In January 2013, British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged that if re-elected in 2015 he would hold an in/out referendum on the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union. By June 2016, the UK voted to leave the EU with a 72.2 percent turnout—the highest in a national election since 1992—and with 51.9 percent of the electorate in favor of Brexit.
Many miles away, In April 2013, a terrorist group operating mainly in Iraq and Syria adopted the name: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIL proclaimed the creation of a global Islamic Caliphate in June 2013. From then onwards, a broad and brutal campaign devoted to intimidate, polarize, and terrorize took center stage.
These two phenomena are vastly complex and distinctive occurrences, but they share some singular commonalities that deserve a more thorough evaluation. It is essential to avoid categorical conclusions. Asking why and how they happen is crucial. If we try to understand, rather than judge, we may improve and even refine the analysis of what has been going on.
Both cases arise at a time marked by widespread and severe social, economic, and political malaise that has been expressed in both peaceful and violent ways. We are not witnessing an episodic or country-specific malfunctioning. Societal dissatisfaction, fear, and fragility are present and exacerbated worldwide. This negative matrix derives sooner than later into resentment, pugnacity, and even fantasy. Although data shows that there are more people leaving poverty, especially in Asia, the global reality is more intricate and dialectic than that. In fact, vast sectors of the citizenry feel neglected, abused, and helpless.
A majority of economists are wrong when they insist, implicitly or explicitly, that people are merely blind to the benefits of globalization and that their actions through vote or force are irrational. A more nuanced perspective that takes into consideration sociological and psychological aspects is needed to explain both the Brexit and formation of ISIL. For example, the limits to integration and the potential to disintegration in the EU cannot be examined only with the tools of economics: class tensions, institutional stalemate, xenophobic propensity, and political corrosion are part of deeper and larger processes and dynamics. Likewise, the persistent bloodshed and recurrent instability in the Middle East are not new features. The place of force in local politics, the lack of a single powerful state, and Western involvement and power politics in the region have been customary.
In this context it is important to introduce the concept of a regressive arcadia. It shouldn’t be confused with utopia: an imaginary and remote place in the future where an ideal of perfection in government, laws, and social conditions will prevail. Nor does it refer to a dystopia: another imaginary place where people are unhappy, alienated, and usually afraid because they are not treated fairly. Arcadia must be located in its poetic sense: a place in the past where splendor, simplicity, and harmony reign. Regressive implies a move backwards, to a time believed to be recoverable and where tensions dissipate completely: cohesion, communal life, and collective well-being are thought to be the rule here. Thus, a regressive arcadia is a defense mechanism that can lead to radicalism and even extremism.
In that sense, both Brexit and the Caliphate are regressive arcadias. Essentially, British voters faced two narratives. Proponents of leaving the EU insisted on the illusion of a return to the historical national greatness. They appealed to those aggrieved and alarmed by the economic and demographic changes of the last three decades. They blamed a dysfunctional political system characterized by the decline of the traditional parties and wide public cynicism towards politicians. A vision of imperial splendor and a reclaimed sovereign pointed to the passion, anxiety, and expectation of many Brits. Proponents of staying in the EU stressed the many evils that the UK would live if it renounced European integration and highlighted few benefits if it continued to belong. The Remain alternative was not particularly encouraging: there was never a clear and promising vision of the future. Not even regions like East Yorkshire and Northern Lincolnshire, that are highly connected by trade with the European Union, supported the status quo. The Leave vote in these areas was around 65 percent. In the end, the British decided to extricate themselves from the European Union. Without a hopeful prospect for the future, a vote in favor of a return to an imagined arcadia wasn’t so surprising.
The Arab Muslim world is the epicenter of a series of dramas and traumas where internal oppression, exclusion, and external manipulation and aggression have become a regular trait. The succession of frustrations from North Africa to the Middle East — for nationalists and Marxists, reformists and moderates, secular and modernizing forces — has been eloquent. Grand pan-Arab projects from the 1960s to the 1980s undertaken by Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya were defeated. With a different ideal and on a more national scale, the Arab Spring was an opportunity for the people to push for liberalization and democratization. But its ultimate failure, in most countries, only reaffirmed a state of exasperation, pessimism and powerlessness among the masses. In this context, Al Qaeda first, and now ISIL, has sought to recreate the Caliphate.
The first Sunni Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) with its capital at Damascus, followed by the Sunni Abbasid Caliphate that lasted until 1258, was the Muslim Golden Age. Several centuries after that grand Muslim era, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is attempting to reestablish that glorious past. Ignoring the sentiments of the vast majority of Muslims and resorting to violence, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant is searching for its own regressive arcadia. For them, it’s as if going back to that Muslim Golden Age is the only antidote to a dark, chaotic, and unpromising present.
Thus, Brexit and the formation of the Caliphate—notwithstanding their significant dissimilarities–are both products of an idyllic restoration of a lost order, of a pleasant community, and a glorious dignity. The means to get there are obviously quite different—referendum in one case and terror in the other—but their underlying, anxious outcry for a regressive arcadia is strikingly similar.