What is the Significance of Britain leaving the EU?
Not much in the long term. In the short term, there will be some consequences, but probably not many for ordinary folks. Nobody’s going to war over this one although the political map may see some ‘adjustments’. One might argue that this is just a slight correction, a reminder to the 1% and to finance capital that globalization will not be an easy, carefree ride into a glorious future of one world for the benefit of capital accumulation. There will be push back by the people negatively affected by globalization, especially the poor and those workers who can easily be replaced by automated machines.
The European Union is just one of several political structures that, at least in political and financial terms, override countries and their sovereignty. But there is a whole new level of organizations like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization that has been messing with national sovereignty for decades in the name of securing the free flow of capital and labour in increasingly global markets. When the World Bank can impose austerity measures and structural adjustment programs on countries who have borrowed money from the WB and are having trouble paying it back, you know that national sovereignty is on borrowed time.
That said, countries come and go. Nothing is permanent in our world. There was no Canada before 1867 and Newfoundland was a British colony until 1948 when it voted by a squeaker of a margin to join Canada. The UK used to have a vast empire spanning the globe. Not so much anymore. Now it seems Brits want to pull back into insularity but they can’t hope to get their empire back. Get their country back? Hardly, because they never actually had control of it. Parliament, voting, elections, politicians are there to draw attention away from the real action and that happens behind closed doors in corporate boardrooms everywhere. There is no democracy in finance. Money knows no borders. Democracy is for us, and is meant to give us the impression that we have some control over our lives. Of course, sometimes people take that impression very seriously and Brexit is a consequence of that. In the long term, Brexit won’t change anything. In the short term, things can get ugly especially with people like Boris Johnson and Donald Trump fanning the flames of popular discontent.
Obviously, the ‘leave’ side tapped into a well of discontent among voters. Globalization is changing everything for everybody and the changes are not always comfortable or beneficial to a majority of the population. Employment insecurity tops the long list of grievances that many ‘ordinary’ people feel when their jobs disappear and seem to reappear in China or somewhere else, given to workers who make a fraction of what British, European or North American workers made in the presumed glory days of rapid industrial expansion after World War II erasing important gains in worker safety and security won by unions everywhere. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher rode out of the West to change all of that to launch decades of austerity for workers in ‘developed’ countries. Voters are looking for people to blame for their waning fortunes and are finding them in visible minorities, immigrants, especially from the Middle East and former British colonies and everybody else that isn’t what some consider ‘purely’ British and, of course, China, India and other countries which are presumably ‘stealing’ good British jobs. The ‘other’ is blamed for just about everything. Don’t be surprised by that. Outraged maybe, surprised, not.
Discontent due to disenfranchisement can often lead to conflict and violence given the ‘right’ leadership. Britain has had its share of violence and public insurrection over the centuries. We could end up with more of the same.
The EU is a highly visible and present symbol of globalization and consolidation of power in the hands of global finance capital. What better target for popular hatred? It stands for everything older Brits seem to be feeling pissed off about, but globalization is not going away any time soon, nor is the creation of larger and larger political units like the EU and organizations of global management organizations like the World Bank and the World Trade Organization. Work will continue to be moved around the globe as corporations look for cheaper and cheaper sources of labour and resources. No, leaving the EU will not mean an end to globalization for the UK.
That said, human beings live in communities, not in global organizations and labour for most people means employment in local enterprises or government (education, health care, etc.). As I noted above, a consequence of globalization is the disappearance of steady, predictable, good paying jobs, especially for people whose jobs can easily be automated. When we see our communities attacked by austerity measures and global ‘structural adjustment programs’ we get angry. The EU, as a political unit, represents distance and is seen as anti-democratic and it is. The EU is a mechanism for securing the ascendency of finance capital, but it had better be careful not to piss off people who live locally and don’t think globally. It’s hard to convince a bloke who just saw his factory job of 20 years disappear and re-appear in China two months later that globalization is a good thing. For him or her, it’s not. So there is push back.
Part of the push back will be in the form of popular unrest and violence. At the political level, there will be lots of re-negotiating to do as the UK leaves the EU, but at the local level, there may be random acts of violence, but there are some promising developments that should at least get the attention of global capital and that’s the movement to greater and greater local autonomy and control over food supplies, power generation, waste management and social services. People may not get their countries back, but they may, over the long term, get more local control as technologies present opportunities for greater local autonomy.
We are in a period of transition when global capital has proven itself capable of exploiting every part of the globe. I think we are getting close to the end times of the glory days of capitalist expansion when profit margins inexorably diminish because there are no longer cheaper workers to be found or resources become too expensive to exploit and when markets are flooded with consumer products that are increasingly at the margins of utility and no longer producing the satisfaction we all seek in our lives.
That means the opportunities will abound for us in our communities to get creative in finding local solutions to some of our most pressing problems while we connect to the rest of the world on the internet and create communities there as well, communities of ideas and mutual help that don’t imply direct political involvement or control.
I think Brexit is a wakeup call for capital. That is certainly true, but we must find in it a resolve not to descend into xenophobia, racism, brutish nationalism and violence while seeking solutions to problems in our lives for ourselves, by ourselves, ironically using the tools global capital has so generously provided us. We must resist the urge to blame and scapegoat and instead turn our attention to our communities creating in them the means of living meaningful lives.