BREXIT: Populism and Democracy: Part 1

By William K. Black
June 24, 2016     Kansas City, MO

The UK vote in favor of BREXIT has stoked the fears of the New York Times to a fevered pitch.  Their greatest collective fear is the rise of “populism.”  The NYT fashions itself the last redoubt of “serious people” under siege by the rabble.  BREXIT is an opportunity to drive home to the rabble the folly of failing to fall in line with the policies of the serious people featured in the NYT.  The moral of the story is a simple one – when the electorate in a democratic election ignores the technocrats the result is an economic and social catastrophe.

Even for the NYT, however, their attacks on the UK electorate for daring to vote for BREXIT were extraordinary in their intensity and multiplicity.  At least seven articles, each of them negative about the UK voters, were featured in today’s paper.  (I had no strong views on the vote.  I think reasonable UK voters could disagree on the desirability of BREXIT.)

This is the first in a seven-part series discussing each of these seven articles decrying BREXIT.  I focus on the unintended aspect of each article, for each demonstrates the contempt that a broad range of elites have for the voters and democracy.

Jochen Bittner

Jochen Bittner’s column is entitled “Brexit and Europe’s Angry Old Men.”

“It’s a victory for ordinary, decent people who have taken on the establishment,” declared Nigel Farage, the head of the U.K. Independence Party. Rubbish. It was a victory for people who have neither the guts nor the imagination to take on the downsides of globalization. Yes, globalization and Europeanization have taken their tolls, both on traditional forms of democracy and on traditional job security. But instead of tackling these problems, the Farages of the world have started the next ideological war.

That is a very strange and nasty paragraph.  It’s fine to criticize Farage, but disparaging the majority of UK voters as having “neither the guts nor the imagination to take on the downsides of globalization” unintentionally reveals the dishonesty and arrogance of the EU elites.  (Also, the word “globalization” has no useful definition in this context.  Was the adoption of the euro an example of globalization or regionalism?)   What is Bittner’s basis for claiming that BREXIT “started the next ideological war?”  There was no war – there was a peaceful vote.  There was no clear “ideological” split on BREXIT – the membership of the two traditional parties in the UK split internally and largely on non-ideological grounds.

Bittner says that whatever he means by “globalization and Europeanization” have “taken their tolls, both on traditional forms of democracy and traditional job security.”  That is an extraordinary concession, and appears unambiguously harmful.  What is “non-traditional job security?”  Bittner implies it exists, but the reality is that it is job insecurity.  What is “non-traditional democracy?”  Bittner doesn’t tell us, but he implies it is how the EU functions to ensure that that the EU elites rather than people make the decisions about how to run their lives.  “Traditional democracy” and “traditional job security” are two of the greatest triumphs of what Bittner terms the “enlightened, rational tradition of Europe.”  They required centuries of struggle by the citizenry and workers against the closely allied political and financial elites.  Many citizens and workers died or were blackballed or maimed in those struggles.  Why would he think the public would continue to sit passively while failed elites took an ever-increasing “toll” on democracy and job security?  Even if he thinks the public might “stand idly by” while its best traditions were repeatedly eroded, why does he think the public should do so?

Why does he think that openly displaying his contempt for those who support “traditional democracy” and “traditional job security” by labeling them as “sclerotic” “angry old men” “who have neither the guts nor the imagination to take on the downsides of globalization” demonstrates his superior “imagination” in “tak[ing] on the downsides of globalization?”  His contempt blinds him to the fact that the pro-BREXIT voters were displaying their “guts” when they took on elite opinion and refused to be intimidated by the “Project Fear” campaign.

Bittner has zero willingness to consider those who voted for BREXIT fellow-citizens, proclaiming that “We can no longer think of reconciliation between the opposing views of destruction and progress.”  Bittner implies that people who voted for “traditional democracy” and “traditional job security” support “destruction” while people who are willing to see “traditional democracy” and “traditional job security” further eroded represent “progress.”  Bittner is at least logically consistent – he plainly has no respect for the tenets of “traditional democracy” or even traditional empathy, civility, or respect for the majority of voters who differed with his views.

Bittner also seems to think that the voting majority was unaware that he views them with contempt and wishes to do everything possible to prevent the majority’s views from determining policy.  The reality is that the majority that voted for BREXIT was acutely aware of the elite contempt for their views and for “traditional democracy.”  That contempt is the single most important reason why a majority voted for BREXIT.

13 responses to “BREXIT: Populism and Democracy: Part 1

  1. Do you believe the majority that voted for BREXIT did so wholly on the basis of their support for traditional democracy and traditional job security? What frightens me are the less appealing least talked about reasons for a yes vote.

  2. The issue that has not been discussed, along with other good reasons for exiting the EU are discussed at the link at my name. Please understand that the ultimate Single European State would ultimately result in the destruction of all national currencies in the EU.

  3. I think the people he was referring to in that paragraph are the Tories and other conservative elites, like Farage, who pushed for austerity and then more austerity rather than stimulus and programs to alleviate the consequences of globalization. I don’t pull from that a criticism of the British voters but on ” the Farages of the world”. The next ideological war he is referring to is continued integration vs disintegration, nationalism vs multinationalism. And while the vote was split along both party lines, more conservatives wanted this and we see other conservative parties across Europe celebrating the beginning of EU disintegration.

  4. I think you’re largely correct on Bittner, especially this part, “Bittner has zero willingness to consider those who voted for BREXIT fellow-citizens.”

    My take is that he has other reasons for dismissing his fellow citizens, ones that he doesn’t think germain to the argument he’s making. My guess? Probably the overt and ugly racism and nationalism espoused by the Leave side.

    “What is Bittner’s basis for claiming that BREXIT “started the next ideological war?” There was no war – there was a peaceful vote. ”

    That’s a tad unfair, there’s definitely an ideological war going on – it’s neo-liberalism vs. the world and right now, the seemingly most short-term-effective strategy against it is the aforementioned racism and nationalism. Of course, there’s all sorts of moral problems with any such stance (and it should rightly be resoundingly rejected), but at the end of the day, at least the racists and the bigots have correctly identified the problem – while governments have an infinite pool of money to draw from, there’s only ever a fixed amount of it in the system at one time and it all goes to the top. The racists assume that if they stomp the bottom rungs of the ladder, there’ll be more crumbs for them. That’s bizzare and incredibly counterproductive, but that’s pretty much what they think.

  5. Andrew Anderson

    They required centuries of struggle by the citizenry and workers against the closely allied political and financial elites. Bill Black

    Which is all the more reason to de-privilege* depository institutions, aka “banks”, isn’t it? You’ve written “The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One” but isn’t also true that the best way to rob (since it’s legal) is WITH a bank?

    *Why, for example, do we need government-provided deposit insurance when we could all have inherently risk-free accounts at the central bank instead? Cui bono that we can’t? Isn’t it obviously the banks themselves and the most so-called credit worthy, the rich?

    And why should we only have ONE payment system, that works through banks, when we could have an ADDITIONAL one based on individual, business, State and local government, etc. accounts at the central bank itself and not have the economy held hostage by the banks?

  6. Thonas J. Hubschman

    Amen. You have only to listen to the outrage of those people to the vote of the “old, the uneducated, and the industrial castoffs,” as one liberal radio personality described the BREXIT voters, to hear the rank classism at work.

    But, finally, there’s some measured response to the BREXIT vote emerging.

    From BBC correspondents who have been on survey tours across Britain:

    BREXIT is a “vote of no confidence in the way the country has been developing”; there was “massive ignorance on both sides” of the vote, in all classes, on the issues and consequences involved.

    If Trump wins (or Sanders did), it will amount to the same phenomenon. As someone else said, this referendum could have been about anything or anyone.

    Interesting how they’re also saying this could mean the end of Jeremy Corbyn. I would think it would mean instead he’s the front-runner in any general election the new prime minister will have to call.

  7. Harvey Swaine

    I’m willing to reconsider what I’ve been reading in the NYT but I suspect you are wrong. The single most improtant reason was not the voter’s contempt for any elite, but their fear of immigration, their anti-immigrant feelings… in many instances, racism (not to put too fine a point on it).

    • FFS…if you don’t live in Britain, please don’t defining anti-open-door-immigration as “racism”. The muslim population of Britain has long since decreed itself non-assimilating, and the number of incidents involving Muslim, which the courts have turned a blind eye towards, is staggering. For any island nation, an open door policy is LUDICROUS. Brexit was more about the British citizens ability to vote on immigration policies, and to have immigration policies tailored for Britain by Britain, rather than Brussels. You have decided to boil down an insanely complex decade-long problem to “anti-immigrant” and “racism”, which are byproducts of decades of tension due to a lack of British controlled immigration policy. What is it with everyone today screaming racism at every instance? I’ve found that those that scream racism are usually those that like to discriminate to feel morally superior. No, the British aren’t any more racist than any other country, and the majority of Brexiters were people sick and tired of EU policies trumping their own inclinations. But you would rather say that they are racist, than that they are democratic. Tell me: in your mind, what’s more important? The freedom to vote on the laws of your country OR the freedom of immigrants to move to your country? If you think the second is more important, than pray tell me: why do we even have countries? Why are their defined borders? How will you rectify an overpopulation epidemic, especially that of an island with no major natural resources? Is their to be no urban planning? You cant stop or improve any of these situations with an open door policy dictated by a group of bureacrats which your own countries citizens DID NOT ELECT.

  8. carol bradley

    Thank you Professor Black. Couldn’t agree with you more.

    After Hillary and Warren’s duet in Ohio today, I think Hillary might at last be figuring out that our squeezed 99% need some anti-establishment conversation. I hope Warren stays in the Senate working away but she sure makes Hillary look so much more effective.

  9. Racism, Harvey, would not be an issue at all were it not for the fact that there were not enough jobs for Brits. Then you allow others legally to get jobs? It isn’t racism, but rather survival of the locals. What you are saying is like saying the Palestinians are racist, or the Aborigines are racist. There would be no refugees if it were not for the regime change caused by globalization gone bad. Regime change has wrecked the world, all to make Israel happy. Now you can call me a racist, except that I am not, and my natural father was Jewish.

  10. Tom Bergbusch

    Wonderful piece of writing. Never have we needed New Economic Perspectives more! What is shocking is how unselfconscious, how straighforwardly, Bittner makes his assertions. He reminds me enormously of that Ecuadorian right-winger that Bill Black wrote about last year, the fellow who dismissed Bill and MMT because Bill was presenting his arguments to the poor and native.

  11. Prof. Black says “I think reasonable UK voters could disagree on the desirability of BREXIT.” I would have expected reasonable UK voters on the left to agree that there was no reason to vote in solidarity with either TORY, Cameron or Johnson. But Corbyn & Co. stupidly put their hands into a buzzsaw by siding with Cameron!

  12. From Roger3 | June 27, 2016 at 9:54 am:

    “there’s definitely an ideological war going on – it’s neo-liberalism vs. the world ”

    I read this and thought that the current ideological and economic war is Neo-liberalism against democracy. Against the non-elites and non-wealthy who are trying to figure out how to fight against rule by the monied elites and their corporate buddies.

    What do you actually mean, Roger3, by “the world”? Appreciate your reply — and any others’ thoughts on this.