Brexit and the anti-Western-establishment armchair revolutionaries

What does one need to understand about the EU or the implication’s of the UK’s withdrawal if this can be characterized as a hammer blow to the Western establishment. The power of Western elites is crumbling — what’s not to celebrate?

In such a spirit, Glenn Greenwald (who while on billionaire Pierre Omidyar’s payroll is, I assume, comfortably insulated from the crisis rocking Brazil right now) writes:

Revolts against corrupt elite institutions can usher in reform and progress, but they can also create a space for the ugliest tribal impulses: xenophobia, authoritarianism, racism, fascism. One sees all of that, both good and bad, manifesting in the anti-establishment movements throughout the U.S., Europe, and the UK: including Brexit. All of this can be invigorating, or promising, or destabilizing, or dangerous: most likely a combination of all that.

The solution is not to subserviently cling to corrupt elite institutions out of fear of the alternatives. It is, instead, to help bury those institutions and their elite mavens and then fight for superior replacements. [My emphasis]

Corrupt elites always try to persuade people to continue to submit to their dominance in exchange for protection from forces that are even worse. That’s their game. But at some point, they themselves, and their prevailing order, become so destructive, so deceitful, so toxic, that their victims are willing to gamble that the alternatives will not be worse, or at least, they decide to embrace the satisfaction of spitting in the faces of those who have displayed nothing but contempt and condescension for them.

One of the many problems with this perspective that the old order must be destroyed before a “superior replacement” can be created, is that the champions of such destruction tend to be, in significant ways, privileged themselves.

To have sympathy with the legitimacy of popular grievances yet willing to overlook the disastrous consequences of the chosen solutions to those grievances is like having a complacent attitude towards alcoholism or other forms of self-destructive behavior simply because you understand what took someone down that path.

It’s a strange kind of sympathy that feels one source of pain while discounting another.

At the same time, it’s ironic that the cheerleaders of the destruction of the Western establishment — proponents of their own vision of regime change — have mostly had such short-lived sympathy for popular uprisings in the Middle East.

At this point, there’s surely good reason to jettison all the slogans about revolutionary change and start thinking more seriously about the mechanics of change. It’s always easier to talk about where you want to go, than figure out exactly how to get there. Who wants to get mired in boring details when they can instead indulge in fantasies about burying institutions?

If an overwhelming majority of British voters had opted for Brexit then it would be impossible to argue against the will of the people. But the vote was divided almost exactly in half — evidence I would suggest that support for the EU runs much deeper than might be expected if this is nothing more than an instrument serving the interests of the corrupt Western elite. Indeed, the narrative that casts this as primarily a struggle between elites and the disadvantaged, glosses over the fact that support for Brexit came from older people, while younger Britons have grown up with fewer reasons to regard Europe and the EU as other.

This is a generational betrayal and an ominous turning point in history.

If there’s one class of people who have reason to be pleased about Brexit, it is the lawyers who will henceforth be employed helping untangle a decade’s worth of legal disputes.

Those who imagine that since the UK has now made its choice, withdrawal from the EU can be expedited and happen as swiftly as the remaining EU members hope, here’s piece of history that puts this issue in perspective.

In 1982, Greenland held a referendum which resulted in its choice to leave the EEC (precursor of the EU which then had ten members). Negotiations for its withdrawal took over two years to complete. Greenland looks big on a world map but it has a population of just 55,000.

So, two years of negotiations between on one side a European Community a third of its current size and on the other a state which is basically a fishing town on the edge of an ice-sheet. And keep in mind that Greenland (as part of Denmark) had been part of the community for less than a decade and had not played a central role in shaping Europe’s institutions.

As much as the EU can be cast as some external, overbearing bureaucratic entity, it is an entity in which the UK has spent the last four decades as one of its leading members. Many of the laws from which Brexiters imagine they are soon to be unshackled are laws that Britain helped draft, wanted in place, and served British interests.

This will be like so many other divorces where so many things once shared, now have to be replaced. The absurdity of the fantasy about liberation from red tape is that the UK has now brought on its own head the worst imaginable bureaucratic nightmare.

Finally, on a personal note, even though I have lived in the United States for almost thirty years and am a U.S. citizen, I am also a British citizen, the country of my birth where I grew up. I’m surprised my how often I hear Americans refer to “British subjects” as though we remain under the control of a monarch, but I assure you “citizen” is the term in our passports.

Until I moved to America, I never referred to myself as “British” — a phrase loaded with so much ugly historical baggage; an identity which among members of my generation conjures up images of Alf Garnett and small-minded rightwing bigots who cling to memories of empire and who like to wave the Union Jack.

I liked instead the idea of being European, not as distinct from non-European but as distinct from an identity defined and limited by an island’s shoreline.

For the same reason, I like Barry Cunliffe’s topographical description of Europe as “the westerly excrescence of the continent of Asia.”

The basic point is that I think it’s good for all people to feel that they are part of something larger — that we don’t confine ourselves by boundaries but have an interest in what lies beyond them.

This is what makes Brexit so depressing, because aside from the economic repercussions, it represents a psychological process of withdrawal in which everyone will be diminished.

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