Brexit in the Context of Globalization’s Long History


During the last two weeks, Americans have heard a great deal about the possible convergence of British surliness toward the European Union and the anti-globalization rhetoric of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign. Of course, Trump trumpeted the #Brexit vote from the greens of his newish Scottish golf resort (the Economist, hardly a fan of the Orange One, referred to it as “tarted up”) in Turnsberry, while Scots guffawed at his celebration of the referendum outcome—bestowing upon him countless profane nicknames (“Mangled apricot hellbeast” was one of the nicer insults, points out ToM co-editor ASC) attesting to his ignorance of the fact that the majority of Scotland’s voters chose to remain in Europe.

In its weekly Bagehot column, dedicated to UK affairs, the Economist pointed out two dominant themes of what it terms “Brexitland,” the less urban parts of the UK where EU membership and globalization are viewed as largely detrimental. First, the perception of economic and cultural decline as epitomized by one English youth pronouncing the smallish English town of Boston, “a shithole!” The other, noted the Economist writer, “is a feeling that the world is increasingly unknowable and uncontrollable.” The hundreds of thousands of Poles and other Eastern Europeans pouring into the UK over the past decade and the evidence of their language and culture proliferating surely played a role in the vote, as the United Kingdom Independence Party’s campaign slogan “Vote Leave. Take Control” worked its way into the veins of Brexit Leave voters. Likewise, the New York Times front page over the past two weeks mirrors reporting in the British magazine, as one article highlighted the lack of regret in Sunderland, a town one local argued couldn’t do “worse than what’s been going on already.”

For many commentators, the vote and the Trump campaign represent a larger paradigm shift or realignment. The question “Is Britishness still an inclusive identity? – will dominate the country’s politics for years maybe decades,” the Economist’s Bagehot concluded. “Where once the essential battle was capital versus labour, now it is open versus closed.” American pundits like the NYT’s, David Brooks have drawn nearly identical conclusions. “When the frame of debate shifts to open/closed, sometime soon, the old coalitions will smash apart and new ones will form. Politics will be unrecognizable,” noted Brooks.

These serve as only some of the most obvious examples regarding the general debate about the current presidential campaign in America and the UK’s ongoing Brexit debacle. Undoubtedly, a great deal of truth exists in each. Globalization (an inexact term if there ever was one) has not benefited Americans and the British equally across the board; urban professionals have done well, others have not. With that said it should be noted, while the focus over the past year has been the plight of rural and working class whites in the U.S. and UK, urban blacks also have struggled in the face of the same deindustrialization and one hears far less nativism from this segment of the American citizenry. Have no doubt, though, immigration has long been a vexing issue for black communities in large part because white employers have played immigrants against African Americans in labor disputes, while many unions historically excluded or openly discriminated against them.

Whatever one thinks of the kind of nativism that has expressed itself in the wake of Brexit and amid the current Trump campaign (and, make no mistake, ToM views it with great distress), it arises from a mix of racism and economic uncertainty, not always in equal parts. In the U.S. add the scourge of opiate addiction that has penetrated small town America—admittedly the kind of damaging addiction that when afflicting the nation’s urban minority communities in earlier decades went either unnoticed or became a useful target of political vilification—the desire to fall back on nostalgic though largely inaccurate ideas of nationhood remains understandable.

Modern Bangkok at night via Moon Bar
Modern Bangkok at night via Moon Bar

Yet, for the past two weeks, this writer has travelled across East and Southeast Asia from Seoul, South Korea to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand. Three years ago, I spent time in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan, Siem Riep, Cambodia, and Hong Kong. Whether due to subconscious fascination or pure coincidence, during each trip I spent time reading books on the Philippines; during my first sojourn, Rafe Bartholomew’s Pacific Rims: Beermen Ballin’ in Flip-flops and the Philippines’ Unlikely Love Affair with Basketball, an eminently readable book on the intersection of Filipino culture and its professional basketball league (the Philippines Basketball Association). On my most recent trip, Miguel Syjuco’s 2010 novel Ilustrado served as the quiet voice in my ear as I traveled across the region. The impact of globalization across Asia varies, and populations in these nations tend to be far more homogenous than in the U.S., but the contrast between globalization’s effects there and those in the Anglo world remains striking.

One needs to be careful when comparing countries in Asia with each other, as they all have their own unique histories, cultures, and languages; the Philippines is not Vietnam and Vietnam is not Thailand and so forth. When commentators in the U.S. talk about “Asian Americans” in monolithic terms, it drives some in this constructed community to drink, since differences between ethnic groups signify a far greater deal of diversity, cultural and political, that such a broad descriptor implies. Still, over the last two weeks, the contrast between debates over economic decline and cultural dilution in Western democracies like the UK and the US and their counterparts in East and Southeast Asia serves as a useful reminder of how much we take for granted in the States.

Seoul, Korea's Gyeongbokgung Palace largely destroyed while under Japanese occupation later rebuilt
Seoul, Korea’s Gyeongbokgung Palace largely destroyed while under Japanese occupation later rebuilt

Sure, Thailand’s industrial base probably benefited from the deindustrialization that has denuded so many American towns of solid employment. One might make similar observations regarding Vietnam; less so, however, in the case of Japan, Hong Kong, and South Korea. As noted, these nations also consist of far more uniform populations; for example, though we think of Hong Kong as an international city, the fact is that over 90 percent of its residents are ethnically Chinese. Perhaps if these cities became centers for the kind of immigration numbers that the US and UK have absorbed, we might hear more rhetorical flourishes like those of Trumpian America or the UK in the Brexit era. China might whip up nationalism now and again, notably toward Japan, when it suits the government, but it’s not really same, especially since the politics of Japan’s imperialism remain a touchy subject throughout the region.

It is worth noting that outside of Thailand, every country endured some level of imperialism either by the West or Japan (some by both) that introduced a form of forced immigration and cultural domination that would prove more pervasive and damaging. The great “What if” in this regard is how would America view itself and remember its history had it endured a similar past; the British colonies don’t count for obvious reasons, though Native Americans probably have strong opinion on this.

In regard to economics, one would hardly argue that Vietnam or Thailand has gotten “rich” from the very processes that are perceived as undermining American prosperity. Japan has been stuck in two decades of economic stagnation; Vietnam worries about the Chinese government throwing its weight around regionally; Hong Kong chafes at Beijing’s interference in its affairs and worries about the forays of wealthy and less well off mainland Chinese into the city. Only South Korea really seems to be ascending culturally and economically in any way comparable to the heyday of US economic growth. Over the past three decades, as Rhacel Salazar Parrenas points out immigration from Southeast Asia has become increasingly feminized as these new immigrants have taken on some of the hardest and poorest paid labor sectors in the U.S economy: domestic servants, home health aids, and the like.[1]

Filipino leaders congratulate President on naming of Governor General Stimson Filipino leaders photographed at the White House today when they called to congratulate President Coolidge on his appointment of Henry L. Stimson as Governor-General of the Islands. Left to right: Sergio Osmena, speaker of the House; Manuel Quezon, president of the Senate; and Pedro Guevara, Resident-Commissioner in Washington; Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Filipino leaders congratulate President on naming of Governor General Stimson Filipino leaders photographed at the White House today when they called to congratulate President Coolidge on his appointment of Henry L. Stimson as Governor-General of the Islands. Left to right: Sergio Osmena, speaker of the House; Manuel Quezon, president of the Senate; and Pedro Guevara, Resident-Commissioner in Washington; Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

So it’s worth thinking about places like the Philippines to put current discussions roiling the Anglo world into perspective. Filipino migration for work has long been a reality. Many Filipino men came to the U.S. in the first decades of the 20th century for work in the fields of California or as domestic servants in places like Los Angeles.[2] By the end of the century, women became the dominant group immigration for work. At one point, the dearth of nurses in the U.S. led to policies that drew Filipina nurses to the States, which of course meant that the Philippines lost a valuable and much needed specialized labor. During the 2000s, due to the prevalence of these nurses in the U.S. lawmakers passed restrictive legislation to increase the number of nurses domestically and reduce its dependence on Filipinos.

Even with such developments, by 2010, roughly 20 percent of certified nurses in California were Filipinos. With an aging Baby Boomer co-hort and the passage of the Affordable Care Act, many believe that the numbers of Filipinos nurses will surge again, as Rodel Rodis pointed out in a 2013 article. Unsurprisingly, other parts of the world value their labor as well, the UK being no exception. During a February 2013 review of National Health Service hospitals, the 91 year old Prince Philip remarked to observers: “The Philippines must be half-empty – you’re all here running the NHS.”

As domestic servants, Filipinas also fill the ranks of domestic workers in the Middle East, Hong Kong, and elsewhere. On Sundays, walk around Hong Kong and witness the groups of Filipina workers holding concrete picnics in the city’s public spaces in an attempt to enjoy a sense of community and a modicum of respite from their employers. The diasporic nature of these developments can be heartbreaking. Similarly, in the 2012 documentary, The Queen of Versailles, Filipina domestic laborer Wendy Ponce cares for the progeny of a bizarre Floridian couple who has gone bankrupt during the housing crisis while trying to build a home that rivals that of Louis XIV’s legendary palatial estate outside Paris. When documentarians capture Ponce in her makeshift home in their backyard, stuffed with knick knacks serving as a retreat from the household and a space from which to think about her own children an ocean away, the conclusion one draws from the scene encapsulates the meaning of “globalization” for developing nations.

“Here, need blurs the line between good and bad, and a constant promise of random violence sticks like humidity down your back,” Ilustrado’s protagonist Miguel Syjuco writes about the Philippine capital, Manila. Syjuco, a somewhat unreliable narrator—it’s a fake memoir novel—returns to his homeland in search of the missing manuscript of his mentor, the fictional Pinoy writer Crispin Salvador. The book’s title operates as a reference to the elite class of Filipinos that under colonial rule were educated in the West, often returning to the archipelago to govern within the Spanish and later U.S. led government. Paul Kramer’s The Blood of Government captures this class and their place within the politics of U.S. imperialism quite well, but with Syjuco’s work the reader grasps the modern, complicated relationship that the Filipino diaspora, particularly those from its wealthier elite classes, enjoys with their homeland and the larger forces of globalization.


For the Philippines more upwardly mobile classes, diaspora looks different from those of nurses and domestic laborers. “Sure, having moved from Manila to New York, I saw that the global village had made it, ironically, easier for me and my friends to continue with our lives unhindered; tuning out on iPods made in China,” all while participating in debates on the Philippines and protesting U.S. policies, both foreign and domestic. “[W]e sat in Alphabet City bars, amid jukebox music and cigarette smoke, sucking down PBRs and arm wrestling each other in debates about homeland security and human rights in a country that wouldn’t give us green cards.” In the fallout from 9/11, the terrorist bombings afflicting the Philippines, notably from its Mindanao region, resulted in the country’s categorization by Western governments as a “terrorist hotspot.” “Asphyxiating a poor country’s vital tourist industry because a handful of Muslim rebels are playing hide and seek in the southern jungles of Jolo is like warning tourists not to visit Disneyland because of the Klu Klux Klan in Alabama,” notes Syjuco.[3]

A touch of colonial imperialism in Ho Chi Minh City
A touch of colonial imperialism in Ho Chi Minh City

Through the deceased Salvador, Miguel recounts Manila’s apparent cultural heyday during the 1930s, which seems a celebration of the Philippines in a manner that would spark alarm in American nativists:

“It was a fine time in one of the finest cities of the world. On the streets, enterprise and history vibrated together, and perspiring archetypes – businessmen, charlatans, refugees, fortune hunters – came from around the globe and thrived: Jews fleeing Europe, Germans operating a glassworks, Portuguese gamblers from Macau, Chinese coolies from Fujian province, Japanese laborers, Indian moneylenders, Moro imams with scraggly beards, Latin American industrialists in fine linens suits, Spanish insulares born on the islands and peninsulares born in the mother country, Dutch merchants, even the descendants of Sepoy mutineers from the years Britain ruled our archipelago. Most brash among them immigrants were the Americans, some outrightly imperious, many well meaning, all inspired by William McKinley’s ‘benevolent assimiltation’…”[4]

In the West, few people remember the 1930s as any sort of cultural high point, yet its place in the constellation of global imperialism gave Manila a certain nostalgic cache, at least according to the fictional Salvador. It also points to the reality that the global movement of peoples and economic flows has a long history. The EU didn’t invent it.

The larger point here is that things in the U.S. could be harder; the fact is that the U.S., at least, is doing better than most other countries around the world, even the Weekly Standard acknowledged this last year. Though by no means the only Western countries struggling with populist insurgencies, the two nations at the heart of the current troubling political climate – the U.S. and UK – both once threw their own military, economic, and cultural heft around. Many of the Asian nations mentioned here know this all too well, the Philippines especially. To paraphrase a popular meme that has circulated in recent weeks, one finds irony in the idea that a nation, Britain, that once governed an imperialist empire now finds immigration so objectionable. America, though perhaps not as explicitly, engaged in the same.

The recently deceased Holocaust survivor and historian Elie Wiesel once noted that he never believed in collective guilt, but that meant nor could he bestow collective innocence. No one deserves decline—most of us are born into citizenship by a quirk of fate. Moreover, simply pointing to past history and the current predicament as some sort of cosmic judgment or karma for imperialism doesn’t really solve anything either. The struggles of deindustrializing America and Britain are very real, but one needs to consider just how it all fits into the longer world history. Remember for all, the navel gazing in the both the US and UK, globalization means that the impacts, both the good and the bad, are everywhere and for everyone.

[1] Rhacel Salazar Parrenas, “Asian Immigrant Women and Global Restructuring, 1970s – 1990s”, in Asian American Studies Now, Eds. Jen Yu – Wen Shen Wu and Thomas C. Chen, (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2010), pg. 356. During the early 1970s, contract laborers from the Philippines to the U.S. amounted to approximately 50,000. By the early 1980s, it had expanded to 266,243; in 1994, it increased to 700,000. Of these emigrants, 60 percent are women.

[2] Linda Espana-Maram, Creating Filipino Masculinity in Los Angeles’s Little Manila: Working Class Filipinos and Popular Culture, 1920s-1950s, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 4

[3] Miguel Syjuco, Illustrado, (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010), 55-56.

[4] Syjuco, Illustrado, 82.