A time for new thinking? Michael Gove and Boris Johnson hold a press conference Brexit HQ in Westminster, London after the UK's historic vote to leave the EU. Credit: Mary Turner/PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Most of the analysis of 'Brexit in recent days has been focused on looking at Britain's domestic political upheavals and then turning the gaze outwards. It might also make sense, however, to consider the wider global dimension before focusing on the more immediate.
This series of columns has long emphasised that global stability in the 21st century is determined by three factors: economy, environment and security. These individual elements have also been the focus of many other openDemocracy writers, who have contributed some of the best analysis of the post-2001 global predicament.
The core argument is that the world has a little over two decades to face three immense challenges. The first is that the worldwide economic system – the neoliberal model of free-market capitalism which evolved in the late 1970s – is not delivering sufficient equity and emancipation. After forty years it has proved unfit for purpose, yet remains a deeply entrenched system that is proving very difficult to modify.
Neoliberalism's evolving failure is reflected in the populist anger that is affecting so many western countries, with refugees and migrants seen as threats.
There is also strong opposition to the argument that the model is failing. Yet recognising its failure is essential to building a much more stable and just society that can both respond to climate disruption, and avoid the escalation of violence throughout the world.
In all too many ways, neoliberalism's evolving failure is reflected in the populist anger that is affecting so many western countries, with refugees and migrants seen as threats and sometimes targeted. Much of that anger is fuelled by ambitious politicians, mostly but not all on the right, who seek to exploit the frustrations of more marginalised groups within western states.
The second challenge is the fundamental issue of global environmental limits, especially climate disruption. Unless countered, this will lead to huge problems of insecurity and fragility in what is now a deeply connected world (see "The global pioneers: look south", 22 June 2016). The present-day concern over migration is as nothing to what would happen in the face of systemic global climate change. A radical move towards ultra-low carbon economies is required long before the severe impacts of climate disruption have their effect. This is a formidably difficult task for political leaderships that are rarely noted for wisdom or foresight.
The third challenge is to contain an integrated culture of militarism that prescribes military solutions in almost every situation. Even after fifteen years of the “war on terror” there is little or no recognition of its manifest failures, from the terrible human costs across the Middle East and south Asia or the continuing paramilitary threats (of which the Istanbul airport attack is the latest of many). ISIS may appear to be in retreat in Iraq and Libya but it has gone much more avowedly transnational. It is certain that another “son of al-Qaida” is already evolving, ready to carry on the “irregular war” that is at the core of current insecurity (see Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016).
It sounds both simple and vast: stop climate change, transform the global economy, sideline militarism – and all within a couple of decades! But the effort cannot be avoided.
A promising debate
What, then, of the EU's role in these global challenges? The context is that the EU largely buys into neoliberalism and reflects the centre-right norm of much of Europe. It may be mildly enlightened on financial regulation, human rights and climate change, but rhetoric tends to be far ahead of what is required in practice. For example, a few member-states are pushing towards partial decarbonising, but overall the EU's climate record is lamentably weak.
The disappointment here is less with what the EU does, but what it could do if enough member-states were prepared to arcticulate a much stronger progressive ethos. In such circumstances the potential for positive intergovernmental action, both on economic reform and climate change, would be considerable. Many economic neoliberals have long feared moves in this direction, and this concern does much to explain their satisfaction with Brexit and their hopes for further disintegration of the EU.
In Britain, the actions of David Cameron's government since the election on green issues and privatisation are reminders that in power his generation of Conservatives have been more ideological than Margaret Thatcher's ever was. If and when the likes of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson move to the centre of the power-complex, the prospect could be an even more seriously right-wing period of rule.
But whether they will succeed is hugely uncertain. The government has already been forced into spectacular backtracking on some key issues, including tax credits and trade-union reform. Once the Brexit promises prove undeliverable, as is near certain, the prospect is of widespread disenchantment which Nigel Farage and UKIP will seek to exploit.
Jeremy Corbyn’s team have been among the very few western politicians trying to grapple with core security issues.
In this new context, much will depend on the parliamentary opposition, especially but not only the Labour Party. If, and it’s a very big if, the party can unify and present a programme that embodies the innovative thinking that has begun to emerge, then whichever Conservative inherits 10 Downing Street's poisoned chalice will soon run into trouble.
The problem here is that the current turmoil in the Labour Party makes it less likely that it could take advantage of such a situation. That would be a pity, as some of Jeremy Corbyn’s team have been among the very few western politicians trying to grapple with core security issues.
John McDonnell’s economic team, for example, has started the process of thinking through the decay of neoliberalism and seeking rational ways forward, while Emily Thornberry has been overseeing a defence discussion that puts much more of a focus on conflict prevention, peacekeeping and the United Nations. They have also begun to consider more ways of understanding security, using the work of the Ammerdown initiative and Oxford Research Group. If these initiatives come to an end, it would block the promising debate just begun on issues neglected by political establishments both in Britain and across the European Union. that would be a huge loss.
The UK's entire future role in international peace and security is even more in question after the Brexit decision. The UK simply does not know how to deal with the multiple crises in the Middle East, north Africa and south Asia, nor the troubled relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The confusion is shared by the United States and most of Europe.
It is highly unlikely that the post-Cameron Conservatives will be any more enlightened than before. The reverse is much more likely. This makes new thinking from opposition parties even more crucial. Even if current prospects for this are poor, especially from parliamentary circles, the scale of global insecurity makes it urgent.
The background to this judgment is in part almost fifteen years of writing a weekly column for openDemocracy, during which it has become a remarkable global platform. It is vital that such an outlet for new thinking continues to exist. If prophecy really is “suggesting the possible”, then the prophets are needed more than ever.