Sunday, 26 June 2016

BREXIT - A Luddite convulsion?

Inevitably the advent of the Industrial Revolution engendered mixed reactions. Some embraced it, correctly, as a force that could not be resisted, while others resented and feared it. Such resentment and fear, in many cases, were justified as such seismic changes are bound to affect many for the worse. Some responded by attempting to smash the new means of production in the futile and sad gesture enacted by the Luddites.

The 21st century has begun with a change, in the form of the globalization afforded by the internet, which is just as big as that caused by the industrial revolution. It, too, is a game and world changer. Indeed, the clue is in the name. Now, if things go ‘global,’ whatever was at the top of the tree beforehand is bound to feel endangered. In the geo-political sphere what was at the top of the evolutionary tree was the nation state, a sense of national cultural identity and national borders. The problem with globalization is that it threatens to erase much of this. We have seen in the Islamic world how exposure to the internet and social media has been a catalyst to the undoing of longstanding religious authoritarianism and fairly primitive dictatorships. It is as if some of the countries involved have been sprinkled with an invisible magic potion that caused them to rise up.

In the West globalization has manifested itself in the form of opportunities and problems that pay little heed to national borders. Tax-evading transnational companies, global environmental challenges, world-wide movements of labour and population, and transnational security threats all promise to lessen or even erase the importance of things previously defined in terms of the nation state. In the Islamic world one reaction to the threat to established religion has been to move to the militant extremes as in the case of Al Qaeda and ISIS. The measure of their extremeness is equal to the degree to which the religion feels threatened by the modern world given access by the internet. The internet makes them feel their backs are against the wall so they fight tooth and nail for that is how they perceive the threat. To them, perhaps rightly, it seems fatal.

In the West, as evidenced by the rise of the far right, it is the nation state and all that goes with it that is sensed to be most under threat. It is in the UK that this has taken its most dramatic form in the bizarre BREXIT episode. All that is worst about nationalism has come to the fore as it has asserted itself in a unique and perhaps dying convulsion. Chauvinism, ethnic prejudice, an insistence on national borders and an evocation of a nostalgic vision of the nation that the Brexiteers ‘want back’ have all been asserted in a potent but neurotic appeal to try to turn the clock back to a lost world. The LEAVE campaign are the modern Luddites, appealing to a destructive atavism and fuelled by fear and anger at the way the world is changing. Their target has been a transnational association designed to better deal with the challenges of the modern world and they have gone about their work with gleeful abandon. In the process they have smashed up the machine shop of, as was mentioned in an article in the Irish Times today, four polities – the EU, the UK, Northern Ireland and England itself.

It is of note that the fear and resentment of the transnational entities has, by a sleight of hand, been conflated with resentment and anger towards political 'elites' - those that signally failed to punish those responsible for the 2008 crash, for example - and it is certainly the case that the two groups involved inevitably coincide to a certain extent. However the are two completely different issues and those who voted for BREXIT were duped into believing they were the same thing -that sacrificing the transnational EU was an appropriate response to disenchantment with the political elite.

One can only hope that, as the realisation dawns as to how futile and damaging this is in the modern connected world that the damage can be averted or undone before we get back on the tracks that are consistent with real time.

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