Globalisation: Is BREXIT the Tipping Point?

The decision when it came was a shock. Surprisingly, to people all over the world, not just to the British and Europeans directly affected. Reactions, depending upon where you stood, ranged from anger to jubilation, sadness to fear, incomprehension to indifference. Whatever the reaction the prevailing feeling was one of ill-defined unease. A sense that the world had changed and not for the better. Something far beyond the affairs of a tiny island set off a small littoral at the extreme Western end of Eurasian landmass was in the offing.

We are entering uncharted waters.

Why? Why on earth would Britain’s exit from the European Union tap into such feelings of global angst?

It seems Britons themselves, whether they wanted Brexit or not, never actually believed it would happen. Nor would it, if anger with politicians had not impelled them to send a message in the only way they felt they could be heard. Britain’s EU partners tended to be angry or impatient, worried that their plans for the European project would be derailed. Meantime their people were more conflicted, recognizing that Britain provided some balance for them against an unresponsive Brussels bureaucracy, of whom increasingly many had doubts. Putin’s Russia was of course over the moon to see an EU own-goal and the major proponent for EU sanctions against them removed from the game.

Americans, experiencing a somewhat similar populist revolt of their own, were concerned what this might mean for a global economy at the tail end of their economic hegemony. The feeling in an up-and-coming Asia was not so much one of concern as bemusement as to why Britain would act against its own economic interest in such a curious way?

The answer I fear is that our unease is well-founded. We live in a time of enormous change whose effects are now coming home to roost. Without wiser, more principled and more inclusive leadership, so conspicuously absent to date, we are entering turbulent times.

The primary cause is globalization. We’ve been talking about it since the 1970’s. It’s nothing new. We knew it could confer enormous benefits but that the accompanying changes would be disruptive and need skillful handling. And it has done exactly that. Globalization has produced the greatest expansion in wealth worldwide in history and the biggest beneficiaries have been the poor in developing countries. Of course, the rich in poor countries benefit most of all but nevertheless wealth filters down. The BRICS, and most particularly China, have benefited the most.

There is one other, very small, group of people that have benefited extraordinarily. They are the world’s very rich, the 1 percent in developed countries who already own most of the world’s wealth.

Oxfam tells us that now just 62 billionaires own more wealth than the bottom half the world’s population, some 3.5 billion people let’s say.wealth.

Consider: in the 20-year period 1988-2008 wealth in the world increased as follows:

  • For BRIC countries incomes increased by 76%

  • For the Super Rich, the 1 percent, it increased by 70%

  • For the ordinarily rich in developed countries, up by 26%

  • For the Upper Middle Class in developed nations, up by 16%

  • For the ‘Wretched of the Earth’ it went up by 12%

  • For Lower Middle Class in developed nations, up by 5%

  • For Working Class in developed nations up by 3%

  • For Working Poor in developed nations up by 1%

Given increasing costs and fall in purchasing power since 1988 even the well-off are actually no richer. As for the middle classes and the poor, their incomes have fallen significantly and in the poorest cases drastically. In the developed world housing is now a massive and destabilising problem.

Properly managed this re-distribution of wealth between the “rich” developed countries and the developing world in a fair and sustainable way is a welcome if not salutary change. In which case globalization is clearly a good thing, leading to a leveling-up not a leveling-down. The operative phrase being well-managed. Clearly, based on human nature and what we are now seeing with BREXIT and the advent of Trump in the US, things are not being well-managed. And it certainly isn’t either fair or sustainable.

The last time our financial systems failed and the needs of a struggling European middle/working class were ignored we got fascism and Hitler. It should be remembered that Hitler won no less than 4 referendums in his passage to power. We can therefore take it as a lesson from history that referendums are not to be undertaken lightly and, when the chips are down, scratch the skin of this demographic and it is not a progressive one; they look for scapegoats and a leader. That is the nature of right wing popularism, it transcends and that is why we now have leaders like Berlusconi, Putin and Trump coming to the fore. It is why immigration becomes an issue, when it is irrelevant, why national nostalgia becomes a fetish and patriotism a crime.

God knows we don’t want and don’t need to go there. Young people under 30 don’t want it, having voted against it in both the US and in Britain, where they voted en masse to stay in the EU. As for older people, many of whom have been through this before, they should know enough to put a stop to such nonsense.

There is a chance that the UK will still remain within or closely linked to the EU. While a second referendum is not impossible, this one is not binding on parliament, it is unlikely. Prime Minister Cameron, who will no doubt go down in history as one of Britain’s most inept PM’s (that’s what you get with a PR man as PM) will not step down for some months and may yet redeem himself by assisting in a coalition of MPs to preserve the EU connection. Scottish MPs are a significant bloc in Westminster and can prevent an accelerated exit until that is, they themselves exit the UK. What is needed is a free non-party vote in parliament whether to stay in or go.

In fact BREXIT just might be the saving of the EU if it provokes a radical re-evaluation of the EU itself and something more responsive to the needs of its member states and more respective of their peoples emerges. British columnist Geoffrey Wheatcroft summed it up thus:

the EU is dysfunctional, corrupt, and afflicted by a kind of corporate folie de grandeur. Part of the tragedy of our predicament is that the wrong people have been making a critique of “Europe”. There were always honourable radical or liberal reasons for opposing European integration.

In other words, it didn’t have to be this way. With or without Britain the EU badly needs work, or it is doomed anyway.

Whatever the case, BREXIT is nothing but the latest symptom of a growing planetary malaise. Its real cause is the gross disparity in wealth and the growing number of people who feel they do not count.

Globalization is both the solution and the problem. God knows what they’ve been smoking up there on Davos all these years but self-interest ought to inform even the most selfish and ignorant of billionaires that their way of doing things over the past 20 years is not going to end well. As for our leaders, our elected representatives, they need to stop pandering to these people in exchange for their gold. Same goes for the economists, academics and tenured professors who trade integrity for illusory influence. Same too for lawyers validating torture. History will not judge an age filled with such people well.

In the multi-polar world in which we now live, such disarray on the part of Western democracies is dangerous; we know where it leads.

Wars abroad and repression at home. A Trump administration will not be Nazi Germany, more like Caligula’s Rome with Caesarism waiting in the wings. In any event, he won’t get in. Hillary Clinton will, and that means politics as usual. So who’s going to keep her honest? A lot depends on it. We have to hope that Bernie Sanders exacts a high price for lending his support. The stakes are high for us all.

As for Britain and the EU, our best hope must be that the UK remains united long enough, refusing to leave or stay until such time the EU convulses sufficiently to reform itself and reverts to a vision nearer to de Gaulle’s ‘Europe des patries’.

In the meantime what of us overseas Brits? Easy for us to pontificate.

I discovered just before Referendum Day that I could have voted to remain by e.mail but somehow didn’t get around to it. Am I any less the fool than the dupes who voted to leave because they wanted to protest (what exactly?) and didn’t believe the exit vote would win?

If, as that crusty old gentleman Krishnamurti repeated ad nauseam, change begins with us, we might do well to reflect on that - and hope that one way or the other it makes a difference in our lifetime.

If not, I guess we do it anyway.