Snapping out of Brexit: An invitation to Sociological Citizenship

As the June 8 snap election approaches and variations on the theme of Brexit creep into competing party pledges, a breath-catching pause that allows us to figure out what Brexit really is, how we have reacted to it so far, and how we might think about and act differently towards it this time may prove to be a fruitful endeavour, especially when so much is currently at stake; from the state of the economy, and everything that hinges on it, to the UK’s direction of travel not just politically, but culturally and socially too. This article will offer some critical reflections on all the above, while also arguing that the forthcoming general election offers an opportunity to (re)democratise ourselves, by breaking the mould of the thinking habits and voting behaviours that bring about or fail to stop phenomena like Brexit. Unsurprisingly, the role of sociology as a valuable resource with which to think about and act towards politics will be celebrated and “exported” as a “technology” for thinking about and (re)acting towards the social world around us.

What Brexit really is

While interpretations of Brexit abound, depending on how we think, who we are, and where we situate ourselves on the social ladder and the ideological map, it is important to offer some definitions so that our discussions of Brexit don’t undermine themselves by a lack of clarity. Brexit is hereby understood as the outcome of last year’s referendum which was held by obscuring its actual advisory (consultative) nature and proclaiming it instead to be binding (legislative). This goes against the relevant legislation, democratic processes, and rules which require parliamentary approval before an advisory/consultative referendum can be implemented. The EU Referendum Act is no exception, which leaves little room for doubt about the government’s intention to wilfully deceive voters by making them believe that their decision amounted to an accomplished fact rather than something to be discussed within parliament as is the case in liberal representative democracies like ours. The electorate, in turn, reacted by making a choice expecting its voice to be heard without any interference from the institutional guardians of parliamentary democracy, be it the Parliament itself or the high court.

Brexit and the rise of post-democratic non-citizenship

Seen in this light, Brexit could be likened to a political autoimmune which undermined democratic citizenship by allowing the government and the electorate alike to use the tools, forums, and institutions of democracy (publicity campaigns, voting) against its principles and content (referendum legislation, rational argument), to deliver “the will of the people” at the expense of critical citizenship and formal democratic procedure. In doing so, the government’s authoritarian tendencies and the electorate’s majoritarian impulses were allowed free reign without paying heed to the need for constitutional checks and balances, or sufficient reflective, critical thought. To make matters worse, it could be even argued that we have entered a political phase of “post-democratic non-citizenship”; where referendums can be won by peddling lies, obscuring the facts, disrespecting citizens, insulting our intelligence, undermining our critical faculties, and appealing to our desires and prejudice instead of addressing our reason.  

Post-democratic citizenship therefore is “post-democratic” because the software of democracy seems to hold scant appeal for us other than as a tool for getting what we want; thereby transforming democracy into a spectacle where voting becomes a superficial, fast-twitch response to real, deep grievances by allowing ourselves to be misled instead of leading ourselves to the wisdom of our own mind. And it is a form of “non-citizenship” because it reveals an estranged, distanced, push-button mentality that only cares for individual preferences rather than the public good. In the Classical Athenian lexicon, we would simply be dismissed as idiōtes who are private, circumspect, and withdrawn when we should be alert, critical, and publicly involved demokrātes. Liberal democracies may indeed be reduced to illiberal bureaucracies when they resemble awkward, dispiriting, and distant institutions that rule from afar but, equally, democracies are not worth being referred to as such if its citizens do not deliberate, participate, or uphold the principles and values of the political arrangements they lead their lives by.    

How to fight Brexit with Sociology

Brexit may seem like a foregone conclusion by now, especially as the two main contending parties insist on treating it this way, despite the fact that there is still nothing legally binding about it. Article 50 can be revoked, making it obvious that political cost currently overrides political will. It therefore seems preferable to pretend that the referendum result seals the deal than to admit that the electorate was lied to, that the referendum was never supposed to be binding, and that it might be sensible to ask people to vote again; provided that this time they are given all the information necessary for making an informed decision, and that enough of us vote for the result to matter as the decision of an actual supermajority, as referendum legislation dictates, instead of “the will” of just a fraction of the voting public.

Since there is little indication that the government, the opposition, and the electorate have any appetite for such legalistic pedantry however, it seems like the only way to mitigate the cyclonic consequences of Brexit is to act against it with our vote by withdrawing our support for any party that colluded with and cowed submissively to the government’s dishonest politics of fudge and dodge. This would require us not just to peruse party manifestos but to judge them against the parties’ performance during and after Brexit. If they only bowed to their audience and self-interest then, what makes them reliable now? Voting decisions matter enormously, but what matters most is how we arrive at them. Are we simply toeing the party line as an oath of allegiance or are we sensible enough to vote against our preferences by acting towards the common good?

While it is always admirable to vote for who we believe in, it is infinitely more important to vote for what we truly believe in. This, however, requires us to look beyond the end of our nose when making decisions whose gravity urges us to sacrifice ideological purity for social justice, by subjecting our will to critical judgement in order to ensure that we defend broader principles and values instead of merely serving parties or nourishing pet dogmas. Sociologists are no strangers to such (self-) reflective, critical thinking harsh though it may seem. In fact, that’s what we (proclaim to) do in our scholarly and public lives. The importance of such an irreverent attitude towards (even) our very own thinking, however, goes beyond mere voting decisions and spells an altogether different way in which we can “do” citizenship, especially in times of Brexit as we shall see in turn.     

What has sociology got to do with it all?

Thinking sociologically about Brexit involves understanding Brexit as something more than Brexit, but as the flare-up that resulted from multiple igniting sparks that were overlooked until everything went up in flames. Apart from the result of a referendum, or a barometer of social attitudes towards immigration, the professionalisation of politics, the perceived lack of sovereignty, and the intensifying pressures of social inequality, Brexit can also be seen as a case study in how we think about and how we act towards politics more broadly; signifying, as is argued here, a change in and an affront to citizenship for reasons that have been outlined in previous sections of this article. If this diagnosis is correct, it seems like the best way to fight Brexit is not by fighting Brexit per se but by re-democratising ourselves first. This, however, involves treating democracy not as a conduit of public emotion, but as a form of government by and through discussion, participation, and voting only after due deliberation with our fellow-citizens.

To think with sociology about politics therefore, offers an opportunity to drag ourselves out of the slipstream of populist politics by becoming thoughtful, curious, critical, reflective, and engaged citizens instead of passive consumers of catchy slogans and ideological artefacts. Yet “sociological citizenship” involves even more than that. It invites us not just to think critically but self-subversively too, so that we can be(come) sympathetic citizens of the world who resist their immediate self-interest or punitive passions in favour of the general public good; relying on ‘vigour of thought’ and ‘thoughtful deed’ as W.E.B Du Bois put it. Sociology, after all, is not merely the study of ‘how society is possible’ but of how it can become possible as a great deliberative assembly through the medium of active citizenship. Thinking and acting like sociologists can therefore help us vote in a way that will not just stop Brexit but also challenge the (populist) logic that brought it about with the government and the electorate’s blessing.

Above all, thinking, acting and voting sociologically against Brexit teaches us how to listen and debate, thereby reintroducing politics as a quest for finding common ground through conflict but without violence while committing to ‘let the ears of a guilty people tingle with truth […] in this drear[y] day when human brotherhood is mockery and a snare’, as Du Bois urged us to do with characteristic conviction, determination, and grace too. As a sociologist-criminologist and a citizen these are the words I live and work by, leaving me no other choice but to share them with you as a prime example of the gift that sociological citizenship can be, only if we let it ‘spring’ to ‘reap the harvest wonderful’.

Dr Lambros Fatsis is Lecturer in Sociology and Criminology at the University of Southampton. He tweets at @lfatsis

Categories: Rethinking The World

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