Fintan O’Toole: Brexit offers the jagged razor of incoherent English nationalism

Leaving the EU is a form of self-harm for suffering communities

'I hurt myself today/To see if I still feel." – Trent Reznor, Hurt.

Why do people cut themselves? Obviously because they are unhappy, frustrated, angry. They feel that no one cares about them, no one listens to them. But it is still hard to understand the attractions of inflicting pain on yourself.

Two things seem to make cutting addictive. One is that it gives the pain you feel a name and a location. You can feel it and see it – it has an immediate focus that is somehow more tolerable than the larger, deeper distress. The other is that it provides the illusion of control. You choose to do it; you are taking an action and producing a result. It is a kind of power, even if the only one you can exercise that power over is yourself, and even if the only thing you can do to yourself is damage.

The thing to remember is that, even though these actions are irrational, the distress is often entirely rational. It may be well founded. Maybe it’s true that nobody cares about you. Maybe your parents are so wrapped up in their own conflicts and obsessions that they don’t really listen to you or pay attention to what’s going on in your life. Maybe you feel powerless because you actually are powerless.

Delusional disillusions

Being angry about the European Union isn’t a psychosis – it’s a mark of sanity. I would go so far as to suggest that anyone who is not disillusioned with the EU is suffering from delusions.

Just look at what’s happening to Greece: the EU is slowly, sadistically and quite deliberately turning one of its own member states into a third-world country. And it is doing this simply to make a point. No serious person now believes that the EU’s Greek policies are working or will work. Greece’s infamous debts were 100 per cent of GDP in 2007. The so-called bailouts have pushed them up to 180 per cent now and a projected 250 per cent by 2060. And all for what? To satisfy some crudely religious notion that sinners must be severely punished if virtue is to flourish.

A polity that inflicts such pointless suffering on some of its most vulnerable citizens is morally askew.

The EU lost its moral compass when the Berlin Wall fell. Before that, it was in a competition against communism. The generations of western European leaders who had experienced the chaos of the 1930s and 1940s were anxious to prove that a market system could be governed in such a way as to create full employment, fair opportunities and steady progress towards economic equality.

But when the need to compete with alternative ideologies went away after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the EU gradually abandoned its social democratic and Christian Democratic roots. It also moved away from evidence-based economics – the German-led austerity drive after 2008 has been impervious to the realities of its own failure.

The social consequences have been shrugged off. Inequality has risen across the continent: the richest seven million people in Europe now have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 662 million people. There are now 123 million people in the EU at risk of poverty. That's a quarter of the EU population.

This has been allowed to happen because the fear of social and political chaos went out of the system. There is a European technocratic elite that has lost its memory. It has forgotten that poverty, inequality, insecurity and a sense of powerlessness have drastic political repercussions.

The EU was founded on a kind of constructive pessimism. Behind its drive towards inclusion and equality lay those two powerful words: or else. It was an institution that knew that if things are not held together by collective justice, things will fall apart. In the best sense, the EU itself was a Project Fear. Without that fear, the project became arrogant, complacent and obsessed with grand schemes such as the ill-conceived euro.

People abandoned

Working-class communities in

England

, like their counterparts in most of the EU, are absolutely right to feel that they have been abandoned. Their distress is real. And

Brexit

gives their pain a name and a location – immigrants, Brussels bureaucrats. It counters their sense of powerlessness with a moment of real power. Brexit would, after all, be a very big thing to do.

But it’s still self-harm. For the cynical leaders of the Brexit campaign, the freedom they desire is the freedom to dismantle the environmental, social and labour protections that they call “red tape”. They want to sever the last restraints on the very market forces that have caused the pain. They offer a jagged razor of incoherent English nationalism to distressed and excluded communities and say: “Go on, cut yourself, it feels good.”

And if Brexit happens it will feel good. It will be exhilarating and empowering. It will make English hearts beat faster and the blood flow more quickly. Until they eventually notice that it’s their own blood that is flowing.