In the Science of Civilizations, Brexit Is the European Union’s Reckoning
On June 23, millions of United Kingdom citizens will vote to leave the European Union. And millions of others will vote to remain. If the leavers win, the UK and EU will begin a methodical divorce that many analysts expect to destabilize the nation and the continent.
All of which might happen eventually, no matter what the UK decides. The so-called Brexit vote is the culmination of years of growing disillusionment—mostly from older and working class Britons—with the European Union’s trade agreements and open border policies. It is also part of a larger trend. Across Europe, populist parties have been fighting to regain sovereignty from the EU. The problems of each country, and of the European Union itself, are contemporary, specific, and complicated. But they fit into a model that some scientists have recognized as symptomatic of a civilization on its way towards disintegration.
The European Union began after World War II as set of trade agreements between five countries. Nations with close business ties, the thinking went, would probably be less likely turn squabbles into wars. Over 60 years, the compact has grown into a proper government across 28 member nations, regulating all those things that governments regulate: economy, labor, environment, migration. “I think of the European Union as an empire,” says Peter Turchin, an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut. “The EU is unusual because it was constructed without conquest, but in terms of functionality it is not unlike other historical examples.”
Turchin describes historical empires as large-scale, multi-ethnic conglomerations—ones that wouldn’t come together except under a mighty ruling class. And across those different empires, Turchin and his anthropology colleagues look for commonalities. How do policies developed by the ruling class, for example, affect the general population’s ability to weather recession or disease? Then they develop mathematical models that strive to explain how civilizations rise and fall.
“Large empires are groups of states glued together by cooperation,” Turchin says. In a successful civilization, the ruling class cooperates among itself to create functional rules. It also cooperates with the general population to make sure those rules keep everybody reasonably happy, employed, and safe from harm. In turn, the general population cooperates by not rising up and overthrowing The Man. “One of the signs you see in civilizations going the wrong direction is where the elites make policy choices that bring about increasing inequality,” says Turchin. When these unequal policy choices meet some kind of spark—say, an economic recession—they turn into torches for the disaffected general population. The civilization then shakes itself apart, or is toppled by a suddenly stronger external force.
Scholars often argue about the specifics. But Turchin thinks a wide view of world history will show that lack of cooperation between rulers and ruled helped bring bring about the end of the Russian Tsars, the French Monarchy, the British Empire, and many others.
Bolstering Turchin’s view, other scholars say EU’s problems date back to the philosophies underlying the modern European democracy. The EU was built, partly, on principles outlined in Thomas Hobbes’ 1651 book Leviathan. In it, he describes the social contract between the ruling classes and the general population. “Our problem today is that the normative idea of political legitimacy has not shifted much since Thomas Hobbes’ time,” says Adrian Favell, chair in sociology and social theory at Leeds University. Globalization, he says, has thrown a monkey wrench in the Hobbesian philosophy. Today’s world has too much complexity for the center to hold.
Turchin says Brexit is just a symptom of Europe’s larger issues. These start in Brussels—the site of the EU’s central government. “One of the biggest problems is even though the EU seems democratic, the government is not democratically elected by the people of Europe, and therefore not directly responsive to the population,” says Turchin. Take, for instance, the heavy-handed austerity measures it imposed during the 2010 European debt crisis. Those resulted in widespread unemployment, which is still a problem. And now the EU is dealing with the migrant and immigration crises.
Like other Europeans, many Brits blame the EU’s trade agreements and open borders for lost wages, increased burdens on social programs, and the rising threat of terrorism. And they think the tax dollars being diverted into EU membership fees aren’t providing a very good return on investment. Obviously, the reality of these claims is nuanced. In some areas—ag, fisheries, environment—the EU plays a big role. In social programs, the UK seems to be making mostly its own choices. But impossible to measure is the truth behind the nationalist fervor shared by many who wish to leave the EU, those who believe the EU’s open borders and immigration policies are eroding their cultural identity.
Currently, Brexit poll trackers by The Economist show a near even split between those who wish to remain and those who wish to leave. But no matter which way the vote falls, the looming problems remain.
The situation is not inexorable. “All large scale societies go through complex cycles,” says Turchin. “These usually end up in civil war or outside conquest, but sometimes the ruling class can manage to get their act together using the reform route.” He points to President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms as saving the US in the 1930s. Similar reforms kept Britain from imploding during the nation’s 1840s banking crisis.
Turchin did not mention any specific reforms that might put the EU back on course, but said he and other academics would soon begin petitioning for political leaders to cooperate more closely with each other. “Our goal is to convince both the public and policy makers that we have a very serious problem and without cooperation we will not be able to get out of the crisis.” He doesn’t know how that will play out—only that it will probably be messy. But not quite as messy as a continent-wide democracy left in tatters.
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