It is probably not too dramatic to say that the UK’s EU referendum result has sent a wrecking-ball through the political order. Many articles have made such proclamations. We are now left adrift in the wreckage, a wreckage that is documented in the rapidly multiplying reams of Brexit news stories, commentary and explanation. It is hard to be sure of where we stand – or what we stand upon.
Echoing an observation made by Foucault in the mid-1970s, there is ‘a sort of general feeling that the ground is crumbling beneath our feet, especially in the places where it seemed most familiar, most solid, and closest to us’. We have probably all had moments, in recent days, when we have felt disorientated amongst the wash of comment, opinion, claim and counter claim. What permeates through this flow of information and chaotic wrangling is an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. This uncertainty is writ large in the many attempts to explain what has happened and why. It just seems impossible to pin down the reasons and the consequences. The cross-cutting divisions seem too hard to grasp, the old notions of social divisions somehow seem to radically over-simplify what is happening or they just seem outmoded as a framework for coherent explanation. The party political divisions currently offer little hope to those seeking some sanctuary, especially as the parties themselves have imploded over the results. The various attempts to explain and understand the malaise reveal just how impossible that task actually is.
There is something of the flavour of Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnival unfolding. The carnival, according to Bakhtin, provides a moment in which the rules and norms of society are subverted, mocked, disregarded and played with. The carnival, Bakhtin claims, brings the ‘realization that established authority and truth are relative’. The carnival provided the opportunity for the hierarchies and social orders to be temporarily disrupted. This is no celebration, but rather the release of frustrations.
Social divisions never went away and neither did the tensions between those, but they could easily get out of hand if blame becomes the means to placate fear and ease precarity. As the fragments fall into place we are already seeing, in the form of scapegoating and rising racially motivated violence and abuse, that the fractions could open up in scary and damaging ways. It is going to take care and urgency to ensure that the response is empathetic and progressive rather than destructive and pathological. Perhaps, then, we should start by thinking of the moment we are experiencing in terms of this existential and inescapable sense of uncertainty.
In the aftermath of the historic British vote to leave the EU, openDemocracy is asking for our readers' thoughts on Brexit and what needs to happen next in 350 words. We've had an extraordinary response and you can read them all here.
Get our weekly email