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Liam McHugh-Russell – Fifteen Thoughts on Brexit for the Cosmopolitan Intellectual Elite

By Liam McHugh-Russell (European University Institute)

Fifteen Thoughts on Brexit for the Cosmopolitan Intellectual Elite*

1. When I pass through Frankfurt or Amsterdam (and almost inevitably, it is one or the other) from a visit to North America or Asia, I use my British passport to skip the long lines for non-Europeans. Likewise when I vacation around Europe. Embarrassingly, these airport conveniences, provided through EU-wide agreements, are pretty much the only way that I’ve directly experienced life as a British subject. My wife, by contrast—like me a Canadian who is also a British citizen by happenstance rather than by upbringing—is able to live and work in Italy without visa or hassle, pay Italian taxes, and receive Italian health care. To this extent, Britain’s membership in the EU has worked incredibly well for the two of us. It is a source of just ever-so-much convenience. But that is no measure of its justice. To put it more sharply, and less selfishly: by me, 70 years without war between European powers is a victory of the European project. But I don’t have to e.g. post notices about the allergens in the food I’m serving, compete for low-paid service work, or live on a pension reduced by fiat from Brussels. The post-war project of economic integration through law may have been sufficient to underwrite the peace, but that does not make the EU necessary.

2. A couple of days after the referendum, my father in law sent me a quote from a commenter on the Financial Times’s website, which has also circulated widely on social media:

‘A quick note on the first three tragedies. Firstly it was the working classes who voted us to leave because they were economically disregarded and it is they who will suffer the most in the short term from the dearth of jobs and investment. They have merely swapped one distant and unreachable elite for another one. Secondly, the younger generation has lost the right to live and work in 27 other countries. We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied. Freedom of movement was taken away by our parents, uncles, and grandparents in a parting blow to a generation that was already drowning in the debts of our predecessors. Thirdly and perhaps most significantly, we now live in a post-factual democracy. When the facts met the myths they were as useless as bullets bouncing off bodies of aliens in a HG Wells novel. When Michael Gove said ‘the British people are sick of experts’ he was right. But can anybody tell me the last time ae prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has lead to anything other than bigotry?’

Before addressing the arguments, let us ask: Who is speaking here? The cosmopolitan, intellectual, elite. And notice where the blame lies. In a word: elsewhere. In the days following the Brexit vote, this comment more than any other led me to think not as I usually do, as an ideological fellow traveller of “the left” but with and against my status—as much as it may pain me to say this, my class—as someone who lives away from home, has many (many) years of post-secondary education, and once worked for an international organization. Whether you think that what is lacking in modern politics is a commitment to equality or to liberty, to good governance or to sustainable policy, I want to encourage you, my audience, to momentarily do the same. My hope though is that a plumber from Newcastle might still hear something of interest; indeed, perhaps even more.

3. More substantially, but less certainly: Once finalised, Britain’s new relationship with the EU may or may not be good for Britain as a whole, and may or may not be good for the numerous groups of people who voted for Brexit in particular. There are not many reasons to believe it will be good for those outside of Britain either, but there are some. For one, it might mean an end to a political dynamic in which the UK acts as spoiler in efforts to pursue a more socially-oriented EU integration. At a broader level, however, it is not impossible that this crisis could be the first step in a constructive disruption of today’s business-as-usual politics. You may think it’s a good deal—it’s certainly a good deal for me—but the vote raises serious questions about the sustainability of a politics which, to grossly simplify matters, offers free movement of persons as the quid pro quo for the growing power of global finance capital. You know what? That quid pro quo may keep GDP humming, and it may keep the markets happy, too. Investors certainly seem unhappy with the possibility that it might be unsettled! But that should tell us very little at best about the value of the prior status quo. There is a reason we still don’t let investors decide elections.

4. There are credible arguments that Britain’s constitutional order requires Parliamentary sign-off before the government can trigger the EU exit procedures under Article 50 of the TEU. Some have therefore urged parliamentarians to exercise their powers to prevent exit. Such a strategy is folly. Despite the apparently large number of people who don’t seem to know what they voted for, British politicians should negotiate a vote to leave, even if we think that means that “Britain” will end up worse off than it would be if it stayed in; even though the most likely outcome is a deal where the UK basically has to accept the entire discipline of EU law without a voice in shaping it. That’s politics. More painfully, that’s democracy. Don’t misunderstand me: I think the referendum was a terrible idea. More pointedly, I am disconcerted by what the outcome represents, by what’s its likely to mean for the future of the UK and the EU both. Nonetheless, 52% is a larger mandate than any British government has received since 1931. Consider a parallel: despite conflicted hopes regarding the outcome, I said during last year’s Scottish independence referendum that there was something intrinsically powerful in people acting collectively to choose the shape of their own future. That claim applies to the Brexit vote, too, albeit not in equal measure: the conduct of the Scottish independence campaign seemed more informed by the knowledge that independence might come at a steep price. In any case, in last month’s vote, many people chose Leave in the hopes that it would mean they would have a greater voice in the future of their own lives and community. Endorsing procedural measures to rebuff this substantial decision would be a betrayal of the democratic ideal I was so enamoured of last year, and that the left, right and centre each claim to hold sacrosanct.

5. If the cynicism and distrust that a plurality of British voters have in the powers of distant leaders isn’t going to be helped by subverting the referendum result, it’s not going to be helped by calling them stupid, either. Many people voted Leave for stupid reasons—as did many who voted Remain. There is no reason to believe that the people who voted Leave know less on average about the EU, or about the consequences of leaving the EU, or about economic policy, than anyone else. The Leave vote isn’t a sign of majoritarian folly; it’s a sign of failure by leaders of the European project—Cameron is only king turkey of that flock.

6. There are many who view Nigel Farage as a cynical, self-serving, hypocritical, xenophobic charlatan. He did convince some people to vote Leave by suggesting that their troubles were due to outsiders who were empowered to come to the UK by EU rules, and many others by suggesting that a vote against the EU would somehow make the UK safer from terrorists. In doing so, he vilified Muslims, refugees, and all varieties of immigrants. It’s not even clear how much of this blood libel he believes, though that is of little comfort to the numerous minorities who have been literally been attacked in the streets following the vote. Still, not everyone who voted Leave is motivated by xenophobic hatred. I know lots of Leave supporters who are smart, hopeful, generous-hearted people, who supported the Leave campaign because they simply do not believe it’s possible to rebuild just societies under the thumb of EU discipline; who might say that, whatever we might have wanted the EU to be, we can no longer get there from here; or who simply wanted to protest the status quo, without hoping that Britain would actually leave. In making these calculations, they were all involved in politics—democratic politics.

7. It has never really been clear to me what populism means other than democratic support for policies that are disliked by people with graduate degrees. I dislike much of what Farage and Johnson claim to support. I wish both of them were, in actual fact rather than only in wide-circulated Facebook meme cards, turtles stuck on top of logs. But populism, as an epithet, seems to work primarily as a way of dismissing one’s opponents without having to actually meet their arguments. As intellectuals, our place in the democratic division of labour is to offer policy options, principles of justice, ways of imagining shared life. If the people don’t buy what we’re selling, that’s our shortcoming, not theirs.

8. But turn the spotlight round for a moment: Would the vote have gone another way if last summer’s Greek crisis had been handled differently? If the ECB hadn’t been involved in the 2010 events that transformed Ireland’s banking crisis into a sovereign debt crisis?[1] If the Council had been more willing, or the Parliament more capable, of keeping the Commission on a short leash? Maybe this time around, we’ll be able to put that thought experiment into practice. Maybe if those in charge of the music change the tune, rejoining will seem a more attractive option in a few years’ time.

9. This vote could be offered as a case study in one of the most important transformations of political discourse over the last 70 years: the ascendance of efficiency as the paradigm of public value. Like justice—like all the keywords that help to organize social life—efficiency is a slippery, intrinsically ambiguous concept. Unlike justice, however, efficiency’s ambiguity is hidden behind a veneer of technicality. We can reasonably disagree about the nature of justice; those disagreements should ideally inform democratic deliberation. Efficiency, by contrast, is pronounced as a universal end, with means paradigmatically determined in the domain of experts, rendering any who would oppose the efficient policy options irrational—even masochistic. In insisting that rational voters must always choose what’s efficient—what’s “good for the economy”—intellectuals not only clarify the stakes, but also substitute our own preferences for our audience’s. No one faults the oncologist for tendering our inevitable demise as a choice between six months of extreme discomfort or one month of slow decline. But none of us would put up with a doctor who insists he knows which alternative is preferable.

10. To put a fine point on it, efficiency as it is actually deployed in policy discussions is almost never a universal interest. The idea of efficiency that most first-year undergraduates are raised on is identified with the work of Pareto. The argument of this first version is that, if everyone trades goods and labour amongst themselves, the result will be both (i) non-coercive and (ii) leave everyone better off than when they started. So, as long as people start off with a fair distribution of goods—and so long as individuals only care about consuming goods—then everyone will prefer market outcomes to a situation in which markets couldn’t operate. But the discourse of efficiency is much more often used to label a very different form of policy justification—one that is almost universally invoked when international trade is on the table. The argument starts off deceptively similar: if countries trade between themselves, then no country will end up worse off. All else being equal, that means it’s probably better for countries to make it easier to trade between themselves. The problem is in what’s hidden by the “all else being equal.” Policies to increase trade and immigration between (to simplify) two countries will generally (another weasel word) have a positive net effect on the aggregate GDP of the two countries—fair enough. But here’s the punchline: that doesn’t tell us anything about how particular individuals or groups in either country will be affected. In fact, most models of the resulting processes demonstrate that these massive changes in the basic rules of the economic game are likely to significantly disadvantage large portions of both populations. In fact, we don’t even need the models, because we have the last 25 years as a natural experiment. So while actual trade integration may be “efficient” in the sense that the word is usually used in theoretical discussions of trade integration, it is precisely and explicitly not efficient in the sense usually used to justify the advantages of market economies, and far from a universal interest. A few years ago, Michael Trebilcock wrote a great book on this problem called (unfortunately) Dealing with Losers. He might have called it “dealing with the working class, along with our parents, uncles and grandparents.”

11. Left, right, or centre: for those of us who live ex patria, discussing the possible negatives of immigration is one of the great taboos; for we cosmopolitans, abstract justice nonetheless demands that we support globally open borders. Yet immigration in any country has an impact on local labour markets—an impact, in other words, on the distribution of income. It’s no answer to say that the net benefit is positive, any more than this answers for the distributive impact of more open trade. Admitting those potential distributive impacts however need not put us in league with those who “blame immigrants.” But it does require some work. If you want people to sacrifice in support of that good, you have to sell free movement as a principle of justice. Pointing out that other people will be able work abroad is of little comfort to those who have their reasons to stay at home. A quid pro quo only works if those forced to pay up also wind up getting the benefit. On the other hand, if you want free movement without the sacrifice, then you have to design policies that give a leg up to those who would otherwise lose out.[2] What we can’t do in good faith is tell people to support the new status quo “because it’s best for everyone:” British voters probably know better than “us” whether they are worse off than they used to be. Efficient or no, they may in fact lose out— may have in fact lost out—as a result of the policies implemented by our colleagues in Strassbourg and Brussels and Geneva. “Suck it up” makes for a poor policy slogan (albeit one much more honest than “£350 million a week for the NHS.”) Like broad, popular support for open trade, broad popular support for free movement requires a voting majority who either believes that principles of justice are at stake, or who feel like they are getting a good deal.

12. We are right to mourn, but we can be judicious in our choice of what we mourn. There is or at least was an idea of Europe based in the idea of collaboration and collective action, an idea about pursuing a shared enterprise rather than persisting in tribally-divided competition. There was a time when the champions of Europe as a political project were motivated by a faith that politics need not be a zero sum game. We can mourn because the vote represents an irrational rejection of that faith, but because the vote might represent a rational response to a failure to put that faith in practice. Call it populism if you want — call it stupidity — but it seems like the best characterization of the vote is that, for an ostensible majority of the British, fifty years of integration have led up a blind alley.

13. The vote does not bode well for the world. Populism may be a loose epithet, but xenophobia, scapegoating, the appeal to vengeance and the strategic peddling of patent falsehoods—these are real threats. The result does not bode well for the future of the idea that we are better off if we try to confront our problems together, to make the world together in some image of justice. Trump seems poised to exploit grievances in much the same way the Leave campaign did. But if we have faith in the intelligence of voters; if we are willing to speak to their better angels; if we are willing to listen to the grievances of those who are struck by the unfairness of present arrangements, but willing equally to appeal to their sense of justice; if we refuse despair…then the Leave vote can be treated as a lesson in humility rather than the early rumblings of inevitable catastrophe.

14. The lesson of Bretton Woods[3] is that transforming societies requires more than political coalitions or advocacy for particular policies. It also depends on the conceptual work of elaborating the constitutional order. Different choices at the ECB might make Europe more fair, but what might the ECB be for? If neither ordo-liberal Europe nor isolationist autarky are acceptable, what form do we want international cooperation to take? In distributing rights and benefits, can we think beyond “insiders” and “outsiders” without losing what has been gained through the idea of universal citizenship?

15. If we think of ourselves as rulers, and lord knows as lawyers with graduate degrees we have little other choice, then the right response to the Leave vote is not to figure out how to sell Europe better. Or to figure out how to stop the UK from leaving. The proper response is to figure out how to make Europe better, and ensure that the advantages of integration are fairly distributed;[4] or, if we’ve lost faith, to figure out how to pursue just, open societies outside of EU discipline. In any case, we shouldn’t forget that the canary in the coal mine is meant to get us out before disaster strikes, not to give us notice we are already dead.

*I thank Agnieska Smolenska, Rutger Birnie, Julia Rone and Fabrizio Esposito for constructive discussion of these thoughts. What remains are my errors alone.

[1] On this episode, see e.g. Martin E. Sandbu, Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro and the Politics of Debt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015), 98-101

[2] Unfortunately, much of the “trade liberalisation” agenda over the last 20 years, and a great deal of regional integration in the EU mold, rather than being a project in reducing already near-zero tariffs, has involved foreclosing on opportunities for the trading partners to engage in precisely the kinds of policies that would compensate the losers or prevent them from losing out in the first place.

[3] If you believe John Ruggie.

[4] And ideally, that there is at the very least a generous approach to the world outside of Europe.

Brexit: Democracy, Markets and the Regions’, DELI/LGJD Joint Insta-Symposium

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