Since 23rd June, when a majority of the British people voted to leave the European Union, it has seemed as though the entire country is in a kind of prolonged post-referendum stew. Many of those who voted Remain are feeling angry – angry towards those who voted Leave, angry towards David Cameron for making such a thorough miscalculation of such an important issue for grubby short-term political ends, angry that a continent united peacefully after the Second World War now looks set to unravel, and angry about the possibility that the United Kingdom may cease to exist if the Scottish people (who voted to Remain) now vote for independence. London has been in a state of shock – how dare a few million provincials in a “foreign” country called England do this to them? There have been calls for a second referendum, with millions signing a petition to that effect, in a vain bid to persuade parliament somehow to overrule the referendum result.
As an anthroposophist, I know that being on the losing side can be painful. After all, as Hermann Poppelbaum once said, “If one is to pursue a life spent in the promotion of anthroposophy, it is necessary to develop an entirely new relationship to failure.” But even so, the reaction of those who were unhappy with the result of the British referendum has been extraordinary: there have been splits in settled communities and dissension between old and young, rich and poor, metropolitan types and country dwellers, and even within families. A friend spoke about a married couple she knows: the husband voted Leave, the wife voted Remain. After the result, they didn’t speak to one another for three days and things are still decidedly frosty between them.
My own family has not been immune from this. My French in-laws emailed to say in Asterix-speak: “Ils sonts fous, ces Anglais”, and made it politely but decidedly clear that in their view I was naïve, idealistic and quite mistaken in my reasons for voting Leave. My son expressed the same view, but in angrier, more indignant language and accused my generation of having betrayed younger people. Why it is seen as unworldly to have ideals while trying to take a view beyond the immediate, I’m not quite sure; but I try to reassure myself about these idealistic tendencies of mine with the following quotation from Rudolf Steiner’s Renewal of the Social Organism:
“It is too easy to dismiss as impractical idealism any attempt to proceed from bread-and-butter issues to ideas. People do not see how impractical their accustomed way of life is, how it is based on unviable thoughts. Such thoughts are deeply rooted within present-day social life. If we try to get at the root of the ‘social question’, we are bound to see that at present even the most material demands of life can be mastered only by proceeding to the thoughts that underlie the co-operation of people in a community.”
For it is clear from the referendum result that co-operation between the people in the various British communities is breaking down. To quote from an article by Brendan O’Neill in The Spectator:
“The most striking thing about Britain’s break with the EU is this: it’s the poor wot done it. Council-estate dwellers, Sun readers, people who didn’t get good GCSE results (which is primarily an indicator of class, not stupidity): they rose up, they tramped to the polling station, and they said no to the EU.
It was like a second peasants’ revolt, though no pitchforks this time. The statistics are extraordinary. The well-to-do voted Remain, the down-at-heel demanded to Leave. The Brexiteer/Remainer divide splits almost perfectly, and beautifully, along class lines. Of local authorities that have a high number of manufacturing jobs, a whopping 86 per cent voted Leave. Of those bits of Britain with low manufacturing, only 42 per cent did so. Of local authorities with average house prices of less than £282,000, 79 per cent voted Leave; where house prices are above that figure, just 28 per cent did so. Of the 240 local authorities that have low education levels — i.e. more than a quarter of adults do not have five A to Cs at GCSE — 83 per cent voted Leave. Then there’s pay, the basic gauge of one’s place in the pecking order: 77 per cent of local authorities in which lots of people earn a low wage (of less than £23,000) voted Leave, compared with only 35 per cent of areas with decent pay packets.
It’s this stark: if you do physical labour, live in a modest home and have never darkened the door of a university, you’re far more likely to have said ‘screw you’ to the EU than the bloke in the leafier neighbouring borough who has a nicer existence. Of course there are discrepancies. The 16 local authorities in Scotland that have high manufacturing levels voted Remain rather than Leave. But for the most part, class was the deciding factor in the vote. This, for me, is the most breathtaking fact: of the 50 areas of Britain that have the highest number of people in social classes D and E — semi-skilled and unskilled workers and unemployed people — only three voted Remain. Three. That means 47 very poor areas, in unison, said no to the thing the establishment insisted they should say yes to.”
As for the mainstream political parties, they seem to have gone through a collective nervous breakdown. The Tories have demonstrated yet again their capacity for ruthlessness and backstabbing amongst colleagues; while Theresa May has outgamed them all and clawed and fought her way to the top of the greasy pole. One Tory MP was quoted as saying: “The thing about Theresa is that she knifes you in the front”. It seems this was meant as a compliment. The Labour Party is currently in meltdown, with the Parliamentary Labour Party divorced from its voters, its members and from its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who is facing a leadership challenge from two former members of his shadow cabinet. The referendum has revealed just how incompatible the various sections of the Labour electorate have become and it is not inconceivable that the Labour Party will split into two or more new parties.
Many young people are upset about the result, despite the fact that according to Sky Data only 36 per cent of 18-24 year olds bothered to vote in the referendum, compared with 75 per cent of 45 year olds and 83 per cent of people over 65. This first became obvious when a young woman went viral on YouTube describing her bewilderment that her vote had actually had a real grown-up effect on the life of the nation. “I didn’t realise,” she kept saying, and, “I thought I might get another chance to vote again.” She is of course a product of the re-sit generation, which grew up facing only exams which could be re-taken until a favourable result was gained. So the attitude that a democratic vote can be taken again if you don’t like the result is not perhaps surprising; indeed, we saw the EU adopt that approach with the Nice Treaty and then again with the Lisbon Treaty when voters in Ireland did not vote in the approved way.
What most of these young people don’t seem to have realised is that reports of the enormity of the change that emerged on June 24th are misplaced. It may not be as seismic as people have assumed. The truth is that the world is controlled by the corporate sector, especially the banking sector, and will continue to be so whether the UK is part of the EU or not. It’s a strange paradox that all these radical young people who voted Remain were on the same side as the major neoliberal institutions – from the Bank of England, the Conservative government and the Corporation of London to the EBRD, OECD, World Bank and the US government.
It’s also worth noting that in this age of social media we are increasingly living in what has been called a “filter bubble”, in which our information sources are becoming ever more filtered and self-socialised, because we are only associating with people who live and think like us. Here’s what internet guru Tom Steinberg said about this on his Facebook page just after the result:
“I am actively searching through Facebook for people celebrating the Brexit leave victory, but the filter bubble is SO strong, and extends SO far into things like Facebook’s custom search that I can’t find anyone who is happy despite the fact that over half the country is clearly jubilant today and despite the fact that I’m *actively* looking to hear what they are saying.
This echo-chamber problem is now SO severe and SO chronic that I can only only beg any friends I have who actually work for Facebook and other major social media and technology to urgently tell their leaders that to not act on this problem now is tantamount to actively supporting and funding the tearing apart of the fabric of our societies. Just because they aren’t like anarchists or terrorists – they’re not doing the tearing apart on purpose – is no excuse – the effect is the same, we’re getting countries where one half just doesn’t know anything at all about the other.”
As I mentioned in my last post, I thought it was foolish of the EU to treat David Cameron’s call for meaningful reform with such contempt and to send him back to the UK with barely a fig leaf to cover his embarrassment. The EU is now reaping the consequences, and it is surely time, as Angela Merkel seems to have realised, to get shot of Jean-Claude Juncker as head of the European Commission. Interestingly, the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, has come up with some useful suggestions for reform of the EU. He’d like to introduce some new rules: the EU would only act in areas where other member states could not. It would agree that any of its directives could be vetoed if a third of national parliaments rejected them. Such changes could have provided a blueprint for precisely the kind of far-reaching reform that Cameron was seeking and had promised to the British people. If he had got a deal like that, I might even have voted Remain myself, despite all my other concerns about the EU. Rutte’s overall point is that sovereignty – and democracy – matters. But this was not to be, and Cameron had to fall on his sword.
If, as the referendum result seems to show, a social and political cleavage is deepening in our country, what can be done? What is really going on? We are in truly turbulent times. Since the Brexit vote, we have had the publication of the Chilcot Report into the Iraq War, the conclusions of which will surely mean that Tony Blair spends the remainder of his life fighting lawsuits from bereaved families as well as moves to impeach him from people such as Alex Salmond of the Scottish National Party. Nor are these convulsions confined to the UK; in recent days, we have had the murder of more than eighty people in Nice by what is assumed to be an Islamist terrorist, an event which seems certain to strengthen the appeal to French voters of Marine Le Pen and her Front National party, who are also arguing for a Frexit referendum; we have had an attempted military coup in Turkey; and we have the prospect of Donald Trump in the USA presidency from November.
To turn from the ridiculous to the sublime, I have found this passage from a lecture that Steiner gave in November 1919 to be meaningful:
“…Now we live in the age of the Michael Revelation. It exists like the other revelations. But it does not force itself upon the human being because man has entered his evolution of freedom. We must go out to meet the revelation of Michael, we must prepare ourselves so that he sends into us the strongest forces and we become conscious of the super-sensible in the immediate surroundings of the earth. Do not fail to recognise what this Michael revelation would signify for men of the present and the future if men were to approach it in freedom. Do not fail to recognise that men of today strive for a solution of the social question out of the remnants of ancient states of consciousness.
All the problems that could be solved out of the ancient states of human consciousness have been solved. The earth is on the descending stage of its evolution. The demands which arise today cannot be solved with the thinking of the past. They can only be solved by a mankind with a new soul constitution. It is our task so to direct our activity that it may assist the rise of this new soul constitution in mankind.”
What did Steiner mean by the Michael revelation? He was referring to the Archangel Michael, the Time Spirit for our age, and Steiner saw the Michael Impulse as the theme needed to transform modern human consciousness. Stated very simply, this Michael impulse is to help us all to receive the inflow of the spiritual world into our material, physical world.
I daresay that quite a few people will be scornful of moving from a sober discussion of the political and social realities around Brexit to mention of the non-material influences on these matters; but to my mind, at a time when all our established systems are breaking down, when our leaders are discredited and clearly at a loss as how to proceed, and all the hidden dark secrets of our society are coming to the light of day, it is impossible to understand what is going on without a larger view of human consciousness than is provided by the materialist outlook. Right now we are surely seeing some of the effects of the Michaelic impulse on our “ancient states of human consciousness”. As always, the poets and artists get there before us, and W B Yeats described what is now happening, in a poem written in 1919, the same year in which Steiner delivered the lecture quoted here.
THE SECOND COMING
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
Steiner ended the lecture quoted above with this warning:
“Externally, humankind approaches today serious battles. In regard to these serious battles which are only at their beginning … and which will lead the old impulses of Earth evolution ad absurdum, there are no political, economical, or spiritual remedies to be taken from the pharmacy of past historical evolution. For from these past times come the elements of fermentation which first, have brought Europe to the brink of the abyss, which will array Asia and America against each other, and which are preparing a battle over the whole earth. This leading ad absurdum of human evolution can be counteracted alone by that which leads men on the path toward the spiritual: the Michael path which finds its continuation in the Christ Path.”
Jesus Christ put it this way: “And no man putteth new wine into old bottles: else the new wine doth burst the bottles, and the wine is spilled, and the bottles will be marred: but new wine must be put into new bottles.”
In the UK, Europe and America we are seeing that the politicians are unable to keep the old machinery working. They pull the old levers, more and more frantically, but the effect is less and less. We see the old social orders are breaking down, and new cultures are rising up. For some reason, the politicians and the media people are usually the last to realise what is going on, while everywhere around them people are starting to resist the old certainties and a tendency to disorder begins to emerge. Our western civilisation is changing in the age of the consciousness soul and under the influence of the Michael impulse; and a certain amount of chaos is inevitable as we move to a different kind of order. The new wine needs new bottles.