Brexit and the Dilemma of the Left

Rahul Vaidya September 14, 2016

By now, the furor over Brexit has largely settled. The result of the British referendum to leave the European Union (though by a small margin of 52% voting for Brexit versus 48% against), which was declared on 23rd June 2016 sent shockwaves through financial markets and political establishments around the world. The analysts have even compared its fallout with the financial crisis of 2008 followed by the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

In a sense, the political scene in Britain best captures the crisis of parliamentary democracy in neoliberal times. First, all the established political parties are in disarray. The incumbent Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron has stepped down with party deeply divided over Brexit and Britain’s relations with European issue responsible for Margaret Thatcher’s undoing as well. The opposition Labour Party is engulfed in crisis over whether to continue with its Left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn. What is more, UKIP, i.e. UK Independence Party, the true victors of the ‘Leave’ campaign is also finding it hard to come to terms with their victory as exemplified by their leader Nigel Farage stepping down.

The region-wise differences in the vote are also telling. Scotland and Northern Ireland, having voted ‘Remain’ are anxious about how their interests are preserved in the new arrangement. The City of London, the financial capital of Europe and also, a melting pot for migrants from diverse backgrounds, voted solidly for ‘Remain’. Although Wales voted to ‘Leave’, it is weighing on the costs for leaving EU and is unsure about which way to go. Then there’s a contentious claim of old voters messing up the future of the youth- one of the many arguments put forth by some desperate ‘Remain’ campaigners. Last, but not the least, the racist attacks are on the rise. The success of Brexit campaign, largely run by xenophobic elements on an anti-immigrant platform has laid bare the racist venom and already claimed one life - Labour MP Jo Cox.

In short, the national polity in Britain is adrift. The economic direction and manner in which the separation from the European Union will happen remain uncertain. In microcosm, the chaos after Brexit is mere re-affirmations of the continuing mess after the financial crisis of 2008. This has been a generally accepted fact on the Left. Also, by now, there’s a consensus that Brexit has been a victory for far-Right forces like UKIP and their anti-immigrant agenda, and Islamophobia has found support even within Asian and Black communities, proving again the rightward drift amidst the general economic crisis.

The European Union has been an extremely rigid technocratic platform to aggressively pursue neo-liberal agenda. The austerity packages imposed on the member countries in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 have aggravated further the welfare cuts impacting the working poor, pensioners, students, migrants, and youth. There has been considerable anger at the manner in which the European Union has been undermining the welfare policies.

However, there are fundamental differences on the Left in the political ‘reading’ of the situation thrown ‘open’ by the economic crises and consequently, the strategies for their ‘socialist consummation’. Hence, the responses of the Left for Brexit ranges from celebrations to moral panic, exposing the persisting dilemma of the Left on how to theorize the present conjuncture of neo-liberalism and its crisis. In this note, I would try to outline this dilemma with Brexit as the immediate point of departure, and how it is deeply linked to the necessity to locate the ‘agency’ for change in present times as against negotiating competing claims for ‘identity’.

Continuity with neo-liberal austerity politics

Brexit is another classic crumbling of ‘Hard Centre’ politics which was celebrated throughout the nineties with political establishment committed to the neo-liberalism; Security State wedded to militarist interventions and rhetorically progressive but practically skeptical multi-culturalism. The crucial question is where one locates the ‘break’- has the Brexit really broken with rightward plank of polity or it is the shift towards further far-right. The European Union has been an extremely rigid technocratic platform to aggressively pursue neo-liberal agenda. The austerity packages imposed on the member countries in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008 have aggravated further the welfare cuts impacting the working poor, pensioners, students, migrants, and youth. There has been considerable anger at the manner in which the European Union has been undermining the welfare policies. The key question is whether this anger is being directed at neo-liberal policies as such. To the varying degrees, the answer is yes. Countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal have witnessed people’s protests and movements against neo-liberal austerity resulting in a new Left platform such as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. To a greater extent, Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to Labor Party leadership in Britain itself was a marker of popular anger finding its way through Left platform and vocabulary.

But, there’s a bigger elephant in the room. The far-Right parties and movements are witnessing a surge across Europe as manifested in the Islamophobia finding a public expression, racist mobilizations becoming commonplace and discontent against the East European migrant labor in other parts of Europe. The EU has come to stand for open door policy for migrants and more recently the Syrian refugees for the far-Right rhetoric (while the reality remains otherwise). The far-Right has consistently attacked austerity of European Union, and it has championed the cause of native working classes leading people to believe that their victory would at least ‘shake things up’ and would ‘end the Status Quo’. In short, things would become less probable, more chaotic and some revolutionary possibilities would emerge out of it.

However, the danger is of ‘the more things change, the more they would remain the same’. For all the theater and spectacles of far-Right politics, this fact has to be underlined again and again. The success of Brexit on far-Right platform essentially means continuing with harsher neo-liberal austerity and not less. The far-Right’s solutions of curbing flow of the immigrants are also very much continuation of neo-liberal austerity agenda and not otherwise. It is just a change of form for neo-liberalism. With effective curbs on immigration and open market policies, less open borders for labor with full flexibility for capital to move jobs across the world- i.e. freedom for corporations for outsourcing and downsizing remains intact, the freedom of financial flows remains intact. At the same time, such new regimes of say, post-Brexit kind, would be able to downsize their welfare budget for migrants in a significant manner.

Charges of corruption have been one major tool to delegitimize the Left as we have seen recently in Brazil. Left is accused of ‘using’ the workers to its political ends. ‘‘Outsiders’ stealing jobs, and corrupting the culture’ becomes a hegemonic common sense which is hard to dislodge as excellently witnessed in the rise and growth of Shiv Sena in Mumbai. In a sense then, the rise of such militant Xenophobic Right is a true indictment for Left for not having carried out the revolution’.

In a sense, Fascist politics has no separate economic prescriptions of its own. It adopts the terrain upon which it finds its feet and tries desperately to paint it in aggressive colors to hold onto it. German Fascism of the 1930s adopted state interventionist approach while far-Right of the day has little to offer as an alternative to neo-liberal economics except its aggressive vocabulary. The possibility of negotiating new trade treaties with appeal to sovereign ‘national will’ being supreme are effective political mobilizations for far-Right. Such negotiations would end up curtailing labor and freeing capital even further.

The problematic of ‘False Consciousness’

The whole premise of Lexit- i.e. Leftist case for Brexit and such other protest politics against EU is this: ‘European working class has discarded the neo-liberal politics of the establishment. It has rather chosen to disobey the elite, the masters of EU and hegemony of finance capital. The new vehicle the working class has opted for might be a reactionary xenophobic far-Right like National Front of Le Pen, or UKIP etc. but even this ‘false consciousness’ contains an element of “truth”. If only the social democratic parties listen carefully to this message and alter themselves radically, they can avoid their ‘Pasokification’.

Hence, there is a certain refrain that ‘Labor Party should have supported Brexit which would have altered the terms of debate from anti-immigrant rhetoric to hard-core economic issues of austerity’. Seemingly, this argument is logical as it acknowledges the Brexit outcome as a success for far-Right, anti-immigrant platform. What is missing though is the fact that Labor joining the Brexit campaign wouldn’t have materially altered the terms of the debate. This fallacy is prevalent due to persisting faith of the Left in its ‘false consciousness’ theorization of xenophobia and ultra-right politics. It leads to the belief that the ‘superstructural’ dust of race, identity etc. will be cleared away once the solid issues of Economic ‘Base’ i.e. employment, welfare etc. are taken up by the Left. This erroneous belief hence overlooks the long continuity of rightward shift favoring neo-liberalism world over in past 30 years happened not through some dictatorial rule but through winning popular consent which has altered the vocabulary and common sense in a radical manner. In the British case, I would like to highlight the necessity to revisit Stuart Hall’s brilliant essay- ‘The great moving Right show’ for this purpose.

Ideology and politics and their autonomous functioning are best marked by the far Right politics across the world, as it continues to discredit the class politics project of the Left over past two centuries in favor of the creation of a new ‘public’ defined by race, region, religion etc. What is more, this ‘public’ is radically different from traditional conservative bases among peasantry or landed classes. This ‘public’ takes every instance of economic injustice put forth by the Left at its face value. It acknowledges it. It even incorporates it within its vocabulary as a legitimate grievance. However, it carries out an ingenious operation- it accuses the Left as a major party to this injustice. All the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary institution building like trade unions, community centers, state undertakings which are a hallmark of Left, are undermined. Charges of corruption have been one major tool to delegitimize the Left as we have seen recently in Brazil. Left is accused of ‘using’ the workers to its political ends. ‘‘Outsiders’ stealing jobs, and corrupting the culture’ becomes a hegemonic common sense which is hard to dislodge as excellently witnessed in the rise and growth of Shiv Sena in Mumbai. In a sense then, the rise of such militant Xenophobic Right is a true indictment for Left for not having carried out the revolution’. Hence, the problematic of ‘False consciousness’ doesn’t mean merely ‘lifting the veil’ by constant propaganda about the economic hardships, austerity etc. but also structure an alternative politics with inclusive agenda, both economically and socially which requires both a militant political campaigning as well as building credible alternatives through the State power.

What happens to Hegemony of finance?

Prabhat Patnaik has called Brexit as ‘the revolt of the British working class against the hegemony of finance which will undermine the confidence of capitalists and also encourage other countries to follow the British example’.

As we have earlier noted, the far-Right which has emerged victorious in Brexit is very much comfortable with austerity and other such neo-liberal prescriptions. Furthermore, Kalecki’s quip that ‘Tragedy of capital is that it is necessary’ is often quoted by Left to justify its adjustments and maneuvers when in power within a neo-liberal framework. What is more, the absurdity of one single nation-state charting own course of development independent of international finance capital is amply clear. Hence, the possibility of an alternative economic path within Britain is, of course, ruled out. So the question then is whether ‘other countries follow the British example’ and what alternative emerges out of it. It solely lies contingent upon a domino effect ensuing financial chaos all around the world. That such financial chaos and disruption of status quo would bring forth a Left alternative have been a continuing hope since 2008; only to reconfirm Gramsci’s sobering words ‘the old is dying and the new cannot be born: in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’.

While the British working class support for Brexit is acknowledged, assumed and celebrated; there remains a degree of racism and anti-migrant sentiment not just within English workers but also long-settled workers from commonwealth- Asian, West Indians etc. Furthermore, isn’t it the case that the true proletariat today is a migrant worker employed with low wages, little or no job security, no legal protection, no voting rights and political representation? It is certainly the duty of the Left to locate and organize these various sections of working class and evolve a political representation meaningful for their common struggle.

There’s already talk that Britain may be establishing some mechanism for a continuing common market with EU while putting curbs on migration. It is here the comparison with Greece’s Grexit fiasco last year is most pertinent. Grexit constituted a threat to finance capital as it would commit default not as a financial institution committed to rules of the neo-liberal game but as a sovereign nation-state default on behalf of the democratic will of its people against austerity and might of EU. The democratic mandate in Greece against austerity was undermined with iron fists and might of EU while Britain’s ‘exit’ is treated with much more caution and respect with a willingness to maneuver immigration policies. The difference is telling.

Hence, in a sense, the emergence of anti-globalization forces from the Right indicates popular discontent for the neo-liberal establishment. But it also indicates some fundamental restructuring going on within capitalism itself which involves re-negotiated trade agreements which involve less labor movement and more free movement of capital. It is a moment of post-post Fordism austerity and a ‘Thatcher resurrection’ in the form of euro-skepticism is pretty apt for it.

Locating the ‘agency’ for change in present times as against negotiating competing claims for ‘identity’

The 1930s witnessed the rise of Fascism in Germany, Italy, and Spain etc. However, the Third International maintained that ‘National Fascism’ of these countries and ‘Social Fascism’ of the West i.e. Western Parliamentary Social Democracies were both tools of the bourgeoisie and both had to be fought against. It was only with Dimitrov’s United Front doctrine as well as Popular Front resistance against General Franco in Spain that the position of the International underwent change with a distinction between progressive and reactionary sections among the bourgeoisie. It is important for the Left to revisit this history and reflect over a present challenge on how to address the divisions within class especially considering how there is a shift in establishment support for redrafting trade agreements and other such issues.

The World over, the far-Right has succeeded reifying the ‘identity’ as the core of politics over past 30 years. Even the establishment politics and political parties have adopted the defensive form of celebrating multi-culturalism as a foregrounding feature of calculative political mobilization thus shifting the focus on immigration, security apparatus, outsider, Islamophobia etc. So we have both ‘strong and lite’ versions of austerity as well as identity politics. As the establishment politics has unraveled, the lite variants have invariably fallen apart paving way for stronger austerity and more xenophobia. This has deeply hurt the working class and its class politics as such.

Hence it is important is how the Left addresses the identity divisions within the working class. While the British working class support for Brexit is acknowledged, assumed and celebrated; there remains a degree of racism and anti-migrant sentiment not just within English workers but also long-settled workers from commonwealth- Asian, West Indians etc. Furthermore, isn’t it the case that the true proletariat today is a migrant worker employed with low wages, little or no job security, no legal protection, no voting rights and political representation? It is certainly the duty of the Left to locate and organize these various sections of working class and evolve a political representation meaningful for their common struggle. Occupy Wall Street movement in United States had used the rhetoric of ‘1 per cent versus 99 per cent’ to mobilize an unprecedented cross-sectional people. The recent campaign by Sen. Bernie Sanders for Democratic Presidential nomination in US elections continuously harped on this ’99 per cent’ and called for a ‘political revolution’. This effort, however, needs to go beyond platitudes over economic exploitation as common cause uniting people and has to found its separate political existence in direct contradiction with Identity-driven projects. Unless this alternative vision of a ‘working class-for-itself’ isn’t elaborated and isn’t backed by a viable organization of people on a common platform; the dilemmas of the Left will continue to complicate further.

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