Friday, 21 October 2016

Brexit and the Bigger Picture

On Wednesday I was chairing the 3rd Congress of Polish Entrepreneurs in the UK. Many brilliant speakers - Taz Hossain, Stuart Lotherington, Jordan Fleming to name but three - but one forced me to rethink my long-held assumptions, rather than merely moving my thinking up to a higher level. Izabella Kaminska from the Financial Times talked about Brexit in a historical perspective, harking back to ancient Rome and ancient Greece.

Ms Kaminska mentioned the Grecian historian Polybius, who devised the concept of anacyclosis - a cyclical theory of political evolution. She also pointed to some parallels between the fall of the Roman Empire and the current state of the EU.

Now, armed with Wikipedia, all of us with an ounce of curiosity can delve deeper into anacyclosis as an idea, which is at odds with my own world view - the Whig View of History, in which (to generalise) things slowly but surely improve, rather than merely going round in circles.

Ms Kaminska likened Brexit to being an inflexion point between the tendency to centralise and the tendency to decentralise. The centralising tendency, she posited, has reached a natural apogee, and now mankind - voters - yearn for decentralisation. Putting up the borders - against migration and against multinational corporations that benefit most from the scale that centralisation brings.

The historical parallels were indeed compelling; the point of view of a journalist with a historian's training shed light from a different direction to that which has lit my perspective.

Scale brings benefits to humanity than cannot be imagined if you are living closed off in a small, hermetic economy. The US, by virtue of its vast size, is an economy that could very well be self-sufficient. Were that to happen (a Trump-like candidate without the personality flaws, one who merely pushed a strong de-globalisation agenda, for instance) America would suffer from profound wage inflation as basic manufacturing jobs returned home. But America could provide its own economy with jet airliners, oncology drugs and internet infrastructure without having to trade raw materials or know-how with other nations. Estonia, on the other hand, couldn't do this, nor could Poland.

If we're looking at a cycle of human history in which nations up sticks and retreat to within their natural borders, it's evident that in such a scenario the US and China would do best. India is still too chaotic, Russia is big and has natural resources but not the leadership or civil society to build a self-sustaining economy.

Brexiteers' attachment to the old British Empire, manifesting itself today as the Commonwealth, is chimeric. Of the 52 countries still in it (the Maldives left this month), the smallest 25 have a combined population around the size of Greater London. The significant ones - India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand - all appealed to the UK to remain in the EU.

If indeed the world is in a decentralising mode, it will be a world fraught with new dangers, not least that of conflicts arising between countries that had long been at peace with one another, as old alliances break down.

But it is not doomed to go that way. The internet has created completely new networks, new connections, which authoritarian governments are trying to control, but which ultimately allow individuals to bypass institutions and make direct contact with other individuals globally. News spreads instantly, and individuals can trade with one another. The genie cannot be put back into the bottle - the philosophy guiding the creators of the internet was that it should be able to re-route around damaged nodes, like water flowing to find its own level.

History does not repeat, it echoes. Congruent patterns, but not direct fits. History is not bunk; it is a book from which we must learn if we are to move forward along the path from barbarism towards civilisation, from beast to angel.

This time last year:
On the eve of Poland's change of government

This time two years ago:
Bilingualism benefits the brain

This time six years ago:
Crushed velvet dusk in my City of Dreams II

This time seven years ago:
Going North, the quick way

This time eight years ago:
Glorious autumn dusk

This time nine years ago:
Last man voting?


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael - you are becoming very fixated with Brexit. I understand you have skin in the game around your pension and dependent relative however I log in as I love your blog for Jeziorki. Could you do a separate blog for brexit and leave us to admire the wonderful scenery and great pictures you take of contemporary Poland?