Neoliberal globalization has fueled the rise of right-wing nationalist leaders around the world — from Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro in the Western hemisphere, through Viktor Orbán and Boris Johnson in Europe, to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Narendra Modi in Asia.
Despite their differences, each has thrived on popular disenchantment with traditional parties of government that have failed to defend the interests and living standards of ordinary people against the social dislocations associated with the transnational mobility of capital. But what the UK election shows most clearly is that despite its nationalist rhetoric, the new right is not in the business of rebalancing the scales between their national polity and the global system.
The victorious incumbent Prime Minister Boris Johnson wagered the Conservative Party’s election campaign on the relentless repetition of two slogans: “get Brexit done” and “take back control.” However, scrutiny of Johnson’s program shows that it is not interested in a contest between the rootless forces of globalization and the political and economic shelter offered by democratic decision-making within the nation-state.
What is really at stake is the impulse to outmaneuver competitors by finding an advantageous niche within the world market — for Britain to become the “Singapore of Europe.” And paradoxically, it is the language of nationalism that is being deployed to advance this more ruthless and disempowering version of neoliberal globalization.
Neoliberal Globalization vs. New Right Nationalism
As historian Quinn Slobodian writes, neoliberalism’s global vision has always sought a world “with rules set by supranational bodies operating beyond the reach of any electorate.”
This “world of rules” — most clearly embodied in the World Trade Organization (WTO) — removes the operations of the market from the decision-making of any particular population. Corporations and investors shape the lives of ordinary people — directing (or withdrawing) resources and employment, setting wages and conditions, influencing environmental and safety standards, and determining access to health, education, and social services. Yet their decisions are presented as market outcomes and so as lying outside of democratic control or accountability.
In theory, nationalism seems inimical to such a transnational vision. Whether democratic or authoritarian, egalitarian or plutocratic, nationalism sounds like it will always place the national interest above external considerations. But the rhetoric of Brexit helps to reveal how the nationalism of the new right in fact has precious little commitment to those living within the national polity — notwithstanding the real dangers it holds for those defined as aliens, refugees, or “non-national” people.
The Genealogy of Brexit
The power of Brexit rhetoric lies partly in its deep roots in British political culture.
Its central concern with sovereignty in particular goes back to the ideas and arguments of the late Enoch Powell, a British politician and public intellectual who deeply influenced Thatcherism. Much admired by Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, Powell was an early exponent of “neo-racism,” which substituted supposedly immutable cultural differences for increasingly discredited notions of biological “race.”
But as well as providing a “respectable” language for hostility to nonwhite migrants, Powell also developed a rhetoric of national sovereignty that in fact leaves neoliberalism’s “world of rules” untouched.
The key to Powell’s account was his exclusion of economic activity from political decision-making, so that “national sovereignty” was paradoxically redefined as compliance with the dictates of the world market. Despite the fact that transnational economic forces play an often determining role in the actions of national governments and the lives of ordinary people, Powell insisted that globalization “has no relevance to political independence and self-government.” It is this insistence that underpinned Powell’s rejection of any pooling of sovereignty at the European level.
On Powell view, neoliberalism’s “world of rules” are, like the laws of nature, outside political decision. Like gravity, they cannot be adjusted, revised, or rejected. But like gravity, this also means that in a sense they disappear. Imagined as a free, individualized exchange, the rules of the market are presented as a spontaneously level playing field — not a system designed to steer political decisions in line with transnational capital accumulation.
From this perspective, national sovereignty becomes very easy — it is just a matter of asserting the will to be a nation. And yet, at the same time, it becomes oddly empty.
If politics is not bound up with the global economy, then governments are not bound up with one another. They have no business in working together to shape the global economic system in order, say, to redirect investment for social goods, lessen inequalities in earnings and wealth, or protect the environment. Indeed, their primary role is to facilitate the smooth working of neoliberalism’s “world of rules.”
What, then, is left of “national sovereignty,” of “political independence and self-government”? If issues of social justice and environmental sustainability are off the table, what exactly are we to “take back control” of?
For Powell, national sovereignty resolves down into the assertion of the national will — the will to continue as a culturally and ethnically homogenous nation. What constitutes “political independence and self-government” is not making collective decisions about how we work, educate our children, support those in need, or create a sustainable future — although pragmatically, he did reserve a role for the National Health Service (NHS). Rather, for Powell, sovereignty primarily involved keeping nonwhite migrants out, preparing for national defense, and, of course, safeguarding the rules of the world market.
The EU and Its Discontents
Echoing Powell’s threadbare conception of national sovereignty, the Conservative election campaign almost exclusively centered on “taking back control” by “getting Brexit done.”
In contrast, the opposition Labour Party stood on the most expansive social democratic program in decades, promising the renovation of the NHS and the welfare state, renationalization of key utilities, free higher education, and a massive economic boost through a green new deal. Yet media attentionhas focused on Brexit rather than the radical Labour agenda, and for many voters it appears that “getting Brexit done” was the key election issue.
Enoch Powell’s account of sovereignty helps explain the extraordinary traction of Brexit rhetoric at a number of levels, especially when set alongside the British experience of the European Union (EU).
The EU is in fact a paradoxical mix of neoliberal transnational rules (free movement of capital, goods, services, and labor), institutional cooperation, and social, labor, consumer, and environmental protections. This mixture explains the surprising level of consensus over Europe across the British political class prior to the Brexit referendum of 2016.
On the one hand, its neoliberal aspects secured support from both Conservative and New Labour administrations, including those of Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, and David Cameron. On the other, its potential for bringing neoliberalism’s autonomous “world of rules” back under a measure of democratic control — or at least, of mitigating some of their worst social consequences — appealed to trade unions and many on the social democratic left.
But this mixture does not translate so well to those worst affected by neoliberal globalization.
Instead, for many, the EU represents the worst of both worlds: as embodying the disempowering effects of invisible market forces and the bureaucratic interference of state regulation. From this perspective, the EU ties the sense of being left behind engendered by relentless marketization to the government interventionism of social democracy. And with increasing precarity and the erosion of public provision, the EU’s association with immigration (the free movement of labor) has cast it as a threat to the economic security and social cohesion of communities who feel left behind.
Leaving the EU therefore comes to be seen as returning to an ideal sovereignty which the nation once exercised but gave up at the behest of elites. Brexit comes to be seen as “taking back control.”
Underlying this viewpoint are the deeply embedded assumptions about economics, politics, and sovereignty promulgated by Powell. The central absence in public discussions of Brexit has been the lack of any sustained challenge to the idea of a pure “national sovereignty” unaffected by the dictates of the global market. A hard Brexit has been presented as an opportunity for independence and self-determination, benignly facilitated by WTO rules.
More realistically, it will lead to the diminution of popular sovereignty — and a race to the bottom in pay, conditions, and social provision.
National Reconstruction vs. Neoliberal Nationalism
Elections are always a contest between rival visions of the future of the national polity. But the UK general election is unusual — and instructive — because it is also a contest over different understandings of national sovereignty. This is nowhere clearer than in the contrasting attitudes to national infrastructure exhibited by the two main parties.
The Conservative Party sold off public utilities — such as energy, water, railways, and the Royal Mail — over a number of years, and the party remains implacably opposed to renationalization. With privatization, prices for consumers have risen to pay dividends to mainly foreign investors, running annually at around £8 billion (approximately $10.5 billion), or £315 per household.
A key plank in Labour’s manifesto has been to bring these utilities back into public ownership, a policy that academics estimate would pay for itself within seven years. The social good here is clear: not only would renationalization reduce household costs and boost infrastructure investment, but it would also make these utilities democratically accountable.
For Labour, the failures of neoliberal globalization offer an opportunity for reconstructing the national polity. They have promised not only to rejuvenate public services and invest in a green economy, but also to enlarge the measure of control that citizens have over the market forces that shape their lives.
The Conservative program, despite modest funding increases for the NHS and policing, has almost nothing to say about national infrastructure, reducing inequality, or the creation of a sustainable and fair economy. Its campaign was fought largely on the illusion of “national sovereignty” conjured by the slogan of “getting Brexit done.”
This election has demonstrated the enduring power of Brexit rhetoric. But it also tells us something important about the supposed “nationalism” of the new right. Without restoring the power of democratic polities to make decisions outside of the dictates of the world market, claims to “national sovereignty” will in reality only disempower ordinary people and strengthen neoliberalism’s “world of rules.”
Graham MacPhee is a professor of English at West Chester University. He writes on British identity, politics, and culture, and is the author most recently of Postwar British Literature and Postcolonial Studies and co-editor of Empire and After: Englishness in Postcolonial Perspective.
This essay first appeared on Foreign Policy in Focus.