The Unbearable Lightness of Brexit: A Philosophy for the Time Being

Marc Farrant concocts a philosophy for the time being out of the mess of Brexit.

In politics, is there such a thing as overwinning? What would it mean to win too much; to achieve an overwinning (the Flemish term used in Brussels to denote a pyrrhic victory)?

An example: the year is 279 BC. Tens of thousands of men face each other across a dry Apulian plain in southern Italy. Armed with slings and swords, cavalry and elephants and other burdened beasts, the Romans and Greeks are well-matched adversaries. The Greeks, however, are commanded by Pyrrhus of Epirus, a celebrated master-tactician fresh from victories in Lucania the year before. The following historical record of the battle of Asculum is less clear than the legend we all know. In a time before the invention of the fact (let alone of fact-checking), one must side either with Plutarch or with Cassio Dio. By all accounts, the fighting was horrific and thousands died. Indeed, the brutality of ancient warfare staggers the mind. At the nearby location of Cannae, where Hannibal won a famous victory over the Rome some 60 or so years later, archaeologists have discovered corpses of Roman soldiers who, once encircled by a ferocious enemy, deliberately abandoned the fight, dropped to their knees and buried their heads in the sand in order to suffocate themselves to death. It is from Plutarch that we receive Pyrrhus’ famous line (in paraphrase): ‘Another victory like that and we’re done for’.[1]

Pyrrhus of Epirus

Pyrrhus’ overwinning provides an apt framework for a discussion of the philosophy of Brexit. I should add immediately that such a philosophy is not genitive in the sense that it is of, or belongs to, the Brexiteers or other individual actors within the first-as-farce-then-as-tragedy drama that is still unfolding. The philosophy of Brexit I outline here is not against whimsically mapping characters onto a figurative plain (i.e. who are the Romans, us or them, the British or the Europeans? Is Nigel Farage Hannibal, marching across the alps threatening the empire, or is Farage/[insert populist here] the oppressed nascent republic trying to hold back the foreign phalanx? And who is Pyrrhus anyway, simply all of us?).

Rather than prompting easy analogies Pyrrhus’ victory allows us the possibility of asking more fundamental questions in light of the stoic failure this enterprise necessarily entails. As follows in the sections below, these questions include: the ontological question of ‘what is’ the ‘Leave’ victory? The epistemological question of how we come to know about such a victory; how is this victory is represented? Finally, the ethical question of what a victory is worth; at what cost is a victory won (or lost)? Acknowledging in advance the pyrrhic enterprise of a philosophy of Brexit is not only to approximate an appropriate response to the times but to indicate the dangers inherent in the impulse to rationally delineate, to separate fact from the opinion, or history from legend –  even at the moment when such a separation seems most urgent. Rather than seeking in the conditions of our oppression the sources of our redemption, instead below I move beyond a recuperation of rational in order to rescue the notion of the post-truth from the jaws of victory.

Through a hotch-potch amalgamation of different philosophical lenses I devise here a philosophy for the time being, a provisional philosophy not beholden to the necessity of producing static and digestible facts.

Such a philosophy is not therefore an argument about whether one ought to stay in or leave the European union. This philosophy is rather designed for the being of time under Brexit; as a tool for living in the purgatorial time caught between violent rupture and banal continuity.

War By Other Means: A Narratology of Brexit

Carl von Clausewitz

Carl von Clausewitz famously defined war as politics by other means. But is the battlefield metaphor with regard to Brexit somewhat misplaced? The rhetoric of war is everywhere (the remoaners vs. the remainers, etc.). For Clausewitz war is what happens when the political machinery breaks down and fails to contain the conflictual forces that structure the polis. But it might be worth considering how Brexit marks a political era that reverses this proposition: politics has become war by other means. This does not simply mean that politics has become a battlefield of opposed sides. By reversing the proposition war loses its political ambitions; war is not in the service of a political agenda but has placed politics in the service of mindless destruction. How else to characterise the nihilism of Brexit, the wilful abandonment of self-interest, the democratic erosion of democracy itself?

The decay at the heart of the West and its institutions lies in this totalisation of the political by the non-political. This explains the inability of political commentators and of political language to explain what is happening.

Political discourse can only explain things in terms of politics; actions in the political arena are always seen in light of their intended consequences, in light of an attempt to further politics in either this direction or that direction. Such a discourse understands the political act as a means to an end, but Brexit does not follow this logic. Brexit involves a different kind of plotting and a different kind of rhetoric to go with it.

The Russian formalist Vladimir Propp, in his reflections on the structure of fairy-tales, describes how repetition in written verse can be seen as analogous to tautology in folk-reasoning. We see this repetition and its logical effect everywhere with Brexit: the embittered cries that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ and ‘Leave means Leave’ are the two obvious examples. They betray something fundamental about Brexit; the referendum was not a means to an end but an end in itself. This is why ‘Brexit’ has no referent other than itself, no utopian post-European society. The tautologous structure of Brexit reveals another narratological characteristic. Our politicians are no longer agents or actors in an arena but characters assigned with a political function, as Roman Jacobson might have put it. They do not create the story but exist in order to serve it. The ascendency of Jacob Rees Mogg is typical in this regard. As Georges Bataille once wrote of the Marquis de Sade, we can thus say of Farage or Rees Mogg: ‘if he had not existed he would have had to be invented’.

Given the narratological structure of Brexit it is clear to see why a corresponding (anti)rhetoric of post-truth or fake news has emerged. As a means to an end, rhetoric – the art of persuasion – in the time of Brexit has become indistinguishable from anti-rhetoric. Anti-rhetoric is not simply discourse with no meaning whatsoever (such as Welsh Conservative Andrew Davies’ comment: ‘We’ll make breakfast a success’). Anti-rhetoric is the performance of rhetoric divorced from the necessity of reference to a domain beyond opinion (i.e. truth or factual truth). As Hannah Arendt argues, however, politics is not the domain of truth but precisely the domain of competing opinions. Accordingly, the negation of politics by the non-political (the negation of the link between means and ends, between political actions and real world consequences) paradoxically results in the politicisation of everything. We can see this through the techniques of anti-rhetoric that are everywhere at work in the public sphere today. They constitute a debating technique which seeks to shut down debate. For example, any argumentative position that asserts that the counter-position is subjective, irrational, or emotional tacitly also claims the position of reason without having to go through processes of rational argumentation (for instance, backing up one’s opinion with reference to factual or worldly evidence). This technique of anti-rhetoric has a long history, for instance in the suppression of women, but today manifests in an inverted form: the sheer fact of being subjective, the mere fact of having an opinion, is equated with factuality itself and elevated to the status of truth.

So far I have constructed a provisional narratology and rhetorical analysis of Brexit on the basis of a negation of the political by the non-political. I have suggested that Brexit cannot be understood as a means to an end in political terms. This is why contemporary politics, on both sides of the Atlantic, resembles a pyrrhic victory. Yet clearly Brexit is a means to some end. In the next section I define this end in economic terms and I go on to explore the ethical situation that results from this negation of the political.

‘You can have any colour you like as long as its black’: Free Will and The Ethics of Brexit:

Philosophers pride themselves on distinguishing between causation and correlation. In the case of Brexit, however, the correlation with increasing inequality is misleading; increasing inequality is not only correlated but is the primary cause of Brexit insofar as it is an intended outcome. This means precisely that Brexit was paid for by those who wish to increase inequality. This barely requires spelling out: the entire Brexit movement has been funded by the off-shore wealth of the richest; the only vision offered of a post-European Britain is as a neoliberal tax haven that will make them richer; a biased and privately owned media has been the engine of the leave campaign. The actual reasons for Brexit are therefore no way near as interesting as its visible character, by which I mean the observable manifestations of its own account of itself in the political arena.

For Freud, the dream or the dreamwork functions by displacing into new forms repressed structures that reside in the unconscious. The task of the analyst is to interpret these new forms in light of the repressed structures that they mask. The political dreamwork of Brexit is constituted via a displacement that goes by the name ‘sovereignty’. A creed of sovereignty – sovereignty as self-control, as autonomy, and above all as self-sufficiency – in fact dissimulates an economic logic (which may or may not need to go by the name  of neoliberalism, a term which no doubt masks as much as it reveals). Certainly referenda and forms of direct democracy are well suited to an age of consumer capitalism and its doctrine of individual choice. The Brexit referendum epitomises the thwarted democratising effect of consumer capitalism and its great levelling of high and low cultures. Through its creeping commodification of everyday existence the market has created the condition of general fungibility that denounces experts and disparages truth. By sustaining an illusion of choice, through a surface rhetoric of the freedom of thought and opinion, this market logic has in fact monopolised the space of meaningful democratic debate. As Theodor Adorno once argued of consumer capitalism: ‘something is provided for everyone so that no-one can escape’. Is this feeling of hopelessness and inescapability not that which underpins Brexit, on both sides of the debate?

Considering this bastardisation of sovereignty is there not a way to rescue a notion of self-determination, of free will?

So far debates around the ethics of Brexit have focused on citizenship and democracy. For example, the legitimacy of leaving the EU due to a democratic deficit that was palpably exposed by the Eurocrisis. Or, alternatively, that Brexit is constitutively unethical since citizenship is an individual’s concern; no individual has the right to deprive another of his or her citizenship (i.e. my right to live and work abroad does no material harm to other British citizens, so as the one most affected I ought to have the final say about my own citizenship). However, such debates miss a larger ethical consideration. The question of ethics arises not with regard to who has the right to decide but with regard to the nature of the decision. As Nietzsche argues, the consequences of a decision can change depending upon the perspective of the individual who decides. This is the lesson of the eternal return; that our decisions take on a different weight once viewed from the perspective of infinity. As the Czech novelist Milan Kundera writes: ‘Einmal ist keinmal. What happens but once might as well not have happened at all’. Thinking about the individual decision from this perspective shifts ethics from questions about the other, of how to act towards others, to the self. In light of the eternal return all our actions are exposed, there are no shadows in which to hide. In this blinding light one is confronted with the question: can you live with yourself?

History of course only happens once, our decisions are always contingent. ‘History,’ Kundera writes, ‘is as light as individual human life, unbearably light, light as a feather, as dust swirling into the air, as whatever will no longer exist tomorrow’. We do not get to repeat our decisions and change our minds, yet – as ephemeral – history forgives as humans forget. Nietzsche reminds us that if we are therefore to have convictions, if we are going to act as if our decisions were not contingent but sovereign products of our free will, then we had better be prepared to face the consequences on equal terms; to face the consequences as sovereign, as indelible, as permanent. Such an ethical commitment transforms what we mean by sovereignty.

The Sovereignty of Truth

It is through this transformation of sovereignty, from the capacity to choose to the capacity to endure, that we can rescue post-truth from the jaws of a pyrrhic victory, from the unbearable lightness of Brexit. For Bataille, sovereignty denotes an experience of the impossible. This sovereignty has little to do with that of individuals and nation-states, although it remains in principle an experience in opposition to servility and subordination. If the nihilism of our present era constitutes a debasement of all values, this experience of sovereignty – an experience Bataille links to the miraculous, to a sense of life beyond utility – marks the terrain for a re-evaluation of those values (including the logic of modern political economy).


For some, contemporary politics marks the consummation of postmodern relativism, yet this appropriation of ‘relativism’ by those who fear a collapse of rationality marks the real debasement. Just as the illusion of choice in the marketplace is sustained by its fundamental negation, lies and fake news only come to life upon a background of unyielding truth-claims. The relativism of truth is not an excuse for the ills that plague us, it is the missed opportunity to correct them and think anew. As Bataille writes of Nietzsche: ‘To imagine, as Nietzsche said, a tragic situation and be able to laugh at it presupposes an endless mediation; such a thing can rarely be given in immediate experience, in real experience’. What is given beyond real experience? The experience of the sovereignty not of Truth as such but of the failure of any particular truth to amount to the status of Truth as such. This is the lesson of the combined insights of the eternal return, of endless mediation, and Nietzsche’s proto-postmodern, or post-truth, perspectivism. As Nietzsche argued in The Genealogy of Morals: ‘All seeing is essentially perspective, and so is all knowing. The more emotions we allow to speak in a given matter, the more different eyes we can put on in order to view a given spectacle, the more complete will be our conception of it, the greater our “objectivity”.’ To save post-truth from the jaws of victory is thus not merely to deny that truth can ever be singularly captured or neatly delineated, but to emphasise the truth of this lack of truth. A century ago the Portuguese modernist, Fernando Pessoa, was similarly writing of tumultuous times in The Book of Disquiet:

History rejects certainty. There are orderly times when everything is wretched, and disorderly times when everything is sublime. Decadent times can be intellectually fertile, and authoritarian times fertile only in feeble-mindedness. Everything intermingles and intersects, and the only truth that exists is in one’s imagination.

By acknowledging the vulnerability of truth more generally, or the timelessness of the loss of truth, this philosophy of Brexit aims to perhaps remind us of the sovereign truth of that timelessness. Indeed, to claim the position of vulnerability, of humility and contingency, is to preclude the possibility of closure. This open philosophy proposes no solution, merely an ethos for the time of waiting without end that Brexit has installed in the contemporary; a philosophy for the time being, at least.

[1]N.B. It is said of Hannibal that he knew how to win a victory but not how to use one. Plutarch’s account of Asculum – the account where Pyrrhus is said to be the winner – paints a similarly violent picture and it this account that has reached us down the ages.

Marc Farrant is a Senior Editor at Review31, has recently finished his PhD at the University of London, and is currently based in Amsterdam.

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