Postemotionalism and the ‘Attack on Democracy’: Reflections on the Murder of Jo Cox (Member of Parliament for Batley and Spen)

Roy Coleman

Knee-jerk reactions and post-rationalizations aside, the tragic murder of impassioned campaigner for global justice, Jo Cox, highlights disturbing tendencies in British politics and society. Jo Cox was no doubt aware of such tendencies that are illustrative of a postemotional politics.

Postemotionalism in politics can be summarised as a tendency towards the “mechanical, intellectual, artificial, and productive powers” of state agents and agencies who are tasked with “systematically faking community and its traits” (Mestrovic, 2015). These traits include the elite orchestration of people-passion and in Arlie Hochschild’s phrase, ‘the managed heart’, the faking of emotional sincerity for sectoral political / commercial ends and the quantification of emotion (as if this gave a credible picture of the ‘state of a nation’). This form of emotional politics is manufactured, unrestrained and destructive. The terrifying murder of Jo Cox on June 16 2016 was not only the action of a deranged individual but also the consequence of a growing institutionalised viciousness illustrative of the postemotional terrain of British politics. This wider barbarian spirit is not particularly new. However, its normalisation in mainstream discussion around immigration, ethnicity and Europe has been at a toxic level for some time, aided and abetted by mainstream media, politicians and organised hate groups, touting a callous disregard for a compassionate informed debate in favour of a fear-fuelled, artificial and wholly illusionary sense of community.

This attempted radicalisation of the ‘British people’ into a fear and loathing mind-set and against all things ‘foreign’ is insidious. The dissemination of postemotional community imaginaries and patriotic narcissism in contemporary Britain (and other ‘progressive’ states) – indicated by UKIP, Britain First, Le pen to Trump and the Orlando Homophobic murders – is not altogether fringe. Instead, it elevates a wider egoistic self-interested politics without moral restraint and with no clear sense of direction. The British ‘debate’ in relation to membership of the European Union is illustrative. The bubbling of resentment, fuelling fragmenting social relations, racism, ethnic cliquing, homophobia, sexism and othering towards those suffering the consequences of war, speaks to an intensification of anti-social forces.  Once unleashed such energies indicate that no authoritative and deliberative moral force is viable in such a society. Government and state are captivated and culpable in postemotional rhetoric that dovetails with savagery in the name of a make-believe community.

What forces are in motion here and with what consequences? The ‘Balkanisation of the West’ (see Mestrovic 1994) – or the unmasking of modern societies to ethnic feuding in competitive and self-preserving locales – becomes an ominous possibility when “a lack of consciousness, uncharted customs, the obscure sentiments and prejudices that evade investigation, predominate”. So wrote Emile Durkheim over a century ago. Democracy, in the sense that Jo Cox understood it, is composed of –Durkheim again – “deliberation, reflection and a critical spirit” which ideally constitute the heart of “public affairs”. Jo’s killer attacked her as the embodiment of this spirit. It is also a collective postemotionalism in British politics that underpins this tragedy.

If MP Jo Cox and sociologist Emile Durkheim have anything in common, it is the concern that democracy is always in danger from postemotionalism and the exploitation of passion for narrow interests. In their own ways, both sought an elusive solidarity that centred on justice and both argued against postemotionalism as the basis for a viable politics. Before the knee-jerking starts (ramping up security for politicians, defending ‘decency’ and ‘civilisation’ etc.) we need to see the attack on Jo Cox as less an attack on democracy and more an attack from within an abominated form of ‘democracy’ and the postemotional barbarianism it openly nurtures at the heart of public life.


Published by EmotionalStates

Roy Coleman: Lecturer and Researcher at University of Liverpool, UK.

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