Last week, a majority of voters in the United Kingdom supported Brexit, the proposal for Britain to leave the European Union. The referendum’s outcome was a surprise to many elites, journalists, and academics, and even some pro-Brexit voters are experiencing “bregret” (aka “regrexit”). A petition has been circulating to run a second referendum, but exercising that option has apparently been ruled out.
The victory of the “Leave” campaign has been attributed to various factors, including xenophobia, lies by its proponents, voter ignorance (though see this), fear of a loss of “Britishness,” and economic resentment. It has already been blamed for eliminating $2 trillion dollars worth of value in global markets, and costing the UK $350 billion, which “transformed the country overnight from the fifth largest economy in the world to the sixth.”
What should we make of this result, and of the processes and conditions that led to it? To help think about and discuss these matters we have invited a number of philosophers and political theorists to share some brief remarks. As with previous installments in the “Philosophers On” series, these contributions are not comprehensive statements, but rather focused thoughts on specific issues, meant to prompt further discussion, here and elsewhere.
- Rebecca Bamford (Quinnipiac University) — Pursuing the European Experiment while Addressing Disenfranchisement and Discrimination
- Jason Brennan (Georgetown University) — Brexit: A Bad Choice for a Referendum
- Sophie Grace Chappell (The Open University) —- Political Deliberation under Conditions of Deception: the Case of Brexit
- Helen De Cruz (Oxford Brookes University) — Being Friends with a Brexiter?
- Lisa Maria Herzog (Goethe-Universität Frankfurt am Main) — Saving an EU Worth Saving?
- Kristina Meshelski (California State Universty, Northridge) — No Way Out
- Martin O’Neill (University of York) — Brexit and Intergenerational Justice
- Regina Rini (New York University) — The Tragedy of Political Identity
- Eric Schliesser (University of Amsterdam) — Brexit: A Political Transformative Experience
This particular edition of Philosophers On was suggested and put together by Helen De Cruz. My thanks to her, and to all of the other contributors, for participating in this discussion.
The idea of the “Philosophers On” series is to explore the ways in which philosophers can add, with their characteristically insightful and careful modes of thinking, to public conversations about current events, as well as prompt further discussion among philosophers about these events. All are welcome to join the discussion.
Please share the post with others, and feel free to provide links in the comments to relevant philosophical commentary elsewhere.
Rebecca Bamford — Pursuing the European Experiment while Addressing Disenfranchisement and Discrimination
Many Leave campaigners and/or voters think that failure to act on the vote to Leave would be undemocratic. Giles Fraser claims that the result has given the UK its democracy back; as the great leveller, he writes, democracy doesn’t give the rich or well-educated extra voting power — the people have spoken, and we should listen. However as Kenneth Rogoff points out, to accept that decisions reached by majority rule are always democratic involves a perversion of the term ‘democracy’; because Leave was actually backed by only 36% of eligible voters given the 70% overall turnout (72% according to the BBC) and no checks and balances were put in place beyond achieving simple majority, the referendum result is more “Russian roulette for republics” than democracy.
It has been claimed that the referendum has enabled people from historically deprived areas such as the North-East of England and South Wales to make their voices heard in Westminster. When multiple generations experience poverty, underfunding of education, health, and other social services, and lack of economic opportunity, and there are few opportunities to be heard, rage and protest are logical. A real effort is needed to empower the disadvantaged and vulnerable throughout diverse UK communities. Yet it is also indefensible to engage in racism and/or xenophobia. Inequality has helped to open up space in which discrimination against UK citizens of color, non-EU immigrants, EU citizens of long residence in the UK, and new immigrants and refugees, is flourishing — even despite that immigration has been shown to benefit the UK economically and socially. Not all Leave votes were motivated by xenophobia and/or racism — but discrimination has been given fresh endorsement by the referendum, as indicated by increasing reports of hate speech and violence. We can call out racism and xenophobia at the same time as we tackle disenfranchisement and inequality: these two important aims need not conflict.
Listening to one another is crucial. However, a simple, very narrow, majority is poor grounding on which to base claims about democratic will. We could affirm the protest indicated by many Leave votes and pursue relevant new policies, while considering ways of Remaining. While EU reform is arguably needed, leaving the EU may do little to solve the substantial problems affecting UK communities in the short and medium term, and may exacerbate these. There are non–elitist reasons for exploring ways to Remain, ones that attend to the UK’s colonial history and its legacy. These include: promoting the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland, peace in Europe (which we should not assume is guaranteed), peaceful trade and engagement with non-EU nations in e.g. the African Union, combatting fascism and violence, and securing access to funds and infrastructural support for development programs, academic research, the arts, workers’ rights, employment opportunities, and student learning across diverse EU nations. Fostering economic stability over the next five to ten years is vital, to avoid disproportionately burdening already disadvantaged and vulnerable people. The integrity of families of mixed EU nation/UK families must also be safeguarded: the referendum has raised serious concerns about residence status both in the UK and in the EU. People urgently need meaningful reassurance.
We should also not write off European unity as something worth pursuing. Writing on Nietzsche’s relevance to the referendum, Hugo Drochon argues that for Nietzsche, unification with Europe facilitates a stronger voice in world affairs, helps to avoid petty nationalist politics leading to war, and enables the UK to contribute to ongoing development of a new European culture. Free movement of people across nations facilitates the experiments with values and ideas, and the development of a new culture, that Nietzsche advocates – for example, by exchanging ideas through familial and collegial networks increasingly distributed across EU nations. On this basis, leaving the EU seems more likely to promote social stagnation, violence, and war than cultural development and peace. The Friedrich Nietzsche Society’s 2016 conference, this year jointly organized with the Nietzsche-Gesellschaft, will attend to European futurity by analyzing Nietzsche’s notion of ‘good Europeans’ in e.g. Beyond Good and Evil, and his hopes for boundary-transgressions and new syntheses. I mention this example to further reinforce the relevance of Nietzsche’s philosophy to exploring the future of Europe, but also to illustrate the kind of free, collaborative, exchange of ideas and values that Leaving inhibits.
Jason Brennan — Brexit: A Bad Choice for a Referendum
Sixty years of empirical work show that the mean, median, and modal level of basic political knowledge among democratic electorates is low. Not surprisingly, attempts to measure more advanced scientific knowledge also find that voters know next to nothing. Some defenders of democracy claim that ignorance doesn’t matter, because voters will make random errors that will cancel each other out. Empirically, this turns out not to be true. In fact, even once we control for demographics, low-information and high-information voters have systematically different policy preferences. For instance, low-information voters favor protectionism and oppose immigration, while high-information voters favor free trade and reduced restrictions on immigration.
Whether Britain should leave the EU or not is a complicated question. To have a reasonable opinion about that question, a person would need to have extensive social scientific knowledge. Most UK voters lack this knowledge. Further, because individual votes make no difference, individual UK voters have every incentive to vote expressively, to use their votes to signal their anger or resentment rather than to vote for what they justifiably believe would promote the common good.
For that reason, to decide Brexit by referendum is a bad idea. Putting the decision in the hands of UK voter is putting the decision in the hands of a body that is probably incompetent to decide that question, and which is not incentivized to decide it in good faith. Fortunately, the referendum isn’t binding, and the UK might instead put the decisions in the hands of a more competent body. The best form of democracy is one that uses checks and balances. We want elites to keep voter ignorance under control, but voters to keep elites from just using power for selfish ends.
I’ll end with a comment about democratic theory. Ten years ago, I avoided philosophical democratic theory as if it were rancid meat. The problem is that the way many philosophers talk about democracy seems to bear little resemblance to how democracy actually works. The field of democratic theory would be much better if, say, Achen and Bartels’s Democracy for Realists were standard reading.
Sophie Grace Chappell — Political Deliberation under Conditions of Deception: the Case of Brexit
Is deliberation binding when its results are arrived at by deception? As a question in the individual case, we have no difficulty at all in seeing that the answer to this question is “Of course not”. Ever since Plato, perhaps longer, it has been commonplace to make an analogy between individual agency and the agency of the political community. Plato, of course, did not see the political community, as a whole, as a deliberator in our modern democratic sense; and right now it is certainly tempting, for any British political philosopher, to have more sympathy than usual with Plato’s sort of benevolent paternalism. Still, the point is obvious enough. If individual deliberation is regarded, as it clearly should be, as invalid when it has been warped by deception, there is no reason why political deliberation should not equally be invalidated by deception.
The question is how to implement this principle: not in a Platonic dictatorship, but in a modern democracy. What I would like to see on the statute book is a law that where an electoral success has been obtained by a campaign any of whose central campaigning claims was demonstrably factually false, that electoral success is struck down.
This proposed law avoids trouble about counterfactuals. It doesn’t require that a false campaigning claim be such that, had it not been made, the election would not have been won. What it requires is—as above—centrality. Which campaign claims are central? Is an election result appealable because a campaigner says, wrongly, that Ludlow is in Staffordshire, or that the normal price of a pint of milk is £2, or some other such trivial blunder? Centrality is a matter of judgement for the courts; but that strikes me as a healthy feature of my proposal, not a problem for it.
The proposed law doesn’t exclude false promises. But no good law about political deception can, for two obvious reasons. First, it will usually take too long for it to become clear that a false promise has been made for it to be legally remediable by the striking-down of the election result. (If Mr A does not fulfil his electoral promise to do X before his fifteenth year in office, he is not necessarily a false promiser until then; nor if he is cast out of office in year fourteen.) Secondly, sincere politicians sometimes have to break campaign promises for perfectly good reasons; we have to allow them that room for manoeuvre, and the price of allowing it is that we allow insincere and lying promises to go unpunished in the way I am proposing. False promises will, then, still have to be punished in the traditional way: at the ballot box in the next election.
So what might this proposed law mean, in the case of the Leave the EU campaign? The Leave campaigners could not be liable under it for promising, falsely as they now admit, to spend £350m a week on the NHS. But they might be for falsely claiming that this money was available. Similarly the Leave campaigners could not be liable for promising to cut immigration. But they might well be for claiming that Turkey’s accession to the EU was imminent. In both cases, what the courts would have to test was whether these campaign claims could reasonably be held central to the Leave campaign. And as I say, that would be a matter for the courts to decide; though in one case at least it does not seem a hard decision, given that the false claim in question was written on the side of the bus.
Helen De Cruz — Being Friends with a Brexiter?
I am an EU citizen—a Belgian—and I work at a UK philosophy department, Oxford Brookes University. Until now, I found the UK welcoming, I was attracted to UK academia because it combines excellence and openness. This changed dramatically last Friday, when I woke up to the news that Brexit won by a narrow majority. Most people around me – my friends in Oxford, my family, my FB friends, twitter followers, and fellow academics, were devastated. However, there were also some friends in my social media feed who were gleeful and rejoicing: Yes, we did it, we voted leave! Taking back control!
My first impulse was to unfriend those people (see this post by Rebecca Roache on the dilemma). But wouldn’t that be reducing my circle of friends to an echo-chamber? This raises the question of how we can maintain friendships in the light of serious, deep moral disagreement (see also here). As David Wong has argued, it is important to find a modus vivendi with people you disagree with on substantial moral matters, especially if there is still enough common ground to accomplish joint pursuits together.
However, that does not mean we should accommodate no matter what. As Wong points out, if you are part of a disempowered group that is the target of the disagreement, you are under no moral obligation to accommodate. For example, if you are a trans woman, and your friend is someone who believes that trans women aren’t real women, or you are a black person and your friend alleges that there are racial IQ differences, it seems pretty straightforward that under such conditions you can’t agree to disagree. Because in such situations, your identity, your legitimacy, is what is at stake.
For this reason, I believe EU citizens living and working in the UK are under no obligation to endure cheery Brexit updates in their social media feeds. The debate was dominated by immigration and fear of migrants. When questioned, UK voters cared more about immigration than their economic wellbeing. I got leaflets in my mailbox about how Turkey is set to join the EU (colored a threatening red), with its 78 million population, and threateningly, Syria and Iraq were displayed in orange, as if they would soon follow suit as well. Moreover, EU citizens working and living in the UK were barred from a vote that impacts them and their future in this country very much. We could only await the outcome.
The sophisticated Brexiter who says “For me it was about getting away from the Eurocrats”, or “For me it was all about sovereignty”, have with their vote still joined their voice with those who would rather see their economy go to pieces than welcome more migrant workers, added their vote to a decision that was hailed by extreme-right, racist parties in Europe, and with a nasty rise in racist incidents along the lines of “go back home” immediately in its wake. In spite of the goods of having friends you can morally disagree with, this strikes me as a bridge too far. You cannot have your Brexit cake and still expect to dine with your EU friends.
Lisa Maria Herzog — Saving an EU Worth Saving?
As a European from “the continent” (as the British say), I’ll here focus on what the Brexit vote means for the EU. Before June 23rd, some uttered the hope that a Brexit would allow the EU to get rid of a reluctant member that blocks important reforms. But anti-EU sentiment is also on the rise in other member states, and it is not clear whether such a vote could not have happened in other countries as well (remember the Austrian presidential elections).
What can the EU learn from the Brexit vote and where should it go from here? A first problem is the way in which the EU, with its common market, has pitted two groups against each other. For lack of better terms, I’ll call them the “movers” and the “stayers”, but I mean mentality as much as actual behavior. For movers, who are typically young, well-educated, and cosmopolitan, an open market is a wonderful field of opportunities. For stayers, who either cannot or do not want to leave their homes, an open market is a threat, because movers will arrive and social structures will change, threatening what stayers consider their established rights. There are many things that are wrong with EU economic policies, but one is that they have been based on a facile assumption that most people would be movers, and would, for example, move abroad for jobs. But many people, for good or bad reasons, do not want to move or cannot move. In fact, Europe would lose much of its charm and its cultural diversity (and maybe what social stability and cohesion it still has) if all its citizens turned into rootless cosmopolitans. We need a new social contract between movers and stayers in which we acknowledge the complementary value of both. This is a matter of mutual respect, but also of tangible economic advantages. Maybe it is now time to think about a European safety net (for human beings, not banks) that creates at least a minimum of economic security for all its citizens.
A second problem is communication—between the EU and its citizens, but also about the EU (this is only one data point in this context—but one that seems to confirm that communication really matters). “Brussels” has become a synonym for distant bureaucrats ushering technical directives, out of reach for normal citizens. While there may be an element of truth in this, it has also become a cliché that has survived many attempts by EU bureaucrats to create better channels of communication. I don’t claim that things are beyond improvement, but we should also keep our expectations realistic: an institution like the EU will never be able to communicate and act as quickly as a village council.
What also seems to be crucial is that nationalist politicians stop blaming the EU for pretty much anything that ever arouse people’s fears and angers, from bad weather to the deteriorating tastes of cucumbers. Often, they neither differentiate between the EU and other processes (globalization, structural change, etc.), nor do they consider the fact that the EU usually acts through its members states, and that they hence carry part of the responsibility. With such friends, who needs enemies? The political communication with and about the EU needs to become fairer to what is good and bad about the European project. And it needs to stop pitting national sentiments against European ones. Why can’t there be proud British or Dutch or Hungarian people within the EU? When did we last hear the Union’s motto, “United in diversity“? Some regions (e.g. Scotland, Bavaria, Catalonia) seem to have managed to create such combined identities. Those who care about the European project—and if you look at Europe’s war-torn history, how can you not?—need to think about how to convince not only the cosmopolitans, but also those who care about national identity.
In the end, however, communication will only convince people if it also has effects. In other words, the EU needs not only better communication, but also more democracy. How exactly this can be brought about—whether to strengthen the European Parliament, to return some competences to national parliaments, or to create a second chamber made up of national MPs—is up to debate, and that’s the debate we now need to have. My fear is that the EU will be so busy, in the next few years, to organize its divorce from the UK that there won’t be much time for other reforms that are urgently needed: to improve its social justice balance sheet, but also to become better at communication and ultimately more democratic. And yet, to me this seems to be the only way in which the EU can be saved, reformed, and remain worth fighting for. Good luck to all of us, and good luck to Great Britain as well!
Kristina Meshelski — No Way Out
You might believe that in an ideal society there are no nation-states, and thus no borders preventing any individual from living or working where they please. And of course the less reason people have to kill each other the better. In this sense the European Union seems like a step in the right direction —opening borders and establishing a common market and currency certainly created very valuable freedoms for countless individuals. But it also came at a high cost. It took away the member nations’ control over their own monetary policy, which has allowed the wealthier countries to strong-arm the less wealthy countries into accepting austerity measures that seem designed to benefit the wealthier countries more than the less wealthy countries. The UK of course is not one of those strong-armed countries; if anything it is the opposite. But ironically this meant that it seemed safer to contemplate leaving, because they were not obviously desperate for the EU benefits. We see with the Brexit vote a case of people rejecting something that was a benefit to them, in the name of taking back control over….something.
It is common to put this criticism of the EU in terms of democracy; as if the problem is that the European Central Bank is unelected. But this is not what is wrong with it—I don’t think that individuals must have the right to vote on interest rates and things like that. Rather what is wrong with it is that it is not fully committed to its own reason for existing, the joining of nations for mutual benefit. When you make something, buy something, or sell something you are engaging in a cooperative activity without which your individual transaction would have no meaning. The EU has never fully embraced this idea. To the extent that it redistributes wealth it does not see all its members as equally entitled to share in the surplus profits, nor was it ever set up with the authority to do this. It aims to establish a free market within the member countries to make it easier for greater profits to be made, but it does not simultaneously allow everyone a share in those profits. These profits are not thought of as benefits of cooperative activity, they are thought of as something individual earners are entitled to, and so when given back in the form of subsidy it becomes something that the receiver should be grateful for, as if they were not an equal participant in the enterprise to begin with. If redistribution is accepted without the underlying justification, then it will serve to entrench a fundamental status hierarchy, and this status hierarchy seems to be a big part of what voters reject when they reject EU membership.
But the mistake of those voters is to think that they regain status by leaving the union. Voting to join or leave a union like the EU does not in itself make the EU’s control of its members more or less legitimate, no more than accepting a job in a sweatshop makes its treatment of you legitimate. Global free markets exist with or without the EU, and so the duty to recognize the cooperative activity of all participants as necessary and deserving of compensation is there already. By rejecting their EU membership, UK voters do not thereby gain the status they seek—the real work must be done in building a global economy based on reciprocity.
Martin O’Neill — Brexit and Intergenerational Justice
The results of the Brexit referendum have thrown the UK into a period of social, political and economic turmoil. There are many aspects of this vote that one could address. The vote followed the lowest-quality political campaign in recent British history, as newspapers with their own pro-Brexit agenda (often favouring the interests of their wealthy proprietors, such as Rupert Murdoch’s Sun) regurgitated a steady stream of misdirection, obfuscation and outright lies.
The vitriol of the campaign, in which opportunistic pro-Leave politicians such as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson at least tacitly acquiesced with a campaign that frequently veered into outright racism, was disturbing to anyone who might have better hopes for democratic debate. One pro-Remain politician, the Labour MP Jo Cox, was brutally murdered in the street by a gunman who appears to have had close links with a range of far-right and neo-fascist organisations. Hundreds of incidents of racial abuse being directed at UK residents, both those from the EU and those from outside the EU, have been reported in the days since the referendum result was announced. And the stability of the Northern Ireland peace process, one of the absolute successes of British politics in the past twenty-five years, has been thrown into question (and without much consideration on the British mainland).
But I’ll concentrate on just one issue in this post, the issue of the intergenerational injustice of the Brexit vote.
The votes cast in the Brexit referendum split 48.1% for Remain and 51.9% for Leave. But the distribution of votes had a strong generational skew. Post-voting polling carried out by Lord Ashcroft’s polling company suggests a significant victory for Remain among younger voters. Ashcroft’s figures suggest that voters aged 35-44 voted Remain by a margin of 52% to 48% (the reverse of the national result), whilst 25-34 year-olds broke 62% to 38% for Remain, and the youngest voters, in the 18-24 age range, supported Remain by a ratio of almost 3:1, with a split of 73% for Remain to only 27% for Leave. Unlike the Scottish independence referendum of 2014, the vote was not granted to 16 and 17 year olds, whom one would expect to have supported Remain by a similar overwhelming margin to those in the age group just ahead of them. The strongest support for leaving the EU was to be found among the country’s oldest voters, with the 65+ age-group supporting Leave by a margin of 60% to 40%.
There are at least two issues here, one more procedural and one more substantive. Given that voting turnout among the young is always much lower than among older voters, it is not at all clear that a narrow victory of 52% to 48% for Remain actually shows that majority opinion in the country (as opposed to a majority of those voting) favours leaving the EU. The response here may be that younger voters have nobody but themselves to blame if they have failed to turn out to vote in sufficient numbers. But it should be remembered that it is often simply more difficult for younger people to register to vote, given that they are more highly mobile and less likely to have been in one settled address for a considerable period of time. Moreover, this comes after the Conservative government of David Cameron had introduced changes in voter registration to make registration more difficult. Under the old system, any one person living at an address could register anyone else in the household (e.g. in a shared house, one resident could register the others), whereas under the new system each person had to register individually.
The more substantive issue is whether it could be normatively justifiable for those who will be less affected by the consequences of such a huge decision to impose it on those whose interests are more extensively at stake, and who strongly favour a different outcome. Yet that is certainly what has happened. If Brexit becomes a reality, and if the principle of free movement is abandoned, then the young people of Britain, who are pro-European and pro-EU by a substantial margin, will have seen what they might have believed to have been their birth-right – their European citizenship, which grants them the right to work, study, or, let’s imagine, fall in love, settle down and raise a family in any of the 28 EU countries – taken away from them. It will have been taken from them given the voting decisions of age cohorts who will, in general, not be as significantly affected by this loss of European citizenship. One question here is whether this injustice calls for any kind of institutional response as regards the design of voting systems, or the stipulation of thresholds for major constitutional changes, but whatever answers might be given to such questions, it is impossible plausibly to deny the magnitude of the injustice that has been done to the young.
Regina Rini — The Tragedy of Political Identity
Already Brexit has begun to trigger other political realignments. 150,000 people signed a petition calling for London to secede from Britain and re-join the EU. More realistically, Scotland seems likely to have a do-over on its unsuccessful 2014 independence vote. The citizens of London and Scotland voted to stay part of Europe, and some are now ready to place this identification ahead of their loyalty to the UK. Perhaps this should be expected, in an era when we all bear multiple overlapping political identities. One person may simultaneously be a citizen of the borough of Tower Hamlets, the municipality of London, the country of England, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the Union of Europe. When these layers of identity conflict – or are made to conflict by others – we are forced to decide. The question is how.
There is no natural reason why the nation should be the political entity with which we most identify. Our concept of the nation is a contingent historical artifact, rooted in medieval Europe and brought to individual consciousness by the mass mobilizations of 19th century warfare and 20th century liberation struggles. As the latter cases show, sometimes identifying the self with the nation can be a tool for political progress. But of course those are only the good cases. In many ways, the project of the European Union has been an effort to submerge the militaristic undertones of national identity in the cosmopolitan solidarity of a multi-ethnic, multi-national superstate. Europe has all the trappings of political identity: a capital, a flag, an anthem. But Brexit shows that this aspect of the European project has not yet succeeded. For many people, it is still national identity that holds greatest allegiance. And if political identity is an act of will, then this is a choice they are free to make.
Anguished Remain voters have taken to social media to symbolically renounce ties to Britain. The ring of European stars on a blue field fills temporary profile pictures. I think that many of us have implicitly adopted a consumerist model of political identity. A person is a European in the way that she is a proud Apple user. Brand identity stands for personal traits, of forward-thinking, of hipness, of clean politico-aesthetic lines. I don’t mean this point to sound dismissive or unsympathetic. All of us, in prosperous democratic places, have grown used to unlimited individual choice. Our public display of these choices is how we mark who we want to be, and others’ reactions to them determine who we actually are. In this environment, it is only natural that the resolution of our layered political identities would follow a path carved by brand loyalty.
But in politics, the consumerist model is a false one. We do not have unlimited individual choice about our political affiliations. The practicalities of geography and economics tie our identifications together inextricably. So with Brexit. The citizen who identifies first with Britain and the citizen who identifies first with Europe cannot both have their identities fully realized. However the vote went, at least one group would find itself involuntary excluded, or included, among an identity community not of is choosing. This is the essential sadness of democracy in an era of layered identity. We can be who we are only at the cost of depriving other citizens their own completed selves. For those of us who find the European project valuable, both intrinsically for Europe and as a guide for political evolution across the world, Brexit is a particularly sad moment. But its more fundamental lessons did not depend on the vote’s outcome, and have not been resolved in any way.
Eric Schliesser — Brexit: A Political Transformative Experience
A Political Transformative Experience (hereafter PTE) is an experience that is both epistemically and politically transformative. This idea is inspired by L.A. Paul’s work on Transformative Experience. PTE arises in situations where collective agents (e.g., social activists, financial regulators, voters, etc.) think of themselves as authoritatively controlling their choices by collectively projecting themselves forward and considering possible futures and their plans are undermined by cognitive and epistemic limitations (that is, epistemic uncertainty). In particular, it is a political theory of unforeseen consequences in which those consequences change political actors in ways they could not have willed.
Thus, PTE, has four components: (i) it’s a collective choice (e.g. the referendum) by which I also mean that even if individuals (collectively) compose or constitute the choice no individual is able to decide; (ii) the transformation of the collective agent because of this choice (leaving the EU; accompanying changes on the nature of citizenship as well as patterns of travel and settlement); (iii) the unforeseeable consequences that are due to the choice (e.g., perhaps, the break-up of the United Kingdom; the implosion of the peace-process in Northern Ireland, different kinds of political coalitions in England/UK, changing economic outcome patterns;—your guess is as good as mine); (iv) the fact that ahead of the choice one might sense or know that there would be (some non-trivial) unforeseeable consequences due to the choice.
In addition, as Laurie Paul emphasized in correspondence, (v) the collective outcomes can be epistemically transformative at the collective and at the individual level. Finally, (vi) the outcome is transformative on the identity of the collective (treating the country as an individual) and can transform the individual (citizens)
These (i.e, (i-vi)) are compatible with (a) some intended consequences of PTE being entirely foreseeable (e.g., more border controls, higher risks of protectionism, etc.) and (b) some unintended consequences of the choice being foreseeable to (outside) experts (e.g., henceforth the U.K. is a small not very wealthy country no more important than, say, South Korea). In addition, a TPE is compatible with (c) some of the choosing agents within the collective having different expectations for example, some understanding the choice as a leap of faith and others not (and degrees among this).
Brexit is, thus, a Political Transformative Experience. (I have discussed the causes and meaning of Brexit here and here.) For the UK the outcome(s) will be identity-changing as well as (I predict) epistemically changing. And for individual citizens the outcomes of Brexit could be identity-changing as well as epistemically changing.
A whole bunch of consequences on the political identity of the Brits (and the Europeans) that are occasioned or caused by Brexit are now shrouded in mystery. I close with an example. Let’s stipulate, for the sake of argument, that war is central to collective identity, and that security is a key background component of collective national identity with the military a central collectivity-shaping institution. Now consider that Britain plays a non-trivial role in the Union’s Common Security and Defence Policy (see, especially, here)—a topic that was almost entirely ignored in the public, referendum debate. It is possible that after Brexit, the United Kingdom and European nation states will continue to consider themselves ‘allies’ (within NATO, say); it is equally likely that Britain and the Union will understood each other as rivals increasingly unwilling to contemplate shared sacrifice.
UPDATE (6/29/16): Posts by philosophers and other academics elsewhere:
- Jennifer Saul (Sheffield) – “Brexit: Resist the Simple ‘Racism’ Narrative” (Huffington Post)
- Paul Gowder (Iowa) – “The Brexit Referendum Was not Democratic” (Medium)
- Jacob Levy (McGill) – “No, there’s not a market-liberal case for Brexit” (Bleeding Heart Libertarians)
- Mark Blyth (Brown) – Discussion of Brexit on AthensLIVE (Youtube)
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