Learning in class with Wallerstein (2)

Broadening Together Our Understanding of Brexit

Mural artwork for the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign representing Donald Trump and Boris Johnson engaged in a kiss. / Photo: Verne-El País ( Geoff Caddick)

By means of World-Systems Analysis, we explain Brexit as another expression of a broader anti-establishment movement, a challenge the British elites have finally managed to tame. Blaming false enemies, openly lying to voters, or calling a dividing plebiscite are some of the mechanisms that these elites have used to protect their privileged status quo, in a push to restore order and capitalism.

In this second article, the Economic Global Order students and I propose a much in-depth explanation of Brexit using such a long-reaching outlook as the World-Systems Analysis. Now, the time has come to demonstrate how robust the World-Systems analysis can be; how productive in understanding complex processes like Brexit is using Immanuel Wallerstein’s spectacles. Metaphorically speaking, this is a pair of eyeglasses that have two progressive lenses. One lens is calibrated for the cyclical time frame, in which recurring processes develop in capitalism. The second lens adjusts for the secular time frame, in which also structures change – especially the economic and cultural systems. Both corrective lenses combine these historical distances with the viewing of the present time.

Previously, we had focused on the left half of the whiteboard (see picture below), as we were using non-progressive single vision lenses. We finished the commonly-accepted explanation of Brexit just using that material. Now we want to deepen our analysis and get to understand as entirely as possible what caused the UK to leave the EU. This second exercise is not about replacing the first explanation, based fundamentally on events that happened around the time of the 2016 referendum. Quite the contrary, our current goal is to complement it with historical description and a holistic emphasis.

Back in class, here we are. One of the first things that we noticed, when we were picking the ideas of the brainstorm and sticking them into the right half of the whiteboard, was that it was much easier to group causes. We then started labelling those groups of reasons, as you can see in the blue post-its of the picture below. We felt that it even made sense to re-stick some ideas from the left part and group them together. For instance, the ‘Social Rupture’ group on the left was only evident when we started drawing lines that connected different categories. We found that ‘Fear Politics’ is very close to ‘Identity Politics.’ Both connect to ‘Xenophobia’ at the same time. Furthermore, all of them together create some of the most potent driving forces of the aforementioned ‘Social Rupture,’ an event that seemed to be synchronic to the referendum but now is seen as an on-going movement caused by underlying (and in some cases repeating) historical developments.

Indeed, the second lesson we learned from this exercise was that not only causes cluster easier, but those groups of causes also interconnect straightforwardly and very logically. It is precisely in these associations where new perspectives for understanding Brexit emerge. It is about finding hidden correlations among historical processes, and among those and synchronic events. Wallerstein encourages us to associate phenomena so diverse like social alienation and distrust with democracy and rising inequality, and so forth. In academia, these facts are the object of study of different scholar disciplines and, for that matter, their explanations remain separated and, thus, incomplete. Avoiding these artificial divisions in the investigative task is what Wallerstein called the ‘unidisciplinary approach.’

The outcome of using the World-Systems Analysis toolkit produces additional and superior knowledge that can only but enrich our first explanation (an explanation that now only seems supplementary to this second one). Therefore, the World-Systems Analysis helps us create a much-needed understanding of many of the multi-causal processes that have led to Brexit.

The following lines are the second definition of Brexit that the students and myself produced:

The 2008 Great Recession combined cyclical and structural features. As such, it is the result of the exhaustion of the globalization’s development model, showing its limits. From this perspective, it will be every time harder to restore capitalism since it will be impossible to reach previous GDP-growth levels and, thus, adjust salaries to the cost of living.  

The rising inequality of this secular stagnation has produced a social crisis and a political one. British society is divided between winners and losers, namely, the 1% and the political elites versus the working poor and the deprived middle classes. As a result, many citizens distrust the political processes and institutions that have led to such economic turmoil and social fracture. A profound political representation crisis has reached the state, the traditional political-party system, and even liberal democracy as a whole. On both sides of the political spectrum, there has emerged populist and extreme ideological options. All these processes together have created an immense anti-establishment sentiment, something that represented in the early 2010s a vital menace to the ruling Conservative Party.

Economically troubled times make people angry and fearful. Those who are worse off retreat to individualism and selfishness. Xenophobia, fear of the other, is another emotional consequence of the loss of wealth and purchasing power. Nationalism, identity politics, and confrontation are the populistic answers to such irrational and artificial fear of cultural assimilation. The UKIP, first, and the Brexit Party, afterward, were the political organizations that took advantage and added fuel to the fire of those emotions. Angry and polarized citizens, many former and disappointed voters of the Labour Party, found in these new parties the way to express their anti-establishment rage. The Conservative Party was then not only under threat, but divided between those who wanted to embrace populism and those who did not.

The European Union stood as the perfect scapegoat to blame for the economic and political costs of the Great Recession. Targeting the EU institutions and EU bureaucracy was a much helpful distraction technique that relieved the responsibility of the British politicians in this whole declining process. In a time that the European Union was weak and pushing actively for austerity policies, the Brexiteers also fostered the British pragmatism against the European project. 

The British pound, firmly attached to the British identity, showed the UK’s capacity to recover faster than the rest of the EU. The British monetary independence combined then with a much more flexible labor market than those of many of the other member states. As a result, many EU workers migrated to the UK looking for already existing opportunities that it would take years to appear again in their home countries. 

Calling the 2016 Brexit referendum was the means that the Conservative Party found to tackle both the external threat and its internal division, under the democratic disguise that popular votes sometimes offer. The establishment and the political elites used the Brexit campaign and the plebiscite to divide an already-fractured British society. Nevertheless, the dividing line was deliberately displaced. It was no longer between winners and losers of the economic system, but between a much less intimidating motive: supporters and detractors of the European integration process. Building on anger and fear made the Brexiteers possible to polarize voters. And, in June 2016, the most emotional showed up in higher numbers at the polling stations, voting for such a complicated question (and with so many unexpected consequences) as leaving the EU.

For almost a decade now, British society has been worried virtually exclusively about Brexit and its consequences. David Cameron miscalculated his chances and lost that referendum, having to resign as Prime Minister. Boris Johnson, very opportunistically, supported Brexit. After letting Theresa May burn out in the negotiation of the withdrawal agreement with Brussels, he has seized power in the Conservative Party and become Prime Minister, embracing populism himself and making the UKIP and the Brexit parties irrelevant. An overall-majority conservative government was ruling before Brexit, an overall-majority conservative government is ruling after this whole process. 

Once the people were divided about Brexit (“Divide”), the next step was clear (“et impera”). The political elites, once they got the slim victory in the Exit vote, took control of everything related to the withdrawal process. They did not ask the British people anything else, and no second referendum was never on the table; Boris Johnson even tried to shut down the Parliament. The outcome of that strategy turned the anti-establishment anger into a pro-elite movement. Brexit, as it has finally unfolded, is pushing the British society to move towards a direction of inequality, authoritarianism, and populism.

In the end, Brexit—just as the election of Trump in the USA or the Catalonia independence movement in Spain— is the result of the way that the ruling elites are managing the anti-establishment sentiment caused by the Great Recession. This major popular trend was challenging their dominion and threatening their survival. The means that are justified by that end are a combination of populism and xenophobia, demagogy, corruption, and nationalism, including using democratic discourses and mechanisms to undermine democracy. Similarly to all the cases above, Brexit shows, once more, what Machiavelli warned us about frightened politicians. They are willing to do absolutely everything not to lose their power: lie and break promises, divide and confront, bully and destroy, blame victims, embrace populism, promote post-truism, and continuously create new enemies. In short, they are ready to do everything, to change everything—as another Italian beautifully put—, so that everything remains the same (they stay in power).

We can now see more distinctly that Brexit is just a symptom of a more extensive process that is happening throughout the most powerful and economically developed nations, the core countries in Wallerstein’s terms. The Great Recession has made big groups of people of the economies that initially benefited the most from globalization unhappy. Restoring those economies is not a foreseeable solution in a structural downturn, an adverse conjuncture, and, currently, the COVID-19 pandemic. Social instability and economic inequality are putting at risk (and are expected to continue to do so even more after lockdowns are lifted) the hegemony of the ruling classes. These dominant elites will do whatever it takes to protect their privileged status quo. We might be at the doors of global authoritarianism redux. Many countries are shutting down. The deliberation on the public sphere is more and more populistic and demagogic. Political leaders are becoming increasingly personalistic and autocratic. They build on identity claims and nationalism; promote social rupture, spread xenophobia, and racism. We are seeing attacks on judges, parliaments, and mass media. Governments try to control public opinion, smashing opposition. All of which are long well-known actions that we saw some 90 years ago in Europe.

From this perspective, Brexit is deeply political. Thanks to Wallerstein, we now understand that it is individual actors and political interests who drive it. Unfortunately, some of these most influential players in this match will not restrain to fool and harm the interests of those who supported Brexit (or anyone else), if they feel under siege. British society remains fractured between winners and losers. Still, through such pointless and masochistic (not my words, but Ian McEwan’s) political processes like Brexit —or Trump, or independentism, or the like—, some of the losers will end up voting for politicians that will exclusively take care of winners.

Understanding such a socio-political paradox is the only way to decide ethically, as mentioned in the first article subhead, and consequently act politically. This situation is leading towards an on-going global leaning towards undemocratic inequality. In essence, you can then opt to resist such forces and let the declining elites fall, or you may prefer to support them so that they can restore the capitalist economy. Still, knowing what is happening, and remaining passive, is perhaps the most reprehensible behavior.

After a long and exhausting day in class, we are so happy to finally be able to read Brexit as part of history, economic and otherwise, as a rational and long-lasting process. Its causes no longer create uncertainty but, still, understanding them does not alleviate and keep many of us anxiously aware and, most importantly, ready to act in seeing the UK—or elsewhere—take an authoritarian turn at the globalization crossroads.



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