The only certainty on this, the day after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, is that one historical era has ended, and another now begins. Specifically, Brexit marks a decisive end to neoliberalism’s ideological ascendancy in the West dating back to the end of World War II. It is a tremendous, ringing repudiation of one of the central tenets of the European Union itself—that economic unification naturally leads to political unification.
Instead, Britain’s choice appears to push the Europe and the West in the exact opposite direction, toward a frenzy of disintegration, and a return to old nationalisms. Britain’s membership in the EU was always weird—it didn’t share the same currency, and had more exemptions from EU regulations than any other member state. But this vote not only removes one of the EU’s largest members, but also potentially inspires core member-states, including Sweden, Denmark, Italy, the Netherlands, and possibly even France, to follow suit. It highlights once again the EU’s failures as a political entity, including its inability to effectively address its debt crisis, or to handle the waves of refugees coming from the war-torn Middle East. The EU is not healthy, and may be closer to collapse than anyone realized.
The future of the United Kingdom is now also in doubt. Scotland, which almost voted for independence from the UK two years ago, yesterday voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. In the likely event of another independence referendum, it’s hard to see how Scotland won’t leave the UK. And Sinn Fein has already called for a referendum on a united Ireland, which would pull Northern Ireland out of the UK as well.
There’s no way to tell how this will affect the American presidential election. It seems to bolster the impulses behind the Trump insurgency, although it remains to be seen whether Trump is skilled enough as politician to capitalize on these favorable ideological trends. The Clinton campaign would also be wise to note the dangers of relying exclusively on fear tactics to uphold the political status quo. As the Brexit vote showed, it’s going to take a hell of a lot more than that to turn the populist/nationalist tide.
And as for crucial global initiatives like the 2015 Paris Agreement to lower worldwide CO2 emissions, the atomization of Europe potentially spells disaster.
Ultimately, what Brexit portends for our collective future—and what might replace the West’s 50-year consensus around the globalization of labor and capital—remains very much in doubt. But in an era where we speak so casually of “disruptive innovation,” Brexit is easily the most truly disruptive global event since 9/11, and its consequences may be even more profound and long lasting.