Clashing scales of Brexit

Mainstream newspapers, politicians and commentators across Europe instantly expressed dejection and bitterness in the face of the Brexit outcome, and avid Brexiteers have typically been portrayed as xenophobes and bigots, Little Englanders or foolish opportunists incapable of understanding the dangerous ramifications and likely Domino effects of their choice. This view is overbearing and inaccurate: complaints about Brussels may be perfectly legitimate, and it is thought-provoking that only right-wing populists have been able to listen to them. As a matter of fact, Brexiteers come in different shades, including leftists and radical humanists who are disappointed with the total marketisation of Europe, alienating standardisation resulting from centralism and the failure to deal with the refugee crisis in a coordinated, dignified and humane way. (Jan Blommaert has written well about this.) Besides, a different perspective may be more enlightening and constructive, not only in shedding light on Brexit, but also in identifying common denominators to more encompassing crises of legitimacy experienced by political and economic elites in the North Atlantic world.

In evolutionary theory, a major transition takes place when smaller entities combine to form an entity at a higher level, relinquishing their autonomy for the greater good. The transition from single-cell to multicellular organisms is the clearest example, leading to increased diversification, total interdependency and a sharp division of labour. The European Union holds out a similar promise; by combining at a higher level, member states will profit from the expansion of their system boundaries, enabling them to do what they do best. The disgruntlement with Brussels witnessed in the British referendum (and elsewhere in Europe, mind you) results from weaknesses and failures in the practical implementation of this logic, expressed through an increased distance between power holders and their constituencies, what I propose to call a clash of scales.

Past EU architects have been aware of the dangers of centralisation and the risk of large-scale operations overruling small-scale concerns. In the early 1990s, following the Maastricht Treaty, which aimed at a deeper and stronger integration, a catchword from the Commission was subsidiarity. The subsidiarity principle, championed by federalists and Euro-enthusiasts at the time, held that political decisions should always be taken at the lowest possible level, enabling those who were affected by an issue to have a direct influence on its outcome.

Nobody speaks about subsidiarity any more. It disappeared from view around the same time as the Euro was introduced and the Schengen agreement reduced internal border control just before the turn of the millennium. The tendency has been towards increased centralisation rather than a nesting of scalar levels ensuring continent-wide coordination without obliterating local autonomy and democratic power at the intermediate levels of regions and states. The Danish electorate may indeed have been prescient when, in 1992, it voted against Maastricht under the slogan ‘I want a country to be European in’.

There is a scalar gap between the Commission and the community leading to a feeling of disenfranchisement. This is not merely, or even mainly, about immigration to the UK, but about the perceived right to have a real influence. Comparable clashes of scale are witnessed almost everywhere in the world of global neoliberalism. A few handfuls of indigenous groups may have to be sacrificed for the greater good if there is oil on their ancestral land; farming communities may have to be removed if the district needs to dam a river for the sake of industrialisation and electrification; and in the case of the UK, a common view among Brexiteers is that the freedom to live and work around the continent has siphoned jobs away from the British. The general formula is that what is good for Europe is not necessarily good for the UK; what is good for the UK is not necessarily good for Northumberland; and what is good for Northumberland is not necessarily good for the residents of Durham – indeed, what is good for Durham may well be the same as that which is good for Europe. The loss of subsidiarity, sacrificed on the altar of continent-wide neoliberalism and faith in economies of scale, is a major factor in accounting for the strong animosity towards the EU.

There is another clash of scales at work as well. How could the pundits be so wrong, many asked when the result of the referendum became known. It may simply be that the experts and commentators live in areas (mainly London) and belong to social groups where loyalty to the European project is unquestioned, and that they were unable to enter into the mindset of people living in different life-worlds.

The multiple clashing scales which are becoming evident now that the project of European integration is visibly ailing, may stir fragmentation elsewhere in the system. In a multicellular organism which loses a limb, the remaining organs also suffer. In the case of the UK, the current situation recalls the sociologist Tom Nairn’s 1977 book The Break-Up of Britain. His prophecy was that the long-term survival of the UK was highly doubtful, it being a country composed of four historical nations,. He may still be proven right, forty years on. The Scots may demand a second referendum over independence to stay in the EU. Communal tensions in Northern Ireland may flare up. And the desire to secede, whether from the EU and/or from a multinational state, may well be contagious. While such a fission may be advantageous for the individual cells, it is bad news for the multicellular organism, which presupposes that cells are occasionallycapable of sacrificing their individual needs, to make compromises and to create webs of mutual interdependence which reduce conflict and enhance cosmopolitan values.

In a neoliberal world, Europe is likely to survive as a market place, no matter who leaves. (I live in Norway, which is not formally an EU member, but which is fully integrated economically with the rest of the continent.) What is at stake is the political project enabling coordination at higher levels and multiple identities at lower levels. Perhaps a lesson from Brexit could be that Brussels should reintroduce the principle of subsidiarity in a forceful and convincing way. This would weaken its powers of standardisation and uniformisation. The resulting Europe would be bumpier and less smooth, but it would enable its citizens to regain a sense of control over their destinies. They would, to paraphrase the anthropologist Anthony Wallace’s famous view of culture, not take part in ‘the replication of uniformity, but the organisation of diversity’.

A shorter version of this commentary is being published by Social Anthropology.


From national icon to neoliberal monument

This text began as a radio essay on BBC Radio 4 in November 2015, later developed into a web essay at Versopolis. It chronicles the shift from the mid 20th to the early 21st century through a meditation on

The metamorphosis of the Holmenkollen ski jumping hill

An insightful and surprisingly readable sociology book from the turn of the century is George Ritzer’s The Globalization of Nothing (2002). By ‘nothing’, he helpfully adds, he refers to non-places, non-services, non-products and non-people. That is to say, phenomena with no discernable local identity, things that could really have been anywhere. A decade earlier, the anthropologist Marc Augé, one of Ritzer’s sources of inspiration, wrote about Non-Lieux (1991), referring to the highways, hotels, airports and shopping malls of the emerging globosphere. Had he been Norwegian, Augé might well have spoken about a ski jumping hill. Let me explain.

The Norwegian national identity, when it was carved out in the 19th century in deliberate contrast to the neighbouring waning empires of Denmark and Sweden, was built around the allegedly close relationship of Norwegians to nature. Even today, nature has a sacred quality in the Norwegian way of life. On a bright winter Sunday, suburban trains and metro lines in Paris are typically crammed with people on their way into the city centre, with the intention of strolling along the Seine, visiting a museum or a gallery, and enjoying a leisurely lunch in a restaurant. In Oslo, by contrast, on a typical Sunday in January, the metro is full of people, many of them carrying skis, on their way into Nordmarka, ‘the Northern Fields’, the largely unspoilt area of forests and lakes surrounding Oslo on three sides.

It therefore stands to reason that the single most important work of art in Norwegian culture should not be a painting, a sculpture or a video installation, but an outdoor structure straddling the thin boundary between culture and nature. I am thinking of the Holmenkollen Ski Jumping Hill, a landmark visible from most parts of the city and a symbol of Oslo for decades.

To be precise, I’m referring to the hill as it appeared in the latter half of the 20th century, before its demolition in 2008 and subsequent replacement with a technologically more sophisticated, but less aesthetically appealing structure. The metamorphosis of Holmenkollen is no less than a tangible expression of the transformation of Norway from sensible social democracy to globalised neoliberalism. Let me explain.

White, elegant and majestic, the ski jumping hill hovered above the city like a large bird about to take flight. It was a work of art enjoyed by tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands of people every day, mostly unaware that they were beholding a membrane between nature and culture, between the civilised and the savage.

Oslo is a bowl surrounded by hills on three sides, facing the sea on the fourth. On the western side, which is where most skiing competitions take place, ski jumping has been a spectator sport since the late 19th century. The Holmenkollen hill was initially all natural, the runoff built of snow and ice. By the early 20th century, shifting structures of stone, steel and wood led to its gradual evolution. So the Holmenkollen that would eventually etch itself into the consciousness of Oslo’s population and its visitors was completed ahead of the Winter Olympics in 1952.

Stretching skywards in a sweeping, optimistic gesture, the hill was perhaps most striking off season when its whiteness was offset by the surrounding greenery, but it was imposing and uplifting in winter too. People returning from weekend trips down the coast knew that they would soon be home when they could glimpse the Holmenkollen ski tower in the distance.

The hill has been expanded and rebuilt many times since ski jumping in Holmenkollen began. The first race was held on 30 January 1892, and won by Arne Ustvedt, who jumped 21.5 meters. The current record is held by Anders Jacobsen, who jumped 142.5 meters in 2011. So evidently, the sport has evolved significantly over the last century or so, and this involves every aspect of it, from the fabric of the gloves worn by jumpers to the style of jumping. Interestingly, ski jumpers are judged not only on the length of their flight, but also on aesthetic criteria, which have also changed over the years.

And so the hill had to change too. It would not have happened independently of developments elsewhere. Norwegians are famous for their conservatism in winter sport. They hung on to wooden skis for years after the rest of the skiing world had shifted to fibreglass, and were reluctant to accept the new style of ski jumping introduced by the Swede Jan Boklöv in the 1980s, who discovered that he could improve both stability and length by jumping in a V-shape rather than with parallel skis. Yet, in a field of transnational competition, you have to keep up with the Joneses. So, as central European countries improved their ski jumping facilities, Norway had to follow suit. The classic Holmenkollen ski hill was eventually demolished in 2008, the new structure completed two years later, in time for the World Championship in skiing in 2011. The new hill is technologically far superior to the white, gliding bird of yesteryear. It is a meshwork of wood and metal, functional and hypermodern. But the new hill, dark brown in colour, does not light up the surroundings, and it ends not with an optimistic flourish towards the sky; it merely ends.

A large, new ski stadium has been built around the ski jumping hill for cross-country events, and well-equipped recreational venues now accommodate domestic and foreign visitors who, until recently, had to make do with more basic facilities. Few will deny that the new hill and surroundings are less charming than the previous incarnation. It is flashy, hi-tech and efficient, funded by generous flows of Norwegian petrokroner. Yet it will never become a condensed symbol which gives Oslo its identity while simultaneously giving expression to human yearnings and transcending the nature–culture divide.

At the same time, the result of this multimillion kroner investment into newness serves as a reminder of an aspect of the ski jumping hill which is so obvious that it is easily overlooked, but no less important for that, namely competitive sport as an emblematic activity in modernity. The need to improve, and to keep up with your competitors, embody the essence of the modern ideology. In this kind of society, you have to keep moving in order to stay in the same place. Just a few years after Arne Ustvedt’s 21.5 meter jump, the first modern Olympic Games were organised in Athens under the slogan Citius, Altius, Fortius  – faster, higher, stronger. So if rituals in traditional societies are typically about communication with timeless, spiritual entities, the most popular ritual events in our societies, that is competitive sports, are about change and improvement, progress and development. You should do better than you did last year. Records have to be beaten, and techniques need to be improved. And so it was perhaps inevitable that this slender, white sculpture from the mid-20th century, a landmark, an icon and a condensed symbol which was also, incidentally, occasionally used for sport events, had to go. But although its replacement is obviously ‘faster, higher, stronger’, it fails to address our aesthetic sensibilities and spiritual longings; rather, it speaks to the global admiration for the power of money, of scale and competitiveness on a level playing field. It is all efficiency with no soul. The magic of the genius loci has been replaced by the magic of global capitalism. Sic transit gloria mundi, one might well say.