An Antidote to Brexit: As Britain Stands Down, Cities Stand Tall

A British flag which was washed away by heavy rains the day before lies on the street in London, Britain, June 24, 2016 after
A British flag which was washed away by heavy rains the day before lies on the street in London, Britain, June 24, 2016 after Britain voted to leave the European Union in the EU BREXIT referendum. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause

A week later, BREXIT is a catastrophe twice over. Nation States and politicians offer no remedy, but cities can.

First, the unfolding catastrophe: above all Brexit is disastrous because it manifests an understandable but reactionary rejection of the EU, which was a noble experiment in cooperation and interdependence intended to put an end to nationalist wars and political xenophobia. It gives impetus to a politics of fear whose instigators like Boris Johnson are not only showing buyer's remorse, but trying to bail out from responsibility. Too late, for the politics of resentment is already stalking Austria, Hungary, Poland, Greece and yes Holland, France, Germany and the United States too. In the United States, Donald Trump offers his own version of BREXIT - call it BRUMP - that builds walls rather than bridges and scape-goats selected "others,"(immigrants, Muslims, peoples of color, refugees), for problems they have not caused but in fact are themselves also victims.

Yet BREXIT is a catastrophe also because it manifests the bankruptcy of stale elites in Washington and 10 Downing Street and Brussels, oligarchy-tainted politicians who have shown far more interest in currencies and banks than in citizens and democracy. Those who voted to LEAVE the EU have the same complaints as those who voted to leave the Republican and Democratic Party establishments and support Trump (or Bernie too). The alternative Trump offers is problematic, even toxic, but the resentments he channels are as real as those that fueled BREXIT. Their common message reads like this: "Government isn't working for us! Oligarchic bureaucracies have stopped listening to me! If democracy means them, it's a fraud. If these corrupt careerists are supposed to be our leaders, then leadership is bankrupt."

These two critiques are both deeply felt. But one is reactionary and backwards-looking, rooted in a pandering politics of fear that can only make things worse. Focused nostalgically on a past that is unrecoverable, it yearns for a world where frontiers once kept peoples apart, where nations were mono-cultural and easily defined by a common language or race or religion; where economies were controlled by sovereign countries that kept the jobs in and immigrants out; where global challenges like climate change, refugees, pandemic disease and terrorism simply didn't exist.

Rather than acknowledging the inescapable if terrifying realities of our new interdependence, however, scurrilous fear-mongers scape-goat others for what's gone wrong. They offer a simple solution: find some "other" with a different accent or skin hue or religious persuasion and blame her. It's their fault so keep them out or throw them out! More sovereignty, more independence, more homogeneity, above all, more walls. Rise up ye withered nations: forward into the past!
The other critique is focused on oligarchic elites and failed democracy. It is equally angry but looks forward not backwards. It is rooted in a pessimistic politics still tinged with hope, intent on restoring democracy rather than abandoning it. It condemns not diversity but austerity, not ethnicity or religion, but oligarchic corporatism and unresponsive bureaucracy. It demands more democracy rather than higher walls, not separation but a just and balanced integration that neither favors immigrants over locals nor locals over immigrants.

It doesn't much like interdependence, but this critique recognizes that for better or worse the world is globalized and interconnected. Peoples are more and more commingled, and can never be "sorted" back into pure racial fragments or nationalist enclaves. Understanding this, if only intuitively, the democratic revolt against Europe wants to democratize rather than break it apart; it may withdraw from Europe but only in order to join the rest of the world.

The worst mistake those who reject BREXIT could make would be to vilify its supporters as mere racists and reactionaries, although there are plenty of racists and reactionaries who voted LEAVE and respond to Trump for all these wrong reasons. Yet there were also many citizens simply frustrated with a remote cadre of smug Washington pols or self-appointed Brussels bureaucrats telling them what to do without ever asking them what they think. Here the players are women and men who see a democracy deficit as well as an immigration deficit, who resent the politics of enforced austerity as much as the politics of open borders.

For every Trump lout who wants nothing more than a great big wall "they pay for," and a ban on Muslims that keeps "them" out (even though our recent terrorists in San Bernardino and Orlando were all home-grown and American-born), there is a Trump rebel who doesn't much care for Trump's thuggish character but who refuses to give the establishment in Washington - Democratic or Republican -- another chance to screw him in the name of helping him. Likewise, for every Sanders Bernie Bro looking for a "free" education someone else can pay for and an instant "overthrow" of global capitalism whose replacement is so obvious you don't have to think about it, there are more than several young idealists fed up with government paralysis and political parties that give lip service to change while laboring to ensure the status quo.

Well here is the good news: there is a solution for those asking for more democracy rather than higher walls, for all those offended less by immigrants than oligarchs. It lies in the world's networked cities, whose courageous and pragmatic mayors are already moving forward in the cosmopolitan spirit of diversity, pragmatism and transactional cooperation. On the morning after Brexit, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo and London Mayor Sadiq Khan stood tall together, issuing a powerful appeal for cities to stand with them in concert -- "ensemble" - and to "defy" the Brexit spirit of fear and isolation. They know that interdependence is not a foolish ideal of "internationalists," but the brute reality of our new century, made manifest in climate change, refugees, global markets in capital and labor, and technology. The question is not how to run away from but how to democratize interdependence and globalization.

Cities can do this. They are doing it already. In just ten weeks, on September 10-12 in The Hague, there will be a unique opportunity for global urban action with the inaugural convening of a Global Parliament of Mayors. This new global body, for, by and of cities, will offer a global megaphone for a common urban voice and a global platform for common urban action. It will respond forcefully to BREXIT in deeds as well as words by declaring that if nations can't or won't, cities can and will. They will cooperate world-wide to sustain and secure the lives and liberties of their citizens.