Brexit as a surrealist movie – a comparison with Luis Bunuel’s film “Exterminating Angel”

Yves Smith of the Naked Capitalism blog writes that the UK does not appear to be “agreement capable” and its getting worse – the UK ruling class is hopelessly divided. They are “stuck”.

“Has Brexit gone so far down the rabbit hole of UK party politics that there is no coming out the other side? Brexit is fracturing the UK’s leading parties, yet there doesn’t seem to be any way for the UK to move forward with the project, nor does there seem to be any politically viable path for the UK to back out by revoking Article 50.

I hate to seem simplistic, but consider some important developments:

….With both major parties losing support because neither one can come up with a position on Brexit that will bridge the significant differences among their members, the UK is becoming even less capable of negotiating credibly or competently with the EU.

Thanks to the EU Parliament elections, Nigel Farage is back…giving Leave extremism a new lease on life. Determined minorities often punch above their weight….

The press and MPs continue to appear utterly confused about timing and process. All the debate about a customs union, labor rights, and other hard v. soft Brexit issues are moot until the UK passes the Withdrawal Agreement….

Again, to stress what ought to be obvious, no passage of the Withdrawal Agreement, no going forward. The EU has made clear it’s not ceding ground on the backstop. So despite all of the chatter among MPs about Norway and a customs union and other bright-sounding ideas for preserving frictionless trade, the UK will remain in a Brexit zombie state until it approves the Withdrawal Agreement….”

This reminds me powerfully of the film “Exterminating Angel”, the surrealist classic by Luis Bunuel made in 1962. I found it on the internet with English subtitles and watched it again. A group of toffs arrive for a dinner party at a posh mansion on Calle de Providencia (Providence Street – in the old meaning, the word Providence meant Divine Foresight) but after the meal, to the perplexity of their hosts, they do not go home. They sleep in the room in which they have dined. Meanwhile the servants, except for the chief butler, leave/have fled. Gradually the toffs realise that, for some mysterious reason that they cannot understand, they are unable to leave the room. There is actually nothing physically stopping them doing so but they have some kind of psychological block on leaving.

Gradually their lives and behaviour descends into chaos, with no food, water and medicines. They smash into the wall to breach a water pipe to survive. They blame each other for their inexplicable plight. Meanwhile outsude the mansion the public and the authorities likewise find that they cannot enter. Again, there is nothing physical stopping them but they just can’t do it – though they are able to drive a flock of sheep in that provides food for the people inside. They smash up things for firewood to cook the sheep…

Eventually the people who are mysteriously trapped find that they and the furniture are in the same position in the room as just before their nightmare began. They are able to act out a repetition of the situation that started their ordeal and now find that they can leave….

The next scene takes place in a cathedral. The survivors are with a much bigger group holding a service of thanksgiving because they managed to get out. When the service is over they get up to leave. However at the door, they start making excuses about why someone else should leave first, why they have to go back for their prayer book…

This leads to scenes where troops disperse the crowds in front of the cathedral. There is a burst of machine gun fire on the streets and crowds scattering….the last scene is of a larger flock of sheep herded into the cathedral for the congregation trapped inside…

As a metaphor for the British ruling class I think this fits quite well. Arrogant but out of touch toffs like Rees Mogg and BoJo imagined that leaving the EU would be straightforward. EU politicians would have to accommodate what they wanted because they are dealing with “Great” Britain after all, don’t you know.

Yet leaving has proved anything but easy. There are decades of economic, social, legal and personal ties to be unraveled that the toffs ignored. Indeed, when the “servants” flee the UK (agricultural field labour, nurses and other staff in the NHS etc) that will further complicate matters. However neither the political elite nor most people reading the tabloids were aware of or interested in these such complex details. They are still not – they prefer simple explanations.

Now that we have still not left, however, an explanation is required and no easy explanation is available without admitting big mistakes and acknowledging huge prior illusions. The political insiders who run this country find themselves unable to leave the EU and as far as large sections of the public are concerned this is for completely inexplicable reasons. What is stopping them? The easiest explanation is that they are blocked by remainers who are refusing to accept a democratic vote. Of course, the EU has made it impossible to leave without big losses and a totally unreal situation for the British ruling class has occurred. They are in an unwinnable situation through their own miscalculation and stupidity. They are not going to admit this and are going round and round unable to get out of the door.

Johnny Foreigner has the upper hand. The biggest danger would be leaving with a no deal situation where the supply of food and medicines would be severely disrupted. There is turmoil and conflict as each blames the other.

Of course maybe they could return to the point where all this started. They could go through the process of having a referendum again to sign Theresa Mays withdrawal agreement with the EU or revoke Article 50. This might unblock the situation but in either event it would lead to an even bigger set of blockages shortly afterwards.

If the referendum reversed the decision to exit, a large minority would be very bitter and do all it could to stir things up, also in the EU Parliament. A huge part of the population would feel that they were betrayed. They would take their arrogance and hubris into the British and European Institutions and paralyse them. On the other hand if a referendum decided to back Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement then there is the far bigger and more complicated task of the next stage. Because, as Yves Smith explains,

“…if you thought the EU played the UK during the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. The post-transition trade deal will be vastly more complex and hard fought…”

In other words this is just the first stage – the next stage will be ever harder.


Perhaps it is worth adding that beyond Brexit there are other predicaments that mainstream politicians, in all the rich countries, will not be able to resolve – and are likely to make worse because they will not understand what is happening and will be unable to abandon their previous thinking.

For example keeping economic growth as a policy goal – when it is glaringly obvious that growth requires more cheap and easy to access energy sources which has underpinned 200 years of industrialisation. Such cheap and easy to access energy is no longer available – and if it were available then burning it would make climate change worse. The world has changed because we have reached the limits to economic growth. However, ruling elites, the political insiders, are guided by mainstream economists who do not have an understanding of energy economics or ecological economics. (For an energy economics understanding of current problems and how it relates to politics see )

As a result they are blundering catastrophically. One faction wants to spend trillions of pension fund money – the money accumulated for the pensions of the working population – on technological fixes that there is every reason to believe will not work and will make catastrophic losses. The conflict over this will also create political paralysis with politicians not knowing whether they are coming or going. ( For the illusion that there is a techno-fix that will get us our of current problems see – Also – )

Everything changes. Long standing institutions break down – and the elites that have run them eentually fail, particularly when the elites fail to understand and try to resist historical processes that are too big, like the end of the economic growth period. We can no longer expect that the political insiders, their media friends, the PR companies and the corporate establishment, will be able to get out of the room. (For what might be possible in the turmoil to come if we manage to avoid a nuclear war see my article – )

Once upon a time Mongolia was a global power that was able to invade Europe right up to the gates of Vienna and forced China to build its Great Wall. Once upon a time the Mali Empire with its capital Timbuktu in West Africa was fabulously rich and very powerful. In 1700 the largest city in the world was in Siam (Thailand) with one million inhabitants…
Once upon a time the two islands off the west coast of Europe were called “the British Isles” . These became the United Kingdom of “Great” Britain and Ireland. The United Kingdom thus, at one stage, included England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The UK fell to bits with most of Ireland leaving first. This country had pioneered a global empire based on machines and infrastructures powered mainly by fossil fuels. However, other countries quickly followed and the UK and its world empire was weakened by world wars and then surpassed by one of its colonies, which spanned the North American continent. Shortly before its break up Britain sought an alternative future by alliance in a European Union but its rulers were unable to cope with sharing power and sought instead to re-create an alliance with its former American colonies who spoke the same language. This proved to be a disaster. Soon afterwards, Britain, the United States (the former North American colonies) and the European Union, together with other mechanised societies all collapsed because of the climate toxicity of fossil fuels, the toxicity of petro-chemicals and because the fuel supply was eventually exhausted anyway with only partially viable energy alternatives. After a period of turmoil and high death rates, in which nuclear war was narrowly averted, a new society eventually emerged among the survivors – based on loosely networked permaculture communities, adapting as best they could to a changing climate and ecology.

Sic transit gloria mundi

This link takes you to Bunuel’s film with english sub titles – it looks as if it is 3 hours long. It isn’t. It lasts one and a half hours.

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