The Breakdown of Nations

I suppose I have no option but to write about Brexit, adding my own small voice to the torrent of verbiage that’s already been devoted to the current extraordinary events.

There are endless possible questions and implications to be traced. How they’ll play out is anybody’s guess. What does already seem clear is that the Vote Leave campaign was based on a series of lies that have already unravelled, and its soundbite-politician architects have absolutely no clue how to deal with the political, economic and social mess they so carelessly engineered. Maybe some of the present sky-is-falling rhetoric of my fellow remainers will prove in time to be overblown, but as things stand scenarios like the end of Britain’s EU membership, the end of the EU itself, the end of the United Kingdom, the end of peace in Northern Ireland, the end of the UK’s voice in the world, the rise of racism and nativism in Britain and in Europe, the self-destruction of the Labour Party, recession, job losses and major, long-term national impoverishment are all on the cards, if not already happening. That’s a big list of achievements, though not in a good sense, for our electoral representatives to pull off at a single stroke. Many of them were probably inevitable in the longer term anyway, and some of them aren’t necessarily all bad in themselves. “Collapse now to avoid the rush” as some of my pro-Brexit neo-agrarian friends have put it. A considered retreat is one thing, unforced self-destruction quite another. Still, it’s been plain enough for a while that the days of the current global order are numbered and it would be naïve to imagine that the transition to the next one is always going to be smooth. What really matters is what the next order will look like.

It’s tempting to pursue that question along the many convoluted byways of the Brexit issue, but perhaps it’s best if I stick to this blog’s main themes – sustainable farming and the kind of politics that can foster it. In this post, I’m going to focus on the politics. In the next one, I’ll take a closer look at the agricultural implications of Brexit.

I’ve long argued that if we’re to create a sustainable agriculture (and therefore a sustainable culture) a more localised politics is needed, so on the face of it perhaps that ought to put me in the Brexit camp. Certainly, a lot of anti-neoliberal, pro-small farm folk I’ve encountered have pinned their colours to the Brexit mast – but not many of them are actually British. There are some local and some wider dimensions of the EU issue that complicate any simple Brexit = localism equation. It’s worth examining them, because they raise important questions about the politics of a neo-agrarian transition.

To flesh out the local issues, where better to start than my hometown of Frome? In the town elections last year, its denizens chose an independent local party – Independents For Frome – over established national party candidates for every single one of the town council’s seventeen seats. But in the EU referendum, as far as can be inferred from aggregate figures, they voted to remain. A contradiction? I don’t think so. Arguing for a localization of politics doesn’t necessarily mean that politics should only be localized. The trick is to create nested systems in which decisions, arbitration and spheres of influence are appropriately structured at different geopolitical levels – including very broad, global or continent-wide levels. In my vision of a more localised politics, there’s room both for organisations like Independents For Frome and for ones like the EU. Political scientists have been talking for some time of a ‘new medievalism’ in contemporary global politics, by which they mean that the Westphalian system of nation-states is breaking down into a more polymorphous politics of cities, regions, nations, identities, para-statal organisations, supra-statal organisations, trading leagues and so forth, rather like the more politically variegated pre-modern age. By contrast, the Brexit campaign was founded on a conservative, nostalgic, modernist project of reclaiming sovereignty for the nation-state. It’s not a project that I think can succeed, and it’s not one that I support anyway.

I suppose I might have supported it if I felt there was something worth rescuing in the concept of national sovereignty. The EU has its problems, after all – though in the cold light of day the wilder flights of the Vote Leave campaign are beginning to look a bit silly. It wasn’t the EU, it turns out, that was lurking in the park waiting to pounce on unsuspecting women and children, or creeping into your house at night to disorder your CD collection and steal odd socks from your washing machine. And the fact is, Westminster has its problems too. From medieval times, Britain has had very weak traditions of local political autonomy, which is one reason why it once rose to prominence as a global power above other European countries. Like many countries, it has strong traditions of popular radicalism, but more than many countries those traditions have been consistently frustrated by a political elite that has cannily absorbed most of the challenges to its power and kept a more or less continuous grip. The main checks on its power over the last couple of centuries have been the politics of organised industrial labour, the politics of municipal radicalism, the troubled politics of the UK union, and the EU. The first two were eclipsed in the 1980s (the self-destruction of the Labour Party in the wake of Brexit merely being another sad coda to that tale). The EU has now gone, and with it possibly the union. So although the referendum has left some blood on the carpet inside the conservative establishment, it’s also quite possibly delivered it a firmer grip on power than at any time since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Good news if you support the Conservative Party, and its neoliberal, pro-rich policies. Less so if you don’t hold this self-serving political class in high regard, which – bafflingly – seems to be a major point of issue for the Brexiteers. The truth is, Westminster has a crushing, centralising, conservative, undemocratic grip on power – the notion that the referendum is somehow liberatory for a more sovereign and localised politics seems to me very much mistaken.

There are many aspects to that lack of democracy. Some stem straightforwardly from Britain’s political institutions: the monarchy, the House of Lords, first-past-the-post voting, the stifling of municipal independence. Others have broader socio-political causes: inequalities of wealth, landownership and education, the corporate grip on the press and so on. But more important than the notion of democracy-as-voting is democracy as social interaction, the endless frictions, accommodations and slippages between us as individuals and as interest groups in our multiple social roles that constitute a democratic civil society. That’s what needs nourishing if we’re truly to build democracy, and it’s taken a hell of a battering in this referendum campaign.

A lot has been made of the class character of the Brexit debate – the out-of-touch political class, the cappuccino-quaffing, don’t-know-how-the-other-half-lives remain voters (though of course, Boris Johnson et al qualify on both counts there) versus the excluded post-industrial working class who want to take back control of their lives, who want to count for something again. I agree with Frome’s own Guardian man, John Harris, in dismissing what he calls “that lousy old Marxist trope of “false consciousness”, whereby people enthusiastically following the supposedly wrong cause are only a speech or poster away from enlightenment, and a sharp left turn”. But you don’t have to be all that Marxist to question the class mystification involved in the Brexit case for national sovereignty, a point that leaps out at me when I reconsider the work of Leopold Kohr in the light of the referendum.

Kohr’s book The Breakdown of Nations (1957) was one of the early offerings in the green localisation movement that I still consider myself to be a part of. When I read it a few years ago I thought Kohr had some wise things to say. I still do, but looking at this article about Kohr’s book in the context of the UK referendum (thanks to Ruben Anderson for drawing it to my attention) makes me think that we in the localisation movement need to raise our game. “Kohr,” the writer claims, “understood that God made atoms small, that small business invigorated the economy, that only a small number of people created real social change and that virtue came in a small box. He appreciated that we lived in a microcosmos, not a macrocosmos.”

To my mind, that’s a list of non-sequiturs. The size of atoms has nothing whatever to do with the size of polities. We live simultaneously in a microcosmos and a macrocosmos. And so on. Kohr argued that smaller European states have an organic primacy over larger conglomerate polities – Scotland as against the UK, for example. But here he succumbs to the seductive power of nationalist mythology. The myth of ‘Scotland’ has no more intrinsic coherence than the myth of the UK, or the myth of the EU. Consider the divisions between highland, lowland and island; Protestant and Catholic; the class connivance of the lairds with English interests against their tenants after 1746; lord versus subject; Rangers versus Celtic; English versus Gaelic; 45% for independence versus 55% against; 62% for EU membership versus 38% for exit. There is no single, coherent story to tell of authentic ‘smallness’ here that righteously divides the UK from the EU, and Scotland from the UK.

There is a coherent story to tell (though it’s only one of many) of authentically small farms, businesses and communities as parts of larger human and non-human conglomerations. It’s a story I’ve tried to tell on this blog and will continue to do so. It’s a story that can be told within and against the EU, within and against the UK, within and against Westminster. But I think I’d prefer to tell it within the EU, within the UK, and against Westminster. And if the EU has become an unreformable cabal of power-hungry neoliberals, then so has Westminster, with bells on, for at least the last forty years.

Still, what’s done is done. I think the worst (if probably the likeliest) thing now would be a messy compromise, which will leave the Brexit voters feeling cheated of their victory. So – perhaps to contradict my recent post on the perils of right-wing populism – I think what I’d most like to see from here is a clean, hard break from the EU under a Johnson premiership. No access to the single market. The promised brakes on immigration, so long as they’re done with humanity (and, of course, the return of all Britain’s own EU emigrants). It’s not that I vindictively want to see my country and its Brexiteers suffer the full consequences of their actions, but I think without it the lessons won’t be learned. Immigration was never fundamentally the problem. Bureaucratic EU rules were never fundamentally the problem. A declining post-industrial power drifting aimlessly in the sea of neoliberalism was the problem. Alternative economists talk about the ‘addictive’ nature of the mainstream economy, and as many an addict will recount you have to hit rock bottom before you can begin the path to recovery. Perhaps ironically a Johnson premiership in a fracturing, isolated UK under massive trading disadvantages could be the best hope that the long and divisive grip on power by a conservative establishment might finally crumble under the weight of its own contradictions, just at the moment of its apparent triumph.

It’s a high risk strategy, but from where we now stand all strategies seem to me high risk. The risk involved in the one I’m advocating has been identified by Polly Toynbee: “When leavers find there’s no money and no exodus, that it was all lies, where does their wrath turn next?” Already we’re seeing a rise in racist incidents, leaflets circulating with the legend ‘No more Polish vermin’ and so on. When reality dawns on the Brexiteers, we progressive populists have a huge job on our hands to try to shape the succeeding political narrative for the best, and it’s suddenly become a lot more urgent.

So as well as a Johnson premiership, I’d also like to see a resurgent left populism articulating the alternatives. Let other power blocs feast on our vacated place at the world table while we pursue our self-enforced agenda of economic localism, out of which some good could certainly come. I’m not entirely convinced a resurgent left populism will happen – especially in the light of the Labour Party’s abjectly unresurgent behaviour at present – but as long-term readers of this blog will know, I’m ever the optimist. And, luckily for Britain, Small Farm Future is here to guide the country through the morass in its hour of need. Indeed, I’ve just heard that our board of directors has approved in principle the hiring of an extra staff writer to improve our coverage of these weighty issues. All it needs now is the funds to make the appointment. The donate button is, as ever, top right. So a message to any pro-Brexit non-British neo-agrarians reading this: please dig deep. My country needs you. It needs your support. Above all, it needs your foreign exchange.

51 thoughts on “The Breakdown of Nations

  1. Great post Chris – Out of the ashes and all that. Best of luck with things man, united we stand etc etc…

  2. Perhaps I should rescind my offer to hunt for you a similar Small Farm setting upon this side of the pond. It now appears, to me at least, you should stay put and help that little island nation in the NE Atlantic rise from the ashes like the phoenix of Greek legend.

    The news on our side will obviously take a different view of affairs. An interesting observation here was that the new EU will no longer have English. I turned that over in my head and am still contemplating where all the fallout for that will land. Multilingualism on our shore is reserved to quite small quarters – recent immigrants from non-English speaking lands, and the odd academic who still considers the hegemony of the English language something worth railing against. Spanish has certainly gained a foothold here in the last generation, but it still hasn’t seeped into much of the daily consciousness the way other languages exist within the minds of Brits for example. Another potentially ugly outcome (from my perspective) of Brexit would be that in another generation the ability of ordinary Brits to maintain their casual acquaintance (familiarity?) with the neighboring European languages (or a concomitant loss of familiarity with English on the continent). Things tend to disintegrate when we no longer talk to each other.

  3. Well, sadly my grasp of foreign languages is limited to the Polish for ‘Thank You’ and ‘Oh Dear this railway locomotive is not working’ although I suspect that the latter is not to be used in polite company.

    As the Chinese Curse goes though, may you live in interesting times.

    I visited what was then the USSR in 1987 & again in 1990 just before the announcement that parties other than The Communist Party would be permitted. Times seem rather like that with a feeling of drift amongst the chaos. For a nation state that has lasted so long and been so successful we have now finally lost the way.

    The challenge of course is what replaces it? I suspect that it may not be pretty though, there is already talk of business being lost and the UK’s standing in Europe being severely and possibly irreparably damaged

  4. I am glad you are making yourself available to lead the nation out of this morass, and I would like to apply for the emerging position of Small Farms Staff Writer. Sadly, I have no money to donate to myself to fund that position….

    Thanks for the hat tip on Kohr, though I feel a little misrepresented elsewhere… 😉

    I think I was the one who said “Collapse early and avoid the rush” but I am certainly not pro-Brexit. It seems like a devilishly hard decision, one I am glad I didn’t have to make, and one I don’t know what I would have chosen.

    But, I do think Brexit was inevitable, now or soon.

    I have a friend who is half Sri-Lankan, half British—and his British half of the family are joining in the racist bray.

    So, it is not that I want this. I don’t want my friend to be hurt. But, I think the choice was never about racism or no racism, never about EU or not.

    The choice was only and always near-inevitable. Dissolution, racism, oppression. I think it is inevitable that things are going to get a lot worse before they get better.

    I really like your point about Independents for Frome working at the appropriate scale with the EU.

    But I don’t think it will happen. The EU technocrats will maintain their fuckery to the very last minute, and by the time that will is broken, the desire in anyone to work with an organization like that will be gone.

    The caldron is really bubbling now. Toil and trouble.

    Localism does not solve our problems, but we need it to survive. If we survive, we may be able to solve our problem at the appropriate scale in the future.

  5. I read your comment on and find it so compelling. Without knowing about the small farm movement in Great Britain, I had come to the conclusion that Britain must suffer the shock of Brexit, so the understandably enraged middle and north of the country could at last understand that after Thatcher destroyed the unions and hollowed out the north, and the recent Tory government visited further destruction with austerity, that the Tories have no interest in making a more fair society for them. Sadly, the Labour opposition is in total disarray. I hope that a political movement can be created to change things for the better. I do think that the EU, a noble experiment, will probably eventually fail, sadly, pulled down by its own contradictions. And Putin is grinning on the sidelines! Thank you for your thoughts, and I look forward to reading more of your posts. And, best wishes!

  6. Thanks for those various comments and good wishes. We certainly need them. Ruben, I wasn’t digging at you specifically in relation to the ‘collapse early’ slogan – it or something like it has been mentioned by a few people on here, and I think there’s wisdom in it. The trouble is, nobody seems to know how to collapse stylishly rather than chaotically, as current events here are demonstrating. Perhaps a refinement might be ‘collapse early, but not so early that you can’t learn from a predecessor’s mistakes’. As to EU fuckery – well, I agree that there’s a lot of it, but my point above is that there’s just as much, if not more, within UK politics. I don’t subscribe to the notion that Westminster is any more tractable a beast than Brussels.

    • Ah, but why stop at Westminster when it sounds like Frome has its act together? Free Frome!

      Seriously though, the inevitability of dissolution does not need to stop at current nation-states, as Yugoslavia showed and many have posited for the USA.

      I think we have a long ways down before we will start putting pieces back together in a way that makes a new kind of sense.

      And again, I don’t advocate for this—I don’t have to advocate for this, just as I don’t have to advocate for the sun to rise. And I am not looking forward to this.

      But given that it is coming, how best prepare? Local agriculture makes every problem better.

  7. They are saying that the EU will not have English?!? That’s rich. Well there you have it — they are mad hatters, the lot of them. Whom the Gods will destroy, they first make mad. Who said it? Some Englishman, no doubt?

    “The EU technocrats will maintain their fuckery to the very last minute, and by the time that will is broken, the desire in anyone to work with an organization like that will be gone. ”

    That’s about as cogent a view as I’ve seen. Forget about them. Look, things are a bit chaotic, but not even in the neighborhood as chaotic as when the Soviets fell apart… and look, how far they’ve come. Go your own way again! Ya lucky buggers. It won’t happen here in the States until we break into the 5 zones Greer (?) predicted.

    • Actually the “Whom the Gods will destroy…” can be traced back to Sophocles (in Antigone) – and even he has likely borrowed the notion from an earlier Greek. So at least from this consideration, those remaining within the EU aren’t suddenly without any culture once the UK exits.

      I actually think it will be interesting to see whether the EU will completely abandon English. Will all their websites, official communications, correspondences, etc. be completely washed of English? If so, there might rise up a cottage industry for even more translators than now exist. Peasant farmer, meet peasant translator.

  8. Jolly good. I’ve just added a comment on my own blog to recommend this.

    (I kind of fancy I have something worth saying on enviro issues and then I go and read people like you who say what I thought but with proper background, greater articulacy and extra bits that I hadn’t thought of. Totally with you on your points about levels of localisation – a subtle point that I haven’t seen expressed before).

  9. You might say the two sides to Brexit are the ones mentioned by James Rebanks in his book:
    The middle-class case of knowing you “want out”, putting your head down and doing everything to achieve that goal, and after Brexit the case of someone who finds out that “out” for him is basically nowhere, and that the people who can clue him in from now on are those who’ve never wanted out, because for them ‘place’ isn’t a variable, only things like ‘state of’, ‘quality of work at’.
    Improving your place in space (Snyder’s book is lying around here somewhere) and time is what’s left.

    Leaves a pretty large number of people to play the current first round of musical chairs.

  10. Thanks again for the further comments. Yes, agreed that an interesting implication is not to stop at the nation-state – which leads nicely into my neo-peasant stuff.

    Very interesting points Michael, if I understand you right – though I’m with Vera’s request for a less oblique phrasing.

    And thanks Martin – that’s the nicest thing anyone’s said to me all day…

    • Vera, Chris, I can at least try 🙂

      To be able to afford to live without a place costs energy.

      Right now people without a place are either going on holiday or try to make enough money to be able to buy ‘place’ for themselves.

      Then there are those who are born in a place that will once be theirs to take care of until their heirs can do likewise. Not always romantic but, if working like it’s always done, pretty energy efficient.

      What then happens when a political caesura like Brexit coincides with a terminal energy descent, on a densely populated island with a history of forced removal of those whose families called a place their home, plus a culture that has managed to distort what a place used to be as either somewhere devoid of people/”wilderness” or devoid of commoners/for nobility’s use only?

      Musical chairs simply meaning that it’ll probably play out like that very game, with things snapping into ‘place’ again for some lucky people during the early rounds and becoming increasingly frenetic later on.
      It’s just that those left standing won’t be able to just admit defeat.
      They will have nothing, and therefore defeat won’t be an option.

      • Yes, I pretty much figured that’s what you meant and I think there’s a lot of truth in it. So to avoid bruised tailbones or worse it would be a good idea to re-emplace and/or peasantize ourselves collectively. But that isn’t even remotely on any mainstream agenda…

        • ” But that isn’t even remotely on any mainstream agenda…”

          This is the part of our world that I find so interesting, and the part that I think makes conversation so difficult.

          Facing our problems, we tend to vision the world we would like to have instead—but then we don’t consider the chances of success. Something that is nowhere to be seen on the mainstream agenda has a much lower chance of success.

          So I think we need to spend quite a bit of time thinking not about the world we want, but about the world we are going to get. That is the part we should be planning for—the future, not the dreams.

          This is difficult even with serious “environmentalists”. They may see the world as being one of Passive Houses, solar cars and biodegradable coffee cups. But that is not the world we are going to get, and so I focus on very different things than they do, and am often in conflict with them.

          • It’s an interesting question. I don’t entirely agree with you inasmuch as I think the future IS about the stories and dreams we have for it. Many aspects of the neoliberalism and conservatism that have risen to prominence in recent decades were a distant dream earlier in the 20th century, but were doggedly pursued by true believers who succeeded in realising them essentially because they didn’t care how realistic their dreams seemed to others. I suppose that’s the path I’ve chosen for myself (not the neoliberalism…I mean the storytelling). But I agree that wishful thinking alone isn’t enough. And that every story has its contradictions and reality checks. My problem with the solar car types isn’t that it’s a dream, but that it’s a dream I don’t share and in my view has deeper contradictions embedded in it than the dreams I prefer.

          • I’m heavily involved in the engineering/science/finance side of sustainability. I don’t know anyone with expertise in these areas who’s seriously suggesting solar cars as a solution. Electric vehicles are attracting a lot of interest as the affordable battery driving range increases and the general cost comes down. But that is definitely not a solar car in the sense of a vehicle using autarkic onboard energy generation from a skin of solar panels. And again I’m not aware of anyone suggesting the world’s sustainability issues can be solved solely by biodegradable coffee cups. Although, as with so much in sustainability, enough small initiatives aggregated do make a difference.

            As for PassivHaus, IMO anyone who is seriously interested in sustainability should be aiming to achieve PassivHaus levels of energy consumption in new homes, offices, schools, government buildings etc and extensions/retrofits to same. The whole of system price differential between conventional and PH building in Germany and Austria has almost disappeared as expertise with the PH methods has increased. PH buildings are much more resilient with respect to energy supply interruptions than conventional structures, their reduced energy consumption makes them easier to supply from high penetration and 100% renewable energy systems, PH can be achieved using wood structures with cellulose and sheep wool insulation ie grow a better building and massively reduce the embodied energy compared to metal, brick or concrete buildings and there’s some initial evidence to indicate that the attention paid to air quality in these very tight buildings reduces asthma severity.

          • Thanks for that David – nice to see someone on here putting a word in for technological solutions…

        • Devolution until now seems to have meant ’empower lower ranking mandarin to be just as helpful as the central government in the face of free trade regulations and all the happiness of ever shrinking revenue’.

          ‘Re-peasantize’ of course also means things like ‘re-craftisize’, ‘re-guildisize’.
          In addition, J.M. Greer asks people trying to relocate their families to try to find those transportation hubs and sleepy harbour towns of a seemingly bygone era that are most likely to spring into life again once the country’s current main arteries become clogged.

  11. Michael, thank you. You know, I think it’s pretty obvious that the PTB have some sort of a big die off in their plans… so that nobody’s left standing after all the chairs are occupied. Especially now that they don’t need to them to work for them. They still need them to buy their crap, though…. the sort of crap robots don’t need.

    Blah blah. I really want to hear more about re-peasantization. A lot more. The gloom and doom’s been done to death, I apologize for adding to it.

  12. Regarding the racism/xenophobia trope that’s been trumpeted from the roof tops since the vote…I thought that Greer put this into a very interesting context when he said:

    “There are, in fact, a significant number of poor and working-class Britons who hold deeply prejudiced attitudes toward foreign immigrants. Why? A large part of the reason is the fact that the affluent, for decades now, have equated racial tolerance with exactly those policies of unrestricted immigration that have plunged millions of the British working class into destitution and misery.”

    Interestingly, this markedly reflects one of the points Howard Zinn made in his ‘People’s History’ about engineered racism in colonial times.

    Chris, I’ve noticed that you haven’t made the aforementioned trope a central principle of your substantively articulated opposition to Brexit (you referenced it as an “often borderline racist obsession with immigration” in one of your reasons to remain), so I wonder what you’d made of Greer’s latest, and if that analysis of Brexit in any way influences your position as you’ve stated it above.

    Either way, I think your call for a resurgent left populism is worthy of celebration and support, so I’m hitting up your donate button in the hopes of contributing a few US dollars to the efforts to staff SFF up to meet this new challenge! Best of luck! 🙂

    • Oz, thanks for hitting up the donate button – you get pride of place on the SFF Christmas card list…

      As to JMG on immigration, I think he gets this a bit wrong on several fronts. I think he’s right that this is largely a vote against remote politicians and the consequences of neoliberalism and austerity, but as somebody says on a comment below his post he allows his contempt for the left, well-grounded though it is in some respects, to get the better of a more nuanced analysis.

      Where he goes astray:

      1. it isn’t ‘unrestricted immigration’ that has directly and independently plunged millions into misery, but a whole set of neoliberal and inegalitarian policies of which current immigration patterns are only one element.

      2. JMG’s supply/demand notion of labour economics (more immigrants = less work/pay for the existing working class) only works if you assume everything else remains constant, which it doesn’t. The British economy gains huge net benefits not so much from the migrants themselves, as in the familiar argument he tries to take down, but from the global economic settlement of which migration forms a part. True, a lot of working class Brexit voters don’t see too many of these benefits, but my guess is that more crumbs come their way than would be the case with a more autarkic economy at similar levels of inequality. I guess we’re about to find out.

      3. There are complex things going on in different employment sectors regarding levels of migrant employment, employment rights for the formally employed, casualization etc. which defy any simple equation of anti-immigration with economic prospects. Leave voters were over-represented in areas where there is little immigration. Young people voted overwhelmingly to stay despite suffering more from casualization and unemployment etc.

      4. I don’t know Zinn’s work, but my feeling about the levels of racism/nationalism in the Leave campaign is that it cynically tapped reserves of racist and/or nationalist sentiment which have complex and historically deep roots, concealing the failures and inequities at the heart of current government policies and replacing it with a mythical narrative of nationalist resurgence.

      5. And even if I’m wrong about all of the above, what has Brexit achieved for JMG’s immiserated working class? A strengthened Conservative government with an even greater commitment to neoliberalism and a freer hand to roll back labour rights. Things may change, especially if a left populism can make its voice heard, but at the moment it looks to me like people who voted Brexit because they felt they weren’t getting their share of the economic pie have scored a big own goal.

  13. Advocatus diaboli here:

    1. …and of course most Brexit voters helplessly fell for the immigration angle first and foremost?
    I don’t think they did, but saw it as the symptom that it is.
    I don’t think you can conflate either of two incompetently lead campaigns and their slogans with people’s own motives. Because if you could, noone would have been surprised by the poll results.

    2. Could you be tempted vote for someone promising your daily crumbs in a broken system, rather than taking your chance at setting in motion something different – telling all future party leaders that this is what you don’t want, and that competition for what ‘different’ might be starts now?

    3. So old people in remote places (without much immigration) seem to be able to remember things that young people who’ve grown up with Tony Blair as their prime minister somehow don’t.
    I bet Hillary Clinton leads in the young voter polls, too…

    4. And yet the obscenities flung about by the Bremainers remain, degrading their political opponents, albeit of course a lot less plain and clumsy than those poor Brexit sods (you’ve been calling Boris Johnson “funny” names, too :))
    You may remember Greer saying that with every new insult by the chattering classes in the US Trump grows stronger.

    5. Isn’t that a charge to be directed at the Left, and it only? The disenfranchised can only vote for someone who’s made the effort to present himself, and they’ve been disappointed innumerable times.
    Going from Labour to Liberal to Green to UKIP, it’s not as though they’re favouring the human-flesh-eating right-wing lunatics when they’ve got the choice.

    You can even see the next step in this:
    The Tories seeing the chance to use Brexit as a shield for even more deregulation (which these days isn’t an exclusively right-wing agenda at all, as you know), and being crushed a few years later by…either a swing to the left or far right.

    • Well the devil is always welcome here at Small Farm Future, but I have an angel in my corner and this is what she says:

      1. I didn’t say that all Brexit voters fell for the immigration angle – I just suggested that JMG is wrong to claim that if there’s racial prejudice among working class Brits it’s mostly because unrestricted immigration has led them into destitution.

      2. Yes, I’m sure that a lot of Brexit voters took that view. But again I’m merely contesting JMG’s assertion that Britain’s place in the global economy has been unambiguously bad for its working class people.

      3. Well, here’s the overdetermined nature of the referendum vote – as you’ve pointed out yourself, you can’t really second guess the exact motives of every demographic segment that votes one way or the other. Which calls into question JMG’s view that it’s about the suffering caused to the working class by immigration.

      4. There are obscenities being flung about on both sides, but I think this Bremainer arrogance trope is being overplayed, even if it does have an element of truth to it. Yes I called Johnson ‘Bodge’ a couple of times and I suppose maybe it’s best not to do things like that, but it’s hardly an obscenity – more a gentle bit of piss-take towards a pretty cynical politician. I guess ultimately I find Greer’s animus towards the ‘chattering classes’ unilluminating. He’s got a point, but it’s only one small aspect of what’s going on and I’m not sure how important it really is. With Trump and with Brexit, I think we’d probably be pretty much where we now are however deftly the mainstream left and right had handled themselves.

      5. Yes, you can level that charge at the left with some justification, even though I think the odds are a little stacked against it. I guess I’m just saying that I think those who see the Brexit result as some kind of victory against the neoliberal status quo are kidding themselves, at least at the moment. I agree that down the line this may pave the way for a left resurgence or a further rightwards lurch, which was kind of the conclusion of my piece above. So as I’ve said all along Brexit certainly presents opportunities. But it’s a very high stakes game.

      • I think the problem with five point plans is they treat this like it was rational, when we are almost never rational.

        This was emotional, and that is what I think Greer understands. Racism, poverty and powerlessness are just some of the threads woven into the emotion—aspects we can describe but that we should not overly focus on.

        So regardless of whether The EU improved their life, there was a huge chunk of people that would happily choose a poorer life—just as, by many people’s standards, you and I and probably most of the readers of this blog have done.

        Again, I think the old phrase “It is better to die on your feet than live on your knees” is more the flavour of the situation.

        This is less about cool calculations of benefit and more about breaking your boss’ nose, even though you will surely lose your job.

        • Come now, Ruben – it wasn’t a 5 point plan, it was a 5 paragraph critique of Greer, helpfully numbered for ease of reference.

          But I think you’re right to emphasise the emotional aspect. It’s just that if you decide to break your boss’s nose, it’s wise to be aware of the fact that you WILL lose your job with 100% certainty. On the BBC’s Question Time last night various Brexit politicos were saying things like ‘Europe needs us more than we need them so we can cap immigration but still be part of the single market.’ There’s a lot of having cake and eating it at the moment. Well, we’ll see how it pans out.

          Not convinced by the ‘better to die on your feet than live on your knees’ part though. The idea that the EU has been some kind of occupying colonial power bleeding the UK has been a big part of the Brexiteers ideology, but it has little grounding in reality.

          • Our emotions are seldom grounded in reality—or at least are only very lightly grounded there.

            I think the chances are high this will reduce the British standard of living and severely harm the economy. Fortunately, both those things are great for the ecosphere.

          • I’ll agree with Ruben that a likely outcome from the Brexit will be a lower
            ‘general’ standard of living for Brits.

            Where my quibble inserts is the more specific “for whom”. A London financier may well experience more ‘lowering’ in living standard than a vege grower from Frome.

  14. Much of interest here, both in the main post and the comments, especially about the place of immigration in the Brexit crisis.

    “But more important than the notion of democracy-as-voting is democracy as social interaction, the endless frictions, accommodations and slippages between us as individuals and as interest groups in our multiple social roles that constitute a democratic civil society. That’s what needs nourishing if we’re truly to build democracy…”

    I couldn’t agree more, and I think it would be really useful to consider sovereignty in this light, to wrest it away from the nationalist angle emphasised by the referendum ‘debate’. Sovereignty is a pretty mercurial concept, and I think a broader definition would be helpful, something along the lines of ‘the rights and obligations bestowed by membership of a democratically administered group’. This would aid in promoting the nested sovereignties you describe with local, national and European levels of territorial government, but perhaps more importantly might apply equally well to various different kinds of local grouping, like local constituency parties or workers’ and consumers’ cooperatives. Perhaps enmeshed sovereignties is a better formulation, with each person belonging to several different groups.

    With sovereignty goes citizenship, which might also be broadened in this way, so that it becomes a set of practices actively played out at local and regional levels within these groups; we surely need to move away from citizenship (outside the legal definition) as some kind of vague feel-good thing wrapped up with vague ‘British values’ that are basically abstract if admirable values found across the world in one form or another. Such values might emerge from a civil society of densely entangled sovereignties, but only because they were encouraged in the practices of daily life, of being a citizen in various different local groups, not because they were taught abstractly in schools.

    I find the Brexit crisis really helps prompt utopian dreaming – I’ve no idea what to do about it though!

  15. Interesting nobody mentions how much of a role was played by people being repulsed by Turkey joining the already problematic union.

    Turkey must be in a heap of trouble suddenly making apologies toward Russia.

    • Didja hear? Austria is redoing the elections. I just heard an interview with one of the leading politicians saying that if EU decides to accept Turkey, or decides to further centralize and bureaucratize, Austria will hold an exit referendum. Outstria? 🙂

  16. Thanks for the further comments:

    Ruben – you’re right, we’ve voted for the ecosphere & we’ll be taking one for the team on this. Though unless we build in a bit more egalitarianism I fear it won’t work in the long run.

    Andrew – interesting thoughts. Yes, it does raise a lot of big issues around sovereignty. A problem is that we have very monadic conceptions of sovereignty in the west, as argued in this superb tome that I’ve been promoting of late:

    But this is certainly something we need to be thinking about to heal the wounds.

    Vera – well the leave campaign circulated a lot of leaflets about the imminent influx of thousands of Turks, but it’s not really on the cards…

    Michael – thanks. My dodgy internet connection is keeping Zizek’s words from me, but I’ll be interested to see what he says.

    And also an interesting view on the migration issue from Guardian food writer Felicity Lawrence:

      • I’d certainly recommend it – especially if you like needlessly long-winded analysis and over-complicated jargon

        • Are author signed first editions available through the SFF bookstore? I’m supposing the first edition is in English. Will translations be forthcoming now that your French and German fans might eschew something not in a language suitable to EU commerce?? I smell an opportunity here 🙂

  17. Lawrence:
    “Open societies, whose citizens wish to study and holiday abroad, whose markets depend on capital and goods flowing across borders, cannot also live with the draconian policing required to close them to foreigners. Only totalitarian regimes have achieved that sort of control.”

    I’m afraid that’s just the kind of newspeak people have voted against (nothwithstanding her numerous valid points).

    It amounts to supporting the present-day belief system that a limitless supply of cheap energy will ensure that poor people will be streaming into rich Britain forever (or until the last acre of land has been sold for development), and that limits to growth can’t be enforced by a government because…well…?

    And yes, curtailment of union rights – unions who’ll have their own positions regarding “free movement of workers” (Lawrence) – is just the thing current “open markets” seem to demand.

    Having control over your borders does not equal draconian totalitarianism, and the false dicotomy equating restriction of anything with pure evil is what the devil has dictated his advocats (this one wasn’t involved) when he dreamed up TTIP.

    He likes everyone to be open, because he’s a technocrat at heart.
    The new post-Brexit Zizek would like him.
    Not sure Matt Taibbi would:

    She even ends with that classic nonsense about an “ageing population” which of course would starve to death without all those lovely foreign nurses and bankers.
    None of it holds any water, yet the Green Revolution slogans really seem to stick: More is always better; there is no going back; less equals death.

    • Well yes there’s some tepid waffle and dodgy liberalism in Lawrence’s piece, but the interesting bit is the stuff about how undocumented labour migration works on the ground based on her research on East Anglian farms.

      The problem with Taibbi is that he equates ‘democracy’ with a yes/no plebiscite and has no conception of how ideologies work or even of their existence. However, I agree that there’s little point in the 48% moaning and hoping to reverse the result. In a parallel universe, I’d love to see a rerun of this ‘sore losers’ trope with a 52/48 vote the other way. Farage himself suggested prior to the vote that such a result would justify a second referendum.

      On the issue of controlling borders and authoritarianism, I’m with Lawrence. The government now have a clear run at passing lots of laws about who and how many can enter the UK. If they want those laws to bear any relation to reality they’ll need to spend an awful lot more money on police and immigration officers, detention centres etc.

      And by the way, congratulations – your comment was the 2000th on Small Farm Future. May the debate continue!

  18. I’m feeling honoured – won at raffles for once it seems!

    The most unusual thing about the Zizek interview is that he’s been spending years supporting Alain Badiou in fleshing out the concept of ‘event’ – and now that an event occurred, in the face of it he does what all the people he used to make fun of in his books and speeches were guilty of doing: He’s pretending otherwise.

    Carl Schmitt staring you in the face certainly isn’t generating a warm fuzzy feeling.
    Ah, decisionism. How could it comes to this?

    Democracy is a question of yes/no.

    It was dish long served – expertly cooled off – to the gluttinous public when both yes and no, according to an unspoken agreement between the political management and the avidly consuming public, had no bearing on anything.

    It was the era which educated the young folks who are now running around Britain, demonstrating with their NOONE TOLD ME banners.

    The dish has been reheated.
    Hot china is being dropped. Probably because the gloves have come off.

    • Would a Carl Schmitt face-stare be ever likely to generate a warm fuzzy feeling?

      Schmitt, Zizek, Badiou – not writers I’m too familiar with. But if I understand your points, then yes this has certainly been an ‘event’. But not one that I think anyone is yet in a position to understand clearly in class or any other terms.

      My interim conclusions are that Brexiters aren’t necessarily stupid, Bremainers aren’t necessarily arrogant, the EU is no more or less a vehicle for undemocratic, technocratic neoliberalism than its constituent governments, and now is a good time to be thinking about liberalism and its historical career.

      At some point, I’d like to come back to your idea of democracy as a binary, but I think a reflective pause on these topics may be in order for me…

      Thanks for engaging.

      • Yes, that binary is a good topic to pause on 🙂

        Maybe I’ll push ‘The Capitalist Unconscious’ to the front of the book queue, now that the ‘small other’ once again seems poised to take over from the Big Other that’s been the target of one Emperor’s New Clothes joke too many…

  19. (Sorry Chris, only a little elaboration; please continue pausing.)

    The Big Other, (not only) in political terms, works as a useful and productive collective fiction.

    Crush it – like those pure souls advocating the pure ideals of progress, secularization, communication, boundless (fossil/green) energy and boundless boundaries, advocating that ideal state where the emperor (and with him every mere representative) is naked (i.e. deserving of a “funny” name) and every real decision falls to the enlightened bureaucrats able to make the correct ones – and you get what everyone gets once cracks appear in that bureaucrats’ dream: The Real thing (with a big R).

    If the political arena ends up consisting only of post-politicians calling each other (“funny”) names, being dismissive of each other and therefore of the political sphere altogether, individuals claiming to represent a more Real form of politics get their chance.

    And if a national elite of faceless bureaucrats has been successfully undermining any form of decision-not-by-comittee (staffed by them) for longer than anyone can remember, chances are the first successful representative of the Real politics will get his chance to be elected straight to the top. Enter someone like Donald Trump.

    One might wish that the political discourse could somehow be reestablished from the ground up but right now, at this very moment in time, it’s clear than too much has been deliberately neglected for change not to come crushing down from the top first.

    • Well I’d (reluctantly) have to agree with most of that – especially the last point about change coming crushing down from the top first. That, I think, is the reality – but, a propos the debate with Ruben, accepting the reality isn’t the same as liking it. In fact, I think it’s the opposite. And though I suspect you’re right that the Brexit vote is the ‘real thing’, I’m not sure anybody yet knows what sort of thing or what sort of reality it is. All reasons why I find Greer’s line unpersuasive.

  20. Oh, the scenario above isn’t one of Greer’s alone – you can employ the methods of both Spengler and Zizek’s teacher, Lacan, and come up with something strikingly similar.
    And highly un-likeable 🙂

  21. I’m still not certain whether Democracy as a human endeavor has suffered any (yet, or ever will) from this referendum’s result. Though I get the impression there will be one less election for Brits going forward… you won’t be voting for representation in the EU any longer.

    Makes one wonder whether there is anyone within the current audience who might speak to the issue of Natural Hierarchies. You know, someone with a bit of street cred on the issue. Does it matter in the end if you are forced to live your life with fewer choices? With fewer levels of hierarchy to manage?

    Perhaps the winning philosophy will melt down to something like the ever winning notions of Forest Gump. “Life if like a box of chocolates”; or his other awesome observation:
    “Lieutenant Dan got me invested in some kind of fruit company [Apple computer]. So then I got a call from him, saying we don’t have to worry about money no more. And I said, that’s good! One less thing.”

  22. Thanks Clem et al for the further comments. Still ruminating on a multiplicity of Brexit issues…but in the mean time another post on the agricultural implications has been served up…

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