England’s rentier alliance is driving support for a no-deal Brexit

There is a political logic uniting the international oligarch and the comfortable Telegraph-reading Hampshire retiree. 

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Britain’s Remain-Leave split has been analysed from every perspective imaginable; cultural, economic, geographic and psychological. However, this divide won’t necessarily be the most politically important one over the next phase of Brexit, especially if no deal is realised on 31 October. As I wrote recently, the remarkable feature of the Johnson-Farage coup that is under way is that it is delivering the will of around 30 per cent of the electorate, without needing to convert this into a hegemony (in the strict sense of a particular interest that comes to appear like a general interest). Until the other 70 per cent are able to assemble a coalition capable of significantly surpassing that 30 per cent, Johnson and Farage have a clear road ahead of them.

It’s at least plausible that Boris Johnson could win a workable majority in an election, sometime in the next six months, and obviously something he would do if he possibly could. If he did, who and what would he represent? It’s easy to say “Leavers” or “English nationalists” and leave it at that. But I wonder if there is an economic formation at work, too. There is a sub-set of the Leave vote that appears to have hardened over the past two years and become more fixated on no deal, and less willing to brook compromise. Surveys suggest that support for no deal is clustered among older voters, who report that they are financially secure. We also know from those notorious polls of Conservative Party members that they (a majority of whom voted Brexit Party in the European elections) view Brexit as more important than economic prosperity and the union. This group is scattered across rural England, and elected the current Prime Minister.

We can also look at the funders of the Leave campaign and Johnson’s leadership bid, which overlap heavily. These consist of maverick entrepreneurs (bosses of JCB and Wetherspoons), private equity barons and hedge fund managers. This is decentralised, disruptive, disorganised, private capital, which looks at the likes of Johnson and Farage as kindred spirits in the project of injecting a bit of chaos into the liberal economic system. They are what the writer Richard Seymour terms “the confidence men” who (whether in politics or business) rely on contingency, speed and surprise to transform reality, while liberals are reduced to the status of terrified observers. Regardless of how much agency we attribute to hedge funds (and there are various theories), it is clear that only the most fleet-footed, liquid, nimble type of capital can look at Brexit as an opportunity, while firms that rely heavily on fixed capital (such as car manufacturers) see it as a nightmare. This is capital that is never far from the exit.

I think we can therefore look at the new conservative coalition as an alliance of rentiers. No deal supporters are not classic rentiers, in the form of monopolists or exploiters of unproductive capital. However, they are at a point in life where they have paid off their mortgages, and are living off the assets held by pension funds. They are worth something, independently of what they do. This is the generation that enthusiastically backed Margaret Thatcher in their early working life, witnessed Blairism and the booming of metropolitan multiculturalism with growing unease, and perhaps felt a rising resentment towards the international elite that was making the serious money in London, while convincing themselves (with the help of the Express, the Daily Mail and the Telegraph) that London is now a foreign city (a fiction that Johnson cynically endorsed in his leadership campaign).

What this group shares with the Johnson-Farage backers is a lack of any immediate interest in labour markets or productive capitalism. What’s the worst that could happen from the perspective of these interests? Inflation or a stock market slump would certainly harm them, but they may have forgotten that these things are even possible. Jeremy Corbyn terrifies them even more than the prospect of Remain, as they believe he will tax capital, gifts and inheritance into oblivion (they are less concerned with income tax as they don’t pay it). Where productivity gains are no longer sought, the goal becomes defending private wealth and keeping it in the family. This is a logic that unites the international oligarch and the comfortable Telegraph-reading retiree in Hampshire. The mentality is one of pulling up the draw-bridge, and cashing in your chips.

This suggests that support for Johnson and Farage is a symptom of prolonged financialisation, in which capital pulls increasingly towards unproductive investments, relying on balance sheet manipulation, negative interest rates and liquidity for its returns (aided substantially by quantitative easing over the past decade). To put that more starkly, these are seriously morbid symptoms, in which all productive opportunities have already been seized, no new ideas or technologies are likely, and no new spheres of social or environmental life are left to exploit and commodify. These are socially nihilistic interests whose only concern with the future involves their children and grandchildren, but otherwise believe that everything good is in the past. The term "late capitalism" was over-used in the past, but this certainly feels like very late capitalism.

From this perspective, the present looks like the outcome of past investments. If you’re rich, it’s because you invested well 30 or 40 years ago. You don’t owe anything to anyone, and have no obligation to invest anything more for the future. It’s your money, because of the time that elapsed while it was accumulating. The extreme manifestation of this nostalgic nihilism is Arron Banks, who is the decaying face of Harry Enfield’s Thatcherite “loadsamoney” character, now living off the proceeds of his previous investments, while continuing to troll people about how little he cares about society. The financial troll uses his money to smash things up, as a type of conspicuous consumption: a way, as the economist Thorstein Veblen argued, of showing how much money you can afford to waste, and how insulated you are from the consequences of your actions. For men such as Tim Martin, the boss of Wetherspoons, backing “no deal” is a way of signalling that you’re rich enough to take a haircut of a few million off your assets.

What of the remaining (and Remaining) 70 per cent? It includes conventional business lobbies, who care about international supply chains, regulatory stability, skills and support for innovation. These are the interests that were exceptionally well served under New Labour and by the European Union. It also includes those who own nothing, and are vulnerable to week-by-week changes in their income and the cost of food. It was reported this week that more than four million people in the UK are trapped in deep poverty. Finally, it includes most people under the age of 50 who still have hopes and expectations for the future, and relate to the future via conventions of work, careers, debt and investment. Many of these people care deeply about climate change, far more than about Brexit.

Johnson, Farage and no deal offer nothing to this majority whatsoever. That is a vulnerability, and there are reasons to suspect that the Liberal Democrats could pose just as much of a threat as Labour, if they become identified as the sole representatives of pro-business, Blairite modernity. There is also the not insignificant chunk of Conservative voters who support Remain and would rather Jeremy Hunt was prime minister right now. But until some of the political representatives of that 70 per cent construct some kind of coalition, and identify the language and overlapping policies that it shares (in spite of its deep heterogeneity), then the alliance of the nostalgic rentiers will succeed.

This piece originally appeared on the Political Economy Research Centre blog. 

Will Davies is the director of the Political Economy Research Centre at the University of Goldsmiths, and the author of Nervous States: How Feeling Took Over the World.