In a very long but rewarding essay, the British writer Alastair Roberts carefully compares and contrasts the Leave side with the Remain-ders. It’s the best thing I’ve yet seen explaining the culture and worldview of both sides. Excerpts:
In many parts of the country where the population is overwhelmingly White British, genetic study has revealed the remarkable stability of their population over at least the last 1400 years (Celtic populations in the British Isles date back over a millennium more). One can still trace the borders of ancient kingdoms in the genetics of regional populations. Before the modern wave of immigration, the Anglo-Saxons were the principal newcomers—the Norman invasion in 1066 didn’t bring about a great demographic change. These unsettling and violent waves of immigration and invasion were generally from ethnic, geographic, cultural, religious, and political near neighbours (for instance, William the Conqueror, who led the Norman invasion, was the first cousin once removed of Edward the Confessor, giving him some claim to the English throne).
The last 70 years have witnessed a demographic upheaval on a scale unprecedented in well over a millennium, which has introduced a remarkable degree of ethnic, cultural, and religious diversity beyond anything witnessed in any previous period of our history. Against the popular political trope of Britain as a nation of immigrants, the reality is that, apart from relatively small trickles of immigration—mostly to London and the South East and largely intra-European immigration of culturally and religious proximate populations—most of the country has been ethnically stable and relatively unchanged for many hundreds of years.
This is something we Americans cannot comprehend. Nor would most of us want to even try. But think about it: what is wrong with those people wanting to keep their country as it has been for 14 centuries? More:
Cosmopolitans tend to be post-nationalist supporters of the market state. A market state is a neoliberal entity, which typically maximizes the market choices and autonomy of all persons within it, whether citizens or not. The borders of such a state are largely open and function on little more than an administrative level. Individual opportunity, unrestricted choice, and validated autonomy are core values and, consequently, freedom of movement between nations is prized. The ideal citizen of a market state is a deracinated universal subject, belonging both everywhere and nowhere, all differences reduced to a level of indifference. For the citizen of the market state, the most important matter is the expansion of the conditions for autonomous self-realization and the market that sustains that. The market state neither excites nor demands much in the way of loyalty. The economy and the technocratic structures that secure a realm of radical and relatively unconstrained possibility for the individual are the primary political structures. Progressive values that affirm all individuals in their autonomous choices are sacred.
By contrast, provincial persons typically favour the nation as the political entity (they also have extremely strong attachments to their regions, towns, and neighbourhoods). The borders of the nation protect and project specific communal identities that exceed and enfold individuals within them. Such nations privilege and prioritize some identities over others. They emphasize cultural, historic, ethnic, religious, familial, locational, and social forms of belonging over autonomy. The intergenerational continuities of family and people, tradition, institution, history, and heritage are central to the shared life. Individual choice, autonomy, and agency are curtailed and subordinated to communal belonging.
As they have been defined by deeply rooted situatedness persisting through time, the frictionless movement of peoples is profoundly corrosive of and threatening to such communities. Rather than celebrating the absolute autonomy and the unconstrained possibilities of the individual’s choices, such communities typically celebrate and inculcate very particular ways of life and forms of practice.
The EU is the epitome of a neoliberal political entity, committed to free markets, encouraging the unrestricted movement of undifferentiated labour, and upholding the value of the socially fungible self-defining individual. The maximization and validation of individual autonomy may be a sacred value for contemporary progressivism, but this is not what ultimately drives the neoliberal market politic. Rather, individual autonomy is celebrated because individual autonomy is that which permits the maximization of the reach and strength of the market and the wealth and power of those who most control capital. This is rule by the market, where the interests of the market, and those whose power it extends, triumphs over all else. The weakening of national sovereignty, democratic accountability, and political representation is all part of a larger picture in which bankers and transnational corporations are empowered and the forces that would resist them are enervated.
Heightened individual autonomy also leads to the crumbling of national, regional, local, class, cultural, religious, and other solidarities and loyalties, removing resistance and friction. Broken down by the neoliberal market government, persons are deracinated and homogenized. While cosmopolitans experience this as a liberating and unshackling impulse, provincials experience it as an assault upon their settled ways of life. The ‘growth of the economy’—the great neoliberal imperative—takes priority over the thriving of the community; ‘individual autonomy’ takes priority over social solidarity; the movement of a radically depersonalized, departicularized, and homogenized ‘labour’ takes priority over the rootedness and the preservation of socially dignifying forms of local industry.
Here is something very telling. Has a people in this condition, so contemptuous of its past, ever existed?:
These differences of ethical outlook lead to contrasting and typically opposing senses of what it means to have a stake in the nation and in the determination of its destiny. A telling indication of some of these differences could be seen in the anger among many on the Remain side towards older people, who disproportionately supported Brexit. It is, such Remain supporters have contended, a gross injustice that persons who will probably have to live with their decision no more than a couple of decades more should sabotage the futures of young people who will have to live with it for the rest of their lives. Implicit in such statements is the moral intuition that the weight of one’s voice in determining the destiny of our nation should be proportionate to the length of time that one has left to enjoy it.
This is profoundly revealing of a particular notion of a nation and what it means to have a stake in it. The assumption is that the nation entirely belongs to the living and that the nearer one moves to death, the more one must relinquish one’s stake in it. We relate to the nation as if consumers to an object of consumption.
Yet this is an exceedingly tendentious and perhaps rather novel notion of what it means to have a stake in a nation. This notion is one typically dependent in no small measure upon a denial of and resistance to the possibility of human transcendence, the denial that any greater entity, purpose, cause, or value exists that could give meaning to our lives beyond our own subjective pleasure, self-realization, and fulfilment.
Most societies have understood the political bond more in terms of a logic of sacrifice. The nation isn’t merely an object to be consumed, but something that has been forged through past sacrifice and labour, sacrifice and labour whose meaning is fragile and contingent upon our sense of duty in the present to consolidate the labour and be true to the sacrifice. To scorn this duty is to nullify the sacrifice and labour of those who went before us in a shameful and profoundly dishonourable manner. In passing on the nation to us, our forebears entrusted us with securing the meaning of their sacrifices and their labour. Our land and nation—a priceless and sacred bequest—must be preserved and enriched by our own sacrifice and labour and we must, in our own turn, entrust it and the realization of the meaning of our lives to generations yet to be born.
It is such a logic of sacrifice that can be seen in our honouring of the lives of those who laboured, fought, or died for our freedom. Past sacrifices give a particular perceived value to those things for which they sacrificed, perhaps especially to the lives of those who are their descendants. Once again, ethnicity, when it identifies persons as belonging to the historic native British peoples, is rendered a discriminating factor between groups, privileging some inhabitants of our nation over others in a manner deemed ethically intolerable by many.
The instinctive moral force of this logic for many is profound. To such persons, the subjection of the nation to market forces and the associated freedom of movement can seem to be the despising of our birthright for a mess of potage, the dishonouring of past sacrifices. Likewise, compromising national sovereignty, rendered sacred by virtue of the blood historically spilled to protect and assert it, for the sake of current economic and political expediency is sacrilegious.
I will quote one more passage from this very, very long — but again, very, very rewarding — essay:
For the neoliberal market state vision, the state is a formal and administrative entity, guaranteeing and celebrating the autonomy of the individual. The market state does not protect and project the particularities and substantial realities of the unique cultural and historic identities of a specific people and their place, but articulates its values in only the vaguest and most purely formal terms. ‘British values,’ for the neoliberal market statist are the progressive values of tolerance, liberty, equality, diversity, inclusivity, etc. These values all eschew a particular substance or shape to British identity, advocating instead radical indeterminacy and the primacy of unrestricted yet affirmed choice and autonomy as society’s core value.
This same indeterminacy is illustrated in the EU’s failure to provide a robust definition of the fundamental term qualifying its union—‘European’. The distinctiveness of Europe, a peninsula of the Asian continent, is by no means immediately geographically apparent. The particular identity of European civilization has principally arisen historically through such things as its cultural dependence upon a Graeco-Roman patrimony, its existence as Christendom, the ethnic interrelatedness of its peoples, its struggle against hostile external forces such as Islam, the history of the Western Church, its various shared cultural, ideological, institutional, and scientific developments and experiences, and its existence as a realm of cultural interchange.
However, acknowledging these things would curtail the protean autonomy and freedom of the market and the neoliberal subject that grounds the EU’s identity. The EU is built, not upon a substantial and organic shared peoplehood, but upon the sharing of a market. That the accession of a country like Turkey to the EU would be considered is expressive of the EU’s understanding of what Europe means and political union involves.
Cosmopolitanism’s eschewing of a particular European identity, the collapse of Europe’s cultural spirit following two world wars, and the rejection of transcendence in atomized consumerist societies has resulted in the loss of a sense of European civilization as something distinct, worthy of our devoted love, labour, loyalty, faithfulness, and sacrifice. This enervation of spirit is one of the reasons for the deep popular concern in the face of Islamization.
Contemporary Europeans can presume that problems are all ultimately socio-economic, to be addressed with the economic and technocratic solutions of the managerial state. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why Leave voters are so hard for many Remain voters to understand. The fact that people might want something more than the material benefits of personal wealth, a strong local economy, and effective social services—that they might yearn for communities once again animated by spiritual values such as faith, hope, and love—cannot easily be processed within an imaginary that has expelled all such elements. That some people might be so animated by devotion to a meaning that transcends them that they would kill and die is terrifying to a civilization that has largely lost its own faith. Surrounded by the relics of a past that witness to a once forceful conviction, we are reproached and haunted by the faith that has departed us.
Read the whole thing. Do especially read to the last section, where Roberts reveals that he grew up as an English Protestant immigrant to a small Irish town, and suffered as an outsider there. He writes about loving his native land, England, but never quite being able to fit in because though a citizen, he wasn’t raised in England.
It’s a thoughtful rumination from someone who, one gathers from reading the piece, voted Leave, but is conflicted about it. (Roberts voted Remain, as two readers pointed out. Sorry for the mistake.)
He sounds like me, to be honest: a cosmopolitan whose sympathies lie with the parochialists, even though I have personally suffered much from the effects of parochialism in my own family. As a fundamental principle, I favor the local and the particular — even when the local and the particular strikes me as wrong. When I was starting out life as a young man, I couldn’t wait to get out of the provinces and go to the city, where things would be different. And they were different! I love city life, and if I had never married and had children, would certainly have spent the rest of my days there. I resented that my family back home resented me for loving the city. It was not a happy time.
But I came to understand that the city was full of people who resented the provinces and looked down on them. In particular, cities hosted people like me: exiles from the provinces who hated where they were from, and had no sympathy for the people back home. Well, that’s dishonest in my case, and in the case of most Louisianians I met in the East Coast cities where I lived. Leaving Louisiana left a hole in our hearts that nothing else could fill. We spoke fondly of her, even as we lamented the lack of career opportunities for ourselves there. We had all made a choice for cosmopolitanism, but I don’t recall hearing a single Louisiana expat putting Louisiana down. That might be my poetic memory at work.
In general, though, I recall the vibe among people in their 20s and 30s, toward their provincial hometowns, gratitude that they had gotten out. Nothing wrong with that if you were unhappy there, but it becomes a real problem when you let that gratitude slip into spite towards the values of the people who stayed. (And of course it’s a problem for parochials when they let their love of their own land, so to speak, poison the love for those who left it. All of this is quite human, on all sides, of course.)
In general, I think the provinces aren’t wrong to think that the city people are out to get them, but they’re not out to get them in the way that the provincials think. They’re out to get them by default. They never think of the provincials, or if they do, it’s to think of how sad it is that they’re so backward, but in no case should their backwardness stand in the way of progress (“progress” defined in the neoliberal way). I don’t think most cosmopolitans are aware of it, to be honest. But it’s a real thing, and Alastair Roberts has illuminated how this dynamic works in his own country.