What after Brexit? We don’t know, and if we did, we wouldn’t dare say

[This post originally appeared on the Sociological Review blog, Sunday 3rd July, 2016]

In dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will be singing
About the dark times.

– Bertolt Brecht

Sociologists are notoriously bad at prediction. The collapse of the Soviet Union is a good example – not only did no one (or almost no one) predict it would happen, it also challenged social theory’s dearly-held assumptions about the world order and the ‘nature’ of both socialism and capitalism. When the next big ‘extraneous’ shocks to the Western world – 9/11 and the 2008 economic crisis – hit, we were almost as unprepared: save for a few isolated voices, no one foresaw either the events or the full scale of their consequences.

The victory of the Leave campaign and Britain’s likely exit from the European Union present a similar challenge. Of course, in this case, everyone knew it might happen, but there are surprisingly few ideas of what the consequences will be – not on the short-term political level, where the scenarios seem pretty clear; but in terms of longer-term societal impact – either on the macro- or micro-sociological level.

Of course, anyone but the direst of positivists will be quick to point out sociology does not predict events – it can, at best, aim to explain them retroactively (for example). Public intellectuals have already offered explanations for the referendum result, ranging from the exacerbation of xenophobia due to austerity, to the lack of awareness of what the EU does. However, as Will Davies’ more in-depth analysis suggests, how these come together is far from obvious. While it is important to work on understanding them, the fact that we are at a point of intensified morphogenesis, or multiple critical junctures – means we cannot stand on the side and wait until they unfold.

Methodological debates temporarily aside, I want to argue that one of the things that prevent us from making (informed) predictions is that we’re afraid of what the future might hold. The progressive ethos that permeates the discipline can make it difficult to think of scenarios predicated on a different worldview. A similar bias kept social scientists from realizing that countries seen as examples of real socialism – like the Soviet Union, and particularly former Yugoslavia – could ever fall apart, especially in a violent manner. The starry-eyed assumption that exit from the European Union could be a portent of a new era of progressive politics in the UK is a case in point. As much as I would like to see it happen, we need to seriously consider other possibilities – or, perhaps, that what the future has in stock is beyond our darkest dreams. In the past years, there has been a resurgence of thinking about utopias as critical alternatives to neoliberalism. Together with this, we need to actively start thinking about dystopias – not as a way of succumbing to despair, but as a way of using sociological imagination to understand both societal causes of the trends we’re observing – nationalism, racism, xenophobia, and so on – and our own fear of them.

Clearly, a strong argument against making long-term predictions is the reputational risk – to ourselves and the discipline – this involves. If the failure of Marx’s prediction of the inevitability of capitalism’s collapse is still occasionally brought up as a critique of Marxism, offering longer-term forecasts in the context where social sciences are increasingly held accountable to the public (i.e. policymakers) rightfully seems tricky. But this is where the sociological community has a role to play. Instead of bemoaning the glory of bygone days, we can create spaces from which to consider possible scenarios – even if some of them are bleak. In the final instance, to borrow from Henshel – the future cannot be predicted, but futures can be invented.

Jana Bacevic is a PhD researcher in the Department of Sociology at the University of Cambridge. She tweets at @jana_bacevic.

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