The Cult of Brexit
Phil Knight’s take on the impending EU referendum
On the surface, the debate, such that it is, around a possible exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union, appears to be between two irrationalisms – between the fear of immigration and a globalized world on the one hand, and between the fear of economic collapse and a rise of dangerous nationalist sentiment on the other. The debate has also highlighted an asymmetry in the sides ostensibly conducting the debate, between “populists” who profess to represent the people, and an internationalist elite who affect to represent a disinterested, common sense, preference for stability.
Both of these sides, although they are largely unaware of it themselves, are capable of appearing surprisingly sinister, and that is because Brexit has unavoidably brought to the fore the structures of power that govern the global economy, and which normally prefer to remain unseen. The harsh warnings, easily interpreted as threats, against leaving the European Union that have emanated from foreign leaders and supranational institutions have been surprising not just for their starkness, but for the obvious approval they have garnered from the British establishment, notably from the Prime Minister himself, and his Chancellor, George Osbourne. This has demonstrated a key factor in Neoliberalism, not generally recognised but keenly felt, that national elites are not on the side of those they govern. The referendum has made abundantly clear that Cameron and Osbourne’s “people” are the likes of Christine Lagarde, Donald Tusk, Francois Hollande and Jamie Dimon – these, their fellow members of the international ruling class, are who they feel answerable to, and not their voters or the British public in general. This is now in the open for all to see, in a way that it hasn’t been before.
The consolidation of this ruling class also has a bearing on the stresses within the EU that have helped to generate the referendum. Fundamentally, I suspect that a pan-European state is perfectly feasible, and that state would be capable of absorbing large numbers of immigrants from outside Europe if that was felt to be necessary or desirable. However, such a state would require the genuine acquiescence of the people of Europe, and such an acquiescence would by necessity be a slow, organic process. Patience would be required as a genuine sense of a primary European identity, above existing national identities, slowly emerged and crystallized over generation after generation. This might take centuries to happen, and would require great tact and flexibility from the leaders of the EU.
However, there are two potential problems to such an approach. The first is the ordinary impatience that derives from human mortality. Few people are prepared to lay the groundwork for projects that will only bear fruit years after they are dead. Mostly, people want to see their projects completed within their own lifetimes. Secondly, the necessities of international capitalism, the need to harmonize and regulate markets and reduce barriers to trade, do not move at an organic pace. Indeed they are fundamentally inorganic. The result of these influences has been that European integration has been conducted to an artificial and inflexible timetable, with little regard to the views of the various European publics. This approach could just about be undertaken when the EU could dependably deliver economic growth and social improvement, but any significant economic rupture would always expose doubts in the legitimacy of the European project.
There is yet another, more existential quality to the manner that “ever-closer union” has been undertaken. Both the EU and Globalisation are escatological concepts, and both place their eschatons in the recent past. Just as Globalisation posits the fall of the Berlin Wall as the end of history, so the EU’s eschaton is the Maastricht Treaty, which transformed the European Community into the nascent state that is the European Union, and created its flawed currency, the Euro. This moment, being an eschaton, bestowed upon the EU another pair of characteristics that are implicit in escatology.
Firstly, it conferred upon the EU the aura of a spiritual project, the idea that the EU marks a clear break from the dark days of the old Europe, riven as it was with discord and warfare, into a new, permanent era of peace and light. This sense of a clear break inevitably suggests the second characteristic – the dogmatic, inflexible insistence that there is no turning back. The project goes in one direction and one direction only.
As such the EU, as with globalisation, is a religion, but as the people have not bought into them, they are high caste religions, or temple cults. This is particularly problematic because as the various peoples of Europe increasingly reject the European project, and question its legitimacy, the EU cannot respond with flexibility and compromise. Thus a pernicious dynamic has been generated in which the EU responds to such existential threats by attempting to advance its agenda all the more urgently. This is creating nationalists and demagogues, and contrary to those who believe that the EU represents stability, it is in fact the very source of the instability that threatens to undermine it.
The existential, spiritual necessity of the EU to its ruling class also explains the so-called scaremongering of the Remain campaign. Although its warnings of economic disaster and warfare are dismissed as being purely manipulative by its opponents, this is not the whole story. Because the EU, and globalisation, are necessarily a permanent state of affairs, it is unthinkable to their proselytisers that they might be reversed, or cease to exist. Thus the elite Remainers are, with their scaremongering, projecting the destruction of their own psyches. Following the collapse of 2008, and the failure of the Euro, Brexit threatens to continue the collapse of their entire worldview, as the EU cracks and Globalisation starts to be rolled back. This collapse will happen anyway, as the fissures in both the EU and the global economy are already beyond repair, and all Britain leaving the EU will do is hasten their demise. World leaders, or those who replace them, will then begin the search for the next eschaton on which to build their secular religion.
Perhaps there will be a Cult of Brexit.