Probably the wisest thing I heard today was from a BBC Newshour man-on-the-street respondent.
“I won’t be sad to see the back end of the capitalist European Union. But I’m sorry it had to be on such right-wing terms.”
I’m paraphrasing from memory, but that just about sums up the duality of Brexit. On the one hand, the motives behind it are real, not sentimental. Globalization has been almost uniformly terrible for the working and even middle classes of the developed world. Disentangling global systems, including not just the EU but trade agreements such as NAFTA and the rapidly-approaching Trans-Pacific Partnership, is at least theoretically a way to regain national control of things like wages and working standards.
It also, of course, robs everyone, working and middle classes included, of the real benefits of global trade flows, which increase the total sum of global wealth by spurring innovation, specialization, and efficiency. There’s a reason globalization has been accompanied by a broad and real reduction in global poverty.
But that argument simply doesn’t have much sway for those who supported the Brexit, or for their counterparts in other countries. Check out a map of Brexit results and you’ll see a very clear division between London, which has benefited hugely from globalization and broke hard for Remain, and the rest of England – the U.K. equivalent of American ‘flyover country,’ where workers have been hurt worst by free trade.
And that’s the rub – globalization may not be a zero-sum game, but those who have benefited the most from it have been grossly negligent in managing its negative impacts. And now those chickens are coming home to roost, globally.
But, back to that initial quote. There is an undeniable legitimacy to those who oppose the EU and free trade. But those legitimate beefs have been channeled into hatred-shaped containers lined with reactionary sentiment. Those praising the Brexit referendum as a “victory for democracy” on the international airwaves today were almost uniformly representatives of groups with, to put it politely, reputations for racist and fascistic rhetoric. Marine le Pen of the Front Nationale has been perhaps the most rapid and vocal to applaud the Brexit, along with other damn-near-literal Nazis like Geert Wilders and the BNP’s Nick Griffin.
Also pro-Brexit has been Alternative for Germany, which, despite its best efforts to exclude them, has at the very least been widely praised by its country’s far right. An Alternative spokesperson on the BBC today argued that it was unfair to characterize wanting to control one’s own immigration and trade policies as “nationalist.” In the current environment, that’s a distinction without a difference. I don’t even think there’s a word for a pro-nation state mindset that doesn’t come part-and-parcel with a disdain not just for immigration, but for immigrants, and, seemingly automatically, for gay and nonwhite people, to boot.
Which brings us, inevitably, to Donald Trump, who also loudly praised the Brexit result, and whose own protectionist nationalism is more than spiced with race-baiting, personality cultism, and a fondness for authoritarian violence. I’m of the opinion that Trump doesn’t have much of a chance in the U.S., because the contingent of nationalists is smaller, and shrinking (like Trump’s constituency, pro-Brexit voters skewed much older than Remainers).
Is there a way to separate anti-globalization from fascism? The far-left anti-WTO protests of the late nineties failed to ignite a mass movement, arguably because they didn’t connect with the cultural sensibilities of those with the most directly at stake. And now, even the most anti-fascist of the anti-globalization groups can’t quite keep their nose clean. American Libertarians in the Rand Paul mold have come the closest, I’d argue, but their domestic policies are abysmal.
I’d say for right now, things look pretty hopeless. There is no third way.
But there is a potential bright side to Brexit – two, in fact. I hold out hope that, first, Brexit becomes a global wake-up call for political elites, a finally really concrete consequence of the decades-long failure to reckon with the consequences of economic liberalization. And second, I hope that by sharply foreshadowing the consequences of isolationism – we are going to start hearing a lot about British job losses and economic chaos – it sobers up just enough people to slow down similar forces elsewhere.
That might be wishful thinking. Trump and the Front National are clearly feeling emboldened right now. But one of the most revealing bits of tape to surface today was that of a British voter whose entire family apparently instantly regretted their Leave votes.
Britain probably won’t get a do-over. It would be as destructive as, say, trying to deny Donald Trump the Republican nomination (parallels within parallels, eh?). But the rest of the world can, perhaps, look at that regret, at the far-reaching, already-catastrophic effects of isolationism, and maybe, just maybe, think twice.