Projecting imperialist fantasies onto Europe

There’s a wild — and delusional — optimism at the heart of the fantasy of a hard Brexit and trading on World Trade Organisation rules. The idea of “lots of trade deals” has been dubbed “British Empire 2.0”. What binds these together is people dealing with the awkward legacy of empire by projecting the negative emotions onto the EU and fantasising that we can capture the imagined glory of empire again.

The problem now is unresolved things from the past being worked out in the present, with the UK seeing its own imperialist tendencies in the EU, rather than acknowledging them, chasing an ill-conceived flight of fancy that tries to recapture the past without recognising its shadow, doing real damage in the present and even more serious damage to our future.

The psychoanalytic bit

One of the insights of psychoanalysis is that people can deal with difficult emotions by projecting them onto others. A classic way of doing this is to see the aspects of oneself one doesn’t like in someone else (because one recognises them), and then conclude one is “better” because one is “not like them”.

Melanie Klein caught this particularly sharply in her work with small children. She dubbed the basic level we learn as small babies the “paranoid schizoid position”, characterised by intense emotions and polarising things into “good and bad” or “desirable and undesirable”. Her choice of adjectives was not brilliant, but she suggested that babies then develop a “depressive position” where imperfection can be tolerated. At its crudest, there’s a journey from things being terrible if there is hunger and no milk, and perfect when the milk comes, to a world where moderate hunger happens, and food happens, and things sort themselves out. Her point is that that primitive “paranoid schizoid position” is there throughout life, but usually under more sophisticated ways of being. But at times of stress it can come to the fore — showing itself in fight/flight responses, polarised black-and-white thinking, and the tendency to deal with what can’t be handled by projecting it onto others.

This is a space where sophisticated thinking disappears, and it becomes really hard to tell the difference between reality and what someone fears or imagines. Lots of post-truth politics operates at this level. The “Leave Lies” from the referendum worked because the mobilised people’s fears. It’s interesting that the highly-successful “Integrative Complexity” approach to religious extremism works not by getting people to change their minds, but by putting them in touch with the complexity and riches of their own faith. A sort-of problem with the EU is that the considerable wisdom behind the way it operates works at the level of the “depressive position” and doesn’t pick up the “paranoid schizoid” so well — which might be an invitable consequence of it being formed to avoid the extreme division of warfare.

The echoes of where we are currently over Brexit are rather stark. Attempts to talk up the threat posed by a handful of asylum-seekers trying to cross the Channel at Christmas 2018 are a good example. In reality they are no threat to anyone and common civility says we should treat them hospitably. At the level of the paranoid schizoid they can be treated as an invading enemy against whom we have to defend ourselves because of the fears they can mobilise. In this case it is hard to tell whether Sajid Javid actually thought they were a threat, or whether he was acting to provoke fear.

The empire bit

The British empire one spanned the globe. In its pomp and display there was a sense of power. It was something to be proud of. It could even be seen as evidence of British superiority: proof that “God is an Englishman” [sic] as long as people didn’t look too closely.

The underbelly was different. In the Boer war we invented concentration camps. We showed extraordinary contempt for “the natives”. We took it for granted that the proceeds of empire should come to us. We assumed that we had a role to “civilise” the “savages”. The Anglican Communion’s problems on homosexuality can be traced to the way we packaged “our” religion in order to convert the “natives”. A little snapshot of the perversity is the way the English public school system seems almost designed to have churned out people who were emotionally crippled — whose emotional dysfunction equipped them to run an empire without realising the damage it was doing.

The pomp and ceremony of Empire sounds to have been impressive, but from a psychoanalytic angle the immediate question that raises is “What is it masking?” — much as the impressive regalia of military dress uniforms hide the brutality of the armed forces as killing machines.

With so much unprocessed emotion around Empire, it’s inevitable that there is some baggage on its ending. It doesn’t help that the decisive historical events leading to that were two world wars. For the losing side, that meant an immediate end of empire. For the winning side, victory had come at a cost. It became impossible to hold onto empire after two highly traumatic wars. The UK went from being an Imperial power at the start of the Second World War to being financially ruined at its end. Harold Macmillan was right to talk of the “winds of change” making the end of empire inevitable, but the unconscious is not that logical: it must have felt at that level as if winning the wars meant losing the empire.

For the European mainland, the sufferings of war had been much greater. The need to find an alternative was much sharper. The trauma of the experience could be turned into a new future. Most of the founders of the EU had either fought in the Battle of Verdun or were the sons of people who had. That hasn’t made for an easy journey, but there is something there about recognising our capacity to harm, and doing something about it. Jung catches this with the phrase “look for the third”: confronted by a primitive, paranoid schizoid fight between two possibilities the answer is to look for an alternative rather than for one side to win and vanquish the other.

The British didn’t have that healing experience. Nick Clegg in How to stop Brexit rightly points out that it was a short time between the final end of the empire and the UK joining the EU, and for many who hadn’t gone through mainland Europe’s process of finding a third way, it must have felt as if we had lost one empire and joined another.

The tragic snapshot is that the European Coal and Steel Community (precursor to what is now the EU) was formed to bring together the European Coal and Steel industries because these were seen as the raw materials for mid-twentieth century warfare. The logic was that treaties can be broken, but if the industries are integrated, war becomes impossible. The UK was invited to join, prevaricated, and Labour’s Deputy Prime Minister, Herbert Morrison, refused the invitation, saying “It’s no good. We can’t do it. The Durham miners will never wear it’” as if his sense of the miners’ sensitivities was more important than preventing further warfare — but seeing the miners as more important than a foreign body fits with an outdated sense of Britain’s place in the world.

The Brexit bit

The Brexit narrative has included wildly optimistic comments about trading on WTO rules (though joining the WTO separate from the EU needs the consent of all existing members, and 20, including China and the US have already raised objections). There have been wildly optimistic comments on the ease of doing trade deals, that haven’t matched reality — especially as the British civil service has not had to negotiate one in decades. But the image of a brave Britain strutting out on the world stage has spoken to people — questioning voices are dismissed as “project fear” or “talking Britain down”. Crucially, it is as if people’s view that this is possible (expressed in a Leave vote) means that it is.

That all sounds like a reclaiming of the glory of empire. But we know empire was not that glorious. Here Klein’s ideas of projection and splitting seem amazingly relevant.

When the EU talks of “federalism” everyone except the British hears it as about doing centrally what makes sense to do there, and devolving the rest. The British hear it as a take-over. People talk of a “superstate” or the “fourth reich”. They talk of Europe punishing us for trying to leave (with Boris Johnson crassly likening this to prison camp guards. That doesn’t stack up against reality. But splitting seems a good description. We’re taking fantasies of Britain’s imperial past, splitting off the “good stuff” into fantasies of trade deals and global trade, and dealing with the shameful side of empire by projecting that onto the EU — which they paint as doing the domination they aspire to. The language of trade deals is a good example. If people were serious about negotiating them, we would stay in the EU and benefit from being in a powerful economic block (currently the world’s second-largest economy). Outside the EU our negotiating position is much weaker. In reality, trade deals will be things other nations draft and we sign. But in the imperial fantasy, the rest of the world rolls over and does what we say and the EU is blamed for stopping that. Reality is rather different.

The historical bit

The British empire’s success rests on a chain of accidents.

One is to do with the makeup of the UK. Earlier in this article I was ambiguous about “Englishness” and “Britishness”. Part of the problem is that England dominates the UK, and gets away with it (more or less). That gives an inflated sense of importance. A running sore in that vision is Ireland, where the birth of the Republic doesn’t fit that narrative. That makes sense of some of the crass comments from Brexiteers. We’ve heard Pritti Patel suggest the Irish be starved into abandoning the backstop, and Kate Hoey suggest that solution to then Irish border problem is for the Republic to leave the EU as well (despite support for EU membership there being over 90%). More generally, there has been huge angst over the backstop, as if the EU is being unreasonable, though it is actually there to protect the Republic in case things go wrong, or the British behave badly. Recent news of 1000 police reinforcements for Northern Ireland in case a no-deal Brexit leads to unreset indicate that the EU has a point.

But in the background, the story of the British Empire and the Industrial Revolution that helped it is full of coincidences. There’s the ready availability of sea coal, which was easy to collect, giving us a head start in fuelling industrialisation — including the industrialisation of mines that made other coal available. There’s the accident of tensions around monarchy being resolved by a civil war and the execution of a king, followed by parliament removing another, which clipped the power of the monarchy, and the happy accident of the Elector of Hanover becoming king and not seeking to control too much — so royal interference didn’t stop the process. Then there’s enterprising merchants cutting deals, exploiting local difficulties, and sometimes having a negotiable relationship with the law — free trade at its most energetic, and its most brutal. The slave trade is a prime — and embarrassing — example, with British traders exploiting divisions and local practices around slavery in Africa to create a trade that was new, lucrative, and immoral. It’s legacy, without irony, is also celebrated in the architecture of Liverpool.

This is against a much bigger trend of historical accidents outlined in Ian Morris’ book Why the West rules, for now (with a summary on youtube) suggesting that the West’s dominance of the world doesn’t imply any superiority for the West more generally — though the tendency has been to assume this.

The upshot

So, a chain of accidents made the European nations disproportionately prominent, and an even bigger chain of accidents made Britain prominent among Europeans, but these times have passed. Where the rest of Europe has been forced up against this by the trauma of war fought on their soil, the UK got off relatively lightly in war and has also escaped some of this processing. The upshot is a grasping at imperialist fantasies where “free trade” and imagined superiority recapture a long-lost place of global importance, while the unacceptable side of this — a brutal, bullying, dominating and expansionist mindset — is projected onto the EU. It’s a testament to the wisdom found in Brussels that they are not being sucked into responding at the same level.

There is a sinister footnote to this. One of Melanie Klein’s other concepts is projective identification. Here, it’s not just that emotions are put onto someone else, but the other person is actually triggered to act in a way that justifies the emotions. In this case, it is that the EU’s refusal to be manipulated by the UK has been spun as the EU punishing us for trying to leave, which is a sentiment I have heard used to justify people continuing to support Brexit. There’s no evidence for this, because it’s in the minds of the Brexiteers, but it points to a massive need to create a fantasy of the “evil EU” to give a fantasy of leaving it being a good thing. The big risk is that it does, in the end, lead the EU to take a harsher line with the UK, for reasons to do with the UK rather than the EU. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical of Melanie Klein using the term “paranoid schizoid position”

2 thoughts on “Projecting imperialist fantasies onto Europe”

  1. An excellent blog – loved your narrative and how it sits well with Kleinian strand. Just like March 2019 becomes a scary date for the British – we see evidence of paranoid shizoid leaders taking over other parts of the world as well. The Indian democracy goes through a litmus test too where jingoistic forces impact our elections. We are truly living in a pressure cooker age and walking the razors edge. Thanks

  2. Thanks Mark. I think your hypotheses work well.
    Bruno Boccara talks about how countries may have a ‘country romance’ about itself – these are the stories that a country tells itself and which serve as collective defenses that are mobilised in times of disruption and change. Perhaps Britain’s country romance is the one of empire that you have described. In case you are interested, I’ve reviewed Bruno’s book in volume 17 of Socioanalysis 2015.
    How will this all end?!

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