I think we all have stories about mad conversations we’ve had about Brexit since the referendum (or is it just me?). I was called a racist, for example, for suggesting that the UK is nowhere near the top of the league of ‘most xenophobic countries’, and I’ve been amazed by the vitriol this has stirred up on both sides.
However, I think that reports of the enormity of the change that emerged on July 24th are misplaced. I don’t think it’s as seismic as people think it is. The truth is, that the world is controlled by the corporate sector, especially the banking sector (more below), and will continue to be so whether the UK is part of the EU or not. We live in a corporate empire – that is the paramount feature of our age, and leaving the EU won’t change that. The ‘sovereignty’ argument is bogus. We live in an empire – we have no sovereignty in or out of the EU.
But it happened, so let’s have a look at some of the potential positive and negative consequences of Brexit. In fact, let’s look at three of each, and try to work out how likely they are.
1. Reduction in the power of the corporate sector.
Both sides claimed that Remain / Brexit would gift more power to the corporate sector, but you only have to look at what all the major neoliberal institutions were recommending to see that they all wanted us to stay in – from the Bank of England, the Conservative government and the Corporation of London to the EBRD, OECD, World Bank and the US government. Leaving means that we will no longer have policies that affect us written by the European Round Table of Industrialists.
When I think of global politics, I see a world dominated by a corporate empire that has a wider geographical reach, is infinitely more powerful, and has more de facto slaves than the Roman Empire. It’s not important to focus on specific individuals and corporations, just as it wasn’t important to focus on specific individuals or legions within the Roman Empire – they come and go, but the imperial system itself remains. However, if you’re having difficulty picturing where the heart of empire currently lies, as Matt Taibbi points out in his famous ‘vampire squid‘ article in Rolling Stone, if you think of the majority shareholders and top executives of Goldman Sachs, you won’t be far off. The most outrageous examples of GS power are Mario Draghi and Hank Paulson. Paulson was CEO of GS until he was drafted in by Bush to oversee the US bank bailout after the 2008 crash. In other words, a bank CEO organised the biggest transfer of wealth from ordinary taxpayers to the banking sector in history. Mario Draghi, ex-managing director of GS International is now president of the European Central Bank. Taibbi’s article lists many, many more ways that the squiddy tentactles of that particular corporation are strangling our ‘democracy’.
I’ve had debates with people on the left who bemoan Brexit because it’s caused a fall in the value of the stock market (although actually it hasn’t). When I’ve pointed out that when the left supports the corporate casino at the heart of capitalism, it’s probably time to give up, they rightly respond that it will cause pain for lots of people. So what do we do – accept the Empire to avoid pain? I think not, because to accept the Empire would be to accept that all major decisions affecting the entire human species will forever be made in corporate boardrooms, and that our environmentally-destructive economic system will be locked in until we become extinct. When empires fall, there is always some pain. If we refuse to accept this, then let’s stop wringing our hands and accept our position as corporate serfs trundling along on the road to oblivion.
2. Reduction in growth and exports
Yes, this is a potential positive consequence of leaving the EU. The corporate empire and their neoliberal allies inside and outside the EU constantly try to persuade us that every country’s economy has to be geared towards perpetual growth and exports, and it’s true that most people on the left and the right have been seduced by that message. But – to quickly reiterate what Lowimpact has stood for for 15 years – we’re in a mass extinction event that will take us with it unless we stop it. This is coming from peer-reviewed ecologists, so if you understand science at all, you’ll realise how serious this is. But as long as the global economy is geared towards constant growth and exports, we can’t stop it. From an environmental perspective, we should be stabilising our economies and gearing production towards our local communities rather than for export.
Of course our national government will still be going all out to maximise growth and exports, but the EU exists to promote those things, and is just building a Europe-wide motorway network to facilitate it. That’s what it’s for. We export millions of tonnes of milk, dairy products, potatoes, meat etc., and we import roughly the same amount. From an ecological perspective, that’s nonsensical.
3. No Common Agricultural Policy?
No-one really knows what’s going to happen with the CAP (do they? Let me know if you do). It’s an enormous EU subsidy for farmers, but only if they farm over 5 hectares. If the CAP goes, it will mean a reduction in the transfer of wealth from poor to rich, less unfair competition for smallholders, and who knows – land prices could even fall. Losing the CAP along with the EU could make it much easier for smaller farmers, and for people to get a smallholding in the first place. No doubt the government will try to replace it with another handout for big landowners, but that’s not guaranteed.
Potential negative consequences
1. We’ll lose some environmental and social justice directives
This one is touted a lot, but from an environmental perspective, the pressure from the EU for growth and exports negates any benefits that come from its environmental directives, and anyway, UK manufacturing has been exported to the Far East, to dirty, sweatshop factories producing goods that then have to be transported half-way round the world – and this is the real reason UK beaches and rivers are cleaner. But globally, both environment and social justice have been damaged to levels way, way beyond that which can be put right by EU directives. Of course some of its environmental and human rights directives are good, and yes, being in the EU makes travel around Europe easier – and similarly, the Roman Empire kept the peace and the British Empire built railways. An Empire has to have something to point to that it can use to justify its existence, or revolution is inevitable.
So I don’t think that this is a big issue – not within a grossly unsustainable and undemocratic global system. However, I think that the following two are valid threats, and that we have to be vigilant to prevent them.
2. Britain could move more to the right / xenophobia could rise
I think there was a fundamental misunderstanding by the middle-classes as to why the working class largely voted to leave, and many people instantly put it down to racism. There have even been calls for London to become independent and leave the UK. Those calls may have been tongue-in-cheek (although some may have been serious), but London-based professionals do benefit from Eastern Europeans coming over to drive their taxis, deliver their pizzas, clean their homes, nanny their children, build their extensions etc. But in Nuneaton, Rotherham, Dudley and all those towns with boarded-up High Streets, those are the kinds of jobs that tens of millions of people do. If you can imagine being in a situation where hundreds of thousands of people who will do the work that you do for much less money are on their way here, you might get that for most people, it’s not to do with racism. I think that most commentators in the circles that I move in have no idea what that feels like. The percentage of the working class that is genuinely racist is in my opinion no bigger than the percentage of the middle class that is racist, and furthermore, I think that the percentage in both groups is shrinking – young people are less racist than old people, and old people die.
People who are already racist might feel empowered somewhat – yes, but as long as we shout them down, they’ll understand that they’re swimming against the tide. Remember the casual racism on TV in the 1970s? It’s gone. Or on the football terraces? You don’t get that at British grounds any more, and it’s not coming back. In Ukraine or Poland, maybe, but not in the UK any more. Over here, the races are mixing so much that the ethnicity questions in the census are going to become much more difficult to answer in the near future. Anyone who thinks that the UK is one of the most xenophobic countries in the world can’t possibly have travelled in Eastern Europe, Japan or Australia. As for the US, they have a similar TV programme to ‘Blind Date’, but there are three versions: you’ve guessed it – black, white and hispanic. Terminology is often difficult, and academics especially are constantly changing the rules on what is and isn’t acceptable (I was recently admonished for using the term ‘mixed-race’, even though as recently as 2009, polls found it to be the preferred term for people with parents of different ethnicities), but when it comes to race, the UK is way ahead of any country in which it’s a given that people won’t want to have a relationship (or even a date) with someone of a different ethnicity.
Furthermore, Lord Ashcroft’s polls showed that most Brexiters voted leave because they believed that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK, and not because of immigration.
3. The UK could move closer to the US, its trade deals, and possibly NAFTA
President Obama said that the UK would slip to the back of the queue for trade deals such as TTIP if we left the EU. That was an out-and-out lie of course, and he’s backtracked on it already. Would that it were the case, but it’s not and was never going to be. Noam Chomsky thinks that the UK, or at least England, might move closer to the US, and possibly, in time, join NAFTA, and this is a real threat that we have to fight against. Any criticisms of a neoliberal EU are dwarfed by criticisms of the neoliberal NAFTA. But I don’t think it will happen. Neither Brexiters nor Remainers are naturally drawn to the States, with its strange gun laws, charismatic preachers, fratboys, prudishness and lack of interest in (real) football. Instinctively, most British people know that we are much more like French or Germans than we are like Americans. However, there has been less opposition to TTIP in the UK than there has in other EU countries, and it’s much easier to negotiate a trade deal with an individual country than with a trading bloc, so we have to be ready to kick up a fuss against such trade deals.
But let’s make sure that a move towards the US or NAFTA doesn’t happen. It shouldn’t really – Brexiters won’t want to jump into another giant trade bloc, I don’t think, and progressives/lefties/greenies should feel a revulsion at the thought of joining a neoliberal bloc that contains the US (shouldn’t they? Although they didn’t feel that way about the neoliberal EU, so who knows?). Let’s build non-hierarchical networks that are the opposite of US neoliberalism, and orient ourselves towards Europe, but not the EU. However, on Friday, the Telegraph ran a piece containing a six-point plan now that we’ve left the EU. One of those six points was to join NAFTA. We have to be vigilant.
The nation is an important geographical and political unit if we want to see a low-impact world. When a nation loses control of its currency to distant bankers, in times of economic downturn, it no longer has the power to reduce interest rates or devalue its currency so that its industries can compete with those of stronger countries. This has had catastrophic consequences for Greece. A low-impact world would involve a network of independent nations with control over their own currencies, complemented by local currencies within counties or cities, rather than a single, one-size-fits-all currency covering a huge geographical area and controlled by distant, anonymous bankers who will certainly have a different agenda to you and yours. This applies to the EU as much as it does to NAFTA. If Scotland leaves the UK to forge closer links with the EU (including adopting the euro?), then any talk of ‘independence’ may be extremely misguided. As David Fleming says in the wonderful Lean Logic, an imminent, posthumous publication that I’ve managed to get a sneak preview of:
Regions in Europe are now pressing their case for increased autonomy. However, as they develop political and administrative structures and confidence, they will … drain power from nations only to pour it back into the imperial framework which sees it as its mission to abolish nations. The “tragedy of the regions” is the tendency of regions, while seeking greater independence from the nation state, to fall into the more authoritarian embrace of empire. They may think that they can protect their independence and make their interests heard within the wider setting of the empire, but the error is naȉve.
I think there has been a lot of hyperbole since the Brexit vote, but in the end, I don’t think that life is going to change that much for most people; the power structure will hardly notice and overall, it could be for the best. But whatever happens, it’s a waste of time sitting around moaning – let’s prepare for life outside the EU. We’ll still travel around Europe, we’ll still continue to mix like crazy, and who knows, one day we might have a borderless world. But let’s try our best to prevent the corporate sector from dominating it like they dominate the EU. My suggestions for how to oppose corporate dominance most effectively are: to move your money out of the corporate sector, and to educate friends as to why a drift towards NAFTA would be a bad idea; plus – a lot of people wanted us to remain in the EU because they thought that it would be a blow to the corporate empire (even though the corporate empire was telling us to vote remain), but those same people are happy to shop at Tesco, drink in Starbucks and bank with NatWest. There are other options that would make their position more coherent.
I hope that we can find democratic, non-corporate ways to unite Europe. To get rid of any empire will require a bit of pain, but surely it’s better than having an empire? Let’s go after the WTO next, then the IMF, World Bank and NATO – let’s extricate ourselves from all of them. Better still, let’s dismantle them.
The views expressed in our blog are those of the author and not necessarily lowimpact.org's
1Reen July 5th, 2016
Dave, what are your thoughts on the media influence – our media is generally owned by 5 billionaires, the most influential and powerful of these being Murdoch, who holds great sway in Westminster, on all sides of the house. There is a school of thought that thinks without the EU he has even more power in an independent UK. And that power is not good. The main stream media is at least as powerful and influential (if not more so) than the corporations. They have had huge, sometimes decisive, influence over general elections and now the EU referendum by pedalling factually incorrect propaganda. Just wondered what your take was on this.
2Dave Darby July 5th, 2016
Hi – I don’t make a distinction between the msm and corporations – they are corporate. News Corp and Fox are giant corporations. But I don’t think Murdoch has any principles really – it’s all self-interest and empire building. The Times was Remain and the Sun was Brexit, so it seems like they were just trying to give their readership what it wants. I have no idea why anyone would buy those rags – as you say, factually-incorrect propaganda.