There is a classic Hollywood movie, Sunset Boulevard, in which a fading movie star lives in a bubble of her past glories, unable to comprehend that the world has moved on. One of Hollywood's most memorable characters - the aging silent film actor played by Gloria Swanson - has delusional plans to return to her screen glory with a silent film epic more than 20 years after the emergence of talking pictures. A return to glory has been the underlying theme, not only of U.S. presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump with his "Make America great again," but also of the successful campaign for Britain to leave the European Union after 40 years in the bloc. It is the last roll of the dice, hoping that somehow Britain's long term decline from the center of the world to the margins of Europe could be arrested. The fallout from the referendum demonstrates how the decision to leave the European Union was not really about economic benefits or about the perils of membership, or even about immigration, but rather about the very identity of Britain.
The result of the referendum has sent shock waves around the world. The pound has tumbled in value against other currencies and stock markets have been turbulent. Prime Minster David Cameron has signaled his resignation and Conservative politicians are now competing with each other for the leadership of the party and government. Above all, those who headed the Brexit campaign now appear to be afraid of the consequences of their own success. It has become clear that the campaign to leave was based on a series of deceptions and delusions.
If this maelstrom was not bad enough, elements within the main opposition Labour Party have decided to stage a coup against their leader who was elected with one of the largest popular mandates in the party's history. Historically, Labour has been the main vehicle for social justice in Britain. In the mid-1990s it was taken over by a neo-liberal cabal under the leadership of Tony Blair. Like the Bourbons on the eve the French Revolution, the Blairites are unable to comprehend that the world has changed, and rather than try and serve the country, they decided that a fractious internal battle is what is needed at a moment of national crisis.
At the same time, incidents of Islamophobia, with were already apparent in the campaign, and racism have increased, as xenophobes see the 52 percent who voted for the Brexit as representing a silent majority who endorse their racism but feel browbeaten by a metropolitan multicultural elite.
The tangle of economic, social, cultural and political crises that have opened up indicates that the Brexit's challenge is a challenge to the historic bloc that has been in power in Britain since the early 1980s.
There has also been a tendency to present the Brexit vote as having significance beyond Britain, as heralding the breakup of the European Union and the onward march of racist, authoritarian populism in Western plutocracies.
There is little doubt that the Brexit will diminish Britain's influence in the world, but it does not necessarily mean that it will diminish the importance of the European Union or the global South. This may seem rather counterintuitive. For the EU, Britain leaving means losing the world's fifth-largest economy in an environment in which the EU economy as a bloc has shrunk 10 percent. However, it is possible that Britain's breaking away will liberate the European Union project to pursue a more calibrated, less market-oriented and more collaborative process of integration. A vision of a European Union that values social cohesion and employment rights and builds a kinder, more collaborative society may now be possible. Britain pushed the option of extending the EU rather than deepening it, so without its participation, a deepening project may be possible.
Similarly, the rise of xenophobia cannot be reduced to the Brexit campaign. While it has typically been Trump who has garnered all the headlines with his calls for banning Muslims from the US and appointing some of the most Islamophobic ideologues as close advisors, what he is saying, in many ways, is already happening. The U.S., U.K. and France have introduced measures that, while lacking Trump's bombastic resonance, make up in bite. For example, for many years now, getting in a place in any of these countries while being Muslim has been just a moment away from descending into Kafkaesque world.
It is important to remember that even before the Brexit vote the signs were there for those who wanted to look. Islamophobia was not just about hating Muslims or Islam, it was not just a set of ideas that even if described as half-baked would still be understating their rawness. Norway's killer, Anders Breivik, got headlines, but the institutionalization of Islamophobia was the work of those in government who built policies on the basis of recycling orientalist myths and peddling quackery from hired instant experts or billionaire bigots. Islamophobia and xenophobia have been able to advance by stealth the work of faceless bureaucrats, rather than thugs.
As far-right parties emboldened by the Brexit vote come to the open, the opportunity is there to challenge the insidious advance of racism and see it for what it is, as not only an assault on distinct populations, but also an attempt to transform relations between state and society.
What the Brexit vote has highlighted is that the elites that have governed the U.K. since 1979 not only have bankrupted the country, but are also bankrupt of new ideas. They continue to insist that they have the answers when the evidence indicates that they do not even know the questions. While the two major British political parties are consumed by internecine conflicts, the country drifts further away into irrelevance.