Archive for category Political comment
It’s been a remarkable few weeks – and an especially remarkable 48 hrs or so – for trade unionists in the university sector.
UCU’s escalating series of strikes have mobilised an unprecedented number of university workers on picket lines up and down the country. What’s more the industrial action has been able to draw on a magnificent degree of support from students, joining staff, day after day, on the picket line, helping to organise ‘teach out’ and ‘teach in’ sessions and in some cases even staging occupations of university buildings.
I’ve certainly never seen anything like this. There’s a real sense of energy and determination on the picket lines – morale is high and it’s abundantly clear that university workers and students alike really are in a mood to fight and to keep fighting. Unlike previous strikes I’ve taken part in, this one feels like a serious rather than symbolic or tokenistic action. We mean business.
It’s also clear, as many have pointed out, that this strike isn’t really just about pensions. It feels like something that had been building for a long time finally burst into the open in a process merely catalysed by the pensions issue. As I suggested in my Jacobin article, the energy and anger among strikers draws on a much wider set of grievances in relation to declining pay and conditions, the proliferation of precarious and casualised forms of employment in the sector, TEF, the inflation of VCs’ salaries and the increasing marketisation and commodification of higher education. This is a revolt against the neoliberalisation of the university. We’re simply tired of it – we’ve had enough. Something snapped.
And yet there’s been something joyous about this whole process. Turning up at the picket line (I get to these much earlier than I would normally get to work on a normal day by the way) hasn’t felt much like a grind or a chore – even in freezing temperatures. Many of the people I work with have remarked that the strike has actually allowed them to really talk to colleagues and students for the first time (on the picket lines and in discussion in ‘teach in’ sessions) – to get to know them on a really human level. As someone commented, ‘we’ve really found each other for the first time on the picket line’.
I’ve certainly noticed that my stress levels have declined during this strike. Overwork and administrative overload is a real problem in academia. What’s more, for the duration of the strike, I’ve actually been able leave work at a relatively decent hour in the early afternoons after the ‘teach in’ sessions end – and I don’t take work home with me in the evenings or at weekends. This doesn’t normally happen. This in itself has been enormously liberating, but also throws into sharp relief the ways in which normal working conditions – what we take for granted on a day to day basis as ‘just the way things are’ – in this sector (and in many others too of course) have become quite inhuman in the neoliberal workplace.
It’s an age old socialist insight of course that the experience of collective struggle and solidarity can alter consciousness and shift the horizons of the possible – but even so, perhaps it’s an insight that you don’t normally fully appreciate until you live it. You can ‘know’ it abstractly and theoretically, but you don’t really know it until you experience it – in no matter how attenuated a form (I’m not, of course, saying that the UCU struggle has been anything like as intense as many other trade union struggles). Perhaps this instructive, educative dimension of struggle always takes its active subjects by surprise.
It’s also been quite an exciting and at times intense experience – not least in the last 48 hours, in which I think something really quite remarkable has happened.
As is well known, the UCU leadership dropped a bombshell on its members in the late evening of Monday 12th March – announcing that it had reached agreement with UUK under the auspices of ACAS. The terms of this agreement represented a really shoddy and wholly unnecessary compromise that, in the circumstances, could only really work in the employers’ favour. The key thing here was that these terms let the employers off the hook at a time when they were clearly in disarray – taken by surprise by the militancy and determination of the strikers – and implied of course the immediate demobilisation of university workers at a time when the dynamic and momentum of the struggle was clearly moving to our great advantage. There was no need to compromise on these terms. It was, quite simply, tactically and strategically inept from the standpoint of those who wanted not simply to ameliorate the employers’ assault on our pensions (and by extension the wider project of marketisation in HE) but to halt it in its tracks and push it back.
In this respect, perhaps, UCU members and their allies have just experienced a crash course in the limitations of the trade union bureaucracy. We’ve learned, that is, that vigorous mobilisation is key not just because it concentrates pressure on our adversaries, but just as much because it keeps our own representatives under pressure to deliver for their members when the ever present danger is that these reps will seek to throw a wet towel over struggle whenever they think they can cut a deal. With vigilance and sustained mobilisation we can push our representatives further than they originally intended to go.
The response to the announcement of this deal was immediate and forceful. There’s a story to be told here about the real time organising potential of social media. In my view the push back against the deal (we had less than 24 hours to do it before the HEC voted the next day – and if the vote had been railroaded through the leadership could simply have suspended the industrial action there and then) would not have gathered momentum or organised form in time without mass activist use of Twitter that night and the following morning. Twitter allowed members first to circulate the terms of the proposed deal and second, (with the hashtag #NoCapitulation) to generalise and strengthen a sense of collective outrage and the belief that this should and could be resisted. It was also key in organising and building the mass protest outside HEC the next day.
The day of the HEC meeting, and the branch reps consultation that preceded it (in which the leadership’s resolve to implement the deal was broken), was an absolutely electrifying experience. Like many other members who could not make it to London on Tuesday I spent the day glued to my Twitter feed on my mobile. Again like many others my mood shifted through the day – from something like dejection and fatalism in the morning, to something like euphoria by mid afternoon as it became clear that the groundswell of opposition would overwhelm the compromise deal.
I received a series of texts throughout the morning and early afternoon from our UCU branch chair – first from the protest and later from inside the meeting room in which branch delegates lobbied the national leadership. These texts expressed increasing confidence as the meeting progressed, that the leadership were going to back down – with me passing them to colleagues (and also tweeting some of them as I received them). By about 1pm it became clear that victory was almost certain when our rep texted to say that the leadership “is being slaughtered in the debate. No one supports the proposal. UCU will reject the offer today”. Soon after that, the reversal was confirmed.
It’s worth emphasising the significance of what happened here. What we have just experienced is the power of democratic mass mobilisation from below. Indeed what we’ve seen is a form of sustained and determined mobilisation over the past few weeks that has generated its own internal dynamic of radicalisation – one that took even the union leadership by surprise and left them running to catch up with it as it has unfolded. What has become clear with the defeat of the 12th March deal is that this strike is driven from below by university workers and students. We are now in control of it. Not the union leadership. They are our representatives. We now know all this – and with this knowledge the strike is likely to radicalise further. We won’t accept anything less than defence of existing pensions. But we also want more than this too and we have the confidence to start demanding more and to make this action a coordinated and conscious push back against the marketisation of HE
There’s another important dimension to this radicalising struggle too. As several commentators have pointed out, the ramifications of this industrial action are likely to go beyond the education sector. As for example Steven Parfitt indicates, university workers “are actually on the front line of an ongoing battle which threatens to wipe out proper pensions for workers across a whole sector of society”. The UCU struggle is highly important, then, as a defensive action to halt the wider neoliberal erosion of the right for workers to expect a decent income in retirement.
But there’s something more than merely defensive about this. There’s a decent chance, it seems to me, that is, that victory for university workers in this dispute would provide a major boost for organized labour generally. As Neil Davidson has suggested while “lecturers are obviously an unlikely vanguard of the working class” a victory in this strike might well “encourage other people in different industries and different sectors to feel like they can take action as well.” There’s a good chance, that is, that if this strike is successful, then (maybe, just maybe…) it could mark a significant turning point in class struggle.
And here’s where this industrial dispute connects with recent shifts in the political balance of forces in Britain. It’s been strangely little remarked upon how the rising fortunes of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party have fed into this struggle. It’s by no means the case, of course, that university lecturers are unanimous in their support for Corbyn, but it’s hard to imagine that the UCU strike would have generated so much enthusiasm (among staff or among students) if it hadn’t been for the stunning showing for Labour in the 2017 General Election which electrified the political landscape in Britain. Almost certainly the excitement among young people generated by Corbyn’s leadership of Labour has fed into the enthusiastic response among students to the UCU strike. Organised labour, too, has received a boost from the “Corbyn effect” and it’s probably fair to say that a new mood of relative confidence generally prevails among trade unionists.
In these circumstances the potential for a general upsurge in leftist struggle that would combine advance at the level of parliamentary, electoral politics with mobilisation from below on the part of a resurgent organised labour movement looks promising. Certainly, a key task for socialists within and beyond the university sector must now be to turn this promise into a reality by working to strengthen and radicalise the university strikes, by seeking to generalise the confidence and enthusiasm on the university picket lines to other sections of organised labour and by helping to develop deeper links with the movement in support of the current Labour Party leadership. But in doing this, of course, we should remember the lessons of the last 48 hrs – that it will be necessary to exert constant pressure on our political representatives as much as our union ones, via sustained forms of mobilisation, in order to force them to stick closely to the (dynamic and evolving) terms of our demands.
First published by Jacobin, 13th March 2018
For the past few weeks staff in more than 60 British universities and colleges – lecturers, researchers, administrators, librarians and technicians – have been engaging in an escalating series of strikes.
This industrial action by the University and College Union (UCU) has been the largest ever strike in higher education in recent British history. Indeed there’s a great deal at stake. The outcome of the strike will shape the future of the university sector in the UK for years to come. It is also likely to have major ramifications for workers in other sectors too. As Michael Mair points out,
with the university pension scheme one of the smallest of the remaining large-scale guaranteed occupational pension schemes in Britain, workers in other areas have quickly realised this is a test case: if the moves against university staff are to succeed, it will be everyone else next, a precedent will have been established.
In this respect, as Steven Parfitt indicates, university workers “are actually on the front line of an ongoing battle which threatens to wipe out proper pensions for workers across a whole sector of society”. The UCU struggle is highly important, then, as a defensive action to halt the wider neoliberal erosion of the right for workers to expect a decent income in retirement.
For the entire duration of the action – up until Monday evening at least – it was very clear that the strikers possessed the initiative and had momentum on their side. The employers looked stunned and wrong-footed by the unprecedented degree of mobilization on university picket lines up and down the country. Morale among union members was high. We were winning.
And then, on Monday evening, the news broke that an agreement between union negotiators and university employers’ body, Universities UK (UUK), had been reached. As the details of this deal circulated rapidly among rank and file union members on Twitter, it became clear that in the view of many of those who had sacrificed so much and shown such determination on the picket lines over the previous ten days of industrial action this looked like a pretty terrible offer.
It certainly is. This is a shoddy and wholly unnecessary compromise on the part of the UCU leadership. But there’s still time to reject it. We can still win this fight – and reclaim our union.
The dispute was triggered by UUK’s drive to convert USS – the pension plan for university workers – from a “defined benefits” to a “defined contributions” scheme. In basic terms this means converting the scheme from one that guarantees a certain level of income in retirement to one in which the payout will depend on how the stock market performs, shifting the main “burden of risk” from employers to employees.
University staff could lose between 20- 40% of their pension under these proposals. A typical lecturer stands to lose an average of £10,000 a year, while some younger staff who have only recently started out on their careers could lose more than £200,000 over the course of their retirement.
But, as Parfitt has pointed out, the roots of the strike go much deeper. The pensions issue was merely the catalyst for an open outburst of long pent up anger about the direction in which UK education has been going for many years. This is a revolt against the relentless campaign of neoliberal marketization to which successive governments have subjected the university sector.
One of the most egregious feature of the neoliberal assault has been the imposition and then hiking of student tuition fees (these trebled across most of England in 2012 to £9000) which, in tandem with drastic cuts to direct government funding of the higher education sector, “incentivized” universities to compete for market share in terms of student numbers. It’s a process that was deliberately designed to erode the idea of higher education as a public good and to transform the relationship between students and their universities into an increasingly market transactional one between (heavily indebted) individualized consumers on the one hand and customer service providers on the other. With universities competing to produce the best “student experience” – a key measure of market performance that will feed into an absurd league table ranking system under the newly introduced “Teaching Excellence Framework” (TEF) – there has been a huge spending spree on estate development funded by large loans from the capital markets (eager to lend to projects regarded as ultimately underwritten by state guarantee) thus accelerating the financialization of higher education.
All of this has been accompanied by a steady worsening of pay and conditions for many university workers. Staff pay has fallen by 16% in real terms since 2009. Additionally, the university workforce has been relentlessly casualized with more and more teaching performed by staff (or postgraduate students) in temporary and/or hourly-paid employment. Indeed, 54% of all academic staff are on insecure contracts. Research time – the headspace to read, think and write – is a luxury increasingly confined to a smaller and smaller academic elite, supported by armies of precariously employed teaching staff moving from one short term, part time contract to another.
At the same time, in combination with the transformation of universities into institutions run on business principles, Vice Chancellors (the head managers of universities – and surely it can’t be long until they start to call themselves CEOs) have seen their salaries inflate to an average of over £270,000, with some, of course, “earning” far more than that. Recent revelations about the lavish expense account lifestyle – chauffeurs, five star hotels, business class flights – of many of these thrusting entrepreneurial talents have only served to throw into greater relief the massive gulf between them and the increasingly precarious workforces they manage.
So it’s only in this wider context that we can understand the current dispute. UUK’s attack on pensions was the final straw that broke the camel’s back for a workforce already seething with frustration about the creeping marketization of higher education and the steady deterioration in pay and conditions. It’s the way in which the pensions assault finally galvanized university workers into action in a process that drew much of its force from a much wider set of grievances that explains the scale of the strike so far and the resolve shown by striking staff.
Response and Mobilization
The response to the UCU ballot on industrial action was overwhelming. The 2016 Trade Union Act designed to weaken trade unions by making strike action in public services much harder stipulates, among other measures, a minimum turnout threshold of 50% and an additional threshold of 40% support for industrial action among all eligible members for action to be legal. These barriers were convincingly overcome in the industrial action ballot that closed in January. Of 68 institutions balloted, “61 voted overwhelmingly in favour of action, with 88% in favour of strikes and 93% in favour of action short of a strike, with an overall turnout of 58%”. Several of the remaining UCU branches (such as mine) that failed to meet the 50% threshold in the first ballot, later voted for strike action after being reballoted in February. If nothing else, UCU has demonstrated that recent Tory anti-trade union legislation can be beaten.
The resounding vote for serious and sustained industrial action generated further resolve among university staff with a reported 5000 new members joining the union in the run up to the strike. Moreover the momentum was carried over into the strike itself – with branches up and down the country reporting rock-solid action on the part of members and large numbers turning out for picket lines (in defiance, it should be noted of the government’s “Code of Practice on Picketing” – part of the panoply of anti-trade union legislation – which indicates that no more than 6 people should picket an entrance or exit to a workplace). By many accounts, furthermore, the number of those who took to picket lines increased day by day as the strikes continued – braving blizzards and sub-zero temperatures in some cases.
One of the most significant aspects of the strike as it has unfolded, however, has been the magnificent support that UCU members have received from students. As Parfitt rightly noted in February, students’ attitude toward the dispute – the question of whether or not they generally supported the strike – was always going to be a pivotal factor in whether it succeeds or fails. So far, students have been, in the main, solidly behind their lecturers. Indeed, many have taken the initiative in organizing solidarity actions – as they have at my institution, for example, in putting together an imaginative daily program of “teach in” sessions, sending student reps to attend strike committee meetings and drumming up daily student attendance on the picket line. Similar acts of solidarity have taken place at universities up and down the country.
The strike action has quite clearly had a radicalizing effect on many in the union rank and file. It’s an old socialist insight, of course, that the experience of collective action can transform consciousness and open up new horizons of social and political possibility. As Michael Mair puts it, strikes “establish new lines of solidarity, they are instructive and they are educative” and, further, we “come to know the worlds we live and work in differently as a result of participating in them.” This strike is certainly no different in this respect. One dimension here is the way in which the action has, consciously, for many strikers become about much more than pensions in themselves – it’s not been uncommon to hear discussion on picket lines about broadening our strike demands to encompass calls for the dismantling of TEF for example or for the abolition of student tuition fees.
Another dimension of this is the way in which we can glimpse via the relations of solidarity and forms of collective cooperation on the picket line and in the “teach in” and “teach out” sessions a different, more democratic and egalitarian vision of the university and of education more broadly – a vision beyond the current limits established by neoliberal structures and the individualized, marketized and commodified social relations they impose.
We Were Winning
From day one of the industrial action it was very obviously the strikers who were winning this battle. On the other side of the dispute, the employers looked rattled and very much on the back foot. They clearly thought they could divide and conquer by playing students against staff, but instead the scale and solidity of the strike and the support it has won from students opened up serious divisions among the employers.
One key manifestation of this is the way in which university bosses increasingly broke ranks with UUK – the BBC reports that since the strike began about 30 universities have called for a “rethink” on the original pension proposals. Indeed the hardliners looked more and more isolated and beleaguered over the past few days as even key drivers of the UUK pension reform proposals began to reverse their position in the face of mass industrial action and student protest.
Another measure of who has been winning in this struggle is that UUK were forced to concede to negotiations with UCU under the auspices of the industrial conciliation service, ACAS. For their part, the national UCU negotiators looked to be demonstrating an admirably wily approach in relation to their adversaries – refusing to call a temporary halt to the strikes while the ACAS negotiations are ongoing, for example, and in so doing avoiding the trap that BMA union officials were lured into during the junior doctors’ strike in 2016. The recently announced threat of further strike action after Easter looked like another shrewd tactic on the part of UCU negotiators designed to ramp up the pressure on UUK while they were on the back foot.
But then, incredibly, the news came through that the union leadership – from a position of strength, backed by a fired up and determined rank and file, supported by student militancy – had somehow managed to negotiate a terrible deal that completely threw away this hard fought and won advantage.
The Proposed Agreement
The basic terms of the proposed deal between UUK and UCU are that both parties agree to a “transitional arrangement” in which a modified “defined benefits” scheme remains in place for a three year period, during which time both employers and employees will be required to pay higher contributions and in which “alternative scheme options” are considered for implementation after the transitional period is over. So, in other words, union members are being asked to pay more toward their pensions in a period of temporary reprieve, after which they might still have the original UUK reforms foisted on them anyway.
The agreement also indicates that while the union accepts loss of pay for strike days for its members, it will undertake “to encourage its members to prioritise the rescheduling of teaching in order to minimise the disruption to students”. Essentially, then, union members are being asked to perform unpaid labour – a kind of retrospective scabbing on themselves.
The strike is to be called off from the 14th March.
As the news of the proposed deal sank in, the shock and anger among members became palpable. Within a few hours a hastily written open letter rejecting the deal had gathered many thousands of signatures.
Indeed it was immediately obvious to many that the leadership had been – to say the least – strategically inept in signing up to this proposed deal. After all, the strike had the employers divided, demoralized and on the defensive. We had them on the ropes – we could and should have pushed on to press home our advantage and force a decisive victory. Instead this deal lets them almost completely off the hook and hands them a three year breather during which time of course, they will regroup, wait for the energy, determination and solidarity demonstrated by union members during this dispute to dissipate and then, almost certainly, seek to force through their original reform proposals at a more opportune moment.
We can still win
There’s still a chance that this disastrous deal can be scuppered. The union’s Higher Education Committee (HEC) meet on Tuesday to vote on the proposals and will no doubt take a steer in their deliberations from a consultation meeting with branch reps which is also convening that day. Militant pressure on the HEC via our branch reps from the thousands of UCU members enthused and radicalised by the extraordinary mobilizations of the past few weeks can still head off the leadership’s imminent capitulation.
The strikes have unleashed a radical energy, optimism and fighting spirit among university workers and their student comrades. Calling this strike off now, under these conditions, will undo and destroy all that. But for now all that energy and combativity is still pulsing through us. We can still reject this deal. We can still tell our union’s leadership that we will not accept this climbdown. We can still show our employers that we will not roll over – that we’ve found our collective voice and our resolve to fight back against the neoliberalization of the university.
So much depends on this.
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.
There’s a whole series of interesting articles and interviews on the EU referendum on Jacobin – includes contributions from Richard Seymour, Neil Davidson and David Renton. The series includes my article ‘There is No Left Exit’
Worth a look.