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.

Trump, Mair and The Gods That Failed

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The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, much like the Brexit vote in the UK earlier this year, has been greeted by mainstream commentators with a mixture of vapid incomprehension and shrill, moralistic denouncement. The emptiness of these responses reflect a central problem for liberals, centrists, so-called ‘leftists’ and others in advanced capitalist countries, namely that their gods have failed them. Capitalist development and competition, wedded to (and notionally tempered by) limited, representative democracy and consensus politics have all proven inadequate to the historical tasks before them.

The capitalist system is in profound crisis, dating from at least the 1970s, and as a consequence traditional models of acceptable politics are collapsing. This tendency has been well documented by Peter Mair in his book Ruling the Void. In this book Mair, through careful statistical analysis, shows that democracy in the West is being hollowed out by a twofold movement: wherein political elites withdraw from the people, and the people in turn withdraw from political elites.

This, in certain respects, is the necessary development of democracy under capitalism. It should not be forgotten that capitalism was only belatedly democratised, and that in the almost 600 year existence of the capitalist system, there has only been a brief period (of roughly 30 years) when broadly democratic politics existed alongside increased material well-being for a majority of people. Even then, this ‘golden age’ was confined to the advanced capitalist countries in the global North.

With the deepening crisis of the capitalist system, the reversion to form and gradual shift towards undemocratic and unresponsive political regimes advanced apace. In this context, Mair argued that

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.

Mair goes on to argue that ‘because of the growing enfeeblement of party democracy, and the indifference towards party democracy that is being expressed on both sides of the political divide, we now find ourselves being offered as alternative scenarios either the populist or the ostensibly non-political expert’.

This last line from Mair is crucial. Because it captures in a nutshell the essence of the choice presented to the US people in this presidential election: a demagogue and charlatan, mobilising racism and xenophobia while claiming to speak for ‘ordinary’ people and stand with them against ‘the system’. Or Clinton, who while not being a non-political expert, amounted to much the same thing: the hand-picked, trusted agent of the status quo.

So while the mainstream media, political commentators and so on recognised Clinton as one of their own, and lauded her campaign every step of the way, they simply could not conceptualise Trump. They could not understand the appeal of Trump, because, in various ways, they inhabit, in a tangible way, a political, economic and cultural world in which Hilary Clinton as president and business as usual makes sense. They cannot understand the world of people so marginalised, alienated, and (in many cases) impoverished by a system, that they’d place their hopes in a charlatan like Trump.

Much like the Brexit victory (and the prominence it afforded Farage, his fellow travellers and their reactionary views), the Trump election shows, to borrow from Marx and Berman, how quickly all that seems solid can melt into air. The contemporary, structural crisis of capitalism is deep and profound, and the existing models of democratic politics, and liberal frames of reference (which presume that all crises can be resolved within the system) are, plainly, insufficient to the tasks of understanding the current moment, or pointing a way beyond it.

What is needed now, instead, is a serious re-foundation of, broadly, socialist ideas and political practices. Only political movements, married to innovative ideas, that offer a genuine alternative to the extant social order will stand a chance or resisting the rising tide of reaction evident across the world. As Samir Amin once put it, in the ‘absence of positive utopias the peoples of the world invariably react to their desperate circumstances by reviving other types of utopia’. Trump and others are able to present their racist, reactionary false safe-haven as the only genuine alternative to people alienated from a system in crisis, because the left (in all its forms) has so spectacularly failed to offer any meaningful alternative.

It is, therefore, no small tragedy that so many on the broad left have become, unwittingly, the true heirs of Margaret Thatcher. In myriad ways, they have internalised the mantra that there is no alternative to the existing system, and the most they can offer people is Clinton instead of Trump; an admittedly imperfect EU instead of Brexit; falling instead of landing. Rather than accept that this is the best we can hope for, it would appear that enough people are so alienated and marginalised from the status quo, that they have been seduced by con-men and cast their lot in with the only alternative on offer to them.

This mass apostasy has left mainstream commentators scratching their heads: rather than engage in any meaningful critical reflection, the rush to apportion blame takes over. It’s the fault of people who voted for Jill Stein, it’s the fault of Comey and the FBI, it’s angry, reactionary white people, who cannot be reasoned with. It’s everything and anything but the system itself, because the system just is. But this, of course, is the very crux of the matter: the system is coming apart at the seams, Trump offers a false alternative while the left seeks to patch it up, and then reacts with outrage and incomprehension when people are not grateful for their efforts at keeping things as they are.

The lesson that has to be drawn from the Trump victory, and from the rise in reaction right across the world, is that the old formulae are no longer sufficient. One of the key lessons in the rise of Fascism in the 1930s is that the left was insufficiently robust and radical in opposing the right, and offering people an alternative to the existing social order. As Florian Wilde put it

The task of socialists … has to go beyond simply defending the status quo against fascist encroachment. The repeated crises of capitalism are what drive people to such desperation that they will even listen to racists and fascists in the first place; thus socialists have the responsibility to develop and present a realistic alternative: namely a socialist alternative. This alternative must be positive and appear convincing; it must be grounded in solidarity, cooperation and class struggle and emphasise a democratic, socialist response to capitalist crisis … 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.

In The Junius Pamphlet, published one hundred years ago, Rosa Luxemburg argued that the choice for us was quite simple: socialism or barbarism. The intervening years have simply served to validate this stark contention. If the election of Trump appals you, if the rise of the right across Europe and elsewhere terrifies you, then you have to now realise that there is no salvation with the old gods of liberalism. Either you commit yourself to challenging the capitalist system root and branch, or you resign yourself to Trump, barbarism and whatever comes after.

After the Referendum: What’s Left?

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There is nothing to celebrate today. The vote by a small (but significant) majority of people in the UK to leave the EU is not a victory for working people, for migrants, for socialists or left activists of any stripe. It could have been: if Labour and the main trade unions had seized the moment and set out a strong, principled, anti-racist and anti-capitalist case for leaving the EU. They didn’t, and the moribund radical left was so fragmented and disorganised, that it’s interventions had little or no bearing on the debate. As a result charlatans such as Nigel Farage are able to portray themselves as champions of “ordinary people” standing up to the “elites and fat cats”.

Race and immigration were certainly important issues in this campaign, and the mainstream narratives (whether for Leave or Remain) were racist and xenophobic. But race wasn’t the only issue, and if we fail to recognise this from the outset then we will be unable to respond meaningfully to the altered political landscape. The distribution of votes indicates that the Leave position was strongest amongst working class communities, in particular white working class communities. It is an indictment of the British left, and a reflection of their historical failure, that such communities now look to UKIP and other such racists for solutions to the marginalisation, exclusion and powerlessness they feel.

In response to the outcome many people will, understandably, be angry and unsure about what steps to take next. In this context it’s crucial that we do not allow anger or fear cloud our judgement or assessment of the situation. It is not the case that in this referendum good was defeated by evil, love conquered by hate, or the white British working class revealed as inherently reactionary or racist. Millions of people who have, for decades now, suffered under the yoke of neoliberalism and feel (inconsistently) that the political establishment (including the EU) does not represent their interests, have rejected the status quo. And they were right to do so. In the context of the ongoing crises of capitalism, the EU has developed to become a substantial driver of suffering, whether of workers, migrants or refugees, and a structural barrier to meaningful political reform. Notwithstanding these fairly well established facts, the British left balked in the face of what they saw (rightly) as a campaign launched by racists, and that would be fought (by them) along racist and xenophobic lines.

As a consequence the British left split along four broad lines: (i) enthusiastic remainers (the Labour Party, TUC and others); (ii) “tactical” remainers (not fans of the EU, but convinced that a vote to leave now could only benefit the right and far right) (iii) leavers and (iv) abstainers. The embrace by the centre left of the remain position shows that they are fundamentally divorced from the lived experience of the working class communities that they were previously immersed in and served. In doing this the Labour party has likely further alienated marginalised working class communities who know full well that the EU is not on their side, and were subjected to the spectacle of a Corbyn-led Labour defending the indefensible, thereby identifying themselves as part of the “establishment” that Farage and others purport to oppose.

The tactical remainers argued that while the EU was, of course, undemocratic, racist, pro-business and anti-worker, voting to leave in the context of a Tory/UKIP led referendum campaign would, given the (often blithely assumed) “balance of forces” lead to a “lurch to the right” and a rise in racist and xenophobic attitudes and fascist politics. This position is understandable and defensible in certain respects, but it also reveals two crucial problems with the radical left in Britain. First, it demonstrates a clear divorce from the life and struggles of working class communities, and a consequent willingness to expect the worst (in terms of reactionary attitudes) from white working class communities.

Secondly, it is premised on a very partial take on the balance of forces. For while UKIP has certainly been on the rise in recent years, and anti-immigrant sentiment has been stoked by politicians and the media, the last few years have also seen increasing work place activism and militancy from doctors, teachers, train drivers, university lecturers and many more. Recent years have also seen the “Corbyn phenomenon” which, whatever it’s shortcomings, shows that there is an appetite amongst many British people for an alternative to Tory-driven austerity, and indeed in recent months a poll conducted by The Independent showed that a majority of British people have a stated preference for socialism over capitalism. All of which is to say that the political landscape, pre-referendum, was not entirely bleak. Add to this the fact that the reactionary, racist right is already firmly ensconced in the British mainstream, and the tactical assessment seems less persuasive. A similar set of criticisms could be levelled at the abstainers, with the added note that their idea that we should sit out fights which are not to our liking is a dangerously demobilising notion.

The key lesson that should be drawn from this referendum is that if we purport to be committed to the radical and fundamental transformation of our world, then we cannot achieve that by half measures. Furthermore, we should not imagine that there are neat divisions between arguments and positions of principle, and tactical considerations. It was the wrong tactical choice for the British left to subordinate principle to mistaken assessments of the objective conditions; the correct approach would have been to enter the debate with a clear, principled vision of an alternative to the racism and inequality of the EU and the capitalist system and seek to win working people over to this argument. If that challenge had been taken up, then today could have been the first important step towards fundamentally transforming politics in the UK and throughout Europe. We failed, and as a result handed the day to Farage and his ilk.

Going forward, it is crucial that the broad forces of the left come together and leave behind the acrimony of the referendum debate. It’s unfortunate that during the debate (and the medium of social media is part of the problem in this context) fear and empty moralism came to be seen as legitimate substitutes for engaged political debate. Our friends, family and co-workers who are migrants or people of colour had very good reason to be afraid during this campaign, given the rhetoric deployed (by both mainstream Leave and Remain camps and by the media), but even with that we still had to think about the correct tactical and strategic choices to combat the rise of the right, ceding ground to them was not the right choice.

In the days, weeks and months ahead we have to take the genuine, legitimate fear people felt and transform it into productive anger. We must stand resolutely with migrants, refugees and people of colour against racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia; but the left in Britain also has to look very hard at itself and find ways of reconnecting with and mobilising the working classes that have been left behind by the era of neoliberal capitalism. If we on the left fail to offer a progressive, transformative vision for the emancipation of the working class (and that is a working class as varied as the lived experiences of the millions of people that make it up) in the twenty-first century, then all of the darkest fears of reluctant and sincere remainers alike may well come to pass. If we don’t learn the right lessons from this referendum, and instead retreat into a frantic moralism, then we will be the authors of our own undoing.

Originally Published on Critical Legal Thinking.

Whose Europe, Theirs or Ours?

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Wanderer, your footsteps are the road, and nothing more; wanderer, there is no road, the road is made by walking. – Antonio Machado

I. Introduction

The referendum on whether or not Britain should remain within the European Union (EU) is now fully underway. This debate confronts socialists with a series of pressing tactical and strategic challenges, the two key questions being: (i) should socialists intervene in this debate and (ii) if so, what position(s) should we advance. The position defended here is that, in all the circumstances, individuals and groups committed to the fundamental transformation of society have to come out strongly against Britain’s continued membership of the EU. We should do this on the basis of our commitments to democracy, genuine egalitarianism, solidarity and anti-racist internationalism. The Brexit debate provides an entry point for the bigger contest between defenders of a Europe in the service of capital, and the protagonists of a radically different Europe for the Twenty-First Century.

II. Dirtying Our Hands

It is undeniably true that issues of immigration have, so far, dominated the referendum debate in the UK, and that the dominant narratives are, for all intents and purposes, slight variations on shared xenophobic and racist themes. In this sense, then, the choice between voting to stay in with Cameron or leave with Johnson/Farage is an empty choice between competing strands of racism that many people are not willing to engage in any substantial way. There is, of course, a section of the left (centred around the Labour Party/Green Party and certain trade unions) that are also making the case to stay in the EU, on the basis that voting to leave would jeopardise various legal rights guaranteed to workers and migrants by the EU.

Given the constrained character of the debate so far, many socialists in Britain have adopted one, or a combination, of the following positions: this is a fight between different factions of the Tory party, and not something that socialists should expend energy and resources on; the debate is unmistakably and irredeemably framed in racist terms, therefore socialists should not get involved in arguing for one or other side of the racist coin; whatever its limitations, the EU has provided important legal protections for the rights of workers and migrants and we should not campaign or argue for a position that would lead to a loss of such rights; and in the event that Britain does leave the EU, we will be confronted by a triumphant and fundamentally unconstrained Tory government, which will accelerate its attacks on workers’ rights and on migrants and refugees.

Each of these arguments or reservations reflects legitimate concerns about the current political conjuncture in Britain, and Europe more broadly, but they are not sufficient arguments against socialist intervention in the debate. A concern for many on the left is that the Brexit campaign has been launched to appease the more reactionary wing of the Tory party; consequently, the dominant discourses on either side of the In/Out-Stay/Leave debate are irredeemably racist. As a result the entire debate on the issue has become toxic, and it is impossible for socialists to make a meaningful, principled, anti-racist and pro-migrant intervention into the debate, because the populist howling of the reactionaries on both sides will drown it out. The problem with this argument is that ultimately it is a counsel of despair, and invites a level of resignation that socialists simply cannot afford.

Reframed slightly, the argument runs as follows: the narrative is controlled by the reactionary forces of the establishment, and whatever the outcome it will be interpreted by them (and spun by their media) in a way which reinforces their narrative. This of course is true, but if we accept this as an invitation to sit out this particular fight, then we may as well hang up our gloves entirely. The simple reality is that in modern capitalist democracies, with the various complex means of producing and reproducing consent and control, establishment forces will invariably set the terms of almost every debate. The onus, then, is on us to intervene in spite of their rhetoric, their mystifications and their lies, and to set out principled, revolutionary arguments as to why, in the instant case, we should stay in or leave the EU.

Choosing, instead, to concede the terrain of battle before the fight has even begun is an abdication of our responsibility as individuals and organisations committed to the radical and fundamental transformation of society. In the midst of the biggest crisis in world capitalism since the 1930s, we cannot abandon working people to the demagoguery of the right. As recent election results in France, Germany and Slovakia (and the large numbers of people voting for UKIP in the last UK general elections) show, reactionary and racist right wing movements are benefiting from the dislocation and frustration that many people feel as a result of the crises of capitalism. If we take the high ground and refuse to engage in the Brexit debate because we see it as an inter-racist turf war, we also abandon working people at a time at which the intervention of socialists is most sorely needed. And if we fail to engage, this, in turn, does not weaken the right, but rather gives them a free run to spread their noxious easy answers. Daniel Singer offers an instructive and timely warning on this point in Their Millennium or Ours (94): ‘if frustrated people see no progressive solution and have no rational explanations for their fate, they opt for irrationality and the search for scapegoats’.

Refusing to engage in this debate because it has, so far, been dominated by reactionary and racist positions does not, in any way, undermine the reactionaries and racists; rather it allows them to operate freely, at a time at which they should be fought for every inch of ground on the ideological and political terrain. The plight of refugees in Calais and elsewhere in Europe, or migrants facing racism in the UK is not in anyway improved by socialists sitting this fight out; if anything, it will likely make their position worse. As Singer (276) warned, ‘politics abhors a void. If the left fails to provide rational, progressive solutions to the growing economic and social traumas, the extreme right will come up with reactionary and irrational ones, playing on the fears aroused by globalization and on prejudices reinforced by apprehension’. All we have is the conjuncture before us, and we have to enter the fray. We do not have the luxury of waiting for more propitious circumstances of our own choosing before acting to make our own history.

III. Politics Without Illusions

Whatever the arguments of the various segments of the right in the Brexit debate, what is crucial is that socialists advance their own principled arguments about the EU. The argument here is quite simple: the prospects for the radical, necessary changes to combat the crises of capitalism within Britain and Europe more broadly are dramatically inhibited by the existence of the EU. Therefore, we should seek a fundamental rupture with the institutions of the EU, so as to free up the potential to develop more radical politics grounded in genuine internationalism, not the truncated solidarity that the project of European capital offers. To make this intervention, we have to address three key arguments from those on the left who argue we should stay within the EU: (i) the EU guarantees numerous rights for workers, migrants and others that we should defend; (ii) whatever the shortcomings of the EU, Britain should remain a member state and socialists should fight within the existing structures to pursue ‘another Europe’; and (iii) even if we accept that leaving the EU might be necessary in the long run, now is not the right time because the right in Britain (and across Europe) is on the rise, while working people and the political left seem ill-prepared to resist them.

(i) Rights and Struggle

One of the central arguments for remaining within the EU is that membership of the EU has led to the development of substantial protection of workers rights, as well as the rights of consumers and the environment. This argument has been advanced in the current debate by, among others, the TUC and Jeremy Corbyn. A further element to this argument is that, as Corbyn says, ‘the Tories would use a vote to leave as the chance for a bonfire of rights in its aftermath’. There are three key responses to this line of argument. The first is that the rights protected by EU law are not the result of a gift from Jacques Delors and the benevolent institutions of ‘Social Europe’. Rather, the most important workers’ rights protected by the EU were won through the struggles of working people across Europe throughout the early- and mid-twentieth century. The legal structures of the EU, like all legal structures, reflect the crystallisation of particular struggles and conflicts, and the key workers, migrant and consumer rights protected by the EU were wrested from European capital by the collective action of working people.

This leads to a second, crucial point, which is that these formal legal guarantees were conceded at a point in time when European capitalism could afford to commit to such rights, and European workers were strong enough to demand such rights. The current conjuncture in Europe, in contrast, is one in which capital is on the offensive, and is necessarily seeking to break down all barriers to the pursuit of profit. In line with this, it is a period where the logic of neoliberalism has, since at least the mid-1980s, been encoded into the DNA of the EUs constitutional architecture. The last eight years of austerity have seen a dramatic acceleration in the undermining of workers’ rights and the living standards of working people. As Asbjørn Wahl notes:

In several EU countries—the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, and Hungary—wages, working conditions, and pensions have been severely weakened. Pensions have been cut 15–20 percent in many countries, while wages in the public sector have been reduced from 5 percent in Spain to over 40 percent in the Baltic. In Greece, the number of public employees has already been reduced by more than 20 percent. And still more is demanded: in Spain only one in every ten vacant positions in the public sector is filled, one in every five in Italy, and one in every two in France. In Germany 10,000 public-sector jobs have already been cut, and in the United Kingdom it has been decided to cut close to half a million jobs, which in effect will involve about the same number of jobs in the private sector.

Such has been the assault on workers rights and living standards, that both the Council of Europe (separate from the EU, but with responsibility for monitoring human rights protection across Europe), and the European Parliament have published reports documenting how the policies of the EU have led to the dramatic erosion of the entire corpus of rights.

Coupled with these developments, the highest court in the EU, the European Court of Justice (even before the onset of the economic crisis) has issued a series of judgments, starting with the Viking and Laval cases, which dramatically undermine the right to strike, so as to protect the rights of companies. That these judgments pre-date the economic crisis is important. The accelerated assault on workers rights in the era of austerity is not an aberration, or a break with some mythical ‘social Europe’; rather it is the opportunistic intensification of tendencies inherent in the era of neoliberal capitalism. Neoliberalism is a response to the crises of capitalism. It is, first and foremost, a political project to reassert the interests of capital and capitalists worldwide. For this reason, the rights of workers were being systematically hollowed out prior to the US housing bubble bursting in 2008 and the assault on these rights has been facilitated, not restrained, by the institutions of the EU. This tendency can be seen further in the ongoing negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between the EU and US, which will further weaken workers rights in the interests of capital. In short: given the trajectory of global capitalism, the EU is more likely to facilitate the undermining of fundamental rights, than act as a bulwark against their erosion.

This leads to a final point on this issue. The concern that leaving the EU would lead to an unrestrained Tory party engaging in a bonfire of rights is based on two flawed premises: the first is that formal legal guarantees effectively protect people from the vicissitudes of capitalism and the second is that the working class in Britain is unable or at least unlikely to mobilise to defend their rights. As to the first point, reference by proponents of the ‘remain’ side in the debate to the much-vaunted Working Time Directive (which is by no means unimportant) conveniently ignore the fact that British employees are allowed to negotiate with (read pressure”) their workers to opt out of the protections provided by this law, and thousands of workers do so annually. Furthermore, many British workers are faced, in the current crisis, not with being forced to work too many hours, but with having too few hours. A recent report shows that more than 800,000 British workers are on zero-hour contracts, with all the insecurity, working poverty and precarity that that brings. The existing legal regime is virtually silent on this matter. 

It is interesting to note that in New Zealand, such contracts have recently been outlawed, not as a result of some benevolent regional integration regime, but because of the sustained struggle of working class people there. In recent years in the UK, teachers, nurses, transport workers, junior doctors, migrants, refugees and their communities and supporters have come out in their tens thousands to assert and defend their rights. The loss of faith by some on the left in the capacity of the working class in Britain to fight to defend their rights, and the rights of migrants and refugees, ignores the history of struggle here, and the potential of ongoing struggles. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the Tories and their ilk will continue to wage war on working people and migrants; the challenge is to be part of these struggles, and to trust in the capacity of people to fight to defend their interests, as the only real guarantee of the rights we have.

(ii) Reform or Revolution

It may well be that the rigid binaries of the early-twentieth century do not quite hold at the dawn of a new millennium, but there is, on the left, a sharp distinction between those who argue that we can and should remain within the EU to fight to make ‘another Europe possible’, and those who argue that commitment to socialist principles require us to break with the EU. The former position is represented well by the foundation of the Democracy in Europe Movement (DiEM25), which leads with the tagline that the ‘European Union will be democratise or it will disintegrate!’. Led by Yanis Varoufakis and others, DiEM25 argues, correctly, that the EU as constituted is fundamentally undemocratic, and that it needs a ‘surge of democracy’ to save it from a steady slide into disintegration. In the same way, many on the left in Britain argue that while the EU has its faults, we should nonetheless stay and fight to reform it from within. Another Europe, they argue, is possible, and the EU’s democratic shortcomings can be overcome piecemeal.

It is interesting, given events in Europe over the last five years that a former Greek Finance Minister should be to the fore in a movement that claims the EU can be salvaged through democratisation. If anything, the treatment of the Greek people at the hands of the Troika provides a signal lesson, if one were needed, of the inherent antagonism between democracy and the functioning of the EU. In 2015, having suffered under some of the worst (EU-sponsored) austerity policies of the last decade, it appeared as if the Greek people would vote in a Syriza government to reject the economic and social policy prescriptions of the Troika. In response to this, the President of the EU Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, warned the Greek people that

To suggest that everything is going to change because there’s a new government in Athens is to mistake dreams for reality … There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.

The fact that Juncker invoked the treaties on which the EU is founded in his contemptuous dismissal of democracy is instructive. Since at least the Maastricht Treaty, the EU’s constitutional arrangements have been revised to do two crucial things: (i) lock in the economic logic of neoliberalism and (ii) insulate the real decision making bodies with the EU from democratic control and accountability.

The most powerful actors within the EU, the European Commission and European Central Bank, are also the least accountable. This is not accidental, but the product of intentional choices to constitutionally lock-in the logic of neoliberalism to advance the interests of capital, and make it virtually impossible for the public at large to meaningfully impact on the decision-making processes at the heart of the EU. It is for this reason that mainstream law and political science journals are now replete with articles that characterise the EU project as an example of authoritarian statism or authoritarian liberalism. The contemptuous treatment of the Greek people in 2015 is just the most brutal, recent example of tendencies latent within the EU, and manifested in the discarding of the initial decisions of the Irish people on the Nice and Lisbon Treaties and of the French and Dutch people after they rejected the proposed constitution for Europe.

The EU is constitutionally undemocratic, and intentionally so. The calls to democratise the EU, though laudable, fundamentally misunderstand the character of the project. It is not the case that the dream of social Europe has been captured and derailed by evil technocrats in Brussels. Rather, the crises of capitalism necessitate a break for the ruling class with the post-War consensus in terms of social policy, and a rupture with the inhibiting limitations of democracy. These imperatives have been encoded into the constitutional architecture of the EU over the last twenty years. These constitutional arrangements constrain national governments that might wish to pursue some modest social democratic reforms (let alone institute radical social change); they make the functioning and operation of the leading EU institutions opaque and unaccountable; and, through the principle of unanimity enshrined in Article 48 of the Treaty on European Union, make it virtually impossible to revise (or democratise) these arrangements. The upshot of this is, as Wahl notes, is that ‘the possibility of changing any of the EU treaties in a progressive direction through ordinary political processes is virtually nonexistent. One right-wing government in one member state can prevent this’.

The recognition by DiEM25 and others that the EU is fundamentally undemocratic is correct, but the belief that it can be democratised, in any meaningful sense, is fundamentally mistaken. You cannot use a flame thrower to put out a fire: the EU has been transformed over the last 20 years to lock-in the victories of capital over workers, and to constitutionalise Margaret Thatcher’s idea that There Is No Alternative. On this point, Samir Amin cuts through all of the sophistry when he writes that ‘the European Union can be nothing else than what it is, and as such is unviable’. Another Europe may well be possible, but another EU is not. A Europe committed to democracy, solidarity, egalitarianism and genuine internationalism will only be brought about in spite of, not through, the EU.

(iii) Bringing the War Home

The final objection to deal with here is the idea that even if we accept that the EU is flawed, perhaps fundamentally so, voting to leave now would be a retreat into narrow nationalism at a time at which the right in Britain, and across Europe, is ascendant and there is little prospect of a coherent, left alternative to it. This whole argument turns on matters of faith: on the one hand it reflects a misplaced faith in the possibility and potential of transformative, transnational politics and on the other it represents a loss of faith in the capacity of working people, and of the political left, to genuinely transform the political and social landscape. The first sort of faith is reflected, again, in the DiEM25 initiative, which wants to build a ‘Europe of Peoples’ beyond the nation state, and has as one of its medium-term aims the convening of a Constitutional Assembly to develop ideas and institutions to govern the peoples of Europe. Such transnationalism, a form of liberal cosmopolitanism, counter-poses its own progressive character with the spectre of retreating into ‘the cocoons’ of narrow nationalism.

There are a number of problems with this argument. The first is that (notwithstanding the rhetoric of popular participation) it seeks, unwittingly perhaps, to substitute the top-down rule of one set of technocrats for another. The premise behind this line of argument is that the EU, as such, was positive and progressive to start with, until the bad, neoliberal technocrats captured it. It can be salvaged by the good, social democratic technocrats leading the peoples of Europe, from above, into the light of a more enlightened set of social and economic policies. This is ironic, yes, but also fundamentally problematic. It seeks to put the cart before the horse, and develop a Europe of peoples through the agency of a few prominent personages. Charismatic, top-down leadership geared towards salvaging the EU is not a break or rupture with the logic of neoliberalism capitalism, but a variation on it – and as such, will be riddled with the same shortcomings and contradictions.

The only alternative to the EU, with its neoliberal and fundamentally undemocratic character, is the self-organisation and mobilisation of working people in Europe (in all of their variety). Such a movement cannot be conjured up at the transnational level, but must begin at the local level. As Singer (210) succinctly put it, ‘the nation-state is still the ground on which the movement begins, power is seized, and the radical transformation of society is initiated’. Notwithstanding the delusions of post-nationalists (whether of the neoliberal or social democratic variety), movements for fundamental social change have to be built at the local level, and the nation state remains the basic unit of political action in this regard. In this respect, the EU, again, acts more as a restraint than an aid. As Wahl puts it, ‘the European Union itself creates a number of impediments, not only for economic and social development in Europe, but also for the social struggle’. Faith in the institutions of the EU and the possibilities of transnational politics to bring about the changes that are needed is misplaced. At present, the‘working class, the trade unions, and other popular forces are now facing a brutal power struggle, which was started from above’. This assault has been facilitated by the institutions of the EU. The fight back against it will, of necessity, be mounted at the domestic level (while also building and relying on internationalist solidarity) and in this context the need to rupture with the institutions of the EU will become increasingly apparent.

Finally, then, is the loss of faith in the capacity of the working class in Britain and of the political left to develop the sort of politics necessary to confront the rise of the right and the crises of capitalism. There is not space enough here to deal with every aspect of this issue, but it can be one of the positive up-shots of the Brexit debate if it forces socialists in Britain to face up to the organisational and political malaise which they now find themselves in. It is patently true that in Britain, and elsewhere around Europe, the working class and the political left are in bad shape, and the biggest crisis in capitalism since the 1930s has not, yet, produced a dramatic change in fortunes in this regard. It is understandable that such a vista could induce a degree of melancholy, resignation and defeatism amongst socialists, even while they continue to espouse the slogans they inherited from the Twentieth century. But the Brexit debate is an invitation to break with this malaise. In much the same way as the referendum about Scottish independence in 2014 became a thoroughgoing debate about what sort of Scotland, and what sort of future people wanted, the Brexit debate can provide a space in which socialists advance principled, revolutionary arguments about the nature of capitalism and the EU and invite working people to become the active protagonists in the construction of a different future. 

We can turn away in dismay at the number of votes that went to UKIP in the last general election, or we can focus on the fact that a recent study shows that a majority of people in Britain have recently said they prefer socialism to capitalism. Focus on the fact that crises in capitalism can open up space for political developments that seemed impossible not long before. The choice confronting us now is between two distinct approaches to politics. We can, as Samir Amin argues, approach the current conjuncture as opportunists, who understand politics as ‘the art of benefiting from the balance of power, such as it is’, or we approach it as principled socialists, for whom politics is ‘the art of transforming the balance of power’. In a similar vein, Marta Harnecker argues that ‘for revolutionaries 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’. Entering the fray and arguing, on principled, anti-racist lines, for Britain to exit the EU and seeking to clarify the real issues facing working people is the crucial role of socialists in this conjuncture. 

IV. Conclusions

If we could choose our own battles—or to paraphrase, choose the conditions in which we are called upon to make our own history—then many socialists would not put a debate about Britain’s continued membership of the EU top of their list. But that is the fight before us now. It may well be that this debate has its origins in Tory civil war politics, and that the mainstream debate will be dominated by racist, economistic and other misplaced narratives, but none of that absolves us of the responsibility to set out a principled socialist position on the debate. We can and must engage people and make clear that: (i) the EU now does as much to undermine peoples rights and living conditions as it does to protect them; (ii) the entire edifice is constitutionally and irredeemably undemocratic and neoliberal; and (iii) the thousands of dead men, women and children at the bottom of the Aegean and the despicable deal recently struck between the EU and Turkey are not an aberration, not a breach with mythical European values – instead they reflect Europe and the EU as it is. As such, we can and should break with the EU. If we do so there are no guarantees of what will come next: we do not get guarantees. But there are opportunities to imagine and fight for an entirely different Europe; that’s our challenge and we must prove ourselves worthy of it.

Originally Published on Critical Legal Thinking.