Home Books Brexit & the Madness of the ‘Sovereign Individual’

Brexit & the Madness of the ‘Sovereign Individual’


Daniel Lazare analyzes the Trump-Bojo attacks on democracy and equality.

Mosaic pavement showing what could be a Vandal cavalryman, excavated near Carthage.

(British Museum/Wikimedia Commons)

By Daniel Lazare

Special to Consortium News

It’s tempting to describe President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and their ilk as the new Vandals.  But that would be unfair to the old Vandals, fifth-century Germanic tribesmen who defeated Rome, established a trans-Mediterranean empire, stabilized the economy, and, despite the bad rap they’ve gotten over the years, patronized learning and culture.

The new Vandals, on the other hand, seem interested in one thing only: spreading chaos. With their doughy bodies and similar hairdos, Trump and Johnson came across as a latter-day Gog and Magog as they praised one another to the skies at this weekend’s G-7 conference in Biarritz and promised all sorts of mutually beneficial trade deals.

While Trump engages in a war of words with everyone from Denmark to Iran, Johnson is threatening to storm out of the European Union even though the likely result will be economic havoc and, in Northern Ireland, a return of the low-grade civil war that killed and wounded some 50,000 people over the course of three decades. Somewhere, somehow, there must be a method to their madness.  But what can it be?

The answer may lie in the 1997 bestseller The Sovereign Individual: Mastering the Transition to the Information Age.”  Written by popular stock analyst James Dale Davidson and former Financial Times editor William Rees-Mogg, it’s basically a primer on how to profit from the coming politico-economic apocalypse.

What makes it oddly prescient, as publications ranging from the Guardian to The New European have pointed out, is lineage.  William Rees-Mogg is the father of Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the House of Commons and Britain’s best-known advocate for a “hard Brexit” after BoJo himself, as Johnson is popularly known. 

Visiting the sins of the father on the son is usually unfair.  But their ideas are so close in this instance it seems appropriate.  The elder Rees-Mogg, who died in 2012, was not just a free-marketeer and an opponent of the EU, but a Catholic convert of such arch-reactionary views that he favored the long-banned Latin mass because it is associated with opposition to such radical upstarts as Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. 

His son, a latter-day Bertie Wooster, the fictional creation of P.G. Wodehouse known for his double-breasted suits and upper-class drawl, goes even further.  Not only does he champion the Latin mass, but he named one of his six children after the staunchly royalist Earl of Stafford, beheaded by Puritan revolutionaries in 1641.  When a critic dubbed him “the member of parliament for the early twentieth century,” he replied that the twentieth century was too modern for his tastes and that he’d rather be known as “the member for the early eighteenth century.”

Upper-Class Caricature

In short, an upper-class caricature of the sort that only England can produce.  But where Tories are forever promising to turn back the clock, they have never actually done so by “a single second,” as the satirist Evelyn Waugh once pointed out. So, what’s this phony Neo-medievalism really about?  “The Sovereign Individual” may provide a clue.

Basically, the book is not only an ode to the coming apocalypse but an extended assault on the 20th-century nation-state. That is something that people fought and died for but which Davidson and Rees-Mogg père associate with high taxes, burdensome regulation, and the pain and torture of having to do what other people tell them to.  Hence, its demise is to be welcomed since it will unleash a revolutionary new force, that of the unchained individual.  “The new Sovereign Individual,” they write, “will operate like the gods of myth in the same physical environment as the ordinary, subject citizen but in a separate realm politically.  Commanding vastly greater resources and beyond the reach of many forms of compulsion, the Sovereign Individual will redesign government and reconfigure economies in the new millennium.”

With “much of the world’s commerce … migrat[ing] into the new realm of cyberspace,” the book goes on, the old “nation-state, with all its pretensions, will starve to death as its tax revenues decline.”  Democracy, which “flourished as a fraternal twin of Communism precisely because it facilitated unimpeded control of resources by the state,” will likewise wither away.  So will hoary old concepts like “equal protection under the law” that rest on “power relations that are soon to be obsolete.” 

Jacob Rees-Mogg debating at the Cambridge Union Society in 2012. (Cantab12, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)

“With income-earning capacity more highly skewed than in the industrial era, jurisdictions will tend to cater to the needs of those customers whose business is most valuable and who have the greatest choice of where to bestow it,” Davidson and Rees-Mogg continue.  “Like Spengler,” they add, “we see the impending death of Western civilization, and with it the collapse of the world order that has predominated these past five centuries, ever since Columbus sailed west to open contact with the New World.  Yet unlike Spengler we see the birth of a new stage in Western civilization in the coming millennium.” 

Not only will democracy and equality go out the window, in other words, they should go out the window – the quicker the better so that a new utopia can settle in.

Brexit Riding to the Rescue

Rhetoric like this used to be common back in the halcyon 1990s.  But once it became clear that neoliberalism and greed-is-good individualism would lead to economic polarization, financial instability, and permanent warfare in the Middle East, the old ideology lost its shine.  But now Brexit is riding to its rescue by creating the chaos that is its essential prerequisite.

With its royal family, bewigged judge, and ancient parliament, it appears increasingly likely that it will not be able to withstand the stresses and strains of a hard Brexit.  The chief culprit is the increasingly explosive debate over where to place the hard borders that Brexit will inevitably create. 

At bottom the debate is quite simple.  BoJo wants to place it in between the Irish Republic and U.K.-ruled Northern Ireland where a current EU-supervised frictionless border now exists. Fears that cutting off Northern Ireland in this way will lead to a rebirth of “the Troubles” are unfounded, he adds, because an array of hi-tech monitoring devices will render it no less easily crossable.  “If they could use hand-knitted computer code to make a frictionless re-entry to Earth’s atmosphere in 1969,” he argues with characteristic blitheness, “we can solve the problem of frictionless trade at the Northern Irish border.”

But it’s a pipedream for the simple reason that, as Hettie O’Brien observes in the New Statesman, monitoring some 110 million crossings per year will require a degree of British government surveillance that both sides will find intolerable.  Thus hard borders mean just what they suggest, i.e. a hard reality of border posts and customs checks, not to mention smuggling and gun running.  

But there’s another alternative: creating a hard border not on land but along the Irish Sea, with Ireland – the island, that is – on one side and Great Britain on the other.  The advantage is that patrolling a few seaports is a lot easier than policing some “300 miles of lanes and cart tracks,” as Jenkins describes it.  The disadvantage, at least as far as London is concerned, is that locking two Irish jurisdictions in a single customs union under EU auspices will bring Belfast closer to Dublin and hence to Brussels, the EU capital, as well.  With 56 percent of Northern Irish voting against Brexit and 60 percent in favor of continuation of the customs status quo, economic union will eventually give way to a political union, which means that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will cease to exist.

Westminster Palace, aka Houses of Parliament, and Big Ben, at night. (Maurice via Flickr)

Westminster Palace, aka Houses of Parliament, and Big Ben, at night. (Maurice via Flickr)

A Traumatized England

Irish nationalists, who have advocated such a solution for more than a century, will rejoice. But what are the implications for Britain? With Scotland voting to remain in the EU by an even greater margin – 68 to 32 – it means that it might also throw in its lot with Brussels. If so, a traumatized England will be reduced to a hard-right rump seething in anger at Ireland and Scotland for leaving it in the lurch.  With leftists in disarray and extreme nationalists in the saddle, what’s left of the welfare state will disappear as England positions itself as the low-wage alternative to an over-regulated EU.

It’s not hard to imagine the reaction on the other side of the Atlantic.  Trump will rub his hands in glee as a liberal nation-state bites the dust. Then he’ll go on the prowl for fresh opportunities abroad.

Perhaps he can persuade Hong Kong to separate from China.  Maybe Hungarian-speakers will break away from Romania under U.S. influence and throw in their lot with Budapest.  Perhaps Greenland will separate from Denmark and sell itself to the U.S..  With the capital city of Nuuk growing positively balmy thanks to global warming, Trump may be able to fill it with glittering high-rises after all.

Daniel Lazare is the author of “The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy” (Harcourt Brace, 1996) and other books about American politics.  He has written for a wide variety of publications from The Nation to Le Monde Diplomatique and blogs about the Constitution and related matters at Daniellazare.com.

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