Brexit: Ignorance Calls Out Ignorance

July 12, 2016

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

Image Courtesy of

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Former U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed the momentous June 23 Brexit Referendum on a still “Too Big to Fail” bank conference call last week. Revealing how he really felt near the end of the interview, he proclaimed, “Knowing what you’re talking about became a disqualifier during the Referendum.”

Blair typifies the neo-liberal elite who as Twain observed “know for sure” what they are talking about, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. One would think the Brexit debacle (not to mention the Trump debacle, the rise of Sanders, and the race tensions spinning out of control in the U.S., all rooted in a deeply flawed and divisive economic system that works too well for a few, and not well at all for too many) might cause these leaders to seriously ask themselves whether what they “know for sure just ain’t so.” And we wonder why today’s “elites” attract such disdain.

No doubt, the Leave vote was supported by many who had little understanding or interest in the European Union (E.U.); this has been well-documented. No doubt we also find its roots in the rise of xenophobic, anti-European opportunists who spearheaded the Leave campaign, only to shamefully disappear from the public stage when they surprised themselves and got their way.

The potential damage caused by Leave vote is a consequence of the far greater and more destructive ignorance on the part of the elites, including Blair himself. This elite ignorance arises from a blind faith in a dangerously-flawed neo-liberal economic ideology and the E.U.’s misguided, core architecture: monetary union without fiscal union. A basic understanding of biology tells you that organisms move toward food and safety when their life is under threat. Take away the adjustment mechanism of national currencies; squeeze people until they cannot live under a misguided austerity ideology; combine this with a commitment to free labor mobility – and you have designed a guaranteed refugee crisis with all the social turmoil that comes with it. So yes, Mr. Blair, as you said, “these people” as you called them – presumably you were referring to the ignorant little people who voted to Leave – “really do want these problems solved.”

In that same interview, Blair also put his finger on a root cause when he said, “The basic concept of Europe is about how to exercise power in a multi-polar world. Small countries need to band together to exercise collective power.” This fear-based philosophy is understandable in our highly competitive and too often violent world. But, building this fear-driven competitive narrative into the architecture of our political economy guarantees we will never transcend it. The logical extension of fear-based division and extreme competitiveness is violence in all its forms, from the violence that we have seen play out, too often, over much of modern Wall Street, to the violence we see in our divided communities, to the violence of war.

This competitive narrative is at the heart of neoliberalism with its belief in: uncontrolled globalism; the financialization of unrestrained “free markets;” and “free trade” defined around mega-corporate interests which locks the world into a race-to-the-bottom around health, labor, and environmental safeguards.

So how will Great Britain fare outside of the E.U., assuming the Brexit vote will not get a do-over? The pundits and economists are all alarmed about the loss of growth. They “know for sure” that less growth means a poorer Britain, but they appear to be ignorant of the uneconomic growth now emanating out of the City of London. Could it be that Brexit’s ignorant, xenophobia-fueled vote will have the ironic effect of breaking apart the entrenched, systemic ignorance of neoliberal elites, and lead to a healthier and wiser Great Britain?

Let’s imagine what a better Britain might look like. First, the financial sector might be cut down to size as it splinters into more manageable units across Europe. The consequence of London as a world financial center (do we really need one?) is a national economy way out of balance, dependent on a too powerful, extractive export industry that corrupts politicians with influence (even if subconsciously); drives extreme inequality; and separates London’s elite from the rest of the U.K. as Brexit demonstrated. A smaller financial sector in London, more aligned with the genuine needs of the real economy (rather than playing to its own speculative wants) is a good thing – unless you happen to own expensive real estate in London. We see similar consequences in corrupt, extractive export dependent economies in Africa. There it is diamonds and oil rather than finance, and the corruption may be more brazen, but the consequences for society follow a similar pattern.

Second, the U.K. had the foresight not to sign up for the fatally-flawed common currency. The British Pound has depreciated nicely making the country immediately more attractive as a trading partner or investment region to the rest of the world. If it could now shake the destructive austerity ideology imported from the E.U. (i.e., Germany), it would have the opportunity
to take advantage of historically cheap borrowing-costs to invest in its health, education, and critical infrastructure beginning with a smart, clean, energy systems, the foundation for a thriving economy in the 21st century. To do this, some tax shifting (and collecting) will be necessary over the long run. For starters, by imposing a financial transaction tax, the new Britain could send a positive signal across the Channel by finally joining the rest of Europe in nudging finance away from excessive speculation. This new revenue stream will actually enhance the resilience of capital markets and, with it, the health and stability of the real economy (notwithstanding the ignorant neoliberal cries to the contrary).

Think of it as the “Brexit wake-up call.” It was certainly not an intelligent way to remake the European Project on the fly, leaving great risks in its wake. But there remains the potential for a flourishing Great Britain of the future, a gleaming light in the diverse, culturally-rich mosaic that will always define Europe. All this, if it can only transcend its elites’ flawed economic-thinking.

  • Eric Becker

    Great piece, John.

  • Rufo

    I always enjoy reading your posts but on this occasion I find myself in profound disagreement. The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend – the fact that Tony Blair opposed Brexit does not automatically make it right. Britain has turned its back on Europe and the wider world at a time of profound need. Climate change, refugees, terrorism. These are questions that need international responses but Britain has decided à la trump to build a wall and make it someone else’s problem.

    And how can you say that the pound “has depreciated nicely”? There is nothing nice about this unless you are a multinational listed on the London stock exchange. It is a disaster for British pensioners (particularly those living overseas) and has made basic imports like food significantly more expensive.

    The current system doesn’t work but ripping it down with no idea of what to do next is an act of gross irresponsibility. I share your concerns about the environment and about the unsustainability of global financial systems but the Brexit vote for me was the worst of small minded racist Britain. Nothing to be proud of there.

    • John Fullerton

      My point seems to have missed the mark. Allow me to expand.
      I’m not talking about enemies at all. I agree, as I said at the end of the post, this was not a smart way to “remake the European Project on the fly, leaving great risks in its wake.” My own view is that Brexit was a grave mistake. But, it happened. An ignorant decision exposing the racism you refer to, echoing what is happening in the US that is terrifying. My main point was to shine a light on what in my opinion is a far more dangerous ignorance, the ignorance of over confident elite (Blair just an example of the ideological belief that blinds leaders from making better decisions, with grave consequences as a result). I see Brexit as exhibit A of such grave consequences. It also acts as a “disturbance” to the system. Like a forest fire, it would have been much more intelligent to do some controlled burns than to light the whole thing on fire and the walk away. But in order to shift a system, it needs to be disturbed. So looked at through a systems lens, my second point was to see what positive outcome might emerge from the disturbance. As I wrote, I can see many.

      But as you point out, there has been and will be serious damage from the “fire” and it would have been far wiser to manage change differently. No doubt, Brits living abroad with their savings in sterling have been damaged to the extent they don’t plan to return. But if they do return, they just might find a Great Britain that is healthier for most than the one they left.

      I am i full agreement with you that this was not a proud moment for Britain. But I’m far more disappointed in the failure of self-serving leadership than the “little people” whose legitimate fears were preyed upon.

      • Rufo

        You have a much more optimistic take on Britain’s behaviour than I do. Britain has dragged Europe backwards on any number of social and environmental issues. “Taking back control” means withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights, pushing ahead with fracking, overturning the ban on neonicotinoids, slashing immigration by 90% and deregulating labour markets.

        If Texas were to declare independence then maybe they would turn into a progressive, green utopia but I wouldn’t bet any money on it. And sadly the same goes for Britain.

        Post-Brexit Britain (or whatever is left once Scotland and Northern Ireland go) will be a less regulated, less welcoming, less ecological place. There is a reason why Donald trump was over on this side of the pond the day of the results to celebrate.

        And as regards the elites – everything that the governor of the Bank of England or the president of the United States said was going to happen did. Sterling crashed, billions wiped off household savings. Call them whatever names you like but they hardly seem ignorant.

        • I am a bit late to this discussion as I only just found and shared it. Being a British “ex-pat” currently living in the USA and visiting, occasionally over the past 26 years, I have gradually watched the UK become more like the USA as time passed, which dismayed me. I am here in the USA for personal reasons, many years back, not because I choose to be here. @rufo why do you say “Post-Brexit Britain (or whatever is left once Scotland and Northern Ireland go) will be a less regulated, less welcoming, less ecological place”? For instance, fracking was being promoted and pushed by the UK government, pre Brexit. Also the ills we are now beginning to deal with the consequences of go back many 1,000’s of years in causation. The EU in many ways was and is just a side-show of sorts and yes we are facing grave ecological consequences, the consequences of centuries of competition driven violence as this excellent piece identifies.

  • Robin Johannink

    Absolutely on-mark, John. Brexit is a wake-up call and re-think opportunity for the world.

    • John Fullerton

      Greetings Robin- we seem to be getting a regular dose of wake up calls! But we continue to sleepwalk toward the cliff…

  • carolsanford

    This is a very useful logic building offering. As your thinking often is. I appreciate the thoughtful work.

  • willszal

    I agree that, although the circumstances are less than ideal, Brexit may have a silver lining. I think it’s tough for those in favor of localization to get behind an idea like the European Union. I like the open borders, but there’s a lot of centralization in the scheme as well. Maybe fewer international trade deals will force a kind of re-localization in the UK.

  • Patrick Andrews

    Excellent piece. I very nearly voted Leave (despite having a German wife, and considering myself more a European citizen than a British one) since I felt that the elite need a wake-up. I remain hopeful that this can turn out not to be as bad as people fear. My experience of the British is that we are generally tolerant and kind to strangers – I don’t believe this marks a turning away from Europe, rather from the EU project. Time will tell…