Wednesday, June 08, 2016

Brexit

Could it happen? It’s a bit like asking if the Donald might be America’s next President. Logic, common sense, human decency etc. surely dictate that it it couldn’t, and shouldn’t, but at this particular moment in the history of western capitalism, it just might. 

The polls currently suggest a three point lead for the LEAVErs. It’s not clear how seriously these should be taken three weeks before the referendum. 

It is clear however that voting intentions are starkly split along generational lines. The young tend to want to remain and the ageing and aged, by and large, want out. 

There’s no sign as yet that the population as a whole is as engaged as Scotland was. Whichever campaign is better at tempering voter apathy will have a serious advantage. 

What will probably happen is that many will enjoy the thrill of change for change’s sake right up to the final days, when fear of it will abruptly kick back in and the status quo will seemingly survive, almost miraculously; by 52%-48% in all probability. 

The professional chatterers need a drama, preferably a very tense one, and so one can expect that the polls funded by major media players will point to a knife-edge conclusion right up to the 23rd. The financial markets will lurch this way and that as the journos gleefully pull their strings. 

From a speculative investor’s perspective there are probably more gains and losses to be made this month either side of the referendum than at any other stage of 2016. Consequently much of the relevant ‘news’ output at this time will be informed by reprehensibly cynical motives. 

My own generation could be said to sit roughly on the dividing line here (when not actually on the fence!). We can see how things are going and it is frankly very hard to keep one’s glass half full. What we once imagined the EU might become has been subverted by the technocratic, democracy-diminishing ‘new world order’ and when we talk of reforming it from within, we surely know that this is probably little short of a pious platitude. But the young at least have that (occasionally) adorable illusion that they have it in their power to make the world a better place. 

Listening to my old friends talking about London, about what it appears to have become and is becoming ever more so with each passing day,  I can sympathise with their frustration and sense of alienation from a city they once believed their own. The UK's capital has become the ultimate playground of the globalised world, and whether you are a Russian oligarch, a Bulgarian barista or a Middle Eastern refugee, you will feel the gravitational pull of the great people magnet. Longer term inmates feel that the migrants, rich and poor, come to chew the place up, spit it out and then move on somewhere else. 

I get to go back once or twice a year and each time feel more and more like a rather detached tourist, though there are still some startling interludes when I am thrilled and repelled in equal measure. 

I’m not sure how I’d feel about living there now. The recent passing of my mother has further amplified the sense of disconnection. Out in the country the enfeebled fantasy of ‘middle England’ is easier to hold up, and it is of course in these greener patches that UKIP finds many of its recruits. 

Only yesterday I was talking to my father about the state of Marks & Spencer as a business - for generations perhaps the most iconic retail presence on the British high street. Their clothing range, that for so long offered unique value to consumers based on low rents and quality local manufacturers, cannot now compete with businesses like Primark which are grounded in far flung sweatshops. 

Capitalism is engaged in a relentless process of globalisation and the middle orders of the G7 nation states are being severely squeezed. Elsewhere, relatively-excluded humanity sees commodities moving almost without friction across borders and wants to do the same. For billions of people, national frontiers look like a flimsy story told to gullible children. The internet, free markets, freedumb in general, have all disintermediated so many walled gardens within our societies, why not the very walls around them? 

Trump and Sanders are both tapping into our collective discombobulation at this state of affairs. I think the populist position that it is somehow reversible, is probably a lie, or at least a very shaky hypothesis. The Donald and several key members of the LEAVE campaign in Britain are using barely-condonable, xenophobic discourse to draw people into their proposition and (probably futile) policy response. 

Much has been made this week of Nigel Farage’s remarks that staying in the EU will increase the number of attacks on women. It’s as if he and others on his wavelength are suggesting that continental Europe is basically a lost cause and has already in effect been overrun by the fuzzy-wuzzies, so all we can now do is pull up the drawbridge. Before Farage had to insinuate that Bulgarians and Romanians were not quite like us, but the recent, alarming surge in migration from the further fringes has allowed him to be bolder in his rhetoric. Many will surely go in to vote thoroughly confused about the issues of inter-EU mobility and that of the ‘swarm’ from the likes of Syria and Iraq. 

The left shows scorn and dismay, but there are some painful truths being touched upon here that they don’t want to face. Take for example the recent mass abuse of women in Cologne by gangs of reportedly North African/middle-eastern migrants and the systematic abuse of young white teenage girls in Yorkshire by men of predominantly Pakistani origin. 

The Slovenian intellectual Slavoj Žižek compares these events to the 'Great Cat Massacre’ in 18th century France, in which a substantial group of apprentices suddenly rose up and killed all the kitties belonging to their masters. It is said they did this as a form of carnivalesque rejection of dominant bourgeois values: they lived alongside, almost within affluent French society and yet felt excluded, somehow lesser than those treasured felines. 

So when the liberal-left suggests that the molesters of Cologne are simply ignorant of how seriously we take our values and need to be — gently — educated about women’s rights and so on, Žižek thinks they have misunderstood the situation completely. The abusers know very well what our values are and they have periodically clubbed together to show their contempt for them in a very deliberate and systematic way, such that the message could not be any clearer. Yet they are like the apprentices. Once the orgiastic carnival of frustration and repressed envy peters out, they may not have given up entirely on the hope of being masters tand living by the mainstream values themselves one day. 

Anyway, only yesterday I saw Stephen Hawking making the point that time travel backwards is much less likely than time travel in a future-bound direction. So, in spite of all this — and in spite of trying to stay true to my own pessimistic outlook  — I can see no circumstances in which an attempt to go backwards is going to work out better than confronting what the future holds and trying to deal with it using the largest collaborative groups at our disposal. 


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