Sunday, 3 September 2017

Brexit and the need to be dominated

In Three Uses of the Knife, Pulitzer-winning writer David Mamet's book on the nature and uses of drama in art, politics and life, Mamet makes the claim that people have a "wish to be controlled and to call such desire autonomy".

Possibly the assertion doesn't originate with Mamet - it sounds fairly Freudian - but that doesn't really matter here: what matters is that this assertion, although contestable, is plausible enough to explore in the context of Brexit, to which it has clear relevance.

Leave campaigners' highly effective slogan was Take Back Control - i.e. repatriate power to the UK from the EU. What Leavers appeared to be asserting in adopting this slogan was that the EU is insufficiently and too distantly democratic, and that by bringing lawmaking that affects the UK back within the UK, people would have greater say over the policies that affect them.

However, Mamet's assertion offers another way of looking at this. It suggests that the apparent democratic distance of the EU from citizens was abhorrent to Leavers not because it made the EU too controlling, but because it made the EU not controlling enough.

There's an argument to be made that the EU is actually more democratic than the UK. For example, the UK has an unelected second parliamentary chamber (the House of Lords), whereas both the legislative bodies of the EU are elected. But it's undeniable that the EU feels democratically distant: a far higher proportion of people can name their local MP than their local MEP, or the previous prime minister as opposed to the previous president of the European Commission.

So if people do indeed (subconsciously) want to be controlled, perhaps the EU isn't offering sufficiently identifiable control to satiate this need. And if people want to be able to "call such desire autonomy", then couching the Leave vote as a way of restoring independence was the perfect strategy.

Does this argument imply that Remainers are less subconsciously subservient than Leave voters? Not necessarily. Perhaps Remainers have an equal need for domination, but pinned their hopes on a different master: the EU.

A constant refrain of the EU institutions is that European nations are too small to compete for power and influence with the vast economies of the USA, China and India, and that only by banding together as the EU can Europe ensure its future seat at the global table. If this is true it almost by definition makes EU leaders more powerful figures than their European national counterparts, thus also making them better sadistic tyrants for our masochistic subconsciences.

But the Remain campaigners' slogan - Stronger In - as well as being less dynamic than Take Back Control (it lacks a verb), doesn't particularly play to this posited subconscious need. Unite for Strength might have been better, or perhaps Combine and Conquer.

Of course, EU leaders (unlike, say, Vladimir Putin) don't adopt the "strong man" stance, because they're afraid of provoking a nationalistic backlash. Mamet's theory, if correct, implies that this is a grave strategic error.

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