Like just about everyone else on the planet, I have been trying to sort out my reactions to Brexit—the British vote in favor of exiting the European Union. And what occurred to me even at the very time I heard it was this: maybe it’s a necessary warning sign to the neoliberal-powers-that-be that globalization, not democracy, is what’s run amuck. Far from being just a protest vote against the influx of “foreigners” and migrants—in other words, the racist reaction from the great unwashed of the British lower classes—it may well be far deeper. It may be, that is, a cry of the heart from those who do not want to be homogenized in the great likeness machine of global corporatocracy that seeks to make everyone a stamped-out cog in the consumer-exploiting Walmarts of the world. That’s what occurred to me almost instantly when I heard the news. Nationhood may be anachronistic or even dangerous in this ever-more connected world, but it’s also one of the few things that has a chance of keeping different sections of the globe unique. And what we need now is more of it not less—more distinctiveness in separate populations, more distinctiveness in dress, language, buildings, customs, ways of doing and being. Skyscrapers in Dubai, no matter how marvelous the technical skill they demonstrate, simply strike one as completely out of touch with their surroundings. We need people and populations that are more in touch with their surroundings, more unique to the particular flora and fauna in which they arise. And this may be what Brexit and the Trump phenomenon in our own country are more deeply about.
We hear about the chaos in the financial markets: the British pound dropping like a stone, the stock market here and elsewhere dropping similarly, the financial and economic mavens predicting more and more dire outcomes from uncertainty. And though no one wants to see another financial crash, what we need to do is understand that perhaps this is precisely what’s needed to wake these guys up. Just consider what the outcome of the financial wheeling and dealing of the past few decades has led to: conditions of inequality in both Britain and the United States that are almost unprecedented. The corporate CEOs, the banksters, the hedge fund managers are making obscene amounts of money and living like oriental potentates, while the working slobs have been going steadily backwards. More and more people lose their jobs to foreign countries whose workers slave away at wages that completely obviate competition. More and more corporations rush to have their goods made in these foreign factories, shifting them whenever another country offers yet lower wages. And the gulf between the very wealthy few running things and the masses of impoverished working stiffs racing to the bottom grows ever wider. There is a professional class which manages to stay reasonably solvent—the bank managers, the professoriat, the politicos. But they hew to the party line of whoever’s in power, conservatives or laborites, democrats or republicans, and maintain their insider edge regardless of who’s got the reins (see Thomas Frank and his recent exposè of the Democratic Party in Listen, Liberal.) Meantime, those trying to catch up find themselves always deeper in debt, even the middle classes who have to incur a lifetime of debt to afford a college education. So there’s a logic to chaos in financial markets. These usurers should find themselves in chaos. They should find themselves at the bottom of a pit. But of course, they usually don’t. And those who land in the pit are the suckers who buy into the myths of progress and globalization and trade deals making everyone richer, and all the other myths about the benefits of trade we’re constantly sold.
What occurs to me, then, is that this isn’t about politics so much as economics. And there is a difference. I, for one, am in favor of the United Nations and attempts to keep the violence of the world under reasonable control. This requires that nation states give up some of their sovereignty, which always elicits protests and anguish from the breast-beaters on the Right. But by and large, with some notable exceptions such as Israel’s continuing occupation and ethnic cleansing in Palestine, the system has worked fairly well. Invasions by one aggressive state of another’s territory have pretty much been limited—though not entirely eliminated. The condemnation attaching to naked aggression such as we saw in the 1930s and before have made such ventures too costly to most nations’ global reputations. This, again, is not to say that such aggression has been totally foreclosed, but it has, for the most part, been priced too high for most nations to incur lightly. The loss of sovereignty is worth the gain in peace (or at least accommodation).
In the economic sphere, however, the situation is almost diametrically opposed. And it is not nations that are at issue so much as trans-national corporations. This tends to be the result mainly of trade agreements like NAFTA and the still-not-ratified TPP. In other words, in the economic sphere, it is not nation-states that are the major offenders, but corporations and the aptly-named ‘vulture capitalists’, many of which have simply transcended national boundaries. Indeed, the terms of trade agreements in a globalized world have meant that national sovereignty has become subservient to corporate rights—the right to make a profit. One example says this loud and clear: the recent lawsuit filed by TransCanada. The corporation that had planned the Keystone XL oil pipeline from Canada through the United States has just filed suit demanding $15 billion as compensation for its losses from the “expected profits” it stood to make if the deal was approved. This accords with the boilerplate agreement in such trade deals: corporations have been essentially granted the right to “expect” profits from planned ventures in any nation they choose, and if such plans come into conflict with a nation’s determination to prevent the despoliation of its territory or people, then too bad. The corporation has prior rights here—a right to sue for damages to its profit—while a nation has no right to prevent damage to its land or water or environment—or the globe itself in the case of global warming. This, to me, is about as outrageous as capitalism gets. The underlying notion is that profit is sacrosanct, and takes precedence over considerations of human health or the health of the nation and planet itself.
This, I think, is what is really at issue in the Brexit vote and the Trump/Sanders phenomenon in the United States. The people who are being crushed by the depredations of big corporations—which pursue profit anywhere and everywhere, no matter the damage to the nations in which they reside—have begun, if only dimly, to catch on. Perhaps they don’t see beyond the slogans and xenophobia. Perhaps they can’t or won’t articulate what is really at the heart of their malaise. But on some level they understand. This is why they want to “take back their country.” What they want is some control, or someone they elect to control the monsters called corporations and financial institutions that seem able to roll over anything in their way with no consequences. What they want is some control over the obscene redistribution of wealth upwards that has taken place in the past half-century. What they want is something like fairness in the way their lives are disbursed, some more direct connection to what they know, to what they can see, rather than some distant insider decision-making that is invisible to them. What they want is some indication that their vote can have some effect on the levers of power despite the fact that they are not mega-rich. Brexit for once gave many in England that indication. And my guess—and my hope—is that more Brexits are on the way—especially if the powers that be do not wake up to the earthquake that has just struck them.