The resurgence of the antiglobalisation movement, a phenomenon formerly relegated to the West’s sociocultural wastebasket in the aftermath of 9/11, is undoubtedly the ‘big story’ of 2016, if not of the decade. This is, however, a very different animal to that which we last encountered in the early-2000s, its free, violent spirit epitomised by 1999’s spectacular ‘Battle of Seattle’ – this time round, the vegans, anarchists and latter-day hippies are nowhere in sight. We stand now in the midst of a blue-collar revolt; it counts among its leaders, on either side of the Atlantic, a big-mouthed real estate mogul and a retired commodities broker, and it aspires to crush the ailing vestiges of liberal society itself. Unchallenged, it will succeed at its task.
It surprised few that the anti-EU campaign was able to mobilise most fruitfully in those corners of the UK worst-hit by job losses and de-industrialisation in recent years. In the space of a generation, an exodus of British manufacturers has robbed entire communities of their historic essence, the corporate nabobs seeking out cheaper, less militant workforces in South Asia and the Far East. With the City in bloom, Westminster was all too happy to sit idly by; a string of defeats in the 1980s crippled British labour decisively, atomising the traditional working class to the point of political irrelevancy. London’s mushrooming on the back of finance capital exists at the expense of the small towns and rural heartlands, already in rapid decline. Fanon’s ‘wretched of the Earth’, the perpetually dispossessed, walk Tyneside and Port Talbot, their hearts brimming with an unspoken fury.
At the core of British Euroscepticism lies an idiosyncratic marriage between the toiling masses and the ‘cottage industries’, those petty financiers, landowners and ‘mom-and-pop’ establishments which stand to benefit the least from globalisation and its inevitable train of brutalities. Attacks on Brussels, that bastion of internationalist decadence, go hand-in-hand with critiques of the ‘metropolitan elite’ and immigrants, the two most proximate consequences of the order they detest. This poisonous model is to be found across the West – the Front National has denounced globalisation on far less ambiguous terms than their more cautious, outwardly neoclassical Anglo-Saxon counterparts –, but nowhere have the chauvinists achieved a victory anywhere near as implicative and destabilising as in the case of Britain and its EU membership referendum.
Of course, ‘economic’ globalisation cannot, at this late stage, be rolled back; UKIP’s quest is an ultimately nihilistic one, with the base bound to accept no post-Brexit settlement short of a full-blown imperial restoration. Every bit as terrifying is the very real prospect of the Brexit abstraction being seized upon by the ruling class as a means of advancing their interests, of pursuing further neoliberal ‘restructuring’ through a populist prism. Unnoticed amid the weekend’s political hubbub was the re-emergence of George Osborne, the fallen Chancellor of the Exchequer, a man presently said to be vying for a position in the next Tory cabinet. In a purported bid to keep companies from vacating Britain, he proposed major corporate tax cuts; this follows hot on the heels of his pre-referendum warnings towards the effect of an assault on public services in the event of a Brexit.
It remains to be seen which Conservative leadership candidate is best-equipped to execute this program, but Theresa May appears to offer all the hallmarks of a winning unity ticket, palatable to both the pro-EU establishment and the Eurosceptic ‘grassroots’. A known immigration hardliner, May finds herself in a prime position to co-opt right-antiglobalisation and its rhetoric; such a coup is, in fact, overdue, the movement having lost its two central figureheads in the space of week. Whether she has any intention of pulling the Article 50 trigger is an interesting question – May has been much less forthright in stressing her commitment than her rivals –, but dragging the issue out would be untenable in the long run. UKIP and its ilk now find themselves at the centre of public life; the next government will be effectively forced to align themselves with them. The champions of the ‘little man’, those Eurosceptics who took self-righteous pride in their own perverse brand of anti-establishment politics, will soon find themselves an integral cog within that very Westminster machine they made a career of despising.
With the buffoonery at last put to one side, a far darker future beckons for Brexit Britain. The pre-referendum campaign constituted a bonfire of political standards, with every taboo and cardinal virtue subject to a fatal skewering; as it would transpire, the clowns have now packed up and left, to be supplanted by ruthless technocrats, the Leadsoms, Mays and Goves of this world. Whatever awaits, we serve to reap that which was sown over the coming months and years. One cannot help but sense something hideous lurking just over the horizon.