the moment at least, that there are indeed five), are:
  1. denial and isolation
  2. anger
  3. bargaining
  4. depression
  5. acceptance
They say (though already I doubt the ‘they’ in this sentence) that people who are grieving do not necessarily go through the stages in the same order, or experience all of them. ‘They’ do not say what might be entailed by the condition of experiencing all five simultaneously – which is the condition I experience in respect of Brexit:
  1. It can’t happen!
  2. It makes me furious.
  3. Please, let’s find a way out of this!
  4. Jesus, this is beyond miserable: I’m listless, disinterested, unable to summon any optimism about the future…
  5. There is nothing I can do about it.
It’s the last one that gets me.  I suppose of myself – in general - that there are things I can do, actions I can take, of whatever scale, that will make some sort of progress in the direction that I think is the right one.

The right one?  I don’t know.  A good one, a sensible one, a one that means the world becomes a bit better rather than a bit worse, the one that tries to consider the whole rather than the part, the one that thinks of the future as well as the present (and the past), the one that accords most closely with the Golden Rule, the Categorical Imperative, the whole Mrs Do-as-you-would-be-done-by shtick.

In conditions such as these – to wit, the madness of Brexit - how am I to direct or even summon such energies? When there is nothing I can do.

A great pointlessness o’erwhelms me.  I have reached the fifth stage of grief: but I have not yet left the preceding stages.


I have failed.  We have failed.  There has been a failure.

The failure is plural.  Too much was assumed.  Too much was taken for granted.  Too little was understood.

A future had been evolving; a good one.  A future of pragmatic, wondrous science.  A future of successful international collaboration.  A future in which it might actually have been possible to tackle climate change; a future in which progress in health, in communications and in production technologies might genuinely have delivered secure well-being to billions.  A future, perhaps, in which it might even have been possible to develop institutional arrangements that could maintain an equitable and sustainable distribution of power.

Whither the driver of such a Utopia?  The internet?  The EU?  The prevailing economic orthodoxy of neo-liberalism?  The more general miracles of capitalism?

Alas no.  I blame the Enlightenment.  Insofar as I understand it (and such understanding must inherently be as meandering as anything else herein) the Enlightenment pretty much comprises the particular interlinkage of rational/scientific thinking (in contrast to mystical or religious thinking) and (emerging from the philosophical and political and literary and artistic foment) the notion of inalienable individual rights.

Everything else – economic or social milieu; prevailing distribution of power and associated institutional forms; forms of artistic expression; and so forth – is contingent.

In the centuries since the Enlightenment, there have been further fundamental moments – Darwin, Einstein, that sort of thing; major Wars; Fordism; and so forth – that have elaborated and configured and directed and misdirected the ceaseless torrent of events that have unfolded since the medieval world came to an end and the modern world began in the scientific (re)revolutions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

And we reached a point where large numbers of people – in the UK, at least; but I’m pretty sure this applies in some other places, too – we reached a point where millions of people were well-educated and reasonably literate, were living in stable and secure homes in stable and secure circumstances and had the means and the opportunities to live pretty autonomous lives of material plenty and self-actualisation.

But simultaneously we reached a point where millions of people felt marginalised or excluded.  Felt that a world was developing in which they didn’t have a place.  Felt a degree of struggle on a day-to-day basis that was – that is – alien, almost incomprehensible, to the millions for whom life is basically ok. Felt ignored, even belittled, and felt increasingly powerless.

And this is the failure.

But there is more.  If the first and largest failure is one in which ‘we’ (very definitely not ‘they’) have failed to include, to argue, to collaborate, to empathise, to understand, and by which a great number of people have become so frustrated, so angry that they literally self-harm on a national scale – if that is a first failure, then the further failure is not to have formulated even the first draft of a positive tale of a future worth having.

What is the offer?  The future had begun to seem ever more terrifying, ever more threatening, ever more confusing and complex and fast-moving and bewildering and wild and unknowable and uncontrollable and – STOP! I want to go back!

Then back we shall go – how far would you like?  The 1950s are very popular these days, it seems, in both the UK and the US.  Or further, maybe?  The nineteenth century?  Everything will be great, again!  We will take back control, like in the old days!

And thus the vote(s).

And it feels as though everything has gone into reverse.  Britain shall be smaller, poorer, less relevant, less useful.  We shall be marginal.  We shall be ignored.

We the liberal, the metropolitan, the children of the Enlightenment, we will come to know the pain our brothers and sisters have endured these past years.


The future recedes.  The past – deformed and impossible – beckons.  Enlightenment itself is threatened.


There are rumours of a second referendum.  Hope springs eternal.

But the boil is lanced, and we inhabit the residue.  Those stages of grief?  It's much bigger than just the Brexit referendum: it's the entire story of 'Britain' that has to be let go before we can really build a new one. We may only be at stage one...


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