By Kristen Steele
Jul 11, 2016
When I woke up on June 24th and checked the news, I cried. Along with millions of people around the world. I’m a diehard believer in independence, freedom, democracy, and strong local economies. For some, the Brexit result represented those things. If that had been the reality, I would’ve supported it too. But like every other choice offered in the global economy these days, Brexit was a false one. Getting out of Europe does nothing to address the real problems in UK society—or the world. We’re still headed down the same destructive path together, but now more fractious and divided than ever. My colleague Lawrence Bloom summed it up perfectly: the referendum was like choosing between cabins on the Titanic.
The truth revealed in the vote and its aftermath is that globalization has not only blinded us to the real cause of our problems, it has also finally succeeded in fracturing one of the modern world’s most stable societies. This isn’t my first view of this process at work, but it is a kind of divisive culmination I hoped I’d never see.
I was born in the US and grew up in the 80s and 90s under the reign of neo-liberal globalization. In 1998, I fell in love with an Englishman. We got married and, soon after, I moved to the UK. For most of the last two decades, I’ve lived the life of a dual citizen—half in and half out of two cultures. Over that time, I’ve watched as many of the differences between them have dissolved under the onslaught of the global economy, with the same heartbreaking results.
My youth was spent in the era of early NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and I got used to hearing people blame Mexicans for every problem in the American economy. The trade treaty had destroyed jobs in both countries: US companies laid off workers and set up cheap-labor maquiladoras across the border, while millions of Mexico’s small farmers were driven off the land by cheap food imports from the US. Blame was deftly shifted from the corporations that had engineered the trade deal to Mexican immigrants who were among its worst victims. Stories hit the news of vigilante ranchers staking out the border, shooting at illegal immigrants sneaking northwards through the desert. This wasn’t the first time the border was a site of such conflict, but it took on new meaning. Throughout the next decade, the animosity towards Mexican immigrants went underground. It festered in the background, but few politicians dared mention it. Racism was not PC. It wouldn’t get you elected back then.
When I first moved to the UK, it took some getting used to, but I came to love British culture. There was a certain peacefulness to it, a quirky, but cheerful diversity. Perhaps it was the popular support for gun control laws, which allowed people to enjoy their guns at the shooting range or on the farm, but kept them off the streets. Or maybe the widespread disbelief that a supposedly civilized country like the US could still have the death penalty. Or possibly the fact that, in times of turmoil, people were more likely to boil the kettle for tea than allow their anger to boil over into violence. When all else failed, at least people were polite. As if their lives depended on it.
As the 2000s wore on, the British saw more and more power taken from them and transferred to central government, which, by then, was deep in the pocket of private interests. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had initiated the transfer in in the 1980s with her own brand of supply-side economics inspired by her buddies Ronald Reagan and Milton Freidman. Her government sold off most of the country’s industries—coal, steel, rail, energy—to private corporations at fire sale prices, destroying unions and national pride simultaneously. This didn’t lower prices as promised, but rather enabled corporations to profit twice—directly through billing customers and indirectly through government subsidies and tax breaks.
When I first moved to London in 2000, an intense fight was underway to stop the privatization of the Underground. The mayor at the time, Ken Livingstone, lost against Prime Minister Tony Blair and Metronet (a conglomeration of 5 multinationals) took over the tube. Prices went up, quality of service went down. In 2003, when Blair overrode the will of the people and his own political party and threw the UK’s hat in the ring of the unwinnable Iraq war, apathy and helplessness set in. Over the next decade, privatization picked up pace and infiltrated more of the public sector, including healthcare, education, even parking enforcement. House prices went up, wages stagnated, funding for public services were cut, local government offices were reduced to helpless and overwhelmed skeleton crews. Every little thing became a struggle. Local residents fought tooth and nail to keep their hospitals open, while services declined and waiting times for procedures increased. Tax-funded, corporate-run ‘academies’ began to replace publically-run schools. Gas companies raked in profits, while old people froze to death in their homes. Then the 2008 financial crisis hit.
Even though only two banks in the UK took the government hand-outs, the damage was done. Austerity measures were put in place and the blame began flying. For a brief time, it landed in the right place: the corporations and banks that control the economy. The Occupy London movement tried to build on the protests that were sweeping across the US in 2011, but nothing much changed. Money continued to be funneled away from people to unaccountable corporations and the political puppets they controlled. Migrants, many driven by the same economic breakdown in their own countries, flocked to the UK. And so blame found its target. As one writer in The Guardian put it: “The argument is simple, even simplistic: they don’t look, talk or pray like me, and my wallet’s feeling light, so it must be their fault.”
Many Leave voters have vociferously defended their choice, saying immigration had nothing to do with it. However, the majority I’ve heard from inevitably mention foreigners or borders when pressed to justify their vote. It may not be the main motivation for some, or even most, but it looks to be the element that sent the campaign over the winning edge. A statement on the Vote Leave campaign website, backed by Boris Johnson, MP, was less subtle about where it laid the blame for the failure of Britain’s infrastructure, including the National Health Service (NHS): ”’Rising demand’ for NHS services is one of the principal reasons identified by regulators for the NHS’s forecast £2.4 billion deficit in 2015-2016… The pressure that this large inward-migration has put on our schools and hospitals means that we are now forced to block people from non-European countries who could contribute to the UK from coming here.” Setting aside the complete lack of logic in that last sentence, it is worth pointing out that the NHS deficit is mostly attributed to unregulated overspending on temporary staff. Not to mention the fact that government funding of the NHS as a proportion of GDP has been steadily falling since 2012. Or that the UK government disburses an estimated £93 billion a year in ‘corporate welfare’, which could cover the NHS deficit more than 38 times.
It’s a clever tactic: cut funding to essential services, give extra cash to corporations, and then blame immigrants for the mess. It makes perfect sense in a post-truth world. Apparently, it’s also a great way to win political power.
In the wake of the Brexit result, I’ve seen many trying to predict whether it means Trump will win the US election. For me, the point is not what it does for his chances, but rather what it says about the disturbing process happening in both places. In previous presidential bids, Donald Trump tried unsuccessfully to revive the vilification of Mexicans. Now, suddenly, his audience has grown and anti-immigrant sentiments appear to be acceptable in public discourse. He has been blaming Mexicans and Muslims for everything from a rise in violent crime to spreading infectious disease and his ranks of supporters appear to be lapping it up.
In neither the UK nor the US is immigration the real problem, and clamping down on our borders will fix nothing. Situations like this only serve to multiply our divisions exponentially—pitting the rich against the poor, races against each other, citizens against immigrants and now the Leave voters against the Remainers or the Trumpites versus everyone else. It’s like a big, beautiful pie that’s been sliced too many times and is now a dish of crumbs and mush. And it’s an insidious version of disaster capitalism – one that I’m sure most multinational corporations have already figured out how to exploit.
In truth, this has been going on a long time and in many places, but it rarely makes the international news in such a spectacular fashion. In her book Ancient Futures, Helena Norberg-Hodge describes how divisions were created when development took hold in Ladakh, an isolated region in the Himalayas. Previous to the introduction of development in the 1970s, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians had lived harmoniously for generations. But when the region was opened up to the global economy, all that changed:
“[I]n the new economic system, the distance between people has increased so now it appears that you no longer need one another…Competition for jobs and political representation within the new centralized structures is increasingly dividing Ladakhis. Ethnic and religious differences have taken on a political dimension, causing bitterness and enmity on a scale hitherto unknown…Within the last few years growing competition has actually culminated in violence. Earlier there had been individual cases of friction, but the first time I noticed any signs of group tension was in 1986, when I heard Ladakhi friends starting to define people according to whether they were Buddhist or Muslim. In the following years, there were signs here and there that all was not well, but no one was prepared for what happened in the summer of 1989, when fighting suddenly broke out between the two groups. There were major disturbances in Leh bazaar, four people were shot dead by police, and much of Ladakh was placed under curfew.”
Similar conflicts have erupted around the world, although their roots in globalized neo-liberal economics are often hidden or discounted. Yet, in comparing the outbreak of civil war in developing countries with economic “openness”, researchers from Gettysburg College in the US found a high degree of correlation between the two. Countries that had adopted IMF (International Monetary Fund) Structural Adjustment programs and liberalized their economies were found to be at a greater risk of internal violent conflict. The authors concluded that different economic systems create different winners and losers in society and that “the IMF-guided process of liberalization generates new losers at a rate with which a state with weakening powers is incapable of contending. It is as these actors see the opportunity costs of conflict initiation decline that the risk of civil war onset rises.” So, essentially, when the system is so broken people feel they have little left to lose, they turn on each other.
It is under these strange and tense circumstances, that the billionaire buffoon and the haughty Etonian suddenly become the “saviors” of the disenfranchised, despite the fact that they could still each afford to buy an island to escape to if the global system collapsed. While the neighbor who faces the same economic hardships, but happens to be a different color, of a different religion or from a different country, becomes the enemy.
Fortunately, in my experience of living among the British, I feel fairly confident that the current tensions are more likely to result in increased tea sales than civil war. Nevertheless, the rise in racist and xenophobic attacks immediately following the Brexit vote has been horrifying. Vindicated by the result, some Leave supporters have felt free to express their intolerance and outright hatred. Many reports have surfaced of verbal and physical violence against immigrants and non-whites, whether UK citizens or not. As a white, inconspicuous woman, I blend, but I am scared for my friends who don’t. There’s been an even more shocking explosion of viciousness on social media and in the comments section of nearly every article on Brexit. Normally mild-mannered Brits are engaging in the sort of vitriolic mud-slinging we used to only hear on the Jerry Springer show.
Of course, the big question on everyone’s minds, whichever side they’re on, is: What happens now? Do we have any hope of creating a solid, independent nation in such a state of divisiveness and instability? Are we destined for, as Paul Mason warned, a “Thatcherite free-market wasteland” where Britain becomes “a rule-free space for corporations”? I truly hope not. There are other paths forward—ones that rebuild local and national economies in solidarity and interdependence. But we need to work together to make that happen, and the current state of collective anger, depression, confusion and reactivity is not particularly conducive to cooperation.
I’ve heard many on both sides declaring such things as “the British people have decided”, “they’ve rejected the establishment,” that the referendum is a “triumph of democracy.” 48% to 52% is no triumph. It’s a fractured society where a small majority rules and half the population has been silenced. It’s the sort of margin I’m used to in recent presidential elections, but we only live with the worst consequences of those for four years before people can have their say again. The impacts of Brexit will span generations. Saying it’s done and dusted and there’s no room for appropriate modification only creates greater desperation and animosity.
Despite the accusations of second referenda being only for sore losers, we might actually want one. Democracy is a flexible thing and it should be so. Only dictatorships overtly refuse to adapt policy to changing conditions and opinions. Besides, there is plenty of precedent. Denmark voted twice on whether to join in the creation of the EU—the first time no, the second time yes, once changes had been made to the treaty. Scotland has held two referenda on devolution, another on independence from the UK and will likely hold a revote on the same question soon given the change in circumstances due to Brexit.
If there is a second referendum, the choices this time should be genuine options for the future of the UK. Because, as Richard Eskow from Campaign for America’s Future writes, “Even at its worst, the EU is a symptom and not a cause. Great Britain’s citizens haven’t been losing control over their fate to the EU. They’ve been losing it because their own country’s leaders – as well as those of most other Western democracies – are increasingly in thrall to corporate and financial interests.”
We know a lot more than we did even a week ago and whatever we do—whether it’s a second referendum, a vote with completely different options, or forging ahead with the result we have now—needs to reflect that. We need to be creative and work together. To take Lawrence’s analogy another step, we need to figure out a strategy for how to get off the Titanic alive and all together. Or, even, how we can avoid hitting the iceberg in the first place. Because, unfortunately, the Brexit vote has, more likely than not, set the world careening ever faster into that crushing behemoth.
Getting out of the EU will not inherently lead to economic localization nor will it overturn corporate control of the economy. The options for Britain’s future that have been publicly proposed so far will do little to transform the structural problems that led to the crisis in the first place. The EU was failing dismally to address people’s needs, but it was also the only Europe-wide structure we had for potential cooperation between sovereign nations that wasn’t blatantly governed by private corporations. The World Trade Organization, the World Economic Forum and various trade agreements don’t even pretend to offer that kind of citizen-centered forum.
What we need for true localization—that is stable, thriving local and national economies, linked to each other interdependently rather than dependently—is international cooperation. So, we’re going to need a new forum. The world is now interconnected in a way it never has been before via communications and transportation. If we can make those parts more accessible and less carbon intensive, then they’re good. It’s the economic linkages that are toxic. And those require a different tack. Reactionary voting, intolerance and isolationism won’t fix them.
Over the coming weeks, we may well see more genuine economic solutions emerging. Already, visions have been put forth of a “ProgrExit” and other strategies that offer more economic independence for the countries of the UK, while maintaining international ties. These will need to be fleshed out and articulated far better than the Leave and Remain campaigns were. People will need to find ways to calmly hear each other and bridge divides. Ultimately, we will need to unite against the corporate forces that undermine our wellbeing, not against immigrants who are victims as well. In times of crisis, people can fall apart or be inspired to create a better future. It’s often a bit of both, but in this case I fervently hope that the latter wins out.