The Dangers of Looking Back to Counter Brexit/Trump Politics

Last night I spoke at a very well attended event at Leeds University on the international implications of Brexit, and, in the context of this week’s events, of a Trump presidency also.  Others on the panel were Adrian Favell (who spoke about the significant risks to cosmopolitanism in Europe), Roxana Babulescu (who spoke about the dynamics of immigration and immigration policy in the UK) and Gary Dymski (who spoke about asymmetries in financial embedded and regulation, alongside international competition).

My own presentation was a slightly reoriented version of yesterday’s blog post.  The presentations and discussion were lively and informative.  Like much of the media commentary on the implications of a Trump presidency today, a lot of the discussion turned on a shared concern about the democratic implications of the Trump election result alongside the Brexit referendum result.

While this sentiment was pretty widely shared, this post is motivated by a current in the discussion that I was more uncomfortable with.  It seemed to me that several of the contributions from the speakers and audience had an implicit or explicit desire to move back to the liberal institutional compromise of the post-war period.  That desirability seemed to be informed by a sense that such a change might be possible.


I want to argue here first that the political economy of that post-war compromise might appear to be worth fighting for on the surface, but in fact that compromise was not so desirable and rested on significant exploitation that was integral to it.  Second, even if this was not the case, a return to the domestic political economy that was embedded in the post-war compromise is not now possible.

There was clearly much that was desireable about the post-War political economy. High levels of employment, relatively stable growth, rising wages and consumption offered steadily rising living standards and greater opportunities for leisure.  What was less desirable however is that it relied on free or cheap inputs on a massive scale, and those inputs were provided by women, an unequal trading relation with the rest of the world and the unsustainable use of fossil fuels.  The post-War political economy was desirable in some respects then, but relied on exploitative social relations to underpin the privileged position of Unionised labour in the then advanced industrial countries.  Cosy liberal social democracy was not so cosy for those who provided its foundations.

Second, even if the post-war system did not have those downsides, it is in any case not possible to return to it.  This is precisely because the competitive position of the US/UK/western Europe has been eroded.  It is also because, as is now widely acknowledged, neo-liberalisation has undermined the conditions for the high levels of growth necessary to sustain that model.  Offshoring, the replacement of labour by capital and state-induced wage reductions and upward redistribution have all also undermined the bargaining position of Unionised labour and, consequently, Unionisation itself has declined.  Many of the institutional conditions of the post-war order that gave it its desireable characteristics have been eroded or replaced.  Given the path-dependency of social change, it just isn’t likely that those can be reclaimed.

These two arguments do not lead to particularly palatable conclusions, it is true.  They suggest that the institutions of the post-War liberal compromise were themselves inherently related to where we are now, in terms of challenges to liberal democracy that we are now experiencing.  They also suggest that the future looks considerably less bright than any rose tinted view of the past.

Whether or not these conclusions are comforting though, is less important than ensuring that political counter-movements to the kind of insular and divisive politics of manipulated anxiety about the future represented by Brexit/Trump, are based on a credible understanding of the past and present.  Without that, I fear that political counter-movements – like the New Democrats/New Labour as counters to Reagan/Thatcher – will only kick the problem down the road, exacerbating and amplifying its negative implications.

There are to be more post-Brexit open forums like last night’s – it was an informed and informative discussion; if you can get along, do!


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