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Is Brexit The Beginning Of The End Of The Post-National Age?

02/07/2016 8:46 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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Britain has chosen to exit the European Union (EU). Almost 52% of the vote went in favour of "Brexit", a neologism (comprising a synthesis of two words, Britain and exit) that may be portentous of either a new drift in world politics or a validation of the old. Fears stoked by populism resulted in a stirring up of xenophobia, racism, a degree of Islamophobia and economic concerns, feeding into a theme that appears to be defining our world contemporarily. These developments give short shrift to what was termed as the "post-national age" - theorized as an era wherein nation states and their concomitant national identities (and the ideational premise which undergirded both - nationalism) was withering away and yielding space to supra-national super states or federations. The EU was held to be a classic example of "post nationalism".

Have the British chosen, to use Thomas Friedman's metaphor, the olive tree over the Lexus? The forces of tradition over progress and modernity?

The idea of a post-national age, reified to some extent by the EU, was a cause célèbre for many. It was a contrapuntal to narrow ethnic and national identities, liberating individuals and even groups from age-old yokes. There were economic and financial consequences too; larger unions meant expansive trade areas and movement of peoples. The EU, epitomizing this idea, was held to be a harbinger of a brave new world. Besides being a critique to parochialisms, the EU was a call and an idea for the restoration of Europe and perhaps even an ideal for the rest of the world (especially post-colonial states divided on the basis of language, identity and ethnicity) to aspire to.

Sovereignty and the state form of organization -- a concomitant of Westphalia -- in the wake of the vote for Brexit, has triumphed these novel, bold and beautiful ideas and constructs. Is the vote for Brexit, then, a validation of the old and a rejection of the new? Have the British chosen, to use Thomas Friedman's metaphor, the olive tree over the Lexus? The forces of tradition over progress and modernity? What will happen to globalization now? And last but not the least, what will be the implications and consequences of Brexit politically?

The EU was and is a bold experiment. While Brexit will hurt the EU significantly, it does not imply dissolution of the entity. Yes, what might follow is a review by the people of other EU countries of their commitment and attachment to it, and may even lead to a degree of centripetal activity, but the idea holds. Perhaps from a long-term point of view, the EU, as an idea and a commitment was far ahead of its time. As happened in Brexit, narrow parochialisms and constructs such as nationalism, ethnicity and state sovereignty could -- against the backdrop of economic stress and uncertainties induced by globalization -- continue to challenge the EU. Brexit was a demonstration of clinging to older yet illusory certainties and rejection of the novel and the bold and the beautiful.

The EU -- as an idea, construct and practice -- is ahead of its time. Perhaps one day, a demand for this cosmopolitan union will emerge from the bottom up.

But all this does not mean that the European Union is dead. It's too soon to sing dirges over the EU or even the Idea of Europe.

But Brexit will have consequences beyond the market and economics. Consider globalization first. As a meta-historical trend, globalization may not be reversible, but its momentum will be dissipated. This will assume salience if Donald Trump assumes the presidency of the United States. Protectionist impulses might strengthen and world trade (already in the doldrums) will take a hit -- along with it, the global economy will also suffer. These are the material and tangible aspects of Brexit. Less tangible but perhaps more insidious consequences will be felt in the domain of the political.

Narrow national and ethnic identities will make a comeback. One immediate political repercussion will be, as many commentators and analysts have stated, in Britain itself. The Scots will be emboldened to review and reinfuse energy and enthusiasm into their movement for independence from the United Kingdom. If the Scots' freedom pans out and becomes real, then other movements of/for self determination will become emboldened and the concept and idea of self-determination will be energized and become more truculent. Self-determination will be back on the agenda of world politics and the state form of organization will assume salience and significance.

The Brexit vote demonstrates that for now, reversion and regression appear to have gained the upper hand, but this need not mean gloom and doom. To repeat, the EU -- as an idea, construct and practice -- is ahead of its time. Perhaps one day, a demand for this expansive, cosmopolitan union will emerge from the bottom up. It is then that the post-national age will be said to have come -- an idea that will be reason(s) for joy and a reason for celebration for all.

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