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Brexit Confirms Some Of Plato’s Cautions (Ronald Beiner)

Political Theology Today invites short, personal reflections from our contributors and editors concerning their immediate reaction to, and what they foresee as the consequences of, the referendum in the UK last Friday known as “Brexit.”  The following is from one of our regular contributors Ronald Beiner.

I would like to offer the (unhappy) suggestion that Thursday’s referendum result constituted a vindication of Plato’s ancient distinction between the few and the many.

Such a distinction does actually exist. The many don’t like being told what to think. They don’t like having dictated to them what really matters in life. They don’t like being told that their concerns are morally inferior to the concerns of the few. So eventually they say: “F**k you: we’ll think for ourselves and decide for ourselves what matters and what doesn’t matter. Britain deciding its fate for itself rather than having things decided for it by Continentals matters to us, and if this means our standard of living drops, so be it.”

Let’s face it, the EU was from the very start a top-down project rather than a bottom-up project. For lots of very good reasons  – centuries of war within Europe, etc. – the top wanted people in Britain to privilege being European over being British.

What the bottom eventually said in response was: “To hell with that. We prefer our Britishness. Turkey will join the EU as a reward for accepting refugees that Europe doesn’t want, and England will be flooded with Turks seeking a better livelihood than that available to them in Turkey. What happens then to Britishness? F**k you, cosmopolitan elites, we prefer being British.” I fervently hope the same logic doesn’t apply in the US presidential elections in November, but I don’t think any of us can now take for granted that it won’t.

I think all of these developments have dire consequences. It will energize the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP). It will energize the Front National. It will energize the whole European xenophobic Right.  Scots won’t want to belong to a U.K. that has left the EU, so Britain’s secession from the EU. will be followed by Scotland’s secession from the UK.. We will get not just potential dissolution of the EU but also probable dissolution of the UK.

Brexit will re-activate Irish nationalism, because a border will be re-erected between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that doesn’t currently exist. Not least, it will help Trump. Vladimir Putin is probably throwing big parties in the Kremlin. Only one party leader in Britain supported the winning side — namely Nigel Farage, so a strong case can be made that the person who won on Thursday (apart from Putin) was Farage (hence it was entirely appropriate that he was the one who came forward to make the victory speech).

In his speech, Farage said that Brexit “will be a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people.” That is: the elites who predicted various sorts of catastrophe following from a British withdrawal were fake people, phony people, artificial people. The message is very clear. Populism gives voice to the authentic people, as opposed to the elites who arrogantly claim to know better than the real people.

When the results came in, my wife quoted David Cameron saying that dissolution of the EU could eventually lead us back to wars in Europe. Our fourteen-year-old son scoffed: “That’s nonsense. Couldn’t possibly happen.” Well, my wife and I immediately pointed out how short has been the period of European peace – barely more than half a century.

One doesn’t really need much historical consciousness at all to see how perilous this is. And no one should be complacent about Trump either.  Just because Trump doesn’t know how to act presidential and doesn’t know how to run a presidential campaign doesn’t guarantee that Trumpism will be defeated. The populism genie is out of the bottle.

I think the Brits have made a historic mistake, and the consequences of this mistake will stretch far beyond the borders of Britain. But if one wants to spin something positive out of this whole disaster, let me try out this idea.

In important ways, it was a contest between the idea that economic interests are what matter most in life and the idea that other things, such as cultural identity, matter more. One might say that it was not only a vindication for Plato.  It was a vindication for the anti-materialism of Nietzsche (for whom cultural life is what matters most) over the materialism of both liberalism and Marxism (which regard economic life as most important).

To be sure, there’s something encouraging in the notion that people would be willing to sacrifice their economic interests for the sake of things they care about that are non-economic or anti-economic. Still, in this case, for reasons I’ve already cited, I really wish the materialist side had won.

Ronald Beiner is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. In 1982 he published an edition of Hannah Arendt’s Lectures on Kant’s Political Philosophy (foreign-language editions have appeared or are forthcoming in 15 other languages). He is the author of Political Judgment (1983); What’s the Matter with Liberalism? (1992); Philosophy in a Time of Lost Spirit (1997); Liberalism, Nationalism, Citizenship (2003); Civil Religion (2011); and Political Philosophy: What It Is and Why It Matters (2014). His other edited or co-edited books include Democratic Theory and Technological Society (1988); Kant and Political Philosophy (1993); Theorizing Citizenship (1995); Theorizing Nationalism (1999); Canadian Political Philosophy (2001); and Judgment, Imagination, and Politics (2001).

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