Monday, June 27, 2016

Democracy Part 35: Brexit and Its Consequences--The End of the Emerging Globalized Order or its Affrmation?

(Pix © Larry Catá Backer 2016)

In a prior post I suggested the nature of the consequences when the tension between mass democracy--the notion of popular sovereignty directly or indirectly exercised through the performative act of voting on discrete questions or for representatives in the apparatus of state--and governance is activated through the mechanism of a popular plebiscite. The recent popular vote in the United Kingdom that saw a narrow mandate for a U.K. withdrawal from the European Union points to both the anxiety of globalization by those who feel detached from its and the disjunction between mass democracy and governance by representatives well embedded within global institutions (see here).

Since the last post I have been asked a number of related questions. This post includes brief answers to those questions. A Farsi version of these materials appeared in Jaam-e Jam on July 4, 2016.

1-Considering the grave consequences of Brexit, why did Britain decid to hold referendum on the issue?

The simple answer appears to be that certain members of the political elites moved forward with the referendum on the basis of calculated short term political expediency that might have been tied not to the best interests of the nation but which was certainly aligned to advantage a political party desiring to retain power. More specifically, there are stories circulating recently in U.K. newspapers that the decision to hold the referendum was made in 2012 as part of strategic planning for winning in the 2015 general election. For the party in power this might not have seemed to be a difficult decision at the time. My guess is that no one among the decision makers had the slightest doubt that exit would be rejected by a population properly instructed by influential people to vote against it—influential people on both the left and the right. This was meant perhaps to be a low stakes gamble. That it turned out differently perhaps exposed the underlying tensions in globalization even within the most advanced developed states. Anxieties about the transformation of the state and of national coherence; anxiety about national and communal cultures and traditions in the face of borders increasingly permeable, the management of which appeared increasingly under the control of a remote bureaucracy—these were the anxieties that were not addressed by an elite anxious to convince itself that it had the right of the argument without for a moment bothering to discern what might be troubling an electorate already and perhaps emotionally worried about things of no concern to the nation’s leader classes. My thoughts on this aspect may be found here: Democracy Part 34: Brexit, Mass Democracy and the Contradictions of Voting in Globalization.

It is that sort of strategic deployment of short term factional advantage that is causing crisis in many states today—where fidelity to the nation sometimes appears to be subordinated to factional advantage and ideology. And that is a shame. In the long term, that sort of willingness to play with the constitutional order to advance short term factional political advantage can only reduce the authority and legitimacy of the constitutional state. Indeed, the furious talk by influential actors in the aftermath of the vote suggests just how easily it is to slip from a firm belief on popular sovereignty and mass democracy as the core of Western state organization to a more aristocratic and authoritarian mindset—everything from suggesting that the referendum could be disregarded, or done again (and again) until the “right” result is reached to suggesting resistance through the use of administrative discretion. And indeed one ought to be horrified by the notion that law, and the rule of law, should be deployed against the expressed will of the people exercised in a sanctioned election in which it was understood at the time that the majority will, no matter how small the majority, would determine the outcome for state policy. Such use of legality against the expression of popular will appears to present the West with a conundrum that will be hard to work around.

2- Are consequences short term ones or they will last long?

No one is clear about the consequences. And much of the talk by people in the aftermath of the vote must be analyzed carefully because such statements might be framed to position the debate in particular ways. My sense is that in this general state uncertainty any number of consequences are possible. A better sense of the long term consequences might be gotten by following the markets and business investment over the next half year. If business—both in the financial sector (in which the U.K. has a global competitive advantage) and among large multinational enterprises. If global business does not abandon the U.K., the ultimate economic consequences may be reduced. To that end it is necessary to avoid panic. If there are more instances of irrational panic, like today’s run on Barclays’ shares, which had to stop trading after an 8% loss, then the situation may be out of the control of anyone to manage successfully.

Likewise, the terms of exit will play a large role. It is not clear how those negotiations will go. But because it will take some time that alone may reduce the severity of negative effect. In the best case scenario, the U.K. may be able to negotiate an agreement with the E.U. that locks into place the current relationship—preserving the substantial relationships between Europe and the U.K. but locking the U.K. out of active participation in the policies developed in Brussels. That price may not be too high to pay if it secures freedom of action in those areas in which the U.K would have preferred to go its own way. At the same time, the British elite will finally have to take the time to listen to and respond to the anxieties of its own population—a population from which it has made itself remote. It would be a healthy exercise to speak to rather than at the core voters and to listen as well. And it is a central task to reduce anxiety.

On the other side, relations with Scotland, North Ireland and the Irish Republic may see some turmoil—both because of the political and economic effects of separation, but also because the exit vote produced conditions of political advantage that may be exploited by factions in those places. Yet if the U.K. is able to preserve its current relations with Europe through a new treaty, then there may be little practical effect. And indeed, Brexit points to the possibility of legalizing the autonomous position of the U.K. within Europe even as it preserves the form of separation. But it is not clear that either political party in Britain has the will or the leadership vision to undertake this task. Perhaps it will take an informal royal commission put together to think through this possibility that will be needed in the face of the paralysis of the political parties at the moment. That, too, may be too much to ask in the current climate. That would be regrettable but not surprising. However, it is undertaken, it will be necessary to strip the negotiations of short term factional politics—that is a post E.U. Britain can be a successful E.U. partner unless that process is sabotaged by short term factional interventions either from Britain or European states.

3-Is Brexit positive for the US in long term? Some believe contrary to the US declared stance on Brexit (not supporting it), in the long term it will be to the benefit of US. What do you think of this?

The effect of Brexit for the United States is also not clear. U.S. elites share the view of President Obama that Brexit was neither good for the U.K. nor the U.S. And, indeed, there is a fear that Europe without Britain will be more likely to be bullied by a Russia now more willing to assert its centuries long ambitions to dominate the European continent. But the effect on the negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) may be hard to tell. A TTIP umbrella may produce some advantage to the U.S. but more for Europe. Yet t would compound the unease of those who might have tended to vote for exit. Any short term U.S: economic advantage—tied to import substitution of U.S. goods and services for those of European states—will only be short lived and produce uneven advantage among economic sectors. The United States has sought a more or less united Europe since shortly after the end of the Second World War. It would be odd for American elites to change their view on that matter at this point, especially when a united (more or less) Europe is useful for U.S. external policies and the construction of a global order satisfactory to it.

4-Some say that Brexit is an indication of the extent to which the regimes fashioned after second world war no longer function well. Do you think so?

I do not agree that post WWII regimes no longer function well. I know that view is current, especially outside of OECD states. I tend to take the opposite view. Brexit evidences the spectacular success of the economic and political framework that was institutionalized after WWII and that began to have significant effect as the 20th century ended. People forget that the foundation of those WWII was grounded in the internationalization of economic life. Free movement of goods, investment, capital, and to some extent labor, was to be the basis of a new global order that might make large wars much too expensive to contemplate (not small wars of course). Such economic internationalization—sometimes understood as globalization—would have some of the effects one sees now—porous borders reduces state power to manage conditions in its own territories to some extent. The advanced stage of this movement has produced substantial economic advances, unevenly distributed for the moment, and even outside the West. But it has also brought great challenges to the meaning and place of the state and to the sense of control over the local. The great triumph of the post WWII strictures was not in the strengthening of but in the domestication of states within networks of constraints overseen by the community of states, and increasingly by global enterprise and civil society. This is a lesson that will be learned, one way or another, by all states. Its effects will be profoundly different depending on the state involved. But it represents the flowering of the post WWII vision rather than its abandonment. On the other hand, this sort of internationalization does have an effect on all states—and from a geopolitical standpoint it does appear to effect a profound change in the power of states, at least the assertion of power by the victorious allies of WWII and those other states that have joined their political inner circles. But make no mistake, that power has not been dissipated, it has been transformed, and thus transformed, made easier to internationalize.

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