As readers of this blog may recall, I voted for the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU) in the referendum of 23rd June 2016 and set out my reasons here and here. Most anthroposophists I know took a different view and voted for the UK to remain in the EU.
Since then, it has been clear that Brexit has split the country in two, not along the traditional Conservative/Labour party lines but instead between families, communities, towns and countryside, old and young, between businesses large and small and between the home nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The governments of Theresa May and Boris Johnson have both failed to get their versions of a Withdrawal Agreement through the UK Parliament and with no other options on the table, there will now be a general election on 12th December.
It will probably be the most significant election in the lifetime of any UK citizen born since 1945. It will decide whether Brexit happens, whether Britain has the most left-wing or the most right-wing government in its history, whether the Scottish Nationalists are able to secure a second independence referendum and whether Britain’s two–party system can survive. Many people think the election result will fail to produce a clear majority for any party, an outcome which would mean that the Brexit agony is prolonged.
A former head of the UK’s secret intelligence service (MI6), Sir John Sawers, has said that the country is having “a political nervous breakdown.” Others have said that Brexit can be compared to an earthquake in which pent-up forces are suddenly released, tearing open new fault lines and energising old ones such as inequality, de-industrialisation, globalisation, imperial retreat, immigration and austerity. The divisions are deep, debate has too often descended into abuse and positions are entrenched on both sides of the argument.
Nor is this a phenomenon just confined to the UK; there is a wider fragmentation going on across the world. Europeans and Americans alike have grown disenchanted with politics as usual. In Europe, the financial crisis of 2008 and especially the refugee crisis of 2015 dealt a major blow to centrist parties that advocated open markets and open borders. Greeks resented the economic austerity measures imposed on them by the EU. Germans were not offered a vote on Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to allow more than 1 million refugees into their country. As a result, many voters across Europe no longer view mainstream political parties as representing their interests. Far-right populist parties have been the biggest beneficiaries of this growing resentment. Today, such parties have a presence in 23 out of the 28 national parliaments of the EU.
Beyond Europe, we are seeing the unravelling of the international order and the realisation by many unscrupulous leaders that there are now few penalties for the breaching of what were hitherto regarded as international norms. Among the many unfortunate results of Donald Trump’s presidency is the undermining of NATO and the inculcation of a new sense of impunity in the leaders of countries such as Myanmar, Syria, Cameroon, Yemen, Turkey, Venezuela, Egypt, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Iran, Nigeria, South Sudan and in many other places around the world. They have reached the conclusion that they can get away with actions that would previously have brought serious consequences upon their heads.
It is also now clear to me that the Russians under Vladimir Putin are working hard in myriad ways to break up the EU and that, for reasons about which we can only speculate, Donald Trump is working to their agenda.
In the UK, our experience since the Brexit vote has been one of national humiliation and the realisation that the British constitution is in crisis and our government has been no match for its counterparts in Europe. Alongside this, many of the institutions which we have hitherto seen as stable, are now showing signs of falling apart, including the royal family – the latest manifestation of this is the crisis over Prince Andrew and his friendship with the late Jeffrey Epstein. It is entirely possible that this will lead to a drastic slimming-down of the royal family once the present 93-year old Queen has died, and perhaps there could even be some kind of a British republic in years to come. The UK itself could break up as a result of Brexit: it doesn’t take too much imagination to see Northern Ireland becoming part of a unified island of Ireland before long as a consequence of Boris Johnson’s proposed Brexit deal and the perceived betrayal of Unionist voters; and because of Brexit, Scotland is also pressing for a new referendum on independence from the rest of the UK.
But what is really going on behind all this turmoil? As an anthroposophist, I can’t avoid the thought that the kinds of division we are seeing here in the UK and around the world are precursor events for what Rudolf Steiner described in a lecture given in 1919 as the forthcoming incarnation of Ahriman. This is indicated by the finely balanced nature of the divisions, which make resolution through one side winning a clear majority very difficult to achieve, thus keeping everyone in a state of high tension and conflict for as long as possible. We see this phenomenon around the world, most obviously in the UK in Brexit but also in the USA in the chasm between Republicans and Democrats; and these divisions are happening everywhere one looks. Whatever can separate people into opposing groups, or alienate us from mutual understanding, or drive wedges between us, strengthens Ahriman’s impulse. Increasing fragmentation in society is one of the hallmarks of the operations of the adversarial powers.
In the meantime, I ask myself what Rudolf Steiner might be saying to us about Brexit, were he here to advise us. Insofar as Brexit has been inspired by populist nationalism, it is clear that Steiner would have seen it as unhelpful and retrograde. Steiner’s view on nationalism was that it was directly opposed to the Michael-impulse, which recognises that humanity is a living organism, the ‘human universal’, and which asks us to realise that we are free individual members of one body of humanity. If the Michael-impulse were to be taken up by humankind, as seems to be happening more and more, particularly with young people, then wars, economic exploitation and environmental degradation will come to be seen as anachronistic. Nothing, Rudolf Steiner states, can be really attained in our time through the forces of what he called a ‘Mars culture’, a warlike culture; and “what can make this epoch great must be brought about from the forces of the spiritual life.” 1 Steiner speaks of the fostering of nationalism as an idea implanted in human minds by Ahriman and states without ambiguity: “There is nothing more inimical to truth than nationalism.” 2 Untruth will prevail, the exact opposite of what we need today, as long as nationalism prevails.
There is an interesting paradox here that, despite the fact we are living through the most materialist epoch in human history, in which humans are cut off from a living connection to the spiritual world, it is in this fifth post-Atlantean age that we have the greatest possibility of making ourselves spiritual. We are seeing many signs of this already.
Insofar as Brexit has been inspired by popular revulsion at the lies of politicians (such as the late Edward Heath, the prime minister who in 1973 took us into what was then called the European Economic Community (EEC or Common Market) while telling us that it was simply an economic club), or the corporatist and anti-democratic structures of the EU, then Brexit could be seen as a phenomenon arising from what Steiner called the karma of untruthfulness.
My daughter asked me recently whether, if I had known back in 2016 what Brexit was going to lead to, would I still have voted the same way? My reply was that I still shared the viewpoint of statesmen such as Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Charles de Gaulle that Britain is not a natural fit for membership of what they foresaw as the United States of Europe; and while I wished the EU well, I also couldn’t ignore its many flaws and downsides as listed in my earlier blog articles.
But my daughter’s question also made me realise that back in 2016 I had not given sufficient weight to the most important, the over-riding purpose of the EU: which, of course, is peace between the former warring nations of Europe. This aspect may have been glaringly obvious to many other people but it was not so clear to me, concentrated as I was on economic and environmental issues and the ‘democratic deficit’ in EU institutions. I now think that on balance I was wrong and that, despite all my misgivings about the EU, I should have voted to Remain – particularly given the Russian and Trump-inspired attempts to break up the EU.
I would have been able to do this with a good conscience in the 2016 referendum if the EU had shown the slightest sign that it recognised the need for fundamental reform; instead, after David Cameron’s failed round of negotiations in 2015 and early 2016, it sent him back to the UK without even a fig-leaf to cover his embarrassment. I think Steiner would also have recognised this difficult aspect of the EU, which is brought about by the tendency of the European Commission to behave as though it were a nation state in its own right – a perverse development of nationalistic thinking projected through and on behalf of all the nation states of the EU.
At Tablehurst Farm in East Sussex where I work, we have a small farm study group which has just finished reading and discussing Steiner’s lecture series, The Social Future, six lectures which he gave 100 years ago in Zurich on the theme of threefolding and social rebirth. Here is a passage from the sixth lecture, which is entitled National and International Life in the Threefold Social Organism. Steiner was speaking in 1919, in the context of the recent ending of the First World War but also in his experience of the building of the first Goetheanum in Dornach, where during the whole of the war, people of many nations had been working together without any lessening of understanding between each other despite the national tensions which were also certainly present.
“… Many people speak of the spirit today who do not know that the spirit must be interpreted. When the spirit is understood, it is found to be something which does not separate but unites men, because it can be traced back to the inmost being of man, and because one human being brings forth the same as another, and because he fully understands that other. So that when we actually spiritualise that which otherwise finds expression as individualism in the imagination of one people, the single peoples will become simply the manifold expression of that which, to spiritual perception, is one. Then, over the whole earth, people will find it possible to tolerate the different national peculiarities, because there will be no need for an abstract uniformity everywhere; the concrete one, found through spiritual perception, will find means of expression in manifold ways. By this means the many will be able to understand each other in the spiritual unity. Then, from the many kinds of understanding of the unity, they will be able to frame articles for a League of Nations, and then, out of the spiritual conditions, out of the spiritual understanding, legal statutes can arise which will unite the nations. Then in the individual peoples that will appear which is possible to every people, namely, interest in the production and consumption carried on by other peoples. Then through the spiritual life, the legal and judicial life of the peoples, one nation will really be able to develop an understanding of other nations and peoples over the whole earth. People must make up their minds to recognise the spirit in this department of life, or they will be obliged to renounce all hope of bringing about any improvement, no matter how well-intentioned their statutes may be.”
John Davy, who until his premature death from a brain tumour in 1984, was expected to succeed Francis Edmunds as director of Emerson College, wrote the following account:
“Steiner’s social thinking can be adequately grasped only in the context of his view of history, which he saw, in direct contrast to Marx, as shaped fundamentally by inner changes in human consciousness in which higher spiritual beings are actively participating. Just in this century, quite new experiences are awakening in the human soul. (Since Steiner’s time this is a good deal more apparent than it was then.) But we cannot expect to build a healthy social order except on the basis of a true and deep insight not only into the material but also into the soul and spiritual nature and needs of human beings as they are today.
These needs are characterised by a powerful tension between the search for community and the experience of individuality. Community, in the sense of material interdependence, is the basic fact of economic life and of the world economy in which it is embedded today. Yet individuality, in the sense of independence of mind and freedom of speech, is essential to every creative endeavour, to all innovation, and to the realisation of the human spirit in the arts and sciences. Without spiritual freedom, our culture will wither and die.
Individuality and community, Steiner urged, can be lifted out of conflict only if they are recognised not as contradictions but as a creative polarity rooted in the essential nature of human beings. Each pole can bear fruit only if it has its appropriate social forms. We need forms that ensure freedom for all expression of spiritual life, and forms that promote brotherhood in economic life. But the health of this polarity depends on a full recognition for a third human need and function, the social relationships between people which concern our feeling for human rights. Here again, Steiner emphasised that we need to develop a distinct realm of social organisation to support this sphere, inspired by a concern for equality – not equality of spiritual capacity or material circumstance, but that sense of equality that awakens through recognition of the essential spiritual nature of every human being. In this lies the meaning and source of every person’s right also to freedom of spirit and to material sustenance.”
Back in 2016 when I voted in the referendum, I took the view that the EU was unlikely to change because of the need for unanimous voting of all 28 member-states before a Treaty could be amended – in such circumstances, the UK would be better off on its own where, however difficult it might be to achieve worthwhile change, it was not totally impossible. Now, when I look at the leading advocates for Brexit (people such as Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Ann Widdecombe, Iain Duncan Smith) and ask myself whether, if they are in Parliament after 12th December they are likely to advance social forms “that ensure freedom for all expression of spiritual life” or that “promote brotherhood in economic life”, then the answer is sadly all too obvious.
By contrast, the EU’s human rights policy is focused around civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. It is there in some of its Treaties and Charters, and although these are sometimes honoured more in the breach than the observance, it is clear to me that it is within the EU that Steiner’s social thinking is more likely to be realised. So I now think that I was wrong to vote Leave on June 23rd 2016 – mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
1 Rudolf Steiner, quoted in Chapter 9 of Bernard Nesfield-Cookson’s book, Michael and the Two-Horned Beast