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Zombies and Brexit: how on earth did we end up here?

Today we woke up to a shocking new reality. The UK public has voted to leave the European Union. How was it ever within the realm of possibility that we would end up here?

We watched the debate over Brexit with complete dismay. It has been utterly breathtaking to watch people eat up the propaganda then ask for a second helping, and respond to empty slogans and lies with cheers and standing ovations.

People are disaffected. They feel resentment and alienation and have very real and legitimate anxieties about access to public services, affordable housing and secure jobs.

The Leave campaign tapped directly into that fear and anxiety, and it did it beautifully. It used clear and simple messages that had little (if anything) to do with facts and everything to do with the loss of control that the majority of British people feel over their own lives. The vote to ‘take back control’ was not about Europe (evident in the spike in Google searches for ‘what is the EU’ after the vote), but about people feeling completely disempowered.

So then we must ask, what bigger agenda is at play here.  This is what George Monbiot calls this ‘the zombie doctrine’.

While the original definition of a zombie was ‘a corpse said to be revived by witchcraft’, today it’s used to describe a creature capable of movement, but not of rational thought. In popular fiction, a zombie is a person who is or appears lifeless, apathetic, or completely unresponsive to their surroundings and who devours human flesh.

There is indeed something zombie like about the way many of us are far too quick to allow bite size, emotionally-charged propaganda to cloud the facts.

Take the views of Dover residents as one small example. A poll showed they believe their town is overrun with migrants, who appear to be responsible for every conceivable local woe – taking local jobs, cluttering up the NHS, and of course living on benefits while they work at the jobs they have stolen from the locals. But the fact is that 93% of Dover’s population were born in the UK. Immigration becomes a useful scapegoat for local people’s frustrations, and in the face of clear facts a completely different story is created (a story that resonates powerfully because it cleverly speaks directly to people’s experience of disempowerment).

We live in a time characterised by enormous challenges – the devastation of the natural world, a crisis of inequality, an obsession with growth and profit, financial meltdowns and an increasing decline in the quantity and quality of the political debate about how to respond.

And yet we don’t (or can’t) name the philosophy on which this situation is built – the underlying drivers remain unnamed in popular culture. We name communism and socialism as the evils of past history and assume we are safe in the hands of capitalism.

The real ideology remains nameless and faceless. This is the ideology that has produced the middle class aspiration for wealth, but ultimately rewards only those who are already wealthy with more and rips the welfare state from under everyone else’s feet. The ideology that promises abundance, but leaves the majority living with the shambles of crushed expectations, broken dreams or still in an original place of poverty. The ideology that turns those broken dreams into fear and resentment, resulting in standing ovations to destructive messages about ‘taking back control’ or a ‘British Independence Day’  by those holding their crumbled expectations in their hands.

The ideology we are naming here is of course neoliberalism, a doctrine that has become pervasive but is seldom recognised. This ideology shapes the very fabric of our society so that we unconsciously accept what was once unacceptable, even if we are the losers. As George Monboit notes:

“Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.

Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.”

Like communism, neoliberalism is the God that failed. It is a zombie doctrine that staggers on anonymously.

In a short essay written in 1946 (today it would have been a blog!) – Why I WriteGeorge Orwell offered the following justification for his relentless commitment to writing: ‘political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind’.

George Orwell saw the need to counter lies with truth. He wanted to unmask the powers, to identify the systems that hid behind their anonymity. He wanted to shake off the zombie doctrine where people passively accept a political system that feeds on their own flesh.

The zombie doctrine of neoliberalism is real. And it flourishes as its proponents grow fat off the system they deliver. Neoliberalism feeds on the poor and the middle classes – people like you and me – even though few of us are aware we are being devoured, or apparently know how to apply an antidote.

The vote to leave the EU is a disastrous example of the power of the zombie doctrine. Now more than ever we need an alternative that unities rather than divides and creates empowerment instead of resentment.

While many people are outraged at the vote to leave the EU, feelings of anger towards those who voted to leave are misplaced (and will only reinforce the deep divisions that led us here in the first place). The real enemy is far bigger than any individual, and it will take all of us working together to counter it. We cannot allow the likes of Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson to continue to gain strength from the zombie doctrine and let it go unnamed and unaccounted for.

We must not give up now. We must use Brexit as a spark that reignites our passion to create a more just world.

It is out of these darkest moments that the energy for change can drive us. Jo Cox MP, who was assassinated last week, said ‘we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us’.

Let’s regroup and work together in the battles ahead, and show that nothing will stop us.


For inspiration and courage, read some of the messages of solidarity on the Avaaz ‘message of hope’ page.

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