What Brexit Means to Me (and You)


The news following the referendum in the UK was largely about financial uncertainty and other economic consequences. A few stories warned of risks for immigrants now living in the UK without any kind of local documentation. All of a sudden they have been thrown into the same situation as undocumented immigrants in the US. The nationalistic walls that have been so artfully lowered by the Europeanization process have started to rise with all the ominous memories of the history of separate, competitive, warring entities.

One thing I have learned from my thinking about the world over the past few decades is that it, including humans, is highly interconnected. It was always interconnected through the workings of its global natural processes. As human activities have now grown to the point they exert a significant impact not only on themselves, but also on the natural processes, interconnectedness is an essential part of the system in which all life exists. To ignore that fact while managing the present and planning for the future is like trying to drive a car in traffic wearing earplugs and a blindfold.

The European Union was conceived by men who understood, at least in part, the importance of creating a form of governance that recognized the interconnectedness of nations. It is, by far, the most successful and effective effort toward this end. Its very core structure requires that its members give up some part of their historical sovereignty and replace it with a form of interconnectedness. Regulations made by the governing body are to be harmonized with national rules and policies. Interesting choice of words, harmonize. It has a sense of holism and integrity. The United Nations doesn’t come close, If anything, it tends to exacerbate the nationalism among its members. It has, at least, provided a forum for discussing the individualistic concerns of its members, but lacks any sense of the interconnected whole.

I find a deep sense of irony in the vote to leave the EU. The arguments to leave were largely to insure a future where British sovereignty would be dominant against a backdrop of connectedness to the rest of Europe. Trying to go it alone in any interconnected system tends to make both the outrider and the system less stable and more subject to unpredictable events. On my reading of the news of the vote, I have a strong feeling that this kind of understanding was missing.

Many pundits predict that this event will encourage other nations to go it alone. The current election campaign in the US mimics, in large part, the arguments for and against Brexit. Trump and the Republicans tend to argue for policies based on US exceptionalism, a position that argues that this country is distinct from all the rest and is not subject to the systemic forces that actually shape history. Clinton and the Democrats argue that we are part of the world’s interconnected system and cannot unilaterally have it our way.

These two sets of claims are essentially the same as the two I see as competing for our future as flourishing or not. The positivist, certain way of seeing the world as something we know all about has run its course because interconnectedness is now the better reality than the reductionist mechanistic models that got us so far away from the murk of the Middle Ages. In a sense, we are the victims of our successes. Using the models of modernity we have designed and built an increasingly interconnected global system with all its wonders of innovation and economic power, but, simultaneously, that system has become rigid and more subject to unplanned departures from the trajectory it had been on for centuries.

We cannot opt out of life on Planet Earth, in spite of those who argue we should start planning to inhabit other celestial bodies. The only way to prolong our stay here is to start to give up our modern model of the world and start to think of it as a highly interconnected complex system. National boundaries are an unnatural part of that system. Natural processes ignore them completely. Human activities now flow routinely across these boundaries. Humans are just another predator species, amidst the rest of life forms. We know that other species cannot flourish when their natural habitats deteriorate or disappear. It is hubris to think we are different and are in control. It is also simply unwise.

We do not have to continue to think the same old way. Other species are often doomed when their worlds begin to change in critical ways. Their inventiveness is severely limited relative to the human species. Without language, they cannot do much more than their genes allow. They do not have concepts and beliefs without which there cannot be intentionality: the human capacity to act in meaningful ways.

When we discover that what we have been doing is turning out badly, humans have two basic options to cope. One is to hold onto our basic beliefs about how the world works and try to patch up the parts that appear to be causing us grief. The primary means for this is to apply some form of technology or technocratic management to isolate the problematic pieces or, otherwise, to fix a part of the machine that we see is sputtering. Brexit is unfortunately a prime example of the first of these approaches.

The second possibility is to give up those deeply embedded beliefs on which our actions are based. To many this will always appear as the more risky because, until the subsequent actions become stable, we cannot predict how the remedies will work. Highly interconnected systems are always complex and, therefore, inherently unpredictable.

These two alternates are similar to the basic tenets of the two poles of political philosophy in democracies: liberalism and conservatism. Conservatism is a belief that what has worked in the past is better than anything new. This way of thinking ignores the reality of an ever-changing world. Unlike a machine which tends to maintain itself as it grow larger, the complex world is subject to all sorts of systemic changes that produce deviations in behavior from the previous norms. Without commenting on the specific claim of the conservative right, the foundation on which it is built cannot support the superstructure of today’s highly interconnected complex world.

Liberalism, conversely, is more pragmatic at its core. It understands that truths do change as the world changes. The heart of the classic liberalism of John Stuart Mill was freedom of expression as a necessary context for the discovery of truths in a changing world. At its roots, liberalism is a form of social learning. Unfortunately, liberalism has lost much of its pragmatic character, but still admits of a need to keep adapting as circumstances change as they inevitably do. John Dewey, the great American philosophy, saw clearly the importance of a liberal, pragmatic framework in any kind of effective democracy.

I have always seen myself in the liberal camp politically, but without much reflection as to why. Now, as I have begun to acknowledge the complexity of the world as its basic nature, my choice has become clear. To dream of flourishing is to accept complexity. One cannot have the former without the latter and its wonderful property of emergence: the ability to create something out of nothing. I believe that such thinking is impossible among conservatives, given the very underpinnings of their political philosophy. They cannot deal with complexity. While it is possible to accept complexity and think pragmatically as a liberal, I do wish that more of its leaders would express this, and more sharply delineate the critical differences with conservatism that have been buried in public conversations here in the US and also in the debates that preceded the Brexit vote.

At moments like this, the words of a very plaintive tune often rush into my consciousness. It is Where Have All the Flowers Gone, by Pete Seeger. One verse will do.

Where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, everyone.
Oh, when will they ever learn?
Oh, when will they ever learn?