Brexit doesn’t mean Brexit

4 Apr 2019 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 4 Apr 2019

What kind of world do we want? Photo by João Silas on Unsplash
What kind of world do we want? Photo by João Silas on Unsplash

The great political divide of our time – ahead of the traditional left vs right, and even existential concerns about the environment – is about globalisation vs nationalism.

Why Brexit?

Why was it even a discussion in the first place? Why did that discussion lead – via a cynical political calculus that backfired – to a referendum? And why did the leave campaign win?

This is not a polemic about socio-political disaster, although (at least the journey to) Brexit is an embarrassing failure. Nor is it a comment about David Cameron, or an observation on the illegality of the campaign to leave the EU.

Behind all those things lies something more fundamental (yes, including the cheating – even if the leave campaign’s machinations shifted the needle significantly, which is conceivable in a 52-48 vote, it seems absurd it could have swung the result in a debate that wasn’t live in the first place).

So, why Brexit?

Globalisation has been the dominant social, political and economic force in the world for decades. Francis Fukuyama’s now infamous book The End of History and the Last Man, which suggested western-style liberal democracy was slowly covering the world, was published in 1992. That was a few years before internet access became widespread, and the coining of the term the Global Village.

But the past couple of decades have not brought increased prosperity to the majority of people in the west. Wage stagnation, underemployment, and public services spread increasingly thin are the experiences of the day.

So last Friday, as part of the Imagine Festival, NICVA hosted an event titled Globalisation: friend or foe?

Story of our times

Geoff Nuttall, NICVA’s Head of Policy and Public Affairs, opened the discussion by saying: “When we were asked to do something for the festival and the available date was March 29, which was supposed to be Brexit day, our first thought was to do something on Brexit but we’ve done about 200 things on that in the past two years, so we decided to cast the net wider.”

He said the question was about what Brexit represents, and posited that was “a growing tension between a global view of the world and a national, or perhaps neo national, view of the world.”

“We live in a world that is becoming more global, whether that’s the global movement of people, goods and services, and capital, but also information and access to information.

“But at the same time there has been a rising interest in national interests. If you look at the last election results across Europe you will see swings towards nationalist parties, seeking to promote national interests or, of course, across in America with Trump’s policies.”

The main speaker was Prof. John Barry, an expert in green political economy from Queen’s University, and also a former Green Party councillor, who described himself as a “recovering politician and reluctant Remoaner.”

He began by saying that to label globalisation – or the EU – as a pure friend or foe would be the flimsiest sort of commentary, and that: “An important point that those who have an uncritical view of anything are not thinking. If you are uncritically saying globalisation is a friend or foe, you are not at the races.”

Theory and practice

Globalisation was supposed to bring freedom and prosperity to the world. That was the theory, anyway.

Increased opportunity for individuals (including as labour) alongside an increase in what is available to these individuals, wherever they are, as well as manifold cost savings from various industrial efficiencies and the smooth movement of everything around the world – some of the wet-eyed paeans to its effects are utopian and, right now, appear faintly ridiculous.

Prof. Barry said that between total globalisation – no borders for anything, be that finance, goods and services, or people – and North Korean-style pure insularity, there are all sorts of options and balances between globalist and nationalist aspects to social and economic policies (on national and international scales).

He said: “Globalisation in a general sense is about flows: flows of people, flows of capital – in particular, in more recent years, flows of finance. There are borders for people moving between nations but not for finance and business. There are flows of information and ideas.”

However, he said that the current structures of the world are all to the benefit of corporatism and capitalism and finance, and that he was “critical about globalist financial capitalisms ability to freely roam across the world, devouring environmental systems, rights in labour and rights standards generally. It’s just a race to the bottom.”

He added: “What I see as negative elements are the unelected, unaccountable global institutions – the World Bank, IMF, OECD – organisations that have arranged the economic system globally to suit, particularly, capital and corporations. We stop people from crossing borders but not capital.

“Globalisation needs to be separated out between the positive flow of information, ideas and culture – for instance, my students are able to go to Europe and beyond, and other students are able to come to Northern Ireland and so on. Those are positive elements.”

Different vision

Laying down his own vision for a type of globalisation that helps rather than squeezes people, he quoted famous economist John Maynard Keynes, who said: “Ideas, knowledge, science, hospitality, travel - these are the things which should of their nature be international. But let goods be homespun whenever it is reasonably and conveniently possible; and, above all, let finance be primarily national.”

He said that we – meaning people in the global north, or the West, or whatever word you choose to use – have benefitted, to some degree, from the three Cs of carbon, capitalism and consumerism, while much of the rest of the planet has found itself exploited.

Now, however, we are experiencing the squeeze that comes from trying to sustain an unsustainable system.

“So, how do we re-nationalise finance? How do we redress capital, so it can’t lower rights, workers’ standards, and environmental standards? I think that if nothing else, Brexit, the rise of Trump, etc. has re-politicised people to look at these issues.

“What we need is selective de-globalisation, and re-localisation of economies. When re-localised, economies start to support locally-owned individuals and family businesses. Most of the economy in NI is based on SMEs.

“Put your money where your house is, because when spent in local shops – butcher, baker, candlestick maker – that money stays in the local economy. It’s not about turning your back on the world. It’s not about making America Great Again, or Northern Ireland Great Again. It’s about acting locally and think globally.”

The beginning of the future

Globalisation vs nationalism is the debate of our times.

Whether or not you agree with Prof. Barry’s vision for the future – or a lot of it, or some of it – his points are a great illustration of how many options we, as a society, have in how we shape our politic structures.

In that sense, Leave vs Remain seems monumentally basic.

The event closed with NICVA’s Geoff Nuttall addressing a recurrent question that popped up during the discussion – what is the role of civic society, and the third sector, in all this?

As Prof. Barry put it: “Davos is where the global elite meet every January and congratulate each other and maybe have a wee song from Bono. So where is the equivalent to Davos in civil society?

“The people organising the exploitation of the planet are very well organised. These people, not just across America or Europe, there’s a national global capitalist class. Where do we see civil society to offer a counter to the power of corporations and the state?”

Mr Nuttall said there used to be a European Social Policy Forum “which was two days of nearly 2,000 people gathering in Brussels but it was a strange event, with people discussing poverty while drinking free beer handed out by uniformed women.”

He went on: “The issue really is one of the biggest challenges and we have discussed this with some of our equivalent organisations. How much can you engineer This and how much has to happen in a free and flexible way?

“Almost what you are advocating needs to come organically and if you are part of an organisation in civil society or an NGO, it’s almost harder to do that.”

He said the question of whether corporatism might kill the activism of the third sector was another debate, but one worth having – and he is surely correct.

The fact is that, despite all the problems in the world, nothing has to be the way it is right now and the options that lie before us are numerous. Charities have a role to play, ranging from the shape and structure of their provision to the nature and extent of their activism, but they can also help facilitate those who have the real choices to make, but may not know how to have their say or how to make this say effective.

Individuals (or citizens) are the people caught in this debate. They are the ones with the choices to make – and, one way or another, upheaval is coming.

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