It seems pretty clear now, nearly a year after the referendum, that the warnings of those on the left calling for a Remain vote on the grounds of supporting the ‘lesser evil’ have been pretty thoroughly vindicated. Theresa May is calling this snap election from a position of strength in order to consolidate the political basis on which she’ll drive for a hard Brexit. While May’s a late convert to the Leave cause, there can be little doubt that she intends to conduct Brexit on the hard right’s terms and has successfully (for now at least) cohered the Tory party on the basis of an anti-immigration, national chauvinist trajectory, thus outflanking Ukip while triangulating more moderate Tory forces and binding them to her Brexit agenda. Internationally, Brexit put wind in the sails of right wing forces across Europe and beyond – not least providing a clear boost to that grotesque and dangerous clown, Donald ‘Mr Brexit’ Trump.
It’s clear that the British ruling class – including most of its representatives in the Tory party – didn’t want Brexit and is deeply nervous about the prospect. It’s likely to bring severe economic turbulence. But capital’s strategists are profoundly flexible and, recognizing the irreversibility of the referendum result (and, really, the various calls for second referendums from some quarters are simply politically naïve), May’s approach is an opportunist attempt to instrumentalise Brexit in the interests of key sections of British capital. They intend to use hard Brexit as a bulldozer to smash down the existing configuration of British political and economic structures in order to reorganise the terms of ruling class hegemony on a new and more radically exploitative basis.
It’s true that this is a risky strategy and that May’s project is beset by inner tensions – not least that it intensifies centrifugal pressures within the British union – yet it looks almost certain that it will be the Tories who will shape the structural framework of the new post-Brexit Britain. Labour is not going to win the election. All but the most self-deceiving of Corbyn’s cheerleaders can see this. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do everything to support Labour’s election campaign – but we must do so in a clear-sighted way without lying to ourselves or to others about the probable outcome. This sort of truthfulness will be very difficult to master for many sections of the left whose political culture pivots on perpetual boosterism.
If Brexit is catalyzing a shift in the fundamental structural coordinates of British capitalism one of the most important jobs for the left over the coming months and years will be to analyse the emerging political economy of post-Brexit Britain. It is unlikely to resemble the configuration we have come to be familiar with over the last few decades. We are moving into a radically new and dangerous phase of capitalism in Britain – and indeed beyond because of course the referendum condensed politically in many ways accumulated pressures from wider global tensions and dysfunctions. The quasi-nuclear standoff between Kim Jong-un and Trump is one very frightening dimension of this. If we are to stand a chance in the future we have to situate ourselves in relation to the emerging contours of the developing conjuncture. Only then can we begin to elaborate a strategic approach appropriate for our times. The prevailing strategic outlooks on the radical left are already preposterously outdated – tiny 1917 re-enactment societies competing with forlorn post-war consensus nostalgics. Something new is needed.