Things are changing. A major crack has appeared in the edifice of globalization, and the neoliberal order that has dominated the world’s economy since the end of World War II is now in danger.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, by any means. But poisonous weeds are just as likely as green shoots to grow up through those cracks. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy: Those who make constructive evolution impossible may be making destructive devolution inevitable.
We now know that Great Britain, itself an amalgam of older nations, is divided. England and Wales voted to leave Europe, while Scotland, Northern Ireland, and ethnically diverse London voted to remain.
This vote was a stunning rejection of Great Britain’s political establishment. “Leave” prevailed despite opposition from all three major political parties. Prime Minister David Cameron, who will now step down, called on voters to “Remain.” So did socialist Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing Labor leader in a generation. Barack Obama crossed the Atlantic to stand beside Cameron and offer his support.
Voters rejected all of them.
The uprising has begun. The question now is, who will lead it going forward?
Globalism’s Shadow Self
The world’s financial and political elites must now face the fact that resistance to their economic order, which has shaped the world since the Bretton Woods conference of 1944, is a major phenomenon. These elites are apparently more out of touch with the citizens of the industrialized world than at any time in modern memory.
Make no mistake: The “Leave” vote was a rejection of globalization, at least as it’s currently structured. This was a revolt of working class Britons who have seen their postwar prosperity erode around them and their social contract eviscerated by the corporate and financial oligarchy.
But it was also the sign of a darker and more sinister worldwide phenomenon: the resurgence of global nativism and xenophobia. This worldwide turn toward fear of the Other is globalization’s shadow self.
Revolt of the Powerless
That’s not to say that there wasn’t a legitimate left-wing case to be made for leaving the European Union. The “Left Leave” movement, or #Lexit, had its own advocates. “Why cling to this reactionary institution?” asked one.
But this near-victory wasn’t won with leftist arguments about resisting the global oligarchy. The left was too divided to make that case clearly or forcefully. It was largely won by stirring up bigotry against immigrants, cloaked in flimsy arguments about excessive regulation. Legitimate economic grievances were channeled into nationalist hostility.
Many “Leave” voters felt powerless, that they no longer had much of a say in their own destinies. They weren’t wrong. The European Union was largely a creation of transnational financial forces driven by a self-serving neoliberal ideology of “free” markets, privatization, and corporate economic governance.
But ,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.
The British people have lost more sovereignty to trade deals like NAFTA and the TPP then they could have ever surrendered to the European Union. Their democratic rights are trampled daily, not by faceless EU bureaucrats, but by the powerful financial interests that dominate their politics and their economy.
Low Information Voters
This vote won’t help the middle class. British workers will no longer be guaranteed the worker rights that come with EU membership. British corporations will be less regulated, which means more environmental damage and more mistreatment of employees and customers. They will not, in the words of William Blake, “build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.”
Most “Leave” voters probablydon’t know that, because the media failed them too. Instead of being given a balanced understanding of EU membership’s advantages and disadvantages, the British people were fed a constant diet of terror fears and trivial anti-government anecdotes meant to reinforce the notion that EU was needlessly and absurdly bureaucratic.
As Martin Fletcher explains, Boris Johnson played a key role in degrading the performance of Britain’s corporate press back in his days as a journalist. Other outlets were all to eager to mimic his anti-government and anti-Europe stereotypes. And now? It’s as if Sean Hannity’s deceptive sensationalism had made him a top presidential prospect.
Johnson and UKIP leader Nigel Farage played the same role in the Leave campaign that Donald Trump is playing in US politics. Like Trump, they have used economic fears to stoke the anti-immigrant fear and hatred that is their real stock in trade. Their slogan might just as well have been “Make England Great Again.”
The campaign’s fearmongering and hate has already claimed a victim in Jo Cox, the Labor MP who was violently martyred by a white British racist. Tellingly, her murder was not described as an act of terrorism, which it clearly was. The decision to restrict the “terrorist” label to Muslims, in Great Britain as in the United States, feeds precisely the kind of hatred that fuels movements like these.
Great Britain’s immigrant population grew by 4.5 million under EU membership. But in a just economy, that would lead to growth for the existing middle class. Britain’s immigrants didn’t wound that country’s middle class. They’re scapegoats for rising inequality and the punishing austerity of the conservative regime.
What happens next? Markets are already reacting, retrenching in anticipation of new trade barriers and political uncertainty.
Before the voting, estimates of a Leave vote’s effect on Britain’s economy ranged from “negative” to outright “calamitous.” The outcome will probably fall somewhere between the two.
Will the reprehensible Mr. Johnson, who pushed aggressively for Brexit, now lead his party –perhaps even his country? How much will this boost UKIP? By rejecting the EU, will Great Britain soon experience even harsher economic austerity measures than Cameron’s?
Scotland may once again pursue independence so that it can rejoin Europe. Sinn Fein is calling again for the reunification of Ireland. Suddenly anything seems possible.
There are already calls for a similar referendum in France.
British workers are likely to be worse off without EU protections, especially if the far right prevails in future elections as the result of this vote.
Trade deals will need to be negotiated between Britain and the EU, along with the terms of separation. Judging by its behavior toward Greece, Germany prefers to punish any nation impertinent enough to try guiding its own economic destiny. These negotiations won’t be pleasant.
The New Resistance
The current order is unstable. The uprising has begun. But who will lead it?
All over the world there are Boris Johnsons and Nigel Farages poised to capitalize on the chaos. The US has Trump, who was quick to tie himself to the vote. Greece has Golden Dawn. Germany has the far-right, anti-immigrant AfD party. Scandinavia has the Sweden Democrat Party and the Danish People’s Party. Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party, itself nationalistic and totalitarian by nature, is in danger of being outdone by the racist and anti-Semitic Jobbik party.
Hungary is already building a Trump-like wall, in fact, a barb-wired fence meant to keep Syrian refugees out of the country and Jobbik out of political power.
There is also also a growing democratic counterforce, poised to resist both the global elites and the nationalist bigots. It includes Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain, and the Corbyn movement in Great Britain (although Corbyn’s fate is unclear in the wake of this vote). In the US it has been seen in both the Occupy movement and, more recently, in the newly resurgent left inspired by Bernie Sanders’ campaign.
The global financial order is fracturing. But will it fall? It’s powerful and well organized. Even if it does, what will replace it: a more humane global order, or a world torn by nationalism and hate? Should these new parties and factions form a transnational movement?
That’s the goal of economist Yanis Varoufakis, among others. Varoufakis confronted the EU’s economic leadership directly when he negotiated with them as Greece’s first Finance Minister under Syriza. They prevailed, and Varoufakis is now a private citizen.
The Greeks chose economic autonomy when they voted for Syriza. They didn’t get it. The British aren’t likely to get what they want from this vote either. No matter what happens, British citizens will still be in thrall to corporate financial forces – forces that can rewrite the rules they go along.
Greece’s fate has been a cautionary tale for the world, a powerful illustration of the need for worldwide coordinated resistance to today’s economic and political elites. We can vote. But without economic autonomy, we aren’t truly free. In the months and years to come, the people of Great Britain are likely to learn the truth: We are all Greece now.
The question is, what do we do now?
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Richard (RJ) Eskow is a senior fellow at Campaign for America's Future.