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

Review by Roy Coleman, Tony Breen, Natalie Robinson and Madeleine Rungius

Around 80 people attended our one-day conference “Emotions and State Power: Brexit, Trump and ‘Taking Back Control” in Liverpool in June 2017. The conference intended to open up discussion on emotions and state power.

Speakers were invited to talk about emotions in relation to current developments in capitalist modernity with reference to Brexit and Trump (BT). Both these phenomena could be understood as pointing to challenges to:

  1. The postemotional and rationalistic regimes that dominate ‘advanced’ democracies 

As well as:

  1. The rationalistic, static and pedantic academic interventions on these and other issues

Brexit and Trump can be understood as a challenge to mainstream (and so-called radical) politics and academic understandings of social change. Either way, BT herald a return to the emotional (repressed) elements of life and politics, for good and bad.

Over the course of the day the invited speakers talked about the mechanisation of emotions and our morbid fascination with violence (Dr Roy Coleman), how the rationalisation of government regulations causes social murder (Professor Steve Tombs), Sam Fletcher discussed the narrowing of political choices and the closing down of debate with Brexit and Trump.  Stjepan Mestrovic discussed the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the US presidential elections and analysed this in terms of her inability to move beyond the postemotional agenda and postemotional governing techniques established in US politics over the last 30 years. Daniela Tepe-Belfrage discussed Brexit as a mobilizer for austerity for women as caregivers and care recipients. Closing the conference Ciara Kierans urged caution in jumping to hasty conclusions in interpreting current politics. Generalizations and static theoretical thinking will only impede understanding. Ambivalence – in conceptual and methodological thinking – is a vital aspect to unpicking the complexities of the politics of our time.

The following notes in no way represents a complete overview of the conference proceedings, merely reflections on some themes that the authors feel were integral to the conference aims. These notes reflect the thoughts and feeling of the authors and not necessarily the speakers.

Conference themes included:

  • The status of emotion in politics and relationship between emotion and political-economy.

Coleman argued for a non-deterministic relationship here; the unpredictability of culture and emotion; the exhaustion of emotional repertoires in postemotional culture mainstream politics and the crisis of leadership this is entailing.

Tombs’ argument rested on the production of regulations as “rational drips” that downplay emotions and make them invisible in the rational process. The confusion, obfuscation and complexity of regulation generate a type of morbidly. The attack on regulation has a deep emotional resonance in popular culture.

Ciara Kierans emphasised the non-reducibility of culture/emotion to static concepts or as merely effects of politics. Her paper presented an argument for a conceptual and methodological holding fire on the BT events, in refusing to generalize about the direction on politics post BT and the nature of support for BT among the populace.

  • Are we witnessing a ‘return’ of emotion in politics?

This was discussed by Roy Coleman in terms of whether the BT phenomena represent a genuine creative moment (albeit one dominated at times by regressive and right-wing forces). He drew upon Emile Durkheim and Antonio Gramsci to argue that ruptures in established politics were – at least in part – reflected and reinforced in emotionally effervescent and spontaneous cultural developments. These are potentially creative moments derived in civil society and challenging to state power.

Stjepan Mestrovic addressed this issue head-on in characterising the Trump victory as explicable in terms of his railing against the postemotionalism consolidated in politics and culture over decades. Whether one agrees with Trump or does not is not the issue: his breaking down of the postemotional standards in US politics represents a shift in cultural practices (albeit a complex and uncertain one). However, the extent to which Trump politics represents a very particular set of economic & political interests and his own ‘faking’ and manufacture of ‘responsibility’ and a ‘new’ moral sensibility was something that could be thought about some more. The institutional forms that now brutalize, oppress and segregate racialized groups in the US and elsewhere is something also to contrast to postemotionalism as a phenomena that infects society. Maybe postemotionalism is more specifically located and deposited in aspects of state power?

  • The problematic nature of contemporary collective emotion in its exhaustive forms

Roy Coleman discussed this in terms of “fossilization” and “ossification”, concepts developed from Gramsci. Mirroring the work of Mestrovic and his concept of the postemotional society, Coleman developed the idea of capitalist modernity and statecraft are inevitably fossilized (becoming over rationalized, dogmatic and in the process suffering legitimation crisis) leading to the possibility of BT type phenomena.

Tombs argued that the ‘protective state’, and its undergirding by a more compassionate social discourse and institutional formation, has been under threat for decades. The neoliberal re-regulation agenda has clearly moved beyond this and fostered an impenetrable, hyper-rationalized and set of procedures that obfuscate responsibility, accountability and morality. The neoliberal regulatory agenda can itself be read as a deliberate political practice of exhaustion in its impenetrability and lack of moral basis.

  • To what extent is class an issue in BT phenomena?

Those speakers and members of the audience who addressed class were the least likely to address emotion as a sociological phenomenon. For Sam Fletcher the events surrounding BT related to Poulantzas’s ideas about the capitalist state understood as a structural relation. Her paper suggested that BT are effectively closing down debate and, as political phenomena, offer no real choice in terms of political progressive strategy. Where such a strategy might come from was not clear.

Interestingly, Sam Fletcher decided not to use “Brexit” and “Trump” to refer to phenomena which are more complex than these two words suggest; words that are also consistently used to render current politics indecipherable from the standpoint of mainstream politics.

For Stjepan Mestrovic, it was the political decline of the rural population and middle class in the US (and their increasing feeling of ‘insecurity’) that underpinned the Trump ‘revolt’ against postemotional politics. For him, Marxism offers only a limited analysis in that it often prioritizes very particular forms of struggle (‘working class struggle’) at the expense of a wider “feeling politics” (as Coleman termed it) that would encompass compassion on a wider and more inclusive social footing.

For Tombs re-regulation is a class specific form of dominance in, around and through the state. Although he did not refer to postemotionalism, his idea of the abstracted and obfuscating nature of regulatory discourse reminds us of a development of Mestrovic’s initial thoughts on postemotionalism.

In conclusion

Steve Tombs also talked about the exhaustive state of current politics: the exhaustion of the regulatory discourse. He addressed the ongoing social murder in the work place and how the making of “better” regulations equals the unmaking of social protection in the neo-liberalist state.

In terms of Stjepan Mestrovic’s paper, a vocal minority in the audience criticised his analysis and argued that postemotionalism would not take into consideration the different experiences of rationalised emotions. Clinton’s ‘postemotional smile’ could also be seen in terms of a gendered practice and expression. For Mestrovic however, Obama practiced the same postemotional smile in similar situations. While members of the audience also criticised Mestrovic for ‘ignoring’ class and Marxist dialects, Mestrovic himself turns to his excellent re-thinking of Durkheim as the theoretical scaffolding for his work. More usefully, Coleman identified convergence between the work of Durkheim, Gramsci and Mestrovic in his introductory address.

In “Gender and Social Care after Brexit” Daniela Tepe-Belfrage discussed austerity of the care sector, which predominantly affects women as care givers and caretakers in the UK. With Brexit it is expected that caretakers without the right to residence will leave the country which could contribute to spiralling up austerity and its harmful consequences. She points out the potential of emotion research in the field of austerity and Brexit.

The papers of Roy Coleman, Stjepan Mestrovic and Ciara Kierans held together many of the key themes. The focus on culture and emotion in relation to BT herald ambiguity, non-reductive analysis and methodological ambivalence, captured in Roy Coleman’s request to avoid fossilized thinking (under whatever political-theoretical banner). Kierans’s concluding paper highlighted analytic ambivalence as a way of understanding, and encouraging us to “unpick” and recognize ambivalence – as something to be welcomed not avoided. The audience seemed open to this idea that the analytical tool of ambivalence opens pathways, in which one need not be either for Trump or for Clinton (for example) and, instead, draw on the complexities in the cultural processes which may not be solely determined by postemotionalism or spontaneous, raw emotions.

Overall, this conference was not entirely successful in challenging the ‘rationalist’ accounts in our politics and theorizing. This is reflected in the concerns of this blog. And, as some of us are academics, we are tethered to rationalist visons or futures in which we find emotion difficult to think about (except in pejorative terms). Universities are also populated by the figure(s) of the ‘pure pedant’, the group or individual who seek “to know without feeling” (Gramsci).

Modernist-rationalist thinking and practice attempt to fictionalize the world and transform social life in its image. Such ‘modernist fictions’ are present in BT. They are not so much something to be rejected but are themselves revealing of human attempts to understand and ‘be’ in the world. They are cultural products whose fictional nature we often mistake for universal or objective truth.

The Programme

Wednesday 14 June 2017: The Bluecoat in Liverpool

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)

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-Belfrage
Gender and Social Care after Brexit

Ciara Kierans University of Liverpool
Ambivalence: truth commitment and analytical uncertainty

CHAIR: Ross McGarry (30 minutes questions)

4.45 Roundtable – Emotion, Violence and Future Politics
Free discussion with attendees and speakers
Chair: Gabe Mythen

5.30 Conference Close




Published by EmotionalStates

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

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