It shouldn’t be necessary to have to say this, but I’ve got news for you! The Twentieth Century is over! The past is always with us, of course, framing our understanding of the world and its possibilities. We have been made by the past, and can learn much by studying its successes and failures, but that was then, and this is now. Time to face the present – and the future.
The present is an age of crumbling borders. Geographical borders exist, but they do not enclose as once they did, punctured by trade and transport, still more so by new means of communication. Political borders – those lines on maps so at odds with human life as it is lived, but so beloved of 19th Century imperialists – are becoming a nuisance. The very notion of a ‘country’ as a discrete political and cultural entity is just one facet of identity, and one with decreasing legitimacy on a small and fragile planet.
So how do we do politics in these fluid times? How do we anchor a polity? What is the state, and what are its limits? How do we make democracy nimble and resilient in anxious times? And what are the markers of philosophical difference that distinguish parties, or movements, or alliances, from one another?
There are many answers to these questions, and inevitably we will grasp at what we think might work, and then discard it along the way to remaking a politics that works. Some of the issues we have to wrestle with are big and difficult, such as whether the global institutions set up to settle the problems of the mid-20th Century make any sense now, and if they don’t, how do we remake them without provoking the nastiest, least controllable kinds of power politics, even war?
But there are things we can do, as individuals, and as groups, to move beyond those things that worked in the past, and don’t – won’t – work now.
The first thing we must do is look unsentimentally, unflinchingly, at our world.
The two big questions, and they are linked, are the natural, and the economic.
The question of the natural world is essentially the question of what humans have done to our shared little planet, and what we can do to tend it more effectively, and equitably. Climate change is a driver that doesn’t wait around for a change of regime in the White House or the Kremlin. But there are other questions of natural resources, from water to rare minerals, from fossil fuels to renewables, which must be addressed with more haste and seriousness than we seem able to muster. Every citizen of the planet needs to become informed, expert, even, on these issues. These are urgent questions to which “the market” is not a credible answer.
The economic question is equally difficult, because it is a matter of the imagination.
There is no ‘invisible hand’, ‘rational choice’, nor any other ‘laws’ which can be turned into models to guide us to prosperity and happiness. That’s religion, not reason. Money doesn’t exist, except as an idea, a powerful idea that has built civilisations, and created great institutions, it is true, but the same is true for any religion. The European Enlightenment challenged unquestioning faith, but somehow we’ve forgotten to apply the same scepticism to the cult of economics. What matters is the distribution of resources, to whom, for what purposes, and why? Money, whether coins, or bits of data, is a pretty effective way of making an economy visible and functional for people, but it’s not a ‘natural’ thing like the weather. It’s cultural. It is what we decide it is. Time to decide to distribute things in better, fairer ways.
We start answering these big questions from where we are. I am somewhere in the geographical centre of England, in a state that has a history so weird that the name of the country is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We’ve managed to deal with some of the tensions arising from the need to transition from empire to fairly populous and moderately prosperous European country through a series of treaties of cooperation with some of our closest neighbours – or at least, we thought we had. Brexit is the bullet in that essentially benign arrangement that was easing our way towards a new, essentially cooperative position in the world.
There is no upside to Brexit. It offers no route to a peaceable and meaningful place in the 21st Century world. The Brexit fanatics of the right are living in a fantasy world, with the exception of a handful of ideologically committed ‘disrupters’ who would upend the lives of millions just to turn a quick (and huge) profit, and that little band were not the drivers of the 17 million.
The Brexit fanatics of the left are even fewer in number. Any open debate involving the membership or the voters of the Labour Party would end quickly with a rejection of Brexit. All the so-called ‘Lexit’ arguments are weak, and confuse language (‘markets’, ‘freedoms’) with substance. Labour’s programme is entirely deliverable within the EU, and is almost entirely undeliverable in a near future in which we are out of the EU. An economic crisis dwarfing the 2008 banking crash is no basis upon which to build the New Jerusalem.
What a left radicalism ought to be doing now is sketching out a programme for remaking Britain in Europe from the ground up at home, and offering support and solidarity to our European neighbours in resisting the dangerous forces of right wing populism and authoritarianism currently threatening too many parts the continent. Indeed, Brexit is our own manifestation of that ‘new fascism’, which is why any genuine person or party of the left would have no truck with leaving the EU at all. There are some in Labour who smell a bit 1930s Moseleyite, with their talk of ‘bosses using cheap foreign labour to keep down wages’. Remind them of Cable Street, my fellow radicals….
Brexit is a huge roadblock standing in the way of real and necessary political change. Real radicals would set to work at once to dismantle it.
Then our real work can begin.