Monday, June 27, 2016

Once more unto the breach, and all that sort of thing

Following news that the UK voted to leave the European Union, the Dow Jones industrial average closed down over 600 points on the news with markets around the globe plunging. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)


Prelude: Calm Down, Brexit Will Not Be A Catastrophe. “Unlike the European core countries, the UK has a centuries’ old tradition of national pride, individual freedom and common law. Europe is comfortable with statism; the UK is not. With its traditions, UK citizens are naturally wary of EU centralized power, central planning and harmonization of laws and practices, dictated by faceless Brussels bureaucrats and unknown Strasbourg parliamentarians. As one of the largest and most prosperous EU members, the UK would also share the concerns of Germany and the Nordic countries that the EU is being transformed into a transfer union, whereby the richer and better fiscally-managed countries pay the bills of the others. There will likely be disruptions in the short run, but the long-run outcome could easily turn out to be positive if it returns the EU to an economic rather than a political union, or a more transparent political union, and frees the UK from the dictates of Brussels...” 

Examining Brexit as a phenomenon that is uniquely British misses the fact that it comes as part of a larger ethos infecting Western democracies at this stage. A tradition of national pride and individual freedom are not unique to the UK and represent the very ideals to which many on the Right and Left are currently appealing in order to justify their populist stance. Yes, we need to calm down, but we also need to identify the real problem and its real scope and context.

Of course xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiments were NOT the issue that decided outcome of the Brexit vote! Don’t be ridiculous.

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Those who voted for Brexit make up a slim majority of the eligible voters who showed up at the booth, and who are mostly 45 years and older, are relatively less educated than the rest and were led to believe by certain unscrupulous and ambitious political leaders from both the Right and the Left that the separation of their identity from the state would imperil rather than enrich it.

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For people like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage to engage in some creative back-peddling at this stage might be hypocritical but comes as a good sign. Brexit leaders should back-peddle, and the Remainers should keep challenging them politically, diplomatically and through the media until Brexit is practically nullified, and the real issues underlying the Leavers’ discontent are addressed. The leaders of Brexit might have played on the Leavers’ sense of national pride to the point of validating the most extreme and heinous expression of it, but that does not mean that the grassroots Leavers’ concerns are completely invalid: working class people need fairer representation in the EU decision-making processes. They need to feel and be relevant to the political processes shaping their lives. Decisions made in Brussels are not necessarily bad, but the process is opaque and far removed from local realities, a feeling that people all over Europe share. There are a variety of ways through which this situation could be remedied, allowing for shortening the distances separating local communities and their representatives in Brussels. Failure to address this issue is not simply a political failure; it’s one of imagination as well.

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The Leavers’ age and level of education cannot and do not invalidate their vote or their concern – this is not how democracy works. Rather, it’s the lies told by Brexit’s leaders and their hate-mongering that cast doubts on the legitimacy of the outcome.

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When one undertake a serious cost-benefit analysis of the situation, it’s hard not to see that grassroots supporters of Brexit are, ironically enough, bound to be the most economically and financially affected by it. But no, this fact does not reflect a conscious choice on part of the Leavers’ Camp to put their cultural values and identity above material considerations; most people simply had no idea that that was what they were doing. The facts were never explained to them in any serious manner: their leaders were busy lying to them and manipulating their baser instincts to do so, while the leaders of the Remain Camp seemed clueless about the need to do so.

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The vote for Brexit might have reflected anti-establishment and anti-elite sentiments on the grassroots level. But it is in effect a movement that is led by members of the selfsame elite, as such, it represents nothing more than a coup within the Establishment that pitted certain factions against others. The coup leaders, in a move that is exactly that unusual in such circumstances, simply played on the pervasive anti-Establishment sentiments in many quarters to get their way. Now that they did they are bound to go through a period of internal strife over the shape of the new balance within the system and division of the spoils. Perhaps, for a while, things will feel as though Britain is sailing into a storm with no one at the wheel. But once the struggle is over and new leaders and arrangements are agreed, the challenge for the winners will focus more on controlling and preserving the Establishment not transforming it in any radical way. Considering the mediocrity of the actual figures involved in the matter the process is unlikely to be transparent, and the results are unlikely to benefit the wider segments that supported Brexit. As such, Brexit is not a victory for democracy nor a blow against the elite and the Establishment. Rather, it’s a victory for the vilest elements within the Establishment.

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Anti-establishmentarianism has always pushed people to fight against windmills. Within the context of autocratic societies, however, the dynamics governing the relationship between the ruling elite and the “masses” make such a futile tendency almost inevitable. The ruling elite will keep trying to defend a status quo that, by its nature (nontransparent, corrupt, unaccountable), continues to fail more and more people as time goes by. Showdowns are bound to take place, and they are bound to be violent as both sides struggle for the unattainable: a world where the other side doesn’t exist, or is completely servile and selfless.

Within the context of liberal democratic societies, on the other hand, the phenomenon is completely unnecessary and wholly counterproductive. Because the system, for all its flaws, does allow for the possibility of incremental change, and that, down the road, does translate into real radical change. As such, anti-establishmentarianism in this context lends itself to manipulation by the different factions comprising the elite, and its leaders, from the Right and Left, can rarely deliver on any of their big promises, except for social unrest.

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There are a number of crises about to flare up in various EU member states, especially in Italy and Spain. Despite the serious issues involved in each case, they are very much solvable. But managing popular expectations and discourse is as important as the proposed solutions themselves. Public discourse in this regard cannot be dictated by populist figures and movements.