From authoritarian neoliberalism to Brexit: a sad story with a sadder ending
It’s no secret that in the wake of Brexit, the narrative of disillusioned, socially excluded communities has permeated political conversation with ever increasing dominance. They voted Leave, they previously voted Labour and now they vote Tory plus, they’re looking for someone to blame their deprivation on. All painfully sweeping statements, yes, but there’s a reason that these statements have come to be commonly made. The rise of a nationalistic and right-wing populism among the most markedly deprived within the UK is a concerning narrative. The inhabitants of Midlands and Northern satellite towns and villages feel socially excluded from both the economic and cultural affairs of society and are not just angered but grieving as a result. This manifestation of populism is predictably misplaced and misguided with its roots in a sinister form of disciplinary neoliberalism, which I assert is still dominantly pervasive in our government today.
Populism has had many scratching their heads, as it seems tricky, as a concept, to pin down to a singular definition. Cas Mudde’s description is amongst the strongest, in describing it as a ‘thin’ ideology and one which is malleable and can be applied to different ‘thicker’ ideologies such as nationalism, socialism, environmentalism and the like (2004, p.544). In the case of not just the UK, but other parts of Europe, populism has latched itself onto concerning nationalist sentiment, and the results have been troubling. When figures like Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (A.K.A Tommy Robinson) and Nigel Farage gained traction in the UK during the 2010s, I remember feeling horrified and quite frankly astounded at the anti-immigrant sentiment I was surrounded by in my own community in the East Midlands. A memory of a pub debate between myself and someone I used to attend school with, which turned into a full blown argument about the legitimacy of the EDL, springs to mind. The roles of Mudde’s two ‘antagonistic’ groups of the ‘pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’ are assumed by the ‘left behind’ and the EU (not forgetting it’s demonised immigrants) respectively, according to Vote Leave’s rhetoric (2004 p.543). Ugliness has prevailed from this form of populism, resulting in isolated racial attacks and harassment as well as larger alt-right marches around the country, all of which has shown British citizens a far more sinister side to their country. But where does such hate come from? Whilst misdirected at immigration and channelled through a xenophobic fury, I assert that this nationalist populism has its roots in neoliberalism and, more specifically, authoritarian neoliberalism.
Ian Bruff’s work on authoritarian neoliberalism suggests that this particular strand of neoliberalism is, in large part, the architect of deprivation and inequality across the country (2014). Yes, the word ‘authoritarianism’ stirs up deeply unpleasant connotations and one may query if this concept can be utilised in tandem with British politics. However, Bruff shows us authoritarianism not in its conventional sense of repressive violence and brute force, but as an act of reconfiguration ‘of state and institutional power’ by means of stifling political and social dissent (2014, p.115). In other words, such reconfiguration may be actioned through the correct channels, but the results are still pretty terrifying. Thatcher’s crack down on trade unions and pursual of entirely free markets by any means possible left democracy and plurality in the UK at best, depleted.
The results of this agenda were most prominent in deindustrialised mining towns across the Midlands, the North and Wales. Where communities saw not only their livelihoods, but their sense of a tangible community and identity disappear. The issue here is that a retrenchment in public services (and therefore of any positive freedom) for those affected by the deindustrialisation meant a depletion in both financial wellbeing and morale. In addition, the pursuit of more disciplinary criminal and penal policy resulted in neoliberalism morphing into something worse than its initial form (Bruff, 2014, p.116). Not only were people being hugely affected by a situation they have no control over, but they also did not have the means to fight back. Hence, the emergence of an authoritarian element to an ideology which had established itself in a democracy.
This is still the case today with ex-mining communities plagued by the legacy of deindustrialisation. Lisa McKenzie pursued an interesting case study post-Brexit, where she visited Nottinghamshire/ Derbyshire mining villages and towns (2017). The analysis demonstrates that these communities never properly recovered from the loss of industry they suffered in the 80s and 90s and that a crisis of identity is still dominantly pervasive for those inhabiting such areas. The towns in the case study remain anonymous but I was familiar with the area and can vouch for the account that McKenzie gives. The removal of both mining and textile industries in these areas left the interviewee in McKenzie’s study feeling ‘heartbroken’ (2017, p.276). This loss was not just one of a financial nature, but one of identity too. These areas are defined by markedly low social mobility and the percentage of white British inhabitants is incredibly high (2017, p.206). This combination of factors is what created the perfect recipe for an alt-right populist disaster.
Let’s consider this for a second: deindustrialisation has made your life significantly more difficult and less fulfilled. You exist in an echo chamber of traditionalist British values, in which food banks, unemployment and a lack of opportunity characterise your day to day life. There appears to be no end to this struggle. Then suddenly, a ‘new’ type of politician (let’s say, Nigel Farage) appears on the telly and tells you passionately that you have been ‘left behind’ by the bureaucratic ‘elite’ who care more about immigrants’ rights than yours. The populist rhetoric speaks directly to you in a political system that has not done for years. It is only natural that you’re going to listen; your attention has been grabbed. Little do you know that, whilst you are being distracted by ‘taking back control’ from the EU, or the ‘elites’, you’re being forced to ignore the neoliberal agenda that resulted in your position in the first place. Farage’s populism assigns a scapegoat out of the minority group perceived as ‘other’, constructing the sort of ‘politics of fear’ that oversimplifies and reconfigures complex economic issues into emotive ones (Wodak, 2013). The Leave campaign succeeds as a result. One of the most heart-breaking elements of Mckenzie’s study was the discovery that voters in these areas were not even sure that leaving the EU would improve their lives, they were just desperate for it not to stay the same (2017, p.278). The status quo, and therefore the elite that enforced it, had seemingly failed them.
Sadly, the new politics of the UK would continue to do so. In spite of leaving the EU, the promises made to these communities have not been fulfilled and the inequality and deprivation still exists today. A further protest was made by the Red Wall communities in the 2019 general election which saw shocking seat losses for Labour including the deindustrialised constituency of Blythe Valley which had been red for a staggering 69 years (UK Parliament, 2019). In the wake of the 2019 election, we have borne witness to the commodification of working class votes in working class satellite towns but that, in spite of conversations surrounding the alleged importance of these voters, life has not changed for them and that, more likely than not, it won’t. Labour realised, like a jilted ex-partner, what it had once it had lost it and the Conservatives celebrate an unexpected victory with little, if not no intention of doing right by those who switched sides.
Authoritarian neoliberalism still permeates modern post-COVID-19 politics now with the free school meals scandal and the infamous Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill exemplifying Bruff’s characteristics of the ideology (2014, pp.115-116). Will we see a further entrenchment of populism as a result of these disciplinary policies? Has the recent Tory success in the Hartlepool by-election proven to us that post-industrial areas really are lost to Labour and that the politics of fear has prevailed once more? Or will the Conservative party experience a backlash in response to the financial woes of the pandemic? One thing that these phenomena have shown me is that we have, so far, seen a misdirection of frustration felt by working class voters, something which has been perpetuated by those in positions of influential authority. This has resulted in bitter cross cutting divides and ill feeling between communities. It is ironic in the worst way possible that one deprived group (the ‘white’ working class) has been pitted against another oppressed one (those seeking to find a home in the UK), when in reality, the source of their problems lies in Westminster. It is my hope that this misdirection will be corrected before too long.
Bruff, I. (2014), “The Rise of Authoritarian Neoliberalism”, Rethinking Marxism, Vol. 26, pp.113-129.
Mckenzie, L. (2017), “’It’s not ideal’: Reconsidering ‘anger’ and ‘apathy’ in the Brexit vote among an invisible working class”, Competition & Change, Vol. 21, No. 3, pp.199-210.
Mckenzie, L. (2017), “The class politics of prejudice: Brexit and the land of no-hope and glory”, The British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 68, pp.265-280.
Mudde, C. (2004), “The Populist Zeitgeist”, Government and Opposition, Vol. 39, No. 4, pp.541-563.
UK Parliament (2019), Electoral History of Blythe Valley, Available at: https://members.parliament.uk/constituency/3341/election-history (Accessed: 28 April 2021)
Wodak, R. (2013), The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, Calif: sage Publications Ltd..