June 24, 2016: I spoke to my friend in Britain this morning. Still absorbing the shock that her nation had voted itself out of Europe, she said, “Today I live in a different country.” I recognized the sentiment. It was widespread in this country, the USA, in the wake of 9-11. When people said, “Everything has changed.”
Practical things will be different in Britain. Companies will migrate to the continent for free access to the larger market. Border crossings coming and going will become cumbersome. What will happen when passport control is re-instituted to move between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which is an EU member? Scotland, with a population already feeling largely alienated from the UK, voted 62 percent to remain in the EU. Will the desire to rejoin Europe lead to a new referendum to separate from the UK?
But of course my friend meant more than practical questions. Already there is a mood that has set in. A new mood. One that recognizes that not only is today fundamentally different than yesterday, but that the difference will go forward for decades. Again the 9-11 analogy presents itself — in this country we are already 15 contentious years into war footing.
There is an irony in this referendum having stamped the British future so heavily. It is disproportionately the work of an older generation that will not have to live with its long-term consequences.
According to a YouGov poll, a huge majority of people under 50 voted to remain. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, the age category that’s going to have to live with the consequences of this vote for all of their working lives, 75 percent voted to stay.
The vote is not just a clash of different ages, but of urban versus suburban and rural. The only region in all of England and Wales to vote in favor of remaining in the EU was Greater London. And that by a 20 percent margin. This cosmopolitan/provincial division will be familiar to Americans who have been paying attention to the Tea Party since 2009, and this year to Donald Trump’s candidacy for the presidency.
Trump himself certainly sees the connection. Here’s what he wrote in an email to his followers this morning:
“Last night UK voters shocked the world…reassert[ed] control over their borders, politics and economy…put the United Kingdom first and they took their country back. The political elites didn’t see this coming. Let’s send another shockwave around the world.”
Commentators have been pointing out the similarities between the politics of Trump’s rise to the Republican nomination and the anti-immigrant politics of the far-right parties that have mounted increasingly strong electoral showings in recent years throughout Europe.
In Britain, that party, the UK Independence Party (UKIP), is the big winner in the Brexit vote. Today, UKIP’s leader, Nigel Farage, argued that June 23 should become a national holiday which would be called Independence Day. Sounding like Trump supporter Sarah Palin talking about the “real Americans,” Farage boasted, “This is a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people.” He also claimed, probably correctly, that anti-immigrant parties across Europe, like the Marine LePen’s National Front in France, will put EU-exit referenda before their national constituencies before long.
UKIP had forced the hand of Conservative Party Prime Minister David Cameron to put Brexit up for referendum in the first place. Here too we find echoes of the Tea Party and Trump in their fraught relations with the establishment Republican Party. Far right Euro-skeptic members of the Conservative Party had long been troubled by the growth of power and bureaucracy in Brussels. Increasingly, these members sounded like UKIP on the EU question.
The pressure they brought to bear on the Conservative establishment resembled the demands of the Tea Partiers among the House Republicans who primaried Eric Cantor, the party’s Number Two, out of office and brought down Speaker John Boehner after years of legislative obstructionism. All this, of course, turned out to be a prelude to Donald Trump’s routing of the Republican establishment this primary season, based on an anti-immigrant appeal even more radical than UKIP’s. In the UK the radicals forced Cameron to call for a referendum that he would finally campaign against.
Cameron might never have called the referendum had it not been for the rise and rise of Nigel Farage and UKIP. By January 2013, when the prime minister called the EU vote, UKIP had started to gain traction in local elections and was polling in double digits for the first time. There was a feeling that several Tory backbenchers could defect if Cameron failed to heed their calls for a plebiscite.
In the United States, the Trump campaign has elicited the most serious discussion of the threat of fascism — even among conservatives — in modern memory. Wherever fascism has come to power, it has benefited from a conservative establishment that believed it could make use of a rising and obstreperous movement on its right to do in its liberal opposition. Conservatives believed they could ride out the vulgarity and extremism of the upstarts and maintain control. This, despite the movement’s explicit opposition to established power wherever it lay on the political spectrum. In Italy, collaborating with Mussolini’s Fascist Party, the country’s most important conservative politician, Antonio Salandra, continued to call himself an “honorary fascist” until shortly before Mussolini made his party illegal.
In Britain and the U.S., conservatives believing they could control the extremists to their right have both come a cropper this year. In the U.S., this comes after decades of far-right Republicans suppressing their resentment at the party’s establishment for never quite coming through in office with promises — like getting rid of Obamacare — they made soliciting votes. Cameron announcing in 2013 he would have a referendum on leaving the EU; Trump riding down his escalator to announce his run for the presidency: in each case both media and political elites saw these moves as fancifully playing to small audiences. Conventional political wisdom failed to grasp the gravity of what was being launched.
Trump’s success among the white male working class has been a dominant theme of the primary campaign in the U.S.. The wave of immiseration in post-Reagan de-industrialized America was described in a widely publicized study published last December that showed that epidemic rates of suicide and substance abuse — alcohol, heroin and prescription opioids — have combined to increase the mortality rate for whites between the ages of 45 and 54, with high school education or less, in a manner paralleled “only [by] HIV/AIDS in contemporary times.”
A more robust welfare state has mitigated the worst health consequences of a similar development in post-Thatcher Britain. But the Brexit working-class, anti-EU voters seem to carry a similar resentment, sensing themselves a class being left behind amidst flourishing tech and financial sectors. And in both countries, immigration has provided a ready-to-hand explanation of the dysfunctions of contemporary working-class life chances and the betrayal of the ruling elites.
In the 1960s and 1970s, writers like Thomas Bottomore, Nicos Poulantzas and A. F. K. Organski analyzed the conditions which made societies ripe for successful fascist movements. Fundamental to these theories was citing a national economic structure that had a great disparity in terms of modernization. Post-World War I Italy and Germany both had systems of agricultural land holdings (latifondisti and Junkers) largely unchanged since feudalism. This was in contrast to highly developed economic sectors like automotive and aeronautics. The coexistence of such mismatched sectors in a country created a “fascistogenic” potential, and much of this thinking gave rise to a functionalist view of fascism that saw it as a mechanism for rapidly developing countries into full modernization.
Structurally, something similar seems to be happening in reverse. That is, instead of a situation in which structural disparity results from some sectors failing to develop while other sectors raced ahead, we now are fostering structural disparities owing to sectors that are falling backwards, out of the modern (or post-modern) world.
Are we coming to another situation where economic-stage disparity puts societies at risk for fascist-like irruptions? This is not a question which can be answered here, but the point is that whatever has led to Brexit and whatever has led to Trump has roots in the social structure of today’s democracies. Which means that these are not issues that are going to go away in a single election year. And the threat of right-wing extremism coming to power is likely to be with us for some time to come.