Brexit and After

7 Jul 2016

While many commentators have expressed relief that the financial dust has settled after the decision of UK voters to withdraw from the EU — stock markets, having fallen, have now re-bounded; there are no signs of a Lehman Brothers type crash — there is reason to think they relax too soon. Certainly in terms of immediate effects the political shockwaves in the UK are catastrophic and any ‘solution’ for either of the main parties is likely to have a medium (and probably longer) term unraveling effect. On the one hand there is a basic loss of trust within each party, and on the other the implicit perspective that held together general political strategy — a shared sense of positive development, of what is a desirable future — has been punctured. The two orientations reinforce each other.

The obvious casualty of the decision, the European Union, is greatly weakened. This comes at a time when many regard it to be no longer workable, crippled by an infantile development of institutions — financial and social. The institutionalisation of the open market together with the open movement of members typical of other federal state organisations (like Australia or the United States) could only work in the round with the creation of a super-state. There is no broad feeling in Europe in favour of such a super-state, hence the chaos that in turn brought on the Brexit shock. But if the European Union is on the first line of casualties, this by no means captures the deeper meanings of Brexit.

The European Union was always a particular expression of a larger development: globalisation. It was a set of structures within a larger global setting that also encouraged open markets. If Brexit can be said to puncture the shared sense of positive global development that existed, British withdrawal from the EU should not be the main issue. Rather it points to the need to ask what it is that repels people about their political leaders’ embrace of the global order as such. There have been a few comments in the press taking up this theme, but they have not dug deep.

There does not exist a strong awareness of globalisation as a unique and singular social emergence, only in existence since the 1980s. People in various settings know what its immediate expressions mean to them. Bankers have a clear understanding of its novel financial possibilities (while shaming themselves in 2008 as a result). Mass global tourism, emerging from all sectors of social life, simply lives it. The tourist does not necessarily think of their activity as an expression of globalisation, rather an opportunity taken simply because of cheap airfares. The manufacturing worker who finds his or her industry disintegrating and leaving them, their family, and local community members without jobs — not to mention a viable local culture — know that trade and free trade agreements have undermined their possibility of survival, but this is not viewed by them in terms of the phenomenon of a global order. Even the university worker who sees university jobs disappearing on a grand scale typically does not put it down to globalisation as a social–institutional phenomenon that is replacing a previous social order.

But it is a new social order that is taking shape and it is affecting all ways of life in most regions of the world. It combines the market supercharged by the computer and communications technology in an institutional strategy called de-regulation, which cuts away all restrictions that would protect regional institutions from the broader global order. This is an order of constant movement, by definition hostile towards all settled conventions and institutions. Its emblematic fluidity emerges from a radical individualism that pushes to one side communities of place that are ‘limited’ by social relations structured by the generations and a significant emphasis upon the face-to-face. It is a fluidity structured by the global market and, as such, cuts a swath through all cultures that are unwilling, or think themselves unable, to protect themselves.

It is only quite recently that researchers within the IMF have declared that global markets have inherent flaws that are producing global disorder — in the form of increased inequality and also excessively mobile capital flows. As limited as it is, this is an acknowledgement of great significance because economists are typically seduced by the unfettered global market. When joined with the other great disruption of globalisation, the GFC — which continues to wreak havoc among global economies — one could be excused for imagining a break opening up in the dominance of global ideology and practice. And Brexit is predominantly a further nail in the coffin, led by voters who had seen their world dissolved before their eyes.

It is only thirty years since our political leaders took the advice of global economists and decided to go down the road of economic globalisation. This was a case of the blind leading the blind into a singular order of which they knew nothing — other than a vague prediction of greater economic growth.

Much has been made of how global resistance is a product of populist reaction. Here populism stands for anyone outside of the global consensus, anyone disaffected with political leaders. This use of populism as a negative marker is a cop out, a reaction in its own right. It conceals an unwillingness to take the experience of many ordinary people seriously. The truth is that such people are left without any developed political leadership because our leaders do not want to think they may have made a terrible mistake in choosing the economic globalisation road. And what is a political failure is, by and large, an intellectual failure as well — as evidenced when normally insightful commentators such as Waleed Aly declare, after Brexit, that there is no choice but to accept globalisation. This is assertion without serious interpretation. It is a reaction not all that different in kind to those made by the Pauline Hansons and the Donald Trumps of this world. It is certainly a failure of cultural and political imagination.

– John Hinkson

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