I must confess to have, at first, grossly miscalculated the larger net effect of the phenomenon known as Brexit.
On the day the official vote took place, my reaction was that England had earned itself a sorely needed object lesson, while rendering itself a laughing stock among progressive thinkers worldwide. Then the ‘reality on the ground’ set in. Widespread reports of people, suddenly emboldened to ‘tell it like it is,’ shouting hateful epithets–and downright threats–at not just brown folks, but Poles and non-Brits who are otherwise generally perceived as ‘white,’ began. And I realized that the movement to leave the EU wasn’t simply a desire to reclaim English identity in a nationalistic sense; it was a desire to reclaim English identity with a frightening eye toward ethnic cleansing. I also began to realize that–largely due to the machinations of the same Anglo-American elite which has often proclaimed itself the leaders of civilization and civility–progressive ideals, and human civility writ large, are on thinner ice than they’ve been in a long time. If America and England continue their collective lurch toward the far right, at the same time as England’s exit from the EU sets off a global economic downturn, then central and Eastern Europe will continue their collective lurches toward the far right. When this happens, then the world will actually be more overwhelmingly anti-democratic, and hostile to progressive ideals, than it’s been in decades. And again, let me repeat: this is largely the fault of the same Anglo-American elite that has, for generations, laid claim to being on the leading edge of not just Western civilization but human progress at large. Let me explain.
When Ho Chi Minh tried to do to the French and Japanese empires what America did to the British empire, he patterned his declaration of independence after ours and asked us for help. We told him, to use an English expression, to piss off; so he went to the next biggest guy in town, who played the ‘enemy of my enemy’ game. So we called him a commie, and spent half a generation’s time hammering his country with pesticides, carpet bombings and chemical weapons. Similar stories have played out throughout much of the so-called third world, especially in the Western Hemisphere. This pattern has continued all the way through its present day incarnation, whereby our policies have continued to foster radicalization and extremism in countries where we’ve supposedly intervened on behalf of democracy.
This all gives our current state of affairs a cruel, practical joke sort of irony: had the Anglo-American elite not spent the entirety of the Cold War squelching attempts at democratic and progressive reform in every part of the world, perhaps progressive, socialistic, egalitarian, secular, and democratic ideals wouldn’t seem in such short supply among the world’s governments. America’s geopolitical allies are among the most repressive, fascist, and yes, openly bigoted and ethnocentric, governments in the world…and we’ve openly supported them while continually claiming to act in the interests of the ideals to which our Bill of Rights is beholden.
This brings me back to square one: in a manner of speaking, England and America have brought their current troubles upon themselves. Were they as invested in the worldwide spread of their stated principles as they were in feeding their wealthy elites and sustaining so-called spheres of influence, neo-fascism and theocratic fascism would have had neither chance nor excuse to gain traction. But alas, America’s Republican party has long been allowed to subtly infuse large swaths of the American voting populace with modern day Know Nothing Party sentiments, while modern day Thatcherism was allowed to seep back to the surface across the pond; and now that the sentiments they’ve quietly sown have gained enough collective momentum that the tail is proverbially wagging the dog, the GOP and Parliament are somehow aghast at the result. These aren’t the results, mind you, of momentary lapses of reason, short-term misjudgments, or failures of perspective: they’re the result of prolonged, deliberate, and calculated efforts to maintain a dangerous status quo by espousing regressive values among the English and American working classes, while creating social, political, and economic situations in the developing world which have long been known to lead to reactionary extremism. Of course, said reactionary extremism has served the purposes of the Anglo-American elite in other ways, but I digress.
So then, here we are. The disgruntled English working class has helped usher in Brexit, which many fear is a precursor to a similar ushering in of ‘nativist’ ideology in the United States. The grim possibilities that George Orwell, Margaret Atwood, Alan Moore, Octavia Butler, Sinclair Lewis, and many others have warned us about for generations, continue to emerge into view.
The world is still incrementally trying to get better, as evidenced by its present state of worry over matters such as Brexit. But the shadow of the past continues to loom, and history might someday reflect on 2016 as the beginning of an epic regression.