Optimism as a political factor in Brexit Britain

In the last few years I’ve been struggling to make sense of optimism as a political factor. It struck me during the pre-refendum debate that the case being made by someone like Daniel Hannan, with his neo-mercantilist vision of a post-EU Britain, could be seen as considerably more optimistic than anything being offered by the remain camp. In their book Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton suggest the same was true of the left in the 2017 election. From loc 995:

On both left and right a deranged optimism prevailed, in which faith in the future was all that was needed to bring it into being. This wishful thinking, seemingly at odds with the cold reality of forthcoming political isolation and economic decline, was exemplified both in the credulous Brexiteers convinced that Empire 2.0 was on the horizon, as well as the Corbynists who held in their man expectations apparently so high as to never be met.

I think there’s overstatement here and a considerable contraction of reality involved in their claim of a symmetry between Brexit-ism (for lack of a better word) and Corbynism. Both reflect in their view a triumph of the cultural over the economic, to use the terms Will Davies did when making a similar(ish) point, with their competing visions of taking back control. In this sense, Mayism was the earliest attempt to build a coalition on a new political landscape, albeit one that faltered due to the weakness of May herself as a campaigner. From loc 966-980:

The distinct brand of ‘Erdington Conservativism’ developed by her close advisor Nick Timothy seemed perfectly primed for the post-austerity, post-Brexit era. 49 Inspired by the 19th century Birmingham industrialist Joseph Chamberlain, Timothy’s vision was founded upon an interventionist economic programme of infrastructure investment, the rejection of ‘globalist’ free trade in favour of protectionist tariffs to secure British industry, fierce Euroscepticism, a radical reduction in immigration, selective state education, and a laser-like focus on the apparently communal concerns of the so-called ‘white working class’ –traditional values, self-responsibility, patriotism, and law and order. There was an obvious overlap with both the message of the Leave campaign, as well as the creed of ‘faith, flag and family’ which had long been touted by the ‘Blue Labour’ wing of the opposition party-indeed, Lord Glasman took tea with Timothy in the early months of May’s premiership. 50 As May walked into Downing Street for the first time as Prime Minister it seemed that her programme of economic and cultural protectionism was destined for hegemonic status. On the steps of Number 10, she promised, in language clearly adopted from the anti-austerity wing of the Leave campaign, that her government would be ‘driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours’ –the millions of ‘ordinary people’ who were ‘just about managing’.

However Brexitism and Corbynism have come to thrive in this post-austerity climate. It is precisely because of the bleakness of the former that I’m so enthused about the latter, as the only way I can see to resist the creeping barbarism of the last few years. But Frederick Harry Pitts and Matt Bolton argue that “the optimism Project Corbyn sells its adherents proposes a false resolution of contradictions contemporary conditions cannot effect” and call for “a politics of pessimism can best match present realities and work with them practically” (loc 527).

I’m only a quarter of the way through the book but thus far I remain unconvinced, as thought provoking as I’m finding it. The obvious response to that last quotation is why? Why does a politics of pessimism help us ‘work’ with them ‘practically’? I can see an analytical argument to be made for a politics of pessimism but from the perspective of a pre-analytical commitment to a left project, I see nothing practical or desirable about it. Perhaps it will become clearer to me as I get further into the book.

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