The dust continues to settle after the Brexit earthquake. US markets stabilized today, but it appears to be a “dead cat bounce” or a technical upturn as short positions are covered. It comes from the saying that even a dead cat will bounce up one story after falling off a ten story building. It certainly feels like that kind of week, especially if you think about whatever dead animals might account for the ridiculous hair of Donald Trump and/or Boris Johnson.
Then again, it hasn’t been a week yet.
For all the comparisons between this vote and the Trump phenom, they still don’t do this situation justice. People all over the world are recoiling from opening up markets and generally moving closer together. The threat to the EU is far from done as “euroskeptics” on the continent will certainly be emboldened – as will globalskeptics around the world. What has gone wrong?
We have to start with a few basic assumptions. One is that the world is going to continue to move closer together with improved communications and transportation. There is simply no way to bottle up money within one border any longer. As we have seen with international drug cartels, given enough incentive it is impossible to stop the movement of goods no matter what laws anyone passes.
The next assumption is trickier, but it also must be true. People who are being murdered or starved also cannot be expected to simply stay put and die or even suffer hardships when there are opportunities elsewhere. Trying to restrict them at borders only puts humans at a further disadvantage to money, which is to say heavily favors the process of making money off of human misery.
That last point is where the EU is truly at risk. Foreign goods are one thing – everyone likes a shiny new toy. Immigrants with different cultures, languages, and ideas threaten “our way of life” to far too many people. Much of this belief is, of course, racist, but it is very true that competition for jobs threatens workers by tipping the supply of skills ahead of the demand for it. Absent constant growth there is indeed a zero-sum game with real winners and losers.
Ultimately, none of this can be about abstract things like money or ideas – it has to be about people. Money itself is different from actual wealth, as we have seen in the printing frenzies undertaken by nearly every central bank in the last decade. Wealth is a topic much closer to people, a handy tool in a properly skilled hand, where money more of a way of keeping score.
The world today has created the ability to send the abstract products of human endeavor everywhere, but it still has limited ability to absorb people itself. We are naturally conservative and social beings, invariably more anxious over potential loss than excited by potential gain. We depend on a world that we understand intuitively, with standards of decency etched more in our guts than in our heads.
The inability to figure all of this out in a coherent way is the failure of our time. It only seems reasonable that we didn’t get it right on the first try. Indeed, focusing on things like money as the central organizing principle has been a great failure of all efforts to codify and legalize the inevitable closeness of our world. Like nearly every aspect of our economy, the efforts largely forgot about people – making a blinkered distinction between value and the values that underpin any concept of genuine wealth.
It is the movement of people and the new closeness of cultures that creates all the political problems. We haven’t figured out how to make that work given the natural conservatism inherent in our gregarious, social selves. And in all cases, in all nations, this reactionary impulse shows up in older voters who are more set in their ways and who feel there is indeed much more to lose than to possibly gain.
Through it all the basic organizing unit of the world is what we call a “sovereign nation”. This is a concept usually traced to the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, which ended the Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics. The principle was that each nation, now recognized as the ultimate power, was free to set up laws as it saw fit. Other nations would respect their decisions, no matter how heretical they seemed.
Personally, I am descended in part from people left out of this treaty, the Anabaptists, who never gained equal rights and continued to be slaughtered by all sides until they fled to Pennsylvania. From the very beginning, “sovereignty” had its limits – something I know far too well from family history.
In the end, we are ruled by an abstract concept nearly 400 years old and born out of the necessity to end a relentless and apocalyptic war in Europe. The EU naturally had to challenge this idea because it, too, ultimately resulted in endless war and horrific destruction. But whatever this new coming together, this internationalism that transcends the Westphalian concept of “sovereignty”, comes to be we cannot yet say. It is a work in progress that challenges the old order of everything in ways that are not yet palatable.
As much as the EU is a theoretical necessity, in practice it is indeed a bureaucratic mess. The abstract ideals simply do not yet render themselves into practical operation very well. And this basic failing is written out in different degrees all around the world.
What is the solution? It has to start with people. The last attempt to desperately re-make the world with an ideal also left people behind As it burns itself out it is a revolt of people that demands something else. Much of that is reactionary, derived from anxiety over potential loss. Some of it is very real and very personal.
We’ll never piece this together until we stop for a moment and stop thinking about abstract notions like money and power and ideas and all of the things that have turned up the volume on politics everywhere to the point where no one can possibly hear themselves think. It will have to be about people first.
What exactly that means I can’t say at this time. What I can tell you is that big ideas got us into this mess and only very small ideas will get us out. Small ideas and a lot of courage.