Thursday, June 30, 2016

Brexit: Democracy in Action

Oh, the folly of the Brexit.. There is plenty that is wrong with the EU, but there was much good in it too, worth saving. You don't fix things by walking away from them. Take the basic tenet of the free flow of goods, capital and people. That was fundamentally a good thing, not just from an economics standpoint, but also on a cultural dimension. But many Britons had had enough of that last one: foreigners. Foreigners across the Channel in Brussels making the rules, and foreigners rushing in from the East--both the old east, the territories, and the new east, Eastern Europe, the skilled driving down local wages, the poor straining the budgets of social welfare programs. Or so the narrative went.

That word foreigner, by the way, has a special place in the "Leave" lexicon. (One every foreign student schooled there learns is tinged.) It is a term that can be bandied around as if it were a dirty word, a kind of double-speak, armored with a fallback, neutral dictionary definition that can be summoned for plausible deniability (of bigotry, xenophobia). This well-understood, yet unwritten inflection in a word's meaning reminds me of the American right's usage of the word homosexual. It's an old ploy from the playbook: in the US, they did it also with liberal (what else do you call the other side of conservative?). The label became so infected that liberals themselves disowned it. "Me? No, I'm not a [tree hugging, bleeding heart] liberal: I'm a progressive!" was a familiar, lame retort. (Thank you, Bernie, for fixing that.)

But I digress. I'm worried. There are more immediate, personal affairs to put in order, and yet I worry. I shouldn't be surprised to find myself gloomy: it's the big ideas that make the day-to-day toiling worthwhile, and when one spectacularly fails so pathetically, it's natural to feel shaken with disillusionment. Or so I tell myself.

Me? No, I'm not fretting over the EU, or Europe, for that matter. No, to me, Brexit represents a glaring example of democracy failing as a decision making process. While it is the least worse of all the items on menu (authoritarianism, oligarchies, etc.), democracy is still prone to undeniably stupid outcomes.

Ah, the so called wisdom of the crowds. Ask each to estimate the number of beans in a lidded jar, and if you average their responses you tend to get a good approximation of the true count. But ask us something more self referential, as in what to do with ourselves, and the group fucks up badly.

It would be one thing if those who voted to "leave" had all understood its negative consequences, if in their minds it had been a bitter but necessary pill to swallow. But that was not how the campaign was sold, and many a Brexiter woke up the next day to the realization of just what they had done. And therein lies what irks me most about this affair.

For I like to imagine social groups as quasi organisms--self interested, with at least a modicum of intelligence aimed at self preservation. But Brexit puts all that in doubt. Most organisms are smart enough to know not to walk off a ledge. Democratic organizations, it turns out, are no cleverer than a toddler and will step off any edge, expecting to be caught. If we are to survive, we must grow up fast.

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