‘Who dun Brexit’: ‘globalisation’ or global neoliberalism?

27 July 2016

Tony Payne - Director of SPERI

These two phenomena need to be distinguished in order to expose some of the conceptual camouflage being thrown up about the cause of Brexit

We are now already a month into the great Brexit debate in Britain. It’s been extraordinarily interesting, even for people depressed by its initiation.  The good news is that it has been substantially more sophisticated in substance than the campaign that preceded it.  Yet there has emerged a problem: too many commentators have fingered the wrong culprit!

The biggest point of agreement in the debate so far has been the suggestion that it was ‘globalisation’ that was mainly to blame. The key thesis here can be simply summarised: winners from ‘globalisation’ voted Remain, losers backed Leave.  This claim has been made in so many newspaper articles and blog posts in the last four weeks that it hardly needs citation.  One illustration will therefore suffice.  Here is Sara Hobolt, Sutherland Chair at the European Institute at the London School of Economics, making the core point with great crispness in a Policy Network comment written less than a week after the referendum:

The evidence shows that it was people who feel left behind by the forces of globalisation, those with lower levels of education and working-class occupation, who voted decisively for leave, whereas the ‘winners’ of globalisation – eg highly educated professionals – were overwhelmingly in favour of remain.

What are we to make of this popular argument? It can be criticised in my view from two positions: one historical and one ontological.  Nick Pearce, former Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research and now Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bath, has already made the first critique and I refer to it here merely for the sake of the fullness of this blog. Although agreeing that ‘Britain’s political economy was highly visible in the blue and yellow electoral maps of the referendum results’, he was keen to insist that ‘this is not simply a matter of “globalisation”’.  In his analysis it goes back much further:

Lines can be traced back from these voting patterns directly to the collapse of Britain’s industrial base and its organised working class in the late 1970s and 1980s….[In fact,] the relative decline of industrial Britain, as it was shaped in the Victorian era, began in the early twentieth century, if not before. Miners were losing their jobs long before Thatcher decided to take them on.

This is undoubtedly right historically and is an argument that needs to be further researched and developed by psephologists post-Brexit. To pose just one question: why did Liverpool vote for Remain and Sunderland so strongly for Leave?  Something must have been different about their respective political economies of decline.  For now, though, what Pearce’s argument does is to frame the effects on Britain of ‘globalisation’ – conventionally considered as beginning sometime around the start of the 1980s – as divisive without question, but only and very much because its consequences served to exacerbate trends already under way.  In sum, in an important historical sense it is not true to assert that it was ‘globalisation’ that caused Brexit.

As I’ve said, I mention Pearce’s analysis just to note it and agree with it. My further ontological argument is that ‘globalisation’ cannot be sensibly said to cause anything.  Even to begin to think like this has the effect of turning ‘globalisation’ into an actor in the drama, propelled to the centre of the stage by some will or deity or force of nature.  To be precise, it is to reify globalisation – to make it into a thing that of itself can act and behave and bring about outcomes.  This doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny since ‘globalisation’ actually refers to a highly complicated process of economic, social and political change that unfolds at a global level and, arguably, is different and important, precisely because it does unfold at that global level.

It’s still worth quoting here the classic definition offered in 1999 in a brilliant overview of the early ‘globalisation’ debate by David Held, Anthony McGrew, David Goldblatt and Jonathan Perraton (now Associate Fellow of SPERI) which argued that ‘globalisation’ should be thought of as ‘the widening, deepening and speeding up of worldwide interconnectedness in all aspects of contemporary social life, from the cultural to the criminal, the financial to the spiritual’ (p.2).

The point being made here is not academic, an irrelevant argument about conceptual precision; it is rather that the reification of ‘globalisation’ as some sort of thing, the framing of it as some sort of external actor bearing down on all of us, actually lets off the hook all of the social and political forces – the real actors in the great game of the new globalising political economy – who have pushed Britain and all other countries to live and make their way in a political economy that is structurally different from that which prevailed, broadly speaking, from 1945 to the mid-1970s.

What’s more, we know who these actors are! They are the big global corporations; the political leaders of the major Western states; and the formers of opinion in the global media and in leading universities as well, all of whom have collectively built and defended ideologically the theory and practice of global neoliberalism that has been and remains the ruling framework of governance within which Britain and so much of the world has been trapped for so long.  It is the global neoliberals who have knowingly and deliberately driven forward the trends that have eventually divided the British people into various types of winners and losers (I say various types because in reality the pattern is seriously complex).

But the core message is extraordinarily simple and clear: it was global neoliberalism, understood as an economic, social and political project led by elites we can identify and name, that ultimately ‘dun Brexit’ in Britain. They didn’t intend to bring about this outcome, which now threatens their system, but the evidence shows that they did not care enough about the human consequences of their project to chart a course to redress, or even ameliorate, the many damaging effects it set in motion.

This leads to the final point I want to make: ‘globalisation’ is here to stay in the sense that political economy now takes place unavoidably on a global stage. There is no retreat from that, whether we like it or not or gain from it or not.  But ‘globalisation’ does not have to be neoliberal ‘globalisation’.  It can be reformed; controlled more; steered better, however you prefer to put it.  ‘Globalisation’ can still be what we wish to make of it.

As we have seen, it has been made thus far by neoliberals, but what has been made can always be remade by reformers of different and varying ideological colours. Whether this happens or not depends on politics, principally in certain key countries, of which Britain – for the time being at least – is still one.  In our post-Brexit world, post-neoliberal political actors in Britain and beyond now have to work to reframe ‘globalisation’ by bringing about its more effective global governance and have to learn to see this task as a key part, possibly even a prior condition, of their efforts to build better societies at national and regional levels.

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