Brexit involves many dislocations: economic, political and (for those most directly affected, such as EU27 citizens living in the UK) personal.
Underlying all these, though – and a fundamental factor in why Brexit is happening in the first place – is the cultural dislocation that Brexit involves. That’s true whether the dislocation dismays or delights you.
This was called to mind when I read the following quotation today. It’s from Anthony G. Amsterdam and Jerome Bruner’s book, Minding the Law, but I came across it as the epigraph to Walter Brueggemann’s An Introduction to the Old Testament:
All cultures are, inherently, negotiated compromises between the already established and the imaginatively possible. … cultures in their very nature are marked by contests for control over conceptions of reality. In any culture, there are both canonical versions of how things really are and should be and countervailing visions about what is alternatively possible. What is alternatively possible comprises both what seems desirable or beguiling, and what seems disastrous and horrifying. The statutes and conventions and authorities and orthodoxies of a culture are always in a dialectical relationship with contrarian myths, dissenting fictions, and (most important of all) the restless powers of the human imagination. Canonicity and the ordinary are typically in conflict with imaginable “otherwises”—some inchoate and even private, some vocal or even clamorous, some quasi-institutionalized as cults or movements of dissent. The dialectic between the canonical and the imagined is not only inherent in human culture, but gives culture its dynamism and, in some unfathomable way, its unpredictability—its freedom.
The idea that “cultures in their very nature are marked by contests for control over conceptions of reality” is of particular interest at a time when “post-truth politics” – politics where the “contesting” of “conceptions of reality” extends even to the denial of basic, verifiable facts – has been so widely discussed.
What jumped out at me, though, was the reference to every culture having “both canonical versions of how things really are and should be and countervailing visions about what is alternatively possible.”
A point that numerous commentators have made about Brexit is how, until the referendum campaign began, opinion polls had rarely shown a majority of voters wishing to leave the European Union. However unpopular the EU may have been for many people, our political culture’s “canonical version of how things are and should be” was firmly one of continuing EU membership. The “countervailing versions about what is alternatively possible” promulgated by Tory eurosceptics and Ukip seemed doomed to remain nothing more than “contrarian myths” and “dissenting fictions” in the face of the “[literal] statutes and conventions and authorities and orthodoxies” of life as an EU member state.
What has happened since 23 June 2016 is a process – and still only the beginning of the process – of reversing the position of these “conceptions of reality”. As a previously “reluctant Remainer” prime minister intones that “Brexit means Brexit”, Brexit becomes the new “canonical version of how things are and should be.” Meanwhile, support for EU membership barely even manages to register as a “countervailing vision about what is alternatively possible.”
The point is that this represents a massive cultural shift, quite apart from the political and economic impact as Brexit unfolds over the coming years. Both Brexiters and “Remoaners” find ourselves with a new and unaccustomed cultural status, a reversal of our previous positions. Others (such as members of parliament) find themselves scrambling to endorse positions they would previously have disdained.
The result is undoubtedly a manifestation of cultural “dynamism”: it remains to be seen, though, whether events will vindicate those for whom the new orthodoxy is “desirable or beguiling,” or those of us who find it “disastrous and horrifying.”