Lexit: “Optimism” isn’t enough

Neil Davidson’s argument for Lexit in the US Socialist Worker is a sophisticated one (of course it is, it’s Neil Davidson). Unlike most of the other Lexit arguments I’ve seen Davidson doesn’t seek merely to bash us over the head with a series of leftist truisms about the structures and practices of the EU (it’s capitalist (oh noes!), neoliberal, undemocratic… ) and takes left Remainers seriously – allowing that they may actually be aware of these things too.

Neil rightly identifies the left Remain argument as, essentially, a ‘lesser evil’ position. The most interesting part of his article is when he takes this on. But I’m not very convinced by what he says. His argument is, basically, that the ‘lesser evil’ argument is fatalist and ‘pessimistic’; that it ignores genuine anti-ruling class grievances among working class Leavers who might be won to a progressive struggle (i.e. Lexit) and with whom the left must seek to engage; that it reduces migrants to a ‘passive status’ rather than individuals and communities with agency and the ability to resist; that in any case British capital needs migrant labour and so is unlikely to implement draconian anti-migrant measures; that the left Remain argument puts us in hock to the EU as a saviour and tends to slide into apologia for that institution.

It seems to be one of the hallmarks of contemporary revolutionary polemic to refer to the “pessimism” of ones’ opponents. But of course one person’s “pessimism” is another person’s sober, worldly realism and as a form of argument it seems to me to rely on a sort of theological moralism – where what really seems to matter is the intensity of *faith* of the person in question and where this belief is assumed to have some sort of magical casual connection with the concrete salience of your politics. The “pessimism” of left Remainers, for me, seems to be absolutely indispensable. What it is, in my view, is simply a clear-sighted assessment of the prevailing balance of social and political forces in this referendum and of the likely consequences of a Leave vote, given these circumstances.

Neil seems to agree that the Leave campaign is dominated by hard right forces – but is able to dismiss the conclusions we draw on the basis of “optimism” (though he doesn’t use that term). But isn’t “optimism” the fatuous inverse of “pessimism” – magical thinking, voluntarism, self-deception? And I think there is something facile about the argument about migrants having the agency to resist persecution – as if we should think ‘Oh well, ok then, bring on the Johnson-Farage government because it’ll be no match for Polish trade unionists’. And I’m just not convinced by the argument that given how much migrant workers are needed by British businesses, there are unlikely to be any major consequences for foreign nationals working in Britain. As Pete Green suggested in his debate with Joseph Choonara, this kind of argument is a “crudely economistic, politically naïve claim” that fails to take seriously the relative autonomy of politics and the way in which political discourse can have serious concrete effects. It’s certainly the case that many EU migrants in Britain are decidedly anxious about the prospect of a Leave victory and indeed, it’s worth pointing out that the potential victims of any political consolidation of anti-immigrant feeling via a vote for Brexit go far beyond their number (about 2 million) to encompass all migrants (EU or not) and further, anyone who isn’t white – because, of course, an anti-immigrant climate is also a climate of generalized racism.

Lexiteers seem to me not to take seriously the extent to which the Brexit camp is hegemonised by the hard right. It’s true that there may well be potentially progressive strands of grievance among Leavers that could in principle be articulated into a left wing project. Of course it’s true. But the fact is that the forces of Lexit are tiny and overwhelmed by the forces of the right. It may be “pessimistic” to say this, but it seems to me a sober statement of fact, that the Lexit campaign while having some degree of traction among the diminished circles of the far left and its ‘periphery’ (enough perhaps to swing the vote in a closely contested referendum – currently 50/50 according to John Curtice’s poll of polls) it has next to no visibility among the broader constituencies it is seeking to cohere. The idea, for me, that Lexit can somehow reorient Brexit away from its current political trajectory – can transform it into its political opposite – just seems to me to be wishful thinking. It’s often rightly said by left Remainers that Lexiteers need to engage with the actually existing referendum campaign, not the one in their collective imagination. The hard right have effectively turned this referendum into a vote on migration. We know that the meaning of any vote cannot be seen in abstraction from the prevailing political and ideological discourses that frame it. It’s just not a referendum about neoliberalism or capitalism or fortress Europe – it *is* on the contrary about ‘fortress Britain”.

And Neil’s comments about the tendency for left Remain arguments to slide into apologia for the EU have to be seen in this context. This is, indeed, a danger and for what it’s worth I think there is a tendency to paint a rather too rosy picture of the EU among some in the left Remain camp. But there’s an opposite danger too – that, given the prevailing balance of forces on Leave, Lexiteers will be “pulled” closer into the orbit of the right. Indeed, up until the murder of Jo Cox at least I often encountered a sort of defensiveness from Lexit acquaintances when I mentioned the racism of the official Leave campaign. I noticed a sort of awkward, reactive desire to play down the racism and anti-migrant politics being stoked by Leave. Even though it was pointed out that Lexit has nothing to do with Vote Leave – organisationally, ideologically, politically – there was still this weird desire to counter the suggestion that the official Brexit campaign is as nasty as it is or to argue that the Remain one is just as bad. I’m not suggesting for one minute that Lexiteers would ever apologise for racism or scapegoating. But there are dangers in seeking to play down or pretend not to have seen the ugly forces that have been released by Brexit.

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