I wrote this in March/April and it was originally going to be published in Salvage Journal alongside a pro-Lexit piece by Neil Davidson as a sort of debate. Unfortunately after a delay of a few months Neil decided not to finish his piece and so mine was pulled from the journal too. Soon after I wrote this article May called the General Election and a whole lot of game-changing stuff happened. Presumably this is why Neil didn’t in the end submit his piece. The following then is quite dated in some respects. In particular there’s a line or two in here about Corbyn’s and May’s prospects as I saw them in April that in retrospect were a little off the mark. There might still be some useful stuff in here – I don’t know.
There is no doubt that Brexit, closely followed in its wake by the election of Trump, delivered a heavy double blow to the hitherto prevailing liberal order. Though there had, of course, been prior indications (such as the election victory of Syriza in 2015 and Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership of the Labour Party in 2016) which established that former political certainties no longer held, Brexit and Trump came as powerful confirmation that something fundamental had changed – that political ‘business as usual’ in the form that it has taken for the past 30-40 years is over. The grief among the liberal commentariat is palpable.
But the trauma in process here isn’t just the shock and grief of defeat in itself – it’s also a symptom of a sudden sense of profound disorientation. Brexit, like Trump’s victory, defied all predictions. Literally overnight, as the referendum vote was counted, the liberal centre’s taken-for-granted assumptions about the fundamental solidity of the prevailing order fell apart, producing a sort of existential crisis on the part of a mainstream for whom the coordinates of political normality had been abruptly and vertiginously scrambled.
Though still working its way through shock and disbelief, the liberal mainstream has more or less settled on a general explanation for Brexit that pivots on a classically liberal elitist disdain for a supposedly ignorant mass of ‘left behind’, ‘provincial’ voters. What this prevailing analysis of the Brexit vote obfuscates, however, is the part in shaping this outcome played by the accumulated pathologies, inequalities and tensions generated by decades of neoliberal policy and sharpened by the financial crisis of 2008 and the subsequent regime of austerity. This is a crisis of the liberal order generated in no small measure – and in good dialectical fashion – by the functioning of that order itself.
Any decent explanation of the referendum must take into account the ways in which contingent political decisions and miscalculations (Cameron’s gamble in calling a referendum in order to shoot Ukip’s fox, Official Remain’s stupidity in seeming to present a united front of elites in a climate of ‘anti-Establishment’ feeling) interacted with deepening social, political and economic polarisations in Britain and across Europe. It would need to factor in Britain’s peculiar relationship with the process of European integration as an unenthusiastic latecomer to the union, its political and economic outlook significantly shaped by imperial legacies – most notably the highly internationalised strategic location of British capital and the way in which this has interacted with a geopolitical balancing act between ‘Atlanticism’ and ‘Europeanism’. It would need to trace the ways in which racism and anti-immigrant prejudice, long ingrained within political and media discourse, but suddenly amplified by the ‘migrant crisis’ was cynically articulated with the issue of EU membership during the referendum campaign.
This is by and large what the best radical left analysis of the referendum result has done. It is probably fair to say that the British left is agreed that Brexit condenses a series of long-building tensions and dysfunctions and is as such the overdetermined form in which these combined pressures – many of them deeply structural – have been brought to a head, throwing up an acute crisis for the British ruling class.
This is a serious crisis of hegemony that fuses two core components – a legitimation crisis at the level of political representation and a crisis at the level of political economy that has probably rendered the current configuration of British neoliberalism obsolete as a workable accumulation strategy. In relation to the latter, it is not simply that British capital will have to undergo the painful and potentially disastrous process of substantially unmeshing itself from regional neoliberal matrices of production trade and investment across Europe. It’s also that the Brexit vote (together with Trump’s win) delivered a verdict on the future viability of neoliberalism as we know it.
But while the radical left can largely agree on the broad dimensions and on the seriousness of the current crisis for the British ruling class, it remains deeply divided in relation to whether this crisis amounts to an exciting opportunity or a probable catastrophe for the working class and for the left itself.
The basic coordinates of this divided outlook were set during the referendum campaign itself. Unsurprisingly, those currents that campaigned for exit see in the referendum result and its aftermath reasons for optimism, while those currents that argued for Remain interpret the result as triumph for reactionary forces. Unsurprisingly, too, both sides in this dispute seem to feel that their arguments during the referendum campaign have been vindicated by demographic analysis of the referendum vote and subsequent political developments.
The Left Exit (Lexit) campaign — an alliance between the Socialist Workers Party and other small revolutionary groups — pivoted on the argument that the EU is fundamentally an instrument of class domination and one of the main vectors for the spreading and national embedding of neoliberalism and austerity across the continent and that withdrawal would represent a massive blow to the interests of dominant sections of British capital and to European elites. Withdrawal would also weaken the Cameron Government, perhaps precipitating its collapse, thus opening up opportunities for the British left – even propelling Corbyn to power.
Lexit proponents were quick to interpret the Leave victory as a ‘revolt against the rich and powerful’ that ‘hurled the Tory party, and the British and European establishments, into a profound crisis’ – crowing in particular about Cameron’s resignation as an indication of the serious, perhaps fatal, weakening of the Conservative Government and of a party about to plunge itself into civil war. The Lexit left also made much of the demographic analysis of the vote published in the Ashcroft poll that indicated that a majority of AB voters (those in the top tier of occupations) voted Remain while a majority of voters from the lowest categories (C2 and DE) voted Leave in order to insist that the referendum revolt represented a class revolt – a “rebellion by working-class people” against neoliberalism and austerity.
Arguments for a pro-Remain position tended to fall into two major categories – one of these distinctly more pro-EU than the other. The first largely emanated from groups and individuals affiliated with the Another Europe is Possible (AEiP) campaign and promoted an internationalist vision of a coordinated Europe-wide radical movement to transform EU structures from within. This current in my view tended to present an idealised and unconvincing vision of the EU as a basically neutral institutional terrain – or even as an essentially progressive structure – that neoliberalism has come recently to dominate on a merely contingent basis.
The other Left Remain sub-camp pivoted on a ‘lesser-evil’ position that stressed that while the Lexit analysis of the EU as a thoroughly neoliberal structure was essentially correct, it did not follow that withdrawal would strengthen progressive forces. On the contrary, the forces dominating Leave were hard right ones that had successfully cohered the campaign around immigration as the core, defining issue and, given this, the likely consequences of Brexit would be a decisive shift to the right in British politics – and indeed beyond, in that Brexit would put wind in the sails of right wing movements elsewhere too – and the further political mainstreaming of racism and xenophobic national chauvinism. As such it would be a disaster for workers — particularly immigrant workers — and the left.
It seems pretty clear now nearly a year after the referendum, in my view at least, that the key warnings of the ‘lesser evil’ left Remain camp have been largely vindicated. Despite Lexit’s protestations that Leave’s momentum was not propelled by anti-immigration sentiment, the aftermath of the referendum brought a spike in racist incidents and other hate crime – clearly bigots felt emboldened by the result and the subsequent political atmosphere. Meanwhile a grotesque parade of the European far right, feeling that their time had come at last, lined up to celebrate Leave’s victory. Soon after, Trump, claiming the mantle ‘Mr Brexit’ and clearly feeling the wind of international political fortune blowing his way sailed into the Whitehouse.
The party political fall-out from the referendum in Britain revealed the Lexit left’s predictions in relation to which UK political forces would benefit and which would lose out to be absurdly wrong. The crowing about Cameron’s resignation heralding a coming collapse of the Tory government looks embarrassing in retrospect. While it’s true that there was some bloodletting between Gove and Johnson, things never looked like spilling over into open civil war within the Tory party, much less precipitating the collapse of the Government.
In fact, the transfer of power from Cameron to May was conducted remarkably fluidly, facilitated by May’s ability as a Remainer during the referendum campaign now decisively committed to ‘hard Brexit’, to draw together the Remain and Leave factions within the Conservatives. While May is certainly a late convert to the Leave cause, there can be little doubt that she intends to conduct Brexit on the hard right’s terms – no ‘half-in, half-out’ balancing act for her as she has clearly signalled. Indeed May has made it plain that she intends Britain to leave the Single Market, Customs Union and jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – objectives that go far beyond the stated aims of official Leave during the referendum campaign. This is driven by the desire to throw nationalist red meat to hard-core Brexiteers in terms of the reassertion of ‘national sovereignty’ – but, more than anything else, it’s about signalling a clear intention to withdraw from the ambit of EU rules on ‘free of movement’ of EU citizens in order clamp down on immigration. The hard right trajectory of the Tory government under the May premiership, then, is abundantly clear. We are, as left Remainers warned, witnessing a decisive shift to the right in British politics.
While the Tories’ grip on power never looked seriously weakened by the referendum result, still less did the post-referendum shake-out look remotely likely to propel Corbyn any nearer to Downing Street. Few now but his most die-hard cheerleaders expect Corbyn, bunkered down and besieged within his own party, to do anything more than hang-on and endure for as long as he can the attempt by the PLP to wear him down – still less win the upcoming general election. It is, of course, true that the vicissitudes of political fortune seem particularly unpredictable at the moment and certainly May’s strategy is beset by inner tensions – not least that ‘hard Brexit’ seems to run substantially counter to the interests of much British capital. She also faces the problem of the intensification of secessionary pressures within the British union itself. ‘Hard Brexit’ does not entail plain sailing for the Tories. Yet, it looks close to certain that, within the UK, it will be the Tories alone who will shape the institutional and legal structural framework of the new post-Brexit Britain and that they will do this according to a hard right vision.
The Lexit Left were almost certainly correct that Brexit will entail serious crisis for British capital in an already spluttering economy weighed down by sluggish growth, low investment, low productivity, a large gap in the current account and hugely reliant on a bloated financial sector and debt-fuelled household consumption. True, things have stabilized after the initial post-referendum turbulence. But Britain, of course, has not as yet left the Single Market and will not do so for at least two years. Moreover, the consensus among analysts is, if not catastrophe, that serious recession will accompany withdrawal from the EU. Things look particularly shaky for the City which stands to lose its entrée as a stepping stone for investment and commercial banking in Europe. Things got much worse for it recently when Jean Claude Juncker confirmed that Brexit means that the City will lose its right to carry out euro-denominated clearing which the director of the London Stock Exchange warned would entail the loss of at least 100,000 jobs (with the knock-on effect of over 200,000 jobs lost beyond the City). Small wonder that many major banks are planning to move some London based jobs and operations to new hubs inside the EU.
For the wider economy much depends on whether May is able to conclude a deal with the EU in the next two years (the chances of which according to one analyst are 50/50) that would maintain access to European markets on good terms. Whatever the ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ bluster, failure to arrange a trade deal by 2019 would be disastrous for manufacturing according to industry leaders. For their part, EU elites have repeatedly made it plain that May cannot expect a deal with the EU that would allow Britain to withdraw from the Single Market while somehow preserving the benefits of membership. Indeed, why would the EU allow this? Facing further centrifugal pressures within the union EU negotiators have a clear incentive to play hardball with Britain pour encourager les autres.
It’s unclear if the more sensible heads in the Tory party really believe that ‘Global Britain’ can make up for any lost European trade and investment with new trade deals with ‘Commonwealth’ countries and beyond. There is certainly more than a whiff of post-Imperial delusion about these initiatives. Hard-core Brexiteers seem genuinely to envisage post-Brexit Britain as a nimble free-trading ‘buccaneering galleon’ with a global reach, but to what extent the nods in this direction from May and Brexit Secretary, David Davies, are merely playing to the hard right gallery remains to be seen. Either way all of this gives us a taste of the quasi-imperial political discourse to come and either way these plans are unlikely to work given that the EU takes 44% of British exports and given many ‘Commonwealth’ countries simply don’t need Britain.
So the outlook for British capital looks bad indeed. This has been a source of jubilation for the Lexit Left. The trouble with this, though, is that they have never made it clear why this should benefit workers. Two facile assumptions seem to underpin their outlook. The first is that whatever undermines profits must necessarily strengthen labour. The second is that a serious crisis for capital in economic terms must automatically entail a serious weakening of ruling class leadership and domination at the political level.
In regard to the first assumption it is of course the case that the interests of labour and capital are antagonistic – but they are not counterposed in some simple zero-sum relationship. The structural power of capital after all pivots on the fact that under capitalism wage-labour is dependent on the social class that exploits it for jobs, investment, availability of consumer goods in the shops and so on. A recession for capital is also a recession for workers – more so, in fact, given that workers always bear the brunt of restructuring and readjustment for the recovery of profits. Of course any challenge to capitalist power must encounter economic turbulence and risk severe hardship for workers, but to cheer on economic crisis in the absence of a challenge to capital from workers’ struggle is irresponsible ultra-leftism.
This point brings us to the second facile assumption above. What this forgets is the relative autonomy of politics. In this regard the Tory leadership – as the favoured political representatives of capital – have shown themselves to be quite capable of adapting to adverse circumstances and committing unambiguously and opportunistically to withdrawal, thus putting themselves at the head of the social forces mobilised by Leave in order to instrumentalise Brexit in the interests of core capitalist class interests. Certainly, Brexit hasn’t provided any discernible boost to left forces either within or outside Parliament.
This hasn’t stopped the Lexit Left from seeking to conjure up an imaginary working class rebellion at the ballot box on the basis of a tenuous reading of referendum polling data. For one thing the polling data they draw on distributes voters into a class hierarchy measured in terms of occupational category – which, needless to say, is an approach that doesn’t operate on a Marxist understanding of class and which obfuscates the class position of, for example, key groups of public sector workers. For another, the ‘working class rebellion’ thesis seems to exclude the majority of Black and Ethnic Minority, and young voters (categories that voted heavily for Remain) from the ambit of the implied definition of working class.
In fact the Lexit campaign was characterized by a kind of fantasy politics throughout – an expression in microcosm of the wider fantasies of the Leninist sect outlook. The revolutionary strategy of the sect pivots on the notion that, as long as it cleaves to the right line, it can, by some mysterious process unknowable in advance, hope to be transformed from an isolated groupuscule into a mass party at the head of an insurgent movement challenging the state for power. Lexit pivoted on the similar idea that a handful of revolutionaries could catalyse some sort of magical-dialectical transformation of actually existing Brexit into its political opposite. The view throughout seems to have been that, despite all appearances to the contrary, Brexit conceals a hidden anti-capitalist essence that, through cunning Leninist manoeuvres, can be induced to reveal itself.
The fundamental mistake perhaps was to confuse the politics of the EU with the politics of the referendum. The basic error, that is, was to have assumed that because the EU is a thoroughly neoliberal structure that embeds the domination of leading sections of the bourgeoisie in Europe and that has spearheaded austerity across much of the continent, the referendum on withdrawal must ipso facto have been a referendum on neoliberalism, austerity and class power. Of course the effects of neoliberalism, class power and austerity shaped the context of this ballot and fed indirectly into the result – but the referendum for most voters was never directly or even to any substantial degree about these matters. The Brexit referendum was not the Greek Oxi referendum. The political terms of these two plebiscites were quite different and the political forces they mobilized were poles apart.
Indeed what the Lexit campaign ignored was the specific political character of the forces leading the Leave campaign and the way in which they had framed the terms of the referendum itself. The basic coordinates of the referendum were never in much doubt – from the start it was always, in effect, a debate structured as an internecine contest within and among the right over issues identified and framed in largely right-of-centre terms. Left groups were never likely to play anything other than a marginal role in this contest. They were certainly never likely to have much impact in terms of transforming the nature of Brexit. Leave was dominated, in particular, by hard right forces and reactionary ideas and arguments. These forces, moreover, were highly successful in shaping the meaning of the vote. The Leave side focused relentlessly on immigration, conducting one of the most racist and xenophobic electoral campaigns ever seen in Britain and in doing so they effectively transformed the referendum into a plebiscite on immigration. To vote Leave, then, was to vote for exit on these terms. However much the Lexit left insisted that there was some sort of hermetic seal between official Leave and Lexit, there was, in the end, no Lexit option on the ballot paper.
Lexit met with widespread derision among most quarters of the Left. Certainly Lexit hasn’t earned the SWP very much in the way of renewed popularity. Undeterred, however, and with arrogance typical of the organization, one of its first acts after the referendum was to call for unity among the Left… on its own terms. Left Remainers, that is, were invited to perform a 180 degree flip and discover a sudden enthusiasm for Lexit. But it’s surely the case that for any measure of unity on the radical Left, delusions in Lexit – and they are clearly delusions – have to be abandoned. For their part, left Remainers must resist any temptation to join in with any attempted rearguard action to scupper Brexit on the part of liberal forces making plaintiff noises about second referendums. Such a course of action could only be counter-productive and would look like the worst form of anti-democratic manoeuvring.
But perhaps the most necessary – and most realistically achievable – task for us now beyond doing what we can to defend migrants is simply to study the emerging political economy of post-Brexit Britain. We had little impact on the referendum itself and are likely to have little impact for the foreseeable future on the political, economic and social changes currently underway. If Brexit is catalyzing a shift in the fundamental coordinates of British capitalism and if the ruling class is seeking to instrumentalise Brexit to reorganize the terms of its hegemony we need to try to understand these dynamics and begin to trace the outlines of the emerging structural configurations with a view to adapting our strategic outlook as we seek to embark on the arduous process of building our forces under new conditions.
An interesting start has been made in this regard by William Davies who discerns a possible movement in Tory strategy toward a ‘protective state’ model. Such a strategy would represent a decisive step away from neoliberalism toward a more socially conservative and economic protectionist model in which state intervention is combined with an ethic of ‘faith, family and flag’ that would resonate with Red Tory and Blue Labour type communitarianism. Such a shift might entail, in Poulantzasian terms, a shift in the configuration of the power bloc in favour of industrial sections of capital at the expense of finance capital and a corresponding shift in the locus of the key sites of power within the state away from the Treasury and the Bank of England toward the Home Office and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Building on Davies’ observations, Adam Tooze has suggested that the Tories hold a Plan B strategy in reserve should the ‘protective state’ model falter (and should perhaps Britain ‘crash out’ of the EU without a favourable trade deal in place) – this would be a ‘disaster capitalism’ scenario in which Britain sought to become a low tax, ultra-deregulated Singapore of northern Europe.
Whatever happens it is almost certain that the British economy as we currently know it is to undergo a fundamental transformation as Brexit unfolds. The prevailing political practices of the British radical left have, arguably, been absurdly dated for the past few decades. They are likely to become even more archaic over the coming years without a fundamental re-think of socialist strategy.