Sian Lazar: Learning to live with crisis: How Brexit brought Latin America home to me

The European Union is a free trade area that enables multinational corporations to take advantage of low tax regimes for their head offices and of low labor costs for their manufacturing, caller center, and human resources operations. It forces countries to pay off the debt owed to private banks at the cost of democracy, jobs, pensions, welfare benefits, and economic stability (let alone growth), enabling public subsidy of private risk. It blocks entry to migrants risking their lives to come and work in Europe, or to escape war and poverty in their countries of origin. Why would anyone support a vote for Britain to Remain?

Well, I personally did so for a number of reasons. First, self-interest (I confess), as I belong to the part of British society that has benefited from the EU. I greatly value my interaction with colleagues, friends, and students who are EU citizens, and I can apply for EU funding for my research. The area where I live attracts technology companies that want to base themselves in an English-speaking country without sacrificing access to the EU single market for their products, or access to high-skilled workers prepared to come here from across Europe … and so on.

Then, having calculated the possible outcomes of a Brexit vote, I came up with two main ones. Scenario one: Britain leaves the EU, takes back control, and elects a government that directs investment to those parts of the country that have not been so lucky as Cambridge and London, spends the money that currently goes to the EU and to subsidizing agribusiness on public services— including the NHS—and the welfare state instead, and opens itself up to migration equally from EU and non-EU countries.

Scenario two: Britain leaves the EU but remains a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) in some way. The price for this is freedom of movement for EU and EEA citizens, as well as considerable financial input into the regulatory system. But the free-traders will be able to relieve themselves of all that stuff they don’t like, like employment law, safety standards, human rights, and environmental protections. This would be a betrayal of all the Brexit voters who voted in protest at a system that they feel cannot cope with the extent of migration we’ve committed to (see Lanchester 2016). It would cost Britain a significant amount, but we’d have no control over the kinds of regulation we’d need to submit to (actually, that might be a good thing, as the United Kingdom was the country that usually vetoed the progressive measures in the EU). Little would change, apart from the effects of the Brexit vote itself on our economy and political culture, which I’ll come to.

Most of the time now, scenario two is looking more likely than it did before 23 June, when it looked pretty likely. The upshot of this calculative rationality was that I voted out of conservatism (small “c”). Better the devil you know.

The final reason that I voted remain was disgust at the toxic nature of the Leave campaign itself, as once they’d lost the (very limited) economic argument as it was articulated in the mainstream media, they moved on to xenophobia, racism, and outright lying. “Post-factual,” or “post-truth,” politics is not an empty slogan but now a real Thing. Michael Gove’s comment that people had had enough of experts may be one of the more damaging statements of the campaign, and bears obvious similarities to political developments in the United States.

Much feels strange in this “post-Brexit world.” It felt strange to vote conservatively and to vote out of direct self-interest. It felt strange to have my vote actually count for something—as I’ve never been able to influence the outcome of elections under the first past the post system, because I’ve never lived in a marginal constituency. It feels strange to have it made just so evident just how divided this country is. We did know this, because geographers have been telling us so for decades; the effects of deindustrialization and subsequent lack of investment in those bits of the country left to flounder are more or less obvious to most people with an interest in social science (or who’ve watched The Full Monty); sociologists, politicians, and journalists have long been pointing out how acute the economic inequality is between London and the South East and the rest of the country. But what is especially odd is to have it affirmed so strongly that I stand on one side of that divide, on the side that has benefited from how the economy has developed over the past forty years. For goodness’ sake, I am upset that my traveling for work and vacation is now going to cost more, that I can invite fewer people to a workshop I want to hold next year. But I know full well that my relative wealth means that I am largely insulated from the really harsh consequences of this vote.

It also feels strange to live with economic uncertainty and political crisis. This is something that my Argentine and Bolivian friends are more used to, and I now realize that I have been rather complacent about what that might feel like. I find it invigorating to research political crisis, as long as it is not happening in my own country. At that point, it suddenly becomes rather more scary, and real. But now I know what it’s like to have to calculate for currency exchange rate uncertainty when planning future travel, to see prices of food and petrol creep up, and to read press reports of an economic downturn that we created and of companies canceling investment, downsizing, or holding back on decisions while they see which way the wind is blowing. My friends are thinking about whether they must now apply for UK citizenship, because this is their home of twenty years, or they wonder about moving to the continent because they no longer feel welcome; students ask me whether PhD fees will rise at my university; I hear from colleagues that European research collaborators are hesitant about having a UK name on the application, or unwilling to take up a job offer in the UK.

Except that I have also realized how living with “crisis” can also mean that things somehow stay much the same. For a while it looked as though both our major political parties were imploding, but the Tories recomposed themselves with remarkable speed and ruthlessness. Labour was nowhere near as brutally effective, but the political system such as it is hasn’t fallen apart—yet. I still have a sense that the whole referendum and its aftermath has been about internal party squabbles for both sets of politicians, and they haven’t yet realized just what they have done. The opposition cannot oppose because it’s too busy tearing itself apart over whether it might eventually be electable, but it has also lost any sense of how to formulate a political project that is meaningful to Leavers and reluctant Remainers, condemning us to deeply right-wing government for the foreseeable future. Que se vayan todos, frankly. More than ever I now understand Latin American cynicism toward political elites, but my only available response seems to be either impotent fury or resigned disengagement.

The recomposition of the right-wing elites gives an odd sense of “business as usual,” which incidentally was also the mantra of several multinational organizations in the immediate aftermath of the vote as they sought to calm investors, employees, or their citizens. And yet, this coincides with profound uncertainty about what will happen to EU citizens currently in the UK, and whether there will be any jobs here for people to migrate to in the future. Meanwhile, nobody in government appears to concern themselves about the anger and distress in large swathes of the country that emerged in a vote for Brexit.

Worse, the campaign itself has been toxic for our political culture. The upsurge in racist attacks since Brexit is a curious thing (apart from of course being very scary): was it an increase in incidents or an upsurge in reporting? Probably a mix of the two, and the newspapers are already mostly looking elsewhere. The campaign made it more acceptable to express racist attitudes that are a deep part of our culture and yet tend on the whole to be repressed, at least in public discourse. But I don’t think we can blame the increased visibility of these attitudes entirely on the referendum itself; xenophobia in public political culture appears to be cyclical, and we have been experiencing an upswing at least since Theresa May became Home Secretary (remember the vans). Racism and xenophobia have often moved into the mainstream of British political culture during our recent history, usually when the economy is doing badly.

What might be unusual about this cycle is that the economy is not necessarily doing that badly overall (yet) but rather for some parts of British society. Others are doing extremely well, and the problem is that our political system only responds to them. There was a moment in the middle decades of the last century when the elites were forced at least to acknowledge those who suffered the adverse effects of capitalism, and they saw the role of the state as to redress or ameliorate that suffering through public policy. But we now know that this was an exceptional period in history (Piketty 2013). Some thought that the system might turn back to that moral project of social democracy in 2008–2009, but it didn’t, and the depressing thing is that it really might not happen even now. All the evidence so far points that way. What will that mean? If the Brexit vote really has brought Latin America to the UK, will we learn from the Latin Americans? Will we take to the streets in anger as Argentines did in 2001, Bolivians in 2003, Venezuelans in 1989? Will some “progressive alliance” emerge to inspire faith in politics again? For how much longer will we put up with this?

Sian Lazar is Senior Lecturer in the Division of Social Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. She is the author of El Alto, Rebel City: Self and Citizenship in Andean Bolivia (Duke University Press, 2008), and editor of The Anthropology of Citizenship: A Reader (Wiley-Blackwell, 2013).


Lanchester, John. 2016. “Brexit blues.” London Review of Books 38(15): 3–6.

Piketty, Thomas. 2013. Capital in the 21st century. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Cite as: Lazar, Sian. 2016. “Learning to live with crisis: How Brexit brought Latin America home to me.” FocaalBlog, 16 August.