What’s the Matter with England?

by J. M. Tyree

“Facts just twist the truth around…” -Talking Heads

ScreenHunter_2133 Aug. 01 18.12During the run-up to the referendum on Britain’s relationship with the European Union, I noticed a persistent commercial for SlimFast weight-loss shakes being broadcast on the non-BBC channels. A sultry voice suggested: “Have a go, ladies, and see what you can do.” That’s pretty much what the angry and aging voters of England and Wales decided for themselves and the rest of Britain. The tagline of the commercial and the product slogan – “Works for Me” – struck me as remarkable. SlimFast wasn’t guaranteeing that their product worked, or that it worked in any specific, quantifiable, medically verifiable way. But the idea that it “Works for Me” suggested that it might work for you. In fact, the product might or might not work at all, but the company could always say that they never said it did, exactly. Brexit was not as advertised, not As Seen on TV.

This curiously philosophical commercial popped to mind when I watched a series of interviews with the residents of Stoke-on-Trent, a heavily Labour area that went 70% for Brexit. One pottery producer said that production might need to be cut due to economic uncertainty and reduced demand in light of Brexit. But an angry-looking woman retorted to the BBC’s cameras that the media should come back in twelve months and see how much better everything would be after Brexit. “I can’t wait for it to happen,” I think she said. (But if things were going so swimmingly, what was she so angry about?) Brexit might not work – not actually work, not in reality. Most experts predict a recession, potentially a bad one. (The “so-called experts” were cast into a somewhat similar position to a doctor or trained nutritionist advocating that there might be other ways to slim down.) But the real historical consequences don’t matter, because we’re living in a post-truth era of SlimFast politics. Ladies, Brexit “Works for Me.” As Katharine Viner, the Editor of The Guardian, put it in her Brexit Op-Ed, “How Technology Disrupted the Truth,” “When ‘facts don’t work’ and voters don’t trust the media, everyone believes in their own ‘truth’ – and the results, as we have just seen, can be devastating.”

It’s tempting to call this phenomenon The Americanization of Facts, although in truth it’s a global feature of enbubbled media, characteristic of Russia Today television broadcasts as much as the British tabloids and the Fox News Channel. Americans might be tempted to roll their eyes at the seeming shock of British liberals about this situation – been there, done that, here we go again. The problem goes beyond garden-variety bias or even propaganda. Instead, we conform to a consumerist conception of truth as something that we select from a menu of choices. The inside-out thinking of Madison Avenue and the logic of climate-change denial has become basic to our era’s entire zeitgeist.

Even the name the leaders of the Leave campaign bestowed upon themselves – “Brexiteers” – implied some sort of pioneering, westward-ho swashbuckingly visionary and fun philosophy, when in fact their project already begins to look a little bit more like Klaus Kinski’s boat trip in Fitzcarraldo. But surely there is also a component of fundamentalism thinking – a doubly “American” logic – at work here as well. The early Christian theologian Tertullian, when challenged about his belief in a three-in-one God, wrote that “it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd.” This has been famously paraphrased as “I believe because it is absurd.” Our era of “truthiness,” by comparison, smacks more of the supermarket aisle than of anything larger worth our devotion – it’s a postmodern consumer version of faith rather than the genuine article.

Such, such were the joys of the Orwellian rhetoric of the Leave campaign, whose giant poster on the Kingsland Road in Dalston read, “Love Europe, Not the EU.” (40% of Londoners voted to Leave, and they cannot all live in Bexley and Dagenham, although nobody ever discusses this uncomfortable fact.) Nigel Farage’s infamous BREAKING POINT poster featured an image of a seemingly endless line of refugees – an image revealed not to be from the waiting room of your local NHS clinic, but rather from a different country, and taken by a photographer who wanted to draw the world’s attention to (not away from) their plight.

On the left, legitimate concerns about European neoliberalism kept some from full-throatedly supporting Remain, even though the form of Anglosphere neoliberalism imposed by the Tory right has been demonstrably as bad or worse. Maybe they’re right that in the end the fate of Europe will look more like Greece than Scotland, but few in Europe would agree, and besides, that was also the argument of UKIP. One problem with “Lexit” (the leftist case for Brexit) is that a recession (a likely result of Brexit) would hit the poorest people the hardest. (The early economic indicators are not good: the UK’s Purchasing Managers’ Index has promptly fallen to its lowest point since the depths of the financial crisis in 2009.) Without prosperity it seems difficult to imagine any of the goals of progressives coming to pass; on the contrary, if things get worse surely the underlying conditions of fear and insecurity will aid and abet the far right. The reasonable concern with sovereignty makes sense conceptually; in theory a post-Brexit Britain could be as liberal or as leftwing on trade as it pleased, and equally, in theory, the EC might one day be run by unaccountable far-right unelected leaders. But one also might note that the assumption that one’s own countrymen or one’s own representatives inevitably would have one’s own interests at heart, has not always been borne out; certainly that’s not the case in America any longer. Clearly many Scots have concluded that they’d rather chance it with Brussels than with Westminster.

Tons of voters must have thought they were sticking it to David Cameron personally even if the consequences for themselves and their own communities could prove highly self-destructive. Cornwall, which was set to receive around 5 billion pounds in investment from the EU over the next five years, went strongly for Leave. That will show them. “Works For Me” – but who is really working for whom? Who is the “Me” for whom the product is working? Do “you” and “Me” form an “us” with the same interests? Americans know this vicious cycle as the What’s the Matter with Kansas? phenomenon, after the title of a book by Thomas Frank. (Frank’s book appeared as What’s the Matter with America? in the UK.) Voters believe that they are striking a revolutionary blow for freedom against the faceless forces of the corrupt bureaucracy of “Big Government” in Washington, D.C. by selecting GOP candidates. Once in power, Republicans defund and paralyze public services until they no longer function properly, which then increases the public’s disgruntlement. This, in turn, leads to more rightwing victories at the polls. The whole façade is based on a lie but it’s a lie that “Works for Me,” if by “Me” we mean those political forces whose deep-seated wish is to destroy the State and have all services delivered by for-profit corporations or faith-based charities. The Americanization of facts involves an ideology that is foreign to the fabric of British culture but whose vanguard occupied several key seats at the table in David Cameron’s government. Their ranks have been thinned somewhat, in part by reality and in part by Theresa May’s triumph over her cabinet rival George Osborne and his chums. Her speedy about-face on austerity and her opening gambit about classless togetherness, apart from being a politically cunning land-grab of the center ground when Labour is on its heels, might also be a warning signal that her government forecasters believe that WINTER IS COMING, economically speaking.

The reasons why the Scots voted differently from England are complex. The national political leaders of Scotland did not spend day after day, month after month, and year after year attempting to persuade their electorate and themselves of something that was manifestly not true, namely, that the long shadow of the Great Recession that has fallen across Britain and the omnipresent evidence of shattered communities has everything to do with immigration and nothing to do with government austerity measures. Scots knew this wasn’t true because their country requires more immigration in order to thrive economically. The rise of the Scottish Nationalist Party has worked consistently in tandem with the consolidation and extremity of Tory Austerity and radical policies on schools and hospitals down south. The Brexit referendum was lost, in a sense, when English voters bought in to the deceptive Tory picture of austerity as the essence of a successful “long-term economic plan” offered in the general election of 2015. Now the UK risks losing Scotland, a potential outcome laden with historical irony, since it would be an own-goal of self-dismemberment done in the name of sovereignty. Cameron did not invent the Americanization of Facts, of course, but in another irony of history his government was broken by the very same post-truth forces it helped to mainstream.

“Works for Me” – but is the bigger product that’s for sale here, the world system of global neoliberalism, really working at this stage? If the proverbial pie cannot grow any more, then some will feel that fighting for what’s left is inevitable. Like those dogs that were given shocks in a random order in a well-known psychological experiment, we have begun to bite one another in what the researchers called “learned helplessness.” Over the foreseeable future, it appears that there will be a lot of people calling for a lot of other people’s heads, infighting, chaos, mass violence, the reinventing of various ideological wheels and the purveying of political snake oil – a sort of addled and terrifying early 1970s vibe. (“We blew it,” said Captain America in 1969’s Easy Rider, closing one decade’s hopes and opening another decade’s fears. The line could be the slogan of the 21st century.)

In the midst of an era that all too often feels like a bad dream, a call for a return to empiricism is a reasonable stance. But I also think it’s worth at least considering following the instructions of the Slimfast commercial literally and to the letter, ignoring its sick emphasis on physical weight, fully embracing its upside-down logic, and attempting to radicalize the peculiar subjectivism of its goofy inner message. If you’re younger and out of a career, try and find out what works for you, not what works for them: volunteer teaching, street art, poetry, documentary film, cabaret, nonprofit publishing, religious vocation, charity shop hours, street gardening, environmental activism, racial justice, feminism, beekeeping, child-rearing, scholarship, music, sustainable farming. There are so many paths that lead away from the mazes of the cultural obsessions with money, power, and physical beauty, of the Trump/Murdoch mercantile logic of “#winning” that dominates Anglophone culture. If we must really live through their post-truth era, then surely we can choose to believe whatever we wish, no matter how utopian, irrational, and unrealistic. This liberation is fictional, of course, like the search for virtual Pokemon in real spaces, but that doesn’t stop it from being good fun. It can happen anywhere – it might happen everywhere – and Britain would be as good a place as any in which to begin this mild-mannered revolution.


J. M. Tyree is the author of Vanishing Streets: Journeys in London, forthcoming from Stanford University Press. He is the Nonfiction Editor of New England Reviewand Distinguished Visiting Professor at VCUarts.