It’s almost old news now, but the lessons of the recent vote in Britain should be learned by socialists, especially because level of confusion about the vote is astounding. Take the Black Agenda Report’s Margaret Kimberly, for example. BAR normally has some of the most thoughtful political commentary in the United States. Yet Kimberly justifies the vote this way: British pro-Brexit workers “want freedom from the big bullies on the school yard, the United States of America and finance capital.” She describes the chaos among British and European capitalist politics that resulted and concludes: “Chaos can be a good thing. The current mess of post-Brexit politics is a sign that one part of the capitalist coalition is in trouble. They won’t give up easily and will do everything in their power to negate the will of the people. But this earthquake can’t be papered over easily and that is a good thing indeed.”
Her focus is absolutely typical within the left, including among socialists.
And it could not be more mistaken.
Instead of focusing on the disruption of capitalist society, Kimberly and the rest of the left should be asking one simple question: “Does this vote strengthen the working class? Does it add to its cohesion and unity and does it advance its understanding of its historic role?”
This welcoming of “chaos” in a time when the level of organization of the working class is at historic lows is reminiscent of the idea that “the worse it is, the better it is.” It is reminiscent of the slogan of the German Communist Party in the 1930s: “After Hitler, then us.” History did not treat that idea too kindly. Of course, the defeat of the German working class with the rise of Hitler dwarfs what has happened in Britain, but the principle is the same, as it is with the rise of the Islamic State, which has also weakened the “capitalist coalition”.
Weakening of Industrial Working Class
Or more similarly, consider Donald Trump, who was attacked almost daily by columnists in the Wall St. Journal. The support for him has much in common with the working class Brexit vote, as an article in the British Financial Times (7/2-3/2016) explains. They describe the devastation of the steel industry and its effect in the former steel town of Monessen, PA: “Mr. Trump has tapped into the frustration felt by people in areas such as Monessen, which have not reaped the gains of globalization,” they write. “‘Our workers’ loyalty (to America) was repaid with betrayal,'” Trump said in Monessen. “‘Our politicians have aggressively pursued a policy of globalization — moving our jobs, our wealth and our factories to Mexico and overseas.'” A long time liberal Democratic voter turned Trump supporter in Monessen commented: “You are having a form of revolution in this country… Trump is going against the Republicans to some degree. The people like that.”
Change “Trump” for Britain’s Boris Johnson, Republican for Tory, globalization for European Union, add in a healthy dose of anti-immigrant and racist sentiment to both… and this could be a description of the Brexit vote. But the return of heavy industry to either the United States or Britain is a mirage at best, and there is nothing that either Donald Trump or Brexit can do about its. There is a historical reason for the domination of finance capital in these countries, and it has a lot more to do with the tendency for the rate of profit to fall (as Karl Marx exlained) than anything to do with the policies of the US or British capitalist politicians. It also has a lot to do with globalization, and neither Donald Trump nor Brexit will reverse this inevitable process of capitalism.
The EU’s Maastricht Treaty and other statutes require that member states make workers pay for the crisis of capitalism — in other words, neo-liberal austerity. The Greek working class got a good dose of this medicine a few years ago when the radical Syriza party was elected to lead the government. Under the leadership of Alexis Tsipras, they pushed for the banks to “take a haircut” — in other words, for finance capital to pay for the crisis of Greek capitalism, instead of the Greek workers. The EU dictatorship pushed back, threatening to kick Greece out of the EU if Tsipras & Co. didn’t continue the austerity budgets and make the workers pay. Ultimately, Tsipris backed down.
This sounds like a good argument to leave the EU, until the alternatives are considered. What would have happened had Greece left the EU? They would have had to institute their own currency (the drachma), which would have been shunned by international finance capital, causing its value to collapse and prices in Greece to shoot through the roof.
This is a perfect example of Marx’s dictum that law (or in this case international treaties) just is a recognition of accomplished fact. The “accomplished fact” of the domination of finance capital and of the globalization of capitalism means that government deficit financing (Keynesianism) is dead. he “free markets” won’t allow it.
And it is no accident that throughout the struggle, the majority of Greek workers opposed
leaving the EU. Instead of appealing to the EU rulers, Tsipras & Co. should have been mobilizing the Greek workers and linking that up with a campaign to mobilize the working class throughout the EU and beyond. They should have been explaining that what happens to the Greek working class today will be happening to the workers in even the richest EU countries tomorrow. They should have been explaining the necessity to not only oppose austerity everyhere, but to link this with the struggle to overthrow capitalism itself. But such a campaign implies the very opposite of the implications of the Brexit vote.
This doesn’t mean, by the way, that the Greek workers should not have stuck to their guns and been willing to challenge the EU rulers to throw Greece out of the EU. But being kicked out by the capitalists is radically different from voluntarily leaving, as the latter sends a message to workers throughout the EU that “we aren’t going to try to build an EU wide workers’ movement.”
Much is made of the undemocratic nature of the European Union, which is largely run by unelected bureaucrats and commissions. But how is this fundamentally different from every capitalist state, where the elected representatives are really captive of the military, the criminal (in)justice bureaucracy, etc.? How has shifting increased power to the capitalist state vs. the EU commissions really changed very much?
EU and Trade Deals
Left supporters of Brexit (along with Donald Trump) liken the EU to such trade deals as Nafta, but the two are very different, first of all in the fact that the EU originated shortly after WW II in an attempt to get around the crisis of inter-imperialist rivalries that had resulted in two world wars. And today the EU contains measures that require certain protections for workers and for the environment. It also requires free movement of EU citizens within the EU. The different trade deals tend to prohibit things like environmental regulations as a restraint on free trade. And while all the trade deals are aimed at recognizing the fact of free movement of capital, none of them provide for the free movement of workers.
Just as Donald Trump calls for independence from foreign capital, so many British workers who voted for Brexit were seeking to break the ties with European capital. In the first place, that is impossible. Even the US economy cannot stand alone, much less the British one. Already there is talk about increasingly closer economic ties between Britain and the US. Some great step forward – trading the domination of European for that of US capitalism!
But more important is the question of the understanding on the part of the British working class of their role in society. Just like the working class in every single capitalist country, the British workers have no common interests with the British capitalist class. But in part, it was exactly the opposite that the Brexit campaign preached. “We’re British…. Return Great Britain to its former role in the world…. ” All that sort of patriotic nonsense.
And if British workers think that the British capitalists will be any kinder to them, that they will demand any less austerity, they are in for a deep disappointment. Meanwhile, their understanding of their role, independent of and in opposition to the British capitalist class, will have been thrown back by the Brexit campaign.
This will have been compounded by the fact that the issue of immigration was the central issue for Brexiteers. This includes for workers who voted for Brexit. Sure, the majority may not have been committed racists or xenophobes, but the campaign still encouraged the view that the source of workers’ problems in Britain has been immigration, that “something has to be done” about all the immigration. It’s the immigrants, claimed the Brexiteers, who are taking the jobs and costing the government in public services. Don’t unite all workers against all capitalists; instead unite British workers with British capitalists. That was the
inescapable logic of the message. Once again, we see the similarity with Donald Trump’s campaign in the US. And although the majority of British workers who voted for Brexit may not be committed bigots and xenophobes, those forces definitely got a boost from the entire Brexit campaign and from its outcome. We have seen this in the significant rise of verbal and physical racist assaults since the vote there.
In other words, yes the Brexit vot was a revolt against neoliberalism, but it was a revolt to the right, a revolt away from working class unity and solidarity, a revolt away from consciousness that “the working class and the employing class have nothing in common”. This rightwards revolt must be taken in the global context: All around the world we see increasing communal, sectarian, religious and ethnic divisions. We see it in Myanmar, where the Buddhist monks are leading attacks on the mainly Muslim Rohingya minority. We see it with the rise of the right wing xenophobic and racist parties throughout Europe, with the bloody slaughter between Christian and Muslim Nigerians, and most clearly with the rise of the Islamic State. The crisis in Britain and the US is not as severe as in most other parts of the world, so the tendency towards such sectarianism is not as extreme, but that is what Brexit and Trump represent. And the danger is very real.
That reality is shown by the many reports of increased racist verbal and physical assaults in Britain since the vote there. Socialist supporters of Brexit tend to ignore or belittle this serious development. In part that’s because they cannot explain it. When, after all, has such a great victory by workers – as Brexit is supposed to have been – been immediately followed by increased racism and division?
There is an alternative, and that alternative is working class unity and internationalism – not in words but in deeds. A large part of the reason for the immigration into Britain has been the extremely low wages in other parts of the EU. Consider the huge differences in the minimum wage, for example. It ranges from 2.13/hour in Lithuania and 2.55 in Poland to 9.23 in Britain and 9.67 in France. Several countries, including Italy, have no minimum wage at all. Instead of defending national divisions, socialists should have been campaigning for an EU-wide minimum wage, a living wage, with additional amounts in the individual countries based on higher costs of living. This should have been linked with a demand for a guaranteed job or social/unemployment benefits for all.
Unfortunately, the Brexit vote makes this sort of campaign more difficult, especially in Britain, but it also makes it all the more important, as the Brexit vote shows the dangers of even greater divisions in the working class.
The wave of refugees coming to Europe from Syria, Afghanistan, etc. is also relevant and important. A genuine workers’ campaign of the kind described above would have to also fight for the needs of these refugees and draw them into the struggle. Doing so would open up another tremendous opportunity: The opportunity to unite the European working class with the predominently Muslim workers of North Africa and West Asia – a unity not just of kind words and nice intentions, but a unity in common struggle. Among other things, this would start to destroy the basis for Islamic fundamentalism, most particularly the base of the fascist Islamic State.
In this way, the setback and the dangers of the Brexit vote could be reversed. But it cannot be done without recognizing it for what it was first, nor without accepting that socialists have made a huge blunder by supporting this divisive set back of the working class.