Brexit, History & Ballot Choice

In a mistaken version of Trump’s catch-cry “Make America Great Again” Make America Great Again, some British voters might have been led to believe that Brexit will Make Britain Great Again. They were convinced that the – never really – good old days of the British Empire would return by voting for Brexit. This is not to be. Capitalism and history have moved on. You can’t go home again. The world has seen three hegemonies of global capitalism emerging during the last three hundred years and then disappear. During the 17th century, the world saw Dutch trading and colonizing capitalism. Holland’s capitalism was taken over by British gunboats and slave-trading capitalism. This is not to say that the Dutch did not trade slaves. They did with a vengeance, but that is another story.

In the 18th and 19th century capitalism belonged to Britain. During those two centuries, Britain established an empire in which the sun never set, so the jingoist myth went. In continental Europe, meanwhile, during the 19th century imperialism meant three rather different things. For German capitalism, it meant unifying the country by customs unions, railways and military conquest,. Only in the year 1871, following the defeat of France by Prussia, the cluster of German-speaking states started to come close to what we call Germany today. Wilhelm of Prussia became the new Kaiser of the German Empire, crowned in (of all places) the Great Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Capitalism demanded a unified economic space. Germany’s unified nation (the Reich), however,only coalesced towards the end of the 19th Century. Later German nationalism led to the most horrific excesses the world has ever seen, symbolized by one word: Auschwitz.

But the 19th Century meant something different for France. For the French, following the monarchy and the emergence of a revolutionary empire it meant, in Hegel’s dialectical terms, manifest in Napoleon’s Grand Army conquering “world spirit on horseback”reaching all the way from Paris to Moscow. If only for a brief time, until the emperor’s defeat at Waterloo, Europe was politically united, and could thereafter be conceived as a virtual common market, even when the new states became independent.  In sum, three significant things happened in the 19th Century, so far as Capitalism was concerned. Germany was busy with itself, France was busy with Europe, and Britain was busy with colonizing the rest of the world. In the end, of course, each of those empires imitated its rivals, and smaller states jockeyed for position within the new international order.

This came about contrary to the common belief that British people are reserved, the French talkative and abstract, and the Germans cold, insecure and obedient. But British imperialism was never reserved. The French were as grubby and grasping as anyone. The Germans pushed into Eastern Europe, built railways and fought among themselves.  It is said that Britain conquered every country it laid eyes on; the French taught everyone to speak French, love French food, and think French feelings; the Germans became idealists, swilled beer, and lusted after power.After more than a century of British colonialism and imperialism,the British and French Empires were in terminal decline by the end of the 19th Century. Germany, despite small colonies in Africa and the South Seas, expanded into a European-centred Reich—swallowing up half of Denmark, impinging on the Austro-Hungarians and establishing economic dominance in the Balkans.

Some say, the sinking of one of the world’s most advanced ships, the Titanic in the year 1912, marked the decay of European civilization. Others say, it was World War I(1914-18) that, despite Britain and allies winning, marked Britain’s decline, France’s weakening, and Germany’s inner turmoil in the wake of the Second Reich’s collapse. America grew stronger. By the conclusion of the Great War, it was no longer possible to say that British manufacturing ruled the roost, but instead that thanks to the systematic business principles of Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford’s conveyor-belt assembly factories introduced the so-called American Century American consumerism.

Sadly for British imperialists, then as now, many romantic illusions held about Britain are what they always were, that is, hallucinations. Meanwhile, back in the real world, with India’s independence after World War Two, Britain’s empire was well and truly gone; and the glory days crown jewellery of British colonialism a mere memory of a phantasm. In terms of Realpolitik, the industrial and military power of Uncle Sam (the USA) dominateda new era in world history.The 20th century saw the great struggle between  three ideologies: Fascism, Communism and Capitalism in the guise of Democracy Fascism, Stalinism, and capitalism. By the end of the last century, it was clear who the winner was: capitalism, but not necessarily democracy.

At the beginning of the year 2020, it might be safe to predict that the United States of America will carry on being a(and not the) dominant player. Still, it is even more safe to assume that Great Britain (and only precariously as the United Kingdom) without the European Union, thanks to Brexit, will not return to the glorious days of the hegemonic empire.England on its own will never again be a dominant player. John Bull (symbol of the nation of merchants and manufacturers) will not shape the remaining 21st century. For most people in the UK, the British Empire meant no more more than the fourteen-hour working day and child labour in William Blake’s Dark Satanic Mills. In other words, the rural workers and the urban proletariat did not go horseback riding with Jane Austin’s country gentry lovely Mr Darcy.Brexit is unlikely to bring those happy days back, not even for Boris Johnson’s upper class mates at Eaton.

Instead of fox hunts and village fetes, British men and women, then as now,had to fight for a living. They struggled for living wages and campaigned for workplace rights. In 1998, a British case went to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) concerning  an English woman who had been dismissed from her job while pregnant. The EJC decided in favour of the plaintiff.Shortly thereafter Britain’s Sex Discrimination Act was re-interpreted and eventually amended. With Brexit essentially a done deal (more or less, hard or soft), the EU is gone as a backstop for British Law Lords, and Boris Johnson, furnished with a sufficient electoral win, can proceed tom reform (that is, deform) England unwritten constitution.Some traditional work-place rights, we predict,will be turned back. After Brexit, British women, once again, can be fired for being pregnant, and shoppers can pick up delicious chlorinated chicken on the way home freshly imported from the USA, as EU food safety rules will no longer apply.

Having lost the security and strength of the EU through Get Brexit Done, Britain will find herself rather alone, if not isolated, in dealing with the coming of the five great challenges for the 21st century, challenges defined by people, technology, money, the media, and ideas, to wit:

  1. People: There will be a continuous flow of people within the British Isles (from north to south, west to east, etc.), to the UK, and out of the UK.Brexitas the done deal (or non-deal) will only marginally alter this process already speeded up during  the dreadfully-long and sluggish debates. Despite Brexit, or perhaps even because of, the flow of legal migrants, asylum seekers, desperate exiles, and pushy tourists will not stop. Migration has been a feature of Europe for a very long time. Brexit will not stop this. In fact, it might enhance the flow of people.


  1. Technology:There will be a flow of technology. Since the days of the steam engine, capitalism has been driven by technology. The movement of technology will be in terms of hardware, manufacturing components, technical know-how, and IT. But this movement is unlikely to be outward. Instead it will be inward. Britain will become a major importer of technology, not exporter.Even before the bills were passed in the House of Commons allowing Brexit to proceed, manufacturing had already begun to relocate into continental Europe leave the UKand this trend will continue and increase. Tesla’s new factory is shifting close to Brussels Berlin – not to Birmingham. This also means that post-Brexit Britain is unlikely to remain a technical, engineering, and information technology center. Continental Europe is a more likely candidate. And why not? It has the size, the infrastructure, and the money.


  1. Money:There will be a flow of money (national stock exchanges and commodity speculations). London will still be Europe’s finance centre. But several banks and financial institutions have already started to look for alternatives sites inside the EU. Some look at popular destinations the front-runners being Dublin because of the English language and Frankfurt because of its centrality, the European Central Bank, and its established banking system. Still, Frankfurt is considered to be boring. Finally, as said in the movie Casablanca,“we will always have Paris”with the greatest European culture but also a few language problems might be expected.


  1. Media:There will be flow of information (newspapers, magazines, satellite television channels, websites, the Internet). The English language provides a clear advantage for the city of London, rather than the rest of the UK. Nevertheless IT’s global techno-leader is the USA with GAFMA – Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon.


  1. Ideas:There is also a flow of ideas (human rights, environmentalism, free trade movements, fear of terrorism). Traditionally, Britain has been seen as a strong centre for such intellectual enterprises as human rights. However, on a global scale environmentalism, the UK remains a follower, lagging behind the EU, and particularly Denmark. Brexit is set to make this situation worse. Most European countries have understood that Britain’s much beloved free market cannot fix global warming. A government capable and willing to operate at an effective level remains to be found. Facing global warming means a big, powerful, and financial strong state, and the UK has just withdrawn from such an entity. Worse, Brexiteers, the British conservative party, its ideology of neoliberalism, and Boris Johnson all point in the exact opposite direction. Like Trump they are climate change deniers, or at least trivializers.


All this raises the really big question: with the British empire gone and virtually no chance of returning to it and the five challenges outlined above unsolved, why did the pro-Brexit groups and the Tory Party win on the 12th December 2019 happen at all? Perhaps Boris Johnson’s slogan Get Brexit Done!provided a convincing frame for enough people to understand the world of politics. In addition, Boris Johnson is a master of the blame-game. For years his job was to lash out at everything and anything on the EU. In the case of Brexit, he blamed the holdup on Labour even though opposition arose strongly from within his own party. The results of the recent election show that blaming (or scapegoating) others still works.

In analysing the defeat, US-democrats, Australia’s Labor Party, and Britain’s progressives are making the same mistakes over and over again – perhaps a traditional sign of insanity. They still believe in the Enlightenment myth that the truth will set us free. If we only tell the people the truth, they will vote for us. The mass of voters are rational human beings. This is wrong for two reasons: firstly, people do not get the truth. They get what the Murdoch media (Fox, the Sun, etc.) tells them is the truth; secondly, at least since Kahneman and Tversky (1970s and early 1980s), we know that voters make non-rational decisions. In the case of Brexit and Boris Johnson, they voted against their class interest and for nationalism, if not for outright racism. In the case of Trump, theyhis American base votes against its own best interests own interest.

Despite so much evidence to the contrary, many self-appointed election analysts hang on to the l’idée fixe that it is irrational to vote against your self-interest. True or not, people do that and they do it rather often. Otherwise, conservatives would not win elections in most countries as they are at the beginning of 2020. Consequently, progressives and their election analysts are once again shocked and surprised when voters do not cast their ballots as the pundits predict. These experts start infamous soul-searching, change their leaders, and beat their collective breasts, all without ever understanding what really happened. They fail to realize that whenever conservatives use Orwellian language, for example, they not only tell outright lies to the people and engage in elaborate and covert propaganda. They show their vulnerability. Despite the overwhelming media presence of conservative voices casting aspersions in almost every direction but the right one, this is the strategic flank to attack that is allowed to pass unnoticed.

Another issue progressive fail to realize is the fact that conservatives enforce message discipline. In other words, despite Abraham Lincoln’s warning that “You can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time,”  they stay on message: “Get Brexit Done!” Everyone knows the chant by heart now. “Make America Great Again!” – Everyone knows that too. And what do we hear from the other side? From Britain’s Labor Party and the US Democrats side: Zilch. A blank space.

Unlike Democrats (US) and Labour (UK), the Tories and the Republicans hammer away relentlessly the same simple message over and over again until they win. Winning elections isn’t a mind game for intellectuals. You win by finding the lowest common denominator: a message everyone understands, everyone knows, and everyone can vote for. It is not a sophisticated eight-course French menu. Instead, it is a bit like driving through McDonalds and being asked “Do you want that with fries?” Find the food everyone (except us intellectuals) likes and sell it. Don’t explain the good medical or moral reasons why they should become vegans. The Big Mac is a winning ticket. Conservatives have figured this one out long ago. And so they win elections: in the USA, in Brazil, in the UK, in Australia, in the Philippines, in Israel, in Hungary, in Poland, in the Czech Republic, in India. The list goes on.

With the backing of the Murdoch press, Trump, Boris Johnson, and their Australian counterpart Scott Morrison ScoMo were able to dish up politics in a way everybody could understand everyone understood. Trump, Johnson, and ScoMo presented cultural stereotypes and framed their single message accordingly. They were also convincing in presenting themselves as father figures who can protect the American/British/Australian people from invading foreigners, including lesbians, queers, transvestites and post-modernist non-binomials.

This does not mean that progressives everywhere should be like ScoMo, Trump and Boris Johnson. The opposite is the case. Progressives do not win elections by betraying their identity – by shifting to the right of the political spectrum. This is not what the electorate expects. Instead, progressives need to invent a believable message and stick to it. It needs to be an easily consumable message that has relevant values. For example, taxes are not bad. Taxes means that the fire brigade comes when you need it, that your roads are safe, that the rubbish is collected, the air is clean, and schools and hospitals are working.

In doing this, progressives face two opposing groups. Progressives face corporate and conservative media. Elections are a 2 against 1 (2:1) game. Progressives need to challenge conservative ideologies, such as that a hierarchical society is eternal and that a leader should always be obeyed. These are deeply anti-democratic concepts. Liberals and moderates need to challenge the old-fashioned right-wing idea that to be moral is to be obedient to authority. What makes progressive ideas moral is thoughtful and controlled disobedience. Challenging the immorality of authority makes one a good person. Progressives also need to destroy right-wing hallucinations, like the rich are good. The wealthy and the influential are not a natural elite. They will n ever fit through the eye of a needle. The poor are not poor because they lack discipline or are lazy. The poor do not deserve to be impoverished and disenfranchised and they should not serve the whims of the rich.

Today, right-wing thinking is applied to schools and universities. Conservatives know that without a culture war, they cannot win elections. Next to winning significant battles in the culture war, conservatives also have established a significant number of think tanks that hammer right-wing messages on TV day in and day out. In some cases, they write press releases that go straight into understaffed and underfunded newspapers, radio, and TV stations. They also had Cambridge Analytica, they still have Russian troll farms, and most importantly, they also have a polarizing propaganda-machine called Facebook, as well as Twitter (Trump’s preferred propaganda tool), WhatsApp, YouTube, etc.

Intellectuals from Albert Einstein to Stephen Hawking have never been on the side of closed-mind conservatives This is the point where progressives make one of their most crucial mistakes. They think the general population is like them. Most people are not intellectuals. They are not training the develop and understand complex and sophisticated arguments. They are not trained to spot contradictions. The mistake they make is a bit like what happens in Group think group thinking. They assume that everyone thinks like an intellectual. The vast majority does not think like that. Perhaps none other than Karl Marx understood this. He wrote a book for intellectualsDas Kapital (Capital) – Das Kapital – and he wrote (with his comrade-in-arms Friedrich Engels) a little pamphlet for everyone else – Manifest der Kommunistischen Partei – Communist Manifesto. Progressives are not going to win elections by producing Das Kapital-like programs. The tax program of the Australian Labor party is a great example. It was well thought-out and made a lot of sense but it was too complicated for the ordinary voter to figure out. Meanwhile, ScoMo’s falsehood “Labor is a high-tax party” registered with the punters. He won and Labor lost bitterly. Now we are stuck with him, as Australian burns.

Unlike nineteenth-century Karl Marx, many present-day left-leaning Liberals, Democrats and moderates appear to be trapped inside their own vicious circle, those who read the same newspapers and, hear the same long-winded speeches and analyse the same books, and hence are (at least to themselves) “smart”. Hence, too, we get the aforementioned just-tell-the-truth misconceptions. This fallacy is derived from a nun recognized delusion of the partly and party-based educated to think that everyone is an intellectual. As a consequence, many progressives end up talking about political party programs, not values like the right does. They insist on the correct program and policy instead of talking about hard-headed principles and moral values. They hammer these programs even when clear directions are called for.

It used to be said that intelligent people invented the alphabet and intellectuals have been abusing  it ever since. Progressives (not only self-identified but vilified as such by their opponents) can become rather regressive—they keep going back to what they once were taught was correct and praiseworthy. They neither listen to what ordinary people are complaining about, hear what their opposition says, and mock what they don’t understand. Ordinary people who work, feeland think (when they do) in the hard-nosed, nitty-gritty of their own lives, hear not what their educated leaders and would-be governors think they are saying, but what is done and proposed on their behalf, and they can smell out the rat, the stench of irrelevance and pious nothings. Thus we end up with a topsy-turvy political world where everyone seems to be talking past everyone else. When this happens, the sly and malicious take up their positions and set that world afire with mean-spirited, mendacious and exploitative policies.

Conservatives (both upper case and lower case), know that they want to change an open and democratic culture into an authoritarian regime. They try to frame all intellectuals as a despicable elite. On the other hand, they have been successful in attracting the poor (rural and urban, out-of-work and under-employed) and poorly-educated males. In America, without such a base, you can hardly win elections. In the UK, Boris Johnson attracted the same kind of disaffected and frustrated voters  in the North of England, to the (again!) great surprise of Labor.Trump was quite explicit, shouting to his audience when shouting,“I love the poorly educated.” “I love the poorly educated”.

Johnson exploited the new reality, that most of the old working –class and rural Labour members felt (perceived the image, felt the vibes, although they didn’t listen closely and understand the heart of the message) the party had betrayed their interests for those of the urban, highly-educated elite.  Given the right(right-sounding, right-wing) message, the“base”will vote against their own best interests. And they not only will promise to do so when interviewed or polled, they actualdoit at the ballot. And they do so regularly. Yet when they do it, progressives are puzzled about the question, How could they win?How could they vote for Brexit?Unless progressives get their message right and frame it in a way that everyone can understand, they will continue to wonder why the right wins election after election.

Thomas Klikauer is author of a forthcoming book on Germany’s new Nazi party, the AfD – Alternative for Germany to be published by Sussex Academic Press.




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