Alone Now: From Hope to Brexit Despair

By John Weeks

Original cartoon appeared in the Evening Standard June 1940 after Dunkirk evacuation & surrender of France, by David Low with caption “very well, alone then”.
Original cartoon appeared in the Evening Standard June 1940 after Dunkirk evacuation & surrender of France, by David Low with caption “very well, alone then”.

A Tale of Two Summers

The summer of 2015 brought a spectacularly bright ray of progressive hope to the United Kingdom: the increasingly obvious likelihood that a socialist would soon lead the near-moribund Labour Party. After almost 20 years of Thatcher-lite neoliberal policies, the grassroots membership voted overwhelmingly for Jeremy Corbyn to take leadership of the Labour Party.

The progressive victory proved short-lived. Less than year later, the far Right would achieve its greatest victory in British electoral history, winning the IN/OUT referendum on the European Union through a campaign of flagrant xenophobia and racism. Attempts to portray the referendum result as a rejection of globalization, an opening for “progressive nationalists,” or a recapturing of democracy lost to Brussels confront an extremely inconvenient fact: the most reactionary UK political party drove the OUT campaign with a message of fear of foreigners and especially of Muslims (see UKIP poster).

United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage standing in front of a UKIP poster showing a crowd of alleged EU immigrants with an obvious implication of a Muslim horde.
United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage standing in front of a UKIP poster showing a crowd of alleged EU immigrants with an obvious implication of a Muslim horde.

 

That the overwhelming majority in Scotland, the most social democratic region of the United Kingdom,  favors  remaining in the European Union,  further indicates the reactionary politics of so-called Brexit. As the consistently progressive and anti-racist UK journalist Gary Younge wrote,

[The Leave campaign] unleashed a range of demons it could not tame and then refused to face them honestly, preferring to wade to the finish line through a toxic swamp of postcolonial nostalgia, xenophobia and general disaffection

What OUT Did Not Mean

The post-referendum misrepresentations rival and reflect the lies peddled during the campaign. First and foremost, the suggestion that the British Isles would enjoy more “sovereignty” outside of the European Union  is nonsense. The grain of truth in that campaign assertion is that capitalists operating in Britain will enjoy less regulation, because UK consumer protection, guarantees of workers rights, and restrictions on environmental degradation are far stronger in EU law than British law.

Second, the infamous and eponymous “Brussels bureaucrats” exert almost no influence, much less control, over British economic policy. The British government refused to join into the package of fiscal rules that are the most pernicious element of the EU Treaties (Britain has a formal “opt-out”, as does Denmark). The savage policies enforced on Greece and to a lesser extent Ireland, Italy, Portugal, and Spain would be impossible to implement in Britain, because they derive from membership in the eurozone (the British government also negotiated an “opt-out” from the requirement that if it meets specified criteria a country must join the eurozone).

Third, for better or for worse with the exception of Scotland the referendum outcome will not encourage separatism in the European Union. On the contrary, the boost of right wing parties will lead to them overwhelming the few substantial separatist movements on the continent, most obviously in Spain.

Fourth, I am very skeptical that British withdrawal will prompt “reform” of EU governance of any type (see the hopeful article by German parliamentarian Norbert Röttgen, no doubt sincere but fanciful). The German government’s power over EU decisions varies between strong and hegemonic. That power and the austerity policies it has forced upon the continent very much serve the interests of German industry and banks.

Domestic austerity keeps wages and thus export costs down; austerity for the rest of the eurozone enforces the servicing of public debt held by German banks. More likely than German led reform is German enforced consolidation of a smaller European Union around appallingly reactionary domestic policies and a mercantilist trade strategy.

What the Referendum Did Mean for the British Isles

Above all the referendum outcome means strengthening right-wing political parties and ideology on the continent and in the British Isles. This fallout from a campaign of overt xenophobia and thinly disguised racism should surprise no one.

Progressive forces in the British Isles have suffered a triple blow. First, the strong OUT vote in England (53%) and stronger IN vote for Scotland (62%) lay the basis for a second Scottish independence referendum. In 2014 the independence referendum lost 45% to 55%.

However, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, perhaps the canniest politician of the British Isles, may read the Brexit result as a harbinger of success for a second referendum. Should a majority of Scottish voters choose independence it would prove virtually impossible for the parliament in London to prevent a breakup of the United Kingdom.

The consequence for progressives of a “Great Britain” made up of England, Wales and Northern Ireland would be dire. The likelihood is extremely low of the Labour Party winning a majority of the parliamentary seats in England. In Wales, the Labour Party holds most of the seats, but they are few in number—only 40 of 650 (with 59 in Scotland).

For decades, the Labour Party could hope for Wales and Scotland to cover its losses in England and Northern Ireland, but Scottish independence would mean either a near-permanent Conservative majority in “Britain” or a Labour Party re-conversion to neoliberalism to court voters in the South of England.

The second blow arrived quickly: an attempt by the center-right of the Labour party to depose Jeremy Corbyn from the leadership. Since the moment of Corbyn’s election as head of the party the so-called Blairites have conspired to undermine his leadership. Their objection to Corbyn is political: he fights for a re-invigoration of social democracy based on trade union support, and the Blairites seek to maintain neoliberalism in the interest of capital.

Those Labour Party MPs who led the coup have more in common with the Conservative Party than with Corbyn. They favor renewal of the country’s nuclear weapons, reduction of the fiscal deficit through expenditure cuts, and support for the financial sector. Right-of-centre Labour abhors the policies that won Corbyn the leadership: commitment to terminate nuclear weapons, end austerity, and tight regulation of  “the City”.

As I write this article, the Parliamentary Labour Party is in the process of voting overwhelmingly to pressure Corbyn to resign. Because of his grassroots support and the rules for electing Labour leaders, the vote, likely to be more than two-to-one against Corbyn, cannot in itself depose him. But at best Labour’s first social democrat leader in decades will be severely weakened.

This intra-party challenge to Corbyn follows directly from Brexit. Perhaps even more serious is that the OUT victory has unleashed a wave of overt racism. Only four days after the referendum, the soon-to-be-replaced Prime Minister David Cameron found it necessary to denounce what he called “despicable” acts against foreigners throughout England (watch speech on the BBC). Aditya Chakrabortty, Guardian journalist, pointed out the irony: Cameron ran a pro-EU campaign with a promise to reduce migration and now is forced to denounce the xenophobic results of that promise.

Independence of Scotland leaving a neoliberal rump Kingdom, near-fatal weakening of a progressive leader, and a rising wave of racism—these are the fruits of victory for the pro-Brexit forces.

What the Referendum Did Mean on the Continent

If anyone hoped that Brexit would strengthen progressive forces on the continent those hopes quickly evaporated. Quite the contrary has occurred with alarming rapidity.

On the Sunday after the UK referendum Spain held its second general election in less than a year. In December 2015 Europe’s largest progressive coalition, Podemos, came close to an electoral break-through. It won 20% of the vote in its first entry onto the national scene, less than two percentage points short of replacing the Socialists as the leading opposition party. The inability of any grouping to form a government resulted in a second election, held last Sunday.

Polls suggested that the broadened coalition, Unidos Podemos, would leap past the Socialists to second place nationally, laying the basis for a new Spanish government committed to end austerity. In the event the Right gained. Seats won by Unidos Podemos came from the Socialists, a swap within the left of center. After substantial losses in December 2015, the right-wing Peoples’ Party gained fifteen seats and will continue its hold on government.

Elsewhere in Europe the Brexit vote emboldened the ultra-right. In France Marine Le Pen, leader of the neo-fascist National Front, immediately promised an OUT referendum. In the Netherlands, the virulently anti-Muslim politician Geert Wilders called for a referendum on EU membership. Were this to occur, it would follow closely on the Dutch electorate’s defeat of a referendum for closer links between the European Union and Ukraine in which Wilders played a prominent role.

The Reality of the UK Far Right

A majority of working class and poor white English men and women voted to leave the European Union. To consider that vote as progressive because of its class origin represents the equivalent of taking a favorable view of Donald Trump because he harvests the votes of white working class Americans.

Gary Younge, quoted above, succinctly summarized Brexit:

Not everyone, or even most, of the people who voted leave were driven by racism. But the leave campaign imbued racists with a confidence they have not enjoyed for many decades and poured arsenic into the water supply of our national conversation.

It may be that this surge of the Right and weakening of progressive movements will prove a passing moment, soon to be replaced by a blossoming of Brexit-provoked grassroots democracy and social democracy throughout the British Isles and the European continent.

But don’t plan on it, because there is no indication of it.

John Weeks is a professor emeritus at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. 

Our May/June issue is out!

Our May/June issue is out!  Print subscribers should get their copies soon, and electronic subscribers just received their full-color pdfs. And we have posted the cover feature, an interview with economist Jayati Ghosh, The ‘Emerging’ Economies Today.  And here is this issue’s editorial note:

The Age of Misdirection

Name a problem, and someone in a position of power or privilege will have a diversionary explanation for it. One that is consistent with—or even redoubles—their power or privilege.

John Miller takes on one of these diversionary tactics in this issue’s “Up Against The Wall Street Journal.” Economist Lawrence Lindsey, erstwhile economic advisor to George W. Bush, says “progressives” are to blame for rising inequality in the United States. In fact, inequality of market incomes has risen under both Democratic and Republican administrations—thanks to the erosion of unions, weakening of the welfare state, adoption of pro-corporate “free trade” agreements, and the like. Redistributive tax and spending policy do some, but not enough, to reduce inequality.

Nor have government policymakers done what they could to spur economic recovery or restore full employment in the wake of the Great Recession. Gerald Friedman notes—in an ongoing debate with critics of his writings on Bernie Sanders’ economic program—that mainstream economists are telling us to just accept today’s stagnant economy as the new normal. That’s all well and good for large corporations and the very wealthy. The once-again-rising tide has lifted their boats. Not so for the majority, who are struggling to keep their heads above water.

We see more sleight-of-hand politics when it comes to taxes. To dodge taxes, U.S. corporations stash trillions in profits in fictitious overseas accounts. That’s still not enough for some of them, Roger Bybee points out, so they engage in “inversions”— their legal takeover by companies headquartered in lower-tax countries. Confronted with this spectacle, government and corporate leaders say: We need to cut “punishing” corporate taxes! We need a “tax holiday” for corporations to repatriate profits “trapped” abroad! The mainstream press has responded to the “Panama Papers” scandal—which revealed details about tens of thousands of offshore bank accounts, likely used to dodge taxes—in much the same vein. The Wall Street Journal, Bill Black points out in his “Comment,” argues that the rampant concealment of private wealth is nothing more than a “distraction” (and that we should focus instead on government corruption).

Privilege may be concentrated at the very top (in the United States today, increasingly so). But, as Jeannette Wicks-Lim argues in “It Pays to Be White,” the story is much more complex than just “the 1%” against everyone else. In particular, the U.S. racial caste system stacks the deck, in a multitude of ways, in favor of whites and against African Americans. The attachment to white privilege is deeply ingrained, buttressed by the belief that “White people tend to get more because they deserve more, while Black people get less because they deserve less.” That creates a deep divide within the ranks of the “99%.” And it gives today’s racist demagogues, in the ultimate misdirection, scapegoats on whom to blame society’s ills.

One way to read all this, with some justification, is that the powerful and privileged will stop at nothing to hold on to their positions. Another, however, is that they are desperately improvising as their hold on society becomes more tenuous. Elites try to shift the blame for income inequality, economic stagnation, corporate tax dodging, and so on because they understand that more and more people see these as blameworthy. It’s not just in the United States where those in power are facing challenges to their authority and legitimacy. Jayati Ghosh points out that three sectors of the capitalist world—rich “core” capitalist countries, “emerging” economies that export manufactured goods to the core, and suppliers of raw-material and intermediate inputs for emerging-economy manufacturing—are tied together by trade and finance. Stagnation in the core has undermined export-oriented manufacturing and, with it, the raw-material commodities boom. The elites in these countries will have to move towards more inclusive, demand-driven growth, or face rising protest.

Here in the United States, we may not see mass protests right now, but we do see profound mass disillusionment with private and government elites. Even when those in power have steered society into a crisis, the existing order is likely to persist so long as people believe that those who created the mess will … somehow, some way … be able to fix it. When that belief no longer holds, change can occur quite dramatically.

But change in what direction? That is not preordained.