The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The world’s losers are revolting, and Brexit is only the beginning

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THE world has enjoyed an unprecedented run of peace, prosperity and cooperation the last 25 years, but now that might be over. At least when it comes to those last two.

That, more than anything else, is what Britain's vote to leave the European Union means. A British exit, or Brexit, will make the country poorer in the short run, perhaps in the long run too, and might drag the rest of Europe down with it. That's because Britain is essentially ripping up its free trade deal with the rest of Europe. But of far greater concern than just dollars and cents is that this is the most significant setback in Europe's 60-year quest for "ever closer union," and the most shocking success for the new nationalism sweeping the Western world.

Brexit, in other words, is the end of the end of history.

That, of course, was Francis Fukuyama's famous idea that, with the end of the Cold War, capitalist democracy had not only defeated communism, but also every other ideology. It was supposed to be, as he wrote, the "final form of human government." And insofar as democracies tended to work together, this implied the future would be one where competition wouldn't lead to conflict, but would rather replace it. Tariffs would come down, money would move across borders to where it was needed most, and workers would too. This meant, then, that governments weren't the only ones that would become more alike. People would as well. They'd stop being citizens and chauvinists, and become consumers and cosmopolitans. You'd have nation-states without the nationalism.

In a stunning victory for the "Leave" campaign, Britain has voted to exit the European Union. Here's what happens next. (Video: Jason Aldag, Adam Taylor/The Washington Post)

For a while, this seemed true enough. Democracy spread, war lessened and economies opened up. In turn, international groups like the European Union and World Trade Organization codified it all. As any Mumbai taxi driver could have told you, the world really was a Thomas Friedman book.

Or at least it looked that way, if you didn't stare too closely. If you did, though, you would have noticed the cracks in this liberal international order. For one, financial capitalism didn't always work so well for countries. Money moved in and out of them at the speed of a mouse click, inflating and then popping bubbles along the way. From Mexico to Argentina, Thailand to South Korea, Hong Kong to Indonesia, and, eventually, the United States to Southern Europe, these capital flows magnified the economy's boom-bust cycle, with an emphasis on the bust.

For another, global capitalism didn't always work so well for workers in the United States and Europe even as — or, in some cases, because — it pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty everywhere else. In fact, the working class in rich countries have seen their real, or inflation-adjusted, incomes flatline or even fall since the Berlin Wall came down and they were forced to compete with all the Chinese, Indian and Indonesian workers entering the global economy. You can see that in the chart below, put together from economist Branko Milanovic's data. It shows how much real incomes have increased — or not — for the whole world between 1988 and 2008. Now, the way to read this is to imagine that everyone, as in everyone in every country, was lined up from highest to lowest income. The richest people in the richest countries (and every other one for that matter) would be in the global top 1 percent, the working class in the richest countries would be around the 80th percentile, and the middle class in middle-class countries like China would be at the 50th percentile.

Globalization didn't create a lot of losers, but the ones it did were concentrated in the countries that were the driving force behind it.

This was a political powder keg. If rich-world workers were losing ground even when times were good, what would happen if we got hit by one of the financial crises the new global economy seemed to spawn every few years? Well, things would get ugly. Although, in truth, they had already started to. Right-wing populists like Pat Buchanan in the United States, Jean-Marie Le Pen in France and Jörg Haider in Austria had scored surprising near-victories, if not actual ones, in the late 1990s and early 2000s by focusing the working class's incipient ire on a "foreign" enemy besides outsourcing: immigrants. This antagonism reflected economic anxiety, cultural fear and even racial resentment. Displaced workers felt like immigrants were taking jobs and benefits that should have been theirs. They were worried about losing the one thing — their national identity — the market couldn't take. And, a lot of times, they just didn't want to be around people who didn't look, sound, or worship like they did.

It didn't take long, then, for the West's triumphal globalism to fuel a nationalist backlash. In the United States it's Trump, in France it's the National Front, in Germany it's the Alternative for Germany and, yes, in Britain it's the Brexiters.

SO Britain's "leave" campaign was about what you'd expect, especially considering that immigration had doubled the previous 20 years as people from the E.U.'s poorest east had come looking for work. Brexiters called to "take back control" from Brussels's bureaucrats. They warned that Turkey is about to join the E.U. — it's not — and flood the country with immigrants. They said that Europe's refugee crisis has pushed them to a "breaking point" in a poster reminiscent of Nazi propaganda. And they promised to earmark the funds now being sent to the E.U. for what they claim is the overburdened-by-immigrants National Health Services instead. Never mind that they overstated how much money that'd be by a factor of two. Their basic argument was that Britain could only stop this influx of immigrants if it ditched the E.U. and its rules mandating the free movement of people, and that the elites had failed the people by forgetting there was a Britain outside of London. The only real surprise is that all this happened in Britain and not some other E.U. country, since they were smart enough not to adopt the euro and thus avoided the worst of Europe's double-dip recession.

If he were around today, Louis XV might amend what he said to this: Après Brexit, le déluge. That's not, though, because of what Brexit might do to Britain's economy, but rather to everyone else's politics. Now, of course, it is true that leaving the E.U. without getting a new trade deal almost as good as the one it has now will make Britain permanently poorer. And it is also true that the uncertainty over what any future agreement will look like will put the brakes on business investment and possibly push Britain into recession. But the economic fate of one little island isn't what has global markets on edge. It's whether the rest of Europe will follow Britain out of the E.U. and into their own portmanteaus. In other words, whether Brexit will beget Frexit, Itexit and Nexit.

It might. Right-wing populists, after all, in France, Italy and the Netherlands have already called for their own referendums on E.U. membership. And if they win, it wouldn't just tear the common market apart but the common currency as well. See, unlike Britain, all those countries use the euro. So if one of them were to leave, two things would happen: First, they'd have to change all the money in their economy, and, second, every other euro country would worry that they'd be next. That, in turn, would set off a slow-motion bank run across Southern Europe as people tried to get ahold of their euros before they could be turned into, say, liras that wouldn't be worth anywhere near as much. It'd be the mother-of-all financial crises. Which is why German, French, Spanish and Italian stock markets all fell much further than Britain's did after it voted to leave. Indeed, those markets dropped 6.8, 8.0, 12.4 and 12.5 percent, respectively, on Friday, while Britain's "only" declined 3.2 percent.

Brexit, it turns out, is more about Europe than it is about Britain.

THIS could be the beginning of the end of the euro, the European Union and the liberal international order itself. Like the French Revolution, though, it's too soon to say. Britain may yet back away from the brink. And Europe may yet fix the flaws in its currency and its bureaucracy to head off any more nationalist uprisings. Neither of those is likely, but we can't rule them out — just like we can't rule out the opposite. Brexit really might be the end of the E.U. if France and Italy follow Britain out the door; it might also be the end of the U.K. if Scotland and Northern Ireland decide they'd rather be part of the E.U. (or what's left of it); and it might even be the end of our era of economic integration if it helps propel populists to power who only care about putting their people "first."

The E.U. may certainly seem to deserve this fate. It has let an economic fire burn across Southern Europe for nearly eight years, its only response to that has been to pour some gasoline on it, and it seems to think it has done its job now that that is down to just a smolder. Now, its first mistake was ignoring the economists who warned that creating a currency union without a fiscal union to go with it would end, well, as badly as it has. Its second one was ignoring the evidence that things were indeed going bad just as predicted, and blaming irresponsible governments instead. And its last one was all but blackmailing governments into slashing their budgets out of the misguided belief that this would get their sputtering economies growing again. It didn't. It was the economic equivalent of tossing a drowning person an anchor instead of a lifeline, because you thought they needed to get stronger and not bailed out. Which made the E.U. Europe's bête noire.

The sad irony of all this is that the E.U. was built to prevent the very kind of nationalist fervor its economic mismanagement and political heavy-handedness are provoking now. So maybe its time has come. The dustbin of history exists for a reason.

And yet, and yet. It's easy for a generation that has only known peace and relative prosperity to forget that the arc of the political universe is long, and it bends toward wherever you point it. If that's toward chauvinism and isolationism, well, that's what you'll get. Europe's countries will end up with metaphorical walls around their economies, and eventually physical ones around their borders. Hungary's nationalist government is already well on its way with its razor-wire fences. This is a dangerous time for Europe. It has had walls before. It doesn't want them again. The only thing, then, that might be worse than the E.U. is the people who want to get rid of it. The same could be said of globalization. It might have made growth less inclusive and less sustainable than before — at least in rich countries — but it's hard to say the alternative would be better. We'd be a little poorer, and poorer countries would be a lot less able to grow.

The liberal international order isn't working for too many people, but, on balance, most economists would say it's still worth fighting for. After all, there are much worse alternatives. If we want to avoid learning that firsthand, though, we're going to need to build bigger safety nets for globalization's losers, and, in the case of the E.U., make it more responsive to voters. Otherwise, we might get the toughest lesson of all.

History doesn't always move forward.