The Brexit Party and The Independent Group: the crisis of signification
The Brexit Party, Nigel Farage’s latest political vehicle, are apparently dominating the voting intention polls for the upcoming European Elections. Cue shock and outrage. How could this be? How could a party usurp their immediate ancestor, UKIP, a party built through twenty years of creeping cryptofascism, seemingly overnight? Rather than descending into amateur psephology, let’s keep it simple: if The Brexit Party are to be successful, it will be because they are called The Brexit Party.
Political literacy in this country is low, dangerously so. Walking into the polling booth and seeing The Brexit Party on the ballot paper is so simply direct. This, combined with Farage’s ceaseless ubiquity in British public life, will see them reach heights that no other single issue party can dream of.
This is partly because the popular discourse of British politics has itself become a ‘single issue’. In the three years since the EU referendum, the media and the political mainstream have done everything in their power to ensure that Brexit is the only political topic du jour. Despite — no, because of– being pitched against a backdrop of austerity, homelessness, deportations, climate breakdown and so forth, the reconstitution of politics as a House of Commons parlour game has helped eclipse any focus on materially meaningful political organisation.
In the formation of The Brexit Party, this tactic, this hollowing out of the meaning-generation of politics, has come back to haunt its architects. They wanted a simplistic, tribalistic debate about Brexit, and here it is in its purest form. The apotheosis of an anti-politics, the false binary of Leave/Remain: if you want Brexit, you can simply vote for The Brexit Party.
But beyond the tactical simplicity of having such a direct name and taking advantage of the debased anti-intellectualism of mainstream political punditry, there is a deeper reason for The Brexit Party’s looming electoral success. Namely, there is a power — somewhat related to that which tends to be categorised simplistically as ‘populism’ — in the semantic potency of ‘The Brexit Party’ as a name.
‘The Brexit Party’ is a perfect mythological sign: it denotes something specific its meaning is completely open to interpretation. This is myth generated from what Roland Barthes calls a ‘second-order semiological system’ that allows ‘that which is a sign in the first system [to become] a mere signifier in the second.’ Thus the ‘material’ object — in this case the act of the United Kingdom declaring its intent to leave the European Union — has been decoupled from its meaning. The power of this is that, as Barthes continues:
‘The signifier of myth presents itself in an ambiguous way: it is at the same time meaning and form, full on one side and empty on the other.’
‘When it becomes form, the meaning leaves is contingency behind; it empties itself, it becomes impoverished, history evaporates, only the latter remains.’
The Brexit Party thus becomes a myth: it generates an implied meaning for those who are supportive of its original sign (i.e. leaving the European Union). It has a positive amorphosity, with the flexibility to mean something different for each individual voter.
The converse of this is why Farage has ditched UKIP: their signifiers have coalesced back into something concrete and tenable. The party carries a singular, coherent, universal meaning. For years under Farage’s charge, they were masters of concealing their message just enough to maintain an openness of meaning. They campaigned for amorphous policies like sovereignty and taking back control, both of which were key messages of their successful EU referendum campaign. Since the referendum, however, they have lost this art of subtlety, opening the party up to their worst instincts in terms of the members, policies and personalities they are willing to accommodate. They are living out the true meaning of their racism, to the detriment of their popular electability.
Thus for Farage and others who still see the strategic value in appending the ‘crypto’ suffix to their fascism, UKIP outlived their usefulness. The Brexit Party, by contrast, is a psychological tabula rasa for the electorate. A specific, open text with no fixed meaning — the perfect means through which people can realise their pro-Brexit intentions, whoever they might be, and for whatever reasons they may hold.
Compare all this with Change UK–The Independence Group, The Brexit Party’s apparent antagonists. A name tossed out by a consultancy at five-to-five on a Friday; a logo that looks like an unscannable barcode. They are a closed text: they represent nothing beyond themselves, a reification of the political status quo. Their party slogan makes this quite clear, but perhaps not in the way they intended: ‘politics is broken, let’s change it’ — let us change it. Everything hinges upon this word ‘change’, but its signification is too diffuse: its signifier lacks a material history, there is no implied mythos to which it can contribute.
Whereas The Brexit Party makes self-evident its pro-Brexit stance, Change UK implies nothing about what this ‘change’ is signifying. It thus becomes obfuscatory, rather than gesturing towards an implied (open) meaning. If any semantic content is to be derived, it’s that they are the anti-sign. Their name signifies that which they are not: vote ‘Change’ to keep everything the same. It’s a blankness, yes, but not one that is inviting of interpretation or suggestive that meaning can be imposed upon it. It does not gesture towards any implication of signification like The Brexit Party does. It doesn’t invite interpretation, it rejects it.
The contrasting semantic fortunes of The Brexit Party and Change UK is all made possible because Brexit itself is a perfect floating signifier: it denotes a specific act but carries a non-specific meaning. This is why the question of the referendum itself was so terrible: its meaning, implementation and significance was completely open to be interpreted by whoever was in power in Westminster at the time.
Consequently, it’s become something of a cliché to state that ‘Remain’ has one meaning, but ‘Leave’ carries over seventeen million: each voter has its own conception of what it stands for. But in the broadest possible terms (and whether this is even true barely seems relevant at this point), the act of voting to leave the European Union was a rejection of current political settlements. In this sense, the question may as well have stated:
Do you reject the current status quo?
However they interpreted this rejection, 52% of voters answered ‘yes’ to this question. Given this framing, it is surprising, perhaps even disappointing, that this percentage was so low.
So, what is to made of these semantic crises, this chaos of political meaning? Jacques Ranciere has put forward perhaps the clearest conception of what this thing we call politics actually is. He calls it ‘the distribution of the sensible’– politics as the mediation of ‘what is visible and what not, of what can be heard and what cannot’. The current crisis of capitalism — of the contradiction of neoliberalism making themselves known in everyday sensory experience — has been the harbinger of Brexit, of the current political settlement becoming untenable — for various reasons — for the majority of the British people. What we are told about life in the UK by politicians and the media is increasingly at odds with the lived experience of foodbanks, of job precarity, of lower living standards and higher living costs. Thus the populism — the exploiting of floating signifiers — of The Brexit Party is a right-wing example of what Ranciere calls ‘dissensus’:
‘The essence of politics is dissensus. Dissensus is not a confrontation between interests or opinions. It is the demonstration (manifestation) of a gap in the sensible itself.’
At its core, then, the politics of Brexit is a crisis of signification, a potential rupture in who owns and mediates what I’ve previously called the means of discursive production. The Brexit crisis signals that the brokers of powers in the United Kingdom are losing control of the distribution of the sensible. The response of Change UK–The Independent Group, especially when contrasted with The Brexit Party, strongly suggests that the political centre — the status quo, if you will — will not be equipped to provide an answer.
Roland Barthes, Mythologies, p144.
Jacques Ranciere, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, p36