The great unravelling [1]

Brexit and the threat to the post-war framework of liberal democracy

It would be easy to dismiss the outcome of the British referendum as a one-off; as an isolated phenomenon due to the historically ‘awkward’ relationship of the UK with the rest of continental Europe. Yet, the reality is that the victory of the Leave camp is only the latest in a series of developments across Europe and the United States that are threatening to undo the post-war framework of stability, peace, liberty and (relative) prosperity.

We tend to understand history through landmark events: declarations of war and independence, peace agreements, revolutions, assassinations, major discoveries, elections… All these events are so self-contained, charged and, in a sense, final that it’s easy to forget that they are the result of long-term socio-political fermentation. Countless threads of determining factors interact and run through them. At the same time, major events are not mere symbols or symptoms of change. Like earthquakes, they release accumulated energy but also have a primary effect of their own.

The terrorist attacks of 9/11 marked the beginning of the 21st century — an era of uncertainty, fear, populism and unfinished globalisation. However, the attacks did not come out of nowhere: Islamist extremism utilised the power vacuum created by the end of the Cold War and the emergence of an accelerated, pluralistic and digitalised global public sphere. Similarly, the impact of the attacks is still unravelling: the war in Iraq, the loss of American diplomatic and strategic capital, the emergence of ISIS, the civil war in Syria and the refugee crisis in Europe are linked to 9/11 and its aftermath.

It is entirely possible that the British referendum is a similar type of event that may delineate an entire era. It is the culmination of anti-systemic forces that have been slowly developing over decades throughout the western world, the full extent of which will be unravelling for years to come.

One interpretation of the result that has been put forward is that the victory of Leave is due to increasing inequality, poverty and austerity. While it is true that the referendum may have been seen by some on the left of the political spectrum as a way of punishing David Cameron’s government and turning their back on the European Union, this hypothesis does not account for the widespread support of Leave across (relatively prosperous) southern England, given especially that the British economy has been growing, unemployment is down and austerity is only experienced by specific demographics. The austerity thesis also fails to explain the 50% share of FPO in the Austrian presidential election or the success of anti-systemic candidates in the United States, despite the creation of 10 million new jobs and the extension of insurance coverage to 20 million people who were not previously entitled to it.

Another, perhaps more potent, reason for Britons voting in favour of Brexit appears to be the broad issue of immigration, movement and identity: the alleged lack of border control, the increased visibility of immigrants and refugees in the media and in public space, and the uncertainty over identity and community cohesion. This is supported by preliminary analyses of the words used by the two camps, which shows that immigration and lack of control were key motivators for Leave supporters. Having said that, Britain is a country that has for decades attracted, absorbed and benefitted from millions of migrant workers, primarily from the members of the Commonwealth who boosted its economy and labour base. The potential for intra-community tension was greater then that it is now in the case of the less numerous and more culturally proximate EU citizens who are taking advantage of internal mobility rules.

A third and final — possibly the most important — factor is the rejection of the established political order, which has been brewing for the last 50 years and now appears to approach the point of no return. The Trump and Sanders campaigns in the United States, the Leave victory in Britain, Marine Le Pen’s lead in the polls in France, the 50% vote share of FPO in Austria, the victory in Rome’s mayoral election of the 5 Star movement candidate, the strengthening of ethnocentric political narratives in Central and Eastern Europe, the success of far left populists or post-political centrists in countries such as Spain and Greece, all have one thing in common: the rejection of the “system” as we know it. Some of these forces spent a long time at the margins before slowly becoming legitimised. Now they are starting to win elections.

This widespread, cross-national and sustained questioning of the political establishment is neither about the economy, nor about immigration per se. It is about the perceived loss of control or, to be more exact, about the diffusion of political power. The weakening of the nation-state and the core executive, the emergence of multiple actors and veto players (international networks of experts, lobbyists, pressure groups, international organisations and NGOs, multinational corporations, financial markets etc) and the empowerment of citizens through the web have produced a pluralistic, yet slightly chaotic, intergovernmental system.

The irony is that this ecosystem has afforded us more rights, freedoms, choices, opportunities, information, voice and space to develop and express our individual identities than ever before. At the same time though, it makes decision-making — especially for global and complex issues such as climate change or tax evasion — more distributed and difficult, less transparent and coherent. The lack of a connective political framework, narrative or vision for the future of western liberal democracies is directly linked to the crisis of identity facing their citizens and the absence of a commonly accepted external threat.

Britain’s decision to leave the European Union puts the country in an extended ‘winter’ of uncertainty, upheaval and potential retreat. The referendum constitutes a collective trauma that is putting immense pressure on the social fabric as numerous incidents of bullying, harassment and xenophobic abuse broke out within hours of the result being announced. It also strengthens the momentum of reactionary and ethnocentric forces across Europe and the West, and it threatens an entire civic culture of tolerance, coexistence, respect and reason — the post-war framework that has defined our way of life.

Dr Roman Gerodimos is Principal Lecturer in Global Current Affairs at Bournemouth University in the UK, a faculty member at the Salzburg Academy on Media & Global Change and the founder/convenor of the Greek Politics Specialist Group (GPSG). Roman is the winner of the Arthur McDougall prize for his research on online youth civic engagement. He is the co-editor of The Media, Political Participation and Empowerment (Routledge) and The Politics of Extreme Austerity: Greece in the Eurozone Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan).