Brexit, Corbyn and Beyond

corbyn

 

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.

 

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.