Brexit may be what happens when economic considerations overtake us

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As I write this column, the results of the Brexit vote aren't known, though the voting is on. That suits me fine. I have no idea what I hope will happen.

The Leavers were led by former London mayor Boris Johnson, who's like Trump, starting from the hair, but with a sense of self-clownishness: more Rob Ford than Donald. He likened the EU to Nazi Germany, simplifying the choice.

The Remainers had a toffish tone, from PM David Cameron down. They seemed irritated about having to explain why people should do as they were told. The Financial Times' Martin Wolf said the Leave choice was "beyond any sane person" so you were crazy if you disagreed. CBC went to former Guardian Europe editor, Jon Henley. From his first weary intake of breath, you knew he was going to intone, "What you have to understand about this." Thanks, mate.

The more sympathetic (to me) leftish people on the Remain side, were almost all Lesser Evilists who think the EU is foul but Britain outside it would be even worse, regressing to Thatcherism unbound: privatizing what public stuff still survives, while throttling human rights and unions. It's never great when you're counting on people elsewhere to save you from yourselves. Among the most coherent, as Jennifer Wells noted here, was John Mason, another former Guardian editor, who said the EU should be ditched but not quite yet, while Boris still rages, though as soon as possible for God's sake.

Even John Oliver was unpersuasive, for the first time I can recall, and he's the most calm, studious voice in news today. Being English, he was appalled by Leavers, such as Boris, UKIP, and all the crass Little Englanders cheering them on. But that was his whole case. When John Oliver leaves you clueless, you know you're truly adrift.

As for me, the sanctimonious brutalizing, nay crucifixion, of the Greek people by the EU in the name of austerity, would justify taking the nearest exit without further thought. On the other hand (dammit) I share a knee jerk sense that all breakups on all levels (including divorces, no matter how healthy and inevitable) are somehow a failure of our species to achieve its destined unity.

In this haze, the most light I've glimpsed was shed by Labour member of the House of Lords, Maurice (Baron) Glasman. He says breaking up large institutions, such as the EU, is the only imaginable precondition to creating real international solidarity and unity. In order to strengthen actual human bonds across Europe's borders, it's necessary to leave the EU, since it's remorselessly centralizing and bureaucratic at this point and cannot be otherwise. He makes a heartening distinction between globalization (bad, inhuman, "economic") and internationalism (good, think of International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War).

Glasman's a quirky, very English bird: academic, religious Jewish, lives with his family above a store, founded Blue Labour, which embraces both new and traditional values from a left POV. He says the EU began with a proper mix of economic and humane values but by the neoliberal 1990s had been overtaken by a total emphasis on the "rational" and economic. It went from a "Common Market to a single market, from a mutual space to a neutral space governed by an imposed harmonization" -- that reduced people and nature to commodities.

Progressive Remainers are deluded if they think the EU can still embody its original mix of impulses. But Glasman says leaving the EU would make it possible to reactivate those human vs. economic, connections again -- a bit the way I used to think Quebec independence would make healthy relations between it and the rest of Canada possible. (If the parallel seems far-fetched: Parisians sent loads of croissants to England with "We love you, please stay" notes, like sappy Anglo-Canadians invading Quebec with love during its 1995 referendum.) Another example: the recent decision to give Las Vegas but not Quebec City an NHL team, since only economic considerations counted, not larger ones.

Glasman says what's truly, epically irrational is reducing multifarious human beings to sets of economic data. Oddly, humans often agree. They'll frequently consider losing out economically to being diminished existentially.

Even so, that still leaves me -- or would've left me -- with the question of how to vote on Brexit. Thankfully, I don't/didn't get the chance.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Tomek Nacho/flickr

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