Archive for category Political comment
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.
Here’s something I wrote for the work blog. It’s a bit derivative – but not much to say as yet that’s not already been said.
We have just, as the veteran broadcaster Jon Snow remarked on Friday, witnessed ‘one of the most remarkable election results in modern British history’ – and it is a result, moreover that has fundamentally shifted the basic coordinates of politics in Britain. Political ‘business as usual’ as we have known it for the past few decades is, quite simply, over.
Though the Tories won the greatest share of the vote and the most seats – and thus ‘won’ the election in the sense that they have been (only just…) returned to government – it is apparent to everyone that this election result was, for them, an utter catastrophe. The gamble on which May staked everything was to call a snap election in order to capitalise on an apparent post-referendum swing to the right in UK politics and thus solidify her leadership going into the Brexit negotiations with a large parliamentary majority. To say that May’s wager didn’t pay off would be an understatement – May miscalculated disastrously, leaving her authority severely and perhaps fatally weakened. Indeed the process that has seen her rapidly transformed from the ‘strong and stable’ darling of much of the media punditocracy to the pathetically diminished figure we see now scrabbling for a parliamentary alliance with the sectarian, homophobic reactionaries of the DUP in order to shore up her crumbling position has to be one of the most stunning reversals of fortune in post-war British political history.
May is now, as George Osborne remarked with brutal accuracy in a TV interview, a ‘dead woman walking’, deeply despised and increasingly isolated within her own party. However it’s probably unlikely that there’ll be a leadership challenge any time soon if only because most Tories fear triggering another general election which would almost certainly put Corbyn in 10 Downing Street.
That Labour should now be within striking distance of government power is surely the most remarkable dimension of the political earthquake we have just experienced. Just a few short weeks ago Labour was 20 points behind in the polls, and Corbyn’s personal ratings were recorded at a dismal minus 23 points (in comparison with May’s plus 28). The conventional wisdom across almost the entirety of the media and political class was that Labour was heading toward humiliating defeat and possible oblivion. Indeed, right up until the exit poll was released on Thursday night few even among Corbyn’s supporters really believed that the party could hope realistically for much more than survival as a major political force.
Given this, the party’s electoral performance was astonishing. Labour enjoyed its biggest surge in vote share since 1945, – up by almost 10% compared with 2015 to 40% of the total vote, winning nearly 13 million votes and increasing its number of seats by 30. This result is all the more incredible when you consider that over the past two years Corbyn has faced a relentless campaign of open hostility and sabotage from within the Parliamentary Labour Party and several attempts to oust him from the leadership. What is more he was subjected to a barrage of daily vilification from large swathes of the media over the same period – and not just from the traditionally Tory press. Most columnists for the generally Labour supporting Guardian, for example, have displayed little but contempt – or at best condescension – toward Corbyn and his supporters since he first won the leadership.
So how did Corbyn’s Labour do it?
Part of the explanation lies in the complete ineptitude of the Tory election campaign. There was of course, the debacle of the so called ‘dementia tax’, and the revelation, on the campaign trail, of May’s robotic awkwardness and inability to connect emotionally with ordinary people. Her failure to attend the BBC leaders’ debate – looking for all the world like someone scared of debating directly with her political opponents – might well have been a turning point in terms of her personal rating with the electorate. However, the atrocious Tory campaign cannot, in itself, explain Corbyn’s success. For that we need to look at the Corbyn team’s strategy and the way his campaign resonated with large numbers of people.
Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership of the Labour Party rested from the start on the idea that the party’s fortunes could be revived by attracting lost voters and those who felt alienated by the prevailing political landscape. That is, he argued that the party should reject the Blairite machine-politics of ‘triangulation’ that focused on competition for a relatively small number of ‘centre-ground’ ‘floating voters’, and concentrate, instead on tapping a deep well of relatively disenfranchised voters including, crucially, the young (who tend not to turnout in large numbers during elections). This was to be done, in large part, by campaigning on distinctive left social democratic policies – putting clear red water between Labour and the other parties – and, just as importantly, by transforming the party into something like a party/social movement hybrid that sought to mobilise its members into a grassroots mass campaigning force. This leadership pitch was extraordinarily successful in catapulting Corbyn to the leadership and in galvanizing an active and mobilised base of support among the party membership to defend him from the various ‘coup’ attempts set in motion by the party’s right wing establishment. But while this had worked well within the party among a relatively small number of people, it was not clear that the same approach could be successful beyond the party itself among the electorate as a whole at the level of a general election.
Confounding all of his critics, Corbyn and his team proved beyond doubt on June 8th that this approach could indeed work at a national level. The turning point in Labour’s election campaign was clearly the release of the party’s manifesto – a bold document full of public spending, redistributionist and growth-centred social democratic policies that broke with the politics and economics of austerity. The manifesto seems to have resonated deeply with wide sections of the electorate sick of many years of cuts to public services, stagnating wages and rising inequality. The Corbyn team’s gamble was that a relatively left-wing manifesto (by recent standards) would tap hidden but deep reserves of support among swathes of voters for the sort of policies that previous Labour leaderships had abandoned in their efforts to ‘triangulate’ and chase the ‘centre ground’. It paid off.
The early leak of the manifesto – whether this was deliberate or not (there is some suggestion that a pro-Corbyn source ‘leaked’ it to ensure that the manifesto pledges couldn’t be watered down by the Labour right) – also ensured that Labour was able to shape the agenda for the election campaign. Labour refused to concentrate their fight on the terrain preferred by the Tories – the issue of Brexit – steering the debate toward issues of inequality, public spending, healthcare and education. Though Corbyn was taxed initially by pro-Remain forces within Labour for his apparent fudging on Brexit, this manoeuvre appears, in retrospect, to have allowed Corbyn to side-step and close down an issue that threated to divide the Labour camp. Indeed psephological analysis of the vote indicates that Labour managed to hold on to (usually older) Leave voters in sufficient numbers while cohering the lion’s share of votes from those who supported Remain.
The turning point in Labour’s fortunes – the release of the manifesto – coincided with the period when broadcast media election rules kicked in. As Corbyn’s close ally John McDonnell has pointed out the more balanced broadcast coverage that this ensured enabled many people to see, for the first time, Corbyn for the ‘honest, decent, principled and indeed strong leader he was’. Seeing Corbyn speak directly and relatively unfiltered by media hostility and bias, people generally liked what they saw – especially in comparison with May’s wooden and uncharismatic performances. The Ashcroft poll indicates that it was indeed in this period in the final weeks before the ballot that Labour won people over in large numbers – 57% of those who voted Labour made their decision in the last month before the election.
The most striking thing about the voting figures, however, is the way in which young voters turned out for Labour – 67% of 18-24 year old voters (and well over half of 25-34 year olds) chose Labour. Various reports have suggested, moreover, that turnout amongst the youth vote surged to an impressive 72% – vindicating Corbyn’s decision to orient his campaign toward the young and those who do not normally choose to vote. This high turnout for Labour was almost certainly driven, to a significant extent, by the way in which the Corbyn campaign managed to mobilise active support among young people. It was for the most part, young people who joined the Momentum canvassing teams that flocked to Labour marginals and populated Momentum’s phone banking efforts. Further, it seems clear that a largely spontaneous pro-Corbyn campaign of video, meme and joke sharing (replete with its own tongue-in-cheek idiom – ‘Arm John McDonnell!’, ‘Corbyn is the absolute boy!’) emerged among the young on social media – Twitter especially – largely under the radar of established media commentators. Thus the youth turnout for Labour may well have been driven in significant part by an organic peer-to-peer social media effort that simply bypassed traditional forms of media that were largely hostile to Corbyn.
These factors cohered to produce what is surely one of the biggest political upsets in Britain in living memory. Corbyn has been transformed in a matter of days, from an utter outsider – largely derided in mainstream political discourse – to a Prime Minister in waiting. It’s worth pointing out, furthermore, that it is not just the Tories who look now like a spent and largely defeated force. Corbyn’s success was also a defeat for the Murdoch press and tabloid media who threw everything at Corbyn during the campaign with little apparent effect. The days when Labour politicians used to feel they had to bow and scrape before the right wing press are now over. It was also a humiliating defeat for the ‘centrist’ punditocracy that dominate the broadsheet and broadcast media in whose conventional wisdom – right up until the exit poll – Corbyn was leading the Labour party into oblivion. They look rather silly now. Most of all, perhaps, Corbyn’s electoral success was a devastating blow to his enemies within the Parliamentary Labour Party. Indeed, one thing is for sure – New Labour and the Blairite faction in the party are now truly dead and buried as a serious political force.
What all of these defeated groups shared in common were what we might call neoliberal assumptions – or assumptions characteristic of the neoliberal era in British politics. They simply took it for granted, that is, that you cannot succeed electorally on a left-wing manifesto, that voters are motivated more by fear and self-interest than they are by appeals to community and the public good, that they prefer ‘belt-tightening’ and privatisation to expanded investment in public services and above all that people have fully and irreversibly internalised the idea that ‘there is no alternative’ to the ‘free market’-driven order. With Corbyn’s near victory confounding these assumptions, British social democracy has roared back into life after many years of dormancy and with it an ideological space has opened up, shifting the horizons of the possible, allowing us once again to envisage and work confidently toward a kinder, more equal and more humane social order.
Obviously, there’s some thinking to be done about the relationship between the Corbyn surge and Brexit. There’s a conundrum here for those of us that saw the Brexit vote as a reactionary turn in UK politics that cemented a new hegemony of the hard right (see post below). If that’s true, it was a very short-lived hegemonic moment. Clearly there’s an ‘anti-establishment effect’ thread running through all this that is probably rooted strongly in disenchantment with political ‘business as usual’ that the left might summarise in a nutshell as ‘neoliberalism’. This is a highly volatile sort of political ‘mood’ that can, if skilfully articulated, resonate equally well with both left and right wing framing narratives and which can thus swing left or right very rapidly. But there’s more to it than that isn’t there given the different demographic bases of the two votes – in particular it seems to be the young that swung it for Corbyn (overwhelmingly Remain in outlook). So while Corbyn held older Leave voters in sufficient numbers it was really the way in which he cohered broadly Remain – and certainly anti-‘hard Brexit’ forces that seems to have swung it.
This isn’t to say that Corbyn set out to cohere these forces explicitly – in fact part of Corbyn’s success came down to the way in which Labour successfully shut down questions about Brexit and focused their campaigning on other things. What I mean is that the social forces driving the Corbyn surge were substantially different in composition to those that powered the Leave victory.
Maybe there’s also something to be said in relation to the emerging irrelevance of the very terms of the hard right’s political domination (combined with the utterly cack-handed incompetence of the May campaign). The Corbyn campaign – against all the advice of the centre-ground punditocracy and most of the PLP – simply refused to fight on the Tories’ terms. They could have – and would have under any other leader – fought a ‘controls on immigration’, Blue Labour type campaign. But they didn’t. And so it turned out that all the fortresses and earthworks that the Tories had constructed to embed their domination on their chosen post-referendum battle terrain just turned out to be irrelevant, because Corbyn chose to fight on a totally different continent in a totally different type of war that galvanised and mobilised the young beyond the normal channels of parliamentary electoral politics.
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.
Martin Jacques’ article in the Observer today is well worth reading if you haven’t already done so. I’m not sure it says that much that’s new but it does connect a few dots quite successfully. It presents a convincing and coherent analysis of the current political and economic conjuncture in Europe (especially the UK) and the US – weaving together the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath with the rise of ‘populism’ and ‘anti-political’ distrust of elites for example – setting this in longer term historical context.
Though powerful, I have to say that I find something slightly frustrating and incomplete about this sort of neoliberalism-critique however. It comes down to a rather glaring absence of consideration of the structural determinants of neoliberal hegemony in these pieces. Neoliberalism is often presented largely in terms of a sort of ideological worldview or political-economic school of thought. As if its hegemony is determined in wholly political or ideological terms – rooted in and reproduced through political discourse and wider ‘cultural’ factors and so on. This comes out strongly I think in Jacques’ argument (predictably so perhaps as a Marxism Today neo-Gramscian). There’s the rather brisk argument here for example that social democratic parties simply became disciples of neoliberalism and globalism – as if they were intellectually/morally seduced by a false gospel or something. As if the turn from social democracy to social liberalism was a freely chosen set of policy reversals.
But wasn’t the neoliberal turn conditioned by real pressures on national structures of post-war capital accumulation – slowing growth, intensifying international competition, growing international interdependence? Don’t these pressures and constraints on capital still exist? Might individual national governments in Europe simply choose to become more interventionist, dirigiste, to divert a larger share of national income to wages etc 30 years after the defeat of the Mitterrand experiment? Is it simply a matter of political will to be constructed and reinforced via cunning ideological wars of manoeuvre? Wouldn’t full blooded social democratic economic policy – as usual – intensify pressure on profits and sharpen the crisis? Isn’t neoliberalism, in large part, simply a default set of policy choices for the management of capitalism in the absence of the extraordinary conditions characteristic of the 1950s and 60s?
Edited version of the post below now up at Jacobin.
In a debate that was, from the beginning, dominated on both sides by the right there was only ever going to be one winner in last week’s referendum on British membership of the European Union – the right.
Given that the original decision to call the referendum was intended as a political maneuver on the part of David Cameron to outflank a hard-right insurgency from the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) the basic coordinates of the debate were never in much doubt. This 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 center, neoliberal terms.
On the one hand the mainstream Remain camp cohered a range of political forces under the hegemony of the ‘moderate’ Cameron wing of the Tories and leading sections of capital. On the other, Leave organized a motley alliance of forces under the domination of the Tory hard right and Ukip.
Operating on a political terrain not of its own making, in a struggle in which major camps on both sides were dragooned under the leadership of opposed factions of the right, it was predictable that the left would exert little influence over the key terms of the contest.
Any realistic assessment on the part of the radical left of the likely consequences of a victory for either side had to conclude that neither a victory for Remain nor for Leave would constitute a positive outcome. The real question was not so much which side we should want to win, but which of them we should desire most to lose.
For many of us, except a small band of Left Exit (“Lexit”) campaigners, it was very clear which of the two was the least worst option. For while Remain promised little other than business as usual (neoliberalism, austerity, ‘sensible controls on immigration’) under the aegis of continued membership of the EU, Leave represented something much darker and more dangerous.
In the end the worst worst option emerged victorious.
We have to be absolutely clear about this and indeed about how bad things now are. The Brexit vote is a major triumph for forces of national chauvinism, xenophobia, racism and the hard right. As such it is a catastrophe for workers – particularly immigrant workers – and the left.
Much media commentary interprets the vote in terms of an anti-establishment uprising – an expression of disaffection and anger at the status quo on the part of alienated, poorer sections of society. The Lexit left insists, along similar lines but with a Marxist inflection, that the referendum result represents a ‘rebellion by working class people’ against neoliberalism and austerity.
There’s certainly something to this analysis. Leave does seem to have won the support of a large segment of the poorest sections of society and indeed was able to tap a deep well of anti-establishment resentment among the working class born out of many years of growing class and regional inequality, deindustrialization, structural unemployment, ever increasing levels of job insecurity and so on. That Leave – headed up by figures such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage who aren’t exactly strangers to social and economic privilege -was able to channel such grievances reflects the key weakness of the Remain campaign.
In an age of anti-political populism, Remain’s ability to cohere all major political party leaderships (with the partial exception of a semi-detached Jeremy Corbyn), much of big business, a large tranche of the “great and the good” from the world of culture and entertainment and to attract the vocal support of powerful international politicians and technocrats – from Jean Claude Juncker to Barack Obama – turned out to be much more of a liability than a strength. It was almost as if Remain’s core strategy was to present itself as the voice of UK and international political and economic elites closing ranks. It was punished accordingly.
But although there was a significant anti-establishment component to the Leave vote we should reject the idea that the vote – and the lines of social cleavage that it expressed and revealed – can be adequately interpreted as some sort of working class revolt. There are two reasons for this.
The first is that the most advanced demographic analysis of the vote that we yet have to hand – the Ashcroft poll – doesn’t bear this out. The poll draws on one of the standard UK measures of social class, distributing voters into a class hierarchy measured in terms of occupational category.
The proponents of the “working class revolt” thesis make much of the fact that, according to the Ashcroft figures, a majority of AB voters – those in the top tier of occupations – voted Remain and a majority of voters from the lowest categories – C2 and DE – voted Leave. Needless to say, however, occupational category measures of social stratification do not operate on the basis of a Marxist understanding of class. Indeed, as Charlie Hore points out:
AB includes 25 percent of the population, including key groups of workers who have been in struggle recently–teachers, nurses, doctors and other health professions–and, in fact, most trade union members.
In addition, the DE figures are skewed by the fact that this category includes pensioners (some rich, some poor), among whom there was a very large turnout.
Further, the Ashcroft figures show us that 73% of 18 to 24 year-old voters and 62% of 25-34s chose Remain while “a majority of those aged over 45 voted to leave, rising to 60% of those aged 65 or over” – suggesting that, in fact age, rather than income or class was one of the key determinants of this ballot.
The statistics on voter choice by race and ethnicity are also striking. They show that while 53% of white voters voted chose Leave “Two thirds (67%) of those describing themselves as Asian voted to remain, as did three quarters (73%) of black voters” and that “seven in ten Muslims voted to remain”.
The regional and geographical breakdown of the vote does little back up the idea of a “working class uprising” either. All major cities with the exception of Birmingham voted to Remain. All districts in Scotland and nationalist areas of Northern Ireland – areas that encompass pockets of major deprivation – voted solidly to Remain as did the vast majority of London boroughs, including those containing high levels of poverty such as Lambeth and Hackney (79% and 78% Remain respectively).
So all in all as Hore remarks:
It’s an odd “working-class revolt” that doesn’t include Scotland, West Belfast, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Bristol, London, most union members, most Black and minority ethnic voters, and three-quarters of young voters.
The second major reason to reject the idea that the Brexit vote represents a popular rebellion to be celebrated and supported is that, whatever, the demographic profile of this “revolt”, what should matter just as much to socialists is its specific political character. There are of course populisms of the left and the right – it is absurd to imagine that all such political movements are inherently progressive or conceal within themselves somehow a fundamentally socialist dynamic.
So we should ask: what is the concrete political content of this ‘uprising’ – what political and social forces are hegemonic within it and along what lines have they channeled wider popular discontent?
It’s quite clear in this respect that the forces now riding the crest of the Leave victory are hard right forces in the Conservative party and beyond. Their strategic achievement was, as Richard Seymour puts it, to have,
successfully articulated a broad antiestablishment sentiment — originating in class injuries, regional decline, postindustrial devastation, generational anxieties, etc. — along bigoted, national chauvinist lines.
In particular, the Leave side focused relentlessly on immigration conducting one of the most sickeningly racist and xenophobic electoral campaigns ever seen in Britain. Effectively they transformed the referendum into a plebiscite by proxy on immigration.
Clear indication of this can be seen in the Ashcroft poll which reveals that a third of Leave voters said the main reason for their choice was that Brexit “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.” It is also possible to deduce from the figures we saw above on the distribution of votes among black and ethnic minority voters that the large majority of non-white voters were quite aware of the way in which the Leave campaign pivoted on the question of race.
This isn’t to say that everyone who voted for Leave was racist or anti-immigrant or that the vote did not express dissatisfaction about a range of legitimate issues – but this was, in effect, the core “meaning” that the Leave campaign successfully conferred on the referendum and which was well understood by many Leave and Remain voters alike. As Seymour comments:
The vote cannot be reduced to racism and nationalism — but that is the primary way in which it has been organised and recruited and directed, and that is the primary way in which the outcome will be experienced.
Indeed, sadly – but utterly predictably – there seems to have been a major spike in the number of reported racist attacks and hate crimes since the Brexit victory. The UK news currently overflows with such stories: xenophobic graffiti scrawled across the doors of a West London Polish community center; a man on a rush hour Manchester tram told to “go back to Africa”; laminated cards with the words “Leave the EU – no more Polish vermin” delivered to the houses of Polish families in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire; a muslim girl cornered by a group in Birmingham and told “Get out we voted leave”. These are just a small selection of the reported incidents since the vote last Thursday – and reported incidents, of course, are likely to be the mere tip of the iceberg.
On Monday a student with a Portuguese passport came to my office, obviously in a high state of agitation, and told me that she doesn’t want to stay in a country where she and her family “are not welcome”. Many similar conversations will have taken place in universities, colleges, workplaces and among friends, families and between partners up and down the UK in the past few days. Britain has become a frightening place to be a foreigner and many immigrant people can see the referendum result clearly for what it is – the harbinger of intensified racism and xenophobia and indeed a political mandate for the hard right to ratchet up anti-immigrant rhetoric and anti-immigrant policies.
An atmosphere of tension, uncertainty and indeed fear has descended on the country since the vote. There’s a real sense that the threat of serious violence and civil unrest is simmering just under the surface, waiting to erupt. Everyone can feel it. In no small part this is because every racist, every far right group, got a major psychological boost from the Brexit result – they feel their time has come.
Though intensified xenophobia is the main determinant of the heightened anxiety throughout British society currently, there is another source too. The signs of an imminent plunge back into serious economic recession will have escaped the notice of very few. The day after the vote Sterling fell off a cliff in the money markets and stock markets went into turmoil. Foreign investment in Britain is widely expected to fall, as is GDP growth and it’s widely suspected that many multinational corporations who were drawn to Britain as a stepping stone into the wider EU market are considering winding down their British operations.
Of course the interests of labor and capital are not synonymous – and not all of this will be bad news for those who can’t afford current house prices for example – but neither are they counter-posed in some zero-sum relationship. The structural power of capital after all pivots on the fact that under capitalism wage labor 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 and the poor always bear the brunt of restructuring and readjustment for the recovery of profits.
Already the Chancellor, George Osborne, has indicated that Brexit means more cuts, more austerity. Again, everyone knows this. Everyone can feel it coming. Most know too, that the insurgent hard right have a vision of Britain as a “neoliberal fantasy island”, more extreme than Cameron and Osborne were willing to conceive.
Of course, not everything is going swimmingly for Leave. Many have noted that Johnson and other Tories on the Leave side have looked strangely subdued in the aftermath of the referendum result (compare this with Farage’s sinister gloating and braying in the European Parliament) – as if they realize, in the context of the economic instability Brexit has unleashed and the apparent unwillingness of EU elites to make things easy for British withdrawal with an amicable deal, that they have just been handed a poisoned chalice.
Already we see signs of Leave backtracking on issues like free movement and exiting the single market. The danger here, however, is that if and when whoever takes the reins from Cameron fails to fully to deliver on Leave’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and on the British Empire-redux fantasies about remaking the country as a powerhouse of global trade, the forces poised to take advantage of mass disappointment are forces even further to the right – Ukip or perhaps even something much nastier currently lurking in the shadows.
Though the Tories certainly have their problems at the moment, they are nothing compared to the civil war now raging in the Labour party. According to the Lexit narrative Brexit would split the Conservatives and propel Corbyn into power. But this simply isn’t happening. The Labour right have seized the opportunity provided by the defeat of Remain to launch a serious and sustained bid to unseat Corbyn.
Given Corbyn’s determination to stay in place as leader and his continuing popularity among the party membership it seems likely that this bid will fail, at least in the short term. But it’s clear that the Rubicon has been crossed by the Labour right – they can’t go back now – and if they can’t get rid of Corbyn immediately, they will seek to grind him down, and if they can’t do that before the next election they will seek to wreck the chances of a Labour victory to make a self-fulfilling prophecy of their claim that Corbyn is “unelectable”.
This – the collapse of Labour, not the Tories – is one of the greatest political legacies of the referendum result.
So what must the radical left seek to do in these bleak circumstances? What can we feasibly aim to achieve?
A priority for the section of the British far left that continues to delude itself about ‘Lexit’ – and indeed for those sections of the international left that indulged this fantasy – must be to look reality in the face. There is no Lexit on the cards. There never was. What we face now is serious growth in officially sanctioned racism and anti-immigrant prejudice, the embedding of reactionary discourse within the political mainstream, drawing strength from a mobilized reactionary populism, the immediate prospect of deepened austerity and the implosion of the Labour party. We are not on the offensive. The referendum was not a victory for us. We are, on the contrary, very much on the defensive.
Our practical priorities in terms of mobilization and campaigning must be to work to defend migrants – a small beginning has been made in this respect already, but we will need to do much more and it will need to be sustained for the long term. A second practical priority must be to do what we can to defend Corbyn. I don’t hold out much hope for a Corbyn victory in the next General Election, but his continuing leadership is all that stands between having a Labour party that stands for the defense of immigrants and one which, on the basis of political expediency follows (and thus reinforces) the political drift to the right in the name of “legitimate concerns about immigration” and so on.
Some on the left hope for a second referendum or for some sort of legal-constitutional blocking of Brexit by the Scottish government. These developments may, indeed, yet happen – and, of course, the EU is no stranger to rerunning referendums (or ignoring them) until it gets the “right result”. But it would be a big mistake for the left to give its backing to such maneuvers. It would look like the worst kind of anti-democratic manipulation and – in the context of the diffuse anti-establishment feeling discussed above – hugely counter-productive.
Besides, we don’t hope for salvation from above. Our primary focus has to be on mobilization from below. We must start with defensive measures to hold off the racists and keep Corbyn at the head of the Labour party for as long as we can and hope for the tide to turn. I don’t think our chances are good. The odds are against us. But then again, they always are – perhaps some comfort can be taken from this.