The Two Counter-Revolutions



The world is now experiencing two of the most significant counterrevolutions in recent global history.  In the United States, the Trump movement represents an attempt to overthrow the intellectual and cultural elite that started dominating American life at the end of the 1960s. Although the great upheaval on US college campuses in that decade did not lead to radical political change at the end of the decade – – after all, Richard Nixon was elected president  in 1968 – – the students who had protested the Vietnam war and everything they thought bad in American life quite soon came to power in the universities which they had a few years earlier tried to tear down. (The story is well told in Richard Kimball’s book Tenured Radicals.)    When many of these radical students finished graduate school, they assumed positions of power within the academy, the media, think tanks, foundations  and other elite institutions.  This enabled them to mold the minds of younger generations of themselves for the next few decades.

The Brexit movement that triumphed on June 23 in the UK, was also a counter-revolution in its own right.  But it was aimed at overturning the influence over the United Kingdom of the oppressive Brussels-based bureaucracy of the European Union. The  “European project” had been originally founded on the admirable but utopian ideal of making war “unthinkable and materially impossible” among European states by creating an association of trading states with shared social values of democracy and human rights.   Yet  the unwritten objective of the European Coal and Steel community and later of the European Economic Community,  was to create a federal United States of Europe comparable with the US. The “father of Europe,” Jean Monnet, was quite clear about this. The trouble was that the citizens of the member countries of the ECSC and later the EEC, were never directly consulted about it.  When the EEC evolved into the European Union in 1992, more and more new states wanted to join, confident that increasing national prosperity would follow the natural enlargement.  They then found they were dealing with a soft totalitarianism.

Europeans actually became able, starting in 1979, to vote for their own members of parliament and for specific political parties to represent them.  In practice, however, political and economic authority remained within the 28-member country European commission, a supranational bureaucracy intent on imposing its own economic, political, and social agenda on the entire continent and beyond.   The commission was oppressively nitpicking with regulations about the shape of bananas, the content of jars of jam, and the amount of power that vacuum cleaners were  permitted to use.  What turned mere  annoyance into anger throughout many countries in the EU, however, was the commission’s decision to open the doors of Europe to a flood of migrants from predominantly Muslim majority countries who showed no inclination to assimilate into their host countries’ indigenous population.  There were protests in the Netherlands, Germany and France against this socially burdensome new infdlux. But many British people, who understood that the migrants from outside Europe favored Britain because of its general benefits began to chafe at the burden imposed on their own country’s health and social services.

The entire Brexit campaign focused on the need to the UK to recover sovereignty over both its own borders and the laws that its people have to live under.  A colorful leader of the “leave” campaign, Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, declared that if the “leave” vote won June 23 would be Britain’s Independence Day.”

Independence or no, the short-term consequences of the UK’s break from the EU could be tumultuous.  Aside from the obvious economic uncertainties of not knowing what the rules of commerce will be, utopian bureaucracies are seldom willing to give up the power they have to control other people’s lives.  The British rejection of the EU was not just a reaction against a sclerotic bureaucracy but a statement of conviction that the entire philosophy and the agenda of the European project is at fault.  In fact, starting with the French revolution in 1789, virtually all of the revolutionary schemes of the last two centuries have been established on a false understanding of human nature and human behavior.  The revolutionaries thought that you could change both if you adopted the right social ideas and policies. Many American progressives continue to think this.

It is important to note this as we approach the 240th anniversary of the only revolution in modern history that has been successful.  The American Revolution was based on the assumption not only that Americans should control their own destiny but that the behavior of ordinary people is deeply flawed and sometimes dangerous if they hold political power.  Ordinary people, they thought, needed to be protected from it.  The American cultural revolution of the 1960s brought into positions of influence and power in American life people who no longer seemed to believe that.   In the same way the champions of the European project thought they could reshape European behavior through progressive policies and control.   The people of Britain have shown in Brexit said that they reject this idea.  The American people in November this year will have to decide whether they want to make their own couter-revolution.