Brexit, Trump: ‘Taking Back Control’?


Roy Coleman

We are running a one-day conference 14th June in Liverpool on the centrality of emotion in the Brexit / Trump era and how politics and power are sculpted upon emotional and postemotional practices (see details at the end of this post). This post is a preamble to the conference.

The current political mantras of ‘taking back control’ in the USA and across Europe are controversial. As political sloganeering goes this idea of ‘control’ has tapped into wider elemental passions. How the slogan of ‘control’ (with its allusion to harder borders – national, political, emotional) will help shape the form of future politics, economies and states is not yet fully known. This is because of the problem of state leadership and the disjuncture between this and what Gramsci called the “people-nation”. Any relationship that binds state and ‘people’ is always in need of emotion-political work. The stability of this relationship is always in the balance and never assured: is it a relationship of “unstable equilibrium”.

While it hardly needs saying that politics and the power of states cannot be reduced to emotion, it was Gramsci who placed the passions as the bedrock upon which politics moves, directs and constrains us. Politics lives on the terrain of the emotional – collective and individual: it directs and misdirects societies – inviting support, indifference and hostility to a political regime at one and same time.  For Gramsci, culture, ethics, morality and folklore are among the processes where the political is formed – where the political finds ‘success’ or ‘failure’. This is true whether for liberal, socialist and authoritarian politics. It is also true for the Trump and Brexit phenomena, which many commentators have depicted a victory for fearful, xenophobic and an increasingly racialized politics. But these do not necessarily represent the passions that underpinned why people voted for Brexit or Trump

Gramsci reminds us that politics (like a society itself) is not “a rationalistic, deductive, abstract process”. Many social scientists have routed experience from their models and thinking. They have reduced culture, and thereby emotion, to an effect of other, presumably more important, ‘structures’. Whereas Gramsci, like Durkheim in his way, conceive of culture, conscience and the passions as the ground on and through which thinking, politics, social representations and social change occur. It can be said that the failure of the Remain Campaign in the UK was in part a failure to positively impassion voters, underpinned by an artificial and limited middle-class coalition of ‘cosmopolitanism’. Gramsci’s words from nearly a century ago seem apt: “This is a cosmopolitan anxiety …of the bourgeoisie who travels for business or pleasure, of nomads rather than stable productive citizens”.

At the highest levels of the Remain and Leave campaigns the emotional regimes that drove them were artificial, representing sectional interests and only partially – if at all – wedded to an understanding of the historical and political situation that most people are living through and find themselves in.

Neither Gramsci nor Durkheim celebrated emotion and culture uncritically. Both suggested that emotional regimes can also be manipulated and bastardized through centralizing political forms and artificially conceived to promote specific national-economic interests.  Gramsci spoke of this when he talked of the dangers of a totalizing politics that “would like artificially to create a definitely inflexible language which will not admit changes in space and time”. Similarly, Durkheim warned of dangerous (anomic) forces in society that include a disconnection between state and society. In this scenario, the state grows increasingly remote, unable to build collective representations with emotional resonance in the wider society. He called this kind of state “the mystic solution”: a type of quasi-Fascist state whereby individuals are merely the tools of state machinations which are themselves mystified and removed from public scrutiny.

With Brexit and Trump we are very much in the territory first outlined by Gramsci and Durkheim. Our conference will address how we are witness to a crisis for the state in these times: which is to say, a crisis of authority and leadership. Fundamentally, these crises are struggled over, defined and articulated at the level of culture and, as both these thinkers argued, this always encompasses the moral and ethical nature of state power and leadership. Such processes also engender a concern with state violence and the problem of working with and carrying forward an unforced wider consent for state rule. The UK Snap election of June 2017 is one instance of a desperate attempt to forge consent for a specific neoliberal economic programme and form of exit from the EU. This ‘consent’ seems less certain than ever, even with a conservative victory.

As part of the conference we shall talk about how emotion is central to political change, the maintenance of statecraft and the role of the spontaneous as well as the artificially orchestrated passions of ‘the people’. Emotion, and its binding properties, is essential for regressive and progressive change and what Gramsci was clear about was the unpredictability of these processes. Looking to progressive change, Gramsci and Durkheim were clear about the necessity of the passions in building a compassionate and ethical politics. In idealistic terms, both argued, politics is akin to religion as the expressive, experiential and emotional terrain albeit within an increasingly rationalized human existence.

Will Brexit and Trump be able to lead based on the cacophony of emotional energies they have unleashed (disenchantment, anger, sense of injustice/unfairness and weariness)? Will they give rise to new collective fictions of state unity (around nationalism, self-interest, self-preservation)? Are we heading for a greater de-compassionate politics, a more mechanistic approach to human suffering? Will voter disappoint and disillusionment be intensified if, and when, the ‘will of the people’ is transformed into the continuities of neoliberal capitalism?

 Or will the Trump and Brexit victories propel a coalition of progressive forces advocating a less scripted, more spontaneous passion-politics that contests self-interest, competitive individualism and xenophobia?

For Gramsci and Durkheim such a progressive movement cannot be forced or induced ‘from above’ in the form of a rationalistic ‘plan of action’. The unity of feeling (passion) and knowing (intellect) is – perhaps paradoxically – possible only when people sense other possibilities and do not feel like they are being forced to do so.



The Conference Line-up 

Brexit, Trump and ‘Taking Back Control’: Emotions and Power

Wednesday 14 June 2017 The Bluecoat in Liverpool

 Book a place:

09.45   Registration, tea, coffee (Tea/coffee available during and between sessions)


10.30 Roy Coleman University of Liverpool

The ‘Return’ of Emotion, Politics and the Repressed

Steve Tombs Open University

Taking Back Control? The State, Social Murder and Social Protection

 CHAIR: Zoe Alker (30 minutes questions)


12.10   Samantha Fletcher Open University

 “The best you could hope for was to keep things sh*t, that’s just messed up”: Class struggle in the age of “Brexit” and Trump

 CHAIR: Madeleine Rungius (20 minutes of questions)


1.00     Free Lunch!


2.00     Stjepan Mestrovic Texas A & M

Brexit and Trump’s victory: Revolt against postemotional society?

CHAIR: Andrew Kirton (30 minutes questions)


3.15    Daniela Tepe-Befrage

Austerity, Moral Economy and Brexit

 Ciara Kierans University of Liverpool

Ambivalence: truth commitment and analytical uncertainty

CHAIR: Ross McGarry (30 minutes questions)


4.45     RoundtableEmotion, Violence and Future Politics

Free discussion with attendees and speakers


5.30    Conference Close




Published by EmotionalStates

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

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