I awoke at 3am last night, perhaps having sensed a disturbance in the Force, read a late-night text from a friend that said, “BREXIT!!” and spent the next two hours reading, shocked and alarmed, about Britain’s voting public’s decision to leave the European Union. Although according to a piece by David Allen Green in the FT, the decision is not legally binding and nothing will immediately change with regard to Britain’s laws or EU member status, the outcome is nevertheless distressing for the reasons outlined succinctly by an FT commenter.
A quick note on the first three tragedies. Firstly it was the working classes who voted for 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 the bodies of aliens in a HG Well novel. When Michael Gove said ‘the British people are sick of experts’ he was right. But can anybody tell me the last time a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism has lead to anything other than bigotry?
Reading this and casting your mind to Trump and the upcoming US election is not that difficult.
I’ve been thinking a lot about a book I read several years ago by Robert Wright called Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny. In it, Wright argues that cooperation among individuals and ever-larger groups has been essential in pushing biological and cultural evolution forward. From the first chapter of the book:
The survey of organic history is brief, and the survey of human history not so brief. Human history, after all, is notoriously messy. But I don’t think it’s nearly as messy as it’s often made out to be. Indeed, even if you start the survey back when the most complex society on earth was a hunter-gatherer village, and follow it up to the present, you can capture history’s basic trajectory by reference to a core pattern: New technologies arise that permit or encourage new, richer forms of non-zero-sum interaction; then (for intelligible reasons grounded ultimately in human nature) social structures evolve that realize this rich potential — that convert non-zero-sum situations into positive sums. Thus does social complexity grow in scope and depth.
This isn’t to say that non-zero-sum games always have win-win outcomes rather than lose-lose outcomes. Nor is it to say that the powerful and the treacherous never exploit the weak and the naive; parasitic behavior is often possible in non-zero-sum games, and history offers no shortage of examples. Still, on balance, over the long run, non-zero-sum situations produce more positive sums than negative sums, more mutual benefit than parasitism. As a result, people become embedded in larger and richer webs of interdependence.
The atmosphere of xenophobia on display in the US, Britain, and elsewhere in Europe is affecting our ability to work together for a better future together. World War II ended more than 70 years ago, long enough in the past that relatively few are still alive who remember the factors that led to war and the sort of people who pushed for it. Putin, Brexit, Trump, the Front National in France…has the West really forgotten WWII? If so, God help us all.
P.S. I also have a couple of contemporary songs running through my head about all this. The first is What Comes Next? from the Hamilton soundtrack:
What comes next?
You’ve been freed
Do you know how hard it is to lead?
You’re on your own
Do you have a clue what happens now?
And the second is a track from Beyonce’s Lemonade, Don’t Hurt Yourself:
When you hurt me, you hurt yourself
Try not to hurt yourself
When you play me, you play yourself
Don’t play yourself
When you lie to me, you lie to yourself
You only lying to yourself
When you love me, you love yourself
Britain just played itself.
Update: Excellent op-ed in the LA Times by Brian Klaas and Marcel Dirsus.
This is the glaring contradiction in the muscular nationalism of right-wing populism, blended with isolationism, that seeks to withdraw from international unions: It cannot shape a better world by shutting the world out. The same people who cheer when Trump laments the decline of American leadership want to ignore key global issues and put “America First.” The people who voted for Brexit, attempting to create a border between Britain and challenges such as the refugee crisis, seem to think Britain can solve such problems without consulting Germany or France or, worst of all to them, Brussels.
The world doesn’t work that way, and it hasn’t for decades. Ever-increasing globalization has created an unprecedented surge in prosperity, but it has also ushered in jarring changes. The rough edges of those changes can only be overcome with more aggressive cooperation and engagement, not less. Whether it’s the risks of terrorism, the tragic flow of refugees, or economic shocks, Britain cannot solve problems alone and neither can the United States.