Start the democratic therapy process

It’s a bad time to talk about Brexit, but it is also a terrible time not to talk about Brexit, writes Jonathan Carr-West in a column first published in The MJ on 28 March – the day before we were due to leave the European Union.

At the time of writing it is clear that is not going to happen. What is not clear is whether we will do a deal, or crash out with no deal.

No-deal unleashes potential chaos on a scale we have rarely, if ever, witnessed. And, while an extension postpones the day of reckoning, it still leaves councils with some tough decisions.

Extra staff will be on standby, emergency plans will be in place, leave will be cancelled. Are these stood down? For how long? When will they be stood back up again?

One thing we can be certain of is that, one way or another, this is not over. Local elections in May will take place as negotiations continue: on our relationship with Europe but also on our relationship with ourselves as we continue to try to make sense of what all this means and what it tells us about ourselves and the type of polity we are.

In Civilisation and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud argues that civic life is a set of rules designed to constrain and protect us from the aggressive instincts inherent in human nature.

There is an external element to this in the form of laws, taboos and conventions, but we also develop an internal policing of these urges in the form of the superego.

The repression of the violent instincts, which Freud calls the Death Drive, creates neuroses, most often in the form of guilt.

A guilty conscience, he observes, is the price we pay for living in a civilised society. But the Death Drive, which is also an urge towards individuality and freedom, is always there waiting to erupt. And constraining it only makes it more powerful.

Whatever your view of Brexit, it is tempting to read it in these terms: as an eruption of instinctual energy driving towards a glorious unshackling or to complete self-destruction (or both).

We can see democracy itself in these terms – as both the unfettered expression of individuality and as a system of constraint and compromise that mediates our desires with those of others.

As with collaboration and destruction in civilisation, these elements are always in a permanent struggle for dominance. But this helps us understand that it is in the nature of democracy to throw up decisions that can seem perverse or self-destructive. That is not a failure of democracy, it is a feature. Like the guilty conscience, it is the price we pay for living in a society in which our voice has value.

But does this mean democracy can’t be trusted? Is it too dangerous? Many have thought so. That is why Thomas Hobbes chooses monarchy over democracy as the ideal form of Commonwealth. That is why Plato believed that democracy’s pursuit of freedom led to chaos and eventually tyranny.

But the problems created by democracy can only be solved by more democracy. Not for nothing did Freud describe psychoanalysis as the talking cure.

In analysis, the talking is not a way of finding the cure, it is the cure. That process is long and painful and never really over (remind you of anything?). So, if democracy is a mechanism for neurosis then our approach must be to do more of it. More voting, more debate, more talking.

The local elections on 2 May are not the first elections after the Brexit vote but they are the first after Brexit was meant to have happened. As such, they are a dangerous moment, but they are also a unique opportunity to begin the process of democratic therapy.

Jonathan Carr-West is Chief Executive of LGiU; this article first appeared in The MJ.

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