Brexit & the culture of Progress

Essays Published November 3, 2016 in Resurgence

In his introduction to the 1979 edition of his novel Pig Earth – the first in a trilogy chronicling the decline of peasant life in Europe in the 20th century – John Berger makes a distinction between what he calls a ‘culture of progress’ and a ‘culture of survival.’ The culture of progress, he says ‘was born with the bourgeoisie as an ascendant class, and has been taken over by all modern theories of revolution.’ In the contemporary West, virtually every political ideologue – capitalists, communists, liberals, modern conservatives – is in this sense a ‘progressive.’ They believe in constant improvement, constant change: their differences amount, says Berger, to ‘a fight about the content of progress.’

The culture of survival, by contrast, is the culture of the peasantry, of indigenous people; of pre-modernity. It is the culture of the great majority of human history, and of many people still, and it is exemplified for Berger by the French peasantry he still lives among. A culture of survival does not have an end goal; it just is. Its purpose is to live from day to day and year to year. It is a repeating pattern. The end goal of the culture of progress, meanwhile, is at its grandest the abolition of death itself. For this goal, the destruction of traditional ways of being and seeing, and much of the world’s wild beauty, is a sacrifice worth making.

Back in 1979, the peasantry of France, and across Europe, was haemorrhaging from the land. This was no accident: it was a planned extinction, and Berger was quite clear who the agents were. ‘The economic planners of the EEC,’ he wrote, ‘envisage the systematic elimination of the peasant by the end of the century. For short-term political reasons, they do not use the word elimination but the word modernisation. Modernisation entails the disappearance of the small peasants (the majority) and the transformation of the remaining minority into totally different social and economic beings.’

Forty years on, the process of elimination (sorry, ‘modernisation’) in Western Europe is complete, and the EEC – now the EU – is turning its attention to Eastern Europe. The destruction of the peasantry, and the naturally diverse landscapes they inhabited and created, is now being rolled out in Romania, Poland, Hungary and other EU nations. The epic destruction created by Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy – the wiping out of hedgerows, forests and wildlife, landscape features, small and family farms, and the the promotion of industrial farming and agricultural free trade – has arguably done more damage to the rural landscapes of Europe in 50 years than any other single instrument in the previous 500.

Back in the 1970s, when Berger was writing, most radical thinkers, including most greens, were clear about the damage being wrought by the undemocratic, bureaucratic and centralised European Economic Community. E. F. Schumacher, Leopold Kohr, Edward Goldsmith, Tony Benn and many others could be heard making a clear case against the culture of progress it represented. Unelected, created by stealth, operating in the interests of big business, the EEC had a clear aim: to diminish, if not abolish, the democratic sovereignty of European nations, and to ‘pool’ that sovereignty in the interests of creating a giant, borderless free-trade zone. Though it was dressed up with talk of peace, equality and brotherhood, it was, as its name implied, primarily an economic edifice. Its culture of progress was a culture of homogenisation, centralisation, control and profit.

Fast forward four decades, and what is now the European Union has been highly successful in achieving this aim. From a six-nation free-trade zone, it has morphed into a 28-nation superstate with its own currency, its own government and its own laws, which apply equally to all member states regardless of their specific cultures and traditions. It has removed ‘barriers to trade’ within its border, including local ways of living, national laws and, most controversially, the right of nation states to control inflows of people from elsewhere. Accountability, distinctiveness and localism have been crushed beneath its weight.

‘Whenever something is wrong,’ wrote Leopold Kohr in his classic book The Breakdown of Nations, ‘something is too big.’ Virtually everything in the EU is too big these days, and it shows. The impossibility of maintaining one financial model for 28 nations has required the EU to cast the people of its poorer periphery nations, from Ireland to Greece to Spain to Portugal, into debt peonage or mass unemployment in order to keep its superstate dream alive; something it has done with extreme ruthlessness. The economic crisis this has caused, combined with the cultural and social impact of its open borders policy, has led to the rise of far-right parties in many EU nations: the very thing which defenders of the union say it exists to counter. Economically, culturally and politically, the giant is staggering: giants always do. Small, after all, is beautiful, right?

So you would think that when a major nation like Britain chose to leave the EU and forge its own path, that there would be some celebration amongst greens. It’s true, of course, that the EU has been the progenitor of a number of beneficial environmental regulations (imposed upon nation states, rather than created and passed into law by their own parliaments, of course.) But do they make up for the damage it has done to agriculture, to cultural distinctiveness, to the wildlife and the soil, to democracy? It’s an impossible calculation to make, but whatever side you come down on there should, at the very least, surely be a good degree of healthy scepticism amongst greens about the nature and future of the European Union.

And yet, most greens – most people who consider themselves in any way ‘radical’, in fact – seem to be crying into their muesli about Brexit. Or worse: instead of simply complaining, many who voted Remain have been launching vicious attacks on those who chose to leave the union. Idiots! Racists! Selfish old fools! If only they had known what they were talking about; if only they had been properly educated; if only they hadn’t believed the nasty right-wing newspapers – then they would have seen that their future lay with a sclerotic, unaccountable bureaucracy and its friends in big business.

It’s been astonishing to watch. With a few notable exceptions – Green Party peer Jenny Jones, for example – green and supposedly ‘alternative’ politicians, thinkers and public figures have thrown in their lot with the EU’s domineering culture of progress: and not just tentatively, but with huge enthusiasm. The decision to leave has been treated by some of them not as an opportunity, a throwing off of shackles or even simply as a change that must be accommodated, but as a national disaster.

What is going on here? The EU violates just about every green principle going. It is the opposite of local; it is destructive to the natural world; it wipes out cultural distinctiveness; it is anti-democratic; it puts the interests of banks and corporations before the interests of its working people. Why – when – how – did the green movement abandon its commitment to localism and democracy, and jump into bed with a beast like this?

One answer, I would suggest, is that the European Union has become a symbol rather than a reality. I would guess that very few people who voted either to either leave the EU or remain in it know much at all about how it actually works. Rather, they voted for or against what it symbolised to them. To those in favour, the EU is a symbol of continental co-operation, cosmopolitanism, free movement of people (and money, of course) and other such wholesome things. To oppose the EU, by contrast, represents nationalism, racism, small-mindedness and a lack of a university degree: all things which most self-described ‘progressives’ instinctively react against. In other words, this is not a rational debate about the benefits or otherwise of a political union. It is a whose-side-are-you-on battle: and increasingly, it is split along class lines.

Class has always been the fault line running down the middle of the green movement, and with the Brexit vote, it has been exposed. Those who voted to leave wanted to regain democratic control of their nation. They wanted a voice, because many of them felt perpetually ignored. The working classes and the lower middle classes – not the cultural or political elites – pulled off a kind of modern-day peasants revolt, against the advice of every section of the establishment. The greens could have been on their side, making the case for re-localising power, reclaiming national democracy, and creating environmental and social regulations which apply specifically to this island and its bioregions. That’s what localism looks like, after all.

But the case was never made. Why? Perhaps because few greens come from the social classes which have been affected negatively by the EU and its part in the globalisation project. The greens have always been a movement primarily of educated, middle-class intellectuals. Unlike either the socialist left or the conservative right, they have never had a popular movement behind them, and at times like this, it shows. Have many green voters had their wages undercut by mass migration? Have many eco-intellectuals felt unheard and unloved as the global liberal project rolls onward? Or have they been in the vanguard? At a moment when all is up for grabs – when an optimistic, genuinely radical case could be made for re-localising Britain – the greens, and the left generally, look like marooned members of an elite, clinging to each other for support, and wondering what just happened. They suddenly look very … well, conservative.

This, I would also suggest, is related to another problem that the green movement suffers from. A distinctive green politics has been subsumed over the last few decades into the broader politics of the ‘progressive’ globalist left. Once, the greens challenged that culture of progress on both left and right, and ploughed their own, ecocentric furrow, seeking to reconnect people with nature, the planet and their local communities, trying to forge a new political narrative and language. But all this has long gone. Today, green politics is a subset of the fringe left: promoting top-down solutions and regulations; campaigning against ‘austerity’ in a way which suggests that growth is a solution rather than a problem; pushing for open borders regardless of the social impact on the poorest third of society, and regardless of the population growth and consequent environmental destruction that it causes. Once a radical political movement, the greens now look like social democrats with solar panels.

The final answer to the puzzle comes from the change in the green relationship to the state. Once, greens were suspicious of the size and power of both states and corporations. Today, though, much of the ‘green left’, true to the tradition of British state socialism, seems to see the state as a defender of the people against the market. If this is how you see things, then a superstate is a superdefender. This explains how we have got to the position where much of the green left appears to view the European Union as a benevolent sugar daddy, defending Britain against both corporations and its own elected government.

What can be done about this? As Britain prepares to leave the EU, it seems an urgent question. An exciting, radical case for a rejuvenated British democracy, free from EU bureaucracy, is there for the taking. If we are no longer subject to the dictates of the CAP or CFP, for example, surely it is possible to at least propose much more sustainable ways of managing the land and seas? The greens should be right in at the heart of this debate. But they are not. And until they start to understand why people voted to reject the EU, their message is likely to go unheard.

Something genuinely radical has just happened in Britain. A potential crack has opened in the culture of progress, and it has been opened not by intellectuals, ideologues or political philosophers, but by 17.4 million ordinary people. ‘Progressives’ like to claim to speak on behalf of the ‘grassroots’: now they have seen what the grassroots looks like. If ever there were a moment that was ripe for the seizing, this is it. It could go in any direction now. What will the greens do?


  • Vivienne Outram

    Great to hear a brave and sane article about Brexit from someone who loves nature and wants a better world. I despair of the knee jerk reaction of Remainers. We live in interesting times, and frankly they need to be interesting, carrying on as normal is no longer an option.

  • derek h

    Right again Paul. But how do we claim power back for the local? It feels as if the political debate is simply about different versions of centralisation.
    And at the same time our language is hijacked, ideas made taboo, questioning disallowed, avenues of discourse blocked…

    modernisation = good
    euroscepticism = bad
    progress = good
    austerity = bad
    the state = good
    local authorities = bad
    nurses & doctors = good
    social workers = bad

  • James Vella-Bardon

    The EU has to decide once and for all whether it is a federation or a purely intergovernmental body. By remaining the hotchpotch white raven that it currently is, it will always be viewed with suspicion or (at best) as a necessary evil

  • Anna

    This is really interesting to read. I voted remain and I was really angry when I found out about the result, and just how dodgy the leave campaign was. But I have also looked a little closer at the remain campaign, and I am actually disappointed in that too. I also realize that, despite having some understanding of politics and being very engaged with the situation, I really don’t know enough about the EU and how it works. I think that kind of information should be made objective and put out there more explicitly, because yes the EU has just become a symbol to so many people and we are voting based on what it means to us. I have noticed, unfortunately, that the remain campaign was and is crawling with privileged artistic types…while they aren’t necessarily bad people, they are just as biased as the opposite…

  • Sheila Williamson

    Very interesting read. I liked the distinction between progressive growth orientation and survivalist peasant culture, having spent much of my life trying to be a middle class peasant. While it is obvious to me that a culture where we live within the constraints arising from living on one planet with a complex interconnected web of life is both desirable and necessary, it doesn’t seem to be of much concern to those around me in rural North Wales, or indeed folk in general! But I keep on having the conversations. I voted remain for the sake of environmental protection and human rights (?) but the EU is basically a huge and not very democratic state. To me it felt that in or out it was going to be a variety of neoliberal nightmare. So I dream on in my rural idyll. Its Saturday I hear a chainsaw buzzing and the birds sing their spring song.

  • David H

    Certainly thought-provoking, suddenly up is not necessarily up anymore!

    Can’t help thinking though that Brexit is unlikely to bring global capitalism and its devilish works suddenly crashing down in the UK. Nor that it’s the better strategy to simply abandon our continental cousins to their fate, which we will then assuredly come to share. Furthermore some of us Greens have never regarded ‘growth as a solution rather than a problem’ and have been willing to explore the alternatives.

  • Colm McGinn

    Shockingly self-indulgent. You, and your commenters. You (and they) combine the forever present declinism, but do not provide any serious analysis of how a planet of 9.5 billion humans could both survive and start to repair the damage we have done. Because that is one of the things about to happen (a population of 9.5 billion) and to have any solution other than our extinction requires a re-worked society, and that includes industrial society.

    So when you say – “But all this has long gone. Today, green politics is a subset of the fringe left: promoting top-down solutions and regulations; campaigning against ‘austerity’ in a way which suggests that growth is a solution. . .” – perhaps you betray your personal political agenda. How will the present power structures be changed? Will they willingly assent to your simpler, purer, Green agenda? Or is that just a past thing, not relevant in these years 2017 – 2050?

    • ‘You (and they) combine the forever present declinism, but do not provide any serious analysis of how a planet of 9.5 billion humans could both survive and start to repair the damage we have done.’

      I don’t supply that analysis because I don’t believe it is possible. This is what the last nine years of my writing has been about. I don’t see any ‘serious analysis’ of this anywhere, just lots of wishful thinking.

      Incidentally, it’s more likely to be around 11 billion. With enough carbon up in the atmosphere already to change things faster than at any time since the evolution of humanity. Under these circumstances, discussions about how to keep our little industrial bubble from popping seems irreleavnt to me.

      I’m also not sure what your point has to do with the EU, or Britain’s place in it.

      Present political power structures, I would guess, will be changed by events – as they are currently being changed. I’m pretty certain they won’t be changed by anyone’s ideologies, or by top-down grand plans, which always do more harm than good.

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