The ‘Brexit’ vote may signify the end of the illusion of ‘progress’

At some point, actually on May 30th, I’d seen enough of the arguments in the campaign leading up to the United Kingdom referendum on remaining in or leaving the European Union, often labeled “Brexit,” to conclude that this was largely a race between neoliberals against authoritarian populists and paleoconservatives. Which is to say, it’s not the sort of race I like to take sides in.[1] I am radical, not conservative, these are conservative arguments, and as I wrote at the time,

For one thing, I’m viewing this from afar and frankly haven’t paid as much attention as I would prefer before holding forth. Another issue is my belief that borders support an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality that presumes that human beings on the other side of an arbitrary line are somehow less entitled to human rights and privileges available on the near side,[7] or worse, as would be the probable result of British neoliberal deregulation, fewer rights on the near side than on the far. At the same time, as an anarchist, I oppose any authority, let alone centralized authority.

But Britain without the E.U. is only one level of hierarchy less centralized than it is with. Much of the motivation for ‘Brexit’[8] appears authoritarian populist and, with the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), paleoconservative. These are horribly ugly impulses.

On the other hand, the argument against ‘Brexit’ dismisses worker concerns in favor of so-called ‘free’ trade and is thus classically neoliberal. Ick.

I hate the political arguments being made on both sides. And even though my impulse is to favor decentralization, and thus both Scottish independence[9] and Brexit, I have to weigh whether on balance the E.U. is better than its member governments. In the case of Britain, I think the answer is unequivocally yes—the European move toward open access,[10] for example, demonstrates a recognition too rarely seen in neoliberalism that not all value can be reduced to profit and loss—and I see little hope for improvement in the near future. So my head and heart are not in unison. My heart says yes to Brexit. My head says remain.[2]

The evidence for this view has only become more persuasive since. Financial markets, economists, political elites, and “experts” (with rare exceptions[3]) all adopting the mantra of so-called “free trade” (always ask for whom anything is alleged to be ‘free’), opposed Brexit and the markets crashed as it passed.[4] Authoritarian populist arguments for ‘Brexit’ often took on a xenophobic or anti-immigrant as well as anti-bureaucracy flavors.[5]

But it is a serious error to stop at labeling pro-Brexiteers as racist. Undoubtedly, some are, but there were also class factors at work. As voting began, Paul Davies wrote,

Markets will react badly to evidence of populism because lenders and investors, the people who run institutional money, will worry they have misread the extent of frustrations and hardships of many people and underestimated what that means for the political climate.[6]

Indeed, with my own experience of neoliberalism, I eventually posted on Facebook (and elsewhere),

With the ‪#‎Brexit‬ / #‎EURef‬ vote a few hours away, I hope British voters do the right thing. Whatever that right thing actually is.

I’m not actually sure.

It looks like a contest between neoliberals and authoritarian populists. Both are supremely evil. Ignoring the campaigns, it looks like a contest between the EU bureaucracy and the British government and right now I think in my head that the bureaucracy is a little less evil (except maybe on economic matters, where it’s hard to tell who’s more evil) than the government.

But in my heart, I understand a lot of authoritarian populist pain. I know all too well what it is like to run up against one brick wall after another trying to find a decent job, trying to survive, trying to retain a shred of dignity against impossible economic odds.

I think I hate neoliberals a little more than I do authoritarian populists. So in my heart of hearts, even when my brain tells me otherwise, even as appalled as I am by xenophobia, I’m hoping Brexit prevails.[7]

As John Harris wrote,

[T]his is about so much more than the European Union. It is about class, and inequality, and a politics now so professionalised that it has left most people staring at the rituals of Westminster with a mixture of anger and bafflement. Tangled up in the moment are howling political failures that only compounded that problem: Iraq, the MPs’ expenses scandal, the way that Cameron’s flip from big society niceness to hard-faced austerity compounded all the cliches about people you cannot trust, answerable only to themselves (something that applied equally to the first victims of our new politics, the Liberal Democrats).

Most of all, Brexit is the consequence of the economic bargain struck in the early 1980s, whereby we waved goodbye to the security and certainties of the postwar settlement, and were given instead an economic model that has just about served the most populous parts of the country, while leaving too much of the rest to anxiously decline. Look at the map of those results, and that huge island of “in” voting in London and the south-east; or those jaw-dropping vote-shares for remain in the centre of the capital: 69% in Tory Kensington and Chelsea; 75% in Camden; 78% in Hackney, contrasted with comparable shares for leave in such places as Great Yarmouth (71%), Castle Point in Essex (73%), and Redcar and Cleveland (66%). Here is a country so imbalanced it has effectively fallen over.[8]

It’s easy to toss about the word ‘class.’ We critical theorists do this all the time. But something a bit more tangible appeared as it slowly dawned on intelligentsia that people favoring Brexit didn’t trust “experts”:

“What we’re seeing is a rise in the number of people who are dissatisfied, disapproving, distrusting of political institutions, political parties, the establishment, the media and, wrapped up with that, the experts,” said Joe Twyman, head of political and social research at the polling firm YouGov. “A certain proportion of people don’t believe a word of what they hear from those they consider part of the metropolitan elite.” . . .

Since February, the pro-E.U. camp has trotted out endorsement upon endorsement from respected authorities within Britain and beyond, including President Obama. None of it seems to have made a dent.[9]

Since the 19th century, there has been a notion of “progress,” propelled by “experts,” that has yet to deliver sustained reductions in economic inequality[10] even as it was part of the deal that people accepted in exchange for the hardships and dislocations that progress imposed:

For many more, and even for those whose material lives were better than anything their parents ever knew, life was filled with anxiety. For one thing, the modern world brought destruction. Throughout the century, lands were taken to build the railroads that fueled the factory system. In America, native civilizations were destroyed in the name of progress. Someone must have given this a second thought. If not, people surely saw what was happening closer to home. After 1853, Baron Georges Haussmann, often called the first city planner, ordered the destruction of much of old Paris to build the new boulevards and monuments that today’s tourists mistakenly associate with tradition. The boulevards were allegedly built to allow a straight cannon shot into the working-class quarters, where rebellions like those in 1848 were most likely to to recur. In Chicago in 1871, the great fire destroyed much of the city. The fire provided occasion for the rebuilding of Chicago as a modern city. Architectural historians claim that engineering advances necessary to construct the skyscraper were developed in order to rebuild Chicago vertically. Even today, everyone who lives in a city knows that modern “progress” entails the tearing down of much that is traditional. The skyscraper became the strong symbol of modern urban power, typically built on the site of perfectly good lands and homes. What met the eye in the cities was just the surface representation of what so many people felt about the modern world. In a different political sense, many still contend that the modern world destroys the old family and small-town values, as indeed it does.

Modernity could be defined as that culture in which people are promised a better life—one day. Until then, they are expected to tolerate contradictory lives in which the benefits of modernity are not much greater than its losses, if that. In Marx’s famous line, the modern world was one in which “all that is solid melts into air”—nothing was quite what it appeared to be. No future payoff was ever quite assured for the vast majority of people. The first sign of the coming good society was always it seemed, the destruction or loss of something familiar and dear. Many people in Europe and North America in the second half of the nineteenth century lived in an oedipal state, as Freud described it: affected by strong feelings of love and anger for their world but unable to give voice to the anger for fear of “saying the wrong thing.” They were expected to love a world that was killing what was dear to them.[11]

The Brexit vote may signal the demise of that deal, a deal like so many the U.S. government made with American Indians, the elite have consistently reneged on. I will not dignify attempts to forecast the U.S. election result this November based on the Brexit outcome—much harder work than I’ve seen would be needed—but there is certainly a truth that the populist appeal of Bernie Sanders and authoritarian populist appeal of Donald Trump derive in no small part from a sense that elites are insufficiently accountable to ordinary people; that the prescriptions of experts should deliver improvements in people’s lives, particularly when people are suffering; and that when economists proclaim the economy has improved, that ordinary people should share in a return to prosperity.

Instead, elites, guided by “experts,” responded to the financial crisis that began in 2007 with an undue haste to rescue wealthy investors—that is, people who accepted risk—while utterly neglecting the long-term unemployed, homeowners who were suddenly “underwater” in their mortgages, and workers whose wages had stagnated while their employment insecurity skyrocketed.[12] They continue to send young men and women on wars that never end and in which there is no hope for victory. They play politics while people suffer and die. Ordinary people never agreed to this. They were promised better. And elites of all stripes have never delivered.

Note, June 26, 2016, 18:41: I found Jim Tankersley’s article in the Washington Post reasoning similarly but over a shorter historical timespan after I finished writing this article. He writes of globalization[13] where I see implications for a project of “progress” since the 19th century.

  1. [1]David Benfell, “How can David Cameron possibly hope to win on ‘Brexit’ when his government is on the precipice?” Daily Bullshit, May 30, 2016,
  2. [2]David Benfell, “How can David Cameron possibly hope to win on ‘Brexit’ when his government is on the precipice?” Daily Bullshit, May 30, 2016,
  3. [3]Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “Brexit: It is with a heavy heart that I will be voting Leave,” Sydney Morning-Herald, June 14, 2016,
  4. [4]Mike Bird, Georgi Kantchev, and Riva Gold, “Pound Plunges on U.K. Vote to Leave EU,” Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2016,; Josie Cox and Giles Turner, “Traders React to Brexit Vote,” Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2016,; Paul J. Davies, “The Real Reason ‘Brexit’ Has World on Edge,” Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2016,; Riva Gold, “Looming ‘Brexit’ Vote Rattles Global Markets,” Wall Street Journal, June 13, 2016,; Riva Gold and Mike Bird, “Tiny Tilt in ‘Brexit’ Polls Roils Global Markets,” Wall Street Journal, June 20, 2016,; Riva Gold and Mike Bird, “Dow Industrials Tumble After ‘Brexit’ Vote,” Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2016,; Ivana Kottasova, “The pound is crashing on U.K. vote for Brexit,” CNN, June 24, 2016,; Timothy B. Lee, “Brexit: Britain just voted to leave the EU,” Vox, June 24, 2016,; Joseph J. Schatz and Ben White, “British voters just unleashed an economic and political tsunami,” Politico, June 24, 2016,; Griff Witte, Karla Adam, and Dan Balz, “Britain shocks world, breaks with European Union; British leader steps down,” Washington Post, June 24, 2016,; George Monbiot, “Money’s Reach,” June 15, 2016,; Ylan Q. Mui, Brian Murphy, and Emily Rauhala, “Pound takes a beating, markets in tailspin after British vote to exit E.U.,” Washington Post, June 23, 2016,; Jethro Mullen, Ivana Kottasova, and Patrick Gillespie, “Dow plunges over 600 points as U.K. ‘earthquake’ crushes global markets,” CNN, June 24, 2016,; Jim Puzzanghera and Don Lee, “Stock market plunges but ‘Brexit’ unlikely to spark a U.S. recession,” Los Angeles Times, June 24, 2016,; Wall Street Journal, “Investors Look for Potential Bargains Following Brexit Vote,” June 24, 2016,; Wall Street Journal to ForEx Closing list, June 24, 2016,; Wall Street Journal to Major Indexes Closing list, June 24, 2016,
  5. [5]Jonathan Hopkin, “Brexit Backlash: The Populist Rage Fueling the Referendum,” Foreign Affairs, June 21, 2016,; Boris Johnson, “Of course our City fat cats love the EU – it’s why they earn so much,” Telegraph, May 15, 2016,–its-why-they-earn-so-mu/; Jules Johnston, “Boris Johnson compares EU to Nazi superstate,” Politico, May 15, 2016,; Timothy B. Lee, “Brexit: Britain just voted to leave the EU,” Vox, June 24, 2016,; Matthias Matthijs, “Britain’s Point of No Return,” Foreign Affairs, June 21, 2016,; Tim Ross, “Boris Johnson: The EU wants a superstate, just as Hitler did,” Telegraph, May 15, 2016,; Jonathan Stearns, “Europe’s Frustration With Cameron Mounts at Ministerial Meeting,” Bloomberg, June 24, 2016,; Joel Stonington, “UKIP’s Deputy Chair on Brexit: “A huge gamble for both sides,” Deutschewelle, May 31, 2016,; Griff Witte, Karla Adam, and Dan Balz, “Britain shocks world, breaks with European Union; British leader steps down,” Washington Post, June 24, 2016,
  6. [6]Paul J. Davies, “The Real Reason ‘Brexit’ Has World on Edge,” Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2016,
  7. [7]David Benfell, [Facebook posting], June 22, 2016,
  8. [8]John Harris, “‘If you’ve got money, you vote in … if you haven’t got money, you vote out,'” Guardian, June 24, 2016,
  9. [9]Griff Witte, “9 out of 10 experts agree: Britain doesn’t trust the experts on Brexit,” Washington Post, June 21, 2016,
  10. [10]Charles Lemert, “Modernity’s Classical Age: 1848-1919,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 23-29; Charles Lemert, “Social Theories and World Conflict: 1919-1945,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 191-201; Charles Lemert, “Will the Center Hold? 1963-1979,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 371-381.
  11. [11]Charles Lemert, “Modernity’s Classical Age: 1848-1919,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 24-25.
  12. [12]Maz Ali, “Here’s What The Economy Looked Like Then And Now. By Chart #6, I Was Pulling Out My Hair,” Upworthy, n.d.,; Binyamin Appelbaum, “As U.S. Growth Lags, Some Press the Fed to Do Still More,” New York Times, February 1, 2013,; Binyamin Appelbaum, “In Tepid Wage Growth, a Potent Sign of a Still-Fragile Economy,” New York Times, May 5, 2014,; Binyamin Appelbaum, “Measuring Recovery? Count the Employed, Not the Unemployed,” New York Times, June 16, 2014,; Dean Baker, “Don’t believe what you hear about the US economy,” Al Jazeera, January 5, 2015,; Neil Barofsky, Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street (New York: Free Press, 2012); Jared Bernstein, “An Economy Stuck in Second Gear,” New York Times, August 2, 2013,; Josh Boak, “5 Cautionary Signs In April’s US Jobs Report,” Talking Points Memo, May 4, 2014,; Mike Collins, “Job Creation By Tax Reduction,” Forbes, December 3, 2014,; Mike Collins, “Job Reduction By Tax Reduction (Part Two),” Forbes, December 4, 2014,; Economic Policy Institute, “The Top 10 Charts of 2014,” December 18, 2014,; Larry Elliott, “Revealed: how the wealth gap holds back economic growth,” Guardian, December 8, 2014,; Paul Krugman, “How to Kill a Recovery,” New York Times, March 3, 2011,; Paul Krugman, “1937,” New York Times, June 3, 2012,; Christopher Matthews, “Long-Term Unemployment: A Weak Link in a Fragile Recovery,” Time, August 20, 2013,; Matt O’Brien, “Why is the recovery so weak? It’s the austerity, stupid,” Washington Post, October 10, 2014,; Catherine Rampell, “Majority of New Jobs Pay Low Wages, Study Finds,” New York Times, August 30, 2012,; Robert Reich, “Why Wages Won’t Rise,” January 13, 2015,; Robert J. Samuelson, “A scarcity of economic growth,” Washington Post, September 13, 2015,; Nelson D. Schwartz, “Recovery in U.S. Lifting Profits, Not Adding Jobs,” New York Times, March 3, 2013,; Alana Semuels, “The Not-So-Good News About Friday’s Jobs Report,” Atlantic, January 9, 2015,; Ben White, “Does Obama deserve credit for the economy?” Politico, January 9, 2015,; Louis Woodhill, “For More Jobs, We Need Faster Growth,” Forbes, July 6, 2014,; Matthew Yglesias, “Why Yellen and Obama shouldn’t celebrate last week’s jobs numbers,” Vox, May 4, 2014,
  13. [13]Jim Tankersley, “Britain just killed globalization as we know it,” Washington Post, June 25, 2016,

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