Adolph Menzel, The Iron-Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclops)
The Iron-Rolling Mill (Modern Cyclops) by Adolph Menzel / Alte Nationalgalerie

It is safe to say that the Brexit vote—only the third nation-wide referendum in the history of the United Kingdom—disrupted ordinary political norms and expectations. There was the surprise of the vote itself, and David Cameron’s quick abdication; the baffling disappearance of Boris Johnson, followed by his appointment in Theresa May’s new government; and then the failed coup in the Labour Party, leaving Jeremy Corbyn at the helm. Britain’s systems of representational democracy have traditionally functioned to block popular disruptions of this kind. What historical forces are behind Brexit’s spectacular exception to this rule?

One answer begins in the second half of the twentieth century. Several commentators have read the vote as the result of a 1970s turn toward neoliberalism that left the working class behind in a program of coal pit closures and denationalization. Historian Harold James has underscored that the European Monetary System (EMS) grew out of proposals for an international money market that promised escape from national cycles of monetary expansion and inflation. From 1977 onward, the EMS made cheap credit, backed by European nations, available to private banks. In James’s account, this stability-focused monetary policy created a twenty-first century economy that was unaccountable to the working class, diminishing national and local control.

The identity of the European Union is wrapped up in hopes for peace after decades of war. But the neoliberalization narrative also sees in the EU a symbol of the rise of rule by financial experts and the discounting of class-based, representational politics. The financial management once beholden to local and national politics was placed in the hands of an international body, and national governments lost control—or simply divested themselves—of the levers they once had claimed for raising wages. Among the casualties of this transformation were the nationalized industries disassembled under Margaret Thatcher, which had leveraged the power of the state in bargaining between workers and employers. In short order, CEO pay ratcheted up and wages stagnated, and a landscape of ruins was left behind. In place of factories and state housing there were fewer jobs but a growing number of prisons and detention centers for illegal immigrants.

This account of Brexit, drawing on the framework of class-consciousness, turns on the rise of a reactionary electorate outside of London. The idea, in short, is that the United Kingdom has witnessed the lumpenproletariat exact uncertain revenge upon the nation’s ruling elite. This narrative more or less parallels Marx’s account of the December 1851 coup in France in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Marx blamed the rise of the dictatorship on the greed and disappointment of the petite bourgeoisie, who revolted against the Second Republic and the interest of the workers. This betrayal, Marx argued, precipitated an era of rule by political moron, encapsulated in the premiership of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte (figured as a template for Boris Johnson by some and for Jeremy Corbyn by others), whom Marx memorably dubbed a “grotesque mediocrity.” Leaders such as these, several commentators have implied, are a parody of the great leadership demanded by the moment.

Brexit in fact belongs to a centuries-old contest between expert rule and participatory democracy.

A closely related understanding of Brexit can be found in the accounts of political scientists who theorize a connection between class resentment and the cause of participatory democracy. Mark Blyth, for example, has argued that Brexit typifies a global moment of participatory rebellion against the structures of expert rule, and Richard Tuck avers that the Left must embrace Brexit if the EU elite is to be replaced by a participatory process. These views contrast the idea of participatory democracy with the EU’s system of unelected appointment. Brexit, on this reading, should be understood as a rebellion against anti-participatory, expert-run, neoliberal regimes.

They are right, but we need not simply theorize the rebellion, and to assess its prospects we need an analysis that goes beyond four decades of working-class resentment. Brexit in fact belongs to a centuries-old contest between expert rule and participatory democracy. In order to make sense of the possible directions that overall policies might turn, we need a longer history that puts into perspective the notion of an underclass exacting revenge against an elite. The story of that contest in Britain, stretching back to the eighteenth century, provides a corrective to both the enthusiasts and the cynics. It shows the deeply entrenched impediments to greater local control even within a national tradition at the same time that it furnishes models for new forms of participatory engagement.

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In the 1700s, early capitalists came to value professional knowledge about the economy of a kind possessed by only a few individuals, and their lobbying efforts succeeded in implanting a few of those expert individuals into the structures of power as permanent consultants in such a way that would be very difficult to reform later in the name of participatory democracy or transparency.

By the 1780s, the British state was experimenting in many forms of expert rule. Experts employed by landlords became advisors of the state, dispensing ideas about roads, coasts, bridges, and ports to develop; they came to manage great portions of the government with relatively little oversight. The model of capitalism at stake was one dominated by large landholders, whose commercial interests were anchored to the development of landed estates. State funding of roads, bridges, and transportation helped to connect these large estates, and cadres of professional engineers and agrarian experts—the first British bureaucrats—were established. Their task was to make the economy more lucrative for the landlord; they had no accountability whatsoever to the electorate.

The model of landlord-managed development was not equally friendly to Britons of all classes. It depended upon the eviction and clearance of large numbers of English, Scottish, and Irish peasants from the land, and their replacement, especially in eighteenth-century Scotland, by enormous sheep ranches, while landlords experimented with scientific agriculture marked by the importation of lime, clay, and marl to improve the soil.

By the 1790s, British radicals attentive to larger Atlantic forces proposed a democratic alternative to this state-capitalism nexus, propounding first of all an expanded right to vote. In pamphlets and tracts, reformers began to promote the cause of a democratic system of governance. The fulfillment of their vision was repeatedly postponed. The Reform Act of 1832 enfranchised a sliver of the middle class, but not the masses; the Chartists and their petitions in the 1840s were shut down by anti-protestor violence; even after 1867, with the enfranchisement of the working masses, employer surveillance of the polls served to keep most working-class communities under the thumb of their employers.

Industrialization became the prevailing question in the nineteenth century. William Morris and John Ruskin dreamed of a craft-based economy in the 1860s, patronizing local lace-making activities and helping to turn the Lake District into a center for middle-class tourism. Later, when the problem was not industrialization but deindustrialization, institutional answers were pioneered. From the 1920s forward, the Dartington Estate hosted experiments in organic agriculture were inspired by questions about locally sustainable economies. In the 1960s and ’70s, Britain became the source of the utopian visions of development inspired by E. F. Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” mantra of local economics. In the 2000s, Britain saw the birth of the transition town movement for a sustainable adjustment of towns to local economies.

Brexit is a renewal of the ongoing struggle between experts and citizens.

A proliferation of new models for democratic participation thus appeared throughout the twentieth century, many linked to the rethinking of expert rule and bureaucracy itself. Patrick Geddes criticized the bureaucrat as well as the university-based book learning that formed a part of the professional economist’s education. Through the 1960s, student and worker movements protested for greater inclusion of their agendas into politics, and British radicals such as Colin Ward theorized what self-government on the local level might look like, drawing inspiration from worker-owned cooperatives and the self-built public housing schemes of Sweden. But only a limited number of these ideas actually received the state support necessary to see them replace an expert-run welfare state with a welfare state run by neighbors. The Mass Observation movement of wartime Britain used mass participation, rather than expert bureaucracy, as a model of anti-spy surveillance. From the 1980s forward, Britons experimented with participatory mapping as a means of performing regional planning where everyone could take part, but their results were mostly limited and trivial.

Brexit is a recrudescence of this ongoing struggle between experts and citizens—a showdown between the ideal of state and capitalism forged in the eighteenth century and ideas of participatory democracy articulated in the early nineteenth century, fought for in the twentieth century, and still unrealized at present.

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This longer view—seeing Brexit not solely as the result of a four-decade slow boil of class resentment but as an instance of a three-century-old conflict between experts and citizens—helps us contemplate afresh what a participatory economy, or a participatory EU, might look like, and the direction UK policy might turn.

Britain could revisit 1945, for example, orchestrating a return to the welfare state as inspired by the #rhodesmustfall #feesmustfall student movement, with its calls for increased state provisions for academic participation. Or it could revisit 1815, sponsoring a new Concert of Europe based on more carefully circumscribed responsibilities for member nations, underwritten by a new guard of British diplomats who will arise to manage the situation. Or it could revisit 2003, with Scottish independence and land reform as a model, increasing its commitment to the Transition Towns movement for economic devolution based in ecological sustainability. There are darker futures too, such as the one foretold in the dystopian film Children of Men (2006), echoed by the nationalist rhetoric of the Leave campaign, and perhaps already embodied in the Harmondsworth Immigration Removal Centre.

History, in this mode, offers a tool for calculating the promise or failure of earlier generations of reform. It is a type of reasoning that extends back to J.S. Mill and Goldwin Smith’s liberal anti-empire theorizing about Ireland, slavery, and democracy in the U.S. colonies in the 1860s. Key to their thinking was the use of counterfactuals—how might this colony have evolved differently had it been given sovereignty earlier or had slavery been abolished?—as well as utopian imagination, reckoning alternative futures using the materials of history.

Not two months after the Brexit referendum, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn announced a £500 billion plan of public spending to buttress the National Health Service, build homes, and reduce income inequality. In the uncertain present, as the country decides just what path it will stake between the twin poles of the reassertion of the welfare state and further neoliberalization, it can look to a score of homegrown models of democratic participation from the past.