What, then, explains Brexit? Mass immigration is another fear across the EU, and it was whipped up in the UK by the Leave campaign, in which Nigel Farage was a conspicuous speaker and organiser, alongside prominent Conservatives. But xenophobia on its own is by no means enough to outweigh fear of economic meltdown. In England, as elsewhere, it has been growing as one government after another has lied about the scale of immigration. But if the referendum on the EU had just been a contest between these fears, as the political establishment sought to make it, Remain would have no doubt won by a handsome margin, as it did in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence.
There were further factors. After Maastricht, the British political class declined the straitjacket of the euro, only to pursue a native neoliberalism more drastic than any on the continent: first, the financialised hubris of New Labour, plunging Britain into a banking crisis before any other European country, then a Conservative-Lib Dem government of an austerity more drastic than any generated without external constraint in Europe. Economically, the results of this combination are unique. No other European country has been so dramatically polarised by region, between a bubble-enclosed, high-income metropolis in London and the southeast, and an impoverished, deindustrialised north and northeast where voters felt they had little to lose in voting for Leave (crucially, a more abstract prospect than ditching the euro), whatever happened to the City and foreign investment. Fear counted for less than despair.
Politically, too, no other European country has so blatantly rigged an electoral system: UKIP was the largest single British party at Strasbourg under proportional representation in 2014, yet a year later, with 13% of the vote, it gained just a single seat at Westminster, while the Scottish National Party, with under 5% of the vote, took 55 seats. Under the interchangeable Labour and Conservative regimes produced by this system, voters at the bottom of the income pyramid deserted the polls. But suddenly granted, for once, a real choice in a national referendum, they returned in force to deliver their verdict on the desolations of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron.
Finally, and decisively, came the historical difference separating Britain from the continent. For centuries, the country was not only an empire dwarfing any European rival culturally, but unlike France, Germany, Italy or most the rest of the continent did not suffer defeat, invasion or occupation in either world war. So expropriation of local powers by a bureaucracy in Belgium was bound to grate more than elsewhere: why should a state that twice saw off the might of Berlin submit to petty meddling from Brussels or Luxembourg? Issues of identity could more readily trump issues of interest than in the rest of the EU. So the normal formula — fear of economic retribution outweighs fear of alien immigration — failed to function, bent out of shape by a combination of economic despair and national amour-propre.
US leap in the dark
These were also the conditions in which a US Republican presidential candidate of unprecedented background and temperament — abhorrent to mainstream bipartisan opinion, with no attempt to conform to accepted codes of civil or political conduct, and disliked by many of his actual voters — could appeal to enough disregarded white rust-belt workers to win the election. As in Britain, desperation outweighed apprehension in deindustrialised proletarian regions. There too, much more rawly and openly, in a country with a deeper history of native racism, immigrants were denounced and barriers, physical as well as procedural, demanded. Above all, empire was not a distant memory of the past but a vivid attribute of the present and natural claim on the future, yet it had been cast aside by those in power in the name of a globalisation that meant ruin for ordinary people and humiliation for their country. Donald Trump’s slogan was ‘Make America Great Again’ — prosperous in discarding the fetishes of free movement of goods and labour, and victorious in ignoring the trammels and pieties of multilateralism: he was not wrong to proclaim that his triumph was Brexit writ large. It was a much more spectacular revolt, since it was not confined to a single — for most people, symbolic — issue, and was devoid of any establishment respectability or editorial blessing.
Trump’s victory has thrown the European political class, centre-right and centre-left united, into outraged dismay. Breaking established conventions on immigration is bad enough. The EU may have had few scruples in penning refugees into Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, with its tens of thousands of political prisoners, police torture and suspension of what passes for the rule of law; or in winking at barbed-wire barricades across Greece’s northern frontier to keep them locked up on Aegean islands. But the EU, respecting diplomatic decencies, has never openly gloried in its exclusions. Trump’s lack of inhibition in these matters does not directly affect the union. What does, and is cause for far more serious concern, is his rejection of the ideology of free movement of the factors of production, and, even more so, his apparently cavalier disregard for NATO and his comments about a less belligerent attitude to Russia. Whether either of these is more than a gesture soon to be forgotten, like many of his domestic promises, remains to be seen. But his election has crystallised a significant difference between a number of anti-systemic movements of the right or ambiguous centre, and parties of the established left, pink or green. In France and Italy, movements of the right have consistently opposed neo-cold war policies and military adventures applauded by the parties of the left, including the blitz on Libya and sanctions on Russia.
The British referendum and the US election were anti-systemic convulsions of the right, though flanked by anti-systemic upsurges of the left (the Bernie Sanders movement in the US and the Corbyn phenomenon in the UK), smaller in scale, if still less expected. What the consequences of Trump or Brexit will be remain indeterminate, though no doubt more limited than current predictions. The established order is far from beaten in either country, and, as Greece has shown, is capable of absorbing and neutralising revolts from whatever direction with impressive speed. Among the antibodies it has already generated are yuppie simulacra of populist breakthroughs (Albert Rivera in Spain, Emmanuel Macron in France), inveighing against the deadlocks and corruptions of the present, and promising a cleaner and more dynamic politics of the future, beyond the decaying parties.
For anti-systemic movements of the left in Europe, the lesson of recent years is clear. If they are not to go on being outpaced by movements of the right, they cannot afford to be less radical in attacking the system, and must be more coherent in their opposition to it. That means facing the probability the EU is now so path-dependent as a neoliberal construction that reform of it is no longer seriously conceivable. It would have to be undone before anything better could be built, either by breaking out of the current EU, or by reconstructing Europe on another foundation, committing Maastricht to the flames. Unless there is a further, deeper economic crisis, there is little likelihood of either.
Source:Le Monde diplomatique March 2017