Brexit Does Not Signal the Victory of ‘Another Europe,’ But of ‘No Europe at All’
Thursday’s Brexit marks a victory not of the people but of populism. Not of democracy but of demagogy.
It is a victory of the hard Right over the moderate Right and of the radical over the liberal Left. It is a victory of xenophobia in both camps, of long-simmering hate for the immigrant, and of obsession with the enemy within.
It is the revenge of those throughout the United Kingdom who could not bear to hear Obama, Hollande, Merkel and others offering their views on a matter that was theirs to decide.
It is, in other words, a victory of sovereignism at its most rancid; of nationalism at its most idiotic. It is the victory of fusty England over an England open to the world and fully in touch with its glorious past.
It is the defeat of the Other before the puffed up I, the defeat of complexity before the dictatorship of the simplistic. It is the victory of the followers of Nigel Farage over the “political-media class” and “global elites” who supposedly “take their orders from Brussels.”
Abroad, it is a victory for Donald Trump, who was one of the first, if not the first, to welcome the historic vote, and for Vladimir Putin, whose dream and whose plan — this cannot be repeated too loudly or too often — has long been the break-up of the European Union.
It is a victory, in France, for the Le Pens on the right and their twins on the left who dream of a French variant of the Brexit while not knowing the first thing about the intelligence, heroism, radicalism or rationality of the culture in which they live.
It is a victory, in Spain, for Podemos and its cartoonish indignados. In Italy, for the 5 Star Movement and its clownish leaders. In central Europe, for those who, having pocketed their EU dividends, are ready to dissolve the Union . It is a victory for those everywhere who were just waiting for a chance to get out while the getting was good — and it is thus the beginning of a process of disintegration that no one yet knows how to stop.
It is the victory of the mob of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis over Renoir’s “Boating Party.” It is the victory of the wreckers and dimwitted leftists, of drunken skinheads and hooligans, of illiterate rebels and bull-headed neo-nationalists.
It is a victory for those who — in imitation of the unbelievable Donald braying, “We will make America great again!” as his yellow pompadour snaps like a lasso — dream of building a wall between “the Muslims” and themselves.
It will be declaimed in every language, dialect, slang and patois. It will be pronounced while grumbling, bashing heads, turning away the other, pushing him into the sea, forbidding him from returning, while saying haughtily, “I, sir, am English!” — or Scottish, French, German or any other nationality.
And each time it will be a victory of ignorance over knowledge. Each time it will be a victory of the petty over the great, of brutishness over spirit.
Because, British friends, by “great” I do not mean the “plutocrats” or the “bureaucrats.” I do not mean the “privileged,” whose heads everyone in your country and everywhere else now seems to want to see impaled on a pike.
Those whom the Brexit took out while taking Britain out of Europe are not, alas, the “oligarchs” decried by the podium thumpers.
The greats are the agents and the inspiration of the true greatness of every people. The greats are the inventors of this splendid dream full of the brilliance of Dante, Goethe, Dickens, Byron, Husserl and Jean Monnet — a dream called Europe. Those are the greats that you are cutting down to size. It is Europe itself, Europe as Europe, that is dissolving into the nothingness of your resentment.
It is true that Europe played a part in its own death. Certainly, this strange defeat is also the defeat of a bloodless entity that scorned its own soul, history, and vocation. There is no doubt that the Europe we are executing had been moribund for years, incarnated in listless, ghostly leaders whose historical error was to believe that the end of history had arrived and that they could sleep the sleep of the last man on earth provided they remembered to turn on the automatic sprinklers — that is too true.
That responsibility for the catastrophe also lies with political leaders who preferred, having consulted their spin doctors and sociologists, to massage events along the line of least resistance and in a fog of ahistoricism, to shrug off the rumbling of looming storms, and to wrap themselves in a newspeak that has always been used more to impose silence than to speak truth — that is equally obvious.
But we must not permit the British majority who voted “Leave,” or those who have applauded the outcome, tell us that their real intention was to advocate for some vague “Europe of the people.”
Because this Brexit does not signal the victory of “another Europe,” but rather of “no Europe at all.”
It is not the dawn of a reconstruction, but the possible twilight of an ambitious project of civilization set in motion by a band that included a certain Winston Churchill.
Unless we pull ourselves together, last Thursday will mark the consecration of the grisly International of the sworn enemies of enlightenment and the eternal adversaries of democracy and human rights.
Europe certainly was unworthy of herself. Her leaders were pusillanimous and lazy. Her captains were set in their ways, and their art of governing was somnolent.
But what is coming in place of this garden of the Finzi-Continis is a globalized suburb where, because one sees only garden gnomes, it is possible to forget that once there was Michelangelo.
Between those resigned to let this world rot in the Trumpian dumpsters of gun-toting, cowboy-booted “greater America,” or under the spell of a Putinism that is reinventing the language of dictatorship or, since Friday morning, in the desolation of a Great Britain turning its back on its own greatness — between those current realities and the heat of an oven from which the most frightening demons of Europe emerged lies but a single human lifetime.
So the choice is clear.
If Europeans do not seize the moment, yesterday’s referendum will be remembered as the baptism of a Holy Alliance of the dark horsemen of the new reaction — baptized not in the waters of the Jordan but on the banks of the Thames.
Either we emerge together — through strong words matched by decisive action — from a crisis that is without precedent in the past 70 years, or, across the broad spectrum of modern pre-totalitarian languages, where grimaces vie with belches as forms of expression, incompetence with vulgarity, and love of the abyss with hate for the other, the worst of humanity will come surging back.
Bernard-Henri Lévy is one of France’s most famed philosophers, a journalist, and a bestselling writer. He is considered a founder of the New Philosophy movement and is a leading thinker on religious issues, genocide, and international affairs. His 2013 book, Les Aventures de la vérité—Peinture et philosophie: un récit, explores the historical interplay of philosophy and art. His new play, “Hotel Europe,” which premiered in Sarajevo on June 27, 2014, and in Paris on September 9, is a cry of alarm about the crisis facing the European project and the dream behind it.
This article was translated from the French by Steven B. Kennedy.