Contextualizing Brexit: A Conversation about Nationalism and Globalization

Jeff Berger, Charles Cottle, J. David Gillespie, and Ellin Jimmerson —

The recent June 24, 2016 referendum in Great Britain called Brexit, which marks its upcoming departure from the European Union, was the context for this conversation. The participants are all Wise Guys contributors. We encourage readers to continue the discussion in the comments section.


brexitI’m still trying to make sense of the latest Brexit crisis. Donald Trump is cheering Brexit, which he associates with nationalism. This reminded me of my own dislike for the concept of nationalism, as well as patriotism. In my opinion, nationalism was the cause of many European wars ever since the concept of nation states came into existence. It was only in the wake of World War II that Europe got its act together by creating the cooperative spirit that is now manifested in the European Union (EU). Sure, it’s nice for local communities to retain some control. But for all its negative effects, economic globalism is a major deterrent for war. Yet, economic globalism is also what gives corporations so much power over each nation. That is why I actually sympathize a little bit with what Trump is saying (emphasis on “a little bit”). By giving more power to corporations, globalism contributes to economic inequality, along with environmental degradation. Thus I find myself in a quandary.

This quandary is similar to my quandary about Wall Street. In 2008-2009 I was somewhat ambivalent about the Wall Street bailout, because part of me agreed with the Tea Party. In order to rebuild the financial system into a fair and equitable system, we would first have to suffer. Nevertheless, in spite of my ambivalence about a stock market crash, this week I find myself siding with Wall Street as it expressed its disapproval of Brexit. In this instance, Wall Street and Trump are on opposite sides of the fence. Emotionally I find myself on the side of Wall Street, and not only because I worry about my 401K.

My feelings about the EU are also the same as my feelings about NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement). In both cases I understand there are some negative consequences of globalization, but I fear the threat of war if there was more competition between nations.


nacionalismosThe history of nationalism is interesting. The Thirty Years War, which ended in 1648, began as a series of religious wars, but ended as wars of nationalism. Today some argue today that with the demise of major ideological conflicts, we are returning to a period of religious wars—especially between Judeo-Christian cultures and Muslim culture. This is the well-known thesis of Samuel P. Huntington. In fairness, Huntington argues that the clash is between civilizations, not religions, but he also states that religion is arguably the most important feature of a civilization.

Arnold Toynbee, the British historian, argued that nationalism is a dangerous force in international affairs. Notwithstanding the anti-Semitism sometimes attributed to Toynbee, his observation appears to be largely correct.

Both nationalism and patriotism demonstrate the importance of myth in the maintenance of the nation-state system of political organization. They are similar to religion in that they establish a community of true-believers, describe who is inside the community and who is not, describe the world and how it got that way, prescribe goals for the future, and specify the means necessary to achieve them. They are purely “mind-made” stuff. They tie the Mexican-American in Laredo, Texas to the fisherman in Maine in a psycho-cultural bond that makes one willing to die for the other.

Anti-McDonald’s Poster in Oaxaca, Mexico

In the field of political science, globalism in international affairs used to be called “functionalism.” It was an approach to international relations theory that emerged between the two world wars and, as Jeff points out, evolved into the EU. The economic interdependence between states, it was argued, will prevent the occurrence of future wars between interacting states because the price for going to war is too high. Yet, oddly, globalization contains within itself the seeds of its own demise that we have yet to overcome. The labor sector of developed countries has suffered as it is forced to compete with labor that is paid a fraction of the cost in underdeveloped economies. At the same time, the agricultural sector of developing economies has suffered as cheap agricultural produce grown with industrial techniques from the U.S. has flooded local markets, undermining local farmers’ ability to make a living. I have seen Washington state apples in the markets of rural Mexico being sold at prices the local orchards cannot beat. Meanwhile, the Westernization brought to non-Western cultures is often resented by local populations. While McDonald’s restaurants mean nothing special to U.S. residents, in many parts of the world the golden arches symbolize economic and cultural imperialism that generalizes to all things Western, and hence, encourages the nationalism that works against peaceful relations between nation states. Nowadays, it is the corporation that has economic power. But the state still has a monopoly on the use of force.

As an aside, Huntington argued that economic globalization is not nearly as strong as culture, hence it is weak when it comes to preventing conflict between civilizations. To paraphrase Huntington, the essence of Anglo-American culture is to be found in the Magna Carta, not in the Big Mac.


McDonald’s Restaurant in Beijing, China

Well said. I only question Huntington’s argument that economic globalization is weak compared to culture in preventing conflict between civilizations. I quite disagree. Or perhaps I should just say that economic globalization is equivalent to a sharing of culture. I look at the relationship between China and the U.S. today. We are the world’s two biggest superpowers and, in my opinion, the risk of a major conflagration between us would be far greater if not for the economic dependence between us. I’m not sure if you would say that China and the U.S. share a common culture or not. I do think it is becoming more common every day. That common culture is largely capitalism itself, but with each passing day that commonality is expanding to other facets of life. There are probably more than a million Chinese people in Silicon Valley. Whether or not these immigrants have obtained U.S. citizenship, they integrate very well into American society and travel back and forth between the two countries every year, spreading Western culture into China. These people would be devastated if the U.S. ever went to war with China. It seems inconceivable to me that it could ever happen, all because of our economic dependencies and integration.

In contrast, I believe there is a much greater risk of a conflict between Russia and the West than there is between China and the West. Russia is not so well integrated into the world economy and there aren’t many Russian immigrants in the U.S. Vladimir Putin applauds Brexit; for obvious reasons, he would like to eliminate the economic globalism that exists in the West and that has largely excluded Russia. Russia wants Eastern Europe to be part of a Russo-centrist economy so that it can dominate that economy. Therein lies a big danger to Europe, and by extension to the U.S., if the EU collapses. I really dislike Russia and one of the reasons is their nationalism. Russia was pathetic prior to the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was pathetic, and now Russia is a kleptocracy. They have nothing to be proud of except for Tolstoy and their 19th century composers.

This evening a Chinese neighbor of mine was telling me of a visit he made to London a couple of years ago. He said he felt afraid to go into many of the neighbors. In contrast, he thought that Oakland was safer. That’s saying something, because Oakland might be one of the least safe American cities. He blamed it on the immigrants (I have not been to London myself since 1989). Now I’m getting the sense of why London voted against Brexit while the rest of England voted for it. I’ll bet the English feel the same way about London as my Chinese neighbor. Perhaps the Scots and Irish voted against Brexit because they couldn’t care less about what happens in London.

I want to say one more thing about the history of nationalism. Prior to World War I, as you know, there was a largely international socialist movement that originated in Europe. In fact, the “I” in “IWW” stood for International. But the global nature of the socialist movement ended when World War I exploded, because nationalism overwhelmed the international movement. In 1914 the American socialists felt like they had momentum on their side, but when the Europeans became splintered by the war, and Americans became obsessed with the war, the American socialist movement went into a nose dive. Eugene Debs, however, did not care which nation won the war, because to him the real war was between workers and capitalists. Debs would not succumb to nationalism or patriotism. In contrast, Clarence Darrow did, although not because he was so patriotic. Darrow’s hatred of German militarism overtook his pacifism. I wouldn’t criticize him for the way he felt, but I do criticize Americans for treating socialists the way they did during World War I. Americans all remember and recognize the evil of McCarthyism in the 1950s, but America has forgotten that the way it treated socialists during World War I was a precursor to McCarthyism.


0,,16085235_303,00I want to return to Jeff’s thoughts on China when he  wrote, “…I believe there is a much greater risk of a conflict between Russia and the West than there is between China and the West.” While I agree with this assessment, I would like to offer a cautionary note regarding China. At present 34% of the U.S. national debt is held by foreign countries. China is the leader in that group, as it holds 1.27 trillion dollars of the U.S. national debt. This is more than any other country, and it is more than the total of all U.S. households. Recently, due to internal economic problems, China has been unloading some of this debt for purposes of capital formation. China’s remarkable economic development since the administration of Deng Xiaoping has largely focused on the development of the export sector. Offering cheap labor to the West, U.S. corporations have abandoned the U.S. and U.S. employees to set up manufacturing in China. The export of these jobs has come at a tremendous price to American workers. Even Mexico has lost jobs to China because the Mexican worker, at $6.00 (U.S.) a day, cannot compete with Chinese workers at $80.00 (U.S.) a month. The results for China have been stunning. Since 1985 China has lifted 300,000,000 people out of poverty.

There are reports that China’s economy is stalling due to slow growth in the export sector. Apparently, the world’s appetite for light Chinese manufactures is reaching a saturation point. China must now focus on the development of its own internal markets in order to succeed economically. This will be difficult because at present there are 900,000,000 Chinese outside the money economy. To bring them in may require a strengthening of the remenbi to make Chinese produced goods cheaper to the local population. Such a move, however, will make those same goods more expensive in the export sector, creating friction with U.S. and other foreign corporations who want to sell those goods abroad. If this balance cannot be established, then China’s economic boom may fail to the point where the Chinese government can no longer finance U.S. debt. That failure will diminish U.S. cooperation and economic inter-dependency.


I will add a few remarks, beginning with Charles’ mention of functionalism. I agree that in the political science lexicon that word served as a precursor or ancestor of globalization. I have always thought of functionalism primarily in a European context however, and as a theoretical alternative, the one adopted by the framers of “Europe” in its emerging incarnations (European Coal and Steel Community, Common Market, finally EU), as an alternative to federalism. Federalism was the U.S. model (55 delegates from 12 of the 13 states, gathered to far exceed their state-given mandates by formal creation of a new workable system; 42 there for the signing at the end, 39 signing it). Functionalism was the “realistic” theory, providing ladders to the stars even in (and maybe especially) regions like Europe that were ravaged by war, genocide, and the like. The idea of functionalism in this narrower sense was caught up in the metaphor of ripples made by a thrown stone into a pond by an astute thrower. The ripples represent ever-widening circles of cooperation, each building on the previous, until what emerges is, at the minimum, a security community in which wars of the kind Europe had (just barely) endured become unthinkable and perhaps (hopefully) a federalism that emerges rather than “being created” American style. To that end, the most significant achievement has been the Euro.

I realize the overlap between Trumpism and the push for Brexit, and the underlying fears, racism, and (understandable) class animus that the have-nots, which make up much of the support for Trump and Brexit, feel and brings them to those conclusions. On the Trump theme, I have a very liberal friend, Ellin Jimmerson (who comments below), who is anything but a Trump fan but who has devoted much of her professional life to advocacy on behalf of the undocumented in the U.S. and of Mexican farmers undercut (wiped out financially) by globalization, “free trade,” and such agreements as NAFTA. “The Second Cooler,” the documentary that she produced and that is narrated by Martin Sheen, is a must-see film (Ellin would heartily agree with what Charles says about what U.S. agriculture, through free trade, has done to Mexican farmers). I think that Trump is an Elmer Gantry selling “religion” or the Music man pushing trombones on a gullible group of consumers, and I find myself wishing (like George Will) that he ends in November without a single electoral vote. But the damage globalization has brought to the have-nots of Mexico and others to the south of us, to say nothing to the working and middle classes of the U.S., is undeniable. Ellin probably would use the term “the cry of the oppressed” to explain some part of the support that is going to Trump. And it should not be overlooked that some of the same anti-globalization themes found in the Trump campaign have been sounded loudly from our first major avowed socialist this close to the mainstream in recent times, Bernie Sanders.

European disunionIt is also true that one-third of the constituency in the UK belonging to the Labour Party voted for Brexit last week, a clear indication that there are millions in the UK (and throughout the EU, I would surmise) who fall on the wrong side of the class divide and who feel disserved by the EU and by the phenomenon of globalization. And yet, I feel very sad about the Brexit outcome, more than by the Trump movement (about which, as a political scientist, I am very interested, though I would be utterly decimated by a Trump electoral victory this November, though I don’t think it will happen). I still see the EU more in political than economic terms, and I heartily approve of what it has brought as a security community as well as a human rights agent (e.g., no capital punishment allowed) throughout the 28 (now 27) nations of “Europe.” And if there were any doubt about the validity of such thoughts, I only have to look to what Putin is saying, or silently feeling, about any sign of the failure of the “Europe project.”


It seems like we are all in agreement. This week I saw a BBC news item about the queue of refugees in Calais. Some French spokesperson said that once Britain drops out of the EU, France will let England deal with all of those migrant refugees in Dover. This one comment put the migrant refugee problem in a new light for me. Suddenly I had in my mind an image of migrant refugees trying to get from Marin County into San Francisco and getting stuck on the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course, this is the kind of problem that the U.S. has never had to deal with. I wonder how many people in England and France (especially the ones who voted for Brexit) realize that this problem is blowback from their former colonial days.


I don’t know much about most things, but I do know something about NAFTA and other free trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). One of the keys is that “free trade” is a marketing slogan intending to cover up what is really going on. It implies (a) freedom and (b) that is primarily about trade. Both these things are false. What make “free trade” free is that it lifts the protections via tariffs that countries have to pay to export their products. This necessarily puts the small farmer and the small producer at risk. For example, NAFTA products were in three broad sectors of the economy: agricultural, autos, and communications. So, let’s take agriculture as an example of what happened. As a prerequisite for entering into the NAFTA, Mexico had to repeal Article 27 of the Mexican Constitution, the article that provided subsidies to small peasant farmers (campesinos) and allowed them to stay on their ancestral lands and earn enough selling corn and beans to get by. So their subsidies were gone. With NAFTA, those peasant farmers were put into direct competition with such big ag producers as Archer Daniels Midland, a heavily subsidized U.S. corporation, which after NAFTA no longer had to pay the tariff to export to Mexico.

By the same token, some sectors of U.S. agriculture, e.g., tomatoes, were hurt because the advantage in tomatoes went to Mexico. When you go to the grocery store the next time, notice how many tomatoes come from Mexico

notmadeinusaManufacturing here was hurt, too. Take the impact of CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) on the textile industry in the U.S., for example, in Fort Payne, Alabama. Fort Payne used to pride itself on being the “sock capital of the world”. It was as big a source of pride as the Southern rock group Alabama which hails from the north Alabama town. Many of the mills there were started in people’s basements. With CAFTA, the tariffs that the producers of cheap socks and t-shirts previously had paid as a protection on the textile industry were lifted. Now, Fort Payne’s textile factories, which in 2000 were over 100, is down to about 2 or 3 (I don’t have the exact numbers off the top of my head). A Canadian owned company called Gildan bought up the factories, shut them down, and moved those jobs to the Dominican Republic. Go to your closet and look at the label in your t-shirts. I would suspect that most of them carry the Gildan label. It used to be that label would be Alabama Footwear or a similar one.

But free trade is about much more than trade. It’s about the offshoring of jobs. With the building of the maquiladora zone (the maquilas, as they are often known, are factories) that to a large extent are absorbing the women pushed off their ancestral lands and others desperate for work. There they make roughly $6.00 a day. If they become injured, for example, they are simply fired with no workmen’s compensation. So that also became an incentive for US employers, many of whom were high earners, including Kenworth trucks and SCI computers out of my hometown, Huntsville, AL, to close down their plants here, where they had to pay minimum wage and offer some protections and go to the maquila zone. This has hit hard not only the U.S. worker but U.S. unions.

Free trade is also about the offshoring of national sovereignty. There are special NAFTA tribunals that adjudicate disputes. Their rulings are binding. Their job is to protect the interest of corporations. This is already proving to be a problem for states and nations that are legislating environmental, labor, or public interest policies (e.g., pharmaceuticals). The corporations only have to prove these regulations could (hypothetically) damage future profits. They are already winning these cases.

There is also the immigration problem. I am an advocate for illegal immigrants, which is how I became interested in free trade agreements. There is almost universal agreement among scholars who study NAFTA from the point of view of the peasantry and other powerless groups that NAFTA is the #1 reason for the illegal immigration phenomenon we are seeing today. And there is almost universal agreement that NAFTA and an understanding that it would displace millions of peasants is the reason the border was militarized. There is a passage in NAFTA I have read that says as much. Now, that border militarization has claimed the lives of 6,000 to 18,000 displaced Mexicans, Guatemalans, and other Central Americans. With NAFTA, products and capital are able to cross borders freely. Labor is not.

One of the errors, I believe, so many of the well-funded immigration advocacy groups have made has been to sell the idea that “they only take jobs you don’t want”. That is an easy argument, but not an accurate one, and it serves to divide workers rather than contribute to solidarity among them. For example, when I interviewed an organizer for the poultry workers in Alabama (poultry is one of the most dangerous industries in the U.S.)—who, by the way, is African American—he told me that because the employers know they can get Hispanics to work for low wages and in dangerous conditions, that makes it very hard for him once he goes into negotiations with those employers. Whether we liberals like it or not, illegal immigrants (who have a legitimate, moral right to be here), or their employers, put downward pressure on blue collar labor here. But if they weren’t here, those employers would not have the option of hiring them.

To underline: I believe that the U.S. has a moral obligation to people it has displaced to allow them to come to the U.S. in search of work. Does NAFTA benefit some people? Yes. It has created a dozen or so Mexican billionaires of whom Carlos Slim may be the most well known. But it also has created millions of displaced poor people.

The TPP has been described as NAFTA on steroids. Among other problems, there are close to 12,000 corporations that are cross registered among the 12 potential nations. Obama is, of course, pushing it; he signed 3 other FTAs—with Panama, Colombia, and Korea—which is why, in combination with him being the Deporter in Chief, he lost me after his first term.


Ellin’s is a message for all of us, especially for us liberals seduced by the (neo)liberal mantra of “free trade,” who need to let this sink deeply into our minds and perspectives.

Thanks to Ron Berger for helping with the editing of this conversation.


3 thoughts on “Contextualizing Brexit: A Conversation about Nationalism and Globalization

  1. I thought this was worth a comment post. Here is an excerpt from an article that just appeared in The Nation by Michael Klare called “The United States and NATO are Preparing for a Major War with Russia.” The link to the full article is below.

    “The United States, of course, is deeply involved in these initiatives. Not only will it supply many of the troops for the four multinational battalions, but it is also taking many steps of its own to bolster NATO’s eastern flank. Spending on the Pentagon’s ‘European Reassurance Initiative’ will quadruple, climbing from $789 million in 2016 to $3.4 billion in 2017. Much of this additional funding will go to the deployment, on a rotating basis, of an additional armored-brigade combat team in northern Europe.

    As a further indication of US and NATO determination to prepare for a possible war with Russia, the alliance recently conducted the largest war games in Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War. Known as Anakonda 2016, the exercise involved some 31,000 troops (about half of them Americans) and thousands of combat vehicles from 24 nations in simulated battle maneuvers across the breadth of Poland.”


  2. Let’s consider what would motivate Russia to invade one of the eastern European countries, starting with what has actually happened in Ukraine. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the Kiev government was controlled by a Russian puppet. Ukraine continued to be dependent on Russia for trading, having never fully integrated itself into the economy of western Europe. Eastern Ukraine and the Crimea both contain large Russian ethnic populations. When the population of the country as a whole succeeded in replacing the Russian puppet in Kiev, Russia found a receptive population in the territories where they invaded. The Kiev government has had difficulty maintaining a strong economy because it is in conflict with its former patron and still hasn’t been integrated into the western economy.

    While I am no expert on these former Soviet republics, I believe that after Ukraine, Belarus is the country most likely to fall victim to Russia. Like Ukraine, Belarus was absorbed into the Soviet Union long before World War II. It has a sizable Russian population, its democracy is weak by western standards, and its economy is not well integrated with the west.

    Poland is nothing like Ukraine or Belarus. Poland is well integrated with the west. Russia’s historical occupation of Poland resulted only in antagonizing the Poles and did not result in a large Russian ethnic population living in Poland. Any Russian attack on Poland would receive no support from the native population. Suffice it to say that the same thing is true of Finland.

    Finally, let’s consider the Baltic states. My knowledge of those countries is more limited. While it is true that there are sizable Russian populations there, I think the Baltic states have more solid democracies and are well integrated into the western economy. I think the Baltic states are more vulnerable than Poland and Finland, but using the old domino theories, Russia would likely start with Belarus before trying to tackle the Baltic states.


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