People in the UK today are voting on whether to leave the EU, in what has universally become known as the “Brexit.” Current polling shows the referendum will be very, very close, and the political situation is extremely volatile. Over the weekend, a liberal, pro-Europe MP was brutally murdered by a member (or at least supporter) of a far right party who gave his name as “Death to Traitors” in his first court appearance. Ironically, the murder may have hurt the exit campaign. On the other hand, the BBC is now running a story that if the Brexit succeeds, it may prompt London – which will almost certainly vote to stay – to demand its own exit from the UK; Northern Ireland and Scotland might follow suit. I haven’t seen anyone say that further devolution is likely, but it would be on the table for discussion. In the meantime, British far right parties like UKIP have supported the exit, claiming that there is too much immigration and too many regulations emanating from Brussels. It’s an occasion for right-wing nationalism to gain political power and prominence. In other words, Brexit is the UK’s Donald Trump, with two primary differences: the Brexit vote looks like it’s going to be close, and the new mayor of London really is Muslim.
I’ve lived in England on two separate occasions – once in London on a semester-abroad as an undergraduate, in Fall 1992, and for a year in graduate school (1997-98), reading in the Bodleian library in Oxford. Fall 1992, of course, was when the Maastricht treaty establishing the EU and setting the groundwork for the common currency was debated and ratified. The UK joined, though it stipulated that it would not join the Euro, and demanded a number of other specific concessions as conditions for membership. One of the main anti-Europe arguments was that there were too many regulations emanating from Brussels, and the no-campaign selected British Beef as a good example of the sort of industry that did not require foreign regulation. Not long after that, Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy, aka “Mad Cow Disease,” went from a minor to a major news item. BSE, which one contracts mainly by eating infected meat, is invariably fatal, has a very long incubation period of several years, is essentially undetectable prior to symptoms (I will never be able to donate blood because I lived in England when I did), and is virtually impossible to destroy – it withstands temperatures of 600 degrees. It also turns out to have started in England, where the British Beef industry had been feeding rendered carcasses to cattle as a protein supplement. The EU banned such feeding practices in 1994, having previously banned beef from England into other member states.
Bureaucracy is incredibly annoying, and the EU bureaucracy can be incredibly annoying. Indeed, EU bureaucracy is apparently incredibly intricate and difficult even by bureaucratic standards, and maybe part of the answer is to go back to Marx’s critique of bureaurcacy. But sometimes those food safety regulations can be a good idea, and when you hear right wing nationalists bloviating against them, well, sometimes industries need regulation, because otherwise they externalize too many of their costs, often under the pretext that their only job is to return shareholder value (this view was popularized by Milton Friedman, and is easily refuted by the point that those businesses have to be located somewhere, in a community that builds roads and bridges and funds police and education and so on).
But why are right-wing nationalists getting the attention they are? One obvious reason, which has been sufficiently covered in the (critical) press that I won’t go into it here, is old-fashioned white supremacy, and resentment at immigrants that “aren’t like us” or are “diluting our national character” or whatever epithet is applied to them. But there is also a specific link to problems with neoliberal globalization, which demands that cyclical economic downturns – often caused by the deregulation that neoliberals demand – be met by austerity. It happened here, where the stimulus package in 2008 was not only not big enough, but had to waste a lot of money on tax cuts for people who didn’t need them. State legislatures met revenue shortfalls by cutting taxes and services, and (at least here in NC) have conspicuously not restored them. It happened in Europe, where concerns about the viability of the EU were raised over Germany’s insistence on punishing austerity measures for Greece. It even happened in England, when Prime Minister David Cameron (whose political career is on the line today, as he is pro-EU) came into office and promptly announced a bunch of austerity measures that – wait for it – pushed the economy back into a recession. For its part, the EU dragged its feet on implementing any sort of pro-growth initiatives. And of course the logic of austerity is iterative: we have deficits, so we’d better cut taxes and spending; when austerity drives the economy further down, it reduces tax revenues further, leading to further demands to cut spending.
In other words, austerity is a terrible idea. It weakens already weak economies, and pushes suffering onto the backs of the poor and middle classes, whose benefits are invariably those that are cut. So they don’t want to vote for the conservative elites, who continue to support the Washington Consensus, no matter how many times it has been refuted. Tax cuts and austerity are simply their ideology, as a glance at virtually anything that Paul Ryan says will demonstrate. Neoliberal orthodoxy has pushed the Overton window on what counts as responsible economic policy so far to the right that genuine socialized alternatives (like a public option for healthcare in the U.S.) are off the table from the start. Bernie Sanders offered a moment of hope here, but the main the political beneficiaries have been the far right, which has captured the justifiable frustration the public feels when asked to bear the brunt of neoliberal financialization and tax cuts, and displaced that frustration onto immigrants and (sometimes) on the elites who demand doubling down on economic policies that clearly don’t work.