Brexit and the Remaking of the European Tradition

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The referendum on UK’s EU membership held on June 23, in which a majority of the British voting for Brexit, sent a shock wave around the world. While the immediate shock wave in financial markets seems to have subsided, Brexit is expected to have a long-lasting impact on the future of the world economy, not just that of the EU economy. Indeed, its impact will not be limited to the area of economy, as economy is just one aspect of social life.

For social scientists, Brexit raises a number of challenging questions concerning the viability of a social system which, like EU, is artificially created and imposed on the people coming from diverse cultural, economic and political traditions. Does Brexit mean the resurgence of a nationalistic agenda of UK as an autonomous nation-state and a nostalgic longing for the Englishness as embodied in its cultural tradition? Those who had some suspicions about UK’s commitment as a member of EU initially now raise the question of whether UK belongs to Europe in the first place. Is not UK a nation in the periphery of Europe whose core is represented by the countries on the Continent such as France, Germany and Belgium and the European institutions they have created in Brussels? For systems scientists, the most relevant question is: In what sense does Brexit represent challenges to the European tradition in culture, economy and polity, which comprise the subsystems of a social system?

Culture, economy and polity are interdependent yet separate subsystems of a social system because they serve different human needs.1 Culture, or the set of all social actions pertaining to the creation and dissemination of ideas, symbols and values, serves the human need to have the sense of belonging and identity. Economy, or the set of all social actions pertaining to the production and distribution of goods and services, serves the human need to have the material necessities of life such as food, clothing and housing. Polity, or the set of all social actions pertaining to the maintenance of justice and social order, serves the human need to have the sense of safety and security. Seen as the frames of reference for these different types of social actions, culture, economy and polity do not define distinct and disjoint sets. As a matter of fact, the evolution of a social system is very much determined by the manner in which these three subsystems overlap and interact with one another.

When a social system is seen as consisting of subsystems of culture, economy and polity, the European tradition in social life can be summarized in terms of three principles of liberalism, capitalism and democracy. By liberalism is meant the principle that one is free to conduct one’s life guided by one’s own value system, independently from the value system imposed by either the secular or the ecclesiastic authority. This tradition goes back, at the least, to the Protestant Reformation when the idea that one is responsible for one’s own salvation was first accepted, replacing the moral leadership of the Church of Rome. The reliance on individual responsibility has also come to be cherished in the conduct of economic life, especially among Calvinists and Presbyterians, as pointed out by Tawney and Weber in their classic study of capitalism.2 Market capitalism, which encourages inventiveness and originality of individual entrepreneurs, has since emerged as the dominant principle of organizing economic life not just in the Protestant West but in the rest of the world as well. The tradition of democracy has been formed out of the bitter struggle against the oppressive powers of dukes, kings and monarchs who used to rule Europe before the emergence of modern nation-states. The idea that power should not be concentrated in one person, or one body, but should instead be entrusted with the people, or their representative body, has evolved out of the revolt against oppressors, as exemplified by The Declaration of the Rights of Man.3

While the European Union is built on the idea of creating a single, integrated market, even the idea of promoting economic integration is not endorsed to the same degree by the member nations. Part of the reason for this is the fact that the member nations are at different stages of economic development as measured, for example, by the level of per capita GNP. But more importantly from the social systems perspective, not all nations are willing to accept the economic benefits which the integrated market bring about if economic integration leads to an erosion of political autonomy and a diffusion of national identity. In fact, the possibility that economic integration may come into conflict with political autonomy and cultural identity is a fundamental problem for any social system, especially for a supra-national social system like EU.

EU, which is an outgrowth of the European Community, was a social experiment to begin with, and is still a jumble of diverse institutions, rules, and regulations the totality of which can hardly be characterized as defining a coherent social system. The situation is made more complicated by the influx of people with the non-European tradition in recent years. As a nation in the periphery of Europe, UK is better situated to maintain its political autonomy and cultural identity as a social system, which may be one reason behind the decision by UK voters to leave EU. But the fact of the matter is that UK is operating in the environment of global interdependence among all nations of the world in all areas of social life. This means that the new European tradition will have to be formulated by incorporating some elements of non-European traditions as well if it is to become the foundation of a viable social system in the world of global interdependence. Brexit or not, Europe is still ahead of the rest of the world in their effort to create a supra-national system which transcends the traditional nation-states. Whether what is being created here can serve as a model for the rest of the world will depend a great deal on whether the Europeans can successfully resolve the conflict among culture, economy and polity which challenges every social system, large or small.

  1. For a detailed discussion of culture, economy and polity as interdependent yet separate subsystems of a social system, see: Koizumi, T., “Cultural Diffusion, Economic Integration, and the Sovereignty of the nation-State”, Sack, P., C.P. Wellman, and M. Yasaki (eds.), Monismus oder Pluralismus der Rechtkuturen? Berlin: Duncker and Humbolt, 1991, pp. 313-319.
  2. See Tawney, R.H., Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, London: John Murray, 1926, and Weber, M., The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, London: Allen and Unwin, 1930.
  3. See Tocqueville A. de, The Old Regime and the French Revolution, Garden City: Doubleday, 1955.