(1) Xenophobia. The debate was dominated by fear of immigration and migrants, an issue that was exploited opportunistically by some leaders of the Leave campaign.
(2) A popular protest from the Right and the Left. The Leave vote was a protest on the part of those who have experienced poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and underfunding of education and health services, and who feel that their voices have been ignored. In objective terms, Britain benefitted economically from its participation in the European Union. Unlike most EU nations, it retained its own currency, and it controlled its monetary policy; and as a member of the Union, it could send its goods to the continent on a tariff-free basis. However, the European Union adhered to an anti-popular, pro-elite neoliberal agenda, and many Britons were vaguely aware of this. Robert Kuttner of the Huffington Post notes that “the Brits who voted for Brexit got a lot of facts and details wrong. . . . But they did grasp that the larger economic system is serving elites and is not serving them.” The popular opposition to the European Union and its neoliberal policies came from both Right-wing populism as well as the Left. Kuttner stresses the right-wing component of the anti-neoliberal protest: “Rightwing revolts are always substantially irrational, as was the vote for Brexit. But when downwardly mobile Brits grasp that the EU and the larger model of neo-liberalism aren’t exactly on their side, they are grasping a truth.” On the other hand, Andrew O'Hehir (Salon) guesses that 20% of the vote for Brexit came from the Left. He writes that Brexit was, in part, an assault on “the post-Cold War world order of economic globalization and ‘free trade’ agreements, coupled with permanent undeclared war and worldwide intelligence-gathering on an unprecedented scale.”
(3) Rejection of the political elite and the established political process. Mihail Evans, International Research Fellow at the New Europe College at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Bucharest interprets the vote for Brexit as a rejection of politics itself. He maintains that there is something profoundly wrong with Western democracies: the art of politics has been replaced by the technique of politics. The former involves elected representatives working with one another to address problems in a creative and consensual manner, with sensitivity not only to the interests of the particular locality but also the long-term good of the nation, the region, humanity and the planet; whereas the latter involves effective use of campaign fundraising strategies, political advertising, and soundbites.
(4) National versus cosmopolitan identity. Lisa Maria Herzog (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main) observes that nationalist politicians blame the European Union for anything that arouses fear and anger among the people, thus stimulating a form of nationalist identity that stands in opposition to identity with Europe. Regina Rini (New York University) interprets the European Union as involving an attempt to move personal identity from the nation to Europe, and the endeavor has failed. She writes: “In many ways, the project of the European Union has been an effort to submerge the militaristic undertones of national identity in the cosmopolitan solidarity of a multi-ethnic, multi-national superstate. Europe has all the trappings of political identity: a capital, a flag, an anthem. But Brexit shows that this aspect of the European project has not yet succeeded. For many people, it is still national identity that holds greatest allegiance.” Similarly, O'Hehir maintains that “Brexit was an assault on the cosmopolitan, borderless Pan-European ideal represented by the E.U.”
(5) The low quality of the public discussion. Martin O’Neill (University of York) maintains that “the vote followed the lowest-quality political campaign in recent British history, as newspapers with their own pro-Brexit agenda . . . regurgitated a steady stream of misdirection, obfuscation and outright lies.” Kuttner laments “the absence of enlightened leadership, either in Britain or on the continent,” and the incapacity of political leaders to propose an option other than remain in or leave the European Union. Thus, the people voted without a good understanding and without the possibility of reframing the issue, and in their votes they were expressing sentiments with respect to other issues, such as immigration, neoliberalism, inequality, and the cosmopolitanism of elites.
Brexit is a sign of the structural crisis of the world-system. In seeking to understand the meaning of Brexit, we cannot lose sight of the fact that the modern world-system was established on a foundation of conquest of vast regions of the world by seven European nations from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries (see various posts on The origin and development of the modern world-system). During the twentieth century, as a result of the movements of the colonized peoples, the European colonial empires were abandoned, and a neo-colonial world-system under US hegemony emerged, preserving the essential economic relations established during colonial rule (see posts on Neocolonialism).
The transition to neocolonialism did not address the fundamental contradictions of the system, of which three are particularly important. (1) The world-economy expanded by incorporating new territories and populations, but by the middle of the twentieth century, there were no more lands and peoples to conquer. (2) The thirst for social justice among the peoples of the world ensured that popular anti-colonial, anti-neocolonial, anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal movements could not be satisfied without transforming structures of colonial/neocolonial domination and superexploitation. (3) The strategy of sowing division among the popular sectors of the world by addressing popular demands in core but not in peripheral zones, financing the strategy through government debt, became unsustainable by the 1970s, as a result of declining margins of global profits and excessive levels of government debts.
The turn to the neoliberal project in the 1980s was the elite response to these unresolved contradictions. It turned to economic war against the nations of peripheral and semi-peripheral zones, coercing governments to remove all protections of national currency, national industry, and the social and economic rights of the people; and to a rollback of concessions made to core popular sectors during the twentieth century. And it turned to neo-fascist wars where its political control was threatened and the value of the natural resources was high. Both strategies had certain short-terms benefits for transnational corporations and political elites, but they deepened the crisis that results from the unresolved contradictions of the world-system.
At the same time, the Left of the core nations was unable to explain to the people the structural contradictions that had led to the elite impulse for the neoliberal agenda. The Left previously had turned to reformism and away from revolutionary transformation; and it has been characterized by a tendency toward Eurocentrism, incapable of analyzing the world-system from below, from the vantage point of the neocolonized. Accordingly, the Left in the North, although it has protested the neoliberal rollback, has not been able to demonstrate to the people that it understands the roots of the global crisis and would be capable of making the necessary structural transformations, if it were to have the support of the people.
Without a reasoned and politically viable alternative proposed by the Left, the public debate in the nations of the core has remained trapped in Eurocentric assumptions, and it has become increasingly superficial and conflictive. Public discourse explains nothing, and it cannot lead to the resolution of any of the contradictions. Public debate is within the context of assumptions shared by the Right and the political center. The art of politics has degenerated into the technique of politics, where the strategy is to distort in order to manipulate; and successful politicians increasingly have become masters of a deceptive discourse. The people are losing faith in the political system, and in the political leaders who have based their careers in maneuvering through the contradictions, without seeking to address them. No political figures emerge to lead the people to a comprehensive historical and global understanding and that forges multiple layers of identity among the people, thinking of themselves as patriotic citizens of nations but also responsible citizens of the region and the world. These dynamics have become manifest with the Brexit vote: the debate was of low quality and characterized by the exploitation of popular anxiety; some voted for Leave because of their lack of confidence in political elites and the political system; some expressed their rejection of EU neoliberal policies, which they do not fully understand, but which they sense are not designed to protect their interests and needs; and some seek revitalization of nationalism, disdainful of the cosmopolitanism of the elites and the upper and upper-middle classes.
The uncontrollable migration from the periphery and semi-periphery to the core, created by the legacy of underdevelopment and the recent neo-fascist wars, is one of the most explosive dynamics of the systemic crisis of the system. Neither the politicians of the Left nor the Right can explain the origins of the new migration nor offer a constructive proposal, and opportunistic politicians exploit the fear and anxiety of the people that the migratory crisis creates.
The structural crisis of the world-system is not only an economic, financial and ecological crisis. It is also a political and ideological crisis: The peoples of the core have lost faith in established political institutions; and the opinion makers, including those of the Left, are unable to formulate an alternative ideology.
But the political and ideological crisis pertains to the core, not to the periphery. In the neocolonized regions of the world, the peoples are retaking and reformulating the radical Third World agenda of the 1960s and 1970s. This renewal, provoked by a popular rejection of the neoliberal project and the national political elites who participated in its implementation, is particularly advanced in Latin America, but it is expressing itself throughout the Third World, as is evident by the declarations of the Non-Aligned Movement in recent years.
Taking into account the advanced nature of the Third World movement, we can only conclude that the renewal of the Left in the core requires encounter with the Third World popular movements for national and social liberation. They are forging in theory and practice a more just, democratic and sustainable world-system, conceived as an alternative to the unsustainable neocolonial world-system. The peoples of the South are showing the peoples of the North the necessary road. If the intellectuals and activists of the Left in the North can learn from the popular movements of the South, they would be able to propose to the people an alternative to neoliberalism, xenophobia, distrust of politicians, and chauvinistic nationalism, all of which forms a breeding ground for fascism.