CriticAtac: So, Brexit has won. Nonetheless, it is not entirely clear what this entails and, indeed, if anything really major has happened so far. What are the next institutional and procedural steps? The UK establishment seems to be trying to drag out the process and postpone the big move, with some even suggesting that the referendum result should be ignored, or that a second referendum should be held, while EU officials, as offended as they want to appear, are pushing for a swift exit. What do you think will happen and what sort of institutional relationship will eventually be negotiated between the UK (or what’s left of it) and the EU?
Major? For sure. The EU has been expanding for seven decades. Brexit represents a sharp reverse of this trend. As to the next steps, they’re hard to discern amidst the pile-up of contradictions and ‘known unknowns.’ Brexit represents a historic rupture, with ramifications throughout Europe and beyond, yet it was precipitated by a feud within the Tory Party — and Boris Johnson, the most prominent leader of the Brexit camp, arguably did not even wish to win. The demos, by a slim margin, voted ‘leave’ but the overwhelming preference of the establishment — CEOs, senior civil servants, parliamentarians and so on — was for ‘remain,’ and they staff the institutions that will shape and implement the decision. For its part, Brussels will presumably attempt to strike a balance: inflict tough conditions pour encourager les autres, but not mete out punishment so callously as to give the impression of outright sadism—as occurred in the case of Greece. Nor would the EU wish the terms to be so harsh that a downward spiral in trade relations ensues. Whether 27 governments can collectively walk this tightrope while sparring with London (even as London grapples with Edinburgh) remains to be seen.
An alternative is for the vote to be annulled. This would spark jubilation among the 4 million (and climbing) signatories of a petition calling for a referendum re-run, but how justifiable would it be? In democratic terms the only strong argument is that the referendum denied a voice to a large constituency, EU immigrants, whose interests were centrally affected. But this card is not in play. A second argument is that the result was swung by the preferences of media moguls. Its practical implications are potentially radical (expropriate Murdoch?), but again, no one is playing this card. A third is that parliament is the sovereign whereas a referendum is merely an advisory plebiscite. This case would have some weight in a participatory political environment in which MPs were ‘of the people’ and parliamentary turnout exceeded that of the referendum, but no one could claim that those conditions apply in Britain. Annulment is nonetheless possible and would hardly be unprecedented. ‘No’ is the usual initial result of referendums on the EU, as occurred in the Netherlands, Ireland and France, which are then overturned. Athens’s refusal of the electorate’s όχι in 2015 is another case in point. If the Brexit vote were annulled it would be on legalistic and undemocratic terms, and it is no surprise that the early calls for this have come from hard-line neoliberals. The consequence would certainly be corrosive and conceivably, as George Monbiot warns, a full-scale class and culture war, pitching middle-class progressives against those on whose behalf they have claimed to speak.
CriticAtac: The Left somehow seems to have been caught à contrepied in this referendum — as it has been so often the case in recent decades. Its arguments did not play a role in structuring the debate, and its positions (whether for remain or exit) always seemed to join the debate while at the same time taking distance from the way it was formally framed: exit, but because of EU’s neoliberalism, not because of immigration; remain, but not in this EU, only in a reformed one… Lurking in the background, the social issue remained unarticulated in the main framing of the debate, and thus the class vote had to express itself along nationalist or racist lines. However, some on the left insist that, while the social question and the working class position were thwarted by the alternatives offered (neoliberalism or nationalism), in the new post-Brexit context they will again reach centre stage. Since the immigration issue has now lost its momentum (because of its own victory), they argue, and the neoliberal cage of the EU is left behind, the post-EU UK can finally become the place for social, emancipatory reforms. What’s your stand on this Lexit hope now?
European integration has long been a fraught issue for the left. Once upon a time, matters were simple. European integration was a cornerstone of US global hegemony. The EEC was a project geared to the interests of big business, as was its subsequent stage, the Single European Market with its famous ‘four freedoms.’ But while the freedom of movement of EU citizens was in its design a cog in the same project—labour mobility to serve big capital—the consequences in terms of lived experience have reshaped and reinvented communities, workplaces and political cultures across the continent, in a molecular but momentous way.
Talk of the Leave vote and the rise of UKIP as a working-class revolt is delusional. To the extent that a clear class preference existed it was only in the highest echelons. With the (influential) exception of media tycoons, the overwhelming bulk of business leaders and financiers backed Remain. The other classes split down the middle, and what you refer to as the ‘class vote’ was found on both sides. Remain attracted ethnic minorities and those expressing solidarity with immigrants—a ‘class vote,’ unquestionably—as well as Irish republicans, Scots, Londoners, young people, professionals, and in general the ‘winners’. Leave appealed to the elderly, small business owners, the less educated and many of those (in all social strata) who feel disadvantaged, left behind, ignored—a howl at the political-economic system, and at immigration; a chance to kick the establishment where it hurt.
The question on the ballot paper concerned EU membership and that alone. At face value, the case for ‘Lexit’ was powerful. It included the usual roster of criticisms, above all that neoliberal (or ordo-liberal) norms and rules have been cemented into the EU’s architecture: the kowtowing to corporate lobbyists in the corridors of Brussels, the frittering away of regulatory powers in secretive trade deals, the zealous devotion to austerity, capital market liberalisation, the commodification of previously protected sectors (utilities, telecommunications, and so on) and the rolling back of public ownership — hence the ‘Leave’ stance of the RMT rail union. Additional Lexit fuel was provided by the oligarchic cast of the EU’s constitutional structure, and by its refugee regime. The latter, in early 2016, revealed its ghastliest face, as Syrian refugees fleeing death by fire found only death by water, or faced deportation to Turkey — whence some were rounded up and bussed back to the warzone from which they had fled.
But although Lexit’s case was powerful, its base was anything but. In the context of a referendum, the strength of the case was proportionate to the strength of the base. If popular support for Lexit was marginal, the argument would be weak.
The referendum itself was ostensibly on the EU, but it was made at Tory HQ and stamped with xenophobia. Tory leader David Cameron and his allies sought to muzzle their frothing Eurosceptic backbenchers and to undercut UKIP by glossing the referendum as a plebiscite on immigration control. This was a reckless move, given that the crusade against immigration is UKIP’s raison d’etre, and Brussels would self-evidently not budge on the principle of free movement for EU citizens. Having negotiated minor restrictions on immigrant welfare rights, Cameron called on voters to back him, a move that could only play into the hands of those to his right. In a sense, then, the referendum represented the intersection of two dynamics that have long pock-marked British politics: the Tory divide over whether UK commerce should be principally oriented to Europe or to ‘the world’, and the attempt to head off challenges from the right by pandering to racism.
In the short term, the upshot has been incendiary. Bigots feel big, racists feel righteous, assaults and abuse are spiking. It would be ludicrous to put this entirely on the Brexiters’ tab. The ingredients have been fermenting for years, and have been stirred not least by the pillars of Remain. It’s worth recalling, in the light of claims that every single racist in the UK cast their vote for Leave, that the Remain campaign was dominated by senior figures from the Tory and Con-Dem and Labour governments of recent decades, a group of neoliberals and neoconservatives who have presided over a politics of racist triangulation and the most draconian state racism. On their watch, swathes of Britain’s cities have become chequerboards of neglected slums and barbed wire-laced gated communities, social mobility has plummeted, and an economic model has been constructed on the basis of tax exemption for the few, long hours and low pay for the many. And even as they created an immigration-reliant economy, they were absent or mealy-mouthed in defence of immigration. (For Labour, the symbolic nadir was Ed Miliband’s mug; for the Tories, it was the Islamic Human Rights Commission’s election of Theresa May as Islamophobe of the Year.) And so when the elderly hark back to an era, perhaps the ‘60s or ‘70s, when life was easier and more secure, their vernacular explanations may take a multitude of forms (romantic anti-modernity: ‘my daughters never have a moment no more, they’re always on their mobile phones or looking at the internet’; socialism: ‘there ain’t no jobs these days, the only ones smiling are the rich’) but they have with increasing doggedness fastened on the figure of the migrant. That this is a mirage is well established, not simply in that anti-immigrant sentiment tends to vary directly with immigrant density, but also in the findings of opinion surveys that immigration is cited as a pressing concern when voters are asked how a Europe-related issue affects the UK but enters far lower down the list when the question is how it affects them. However, the make-believe is believed. And worse, it has been ingeniously plugged into two other xenophobic myths: that immigration is the cause of poverty, and that the greater democratic self-government promised by Brexiters, which polls suggest was the single biggest factor contributing to their vote, is a programme of — inevitably racialized — nationalism.
CriticAtac: The Brexit vote has been analysed a lot in terms of its class composition and ideological framing. But how does it look from the standpoint of UK capital? What are the opportunities, constraints or limitations that the new post-EU context will impose on the structure and dynamics of the British economy? Again, in a similar way as the above, but this time from the perspective of capital: does Brexit offer the chance for the UK’s economy to reindustrialize, re-nationalize and thus bring back even a mild form of good old social democracy? Or, on the contrary, the very structure and uneven development of UK capitalism will necessitate an even more central role for the City and thus an even more unchallenged hegemony of financial capital, with all the social drama (deregulation, deindustrialization, flexibility, austerity etc.) this entails?
The basic structure of British capitalism owes much to its imperial history. Its age of manufacturing, now a distant memory, was a creation of war and empire. A more durable consequence has been the hypertrophic military itself, with associated arms industries, and of course the City of London. After cashing in on the sustained currency and securities volatility that Brexit will bring, the City will, as you say, fight to shore up its position and there will be no shortage of pliant politicians to offer their services. But it is likely to see its pre-eminent position slip. A slimmed City could assist the manufacturing sector via a weakened currency, but any such fillip is unlikely to be major. Despite Brexit, paradoxically, two central cogs of Britain’s economic engine are unlikely to be replaced (at least, after an initial recession), namely, its reliance on immigrant labour and on demand from the EU. For the military, prognosis is trickier. If Scotland were to secede, the Trident weapons system might have to be abandoned — although the EU may be reluctant to allow that door to open, in deference to Spanish and Belgian nationalism. Either way, the military could weaken, to the chagrin of those who voted ‘nation’ while dreaming ‘empire,’ but it is not difficult to imagine more militaristic and mercenary scenarios.
CriticAtac: Moving away from the UK now, what will happen in the EU after this referendum? Do you see a reverberation of secessionist spirits, leading to more referenda and more decisions to exit, or, on the contrary, will we witness a realignment and a strengthening of the European Union? If so, will this happen along tougher and stricter neoliberal lines? Or, perhaps, the famous — and famously absent — social-democratic front (coalesced around France and the Mediterranean countries) will now be able to push towards a more ‘social Europe’? Is such a realignment in favour of a presumed ‘European social alternative’ even possible?
The ‘secessionist spirit’ can lean this way or that, as a comparison of Brexit with Grexit shows, or, for that matter, diachronically — say, the history of Scottish or Catalan independence movements. For the time being, centrifugal forces are in the ascendant, and benefiting largely the nationalist right. This is best understood as a symptom of a broad malaise, one that Mike Wilkinson (borrowing from Tariq Ali) has called a crisis of extreme centrism. The right has been well-placed to take advantage but that could swiftly change if the left can notch a victory or two. In the UK, rallying around Corbyn will be vital. Of course, in the (unlikely but not impossible) event that Corbyn’s leadership were to survive and prosper, a left social-democratic government would find itself highly constrained. The conditions for a new social democracy are simply not there. (Some of the most brilliant Marxist economists are predicting a Kondratiev upswing, beginning perhaps already in 2018, but I don’t share their spectacles.) Nonetheless, gains for a Corbyn-led Labour Party would help open a space, encouraging resistance against the extreme centre and the ascendant right.
As to ‘social Europe,’ I’ve argued elsewhere (with Nadine El-Enany) that this was a castle in the air, and the Fiscal Compact of 2012 went so far as to make ordo-liberal economic policy binding on member states, rendering Keynesian deficit spending, in effect, illegal. To the degree to which Europe has a ‘social legacy’ it arrived courtesy of social struggles. The welfare state was born of pressure from labour and other social movements, and for the EU’s neoliberal trajectory to be seriously countered, similar force will be indispensable. In such struggles, the fewer the illusions in EU institutions the better. One of the many tragedies of the battle of Brexit is that it forced the left to choose between two grotesquely neoliberal regimes: some chose Britain, most preferred Britain-in-Europe. Lexiters found themselves uncomfortably camped alongside the most vocal and embittered racists. And while a left-liberal anti-racist coalition was forged around Remain, the fact that this is framed around support for the EU subjects it to the gravitational pull of the extreme centre. Symptomatic of this, arguably, was the Bremainers’ first organized response to their defeat: not a march of, say, solidarity with immigrants, with all welcome regardless of the way they voted, but a ‘march for Europe’. Another symptom is the post-referendum anti-Corbyn turn of some Labour Party members whose conversion to the cause célèbre of the extreme centre — the Blairite-Fabian attempted coup — was enabled by the vehemence of their Europhilia and concomitant denigration of Corbyn for his lukewarm position on that front.
CriticAtac: One, if not the main issue in the debate around the referendum was that of immigration — and especially Eastern European immigration. On the other hand, our president and prime minister were quick to state that Brexit actually offers Romania brand new opportunities — presumably, even more cheap labour to attract investors. In your research, you have dealt a lot with the topic of postcommunist Europe. How do you see it, this spectre, in the context of the British referendum? More specifically: Is there indeed a conflict of interests between British workers and immigrant eastern Europeans? If so, can it be neutralized through a simple ideological rearticulation (e.g., ‘we share the same interests in the end…’)? And is there still a chance now, after Brexit, for building a new, progressive internationalism?
Ostensibly, the spectre to which you refer was the EU immigrant: predominantly white, Christian and European. But, racism being omnivorous, the targets of the assaults ignited by the referendum result have been just as frequently black, Muslim and Asian. British racism drinks deeply from its imperial past and most of its targets have historically been non-white — the Irish are the signal exception. But racism is continually recreated within the structures of the present, and this includes the articulation of nation states with ‘Europe.’ If the European project problematizes traditional national images of ‘us and them,’ the other side of the coin is a reaffirmation of the ‘themness’ of non-Europeans. European identity was born in war versus Islam and in white solidarity in the colonies, and, as Jan Rath and others have argued, not only European nationalisms but their convergence in Euronationalism begets the ‘othering’ of people of Global-Southern heritage.
In addition, there is the internal hierarchy of the EU, with its local ‘Third World’ on the eastern flank. Europe’s division of labour is prismed through that hierarchy, enabling racialization to tap into the longstanding orientalization and culturalization of Eastern Europe. The EU’s eastern enlargement enabled the drafting of skilled and mobile but ‘Third-worldized’ workers into Western labour markets, but on what terms would their ‘integration’ occur? The choice for the governments of host countries (not least those under Blair and Brown), as Teppo Eskelinen has described, was between seeking to lift pay and conditions at the lower and precarious end of the spectrum, and relegating new arrivals to a permanent second-class status. By and large, the latter path was followed. This encouraged a sense of conflict between West and East and suspicion of the impoverished foreigner.
Turning to the prospects of a progressive internationalism in a post-EU Britain, it’s worth recalling that, in 1975, internationalists successfully built a panoply of movements — anti-Nazi, opposition to the Vietnam War, and so on. That many of their number, including of course comrade Corbyn, voted ‘no’ to Britain joining the Common Market in the referendum of that year posed no hindrance: as Satnam Virdee has shown, this was a crucial juncture at which political unity between racialized minorities and the white majority fed into broad anti-systemic movements, creating a vibrant anti-racist counter-culture.
In the short term, several sorts of movement appear to be indispensable. One is grassroots solidarity movements, with demands such as the right to remain for all refugees and migrants currently in the UK, and a loosening of naturalization and dual-citizenship criteria in Britain and across Europe. The second is to counter migration-related anxiety among the working classes by hacking at its economic roots: union campaigns against low pay and exploitation, for example to ban zero-hours contracts and promote equal treatment of agency workers. Third is the defence of Corbyn. At a time of toxic racism, savage austerity and impending recession, a socialist and anti-racist at the helm of the Labour Party would boost resistance of all sorts. Of course, the space for reinventing social democracy in an age of neoliberal globalization is constrained. Should it fail, perhaps the British left will find itself learning more from the demonised eastern migrants: the Estonian construction worker or the Polish plumber who have learnt perforce to organize in the absence of traditional social-democratic institutions.