When the world turns upside down
This is a personal story. I am not trying to predict what will happen in UK post referendum. I am rather bringing forth how this looks and feels to me, an immigrant, banker, technologist, Romanian citizen, British citizen, living in UK for the past fifteen years. I am not looking for validation or somebody’s permission to compare things. Read it like a life story. I assume this will resonate mostly with people who lived through similar upheavals, if they were in Latin America, Egypt, or Cyprus or former communist block.
I knew of course that the EU referendum was scheduled for 23rd of June. I thought that the advantages of being part of EU are so obvious that I didn’t pay much attention to the debate. I could not believe that entire regions could vote to get out of the very organisations which funded their living and which helped build their cities and roads. As it happens, I was wrong.
In this post I’ll try to summarise the commonalities I see between what is happening now in UK and a time I lived in Romania between December ’89 and June’90, after the fall of communism. See more here or here or here.
After the fall of Ceausescu in December ’89, the power remained with communists. This was however not obvious to many. Through a campaign of mass manipulation, when the TV stations were under government controls, a crypto-communist government was elected with an overwhelming majority on 20th of May 1990. Student demonstrations started in April ’90 in Piata Universitatii continued after the elections as well, having as main claims that the elections were won with a campaign of lies and disinformation. We wanted a government free of communists and despite a revolution and street protests they were still in power.
On 13th of June 1990 the government called the miners to come to Bucharest and street fights ensued. People were beaten brutally by miners and members of Securitate under the premise that they were defending a democratically elected government and we had no right to protest. I was there. I was nineteen years old.
Commonalities when systems change:
One could argue that there is nothing that these situations could have in common. Allow me to explain how does it feel for me and where the commonalities lay.
There are mainly commonalities of language and mass manipulation for the benefit of changing the way a country functions from let’s say “state A” to “state B”.
It is irrelevant as I am learning now that state A is “socialist planning” or “EU member country”. What is important is how you achieve a complete change of laws and power relationships, which is represented by State B. The methods seem to be the same.
I’ve read books about mass manipulation to understand how was it possible that tens of millions of people were manipulated during the communist times however what I will write below is not from a book but from direct experience.
The divisions below manifesting in force in UK now, are in my view carefully engineered and exploited.
Division capital — rest of the country
There is without doubt a big difference between London and the rest of the country. London is the financial services centre not only of the UK but of the world.
The vote in the capital was obviously at odds with the rest of the country. There is a wave of hate against Londoners who “cannot accept the results of a democratic process”. All of a sudden, protesting is not anymore part of democratic process.
Division “elites” / non-elites
Immediately after the fall of communism, this division “elites”-non-elites was highlighted by those in power. While before we were united under the oppression of the same totalitarian regime, now the intellectuals became “the enemy” who wanted to “sell the country to foreigners”. Students were insulted because “they don’t work” and studying equated all of a sudden with being lazy. In June ’90 miners were brought by train from mining areas to Bucharest to beat us and to bring us to our senses.
In UK, during the Leave campaign, a former Minster of Education proclaimed: “we’ve had enough of experts”.
People felt threatened when presented with explanations of what will follow post Brexit because the scenarios were too depressing. The causality invoked was to be comprehended if you’ve had a 101 in Economics however people were encouraged not to believe these “catastrophic scenarios”.
We can be as angry as we want however, certain things will happen in a certain way because “the experts” and history taught us that this is how it works. You can also choose to be upset about the law of gravity but items still will fall on earth if you drop them.
Division between generations
In Romania at the time, the generations split was obvious. I was eighteen and astonished. I thought that older people had enough of the deprivation, restrictions, and propaganda from fifty years of communism. I was wrong. People want what they’ve known and what they were accustomed with. If this was a larger “prison” — this is what they wanted. Luckily there was no such a split in my family but this didn’t make things easier for us.
In UK, it is true that the young ones did not turn to vote. It is typical for many countries and even US will have this problem in the autumn for General Elections. We cannot even say that the older generations voted mainly against Remain because it depends how you read the numbers.
What matters is that the rift older-younger generations is used for propaganda. Divide et Impera.
Division between ethnic majority and any other ethnic minority
Virtually all totalitarian regimes get rid of minorities one way or another. They achieve a level of ethnic purification, which is not studied enough in method and results. Romania had in ’89 three main ethnic minority groups: Hungarians, Germans and Gypsies. Violent ethnic hate incidents were carefully engineered in the ’90s in areas where these minorities lived in peace for years. National newspapers broadcasted daily doses of hate especially against the Hungarian minorities. Not unexpectedly the propaganda caught in the areas, which were the most ethnically clean, with people who have not met a foreigner in their lives.
UK is however a very diverse country with a history of assimilating many other cultures and nationalities. For somebody living in London the current wave of hate and racism is a surprise and a very unpleasant one. Using “the other” at the reason for all ills it is not only a propaganda tool, it is an archetype. It is meant to catch if you know how to use it. A key leader of the Leave campaign and former Minister of Education in the Tory Government took the right of the Local Councils to respond to the demand for school places. If there is a need for a school in your area you can apply to establish a Free School, through a heavily controversial process. In this context, who are to blame for lack of planning for school places? Immigrants.
Who takes your job? Immigrants. Why the standard of leaving decreased? Because of the immigrants. Why the NHS suffers? Because immigrants as well.
Protests are presented as “violent” and “undemocratic”
Protesting is an essential mechanism of the democratic machine. You know what happens to a protest if you go there. You can come back and tell your friends what you’ve seen, how it felt. Those who do not attend these events though, take their views from their usual data sources and persons of trust.
If you attended the march on 2nd of July or the one on 28th of June you know that they were peaceful, that people were respectful to each other, they walked and chanted for what they believed in.
However what many will see will be just Daniel Hannan opinion and this is because they trust him not you. Whatever happened in reality becomes irrelevant. The reality becomes what the trusted source said. Be prepared for more of this, at every protest.
The illusion of a grandiose past
As long as you make people believe that such an illusory past is within reach you can somehow mobilise their attention. It is not clear to me what “Make Britain Great again” means. It for sure captured the imagination of many in the same way as ridiculously enough you’ll hear of many regretting the communist times across all former communist block, from East Germany to Russia. Whatever past you have in mind, a digital, global economy is challenging for all of us. It is governed by other rules than what we’ve known so far. There is no way of returning to anything in the past and this is somehow anathema to declare.
What could follow:
My story did not have a happy ending. I cannot tell you how we won because we didn’t. The country stayed in the hands of crypto-communists and they have brought it to its knees. Witness stay now entire industries disintegrated, our mountains shaved of forests hundreds years old, our petroleum fields sold to oligarchs. Here is what I think you should pay attention to though.
Legislative gaps will lead to oligarchies forming under your very eyes
UK legislative corpus is very much based on EU laws. It requires a large number of highly qualified and specialised lawyers to define new rules for an entire country. The laws of UK will have to be re-written. Apart from the fact that we don’t have this surplus of lawyers handy, it is not clear how this law generation will be supervised. Moreover, in transition, there will be entire areas for which the applicable laws will be either suspended or unclear. This is the gap, which while not obvious “normal” people will be abused by those in the know. This is how oligarchies have formed across the former communist block. If you have doubts that this is how it works, ask any educated Russian emigrant.
The promised UK independence will not lead to the prosperity imagined. When the dire poverty will hit parts of UK, when there will be no EU or immigrants to blame for the suffering, people will do what they have always done elsewhere. They will go to look for work. As you have seen Italians, Greeks, Romanians and Poles leaving their countries and families behind, we will see the British leaving too. Usually the bravest and the strongest leave. You might not have noticed this in your immigrant population while being busy abusing them however immigration is a very tough business. It is not for everybody. When the best workers from your village and city will leave, you will understand what I mean.
UK brain drain will be the hardest to bear for the country mainly because most industries and services in UK use highly qualified work. I don’t mean here only that UK will cease to be a magnet for the brains of the world but that UK born individuals will choose to go elsewhere to practice their professions. Research for example is a collaborative endeavour and it would make sense to go to markets, which can attract more resources through their sheer size. Both EU and US will benefit.
What we can do:
It is important to remember that while we are busy hating each other and pointing fingers towards each other, people in power split the pie again and re-define the rules of the game. Do not kid yourself that your referendum or your revolution defined the mandate they have to act on. There is no way one could act on the referendum as promised to the UK population. What will follow will be anyone’s guess. Instead of focusing on the other side, make sure that you keep the politicians in check for their actions.
The two camps emerged after the referendum — Remainers and Leavers — use a different language and completely different sources for getting their information. We look at a currency chart — I see the pound falling and somebody else tells me that in fact is stable.
I see no industry to speak off while others tell me that we have in front of us global markets worth trillions. I see rampant racism and others tell me that these are isolated hate crimes which will be dealt with by police. I say that I feel threatened as an immigrant I am told I shouldn’t feel so because I work, so economically I “make sense”. Spend some time reading the twitter feeds of those who criticise you in order to understand what they read and what they stand for. Remain’s arguments fall on deaf ears to Leavers. Leavers’ arguments fall on deaf ear to Remainers. If we are to have a conversation with the other side, we have to be able to cross the divide and debate on their arguments.
Whichever part of the story you are, take care of yourself. It is highly stressful and demanding for your body when you feel that your future is at risk or you fight a fight with no odds of success. We live without doubt historical times. I have never thought that the “body memories” formed during months of protests for democracy in the ’90s will be re-called with such power in a democratic country. You will remember as well these times years after and I hope it will be story of courage and fight for a fairer world.