Confronting Brexit

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‘The situation is hopeless, we must take the next step’

Pablo Casals

The current historical period is one of seemingly ceaseless flux. Political and economic shocks and crises follow in apparently endless succession. Complex political and historical phenomena arise with such rapidity that we’re reduced to cataloguing them in one-word formulae before moving on to the next challenge: Syria, Brexit, Trump, Le Pen.

The sense of fear, confusion and anger that such an environment creates leaves people scrambling for answers – for a way of making sense of the world around them. In the UK, the Brexit referendum and subsequent debates have provided a vivid example of the confusion and despair that is so common today, particularly on the left.

The Brexit debate fractured UK society, and the left, in a profound way. It hasn’t quite produced a second civil war, but the strength of opinion on either side of the Leave/Remain debate has led to a hardening of political positions, if not a clarification of ideas. In this essay, we aim to do two things: first, to provide an account of the context that gave rise to Brexit, a way of understanding Brexit, as it were; and second, to make some suggestions as to how the left should begin to position itself to go on the offensive in a post-Brexit environment.

Brexit and the Crisis of Representation

During the Brexit debate, sharp divisions opened up on the left. On the one hand, there were those who saw Brexit as an irredeemably racist initiative and believed that, in this context, the left should argue for a position of ‘remain and reform’. Others argued that while racism was indeed central to both the mainstream Leave and Remain campaigns, there were myriad good reasons why the left should argue for a rupture with the EU and its institutions, and that if it took the lead on this, it could provide the basis for building an alternative politics.

The surprise vote by a small majority of people in the UK to leave the EU reinforced variations on this narrative. For some Brexit was a racist vote, indicative of a rising tide of reaction and xenophobia across the west. In contrast others argued, simplistically, that it was a working-class rebellion, and a victory for working-class people. Neither of these positions is accurate or sufficient.

To understand Brexit (and related phenomena the world over) we must situate the vote in the context of the long-term enfeeblement of representative democracy and the abandonment of working-class communities by social democratic parties. This process is documented in Peter Mair’s book Ruling the Void, in which he details a 40-year process of ordinary people withdrawing from politics, while political elites simultaneously withdraw from the people.

In the UK, the election of Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party represents an important turning point in this regard. In 1995 Blair declared that Labour was ‘the party of modern business’ in Britain. New Labour’s electoral strategists could barely conceal their disinterest in traditionally Labour-voting, mostly working-class electorates concentrated in the party’s safe seats. Under the guidance of Philip Gould and Peter Mandelson, Labour instead concentrated its appeal to the priorities of the ‘swing voter’ in Middle England marginals – dubbed variously ‘Mondeo man’ and ‘Worcester woman’. This, for them, was the demographic that really mattered, and via techniques borrowed directly from market research (focus groups, polling, branding) the party turned itself into the commodity that it believed these consumers wanted. What did it matter what the ‘core vote’ did? They’d likely vote Labour anyway, since the Tories were even worse. They had ‘nowhere else to go’. If they stayed at home, so what? The seats were already in the bag.

In fact, the strategy went beyond neglecting the ‘core vote’. By actively attacking elements of traditional Labour commitments – the collective influence of the trade unions; Clause IV’s commitment to extending public ownership – New Labour revelled in confronting its traditional supporters to overhaul its brand and woo the ‘aspirational’ middle classes. Heartland seats were useful in one respect, though. By overriding or shackling the democratic processes of constituency branches, the party machine could ‘parachute’ career politicians into seats where they didn’t have to worry about getting re-elected.

Frequently the background, experience and mentality of the new MP was almost comically out of step with those they claimed to represent. Former Tory MP Shaun Woodward (who employed his own butler) in St Helens. Mandelson himself in Hartlepool. The Miliband brothers in South Shields and Doncaster respectively. The privately-educated son-of-a-peer, Tristram Hunt, in Stoke. What did these people know about the lives of their constituents? What did they care of their struggles, their experiences, their attitudes, their priorities? Far from giving a voice to working people, the system was now producing a political elite whose existence was entirely parasitical. A similar charge could be laid at the door of a compliant generation of full-time trade union officials prepared to collaborate with New Labour out of a sense of cynical pragmatism.

Far from articulating the anger of communities ripped apart by Thatcher’s de-industrialisation of Britain, high unemployment, rising drug addiction, and the transformation of the labour market into a low-skilled, low-paid and often casualised festival of exploitation, New Labour was welcoming the ‘benefits of globalisation’, further deregulating the financial sector, levering private capital further into the public sector via PFI/PPP, and welcoming Thatcher’s anti-trade union laws. Those who opposed this so-called ‘modernisation’ were condemned as dinosaurs, incapable of grasping new opportunities.

At best New Labour used mildly redistributive tax measures to ameliorate the worst aspects of poverty, and directed some public investment towards early years care in the form of Sure Start centres. But there were precious few ‘opportunities’ in whole stretches of the country formerly reliant on stable jobs in industries like shipbuilding, coal mining, car manufacturing and steel production. The loss of such industries often set communities on a path toward dereliction, so that New Labour, effectively, followed through with the ‘managed decline’ Thatcher intended for Merseyside, on a much wider scale.

The expansion of the financial services sector predominantly benefited London and the south east. Increased public sector employment and investment in ‘urban regeneration’ did help to cushion the blow in big metropolitan areas outside London, but could hardly replace major industries. When the Tory think-tank Policy Exchange recommended in 2008 that areas of northern England such as Liverpool, Sunderland and Bradford are ‘beyond revival’, advising that ‘residents should move south’, it was condemned for merely following the logic of the previous three decades of deliberate neoliberal under-development.

In communities marginalised, neglected and taken for granted (by the Tories and New Labour) the onset of the financial crisis of 2008 and the era of austerity felt more like an intensification of what preceded it, rather than a wholly new front in the class war. When the media speaks of growth in ‘the economy’ or a rise in the FTSE 100 it sounds like an empty abstraction, so tenuous is the link between what is good for corporate profitability and the living standards of ordinary people. The perception that people born into the world’s fifth richest country are not benefiting from that economic development gives further credence to the view that the political system is working in the interests of people other than ourselves.

Racism and the Opportunist Right

The general withdrawal of political elites from the people they presume to govern generates a set of tensions. As Peter Mair put it:

In terms of politics on the ground, the widening gap between rulers and ruled has facilitated the often strident populist challenge that is now a feature of many advanced European democracies … Each of these particular versions of the challenge to the political mainstream has its own nationally specific set of ideas, policies and interests, often revolving around shared expressions of xenophobia, racism and cultural defence, and usually emerging on the right wing of the political spectrum … But each is also marked by a common and often very explicit hostility to what is seen in the different countries as the national political class.

In a climate where communities feel, with justification, that they have been cast off by their national political elites, and the erstwhile champions of their interests have abandoned any thoughts of a genuine alternative, space opens for reactionary alternatives. UKIP, in the UK, and others touting xenophobic delusions around the world, are more than happy to step into this space.

People in areas described as having been ‘left behind’ felt like their communities had been subject to a raft of damaging changes without their consent being either asked or given. Anger and alienation at the political and business elites responsible for such a situation is an understandable response. Into this volatile mix has also been thrust the question of immigration, not least since the free movement of people across the EU has been promoted and utilised by employers seeking to drive down their labour costs. This has also been fertile ground for the demonisation of minority communities, as racists promote myths about unfair distribution of resources, incite anxieties around cultural difference and find convenient scapegoats.

Despite warning signs such as the election of Nick Griffin of the BNP to the European Parliament, or later the growth in support for UKIP in Labour areas, a complacent Labour establishment largely failed to take heed of mounting anger and alienation. After all, when it comes to a general election, surely the threat of a Tory government would concentrate minds? This argument was used by Scottish Labour MPs, among others, to reassure themselves that the furious backlash against them for partnering with the Tories in the Better Together campaign against Scottish independence would subside.

What this overlooked was that voting in the referendum offered an opportunity to withhold assent from a political establishment seeking re-confirmation of its popular legitimacy. The Scottish Yes campaign was not simply about trusting in Scottish Nationalist politicians rather than Labour ones, but about an opportunity to radically democratise the political system, for a reassertion of popular sovereignty and the repudiation of a remote elite in Westminster. In the light of this electric charge of politicised, class-conscious reawakening, Labour’s etiolated structures had nothing with which to respond. They were part of the problem, not part of the solution. That the Scottish National Party went on to wipe out all but one Labour MP at the 2015 election was less a vindication of their own political credibility and more a resounding rejection of a Labour Party so invested in resisting fundamental change.

Considering this experience, what is most shocking is how little prepared Labour politicians were regarding the likely extent of working class support for Brexit in the EU referendum. David Cameron and the Tories had taken as read the ability of the Labour and TUC establishments to ‘turn out’ enough of the vote in ‘their’ areas to contribute to a decisive majority to Remain. Surely areas with Labour MPs would listen to their representatives’ concerns over damage to the economy and the potential loss of jobs and rights? The threat of an immediate ‘austerity budget’ in the event of a Brexit vote would surely whip them into line? In most big cities – London in particular – Labour’s Remain message won the support of ‘progressive’ liberal-minded professional sections of the electorate, students and workers from ethnically-diverse backgrounds.

But what of the former industrial heartlands? Here the catastrophic warnings of economic apocalypse held little real fear, since the damage had already been done – and done by the same neoliberal forces that already run our political institutions, the EU included. Jeremy Corbyn wisely avoided sharing platforms directly with the Tory architects of austerity, but was nevertheless aligned on the same side of the argument, together with the CBI, the Institute of Directors and the IMF. The political and business elite was coalescing around defence of the status quo, while the Labour movement had little to offer beyond ‘be thankful for what you’ve already got’. The referendum turnout exceeded that in general elections in areas such as Salford or Sunderland, when suddenly every vote counted and there was a chance to poke virtually the entire political class in the eye.

The question of immigration was indeed an important locus around which the pro-Brexit message was articulated. This could be inflected with openly or implicitly racist sentiment. But to dismiss Brexit voters en masse as racist and ignorant (or at best credulous dupes, willing to believe that £350 million per week would go into the NHS if we pulled out) is fundamentally misguided. To do so repeats the gesture of patronising disdain against which the Brexit vote was directed in the first place. This is certainly not to say that concerns about immigration should be affirmed or uncritically accepted, but they can be acknowledged and understood in the light of the forces to which these communities have been subjected over recent decades.

The erosion of trade union strength has meant not only the widespread disappearance of national collective bargaining agreements, but also the emergence of whole sectors of employment where union organisation is practically unknown. The inability to protect pay and conditions by ensuring that employers are unable to bring in other groups of workers on substantially reduced terms means that some sectors of employment have become essentially closed to a UK workforce in favour of exploited agency workers, often migrants brought in, for example, under the much-criticised EU Posted Workers Directive. From this perspective, the desire to reassert some measure of ‘control’ over the labour market is entirely understandable, even if the tightening of border controls would not represent the ‘solution’ its advocates assume.

Similarly, people are entirely justified in thinking that social and economic changes to which no one has been asked to consent have been allowed to rip through the hearts of their communities. They are right to think that other groups in society have disproportionately benefited from this at the expense of their class and community. They are also accurate in thinking that the prevailing liberal defence of globalised modernity betrays an attitude of disinterest at best, or more likely disdain, for how this impacts on working-class people. Politicians defending the EU were forced to admit that under the framework they are defending they either can’t, or won’t, intervene to subject the power of capital to democratic control. It is because the left has very largely failed to engage with these concerns in a meaningful way, that the right (and far right) has managed to make immigration (and ethnic/cultural/religious difference) such a poisonous issue, and stepped in to fill the vacuum.

From Grief to Action

The shock of the Brexit vote caught the entire UK, and European, political establishment off guard. But while the right has quickly adjusted and moved to exploit the situation, the left remains fragmented and divided in the face of historical transformations. Those on the left who argued that the UK should remain in the EU continue to oscillate wildly between the first two stages of grief: raging against the stupidity of the morons who voted for leave, or denying the legitimacy of the vote and looking for ways to overturn it. It is telling that in this period of upheaval Tony Blair has, like the morbid symptoms Gramsci warned of, re-emerged onto the political scene to champion the overturning of the Brexit result, and to try to undermine Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Above all, the Brexit vote was a rebuke to the political class that Blair so vividly represents; it was an angry denial of legitimacy to the whole system and the media discourse around it. Political leaders, business and bankers, union officials, media commentators, academic experts and celebrities were united in echoing Thatcher’s mantra that There Is No Alternative. But all such voices were equally tainted, merely justifying the system that gave them a privileged position from which to speak. Much the same process is happening across Europe. For the left to mount a counter-offensive by trying to overturn the referendum result and begin trying to rescue Britain’s membership of a failing European Union would serve simply to reinforce the alienation and anger felt by communities that have been neglected or taken for granted for decades.

Such a strategy would also underline how divorced the left, whether in Labour or elsewhere, is from the working-class communities they purport to speak for. In doing this, they would abandon such communities to the easy answers of the snake oil salesmen in UKIP and elsewhere, and hasten the rise of the very reactionary right that many people, post-Brexit and Trump, fear. In the wake of Brexit the spectre of 1930s Germany has been invoked far too easily, but if we are going to talk about the rise of fascism in an earlier period, then the key lesson we should draw is that the right triumphed, in large part, because of the timidity and lack of vision on the left.

As Florian Wilde has written:

We should take the experience of the SPD before 1933 as a warning: a workers’ party that allows itself to become an administrator of the capitalist system by joining or supporting bourgeois governments – and thereby providing left-wing cover to austerity – runs the danger of becoming identified with the system itself. It risks discrediting any claim to be an alternative to the status quo. In times of economic crisis like 1929 in Germany or today … millions begin to turn their backs on a status quo that no longer offers them a future. It is precisely then that a credible socialist alternative is needed to channel the anger of the masses in an emancipatory direction. The building of such an alternative is a task the importance of which must not be understated, particularly in the midst of the deepest economic crisis since 1929.

For too long, since at least the emergence of New Labour, the parliamentary left in the UK has been seen by many as just another element of the status quo.

But this is not just a question of the Labour Party itself, but of the wider left, which fundamentally not only lacks any substantial connection to the class in whose name it purports to speak, but has a positive aversion to it, preferring the sanitised ‘progressive’ values of its own subculture and romanticised images of bygone years to the lived reality in Britain today. For a number on Labour’s left who do sense how far the party has drifted from large sections of its own electoral base, the answer lies in an embrace of patriotism and national identity combined with a corporatist and socially conservative vision of the ‘common good’. However, this would appear more an attempt to triangulate in response to UKIP’s success and still suggests a manipulative and instrumental approach where a professional political elite seeks to pitch itself more appealingly to the voter-as-consumer. Given that the political centre of gravity has shifted to the right as a response to the vacuum created by New Labour’s earlier attempted triangulation this seems to represent a strategy for further political retreats.

The Socialist Offensive

Margaret Thatcher is reported to have said that her greatest political achievement was Tony Blair and New Labour. The New Labour project, like social democratic parties across the developed world, ‘won’ on the electoral plain by abandoning any vision of an alternative to finance-led, neoliberal capitalism, which tossed millions on the scrapheap while hollowing out democracy.

In the wake of the great financial crisis of 2008, the bankruptcy of social democracy in this mould has meant that the right, in general, has triumphed, while the left is almost everywhere floundering. This conjuncture attests to the accuracy of Samir Amin’s observation that in the absence of positive utopias, people will retreat into reactionary ones. Brexit was by no means a simple working-class rebellion against the status quo, at least not in any progressive sense. But it was a clear statement that working class people want an alternative to the status quo.

The historical obligation of the left is to articulate this alternative. In the wake of Brexit this cannot be achieved by aligning with Tony Blair, or the charlatan Lib Dems. The left, in the Labour Party and elsewhere, must accept Brexit as a political fact and begin a socialist offensive to remake the UK – to build, as Amin puts it, the world we wish to see.

To do this it will be necessary to move forward, to pick up the fractured pieces of the left and build around shared beliefs and goals. In this regard three key lessons need to be drawn from the Brexit debate, which in turn provide three key principles that should shape the struggles of the left going forward.

The first is that the left in the UK, whether in the Labour Party, trade unions, or various groupings on the revolutionary left, is divorced, in key ways, from the working-class communities that it purports to speak for. A central tenet of socialist politics, articulated explicitly by Marx, has been that the emancipation of working-class people was, in the first instance, the job of the working class. In various ways, the left has lost faith with this basic principle, and by retreating into professionalised politics (whether in political parties/groupings, NGOs, trade unions, media punditry or academia) has lost any meaningful, organic connection with the daily struggles of working people.

In the era opening before us, it is crucial then that those on the left work assiduously to ensure that their work, ideas and arguments are immersed in the concrete struggles of working people. This will take the form of specific workplace struggles, campaigns for migrant rights, community struggles to defend the NHS, and more. Whatever form the struggle takes, socialists must ensure that their frame of reference is the experience of communities at the coal face, and not the self-referential and self-reinforcing bubble of mainstream politics and parliamentarianism.

A second key principle, which draws on what was best in those who argued for Remain, is that a large number of people are committed to a form of internationalism. The mistake is to identify these positive ideals with the EU, which, as E P Thompson long ago noted, has only ever been a truncated form of internationalism. The positive principles implicit in the best elements of the Remain campaign will be central to socialist politics. We must make an uncompromising defence of workers’ rights – including those of migrant workers – together with an unrepentant anti-racism and a genuine internationalism.

The final key lesson and principle that emerges from the Brexit debate is the centrality of the struggle for democracy. It is easy for the liberal commentariat to blithely dismiss the slogan of ‘taking back control’ as articulated by Eton-educated career politicians. But the purchase of this slogan shows vast sections of society want more of a say in the decisions that shape and impact on their lives. People, with varying degrees of consciousness, are rejecting the tyranny of impersonal market forces controlling their lives, and demanding a say in what the future looks like. This desire to become active protagonists in shaping the world around them is something socialists must embrace. This is even more reason why the siren call of overturning the referendum result should be resisted.

The left needs to push for an expansion and proliferation of democracy and participation in every aspect of our shared lives: in local communities, political parties, trade unions and over matters of national policy. In certain respects, the Corbyn phenomenon has seen a surge of such democratic, mass involvement within the Labour Party. This, of course, faces a counter-offensive from the representatives of the extreme centre in the Labour Party, and in the mainstream media, including erstwhile supporters. Those focused solely, or primarily, on the politics of parliamentarianism are happy to jettison the green shoots of change that Corbyn represents in favour of a Blair-lite, ‘electable’ candidate. Such a move would be a travesty.

Instead of resignedly accepting the logic of the establishment, socialists must make every aspect of people’s lives a realm of politics, struggle and change and must argue for and work towards a fundamental transformation of the post-Brexit landscape. The Chilean socialist Marta Harnecker has articulated the real challenge for socialists in the 21st century – for her:

Politics is the art of making the impossible possible, not from some voluntarist urge to change things but because our efforts should be realistically focused on changing the current balance of power so that what appears to be impossible today becomes possible tomorrow.

For the left in the UK, resignation and melancholy are luxuries we cannot afford. Having plunged us into a major crisis by airing their dirty laundry in public, the right has rapidly regrouped and is on the offensive. The sort of Brexit that many fear is only inevitable if we resign ourselves to it. If, instead, we go on the offensive, then we can take this moment to remake the UK. The future is open, how it turns out will depend on the steps we take, and the resolve we show: there are no guarantees, but if we unite and fight, we can win.

Co-authored with Michael Calderbank and originally published in Red Pepper.

Political Economy for Radical Lawyers

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The latest issue of the London Review of International Law features an interesting review essay by Robert Howse, in which he makes the case for progressive international lawyers attending to the discipline of economics and the insights that can be gained from it, in particular from what he sees as more progressive economists. Howse’s essay focuses on three prominent neo-Keynesians (Thomas Piketty, Dani Rodrik and Joseph Stiglitz) who have been critical of the worst excesses of neoliberal globalisation. For Howse it is crucially important for progressive international lawyers to engage with the work of economists such as these, to counter the supposedly cast-iron arguments against regulation, re-distribution and so on.

Towards the end of the the essay Howse makes an interesting point, when he argues that for

progressive international economic law scholars, it could … seem tempting simply to reject or debunk economic orthodoxy as the thinly disguised ideology behind the global capitalist class. This might liberate us to make whatever arguments we like about the demands of justice, and to judge and confront the law and institutions on that basis. My own approach has been to learn whatever I can from economics (while at the same time maintaining a certain critical distance from the kinds of economics that morphs into orthodox policy prescriptions). Partly, this is from a sense of humility. While straightforward rejectionism might seem easy, understanding the world seems crucial for putting law and justice into practice and I admit I don’t have the intellectual tools to provide a comprehensive alternative to the methods and constructs of contemporary academic economics (which, of course, encompass game theory and cognitive psychology) in understanding the phenomena in question. And if there is some structural bias or fundamental orientation in contemporary economics that is intrinsically skewed towards neoliberalism or against a progressive agenda, I haven’t found it. The work of the three economists reviewed here suggests that, in fact, it may not exist.

This is a telling quote. Along with many other scholars, Howse is positing here an apparently hard-nosed realism. It’s easy, the argument goes, to dismiss and reject established ideas and practices, but if we want to change things in some meaningful way, we have to learn to understand and harness these established tools to serve our ends.

There are two key points to be made in response to this rendering: (i) there is nothing realistic or pragmatic about this argument and (ii) if the concern for lawyers, or anyone else, is with fundamentally altering the unjust structures of the world around us, then we need to go beyond mainstream economics, into the realm of political economy. This is an important distinction, for economics (in both it’s mainstream and slightly heterodox variations) takes capitalism and the capitalist system as its perennial and unalterable premise. In contrast political economy (done right) brings to the fore the transitory nature of the extant social and economic order, the power relations which constitute and sustain it, and, crucially, the possibilities for change inherent within it.

We can, and indeed should, start any inquiry in this field with Karl Marx. In his famous Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx observed that from his studies he was

led … to the conclusion that legal relations as well as forms of state could neither be understood by themselves, nor explained by the so-called general progress of the human mind, but that they are rooted in the material conditions of life, which are summed up by Hegel after the fashion of the English and French of the eighteenth century under the name “civil society”; that the anatomy of that civil society is to be sought in political economy.

Thus, for Marx and later political economists, all of the relations of society (including legal) can not be comprehended on their own, but only in relation to one another and in this complex interrelation, the economic plays a pre-eminent role.

It is important to stress again that the political economy of Marx and others, is quite distinct from the economics of Stiglitz et al. and its scientific pretensions. The fundamental problem with this form of economics is, as Michael Perelman notes, that by taking the extant social and economic order as given, it devolves, ultimately, into a complex set of justifications and rationalisations of the status quo, and thereby obscures more than it reveals about the real economy.

If, as Howse argues, ‘understanding the world is crucial’ then mainstream economics only provides us with a distorted and partial understanding. The French radical Saint-Just once observed that those who make revolutions half way were digging their own graves. Less dramatically, we can say that those who follow their critical analysis only part way are digging the graves of whatever progressive projects they support. Hence Piketty follows his method of mainstream economics to the precipice (the realisation that capitalism necessarily and structurally produces inequality) but then shies away into naive and utopian policy proposals.

The ‘realism’ of mainstream economic thinking and scholarship does not open the way for practical, progressive solutions to the problems around us, but more times than not leads to intellectual dead ends and political quietism. In contrast, political economy can provide the basis for understanding and challenging the existing order in ways which are tangibly progressive and radical.

As such, anyone interested in understanding the nature of the contemporary capitalist order, and the possibilities for changing it, would do well to look up some of the following texts:

This list is, of course, partial and non-exhaustive. But for anyone concerned with radical change (in the sense of getting to the root of the problem), these studies and the broader discipline of political economy provide a far more valuable resource than the thin gruel of re-heated Keynesianism.

 

Brexit, Corbyn and Beyond

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Great historical events generally … concern whole social systems. The result is that to the typical modern mind they assume a catastrophic character, with all that this implies in the way of emotional shock and intellectual confusion. To the Marxist, on the other hand, the specific historical (i.e. transitory) character of capitalism is a major premise. It is by virtue of this fact that the Marxist is able, so to speak, to stand outside the system and criticize it as a whole.[1]

 

I. Introduction

Even though it is often derided and dismissed, the exuberant rhetoric of capitalist triumph and neoliberal ascendancy characteristic of the 1980s has seeped into the core of political theorising, and activism, particularly on the left. While mainstream thought and politics has always taken capitalism, as such, as its perennial premise; the seemingly relentless march of globalisation (with its privatisation, deregulation, and commodification of the entire life course) led many, whether consciously or not, to internalise Thatcher’s mantra that There Is No Alternative (TINA), or Fukuyama’s declaration that while there had been history, with the collapse of the Soviet Union it, now, had ended. Even the most significant crisis of world capitalism, albeit centred on North Atlantic capital, since the early Twentieth century led, for the most part, to a consolidation of neoliberalism and the class interests it supported, rather than any serious challenge to it.

Events of the last two years, however, have thrown the certainty of the status quo into the air, and ruffled, but by no means displaced, the complacency of the mainstream commentariat. The Brexit vote in the UK, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the rise of the genuine far right across the West, as well as other authoritarian formations around the world, have ushered in a period of panic, and tin pot prognoses: populism, Fascism, the “white working class” and sundry other terms have been wheeled out to try make sense of the seemingly incomprehensible. Briefly, here, I want to argue that the Marxist tradition (broad and wide as it is) provides us with the analytical tools to allow us both to understand the current conjuncture, and point the way to how we should orientate ourselves, strategically, to the challenges that confront us today. Using the Brexit vote in the UK as an entry point, it will be argued that our era of crises and dislocation calls upon us to fundamentally challenge the extant social order, and to develop ideas, organisations, and movements for transcending the archaic and barbaric social system which confounds us today.

 

II. A Way of Seeing

To understand Brexit, truly understand it, and related phenomena, we must move beyond appearances, and excavate essential causes. As Georg Lukács argued, it ‘may be the sacred duty of every genuine Marxist to face the facts squarely and without illusions, but for every genuine Marxist there is always a reality more real and therefore more important than isolated facts and tendencies – namely, the reality of the total process, the totality of social development’.[2] There are four key elements to Marxist analysis which help us grasp, not merely in retrospect, the the nature of the contemporary era and the challenges it poses: (i) the nature of capitalism as an historically contingent and crisis ridden system; (ii) the centrality of class antagonism to the production and reproduction of this system; (iii) a dialectical understanding of social processes, which has many elements to it but, following Lukács, has as its major premise the insight that ‘contradictions … are the basis and kernel of all events’;[3] (iv) the agency of working class people in transforming the world around them.

The absence of an orientation that foregrounds these insights leads to confusion, eclecticism and unhelpful analysis. Rather than understanding specific events and processes in their broader, historical, political and social context, specific surface factors are seized upon and made the basis for all encompassing explanations that do not actually explain much at all. The failure to understand capitalism as transitory and means that any purported “fixes” remain within the confines of the system that generates the problems in the first place; a failure to understand the centrality of the current crisis of capitalism, and the class dynamics and antagonisms which this has produced, means roots causes are never identified, much less addressed; and all of the foregoing means that working people, in all their richness and diversity, are never imagined to be the agents that can actively transform the failing order around us.

To counteract such tendencies, any analysis of the present moment has to be one that is sensitive to geographical and temporal specificities, but also one that foregrounds the issue of class and class analysis, that is ready and willing to challenge the entire edifice of the existing capitalist order, and that draws on the dialectical method inherited from Marx and others. As C.L.R. James has written

Today when all thinkers are groping like drunken men, with all their points of support and reference gone we have here a weapon [dialectical materialism] whose power and value was never so great as in the prevailing confusion.[4]

Rejecting the simplistic, superficial logic of cause and effect, and instead exploring the deep, contradictory relationships and potentials in any given context allows us to better grasp the situation before us, and to orientate ourselves in terms of concrete political responses and proposals. Of course, this is not some reified celebration of dialectical analysis, any such analysis must also be rooted in concrete struggles, and informed by history, context and nuance, to be really useful.

 

III. Brexit and Its Causes

It is undoubtedly true that the Brexit referendum was called by an arrogant Tory Party with a view to both appeasing and challenging the more right wing, Eurosceptic elements of the Party and its support base. It is also true that, as a consequence, much of the Brexit debate dealt with issues of immigration, and carried a specific racist character; this is true both of the dominant Leave campaign, and the dominant Remain campaign (it’s important to say this because it is often overlooked that the basis of the dominant Remain campaign was that the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, had gained from the EU specifically racist and xenophobic concessions around reducing immigration, rights of EU citizens in the UK etc.). One consequence of this framing is that many people on the left in the UK, including the Labour Party, argued against the Leave position, in large part, because it was seen as being solely a xenophobic vote, and contrary to commitments to internationalism and anti-racism.

Likewise, then, when a small majority (52%) of those that voted in the referendum chose to leave, this was seen as, primarily, a reactionary, racist vote by a disenfranchised, revanchist “white working class”. And certainly, in the period around the Brexit campaign and vote there was a spike in reported racist crimes and incidents (though the data indicates that such incidents have now returned to “normal” levels). The problem with this almost exclusive focus on the question of race/immigration, is that it failed to acknowledge the very real and legitimate criticisms of the EU as a set of institutions that lock in neoliberal economic and political logic and how this relates to a thirty-year process of deindustrialisation, disempowerment, and marginalisation rights across around Europe.[5]

It also failed to address the ways in which, in a period of severe crisis when working class people,[6] were looking for and open to some sort of an alternative, the EU (through its treatment of Ireland, Greece and other countries) constitutes a very real barrier to meaningful change. Indeed, it is noteworthy, in light of the recent election results in the UK (June 2017), that prior to Brexit a little reported survey revealed that a small majority of the British public said they preferred socialism to capitalism.[7] In spite of this, the die had been cast: the Brexit result was seen as a triumph of reaction, which would lead to the emergence of a veritable neoliberal caliphate ruled over by an ascendant Tory party with no hope in sight. Perhaps such pessimism is warranted, indeed the working class in the UK—and throughout the world—has witnessed far too many defeats over the last forty years. As the great historian of the English working class, E.P. Thompson, has noted, at times of ‘defeat and mass apathy’ it is common for a fatalistic quietism to become ascendant.[8] With that said, there were some who argued, prior to the referendum, that even though the debate had been launched by reactionaries on a xenophobic and racist premise, the nature of the crisis of capitalism and the legitimate critiques of the EU, meant that there was scope to use the debate to present working people with a radical alternative to the existing order, and begin working towards a genuinely transformative politics.[9] At the time such arguments were ignored, at best, or dismissed as Utopian.

 

IV. The Road Before Us

Less than a year after the Brexit referendum Jeremy Corbyn, the most derided and actively undermined leader of the UK Labour Party in living memory, lead his party into a General Election called by the buoyant and confident Prime Minister, Theresa May. In the Brexit debate Corbyn had, for some people, failed to make a sufficiently strong argument for Remain, and following the vote it was felt by many liberals and soft-left socialists that his acceptance of the referendum outcome was a failure and concession to reactionary nationalism. It was expected by all and sundry that the Labour Party would be wiped out by the Tories in this “Brexit Election”. Instead, under Corbyn’s leadership the Labour Party presented the people of the UK with a set of policies which, in the context of the last thirty years of capitalist development in Western Europe, were essentially radical, social democratic proposals around wages, workers’ rights, housing, health care, education and public transport. Against all expectations Labour increased their vote substantially, the single biggest increase in the Party’s vote since 1945, and dramatically undermined the authority and Parliamentary majority of the Conservative Party (who, at the time of writing, look to be reliant on a small, religious, reactionary party from Northern Ireland to keep them in government).

As with the Brexit result, the success of the Labour Party in the elections has caught both the mainstream commentariat (unsurprisingly) and many who place themselves on the political left by surprise. The centre is frantically scrambling around for soft explanations of the phenomenon; one line of thought wants it to be a “rise of the Remainers” moment, even though Corbyn has consistently said he will see through Britain’s exit from the EU, if elected, and the fact that only 8% of Labour voters said Brexit was a key issue for them; failing this, it was the unprecedented mobilisation of young voters that swung it, while this is certainly significant and important, it is only a surface factor, and sits uneasily with the obsession, less than six months ago, with the idea young people were more right wing and authoritarian than previous generations.[10] If there was any truth at all in the idea of “Millennials” being more right wing, then their increased turn out at the polls should have benefited the right at least as much as it benefited Labour, and this is simply not born out.

Again, these surface explanations, as with Brexit, are insufficient. It will take more time to unpack the results, and draw firmer conclusions, but what seems clear from the result is that the Labour vote increased (and decreased) across the demographics of age, gender, race and so on: but the one constant, which won’t show up in Lord Ashcroft surveys, is that Corbyn and Labour presented a manifesto which rejected the logic of neoliberal capitalism, and appealed to the material interests (better wages, social services and benefits) of working class people. Corbyn and his team saw in the current crisis of capitalism the potential, which has always been there, to build an alternative to the extant system. This potential was there at the time of Brexit, and is still there now. The challenge for the Left is the have the clear analysis, and concrete political conviction to support and nurture this potential into more concrete and sustainable alternatives, both within the electoral arena and beyond.

What’s important now is that the unwarranted pessimism around Brexit and leading into these recent elections does not turn into unwarranted optimism about what Corbyn has achieved. The reality remains that the Tories were a mere 75 votes (in 5 marginal constituencies) away from attaining a majority in Parliament; and that notwithstanding eight years of brutal austerity and reductions living standards, real wages etc. more than 14 million people voted for the most reactionary Tory party in a generation. While there is potential for progressive change and politics, there is equally the potential, and likelihood, of right wing consolidation and counter-offensive. In the face of this, the Left has to learn the lessons of the Brexit debate, insure that its analysis of contemporary capitalism and its crises, and the political positions it adopts in response to this analysis, are not overwhelmed and swayed by superficial analysis and liberal moralism, but instead are centred in an understanding of the fundamental contradictions of the capitalism system (class antagonism and its crisis/historically transient character) and utilise, in real terms, the weapons of dialectical analysis.

It will be useful to conclude this section by illustrating this potentially abstract point in a concrete manner. One of the concerns with those on the left who oppose Brexit, and also those in the wider European left (for example DiEM25) is that leaving the EU will necessitate a retreat into nation states, which will be a backward step and contrary to the principles of internationalism (a core value of any left worth the name). On its face, this is a plausible argument: if we apply formal logic, the EU is a transnational political formation, which, according to its own lights, is committed to internationalism, solidarity etc., therefore a move to the nation state as the principle site of political action is a step away from this progressive, international arena.

The problems with this argument, however, are twofold: first, the EU has only ever represented a truncated a narrow form of internationalism; and internationalism in the service of capital, and of no use to the drowning refugees in the Aegean, the Greek people caricatured, dehumanised and left to their own devices, or the African, Asian and Latin American countries further impoverished by trade agreements with the EU. As well as this, and crucially for our purposes, this analysis is also superficial, one sided and undialectical. It ensnares itself un unhelpful and static abstractions, without taking account of the concrete realities (of national sovereignty today, of the nature of the EU, of the opportunities that the contradictions of the current crisis present and so on).

Thankfully, not everyone is drawn in by the gravitational pull of such arguments. The Egyptian Marxist Samir Amin, commenting on the Brexit vote, makes a few crucial points. He notes, first, that the ‘framework defined by the (“nation”) state remains the one in which the decisive struggles that transform the world unfold’.[11] He notes further that the ‘European project is based on an absolute denial of democracy (understood as the exercise of choice between alternative social projects’.[12] Of crucial importance, and bringing the issue of agency back to the fore, Amin argues that

This crisis created opportunities for consistent advances, more or less bold, provided that the fighting movements adopt the strategies that aim at them.  The affirmation of national sovereignty then becomes obligatory to enable those advances that are necessarily uneven from one country to another but are always in conflict with the logic of ordo-liberalism.  The sovereign national project that is popular, social, and democratic proposed in this paper is designed with this in mind.  The concept of sovereignty implemented here is not that of bourgeois-capitalist sovereignty; it differs from it and for this reason must be qualified as popular sovereignty.[13]

The crucial point then, and one which the Brexit/Corbyn conjuncture feeds into, is that a radical, left struggle for popular sovereignty at the national level, which challenges the common sense (including its institutional manifestations) of the prevailing order can attract the support and commitment of working class people, and present a genuine bulwark to the rising barbarism of late capitalism in its stage of decline. As a final word, Amin concludes that for him ‘there is nothing to expect from the European project, which cannot be transformed from within’ instead, he argues, ‘we must deconstruct it to possibly rebuild it later on different foundations’. This then is the crucial point, in a context in which the truncated internationalism of the EU, the internationalism of capital bolstered by the class consciousness of the frequent flyer, now exists as a fetter on progressive change, the apparent return to the nation-state as the locus of political action and change, can represent a crucial advance for a substantive internationalism which challenges the logic of the extant order. In Europe today a fundamental rupture with the existing institutions of the EU is a necessary condition for the development of popular, democratic socialist movements and organisations at the national level, which, in turn, can and must build transnational networks of solidarity and mutual support, to re-found “another Europe”, beyond the horizon of capital’s logic.

 

V. Conclusion

What the Brexit vote, and the election success of Corbyn-led Labour show is that in the UK, as elsewhere, history is on the table once again. The crisis ridden social system we live under is an historically transient form of social organisation, there can be an alternative to it and the impoverishment it guarantees. The Scottish Marxist James Connolly once remarked that ‘Revolution is never practical – until the hour of the Revolution strikes. Then it alone is practical, and all the efforts of the conservatives and compromisers become the most futile and visionary of human imaginings’. While the results of the UK General Election are not revolutionary, nor, at this stage, epoch defining, the gains made by the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership represent a welcome, and unexpected, victory for democratic socialism.

Corbyn’s supporters and voters are immensely enthused, and rightly so, but going forward such enthusiasm must also be tempered by rigorous analysis grounded in the best traditions of Marxism. This does not mean a lowering of expectations, but rather a more rigorous understanding of what is concretely possible, what challenges and limitations lie ahead, and an understanding that in the current conjuncture any movement for even modest, progressive change, has to be ready to fundamentally challenge the entire edifice of the existing social order.

 

NOTES:

[1] Paul Sweezy, The Theory of Capitalist Development (Dennis Dobson Ltd. 1946) 22.

[2] Georg Lukács, Lenin: A Study in the Unity of His Thought (New Left Books 1970) 18.

[3] ibid 55.

[4] C.L.R. James, ‘Education, Propaganda, Agitation’ in Glaberman (ed.), Marxism for Our Times: C. L. R. James on Revolutionary Organization (University Press of Mississippi 1999) 4, 33.

[5] For further elaboration of this argument see: Michael Calderbank and Paul O’Connell, ‘Confronting Brexit’ Red Pepper May/2017 (http://www.redpepper.org.uk/confronting-brexit/).

[6] There isn’t space here to fully unpack this, but the use of the concept of class by almost all commentators on the Brexit debate, drawing for the most part on advertising industry classifications, was paltry to say the least.

[7] See: https://yougov.co.uk/news/2016/02/23/british-people-view-socialism-more-favourably-capi/.

[8] E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (Penguin 2013) 34.

[9] See: Jen Wilkinson and Paul O’Connell, ‘Who’s Europe, Theirs or Ours?’ Critical Legal Thinking 29 March 2016 (http://criticallegalthinking.com/2016/03/29/brexit-whose-europe/).

[10] See: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/thatchers-children-blairs-babies-british-social-attitudes-more-authoritarian-right-wing-a7557351.html.

[11] Samir Amin, ‘Brexit and the EU Implosion: National Sovereignty — For What Purpose?’ MR Online 08 August 2016 (https://mronline.org/2016/08/08/amin080816-html/).

[12] ibid.

[13] ibid.

 

Finding True North

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In The Junius Pamphlet, Rosa Luxemburg wrote that the works of Karl Marx ‘gave to the working class of the whole world a compass by which to fix its tactics from hour to hour, in its journey toward the one unchanging goal’. So for Luxemburg and radicals of her generation, Marxism was not some ossified academic discourse, but rather a living instrument of action, analysis and revolution. Few wielded this instrument better than Lenin, who was central to the Russian Revolution of 1917, the centenary of which we mark this year.

But since the time of Luxemburg and Lenin, Marxism, revolutionary socialism and all associated trends have, for a variety of reasons, been in decline. Fast forward to the present conjuncture and confusion, miscalculation and despair are hallmarks of “the Left”, such as it is. Whether it be the Civil War in Syria, the Brexit debate, the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, Trump, France and Le Pen, or any other pressing issue, very many on the Left find themselves rudderless. Striking out incoherently in various directions, while reaction is everywhere on the rise.

Concretely this has led to the appalling vista whereby people who consider themselves Left, “leftist”, socialist and, in some cases, revolutionary are arguing in defence of the racist, neoliberal EU; against the leadership of Corbyn in the UK Labour Party, for imperialist interventions in Syria and other sundry, reactionary positions. In this context there is a serious need to re-calibrate our coordinates, as it were.

To begin this process, we could do worse than revisit Georg Lukacs’ 1924 work Lenin: A Study on the Unity of His Thought. Various aspects of this work are rewarding, but in particular Lukács’ discussion of Revisionism in Chapter 4 is especially illuminating for our time. Revisionists, for Lukács, Luxemburg, Lenin and others, were those so called socialists and Marxists who had, in practice, abandoned the idea of revolutionary social change, in any meaningful sense. The sort of people, to borrow Patrick Bond’s phrase, who ‘talk left, and walk right’. For Lukács and others, interchangeable descriptors and pejoratives abounded for such people: revisionists, reformists, opportunists etc.

Lukács sets out five characteristics which reflect the ‘essence’ of revisionism, and can be summarised as follows:

i. The first is that revisionists abandon the centrality of class in their analysis of events and specific conjunctures;

ii. Secondly, revisionists abandon the Marxist dialectic. That is to say they embrace the simple, formal logic of mainstream political and cultural thought, and retreat from the central Marxist insight that ‘contradictions … are the basis and kernel of all events’;

iii. Thirdly, revisionist thought ‘always lacks historical, concrete and creative dimensions’, it is, instead, a-historical, abstract and pessimistically deterministic;

iv. Fourth, as a consequence of an a-historical, undialectical conception of society which has jettisoned the protagonistic role of social classes, revisionists come to ‘regard society as the reality which cannot essentially be changed just as much as the bourgeoisie. They no longer regard bourgeois society as historically created and therefore destined to historical decline. Nor do they regard knowledge as a means of recognizing this period of decline and of working for its acceleration, but – at best – as a means of improving the condition of the proletariat within bourgeois society. For Revisionism, all thought which points in a practical way beyond the horizons of bourgeois society is illusory and Utopian’;

v. Finally, as a result of the foregoing, revisionism is ‘tied to realpolitik. It always sacrifices the genuine interests of the class as a whole, the consistent representation of which is precisely what it calls Utopian, so as to represent the immediate interests of specific groups’.

Lukács then distils these characteristics further, and argues that the the common character of all revisionist or opportunist currents on the Left is that they ‘never regard events from the class standpoint of the proletariat and therefore fall victim to an unhistorical, undialectical, and eclectic realpolitik‘.

Having provided a useful descriptive account of revisionism/opportunism, Lukács then draws an immensely important political conclusion, he argues that:

opportunism is the class enemy of the proletariat within its own camp. The removal of opportunists from the labour movement is therefore the first, essential prerequisite of the successful start of the struggle against the bourgeoisie. It is therefore of paramount importance for the preparation of the proletarian revolution to free workers intellectually and organizationally from this ruinous influence.

For Lukács, then, confronting and challenging revisionist, opportunist and reformist tendencies within the broad Left is a political priority. A necessary step to allow us to clarify our understanding of a given conjuncture or political controversy.

Of course, as Luxemburg noted in Reform or Revolution, it ‘is obvious that revisionism does not wish to concede that its standpoint is that of the capitalist apologist’. So that many people and organisations will earnestly believe themselves to be radical, socialist or progressive, in other words to be ‘Left’, while they continue to walk right.

What is important for revolutionaries, and more importantly for the broad working class, is to be able to see through the fog and confusion that surrounds contemporary political events, and to begin to form analyses and concrete tactical positions that once again place radical transformation at the centre of politics. In this regard the compass of Marxism remains invaluable, but to develop our thinking and ideas along fruitful lines we should learn from Lukács.

We need to ensure that whatever issues or concrete controversies we face, our analysis is grounded in an understanding of the contemporary world, of capitalism, as historically contingent, riven with contradictions that impel change (one way or another), and founded, fundamentally, on the exploitation of the many (the working class, in all its diversity and richness) by the few (the capitalist class). With these simple co-ordinates as starting points, we can begin the search for the ideas, organisational forms and movements that will be necessary to build the sort of world we wish to see.

Taking Aim

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The massive protests in the UK against Donald Trump and his abhorrent “Muslim ban” show that there is potential for building a mass, anti-racist, pro-migrant movement in the UK and elsewhere. Many of the people who attended these protests have no background in political activism, but have been spurred into action by Trump’s blatant racism and reactionary stances – there is a palpable anger, and this can play a crucial role in realigning politics in the UK.

However, anger, no matter how righteous, is not enough. It is crucial that this nascent movement from the very outset engage in serious, critical reflection and debate about what sort of politics will be necessary to challenge Trump, and the broader, systemic pathologies of which he is a particularly malignant symptom.

In this regard, one key misapprehension must be challenged from the outset: Trump and Brexit (a clumsy, now almost meaningless term) are not the same thing – failing to see this will set any emerging oppositional politics on a course of ultimate failure. John Harris and others have spun the lazy Trump-Brexit conflation, and argue that if we are angry at Trump and oppose his politics, then we (and in particular Labour MPs voting in Parliament on whether or not to trigger Article 50) must also oppose Brexit and set the UK on a different, pro-European course.

The move Harris, and others, make here is one from correct premises to wrong conclusions. The argument, seductive in its simplicity, is as follows: Trump is patently racist and we oppose him – many of the leading voices for Brexit are racist – therefore we should oppose Brexit also. The problem with this is that it erases history and context: it ignores the fact that, whether in or out of the EU, any British government would have slovenly towed the US line; that the EU itself is structurally racist; that the processes of EU integration have engendered racism and seen the growth, within the EU, of far-right parties, not as an aberration, but as a necessary consequence of the truncated sort of integration that the EU represents; and, on a very simple note, that Theresa May, now arch villain, was herself a vocal campaigner for remaining in the EU.

The premise that we oppose and despise Trump and his politics only leads to the conclusion that we should, therefore, seek to overturn the Brexit referendum result and remain in the EU if we completely fail to understand the nature of the EU, and the differing contexts that gave rise to the Brexit vote and the Trump victory.

The fundamental problem is well captured by a scene from John Steinbeck’s novel The Grapes of Wrath. In it a tenant farmer is told by a worker that his house is to be demolished and the following exchange ensues:

“I built it with my hands. Straightened old nails to put the sheathing on. Rafters are wired to the stringers with baling wire. It’s mine. I built it. You bump it down—I’ll be in the window with a rifle. You even come too close and I’ll pot you like a rabbit.”

“It’s not me. There’s nothing I can do. I’ll lose my job if I don’t do it. And look—suppose you kill me? They’ll just hang you, but long before you’re hung there’ll be another guy on the tractor, and he’ll bump the house down. You’re not killing the right guy.”

“That’s so,” the tenant said. “Who gave you orders? I’ll go after him. He’s the one to kill.”

“You’re wrong. He got his orders from the bank. The bank told him, ‘Clear those people out or it’s your job.’”

“Well, there’s a president of the bank. There’s a board of directors. I’ll fill up the magazine of the rifle and go into the bank.”

The driver said, “Fellow was telling me the bank gets orders from the East. The orders were, ‘Make the land show profit or we’ll close you up.’”

“But where does it stop? Who can we shoot? I don’t aim to starve to death before I kill the man that’s starving me.”

This poignant exchange reveals the problem we now face. People are angry, and rightly so, but they are not clear about who or what they should be angry at.

This is not to be wondered at. The system we live under operates in myriad ways to obscure, occlude and mystify the nature of power and how it operates. In this context, Trump makes things somewhat easier. He is a villain, and patently so. Obama wasn’t as blatant, yet he deported more people than any US president before him, militarily intervened in dozens of countries around the world, and was pushing the much hated TPP and TTIP trade agreements, he also, incidentally, was in favour of the UK remaining in the EU.

With Trump, now, we have an easy, minor premise: he and everything he represents must be resisted, by any and all means. However, we need to dig deeper to work towards correct conclusions about where this should lead our politics. To build a radical, anti-racist and socially progressive movement in the UK we cannot retreat into the reactionary liberalism that seeks to sustain the EU at all costs. Likewise, in the US, building an alternative to Trump cannot be premised on embracing Hilary Clinton and establishment Democrats.

We can, however, draw some inspiration from Clinton’s long-time partner in crime, her husband Bill. In his 1992 campaign for President of the US, Clinton’s team coined the famous phrase ‘it’s the economy, stupid’, and they were more right than they could imagine. To the extent that Brexit and Trump (along with Erdogan, Putin, Le Pen etc.) have something in common, it is that they represent the morbid symptoms of the capitalist system (the economy, stupid) in terminal decline.

The rise of the populist right represents a misguided rejection by angry, scared people of the status quo ante. Where the left fails to offer genuine, radical alternatives, the right prospers. The EU, notwithstanding what “some sillies” (as E.P. Thompson would have termed them) in DiEM25, Another Europe is Possible etc. would like to think, is irredeemably a set of institutional arrangements for the maintenance of this status quo. If we wish to build on the anger and passion that the nascent anti-Trump movement represents, then we must not make the mistake of conflating opposition to Trump with defence of the EU.

Trump is the enemy, but capitalism is the problem. In the coming months and years political positions will be clarified, and it is crucial that we are clear-headed from the outset. If, at this juncture, you find yourself celebrating a pillar of the Tory party, and cheerleader for austerity, for his speech against Brexit, but criticising a lifelong socialist who has consistently stood against Trump’s spiritual predecessors, because he has taken the position that the fight is not to maintain the EU, but to build a more just UK, then you may need to re-calibrate your political coordinates.

A good place to start with this would be by rejecting the simplistic, Guardian editorial line that opposition to racism necessitates support for the EU. The real fight is for a genuine alternative to Trump, and everything he represents. This means breaking with the centrist liberalism that created the conditions for Trump’s ascendancy, and challenging the extant system at a fundamental level. This is not done by pining for a mythical EU that never was, but by directing our legitimate anger against racism, sexism and the capitalist system in its entirety. This is no easy task, but it is the necessary one if the anger against Trump is to be transformed into something meaningful and sustainable.

 

Grasping the Moment: Class, Race and the Crisis

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Class and race were both at the heart of the two major political events that rocked the cosy consensus-politics of Western democracies this year: the Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. In the aftermath of both of these events fissures have opened amongst people on the broad left, trying to make sense of and respond to the current moment.

There is a broad, and clumsy, division between those who want to shoehorn the Brexit/Trump phenomena (and indeed the rise of right wing, racist movements throughout the West) into a neat, mechanical understanding of class; and those who insist on the absolute priority of race and racism as categories for understanding the contemporary crisis.

Neither of these approaches, as currently formulated, seem adequate to the historical moment we find ourselves in. Which means that in the midst of a profound crisis of the capitalist system, sections of the left appear to lack the capacity to meaningfully comprehend, explain and approach the current conjuncture.

The sharp division between those who emphasise class and those who emphasise race as the key optic through which to understand the present moment is nothing new. In the late 196o’s Fred Hampton noted how many people were uncomfortable with the Black Panthers for insisting on the centrality of class analysis, as Hampton put it:

You know a lot of people have hang-ups with the Party because the Party talks about a class struggle. And the people that have those hang-ups are opportunists, and cowards, and individualists and everything that’s anything but revolutionary. And they use these things as an excuse to justify and to alibi and to bonify their lack of participation in the real revolutionary struggle.

It may be that Hampton’s harsh words cannot, easily, be transposed to the current moment. But what is significant about them is that they reveal that the most important black liberation movement in the United States (after the Civil Rights movement, perhaps) had class and race at the centre of it’s analysis, and also had it’s detractors, even back then, who wanted to emphasise a disembodied, de-classed concept of race.

With the defeat of the Panthers, and some time later the collapse of the Soviet Union, the capitalist West entered a period of triumphalism. In a period where economic growth was fuelled by a succession of speculative bubbles, mass movements built around issues of class receded from the stage of history. In their place, contentious politics shifted to questions of identity: race, gender, sexual orientation and so on

This period saw a flowering of interesting and important theories about these various other vectors of oppression, which had, historically, been neglected (though not uniformly) by thinkers and organisations on the socialist left. This era also saw the mainstreaming of legislative interventions that explicitly outlawed discrimination on the basis of race, gender and other grounds (for example the Equality Act 2010 in the UK).

This era, loosely sketched, is the period we now file under “the era of neoliberalism”. We should be clear, that throughout this entire period the leading Western countries remained, at all times, structurally racist. People of colour consistently suffered diminished life chances, and were far more likely to find themselves at the coercive end of state violence. While the mainstream media continued to peddle and reproduce racialised narratives that copper-fastened wide-spread racism.

It’s interesting, that during this period the question of class (and even the idea of capitalism as such) disappeared from much public discourse. While awareness of and sensitivity to issues of race, gender, sexual orientation and so on proliferated in the formal, neoliberal discourse, questions of class were persistently elided. This, of course, is not surprising.

Class is the fundamental antagonism at the heart of the capitalist system, and as the neoliberal era was one of capitalist triumph, it should come as no surprise that it was also one in which discussion of the ghost at the banquet was forsworn. In this context class analysis, as such, was divorced from any meaningful, vibrant political movement, and as a result atrophied.

With the unfolding crisis of capitalism, since at least 2008, class tensions and class divisions have once again come to the fore, but they have not necessarily been understood as such. In a gambit to “regain some control”, or make their countries “great again” racist, right wing demagogues have sprung up throughout the world (particularly in the West) and mobilised racism, xenophobia and reaction to try to explain the current crisis.

The left has found itself toothless in the face of this rising tide of reaction. The centre, as represented in the UK by New Labour and the US by the Democrats, has ceded ground, made excuses for the racism and xenophobia stoked by the mainstream media, and cleared the way for the far more virulent forms of racism that Trump and others represent.

Following the shocks of Brexit and Trump, then, we have been left with moribund class analysis, and inadequate race analysis divorced form one another. With neither of them up to the task of comprehending the current conjuncture. The limitations of many, contemporary approaches to race are well captured by Adolph Reid Jr. who writes that:

The rise of neoliberalism in particular suggests a serious problem with arguments that represent race and class as dichotomous or alternative frameworks of political critique and action … [a] historical materialist perspective throws into relief a fundamental limitation of the “whiteness” notion that has been fashionable within the academic left for roughly two decades: it reifies whiteness as a transhistorical social category … whiteness discourse functions as a kind of moralistic exposé rather than a basis for strategic politics … The whiteness discourse overlaps other arguments that presume racism to be a sui generis form of injustice. Despite seeming provocative, these arguments do not go beyond the premises of the racial liberalism from which they commonly purport to dissent. They differ only in rhetorical flourish, not content … [they] reify racism by disconnecting it from the discrete historical circumstances and social structures in which it is embedded, and treating it as an autonomous force. Disconnection from political economy is also a crucial feature of postwar liberalism’s construction of racial inequality as prejudice or intolerance. Racism becomes an independent variable in a moralistic argument that is idealist intellectually and ultimately defeatist politically.

That is to say that in the era of neoliberal capitalism, questions of race were successfully divorced from questions of class in many mainstream discourses. The limits of class analysis is illustrated in simplistic claims that Brexit was a victory for the working class, or the simplistic equation of class with income bracket following the US election.

As a consequence, when confronted with the rise of mass movements that mobilise around questions of race, but are situated in a deeper, structural crisis of capitalism (that requires an understanding of class to make it intelligible) many people are left with little more than fear, and moralistic outrage. While the fear is completely understandable, particularly for people of colour (and more specifically migrant and working class people of colour, who are and will be the ones bearing the brunt of this racist onslaught), the outrage is no substitute for analysis.

We need an analysis now that can make the term “intersectionality” meaningful. Race is always situated within contexts of class, and class is always racialised. In the current moment we can, and must, insist that our political priority is uncompromising resistance to racism, xenophobia and solidarity with the people of colour who will feel the brunt of this rising tide of reaction. However, we must also insist that the racist character of these movements does not mean that a de-contextualised, de-classed race analysis must take priority in how we understand the current moment.

The analysis we need, of course, will not flower in  darkness. It is only through organising with one another, building movements and campaigns to resist racism in it’s various forms, and connecting that up to the broader need to fight against a system that necessarily produces barbarism in all it’s forms, that a clear, meaningful set of ideas will emerge to inform the struggles ahead.

Miller and The Politics of the Judiciary

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One of the most striking things in immediate reactions to the High Court judgment in Miller is that so many commentators are willing to acquiesce in the crucially important assertion made in the judgment that the case was simply concerned with ‘a purely legal matter’. In their recent intervention, Mark Elliott and Hayley Hooper, while disagreeing with and critiquing aspects of the judgment, accept unwaveringly that the ‘question for the court was solely a legal question about the extent of executive authority’. They further argue that to criticise the decision in Miller as undemocratic ‘is not only wrong, it is dangerous’.

In a similar vein, Nick Barber and Jeff King argue that the judgment in Miller was entirely agnostic regarding the greater political issues at play and was simply concerned with ‘which institution possessed the power’ to trigger the Brexit process. In light of the scandalous response to the judgment from certain media outlets (those with a long track record of vilifying migrants, welfare claimants and trade unionists) Barber and King argue that ‘the reaction to Miller presents a grave threat to our constitutional order, a threat both to the rule of law and to the very structure of democracy in the United Kingdom’.

What is noteworthy about this line of response is that legal scholars have responded to one of the most significant constitutional judgements of the last thirty years, by arguing that the judgment is entirely legal, divorced from the surrounding political context and immune from criticisms that question the democratic propriety of judges deciding on such matters.

In this brief intervention we aim to make two points: (i) the first is a reflection on what it means to adopt a critical stance vis-à-vis constitutional developments and judgements; and (ii) the second, building on the first point, is to demonstrate that there are valid, and longstanding, critiques of the sort of judicial decision making in the Miller case, and that we should not foreclose such avenues of critique.

The Pitfalls of Legalism

With respect to the first point, one need not stray into the arcane arts of continental deconstruction to find a basis for contesting the idea that the Miller judgment concerned ‘a pure legal matter’. There is a venerable tradition in UK public law scholarship—from Harold Laski to John Griffith—of seeking ‘a conscious and realistic jurisprudence’ which recognises the agency of judges, and the necessarily political nature of judicial decision making. As Laski argued, the vagueness in core legal doctrines often ‘tempts the judge to believe that he is simply finding the law when in fact he is really testing and rejecting other men’s views by the light of his own’.

Evidence of this temptation is seen in the assertion by both the court in Miller and numerous commentators that the case was a purely legal matter. That, to borrow Griffith’s phrase, portrays the judges as devoid of ‘political, economic and social’ concerns with ‘no interest in the world outside the court’ when it comes to making a decision. This stance, as Griffith long ago demonstrated, is unsustainable: given the very nature of their role judges ‘cannot avoid the making of political decisions’ when confronted with controversial cases’.

It may be unsurprising that given the massive backlash against the High Court’s Miller judgment, legal scholars would echo the judges in their insistence on the separation between law and politics. In the popular discourse — the judgment has nothing to do with law. In the legalist discourse — the ruling is merely a question of legal technicality and as such is not political. It is a simple operation of applying legal materials, via legal reasoning, on a legal question to determine ‘what the law says’. Thus, the legalist approach views disagreements with the court’s reasoning as ones of doctrine and hence as internal to law.

In our view, both the popular and legalist positions are untenable given the intertwinement of law and politics. The popular response denies the relevance of law and rights discourse to political struggles and to shaping people’s consciousness. In particular, the focus on constitutional questions and landmark cases leaves out the myriad ways in which the background legal conditions shape people’s choices, determines their life conditions, and sanction unjust distributive outcomes.

The legalist discourse merely obfuscates the essentially normative and political questions at the basis of the legal debate. While it may be understandable that the judges seek to deny their agency by claiming that “the law” dictates their position, there is no reason for critical scholars to accept this denial of agency. As one of us has written, the availability of competing and reasonable legal answers to the question before the Court showcases that it is far from being a ‘pure question of law’, as the Court asserted. Therefore, legal scholars should be more forthcoming about the normative and political commitments that shape how one view such cases and thinks such controversies should be resolved.

Democracy and the Courts

Clearly much of the popular discourse responding to the High Court judgment contained outrageous personal attacks on the judges, which we should all condemn. We find it, however, bewildering that legal scholars would deny the reasonableness of the anti-democratic charge against the judicial intervention. Elliot and Hooper, for instance, assert that this charge is both ‘wrong’ and ‘dangerous’. This assertion stands in the face of decades of elaborate discussions about the ‘counter-majoritarian difficulty’ and between political and legal constitutionalists. As has been argued elsewhere, the persistence and irresolvability of these debates illustrates that institutional debates about who gets the final decision-making power when people disagree (judges or majorities) are inseparable from political and normative commitments. They certainly cannot be resolved by the mere assertion that one conception of democracy is correct and the other is wrong. Scholars are free to agree with the conclusion or the effect of the ruling, but they should not cloak this normative endorsement with contestable conceptual definitions. By doing so, they simply reproduce the same questions but at a higher level of generality and abstraction.

Debates about prerogative, parliamentary sovereignty and justiciability are difficult questions precisely because they are not purely legal. Essentially, these are questions about delineating the boundary between law and politics. There is no objective and consensual criterion to delineate this boundary and police it that is external to politics. To assert, as Barber and King do, that the justiciability question is clear given the ‘legal character’ of the question is to engage in a circular reasoning in which the conclusion is already presupposed. The distinction between law and politics in which politics is a space for private interests and arbitrary will, whereas law is a space for rights that are devoid of politics does not withstand critical scrutiny. This specific question is motivated by a political disagreement and has political consequences of which the judges are well aware. The litigation is motivated by the disagreement of opponents of Brexit with the majoritarian choice and seeks to overturn it, or at least to hinder its implementation. This context cannot be dismissed, as Barber and King do, as simply an institutional question about who is empowered to trigger Article 50, rather than the ‘desirability’ of triggering it. To make this assertion is to seek to separate the political question from the institutional arrangements to resolve it.

Thus, we maintain that even supporters of the ruling (and opponents of Brexit) have to admit that the resolution of this political debate at the hands of few judges indeed raises democratic concerns about the exclusion of majorities. They are free to proceed to prefer judges over majorities but it is futile to conceal this choice by claiming that their conception of democracy is superior on compelling rational grounds. They need to make a choice and acknowledge the choice as such.

Beyond Legalism

The legalist posture misses the popular grievances at the base of Brexit. Regardless of its merits, the Brexit referendum expressed a disenchantment with the political establishment and a growing alienation from processes of representation. Surely, this is understandable in an electoral system of first-past-the-post system that eschews proportional representation. Surely, this is understandable, when scholars have demonstrated that western constitutional democracies are not really an indirect form of government by the people, but rather a detailed system of governance that avoids government by the people (see Bernard Manin’s The Principles of Representative Government). Surely, this is understandable when scholars have repeatedly shown that the political system in western democracies is gravely unjust because it privileges the wealthy few over the many and sanctions obscene levels of inequality. Surely, this is understandable when 72 per cent of the voters who voted in a referendum are told that it was merely “consultative” and has no binding ramifications.

The forgoing does not suggest that majoritarian decision-making is inherently substantively correct. But the same can be said about judicial decision-making. Thus, the point is to acknowledge that these are two different processes of arriving at decision-making and only one is participatory. Admittedly, referenda are a limited participatory instrument but it is more representative than the current electoral system and more representative than the judiciary. The referenda’s shortcomings should lead to thinking of ways how to increase participatory forms and make them more sustainable, rather than to abandon them.

Therefore, those who agree with the current ruling’s conclusion should simply argue that they subscribe to it on substantive grounds, rather than deny the non-participatory nature of the judiciary and the ruling. To claim that those who privilege the judicial perspective are also democrats, based on a definitional fiat, is to obscure the consequences of this choice. It seems legal scholars are seeking to have it both: to overturn majoritarian decisions-making and to claim that they are the true democrats.

Co-authored with Nimer Sultany and Originally Published on the UKCLA Blog.