The Killing Joke: Brexit

Oliver’s army is here to stay
Oliver’s army are on their way
And I would rather be anywhere else
But here today – Elvis Costello

Heroic failure: Brexit and the politics of pain

By Fintan O’Toole

Head of Zeus 2018


I try to be a good citizen of the world. I try to keep up. I read the New York Times. Le Monde. The Guardian. Even occasionally the Süddeutsche Zeitung. I read the small mags. The New Republic. Mediapart. I confine myself to print. I think I gave up watching the TV news around the time of Desert Storm. It was useless. As for cable news, I don’t understand the attraction. The yammering on, the constant stream of clichés and low level invective, the sheer provincialism, the joyous anti-intellectualism. It isn’t news, it is something more like news graffiti. Lautreamont, the 19th century poet, wrote, tongue in cheek, that he wanted to cretinize his audience – which is an ambition pursued much more seriously by the cable news channels.

Yet I admit that even as I jog to keep up, I avert my eyes from certain lines of inquiry. Climate change overwhelms me, so I am a very gingerfingered picker through the dire forecasts and the present day disasters. The fascist seizure of power in Brazil? The flooding in Mozambique? The atrocity stories out of the Congo? Starvation in Yemen? Trump, of course, of course, of course. And then there’s Brexit…

Outside of Britain, nobody understands Brexit; which is alright, because inside Britain, nobody understands Brexit as well. Or rather everybody’s understanding of Brexit is different from everybody else’s. which comes to the same thing. Everybody includes the Prime Minister and the House of Commons.  The failure to understand it, plan for it, and execute it on the part of the people who supposedly support is astonishing. To be fair, the inability of the Remain party to mount a campaign that would persuade the majority of voters that Leave is a terrible option on all levels is astonishing as well. And the passivity of Remain astonishes me. Where’s the general strike when you need it? Something has gone terribly wrong with the program, the political imagination, the way people act as citizens.

Yet I feel like I really can’t leave it like this. I need to figure out not so much where I stand on Brexit, but why Brexit happened in the first place. Especially now, as  Brexit has devolved into a B movie series of cliffhangers that always end in public school foodfights,  I have decided  I need to bone up. This is why why I picked up Fintan O’Toole’s Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. It was a happy find. I discovered that O’Toole had written not only a book about Brexit, but, as well, one that suggestively analyzes our global alt-right moment.


In 2009, I became a great fan of Fintan O’Toole’s column in the Irish Times, where he served as an appalled guide to the meltdown of the Irish banks, which were riding down the sudden and traumatic slump in real estate prices. O’Toole was full of savage indignation at the sheer wanton and meanminded greed of it all, and it was a thrill to see him unloose the vials of his wrath on incompetent government honchos, the party of Fianna Fáil, the popinjay plutocrats, and their collaborators, a gang of looters pathetically incapable of covering their tracks. I was rooting from the far seats, ’cause I knew that the fight in Ireland was the same as the fight in the U.S. and the EU – the fight of the working people against the rip off artists who rule them. At the same time, O’Toole was funny. Funny! Righteous and funny is a hard combo to pull off, and requires a deal of literary reference. All of these are qualities I revere. As well, he didn’t turn out to be a reactionary crank (many were the critics of the banksters who turned out to be supporters of something even worse), but, recognizably, a democratic socialist type, or social democrat type, whatever.  Which I, a lukewarm Marxist, think is the best we’ll get in my lifetime.

In some of the reviews of Heroic Failure – especially those written by conservatives – O’Toole is accused of an uncritical, admiring attitude towards the EU. This is of course not true. As he wrote in a recent column:

… the other way to be [a] bad European is obsequiousness to the demands of the technocratic elites in Brussels and Frankfort. If the EU in not a community of vibrant, challenging, skeptical democracies, it will wither. The meek will inherit nothing.

I could do some picking at the idea that France, Italy, Hungary or Poland have vibrant democracies at the moment – but you get the drift. With this viewpoint, O’Toole is a natural Remainer, but no EU soft soaper.  More than that – what his conservative critics miss, flailing away at the fun he has at their expense – is that his analysis, which concentrates on the social forces behind the Leave position, concedes to Leave a dialectical complexity that lifts the book out of the zone of mere denunciation. This is an exemplary study of the culture, or part of the culture, of contemporary England – the England that is confusedly starting to address its identity as the British nation-state complex breaks up. Its is a comparatively fast decline-and-fall, taking not hundreds of years but decades. And we are in the midst of it.

Of course, a cultural study that does not recognize differences between the holders of capital and the producers of wealth would be no good at all – mere op ed sociology, the kind of thing on endless offer in the New York Times. Here I’m going to find fault: O’Toole could have been a bit more explicit about the epokhe he was effecting – to borrow a term from your favorite and mine, Edmund Husserl. An “epokhe” is a way of bracketing out conditioning circumstance in order to fasten on a particular object or action. In this case, the history and current events that O’Toole has his sights upon is mostly a matter of the governing class: the establishment. This was the nursery, so to speak, that generated the post-Imperial dissatisfactions and self-pity (the perception that the global order that no longer accords the UK, and the UK elite, a particularly crucial role) that eventually produced a Boris Johnson, a Jacob Rees-Moog, a Farage.  O’Toole is right to freuently refer to Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels, with their scenes taken from the peculiarly noxious set of spoiled wealthy people, the infants of an immunizing privilege who, at existential loose ends, engage in transgression as a form of sport. St. Aubyn’s figures seem prophetic of the incredible careers of the entitled crew of British “populists” driving Brexit. One could easily imagine them arranged around the table at David Melrose’s country house, laughing as he made his wife eat like a dog on the floor. They are caricature-able, and glory in that fact. Sticks and stones can break their bones, but Sunday supplement profiles can never hurt them. 

O’Toole is keen to show that the self-pity that seems to dominate Leaver rhetoric has a long geneology. It is here that I feel a distinction should be made between the average Leaver voter and the Leaver leadership. The grievances of the Leaver voter, especially the working class voters, have a footing in reality. The neo-liberal policies pursued by the EU have had a malign effect on many of their lives.  There was a powerful report by James Meek in the London Review of Books (April 20, 2017) about the closing down of Cadbury’s Somerdale factory in Keynsham and its relocation to a low tax zone in Poland, with the funding provided by the Polish town and, ultimately, by the EU. The resentment of the displaced workers of Keynsham, their living conditions worsened even more by the austerity politics legitimated by EU technocrats in response to the Great Depression of 2008, was largely unaddressed by Remainers, even though it had bulked large in Jeremy Corbyn’s rise in the Labour party. It is a sad coincidence that Keynsham is in the district represented by Jacob Rees-Mogg – the most notoriously reactionary of the Leavers. O’Toole leaves this to one side, tracing the geneology of a mode of self pity within the governing class, first of the British empire, and then of the post-war British establishment. Or should one now say English establishment? Instead of the economic viability of the household, these people are concerned with the loss, or the perceived loss, of symbolic capital. This loss is the victimization they complain about: it is here that the powerful play, grotesquely, the victim card. O’Toole’s exploration of this “structure of feeling” goes back to the Victorian cult of failure as it befalls a certain kind of person and enterprise – a socially connected figure whose eccentricities and personal code plays a large role in undermining the enterprises they undertake. It is as if the enterprise itself was made glorious only because from the very setting out it was doomed not to succeed, and led by people doomed to make all the wrong decisions. O’Toole takes the name for his book, “heroic failure”, from a cultural historian, Stephanie Barczewski, who has investigated this culture as it emerged in the 19th century: 

The grand balls-up is not new, and in English historical memory it is not shameful. Most of the modern English heroes, after all, are complete screw-ups. The exploits that have loomed largest in English consciousness since the nineteenth century are retreats or disasters: Sir John Moore’s evacuation of Corunna in the Peninsular War, the Charge of the Light Brigade, the doomed Franklin expedition, ‘Scott of the Antarctic’, the ‘last stand’ against the Zulus at Isandlwana, Gordon of Khartoum, the Somme, the flight from Dunkirk. This culture of heroic failure Barczewski defines as ‘a conscious sense of celebration of the striving for an object that was not attained’. She points, for example, to the ten memorial statues in Waterloo Place, a key site flanking the great processional route up the Mall towards Buckingham Palace: five relate to the disastrous Crimean War, one is of Franklin and one is of Captain Robert Falcon Scott, who died with four of his men having failed to get to the South Pole before Roald Amundsen’s pragmatically planned and unromantic Norwegian expedition.

Oddly, the leaders of the Leave movement often seem to relish the prospect of just such a failure. It is as if the entire

Dr. Stephanie Barczewski

enterprise was undertaken under the sign of a phrase of John Major’s, the former Tory PM, who when asked about some Thatcherite policy he was implementing replied: ‘if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t working.’ Or, more relevantly, the message that Boris Johnson passed to David Cameron when telling him that he, Boris, was going to campaign for Leave:

Johnson had no strategy, no tactics, no serious intent at all. And for a very good reason – Leave was not supposed to win. Johnson told David Cameron when he informed him of his decision to back Brexit that ‘he doesn’t expect to win, believing Brexit will be “crushed”’. He also had no idea of the actual consequences of leaving the EU. As Cameron reported the phone call to his communications director Craig Oliver: ‘He actually said he thought we could leave and still have a seat on the European Council – still making decisions.

In a sense, this reversal of the usual method for judging success, this desire for glorious failure, this revving up of self-pitying tears on a national scale, this proof, brought about by one’s carelessness and ignorance, that the damage one does is somehow a proof of one’s good, one’s unquestionable intentions, interiorizes a historic contradiction in Britain’s imperial history between the British claim to be spreading “liberty”, on the one hand, and the brute facts of colonial rule, on the other: between the freedom loving Brit and the arbitrary and exterior power imposed upon distant people. The Imperial “absent-mindedness” that results in ruthlessly exploiting the conquered is offset by the eccentric foray that ends in a statue-worthy body count somewhere in the Arctic.  Although the circumstances in which this contradiction was introjected into the national body have long dissolved – the empire is gone and Bungalow Bill’s defunct – the psychological contradiction remains, especially in the culture of the Tory ruling class. It has been passed down, a heirloom neuroses, and now it has found a stage to play on. And play it will.


It is with this set of suppositions that O’Toole goes about exploring the curious dandyism of the Leave movement leadership: an exploration that can be usefully transposed to the political style of the alt-right movement, which often seems more concerned with trolling libs than with the usual conventions of political evangelism. O’Toole calls it Brexit camp – the kind of rhetoric that cries out for a spinkle of LOLs in all its supposedly serious arguments. Here we enter into the realm of the politics of style – or rather, the way a style of doing politics becomes politics. Here we enter into a part of the book that is applicable not just to Brexit, but to all the right-wing fan boys, all the 4Chan fever-bearers, all the overlapping groups, the white nationalists, the incel fanboys, the intellectual dark web types, all this reverse engineered Mau Mauing of the flak catchers – who have been transformed in the rightwing camp into Politically correct police, totalitarian feminists, de-platforming fascists, etc. It is a reversal of literary polarities that had its roots, surely, in the 60s in the U.S., with William Buckley and Tom Wolfe, and in Britain with the whole tradition of what George Orwell called the silly conservatives, using Chestertonian paradox as its preferred method. But it is now been massified. And it is coming to a ballot box near you, whether you live in Somerset or Aix en Province or Arizona:

This is the essential method of what we might call Brexit camp. … we see here the political application of Oscar Wilde’s dictum ‘That we should treat all trivial things very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.’ This will become, in essence, the methodology of Brexit. It will triumph by teaching the English to take trivial things – the petty annoyances of regulation – very seriously indeed, and to regard the serious things – jobs, communities, lives – with sincere and studied triviality.

‘Camp,’ wrote Susan Sontag, ‘is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is “too much”.’ But in the camp politics of Brexit, we will come to see a kind of reversal of this procedure: a politics that proposes itself trivially but that has to be taken seriously because its consequences are ‘too much’.

As we watch the show going on in Parliament, the endless game of chicken played with a whole nation for trivial sweepstakes, we have to remember something: the Leavers, the hard core, those who will vote for Boris Johnson for any office, love this. They came for it. As the Neo-liberal Imperium draws to its end (so I fervently wish), this kind of spectacle will take up more and more of our politics.

O’Toole’s book takes its place in the broad tradition of ‘de-mystifying’ literature, exposing the lies of some powerful caste. Will it have an effect?

It is a commonplace to point out that the traditional Enlightenment strategy of exposing lies seems to be blunted in our contemporary political culture – as though we lived in the “post-truth” era. I think the notion of the “post-truth” era is enormously flattering to the centrist establishment, as is the idea that the traditional media has remained true to its Enlightenment function. In fact, that media was crucial to spreading panic and lies in the run-up to the Iraq occupation, and it did a piss-poor job reporting on the Iraq occupation.  More than that, the media has done a bang-up job, since the 80s, of assuring one and all that we live in a no-alternative environment – that it is either the Imperium of neo-liberalism or nothing.  Thus, the enormous growth of a more and more non-productive financial sector was given a pass, and the enormous inequality in wealth and power between the class composed of high-level administrators and the class composed of the wealth producers, the working class. As the French economist Frederic Lordon has pointed out [Le Monde, 2/14/2014], Europe has undergone a strange political metamorphosis in the years since the fall of the Berlin Wall: the major leftist parties accelerated their abandonment of socialist doctrine and in its place began to implement “reforms”, instituting policies that  by the most hardline conservative economists of the post-war era, figures like Milton Friedman and James M. Buchanon. Politics became a choice between varieties of the Shock Doctrine, with the Left leaning media providing a chorus of approval. The leadership of the Left parties lost thier interest in representing working class issues – they lost their sense of recognition with working class culture –  and shifted Right, while Right wing media was becoming more immersive and hardcore:

That the Right is on the Right, that is so to speak in its very concept; but that the Left became the Right, that is an  idea that is, on the contrary, audacious – and a challenge.

I would be going too far afield to trace all the effects of this evacuation of socialist concerns under the idea that we needed to reform, i.e. abolish, the progressive economic legislation of the past in order to become more “competitive” – with the scale of competition being determined by business interests rather than any sense of social welfare. What remained of the Left’s consciousness of what it was defending was the honorable history of civil rights; but even this concern was so welded to the globalization imperative that it was as if the deregulation and gay marriage flowed from the same logic. This, of course, implied that opposing deregulation, or corporate created trade agreements, would also mean opposing gay marriage. The function of this arbitrary conjunction was always apologetic, always a way for the Left to, in a sense, cover its tracks. We now see its poisoned fruit in our current moment.  It is under these rhetorical and ideological conditions that the Brexit style of camp so ably identified by O’Toole came to seem unshocking to the British voter.  The agreement between an etiolated Left and the parties of the Right, which implicitly mandated that political good manners required bowing to the civil rights advances of the past, is being abrogated by the Alt-Right with glee. We’re in a bad spot.

I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.
About Roger 78 Articles
I am a translator, author and editor living in Paris. I finished a novel in March, and am busy trying to find an agent. In the meantime, I thought I'd like to start a magazine. Willett's is meant to be a venue for the review of books, personal reflections, and political bitching - and everything else.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.