Most people who intended to comment on Brexit have already done so, but something about the situation made me want to wait. What follows is the result of that delay. Hopefully, it’s coherent enough to read.
First, a note about Brexit: this is a non-binding referendum, as many powers that be are already pointing out. It is still possible, even likely, that the democratic process that produced the Brexit vote will be overridden via undemocratic, unaccountable forces in the EU, much like what occurred in Greece. In addition, there is the very important point made by Yanis Varoufakis, who cited the interconnected nature of modern global capitalism and the UK’s geographic position when he referred to the EU as “Hotel California” – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. In other words, suppose the right wing of the Brexit faction gets all that it wants and more; suppose the immigrants all leave, reducing downward pressure on wages. Well, the corporations in that case would simply go where wages are lower. There is no escape from austerity to be found in scapegoating, unless you’re also prepared to nationalize those corporations before they can leave (which the UKIPpers certainly are not), and if you’re willing to do that, there’s no reason to be scapegoating immigrants in the first place, even if you’re the special sort of malicious that likes that kind of thing. Global capital is just that: global. It is not so easily sidestepped, and its consequences cannot be canceled with a vote alone. The center-left and all points to its right have, of course, already done their best to marginalize the left wing of the Brexit faction. However, assuming there actually is a Brexit, here’s my (American) take on it:
The popular discourse around this issue has been (and continues to be) dominated by two political forces: those of the center left, and those of the far right. Right out of the gate, we have a glaring, and instructive, omission: the left. Apart from a handful of alternative media interviews, supporters of a “left exit” have been ignored at best, called bigots and xenophobes and enablers of the far right at worst. And why not? Mass media and the two largest parties permitted the issue to be framed as one of immigration and economic stability; the choice was presented as a (false) dichotomy – limit immigration (and be racist) at the cost of economic stability, or remain, do not touch immigration (and don’t be racist) and insure economic stability. This is the center-left formulation, which of course overlooks all of the racism built into the already existing system. The far right (UKIP) formulation maintains the same narrative when it comes to immigration (though they dispute the racism charge), but reverses the economic stability element. The Brexit campaign promises a better life for the British working class (which a left exit might deliver, but the UKIP exit almost certainly won’t, i.e. the right exit claim is basically a lie), while the remain campaign tells some version of the truth – that choosing to remain will cause the lives of working Brits to get worse at a slower rate than they would with a right exit (the remain campaign doesn’t really acknowledge the possibility of a left exit because the remain campaign is fundamentally a creature of the center and opposes the left). In other words, one side lies when it promises a better life; the other tells the truth about a steadily worsening one. No one who wants to suggest actually sticking up for working people and challenging the power of the elite is allowed in. Of course they’re kept out; a true exit taking a leftward turn would mean the total abandonment of empire, an end to the plundering, through neoliberal globalism, of the third world (and even much of the first). This would require that resources needed to secure the future of the working class would need to come from inside the UK, from those who currently control them… the capitalist class. They aren’t going to let that happen. If the plunder dries up, the illusion is shattered, the imperial system gone, the only remaining choice laid bare as that first articulated by Rosa Luxemburg: Socialism, or barbarism?
A few points regarding the EU:
- The EU is not, and never has been, a democratic organization. Like it or not, Brexiters pointing this out are correct.
- The EU is a creation of neoliberal capitalism. As we saw in Greece, it lines up time and time again against the people and for the elite. The freedom of movement touted by many as a major advantage of the EU has a dark side: it allows free movement of labor between nations with vastly different costs of living and levels of poverty (in part because the EU makes no meaningful effort to empower the lower classes economically, and no effort of any kind to empower them politically). Because of this, EU freedom of movement can be (and is) exploited by the capitalist class to encourage a race to the bottom in wages. At the same time, the EU limits the ability of member states to strengthen worker protections, and even pressures them to remove said protections – as is happening in France right now. (Even after Brexit, it is likely that this freedom of movement will not be meaningfully altered for the UK – it will probably be required to retain access to the single market – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave).
- The role of EU institutions such as the European Central Bank has been to move and manage economic crises around Europe for the benefit of bankers – this is why Syriza was thwarted in Greece. This is why Varoufakis could not get a sensible deal for the Greek people. While the UK is not in the Eurozone, it is nevertheless strongly influenced by Eurozone economic policy – London is a financial center, and the Euro is the most important currency in the region.
There are plenty of reasons the left might want to leave – EU rules block left wing change just as surely as they block right wing anti-immigrant change. The EU is not a leftist institution, only a liberal one. It will not permit serious challenges to the dominance of capital, and is actively pushing its member states toward austerity. It will not be reformed from within, as this would require all member states, including those with far right governments, to agree on a new EU constitution. Reforming the EU is probably as realistic a goal as reforming the Democratic Party. Absent a Bakuninesque spontaneous popular uprising, I don’t see how this could be done without an army, at which point it’s no longer ‘reform’. Bottom line: There’s no reason to be mad at the Brexiters. Some are also UKIPpers, and you can be mad at them for that, but left exiters are making some version of the following calculation: Leave now and risk a major battle against the right to secure a left exit while the left still maintains some rough equality with the right in its political clout, or remain, accepting a status quo where the resources of the working class and other left constituencies are guaranteed to gradually diminish, making the likelihood of victory over the right more remote the longer the fight is delayed. Is that the wrong call? What is to be done? In any case, what reason could there possibly be to actually support the undemocratic playground for capital that is the EU? Let us remember that, contrary to what the remainers seem to think, Brexit didn’t and won’t create rampant xenophobia and bigotry. Those things already existed long before this vote and have been festering and growing for years. The EU isn’t protection against nativism; it is part of the context in which nativism has again become prominent. It doesn’t expunge racism; it legitimizes an “acceptable” level of it by institutionalizing it – as exploitation of Eastern Europeans as cheap labor, as squalid refugee shelters in Calais, where the victims of imperial meddling in the middle east rot in legal limbo, as the bodies of North Africans sinking into anonymous graves beneath the Mediterranean. When you silence the left, substitute neoliberal globalism for internationalism and in the process bleed the workers, the only place left for them to go is, unsurprisingly, the only ideology outside of neoliberal globalism that you didn’t silence: nationalism. The perfidious Blairites and their Tory tag-alongs, the same drivers behind Remain, are responsible for UKIP. The left too is responsible, for repeating the mistake of the interwar socialist parties; they provided no viable alternative, allowing themselves to be drawn into the web of centrist compromise, in the end compromising only their integrity and credibility.
[Another point in Brexit’s defense: it has prompted calls from Sinn Fein for the return of Northern Ireland to the republic where it belongs. Sadly for my mother’s people, Eire is currently dominated by Fine Gael, scions of the Free Staters and Blue Shirts, who will no doubt shoot down any suggestion from Sinn Fein purely because it comes from Sinn Fein. Still, it’s nice to see the loyalists glance around nervously. Sweat, you bastards. Connolly’s watching.]
I. Remain, Hillary and Neoliberal Multiculturalism
Professor, political scientist and all around brilliant guy Adolph Reed has observed a phenomenon in recent years that he calls “neoliberal multiculturalism.” It short, this refers to the use of previously left wing politics connected to various liberation movements (black, latino, women, etc.) by establishment forces. Reed summarizes the effect as a sundering of select identity groups from class as identity politics, but not class politics, are assimilated in warped form by the liberal wing of the elite. Reed describes the result as a widespread neoliberal position in which the idea of equality is reduced to the notion that as long as the 1% contains demographic proportions similar to the general population, everything’s ok. In other words, the neoliberal concept of equality is a 1% that is 12-13% black, 14% latino, 50% women, etc. leaving the working class portions of those (and all other) groups behind to rot. (These percentages, obviously, refer to the US population. If you want to look up the appropriate numbers for the UK, I won’t stop you). Here in the states, we might call this Clintonian multiculturalism. In the UK, it is at the heart of Remain. This is why calling for a vote to stay the course on a steady decline appears defensible to the UK establishment. A compromise with the EU is analogous to the compromise the Democratic Party made with capital in the US a long time ago (and Labor with the Thatcherites); it is this compromise that led directly to the neoliberal multiculturalism Reed despises. Put simply, it goes like this: “You (Dems, Labor) stop with all this ‘class’ business and we’ll let you keep working for minorities and social issues.” They accepted this deal, which in the context of the time may have seemed reasonable; income disparity was less pronounced, and the threat of the Soviet alternative forced the establishment to keep up the appearance of worker’s rights. Absent that alternative, however, the situation has steadily deteriorated. Left of center social issues have come to be associated with neoliberal economics, as the mainstream parties that represent these social issues are also neoliberal. What we have now is the social issue equivalent of the old lie that free markets make free people. Now free markets, apparently, make tolerant people as well. A population that no longer sees the necessary links both racism and sexism have with class can be tricked into seeing Brexit as a moral binary between bigotry (which predates neoliberalism by millennia) and tolerance (which also predates neoliberalism by millennia), emptied of all political economy and devoid of historical context, despite that the relevant context is not only recent, but current. In the US, the same blindness has been applied to the Democratic primary, where the mainstream media has treated Bernie Sanders’ attempt to talk about class as though it was a sign that he rejects all other struggles, despite the naked absurdity of this infantile assumption. It allows the political establishment to pretend Hillary Clinton is on the left because she’s a woman, or pays lip service to the black leadership class (while supporting the mass incarceration of the black working class). There will no doubt be a similar myopia in the presentation of the general election, which is shaping up to be every bit as absurd, hyperbolic and fearful as the Brexit “debate.” The artificial separation the neoliberal center-left has imposed between class and identity has exacerbated divisions within the left that should have been surmountable. It has fractured the coalition we need, and should have had.
The great heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, neoliberal multiculturalists imply, weren’t fighting for working class minorities, but rather for the opportunity for their own elites to join the white elite. Never mind, of course, that both MLK and Malcolm X just so happened to be assassinated when they were starting to talk about the relationship between race and class. (Leaders who talk only about race and don’t mention class seem to live significantly longer). This neoliberal multiculturalism is also at the root of the current plague of upper class white liberals in cities with strong tech sectors just dying to explain how the app they’re developing plus the glorious free market will somehow save all of the brown people. It’s why you meet people who describe themselves as “progressive libertarians.” In rejecting class politics in favor of identity politics, the left in the US and Europe severed the connection between the two in the minds of their political class and, increasingly, their constituents. The result: postmodern liberals – pro-gay, pro-minority, pro-woman and utterly disdainful of the working class without realizing that the working class contains at least 95% of all of those other groups. This combination is now bearing bitter fruit.
II. Right Exit, Trump and What Happens when the Left Cedes the Field
In both the US and UK, the immediate political consequence of neoliberal multiculturalism has been the “New Democrats” (Clintonites) and “New Labor” (Blairites). Class as a political consideration has been sent to the back of the line by both. The real left (people like me) were, of course, already sidelined long before these developments either through marginalization (in the UK) or recurrent, punitive red scares (in the US). The move away from the working class while retaining an increasingly skewed and superficial interest in minorities and social issues has contributed greatly to both Trump and the right exit camp. By dropping class as an issue, the New Democrats and New Labor effectively abandoned a key demographic: the white working class. Because the white working class is, well, white, it could not be retained solely through appeals to race or gender. With the nominally center left (neoliberal) parties working against their interests (and placing all of the blame on them for the persistence of racism despite their being the least powerful white people around – look at yourselves, white liberals; you’re probably more to blame), they had nowhere to go. The left was nowhere to be found with the alternative that should have been provided. Instead, these workers went to nationalism, the only game in town outside the neoliberal consensus. In the US, this is why the Trump phenomenon is largely a white problem, and also why there are so many who prefer Sanders to Trump, but Trump to Hillary. When even a vaguely left option is presented, many jump at it, but for the most part the left has ceded the field, leaving it by default to the nationalist right. Meanwhile, working class minorities had even fewer options – they couldn’t go to the nationalists, and so had no choice but stay with the neoliberals, who had stolen and twisted their causes in the absence of meaningful objection from the left, which continued to be marginalized or to compromise with the center. If the white working class is racist and xenophobic, then you (center-left neoliberals) made them that way. In short, the arrogant mainstream liberals bemoaning the foolishness of the unwashed and assuming that no motivation other than hatred and xenophobia could possibly underlie a Brexit or Trump vote are the very reason these entities exist as anything other than an irrelevant fringe. Trotsky believed that fascism was the result of a failed revolution; it looks like crude nationalism may be the result of a totally absent one. But hey, keep ignoring, insulting and dismissing Trumpeters and right exiters; clearly, the center-left refusal to even try to understand the situation is working very well. Where, oh where, is the left alternative? Its mainstream expressions in Sanders and Corbyn are under constant attack. Congratulations, center-left – you’ve succeeded in marginalizing the only currently viable alternatives to what you claim to hate. In the US, this is compounded by an unbelievably cynical and utterly transparent effort to herd the berners into the Clintonian fold.
III. Robespierre’s Mistake
Learning is hard. If it wasn’t, those on the left who still call for compromise with the center, whether in the form of lesser evil Democrat voters or EU supporters, wouldn’t. Even so, learning shouldn’t be this hard. Robespierre was probably the first to make this mistake, at least in the modern era. Faced with a profoundly confusing political situation, he was beset on both left and right. Unable to satisfy rivals on the left, the sans-culottes and enrages, representatives of the popular movement as opposed to the more educated political clubs (such as Robespierre’s Jacobin club), he was nevertheless too concerned with their welfare to find support from the middle class. He attempted to compromise, but inevitably ended up acting against both factions and satisfying neither. Having moved against those on his left, he found that they would not help him against those on his right. For him, the consequences of compromise with the center were total. He had once noted that the revolution might one day consume him; indeed it did. It isn’t so hard to understand why Robespierre made his mistake – he was, after all, arguably the first to make it in the era of modern politics. But why do leftists throughout the western world continue to repeat this mistake today? Whether settling for Clinton or huddling under the leaky umbrella of the EU, afraid to clash with the racists in a true battle for a left exit, why do so many on the left abandon their fellows to compromise with the center? They should know better. They should know that the center will not return the favor, will not help them in turn. Robespierre paid with his head. The least we can do is keep ours. The center is falling apart. Either the left can rescue the working class from neoliberal multiculturalism and form a coalition able to deliver socialism, or there will be a period of triumph for the racist right caused by our inability to do so. Maybe we’ll win after that, but I’m inclined to think it’s do or die. Failure means barbarism.
IV. Final Note
After reading this, one could be forgiven for thinking I believe Brexit has significant positive potential. Sure, it could, but there’s little reason at present to believe it will. The most likely outcome is that it will be ignored, canceled or technically carried out but with no meaningful changes to British economy or government. Even if a real effort at a true Brexit, whether of the left or right variety, is made, the gravity of market forces and global capital dependencies will simply hold the UK in economic orbit around the EU anyway. Varoufakis has it right: you can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave. The elite are already trying to adjust to the unexpected script changes fired at them by Brexit, but adjust they shall, unless something else happens. Still, forcing them to go off script is far better than just going along. It might well be meaningless, but it had to be tried, and no good leftist should accept the EU as it stands; so Brexit it is.