CapitalismFeatureLettersLiberal Democracy in Question

The Thelma-and-Louise-Gambit

Your car is not working. In fact it is falling apart: it eats up gas, burns oil, grinds the transmission, and wobbles its wheels. You have been taking the car to a mechanic whom you have known for years. He charges a small fortune, and typically, within a week or two, everything he has done to repair the car has reappeared, ten times worse. You have had your fill of this farce. What do you do?

Find another mechanic? No. You drive the car off the edge of the Grand Canyon, sitting firmly behind the wheel…There. That solves things, doesn’t it?

Of course I am being sarcastic. But this little fable is, I think, a good metaphor for Thursday’s “Brexit” referendum on Great Britain’s membership in the European Union. Like the hypothetical car, the European Union is dysfunctional, and its care by “expert” mechanics has improved matters little. But Brexit is, in fact a Thelma-and-Louise-gambit that could not only destroy the political and economic stability of Great Britain and the EU, but could usher in a wave of radical Right-wing nationalism across the continent, if not the globe. While the probability of a new dawn of neo-fascism might be low, given the world-historical stakes it also might make sense to be at least somewhat paranoid. As sci-fi author Jim Butcher put it, “[J]ust because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean there isn’t an invisible demon about to eat your face.”

Invisible demons are generally summoned or released by someone, whereupon they show their faces. In the case of Brexit, I think there were two Pandoras at work together, however unwittingly. One was, certainly, the EU itself. While there is much to criticize in the philosophical infrastructure of Jürgen Habermas’s politics, his heart has consistently been in the right place. He has admirably been a steadfast prophet-without-honor in his German-European homes. His acidic criticism of the EU’s democracy deficit is spot on. Habermas has emphatically accused the EU of elevating neoliberal economics to its very raison d’etre, rather than embracing first the steady nurturing of a European ethos and the establishment of a true transnational democracy. Brushing aside all practical and emancipatory interests, the EU has limited itself to the technical management of a common currency and a common economic market, whose guiding neoliberal dogma stresses the primacy of minimally-constrained finance-dominated capitalism. This delivers a horn of plenty for rich economic elites and their technocratic ministerial enablers, and austerity for everybody else, Greece being only the most glaring example. Viewed this way, the “Leave” enthusiasts in Britain have at least one plausible point: the neoliberalism that ascended in the 1980s has proven a bonanza for financial elites, but a bust for most people, especially those on the margins, and that needs to be urgently addressed. But that is not the end of the story.

While Habermas has been an implacable foe of the Eurocrats, as well as the neoliberal regimes in Germany, France, and Britain, his proposed solution to this new legitimation crisis is the exact opposite of a return to nationalist populism and authoritarianism, the guiding ideologies of the “Leave” campaign (not to mention the Trumpoid takeover of the GOP this side of the lake). Habermas takes the project of the EU, born in the smoldering ruins of the continent in the wake of World War II, to be a commitment to peace founded in continental solidarity, which in turn rests on a clear commitment to wide-ranging democratic participation across Europe. The Lisbon treaty did not adequately address political unity, thus bypassing the pressing need for genuine constraints not only on national sovereignty, but on the unelected economic technocrats in Brussels. In turn these constraints require the transformation of the EU into a robust transnational institution committed to a broad, deliberative democracy.

Despite the glittering façade of referenda as the most democratic of events, the opposite is more nearly true, and the Brexit vote is one of the clearest examples of this. Referenda are ripe for those with vested interests in an outcome to do a persuasive end-run not so much against democracy as against deliberation, without which democracy is simply a popularity contest and not, as John Dewey once put it, the essence of common life itself. This referendum was a clear example of a pseudo-democratic release of demons through stirring but misleading rhetoric, and the second, and probably more sinister Pandora at work in it was the clique of far-right politicians, chief among whom were Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, who, donning the mantle of demagoguery, stoked the fires of nationalism in the electorate, fanning it with lies, false promises, and diversions.

While it is facetious to draw too close a parallel between Farage and Johnson on the one hand and Donald Trump on the other, given the serious differences between British and American politics, there are some obvious similarities. While all spout populist rhetoric, all are themselves members of an elite – the economic and social overclass – whose history should have made their adoring fans suspicious. Farage was a commodities broker before he leading UKIP; Johnson was educated at Eton and Oxford before becoming a famous pundit and mayor; Trump is a rich and (at least in his own mind) successful realtor as well as a television celebrity. Like Trump, they hook an enthusiastic audience by waxing nationalistic, throwing shade at immigrants presumed to be a “threat to our way of life.” But they all advocate economic policies guaranteed to harm their erstwhile constituents most of all (e.g., Trump’s massive tax cuts and proposed financial deregulations, Johnson’s Thatcherite worship of the market, etc.). None of them challenge the essentials of Thatcherism or Reaganism, namely the entrenchment of plutocracy and the dismantling of the public sphere. Add to this a frosting of lies and deception, such as Farage’s walking-back his promise of a post-Brexit windfall that would go directly to the National Health Service, and you have a classic con-game. “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” can be exported as “What’s the Matter with the East End?”

There is an even more disturbing aspect to the Brexit vote. Even if Farage and Johnson were grifters who pulled a sting on a large swath of the British public, said swath were more than willing to go along. If the post-Brexit anecdotes are correct, many in the leave campaign are now having second thoughts about the consequences of their vote: a falling pound, decreasing revenues, a stalled economy, the prospect of Scottish independence and Irish union. But many are not having second thoughts at all about another motive force of Brexit: xenophobic nationalism. Just as “Make America Great Again!” is a euphemism for “Make America White Again!”, “Britain First!” easily translates into an Anglo-Saxon variant of “Ausländer raus!”

Demagogues deflecting popular anger and dissatisfaction onto a convenient scapegoat is as old as human history. Immigrants and others who are marginalized are the first to be singled out for this unenviable role. But the fact that this bait-and-switch trick has been so frequently used in the past, with uniformly catastrophic results, should have given those in the UK who supported Brexit at least a moment’s pause. They did not think much about the difference between patriotism and nationalism (not to mention the criteria for being a bigot), and, as Hannah Arendt nicely put it, great evils can be done by people who are not moral monsters, but simply do not give matters a second thought.

Nationalism is not the same thing as patriotism. Patriots love their country because it is theirs. It does not matter if the country has lost its way, is in decline, or has collapsed into living hell. Because of this, the true patriot has nothing against those who do not share this love based in a common history because the loves and histories of the other lie somewhere else. And the patriot’s love of country can itself coexist with nesting boxes of loyalty: being, say, Irish does not logically or ethically preclude being a Dubliner or a European. In fact, this kind of loyalty, based as it is in concentric circles of attachment to place, can make being a “rooted cosmopolitan” all the more plausible, even easy. But nationalism is something different. It is either the elevation of “us” over “them” holding either an exclusive claim on one’s loyalties, or else it demands that all other loyalties be subordinated to that of the homeland. This is dangerous in the extreme. Those on the Left – progressives, social democrats, democratic socialists – need to recognize that resurgent nationalism, even and especially when disguised as “populism”, is as big a threat to its cause of challenging and fighting domination as neoliberalism is. We should not let our justified contempt for oligarchy and plutocracy blind us to that.

Europe has had a 70-year track record of keeping war at bay between its nations. The EU, deeply flawed as it is, had something to do with that. If the EU is falling apart, both because of its own internal weaknesses as well as the external challenge of nationalism, it is urgent for it to get its act together. While war in Europe seems to permanently be a thing of the past, Europeans and indeed everybody on the planet should not be complacent about this. Otherwise if history repeats itself another time, it will not be as a farce but as a tragedy, infinitely worse than driving a single car off a cliff…

Also for you:

Michael Quirk

Previous post

Manifesto: In Defense of the Democratic Rule of Law in Brazil

Next post

After the Brexit Vote: Federations, Federal States or Back to the Bad Past?