Brexit is the Right Nationalist Response to Austerity

by Benjamin Studebaker

Like many people, I initially responded to Brexit with outrage at the terrible consequences of the result for the British people. Among other things, they may lose crucial worker, consumer, and environmental protections, they may lose access to the European market, they may lose the opportunity to work with other European countries on climate change and tax avoidance, and they may even lose Scotland. It is critical that the British Parliament assert its sovereignty and decline to implement the results of the non-binding advisory referendum, which was a mistake to hold in the first place. After all, by asserting UK sovereignty, Brexiteers are asserting the sovereignty of Parliament, so if Parliament declines to invoke Article 50 and chooses to stay in the EU it is merely exercising the very powers the Brexiteers wished to assert for it. But today I want to take a step back and look at the big picture–why the vote went the way it did and what that says about where we’re at. Many people have been happy to chalk the Leave win up to bigotry and leave it at that, but this response is too reductive and doesn’t give us enough to work with. If bigotry is the problem, why is bigotry the problem now? There have been bigoted people in Britain and in the EU and all over the world forever, but Brexit didn’t happen in 1996 or 2006, it happened in 2016. What’s different about now? Brexit is not the result of some culture war between the nice people and the nasty people, it is a consequence of economic stagnation and inequality and of a voting public that is unable to correctly identify the causes of that stagnation and inequality or confront them with meaningful and effective policy.

David Cameron has been doing austerity since 2010, with the exception of a brief respite in 2012:

UK Government Spending

Austerity strangles economic growth by taking money out of the hands of the people who spend it. When the government is buying less, that means companies and wage earners make less money, which in turn gives them less money to buy things with, which means that companies and wage earners make less money, and so on in a vicious cycle. The severe austerity in 2011 strangled British economic growth, forcing Cameron’s government to relax the policy in 2012. That jump-started British economic growth, and in the years since Cameron has reintroduced more austerity. His hope was that British economic growth would at this point prove to have too much momentum to be derailed by the cuts–indeed, his supporters pointed to the strong growth in 2013 and 2014 and claimed that this was thanks to the cuts in 2010 and 2011 rather than to the respite in 2012. But as the austerity has continued to bite and the commodities markets and developing markets have weakened, British growth has once again been slowing:

UK Annual Growth

It has not helped that much of the growth that was generated after 2012 benefited Britain’s financial sector rather than the country as a whole. In 2014 British real wages were still falling:

There has been some improvement lately, aided in part by the 7.5% increase in the minimum wage, and further planned increases will take some of the heat off wages. But British workers have missed out on a lot of wage growth, and it will be hard to make up for what has been lost. In the years following the 2008 crisis, no major economy did worse on wages than Britain:

UK Wages Comparative Rich

Indeed, British wage growth was worse than Portugal’s, Spain’s, and Ireland’s:

UK Wages Comparative Poor

The minimum wage hike was long overdue and more needs to be done to help British workers catch up. But this is difficult, because the government is starving the economy of investment in infrastructure and technology, and this has damaged Britain’s productivity, which has only just now caught up to pre-2008 levels:

UK Productivity

In the meantime, more and more British people are being denied access to the housing market:

This has created a general sense in Britain that things are not going very well and that in decades past they were better. Jobs used to be more secure, wage growth used to be stronger, housing used to be more affordable, the quality of the public services used to be higher, the quality of infrastructure used to be higher, and so on. People feel they are getting a raw deal, especially working class people, and they are absolutely right. This sentiment preceded austerity–when the UK decided to move away from manufacturing in the 1980s and deregulate its financial sector instead, many working class people were left behind. But austerity has made this much worse by straining British public services and infrastructure, making it much harder for productivity and real wages to grow.

When people begin to feel a sense of despair and futility about where their society is going, when they feel things are going badly and there is little they can do, they tend to retreat into smaller communal identities. Even if the world is falling apart, you can still make a difference for the people immediately around you in your community, for your friends, family, and others you identify with. We look for the people we think we can rely on and we try to club together with them against the vicious global economic forces that threaten our communities. Those we think we cannot rely on become focal points of blame and mistrust.

The trouble is that we are very bad at judging which people are reliable and which are not, and we tend to use bad shortcuts. Instead of asking ourselves whether people contribute to our communities, whether they reciprocate with us, we too often assume that the people who look like us or share arbitrary customs with us are the people we can rely on. Many Leave voters instinctively identify with people who look like them and share their cultural practices or religious beliefs because they mistakenly believe that these people are more trustworthy or reliable. This can manifest as racism, as hostility to people on the basis of ethnicity, religion, or nationality. It’s right nationalism, and it’s gaining ground around the world as a response to economic stress–from Marine Le Pen in France to Donald Trump in America to Pegida in Germany to Golden Dawn in Greece.

We as a society have to some degree implicitly sanctioned this by associating states with “nations”. Where once the world was divided up into different races, it is now divided up among different groups which we take to be culturally unitary, which we call “nations”. We think that nations are real collective entities, that they are entitled to self-determination, and consequently we have often divided land up among different groups of people on the basis that some of these people belong to nation X while others belong to nation Y. What is it that makes a nation? People have answered this in different ways in different times and places, but almost all of the answers are more than a bit disturbing–shared cultural practices, shared religious beliefs, shared ethnicity, shared ideology, and so on down the line. These things nations are purported to share are bad ways of getting at what’s really important when creating a community, which is that all of the people in the community are willing and capable of reciprocating with each other, that there is a shared solidarity, a sense that your burden is my burden and mine yours.

So when we look at what’s gone wrong in our societies and we ask what the problem is, we ought to be looking to find the people who are taking advantage of the rest of us, who are not reciprocating, who are exploiting people. But because we are used to thinking of our communities as nation-states, as places where shared race, culture, or creed can be treated as an approximation for commitment to reciprocity, it is all too easy to jump to the conclusion that the people who are different from us must be the problem, and if we could just get rid of them we would then be left with a community full of reliable people we can trust.

But the right nationalists are wrong–the immigrants and the Europeans are not the problem, and they never were. The real problem is that there are people in Britain who look like the average British person, who share the average British person’s culture and may even seem to share the average British person’s creed, but who are nonetheless perfectly happy to support economic policies that exploit the average British person, that leave average British people with no jobs, bad jobs, weak wages, rubbish public services, the whole lot. They hide behind their white skin. They hide behind the union jack, or even the cross of St. George. They hide behind their Christianity or their social liberalism, whichever is needed. Slowly but surely these people suck the marrow out of British society, all the while framing Europeans and Muslims. Many of these people never wanted Brexit themselves, but they wanted the average British person to want Brexit, because if you want Brexit you’re not seeing the mechanisms by which exploitation truly operates in Britain today. Indeed, the loudest and proudest Brexiteers–Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage–are all people who have consistently supported the policies that have visited misery and ruin upon Britain. Did they do it deliberately or knowingly? Perhaps not, but does that really matter?

As long as we are obsessed with our own identities, with the arbitrary features of appearance or culture that we think make us what we are, we will continue to miss out on what’s really important–who reciprocates and who does not. It’s the people who help who are the good people, no matter what their culture or creed is, no matter what they look like. And it’s the people who hurt who are the bad people, and bad people come in every color and every cultural package under the sun, sometimes with good intentions and sometimes without them. We cannot tell which is which by looking, or by lazily throwing people into national, ethnic, or cultural categories. We have to judge people individually by their actions, and by the consequences of those actions. It’s hard, and it’s work, but if we fail to do it we leave ourselves endlessly open to manipulation and deceit from the real purveyors of pain and social decay.