Two tribes, one story

John Daniels considers the need for autonomy and control in the divisive issue of Brexit:

Leave versus Remain – never the twain shall meet, right?  That’s certainly how things look at the moment.

And you can understand why.  Focus groups are reporting that the Brexit issue is causing widespread damage to mental health.  Leave and Remain supporters seem almost to be two different species, scowling uncomprehendingly at each other across an unbridgeable gulf.

Yet from another angle, the two sides make up one and the same coin.  And the name of that coin is autonomy.  How come?  

For Leavers, the 2016 referendum was famously about ‘taking back control’.  There are lots of aspects to this: immigration, a loss of a sense of belonging, the feeling that things are getting worse – and that as things stand, there’s not much we can do about it. To this outlook, the EU readily looms as a vast, anonymous bureaucracy, representing much of what’s wrong about life today.  To this outlook, what’s been lost is a proper sense of who we are and the ability to assert ourselves – national sovereignty.  

For Remainers,  life before 2016 didn’t look so bad.  There was plenty of opportunity out there for those who had the nous to grasp it.  Things on the whole were getting better, not worse. 60+% of Remainers saw prevailing multiculturalism and social liberalism as forces for good (80+% of Leavers saw them as bad things). The average Remainer emerges from these statistics looking like someone who’s already in control of her own life, by and large; and, what’s more, making a decent job of it.  For her the EU, as part of the status quo, looks pretty benign.

In their book The Politics of Virtue, John Milbank and Adrian Pabst talk about the way in which modernity is all about autonomy: being my own boss, over and against other people, nature, and – most of all – God.   But this autonomy typically takes two forms.

The conservative form looks to a collective sense of autonomy.  It’s about us, our community, our nation, our traditions (as opposed to theirs).  It’s about belonging to something bigger than myself which gives me a sense of identity and of pride, even if things are hard.  ‘You and me against the world’; ‘we few, we happy few, we band of brothers…’  

The liberal form looks to the heroic individual.  I am complete in myself, which means that I get to define who – and what – I am.  This is the stable which gave us identity politics, which sees traditional public identities as nothing more than straightjackets imposed by the (cis, white, male) strong on the (trans, coloured, female) weak.  

For Milbank and Pabst these are two sides of the same coin, two different dead ends to which modernity, in the shape of the rejection of God, leads.  What they share is a view of the world in which I am (or we are) entitled to shape our lives however we fancy. What both reject is the idea that my life is a gift from God: a gift to be imaginatively performed, certainly, but still, in the end, something held in trust for Another.  If who I am isn’t something I need to assert or defend, but rather something I can only receive, then life begins to look very different to what modernity takes for granted.

Joy in Enough is all about re-imagining the way we order our common life.  But if Milbank and Pabst are right, it goes deeper than that. It’s about taking a long hard look at who we think we are; and receiving afresh the gift that only God can give.  Secure in that identity, the two Brexit tribes could maybe start to see each other with new eyes.

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