We Live in a Disintegrating World

Photograph Source: Leonardo Aguiar – CC BY 2.0

My favourite slogan about Brexit over the past three years is written in large white letters on a red gable wall in the Tigers Bay district of Belfast. It was painted before the referendum of 2016 and, below a union flag, reads: “Vote Leave EU. Rev 18:4.”

The biblical reference is to a verse in the Book of Revelations that reads: “And I heard another voice from heaven, saying, come out of her, my people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues.”

These seemed to me, when I first saw a picture of the mural, to be compelling reasons for leaving the EU and about as truthful as many other reasons advanced by those in favour of doing so. The verse cited is, in fact, more pertinent to the issue of resisting a large and oppressive international organisation than the muralist may have realised. Revelations is filled with mysterious references to monsters, such the “beast from the land” and the “beast from the sea” who has “seven heads and 10 horns”. But experts consider these weird creatures to be coded hostile references to the Roman Empire and to Roman Emperors who were persecuting the early Christians, of whom the author of Revelations was one, in Asia Minor at the end of the first century AD.

The Belfast muralist has finally got their way as the UK escapes from the supposedly diabolical clutches of the EU. Leavers consider today to be one of liberation and Remainers lament a self-inflicted disaster that they see as being against the flow of history. But in both cases, this is a very west European view that gives a very partial and misleading view of recent history: if we include the eastern side of the European continent from the Atlantic to the Urals over the past 30 years, the trend towards the greater integration within the EU is more than counter-balanced by disintegration to the east.

The break-up of the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in the 1990s are seldom considered to have any lessons for the EU: the Soviet Union was believed by much of the rest of the world as an evil empire and Yugoslavia similarly as a sort of mini evil empire, the demise of both being both inevitable and a good thing.

But the forces favouring disintegration that broke up the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia have ominous points in common with those now threatening the EU. Fairly or unfairly, people outside the decision-making hub in Moscow, Belgrade and Brussels felt that their wishes were being ignored and power monopolised by unrepresentative elites at the centre. Local politicians rode a nationalist wave, claiming that all sorts of good things would happen once self-determination had been achieved.

In some cases, these promises were kept; in others they were soon discarded and forgotten, at least by those who made them. In many senses, we have long been living in an era of disintegration without quite realising it, as multinational federations break up and international organisations, such as the UN and World Trade Organisation (WTO), fragment or become moribund. President Emmanuel Macron was lambasted for describing Nato as “braindead”, but it is scarcely alone. This trend is obscured because academics and politicians in western Europe have tended to be enthusiasts for the EU and for the integration of nation states, as if there was no chance of a shift in the opposite direction. Timothy Less, of the Centre of Geopolitics and Grand Strategy at Cambridge, formerly a diplomat at the Foreign Office specialising in eastern Europe, points out that there have always been plenty of expert institutions in Europe “focusing on integration, but very few study disintegration”. Along with others with experience of eastern Europe in recent decades, he is sceptical about the prospects for the EU surviving the permanent crisis stemming from the diverging national interests of its members.

The nation state is being re-energised because multinational entities like the EU failed to cope successfully issues like immigration, deindustrialisation and globalisation. But the process of disintegration happens within as well as between states, producing winners and losers in close proximity to each other. In the UK, the referendum and two general elections highlighted the political and economic split between metropolitan cities plugged into the global economy and the hinterland around core urban areas. The gilets jaunes in France draw on a similar pattern of support, as does Donald Trump in the US.

A central question for both the UK and the EU post-Brexit is whether or not this impulse towards disintegration will continue, or whether it will be counterbalanced by a contrary trend towards consolidation. The Brexit crisis fostered the growth of nationalism in England and Scotland, as well as of nationalist/Catholic and unionist/Protestant nationalism in Northern Ireland. The Scottish National Party leaders were jubilant at their success in the general election in December as were Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, encouraged by the Tories abandoning the DUP and proposed tariff barrier down the Irish Sea.

But the break-up of the UK may be further off than many believe at the height of the crisis because a strong Tory majority makes Scottish and Irish separatism less of a practical possibility. The SNP might have been better off avoiding a general election and keeping a weak minority Tory government in office, whose feebleness would have further disillusioned Scots with the union. In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein is very much a constitutional party these days, looking for Irish unity to be delivered by demographic change and a border poll.

As for the EU, it has looked strong when negotiating with weak UK governments, but in other tests of strength, such as defending the nuclear deal with Iran from demolition by Trump, it has been pathetically ineffectual. For all its commercial clout, it appears incapable of withstanding pressure from the US, Russia and China. The decay of multinational institutions and alliances may not lead to an apocalyptic crisis, as the author of Revelations foretold, but it will certainly produce a more dangerous world.

More articles by:

Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

August 06, 2020
H. Bruce Franklin
How the Fascists Won World War II
Robert Jacobs – Ran Zwigenberg
The American Narrative of Hiroshima is a Statue that Must be Toppled
Howie Hawkins - Madelyn Hoffman
Reverse the New Nuclear Arms Race
Brian Kelly
Ireland and Slavery: Debating the ‘Irish Slaves Myth’
Talli Nauman
Native Americans Win Historic Victories in U.S. High Court Rulings
David Mattson
“Man Attacks Grizzly” and Other Leading Bleeding Stories
Jack Rasmus
US GDP Collapses and Economic Rebound Fades
John Kendall Hawkins
Suffrage: The Myth of Sisterphus
George Ochenski
An Unbelievably Disastrous State of Affairs
George Wuerthner
Trouble in Paradise Valley
Binoy Kampmark
State of Pandemic Disaster: Melbourne Moves to Stage Four
Howard Lisnoff
The ACLU Has Never Done a Damn Thing for Me
Priyanka Singh – Sujeet Singh
Time to Empower the Invisibles: India Awaits a Mental Health Revolution
CounterPunch News Service
Conservationists to Federal Agencies: Restore Protections for Imperiled Wildlife in the Flathead National Forest
August 05, 2020
Roy Eidelson
Black Lives Matter: Resisting the Propaganda of Status Quo Defenders
Melvin Goodman
The Department of Homeland Security: the Ideal Authoritarian Tool
Paul Street
Misleaders at a Funeral: Bill Clinton and Barack Obama Eulogizing Racial Justice in the Name of John Lewis
Seiji Yamada
Hiroshima, Technique, and Bioweapons
Vijay Prashad
How Trump Managed to Lead the World with the Worst Response to the COVID Pandemic
Richard C. Gross
Trump’s Alternative
Jonas Ecke
The Worst Hunger Season Yet to Come: Global Moral Failure in the Time of Covid-19
Rafiq Kathwari
The Battle for Kashmir
Kenneth Surin
Malaysia’s Arch-Kleptocrat is Found Guilty
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
U.S. Cold War China Policy Will Isolate the U.S, Not China
Lee Camp
Why Housing Is a Human Right
Sam Pizzigati
For Egalitarians, a Sudden Sense of Possibility
Jonathan Cook
Can Israelis Broaden Their Protests Beyond Netanyahu?
Thomas Knapp
Ten Years After Lieberman’s “Internet Kill Switch,” the War on Freedom Rages On
Binoy Kampmark
Staying on Message: Australia, the US and the AUSMIN Talks
Elliot Sperber
The View From Saturn 
August 04, 2020
John Pilger
Another Hiroshima is Coming…Unless We Stop It Now
Dave Lindorff
Unsung Heroes of Los Alamos: Rethinking Manhattan Project Spies and the Cold War
Kenneth Good
Escalating State Repression and Covid-19: Their Impact on the Poor in Kenya
Dean Baker
We Need an Economic Survival Package Not Another Stimulus
David Rosen
Globalization and the End of the American Dream
John Feffer
The Pandemic Reveals a Europe More United Than the United States
Patrick Cockburn
The Government’s Failed Track-and-Trace System is a Disaster for England
Ramzy Baroud
‘Optimism of the Will’: Palestinian Freedom is Possible Now
CounterPunch News Service
Statement From Yale Faculty on Hydroxychloroquine and Its Use in COVID-19
Manuel García, Jr.
Ocean Heat: From the Tropics to the Poles
Sonali Kolhatkar
Why the Idea of Jobless Benefits Scares the Conservative Mind
Greta Anderson
Framing Wolves in New Mexico?
Binoy Kampmark
Pulling Out of Germany: Trump Adjusts the Military Furniture
Shawn Fremstad – Nicole Rodgers
COVID Stimulus Checks Shouldn’t Penalize One-Parent Households
Adam Shah
The 1 Percent’s Attack on Unemployment Benefits is a Sign of Our Broken Democracy