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Brexit: the long road to democracy

2018-01-09 03:11:40

This post will be a little bit off piste for Eureferendum, but on a day when the main news is an unremarkable reshuffle today is as good a day as any. What caught my eye was a rare piece of lucidity in The Spectator which neatly describes many of the themes I touched on over on my blog. Noteworthy for the same reason as Dr Johnson's speaking dog. Patrick J. Deneen describes the paradox of Liberalism's failure, which I feel gets right to the heart of Brexit.
In a world longing for liberty, advanced western liberalism seems to have reached a dead-end. Having promised liberation from any constraint that is not chosen by the consent of the individual, we have created nations of individualists who are now responsible to no-one in particular, but simultaneously subjects of an all-encompassing state and international order. That liberalism has succeeded. It has also visibly failed. Western liberal democracies are in a state of internal crisis: by every measure, they are wealthy, powerful, and unchallenged by any ideological contender. But an internal rot has spread as its citizens feel at once powerless amid their autonomy. Liberalism has failed because liberalism has succeeded.

A vast and encroaching political and social architecture is required to establish the conditions for such liberated people, freeing them from bonds of family, community, church, culture, and nation. The state and market together are deployed to replace actual bonds with depersonalised mechanisms that leave people at once free yet increasingly powerless. Family life is displaced by calls to individual authenticity backstopped by a welfare state that will take care of you, cradle to grave. Schooling that reinforces the formation of character is replaced with an education in non-judgmentalism, deracination and "critical thinking" without content.

Cultures must be liquefied in the name of diversity. Religious belief is weakened by appeals to individual conscience and toleration: ancient calls to self-discipline and self-limitation redescribed as "hatred" and "bigotry". Local markets are displaced in preference to a single, world-straddling market. Borders are effectively erased in the name of openness. Liberal humanity achieves perfect freedom, yet experiences this condition as bondage to forces that can no longer be governed, and which have no regard for individual dignity and self-determination.
To me, Deneen is essentially describing the post-war social order in the West, and in his article describes its imminent demise. It is especially applicable to the UK.

Brexiters are often accused of wanting to "wind back the clock" indulging in a moment of nostalgia for a rose-tinted yesteryear that never existed. This is often met with a feeble exhortation that Brexit is about the future whereupon the UK casts off the shackles of the EU to become a hyper-modern, buccaneering ultra-liberal free trade economy. Thin gruel from people who show precisely zero interest in how modern trade is conducted. They have also misread the mood of Brexit.

I would surmise that there is a strong sentiment to put things back how they were; to restore a degree of control and to have a stake in how we are governed. The modern paradigm of governance is one of a managerial state; one which shapes society for the ease of its own administration rather than being a tool of the people to shape their environment. One in which public preference is subordinate to the bottom line on a spreadsheet.

The obstacles to that "world-straddling market"; borders, local jurisdictions and other manifestations of democracy are now spoken of as "technical barriers to trade" which can be bartered away or indeed steamrollered by a supranational court, irrespective of consultation or consent, where the collateral damage is merely a sacrifice in name of the greater good.

Here we must examine the reaction of remainers in the wake of the vote to leave. We are told that the vote to leave was a protest against austerity. This is a comforting lie the left tells itself. It is a self-serving argument on two fronts. Firstly it provides the context for their response to Brexit. Rather than being a matter of economic and political restructuring, the solution is simply to pacify the malcontents with more central spending. Secondly, it absolves them of having to admit that the modern command and control paradigm does not work.

It is born of the belief that we can continue to open up markets to the ravages of globalisation just so long as the plebs are adequately mollified, failing to note that proud men in working class communities want real jobs, not EU grant-funded makework activity.

What is missing is any sense of humanity. A perpetual growth economy can maintain that "vast and encroaching political and social architecture" but in this people become pieces on a board whose livelihoods, traditions and cultures are viewed as entirely expendable.

It can create a world free of adversity, but also a world free of challenges, free of obligations, free imperatives to learn, to strive, and to grow. We are most of the way there now - and it really shows. The grand project is almost complete, with spreadsheet sociopaths now seeking to impose universal basic income, with some even mooting a national food service. I can think of nothing more horrifying; a society run in much the same way as a battery chicken farm where dependency is actively encouraged, leaving the spoils to be divided between the elites.

This, however, is where we reach the crunch. This paradigm only works if they've got their sums right. And they haven't. The system we have built is neither spiritually or economically sustainable. It has over-promised and under-delivered. The entitlements we award ourselves can only be sustained by waves of immigration and a further dismantling of anything we might call democracy. Government has failed to balance the spiritual health of the nation with the economic. One is not surprised to see a nation hooked on Prozac.

But herein we find another paradox. One man's liberty is another's prison. During the referendum I was back and forth to London a lot with The Boiling Frog. We were on a train back to Didcot where for some reason in the buffet car we ended up chatting with another passenger how asked me bluntly "How will Brexit be better for me?". That wasn't an easy question to answer - and it still isn't.

The question was couched in a purely transactional context. As in in how will it affect my finances, will my bills be cheaper, what will it make better? I didn't have an answer because my ambitions and concerns are not wrapped up in my own personal finances. Moreover, I am not dishonest enough to say that Brexit is an economic solution to any known problem.

Brexit is primarily about intangible concepts I first have to explain, and then explain why I think Brexit is the right move, also knowing that it holds no guarantees. It's a pretty weak proposition unless you know the intrinsic value of democracy - which most people don't.

Our interculator was a pretty typical sort. A commuter getting on with his life, living in his world, not especially interested in politics and only really concerned with how Brexit might disrupt his life. That, more than any class or age divide, best explains the division in the country. There are those who want to offload their obligation to follow politics and to participate in it, and there are those who do not. Some people are entirely happy for politics to do its own thing just so long as it maintains the status quo. The only time they are likely to complain is when the train fares go up.

The current paradigm is fine for men like that. If I was him I would have voted remain too. I mean, who needs the hassle? But that's problem. There is nothing that this mode of governance likes more than an emollient population that doesn't ask questions, doesn't get involved and doesn't rock the boat. They very much want to be left alone to carry on building the new global order.

That, to me, is what makes Brexit necessary. Governance is something happening to us, off radar, unscrutinised and largely in the hands of of those same spreadsheet sociopaths. If you leave them to it then you are a passenger of events and entirely at their mercy. You are trusting that they are doing the right thing by you in your interests. As with everything else in politics you have to ask, in whose interests are they working in, and what agenda do they serve?

Ultimately Brexit is about trust in institutions. For whatever complaints I may have about the EU, EU policy and its destination, what is on trial here is our establishment and what it does in our name. In respect of that, Brexit is nothing close to a remedy. The EU may very well represent all of those anti-human ends as described by Deneen, but it is our own government which will spinelessly acquiesce to it.

What makes Brexit more urgent is the the truth juggernaut steaming toward us. The one that says the system is going to collapse under the weight of the pressures placed upon it. The post-war cradle to grave welfare state is crumbling, society is fragmenting and we lack the political tools to shape our response to it. Every difficult question is kicked into the long grass while our ever more remote politics loses its grip on reality. A democratic correction is waiting.

The only thing we can say for certain about Brexit is that it puts politics back into that which has been depoliticised and transferred into the managerial domain. This has already happened. The debate over the future relationship with the EU is really one of what form future adoption of rules and regulations will take. That is not an easy question because at the heart of it is a question of values.

We do not get to choose perfect isolation and absolute sovereignty. But then at the same time we do not want to be passive recipients of rules, lest the whole enterprise be futile. That is why the distinctions between the different modes of Brexit are so important and why misunderstanding them will have major ramifications for the future.

Brexit of itself will not settle anything. As much as politics is a continuum, so is our ongoing relationship with the EU. If anything the EU will feature more in our politics in a post-Brexit world than it ever did while we were members. Ironically it is that which will make us more engaged with Europe, with more attention paid to its policies and its impact on us. There will be more debate over how we craft our response to it. Some fights we will win, others we will lose, but at least that fight will be in full view of the public.

For the next ten years or more, questions will be asked about nearly every aspect of law we have inherited. That which was passed without the application of politics will be subject to public debate. Of each entitlement we will ask whether it is still relevant and whether it reflects our values. Moreover, we will ask if we can afford it.

If anything has dogged British politics it is the residual self-image of being a superpower where we expect many of the luxuries and entitlements a superpower might very well expect. It is ironic that those who accuse Brexiters of clinging on to dreams of empire are those most reluctant to part with the last remnants of it. Though Brexit may be viewed as a political and economic downsizing, I view it more the process of bringing our governance back into line with what we are rather than what we were.

The EU has been the life support machine for that residual self-image, allowing us to operate a foreign policy akin with that of a superpower leading us to take actions which have had horrific consequences here and abroad - actions once again instigated by the vanity of the few rather than the ambitions of the many. If I were to name the most tangible of benefits to Brexit, it is that it revokes the licence from our establishment to play in the globalist sandpit. It constrains what it can do in our name and reasserts our authority over them.

To me, nothing is more important than repatriating the decision making and making it more accountable. This is why the economic arguments of remainers have largely fallen on deaf ears. This is a choice between having a remote establishment which views us as livestock, chasing its own technocratic goals on the basis of spurious and corrupt agendas - or striving for a true democracy that works in the service of the public and their wishes rather than chasing GDP.

The liberalism as described by Deneen is anti-liberty. It shatters the bonds between people, attacks the cultural norms that protect us and removes our means of withstanding those forces over which we have no control. It places the state at the heart of everything and though we nominally have rights those rights melt away when the state itself is trampling on us and imposing its will.

If Deneen is right that we at at the end of liberalism then now is the time to develop the ideas for what follows. For this we need new politics, new institutions and a new system of rights - rights which recognise that in recent decades the greatest threat to liberty is our elites and their determination to erase democracy. We once went to war to take the head of an immovable king. Now we fight to rid ourselves of an immovable establishment.