Image: Flickr/Philippe Rouzet

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Globalization is a mighty force — for good, for putting more food on the table, to give it its due — and for bad, truly bad, like the fear and loathing of the Other, even the whiff of fascism, in Europe before and now after Brexit — and, I note in passing, in the air in Trump’s America.

Can we really blame globalization for these bad things?  Consider that great era of globalization in the nineteenth century as Britain’s pioneering industrialization spread to North America and to much of Europe,  raising standards of living.

But how, to the great surprise of all, then and now, did it end?  With the First World War, the utter collapse of the global economy after the financial crash of 1929, and from that, like falling dominos, fascism in Italy, Germany, Japan and the Second World War. We can read about all that in Karl Polanyi’s The Great Transformation; it should be on the reading list of the annual Davos economic summit where today’s great achievers assemble to sing their own praises and pat their own backs.

For Polanyi, it was the pursuit of the utopian project of the self-regulating market that imploded into the real world dystopia. Of course, history never repeats itself, but neo-liberalism, with austerity for the many and gluttony for the few, became the new utopia. 

And there was that financial crisis in 2008, which wrought havoc in America, and from which we emerged with not a single reform that would rule out its recurrence.

And, over the decades, the European Union had been created as a monument to economic integration on the road to fuller globalization. Except that it was manifestly undemocratic, a technocratic delight, committed to austerity, prepared to crush the smaller peoples like the Greeks — who, let it be noted, rejected Grexit only to watch their young people, seeing no future in Greece, exit in droves, taking the future of Greece with them.

Brexit has driven a stake into the heart of integration. The new narrative is disintegration. At the moment it would seem that only the far right has much of a feel for this. Which is truly scary.

David Cameron’s right-wing conservative government unapologetically practiced austerity, and continued to do so in the run-up to Brexit, to the detriment of many of its citizens. These “losers” took out their vengeance via Brexit, but this cannot excuse their embrace of far-right racist populism. But it does pose the difficult question of what alternative did they have.

(At the age of 84, born and raised in small-town Ontario where completing high school was accomplishment enough, with my ancestors all from England’s pro-Brexit north country, I find myself rather resenting the way in which my ilk in England, over 50 and uneducated, are given the back of the hand by their “betters” there and here; we are the stooped and the stupid, the aged within what has, in its extreme, come to be called, in America “white trash.”)

The best that Labour as the party of the left was, apparently, able to do was for its leadership to give half-hearted support for the EU and, after Brexit won, for it to be rent asunder, de facto impeached by angered EU supporters within its caucus. With politics polarized, the undeserving right clung to power and the left ate itself up.

As for myself, for the record, I would have voted to Remain because of my fear of letting loose the bad. That weighs much more heavily in my mind than the economic benefits alleged to flow automatically from size, from economies of scale.

My case for not voting for Brexit only increased when, after it won, here in Canada, two senior members of Harper’s cabinet, Jason Kenney and Tony Clement — who happens to be, as a cottager, the MP from my home terrain of Parry Sound-Muskoka — tweeted their delight with the outcome. Kenney is seeking the leadership of the Alberta Conservatives in the hope of then merging with the further right Wildrose party, in order to get  rid of the NDP government; should we now be fearing Albrexit?  It does boggle the mind how those who supported Harper’s neoliberal project of Canadian-style corporate globalization can so artlessly segue into its apparent opposite.

Is there a lesson for the good from Brexit? The mainstream media here in Canada have been replete with paeons of pent-up praise for trade agreements, sometimes even alleging that saying “no” to a trade agreement is saying “no” to trade. (Let me say for the record that I personally am all in favour of earning the foreign exchange necessary to buy the bananas I love to eat.)

No Canadian prime minister in modern times has been able to resist the pursuit of any and all trade agreements and Justin Trudeau is, and will be, no exception. But they are getting harder to come by. As well as the Law of Comparative Advantage, maybe there’s a special kind of Law of Diminishing Returns that leaves slight pickings — corporations excepted – from yet another trade agreement. It is certainly possible — let me guess, and hope, probable – that neither the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) nor the mammoth trade deal of Canada with Europe, the Comprehensive Economic and  Trade Agreement (CETA) will survive the shocks to the system of Obama leaving the White House and Brexit.

At some point we may have no alternative but to find some other way — in that groovy new lingo – to grow the economy. In fact, notwithstanding the trade agreements we’ve signed, our economy is not doing all that well.  And the big one, NAFTA, after all these years gets only 25 per cent approval from Canadians.

Canadian elites take note: the unwashed may get you yet. (I had no more than written this when I received, as an alumnus, the latest copy of UofT News with the headline “U of T experts call Brexit ‘a disaster'” Oh to be an expert, not to be confused with the people who have cast their winning democratic vote!)

It’s been easy to imagine that the EU was a model on the road to global governance. It was, in effect, what I was taught years ago as a graduate student in economics at MIT. We should now know better.

Let us hope that building locally and democratically, from the ground up — what England should now do — is embraced as the lesson learned from Brexit. It won’t be easy. It’s just essential.

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Image: Flickr/Philippe Rouzet

Mel Watkins

Mel Watkins

Mel Watkins is Professor Emeritus of Economics and Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is Editor Emeritus of This Magazine and a frequent contributor to Peace magazine. He is a member...