Many of us will have sat stunned on the morning of Friday 24th June wondering how Great Britain could have committed such a blatant act of self-harm by voting to leave the European Union. At one turn jeopardising our human rights; our freedom of movement and undermining a swathe of beneficial employment rights; as well as our economic future. Our thoughts might have strayed to uncomfortable places, wondering about the impact that demographic differences such as age, class, education and geography have had upon voting preferences. How does a liberal, pluralistic discipline such as sociology square the circle between a desire for tolerance and a leftist internationalism, with an interest in the marginalisation of the white working class suffering under a post-industrial, austerity economy?
Theories in the liberal press abound, often centring on watered down versions of the Marxist concept of ‘false consciousness’. A classic example of this that haunts the background of the EU referendum is the enthusiastic support of Thatcherism by a majority of the English for over a decade. The desire for home ownership has so reduced the stock of social housing, and bloated property prices, that the young are now facing a dire shortage of affordable homes. Enter the issue of immigration as a distraction away from a root cause of political disaffection over the last three decades. However while variants of false consciousness are an appealing explanatory trope for the social sciences, I believe that in trying to understand our collective decision making in this referendum we must also pay close attention to what lies beneath consciousness, false or otherwise. In turning to psychoanalysis for a complementary, intrapsychic explanation for fear of immigration, there is no better place to start than Freud’s magisterial ‘Civilisation and its discontents.’
Written towards the end of his life, haunted by the memory of the first of world war while foreseeing the potential for a second, amid widespread and violent anti-Semitism across Europe, it fittingly strikes a pessimistic tone even by Freud’s famously misanthropic standards. He portrays civilisation as a necessary but frustrating restraint on people’s desire for instinctual gratification. Freud outlines the ways in which culture has developed to protect and regulate human social groups. But with protection, there is a trade-off as people seek individual satisfaction, the ‘pleasure principle’, with the needs of the many administered through the rule of law. In this model, Freud portrays human nature as filled with aggression and hatred of ‘the other’, driven not by the Christian maxim of ‘Love thy neighbour as thyself’ but more ‘Love thy neighbour as thy neighbour loves thee.’ Or to paraphrase in this case, “Love thy neighbour only as far as thy neighbour resembles thee.” Civilisation therefore functions to force the individual to sublimate or repress these aggressive instincts into productive activity in order to maintain social stability.
Following on from this, civilisation’s job is to encourage the individual towards mutual identifications and harmonious relationships with other people precisely because in Freud’s words “it runs so strongly counter to the original nature of man.” Where the Leave campaign succeeded in the short term was to harness these instinctual fears and hostility towards ‘the other’ through the use of divisive imagery that caricatured immigrants as being a fundamental threat to the integrity of the British identity and a competitor for our limited resources. As Freud presciently noted, in the emerging fascist Europe of 1929, once these instinctual forces are unleashed and legitimised in the mainstream, it is not always easy to get people to return to repressing them when they have served their political purpose. As in Freud’s time, the aggressive, competitive instincts of the individual acting on their own or their immediate group’s primitive interests are not only a threat to ‘the other’ but to the very structure of civilisation itself.
In spite of this rather bleak prognosis, Freud also bestowed humanity a great, if tragic, gift. These aggressive instincts are shared by all of us, we are all subject to the unreasonable and unrealistic wish to abolish our suffering and achieve the satiation of our desires. The only thing that separates us in the degree of our adjustment to the ‘reality principle’ is our awareness of the need to redirect these desires. This allows us to move towards the goal of civilised living and survival under the rule of law. Psychoanalysis, therefore, does not itself commit the category error of ‘othering’ abnormality or pathology. This ‘othering’ can be seen in the contempt currently directed at Leave voters by the more educated, metropolitan classes. This aggressive albeit non-violent hostility often takes the form of disdain for what we consider to be the socially and intellectually inferior nature of these ‘others’ and is characterised by a desire to separate ourselves from them, much as they want to distance themselves from their migrant neighbours.
All of this leads to exchanges that descend into the same territory of primitive, self-satisfying reciprocal violence that Freud would recognise as being at the very heart of the human condition. So with this in mind, while the current crisis is undoubtedly a social and political one, it also represents a threat to our psychological state both individually and collectively. Therefore, it may be a useful mutual task to spend less time trying to persuade ‘the other’ of our superior claim to civilised life and to devote some energy instead to reflexively examining the origin and nature of our own hateful feelings and the desire to destroy each other, in order to find a more harmonious way forward for us all.