Rarely does a single, arbitrary action instantly cause world history to shift in dramatic material ways that affect a large part of the world's population. The June 28, 1914, gunshot in Sarajevo. The November 9, 1989, breaching of the Berlin Wall. We have now lived through another such moment: The June 23, 2016, referendum in the United Kingdom.
Even if the worst does not occur – even if the full consequences of Thursday's vote do not extend to a collapse of the British union and further damage to the European Union – it marks a historic rupture of great significance.
It marks the end of the postwar consensus that held that democratic solidarity and free movement is the way to avoid military conflict and anti-democratic extremism. It marks the isolation of Europe's second-largest economy from its main market. It marks a collapse of leadership in both major British political parties. It means that the only real issue in British politics for many years will be the struggle to reconstitute what once existed.
And, most significantly for the rest of the world, it marks the first time that the xenophobic politics of the far right have managed to win a majority national vote in a major Western country.
The Brexit movement, despite being the product of an extreme-right leader whose party holds one seat, despite being rejected by the leader of every conventional political party, despite having descended into use of racial-terror images of brown-skinned hordes as its central argument, despite its more zealous followers resorting to the assassination of a sitting member of Parliament, managed to prevail.
David Cameron's inability to articulate a persuasive case against this movement's misleading ideas – and his earlier, cynical flirtation with them – has cost him his prime ministership, and Jeremy Corbyn's failure to make a case against nationalism will most likely cost him the Labour Party leadership. But the defeat is also a direct result of Mr. Cameron's actions as Prime Minister. He has allowed two large-scale fallacies to become conventional wisdom.
The first is that "Brussels" is an irrelevant and wasteful foreign appendage to an otherwise successful country. Mr. Cameron knew well how untrue this is: Almost every decision that crosses the Prime Minister's desk relies heavily on Britain's institutional relations with its 27 neighbours. No other major European economy is so heavily dependent on its trade and financial ties to Europe, ties that all pass through Brussels' institutions and treaties.
Those regions and constituencies that voted "Leave" are precisely those that have the most to lose. As research from the University of Groningen and the Centre for European Reform found, the British regions most dependent on the EU for their well-being are not London and its wealthy environs (which have economic relations beyond Europe), or Scotland, but rather the rural areas and mid-sized cities of Europe, whose entire economic basis is Brussels-centred and has no market or support without Brussels. "There is a positive correlation," they found, "between a region's level of economic integration with the EU and that region's Euroskepticism." Further, the Leave-voting classes and regions are those that will be most devastated by the post-Brexit recession and fiscal crisis.
The second fallacy is that this has something to do with "immigration" – which, polls show, was the largest motivation for "Leave" voters (the great majority of whom live in districts where there is little or no immigration).
The brown people in Britain's cities – who were the subjects of UKIP Leader Nigel Farage's scare stories of sexual predation – aren't immigrants; their grandparents mainly arrived as British subjects carrying UK passports. Refugees from Syria and alarming hordes camped out in Calais have nothing to do with the EU. The French who've started hundreds of businesses in London, the Polish who have given new life and prosperity to Britain's trades – they do stand to lose. So do the two million Britons who live and collect benefits elsewhere in the EU.
Britain didn't attract other Europeans because of the EU, but because it had an economy to which they could contribute.
In the long morning after, a decade-long project will begin – not to create anything new or better, but simply to try to rebuild what existed on Thursday morning.