The Brexit referendum was about something far bigger than Britain’s political and economic relationship with the rest of Europe. School pupils and university students spontaneously broke into tears on the morning the results came in, seeing their future life prospects destroyed. At the same time, people who look or sound different were told by triumphant leavers to ‘pack your bags and go back where you came from’, across the country and without any apparent coordination or official political backing. Such happenings are ominous, and they become more ominous still if serious incidents such as the murder of an MP as a perceived ‘traitor’ to the nation are factored in. Many of us historians have developed a special sense for such moments because we are trained to connect the dots intuitively and imaginatively. We have seen similar outbursts of collective emotion in the past and know what they can harbour – situations like 1789 in France, 1947 in India, 1990 in Yugoslavia.
There has been a widespread sense of disquiet about the state of the world for some years now. The ability to visualize a better future has never in living memory seemed so remote. It feels as if Francis Fukuyama’s much maligned ‘end of history’ has been stripped of its messianic optimism and then never gone away. A dark cloud of ‘there is no alternative’ has being hanging over us. There have been global pandemics like swine flu or Ebola, environmental disasters and unusual natural events, and the diffuse threat of Islamic terrorism has combined with a sense of economic crisis to produce a generalized climate of fear and foreboding. Yet until Brexit struck, this sense of impending doom still seemed to be somewhat intangible; perceptible below the surface but not powerful enough to disrupt the order of everyday life. Now, it feels as if things are at last kicking off for real. One historian on Twitter began to wonder half-jokingly whether people a century hence will speak of the ‘generalized crisis of the early 21st century’, others whether the year 2016 would be remembered as the date when the dissolution of the world as we know it began in earnest.
In times like these, history can be a great consoler. By standing back and contemplating larger connections and storylines, the febrile mind can at last find a grip, a resting place that offers some sense of ‘taking back control’. But such consolation should come with a health warning. Getting a grip is not the same as optimism, let alone offering a workable vision for political action. Some of the best long term analyses have been driven by the experience of defeat. Think of Fernand Braudel, who discovered the agency of geographic features over the longue durée when incarcerated in a German prisoner of war camp. Or of Antonio Gramsci who wrote his exceptionally perceptive interpretations of history from a fascist prison cell. It is Gramsci’s ‘pessimism of the intellect’ rather than his ‘optimism of the will’ that colours the way we see the world today. Making sense of Brexit within a larger historical framework is like staring into the abyss in order to make one’s fears more manageable, an exorcism by anticipation, perhaps.
The books that I felt most compelled to revisit in response to the Brexit crisis all deal with the historical sociology of capitalism. I had come across some of this material as a student in the early and mid 1990s, but until recently, lost sight of it to explore other intellectual territories. Most of it is of Marxist provenance broadly construed – more precisely of North American Marxist provenance, where big picture analyses of the global economic system have received particularly careful attention. Relevant names include (among others) Immanuel Wallerstein, Saskia Sassen, David Harvey, Royal Holloway’s own Sandra Halperin, and somewhat peripheral to this tradition, the German historian of capitalist crises, Robert Kurz.
There are several reasons why this body of literature seemed to be particularly appealing when trying to make sense of Brexit. In the first instance, the referendum has been accompanied by the ongoing self-destruction of the British Labour Party, and a general reassessment of left theory and practice going back to first base seemed appropriate and pressing for the moment. Before we can even argue about what kind of politics we now need, we need to know where we stand in terms of big-picture stuff. In addition, the emotional flavour of this historical sociology chimed with the post-Brexit blues. The authors involved were all more or less shaped by the experience of belonging to an intellectual tradition – Marxism – which had not the slightest chance of wider political relevance where they lived or worked, the USA. But they carried on writing regardless, and with a heightened sense that at least intellectually they could defeat an otherwise overwhelming system. And, perhaps most importantly, there seemed to be an immediate fit with the empirical evidence. The map of how Britain voted over Brexit – with ‘remain’ areas coloured yellow and ‘leave’ areas coloured blue – was an almost perfect illustration of some key arguments that had been made in this body of scholarly writing.
The historical sociology of global capitalism, then, is the grand narrative which can help us situate Brexit, its causes and consequences. It allows us to read the referendum result as an outward sign – local and specific to the UK – of a much wider structural contradiction which is currently transforming the world as we know it. What is at stake is enormous, and holds the frightening but real possibility that our future may be a good deal less democratic than our present.
Let us begin with a key contention: over its long historical formation, capitalism has only occasionally and in very particular locations marched in step with the two other trademark institutions of modernity, the nation state and democracy. For most of the modern period, capitalism has produced economic and political geographies that cut across the nation state in various ways, and relied on means of political organization that involved some degree of authoritarianism and coercion.
This is immediately evident when we take a global view of capitalism in its formative period from the 17th to the 19th centuries. This was never just a story of an industrial (or as some would have it, an ‘industrious’) revolution in one particular territory such as Britain, operating in tandem with the creation of new citizens equal before the law, and their gradual incorporation in political decision making. There was always another side to it: first, what Marx originally called ‘primitive accumulation’, the forcible appropriation of peoples, places and goods in the first rush for capital accumulation. It was exemplified by the enclosure of common lands, the infamous highland clearances or the robber-baron colonialism of the East India Company. Then came the no less brutal but more systematic disempowerment of the majority of the world’s population on racial grounds under European empires. In some places, and for three centuries or more, this included capitalist slavery, the most coercive system of labour management imaginable. The link between authoritarianism and capitalism did not end there. The twentieth century brought forth capitalist dictatorships around the world, including communist dictatorships. Against other sections of the Left, much of the literature under review argues that communists were politically successful in many parts of the global South and underdeveloped East not because they were anti-capitalist, but, on the contrary, because they offered a turbo-charged version of capitalist development directed and monopolized by the state. This is what Lenin’s famous celebration of ‘electrification of the whole country’ and Mao’s ‘great leap forward’ were all about. The untold horrors committed in the name of communist development are as much part of Robert Kurz’s ‘black book’ of global capitalism as modern slavery.
Whatever may have changed over these centuries, capitalist development was rarely confined within national boundaries (the communist path to development is a possible exception). More often than not, the global capitalist elite was transnational in orientation. The members of this elite shared a common culture built around such things as opera, a love for renaissance art and classical education. They intermarried across borders. They owned assets in several countries. Friedrich Engels, German industrialist with strong British connections, was by no means unique; even a quintessentially German company like Siemens had British as well as German family branches before the First World War. Capitalism constituted, as Immanuel Wallerstein once famously called it, an emergent ‘world system’ linking metropolitan core areas in Europe with colonial and semi-colonial peripheries around the globe. Colonial Guyana in South America provides a perfect example: labour came from Africa (initially as slaves), from India (as part of the indentured servitude system) and from China; they worked plantations owned by international shareholders to produce cash crops like sugar which had to be shipped across the Atlantic to be sold to mostly working class consumers in Europe’s industrial heartlands. The profits went into anything from railway companies to city banking houses and village church renovations. It should be noted that this self-fuelling and highly exploitative system continued, and become more efficient, in the 150 years after slavery was formally abolished in the region. At their most productive, around the mid-twentieth century, the sugar plantations of British Guiana were unique in that they produced not one but two annual crops.
There was only one relatively brief period when the common-sense picture of capitalism applied, when a flourishing ‘national’ economy coincided closely with the borders marked on a political map, and when economic reproduction went hand in hand with democratic governance. This was the time between the end of the Second World War and the emergence of a neo-liberal economic system in the late 1970s. Over these three decades – but even then not everywhere – an economic logic of industrial manufacture, mass consumption based on rising incomes across the working and the middle class, of state planning, and a more or less consensual form of politics prevailed. This is capitalism as it is most familiar to us: of workers manufacturing goods like cars or TV sets and earning enough to then buy these same items back for their personal enjoyment. This system still relied on the basic Marxist category of exploitation, but nevertheless functioned for some time as a self-sustaining engine of prosperity creation for the many.
All this began to change in the aftermath of the 1973 oil crisis, which ushered in a global recession. Capitalism survived and reinvented itself, but with a new modus operandi that had become firmly entrenched by the 1990s, and is ultimately responsible for the dislocations that Brexit brought to the fore. The main method of surplus creation shifted from labour exploitation to financial speculation and ‘securitisation’, a new form of primitive accumulation by stealth, as Saskia Sassen describes it. This new system no longer requires people to be turned into capitalist labourers or consumers for it can create wealth without people. For the first time, this means that capitalism is no longer expanding – seeking to bring more people and territories under its control as it had done for the last many centuries. Instead it grows richer by ‘expulsions’ (again Sassen’s term), by getting rid of people in order to speculate with what they leave behind. Sub-prime mortgages foreclosed in dying American cities, landscapes ransacked by fracking or mining, bodies plundered for organ donations and patented for medical copyright, whole populations killed or displaced while the international arms trade makes a fortune.
Even though the wealth concentrated at the top has increased enormously since the days of the welfare state, this is not a self-sustaining system. As some historians of capitalism have pointed out, capitalism may well have entered a final crisis mode. The current slowing of growth around the world may be the first concrete evidence of this disturbing trend. While the rich economies of the North are in or close to recession, countries that have previously been held up as hopes for a globalised future are in deep trouble, too. China sits on a mountain of real estate debts while the economy slows, and India had to falsify official data by its Central Bank to maintain any semblance of economic growth outperforming population growth.
The geographic shape of the new system once again transcends national boundaries. There are new and reinforced global links cutting across the old division between a rich North and a poor South, exemplified by new areas of global ‘outsourcing’ and glittering global cities on all inhabited continents. The new structures also create growing regional disparities within national economies, between the nodal points of a still thriving global network and areas of ‘expulsion’ for which the system no longer has any use. This brings us directly back to the referendum map mentioned above. The yellow areas voting for ‘remain’ in England and Wales coincided almost perfectly with areas that still have a stake in the global economy: London and its wealthy hinterlands, the M4/M40 corridor of Berkshire and Oxfordshire, Britain’s knowledge cities like Manchester, Cambridge, Leeds or Aberystwyth. Those areas that voted ‘leave’ by the largest margins, in contrast, were the old industrial heartlands and rural areas now left behind.
This explanation of the geographic shape of the Brexit vote is powerful but not in itself particularly original. Many have made this point without recourse to Marxist meta-history, not the least ex-Prime Minister Gordon Brown who demanded that globalization had to work for everyone not just the few. Other commentators believe that Brexit will usher in a wider people’s revolt against the excesses of neo-liberalism. It is here that the perusal of the historical sociology literature offers a starkly different perspective. If the likes of Harvey, Sassen and Kurz are right with their grand narratives of capitalist development then it is unlikely that a political upset like Brexit can alone reverse deep structural developments. Unless it is forced into a yet completely unknown new modus operandi – for which there is little evidence – global capitalism will continue to rely on ‘expulsion’ as its main method of surplus extraction. That it has also entered crisis mode can only mean that regional disparities between core areas and left-behind areas will grow further still. Tax and spend, or a politics of redistribution, will no longer work as a remedy. Insofar as Brexit was a vote to take us back to the days of a national economy it cannot fulfil its core promise. (It is worth noting that there was also a leave argument at play that argued for more rather than less globalization – David Owen’s new ‘blue water diplomacy’, for instance, or Andrea Leadsom’s new trade deals, but this theme was quickly overshadowed by a rhetoric of ‘taking back control’ over national borders.)
This is not simply speculation. In countries with longstanding regional disparities across Europe – Italy with its industrial North and mezzogiorno South, say, or East and West Germany – the divide has become sharper over recent decades, despite long-standing and hugely expensive ‘development efforts’ by the countries themselves or by the EU. Meanwhile, across Europe, the gap between the networked core – located mostly in the North – and the expulsions areas in the South has also intensified. It is happening elsewhere, too, from Nigeria’s increasingly unbridgeable split between North and South to India’s great divergence between the Western and Southern coastal regions and the Northern ‘cow-belt’. It is very unlikely that the people of Sunderland or the Welsh Valleys will be any luckier than those in Greifswald in East Germany, Trapani in Sicily, or indeed Patna in India’s Bihar, when it comes to their state’s ability to overcome inequality through redistribution or protectionism.
This brings us to the crux of this exercise in historical analysis: what will be the political effects of these structural contradictions? A steady growth in the number of people who are of no use to the system, not even good enough to be exploited or to buy useless commodities, and a simultaneous crisis of the system as a whole will produce a colossal amount of discontent. Those who still have a stake in global capitalism, meanwhile, will seek to protect their life chances tooth and nail – as the emotional reaction of so many ‘remainers’ to Brexit demonstrated beyond doubt. The interests of those living in the still thriving network core and those in left-behind areas have become irreconcilable. One’s dream has become the other’s nightmare, while there is still no alternative political economy that could overcome such divisions in sight. How is this conflict going to be managed through democratic institutions? How is system compliance and consent going to be generated within a geographic framework – the nation state – that no longer fits the shape of the political economy?
One can think of several possibilities here. Discounting the unlikely event that the people of Britain collectively decide to leave the capitalist order altogether and try out some other system on their own, two alternatives stand out. First, areas that are small enough, well-connected enough and have the kind of identity politics in place to sustain such a move, may seek to become small independent nation states that play the new global system for what it is worth. Catalonia in Spain is a good example. Scotland is clearly weighing up its options to follow this path.
Where such secessionist moves are less feasible – as in England and Wales – some kind of artificial consent will have to be manufactured by means of an authoritarian political order. The Chinese Communist leadership is perfectly open about the need to manage regional disparities in their own country through repression, and justifies it with reference to a Confucian political culture. Elsewhere – as developments in Hungary and Poland, in Erdogan’s Turkey, Modi’s India and Putin’s Russia suggest – there is a trend towards majoritarian pseudo-democracy. A climate of radical nationalism prevails, post-truth politics becomes the norm, universities and the media are purged of opposition, perceived minorities are used as scapegoats, an artificial and hollow ideology of consumption and development spectacle papers over deprivation. But people are still able to vote, in fact, are even invited to vote to periodically consecrate the holy union of popular will and populist leadership.
It is not even necessary for a rabidly authoritarian party with genocidal urges, such as Narendra Modi’s BJP, to gain power for such a system to work. It is sufficient if such a party is strong enough to compel everybody else to rally behind a pro-establishment alternative that governs solely on the promise of keeping the barbarians at bay. Such a perennial party of power would have a free hand to resort to authoritarian measures as long as they remain marginally less off-putting than those demanded by the other side. Discontent will remain high, but has nowhere else to go but to the radical nationalists who stand in perpetual opposition, thereby only reinforcing the dominance of the ‘centre’.
Such a situation is by no means inconceivable in post-Brexit Britain. In fact, one can already see the contours of it taking shape: witness the implosion of the Labour Party in line with what is happening to other social democratic parties around the world, the emergence of the Tories as the only ‘centrist’ alternative in a world where the ‘centre’ has moved very considerably to the right, and an entrenchment of UKIP and assorted right-wing extremists as the attack dogs that prop up the system from the outside.
You have been warned – historical analysis in times like these is likely to yield depressing results. The only consolation is that even the best structural analysis does not fully accommodate human agency which will always remain unpredictable. The best historians can hope for at this juncture is that they are wrong.
Markus Daechsel is Reader in the History of South Asia at Royal Holloway, University of London. His latest book, Islamabad and the Politics of International Development in Pakistan, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2015.