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Into the Abyss

  • Commentary
  • Nov 18 2019
  • Juliet Jacques
    is a writer and filmmaker based in London. Her most recent book is Variations (Influx Press, 2021).

I wake up every morning and the first thing that comes into my head is Brexit. It’s the opposite of how I feel when I’ve just fallen in love, when my brain sparks at the thought of the object of my affection. My mind swirls with re-runs of headbanging arguments I’ve had about Jeremy Corbyn and Labour’s strategy, and frustration about how this rift over an institution I neither like nor trust, transferred onto the nation by a party that I despise, has clouded every other issue out of our discourse, doing its best to crush the hopes I held in summer 2017 that the UK might soon have a socialist government.

I often think about the hilarity of the 2017 General Election campaign – the left-Twitter memes and in-jokes, and the incongruity of the grandfatherly Labour leader teaming up with JME and others for the Grime for Corbyn campaign – and the euphoria after Corbyn proved that the media and political establishment were wrong to write off his electoral chances, taking away the Conservative majority after six weeks of energetic, energising campaigning. The last two years have been a sustained attempt, orchestrated by the Conservatives, Labour’s right wing and Britain’s legacy media, to kill that enthusiasm, partly by painting the Labour leadership and membership as communists, terrorist sympathisers and anti-Semites, but also by keeping the conversation fixed on Brexit. On this issue alone, Labour has strategic paralysis: two-thirds of its voters opted to Remain, two-thirds of its parliamentary seats chose to Leave, some by as much as 70%; the Blairite wing of Labour, which secured just 4.5% in the party’s leadership election in 2015 but is wildly over-represented in the media, is enthusiastically pro-European Union; its left wing, which has won every internal election since 2015, has traditionally seen the EU as an undemocratic business club, and Corbyn has often criticised it on such grounds. Hence its strategy of accepting the referendum result, letting the Conservatives fall out over how to implement it, and opposing Theresa May’s deal in parliament rather than adopting a fervently Remain, culture war-style approach.

British journalists – perhaps resentful that Labour are denying them a simple narrative – either pretend to be, or actually are incapable of understanding a position of being critical of the EU as it’s currently constituted, while still feeling that leaving isn’t a good idea, especially when considering the motivations of those driving the project. This is Corbyn’s position – stated during the 2016 referendum and again last summer at an event with Yanis Varoufakis. It’s also mine, and that of many of my friends. That Corbyn’s reticence about re-running the referendum may be down to democratic principles and the risk of alienating huge numbers of Labour voters – and the distinct possibility that it wouldn’t settle the issue – rather than his own preferences seems to be beyond our highest-paid and highest-profile pundits, who’ve got everything wrong in the last few years due to their focus on personality rather than sociology.

It’s not just our media that is incapable of meeting the challenges of Brexit, though. Some of the UK’s artists have noticed that A Crisis is happening and decided that their work needs to be Political, having had little to say about how the Blair government took working class votes for granted and oriented their party towards capital rather than labour, or how David Cameron’s equally Europhile Conservatives – assisted by the Liberal Democrats – systematically punished the poor for the profligacy of the financial sector. They don’t seem to think much of the ongoing migrant deaths in the Mediterranean, perhaps only noticing when Banu Cennetoğlu’s List of them was repeatedly torn off a wall in Liverpool, nor about the Troika’s destruction of Syriza and imposition of austerity upon Greece. They don’t seem to think much about capitalism in general, nor even the class composition of the Brexit vote – which, despite the media narrative about the ‘left behind’ proletariat voting Leave because of their inherent xenophobia, was largely driven by middle-class business owners and retirees, but you don’t see Guardian journalists asking people in Reigate or Sevenoaks why they chose to Leave. Instead, we get the trite, preaching-to-the-choir Euro-nationalism of Wolfgang Tillmans’ pre-referendum poster campaign, simple sloganeering or superficial satire, epitomised by David Shrigley’s ‘We did it to ourselves’ drawing. Worst of all is Anish Kapoor’s ‘A Brexit, A Broxit, We All Fall Down’, commissioned by The Guardian (rather than Kapoor’s patrons for the Orbit in 2012, namely steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and the Conservative mayor of London, Boris Johnson), which turns that paper’s frequent, witless rhetoric about ‘divisive’ politics and ‘populism’ into a work so embarrassingly literal that it would struggle to pass an A-Level Art exam.

Cheer-led by Britain’s worst art critic, Jonathan Jones of (yes!) The Guardian, Kapoor’s work shows a nation divided through (yes!) a map of Britain with a big crack down the middle. Jones thinks this is to Brexit what Guernica was to the Spanish Civil War, calling it ‘a surrealist work, one that seeks to let the unconscious out. But instead of his own demons, Kapoor lets out the shadows in the nation’s psyche: yours, mine and Jacob Rees-Mogg’s. For, like a black hole of melancholy, something about this bottomless pit is alluring. Part of you wants to fall in.’ To me, it looks like a visual manifestation of the paucity of centrist politics – and especially its inability to understand why its post-Cold War ‘end of history’ narrative collapsed in 2008, when it became obvious to many that the interests of capital were never synonymous with those of labour. That said, Brexit seems to have broken so many brains, including mine: in the fog that envelops me every morning, as my dreams of moderate redistribution collapse before my eyes, I wonder if perhaps, as Jones says, Kapoor is indeed the Picasso of our times. But, I think, I retain just enough sanity to seriously fucking doubt it, although Jones may be right about one thing: at this point, chucking ourselves into the abyss might provide a blessed relief.



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