Brexit and globalisation

Two momentous events that took place last year were the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States, and the UK’s referendum on EU membership that led to the “Brexit” decision to leave the union. The two are often lumped together and seen as symptoms of a single larger force, which they probably are. But in one respect they are different. The Trump presidency has an expiry date, but it is hard to see how Brexit might be reversed in the foreseeable (or even distant) future.

As a student and then an engineer in London during 2003-2007, one of the first vivid, intense impressions I got was that the UK was a much better integrated society than Sweden. Manifestly, people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds were – it seemed to the 19-year old me – living and working together smoothly on many social levels. During my life in Sweden until then, I had not ever seen immigration working out in this way. It was mostly seen and talked about as a problem that had to be addressed (and on a much smaller scale than what we have now).

This may of course reflect the fact that London has long been, until now, one of the most global cities in the world (Tokyo has nothing on it in this respect, although it has a massive energy and dynamic of a different kind), and the place I came from was rather rural. Countryside Britain was never as well integrated as London. World cities tend to be sharply different from the surroundings that support them. But on balance, the UK came across to me as a successfully global society.

In the years since, Sweden has, it seems to me, successfully integrated a lot of people and there are plenty of success stories. It has become a far more global society than it was in, say, 2003. At the same time, xenophobia has been on the rise, just as it has in the rest of Europe and the US, and now Swedish politics must, lamentably, reckon with a very powerful xenophobic party. Reactive (in the Nietzschean sense) forces are having a heyday. Ressentiment festers.

The global society is probably here to stay. The ways of life and work, the economic entities that now bestride the earth, are all firmly globalised. This is an ongoing process that may not end for some time. (However, this probably will never erase the importance of specific places and communities. To be rooted in something is in fact becoming ever more important.) But globalisation, to use that word, has plainly not brought prosperity to everyone. In fact, many have been torn out of prosperity by economic competition and technological advances. Witness American coal miners voting Trump. In my view, though not everyone will agree, a well-protected middle class is necessary to achieve a stable democratic society. Witness what happens when that protection is too far eroded. Neglecting this – which has been a failure of politics on a broad scale – is playing with fire. General frustration becomes directed at minorities.

Being somewhat confused ourselves, and living with weak or failing, if not xenophobic or corrupt, politicians and governments, we – western/globalised society – may need something that is utterly lacking: new ideology, new thinking, new dreams. Not a wishful return to the 90’s, 70’s or some other imagined lost paradise, but something that we can strive for positively, and in the process perhaps reconfigure our societies, politics and economies. For this to happen, people may need to think more, debate more, read more books, and be more sincere. Sarcasm and general resignation lead nowhere. One needs to look sincerely at one’s own history, inward into the soul, as well as outward.

A successful form of such new politics probably will not involve a departing from the global society. But it may involve a reconfiguration of one’s relationship with it. So as Theresa May’s government proceeds to negotiate the withdrawal of the UK from the EU – which must be a bitter, gruelling task for many of those involved – I hope that what she is initiating is such a reconfiguration. I hope that Britain can draw on its past success as a highly global society and constructively be part of the future of the West.

Comments 4

  1. Tove wrote:

    There is no global society. Only a global elite.

    And this elite is so ignorant about the rest of the people that they mostly assumes that the people below are just like them. Because they have scarcely met them to find out anything else.

    Posted 30 Mar 2017 at 4:57 pm
  2. Johan Nystrom wrote:

    Tove – yes, I think that’s a big part of the failures of politics at the present time. No doubt.

    I would insist that there really is a global society. People from every social class are increasingly on the Internet and interacting globally, for example. But that global society may not be exactly what we think it is, or what politicians or multinational companies, etc., think it is. We might not have an accurate view of its actuality or its potential at all.

    Posted 30 Mar 2017 at 5:20 pm
  3. Tove wrote:

    No, people from every social class are not interacting on the internet. For example, 62 percent of Afghans and Somalis are analphabets. And of those who can read and write sufficiently well to communicate with strangers on the internet, only a few can do it in a lingua franca. People who communicate globally might not always be from the upper classes financially. But they form av intellectual elite that only comprises a small percentage of the world’s population. And clearly not a majority of the First World’s population either.

    London is a hub for successful people from the entire world. People who are successful in the same way. By contrast, the Swedish elite gathers unfortunates from the entire world and tries to integrate them with its domestic lower classes. And although the left thinks that being lower class is an important common denominator, the lower class doesn’t seem to agree.

    Posted 30 Mar 2017 at 6:21 pm
  4. Johan Nystrom wrote:

    Tove – in response to your broader definition of global society, really global society, I agree that it is not here yet. Maybe it is more correct to say then that the world exhibits globalising tendencies, and that we live in one globalised, relatively large, and expanding chunk of it, which I think it would be unwise to seek to totally disconnect from. Thanks for calling me out.

    I would add that if there’s an intellectual elite within each socio-economic class, which can communicate globally, then I think even just this is qualitatively very different from a society where certain classes are entirely excluded. In ways we have, maybe, yet to find out.

    I do think Sweden and many other societies right now have social problems stemming from integration and immigration, and I do not have solutions to these problems. In London though, I must say, what I thought was successful integration was not only about rich “successful” people, but also about lower income people with simpler jobs seemingly also doing quite well and fitting in. I repeat – that’s how it seemed to the 19 year old me. I wouldn’t be surprised if London has changed since then, in favour of the wealthy.

    Sometimes it may make sense to actively manage your borders, be it physical, financial or digital. For example, China is financially and digitally isolated to some degree from the world segment that we live in, a fact that has some destructive consequences but that may also eventually prove wise in many ways. In a sense, this is pluralism. I would simply suggest that, if you seek to crack down on your borders and various connectivities, squeezing or closing the flows, you should be very aware of why you are doing it and which forces you are giving expression to. Obviously many societies are doing this as a knee jerk reaction, or without quite knowing why. This is, possibly, a danger that the UK is facing, and America certainly is.

    Posted 30 Mar 2017 at 7:23 pm

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