Leave or Remain: There is no Working Class Solution to Brexit

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As British voters go to the polls for EU elections, Brexit remains the main question that drives their political choices. However, despite both sides of the debate claiming to speak for the people, the Brexit debate represents a struggle between two pro-capitalist positions.

Image by Andrew Linscott

Almost three years after the referendum on Brexit, heated debates over EU membership continue to be at the center of British politics. Will Parliament be able to find a deal that is amenable to Labour and the Tories? Will there be a no-deal Brexit? And is a second referendum still a possibility? All of these questions are up in the air; however, support for a second referendum is increasing. Many Remain supporters see a second referendum as a way to reverse the original vote (polls suggest that the second referendum would in fact favor the Remain side); others see it as the only possible solution to the political impasse over a Brexit deal, the plans for which have been voted down twice already. This, however, does not mean that those who support Leave have grown silent. The Brexit Party, for instance, which was launched only a few months ago with the sole purpose of making sure the UK leaves the EU immediately, is polling extremely well. As of late April and early May, voting intention polls for the upcoming European Parliament elections consistently showed the Brexit Party ahead of Conservatives and Labour.

Despite these ongoing debates, the dividing lines between the right and the left on Brexit remain unclear, and three years after the Brexit vote, the left has failed to present a unified vision for how to proceed. Which choice, after all, represents the majority of the workers and which choice would benefit them the most (or, as many are beginning to ask, harm them the least)? Part of the reason for this lack of clarity is that there are no clear cut class divisions on the Brexit question. And this is precisely because there is so little class consciousness, class politics, and class-based organization, all of which have been decimated since the 1980s. As a consequence, the left must then find its place in the context of Brexit without looking for shortcuts. There is no available position to align with within the Brexit campaigns that is compatible with the ideology of the left, and there is no fully conscious and organized working class on either side of the Brexit debate because, in the absence of a strong left in the Brexit conversation, voters were not mobilized along class lines. Brexit by itself is not a left issue; but the sentiments about the neoliberal status quo, centrist parties, and frustrations with economic insecurity reveal an opening. To take advantage of this opening, however, the left must participate in the conversation on its own terms, rather than borrow the language, choices, and strategies of the right or the neoliberal status quo.

There is no left in Brexit

Many saw the Leave vote as a vote against the liberal establishment (both at the national and EU levels), against the rich, and for greater democratic accountability. Nigel Farage, former leader of the far-right UKIP, and one of the latest victims of milkshake attack, summed this up quite well when he said: “We have fought against the multinationals, we have fought against the big merchant banks, we have fought against big politics, we have fought against lies, corruption, and deceit.” However, support for the Leave campaign was not simply a rebuke of the liberal elites and it was not only about support for national sovereignty; it also clearly represented a defense of closed borders. Behind the right-wing populist façade of concern for British workers, the Leave campaign promoted the old argument about supply and demand (where the value of labor is equated with the abstract value of bushels and widgets), pinning workers against workers by maintaining that it was immigrants rather than employers that were driving down wages and worsening working conditions.

On the other hand, anyone on the left who sided with Remain has to deal with the fact that in that vote they were effectively siding with the European Union. Support for the EU seems more palatable due to its liberal internationalist appeal. However, the EU is a quintessentially capitalist, undemocratic, and anti-democratic institution. The EU, like all neoliberal projects, promised prosperity and convergence and delivered only ever-growing national and regional inequalities –exacerbated by the introduction of the euro–and diminished democracy. Moreover, considering the EU’s inhumane treatment of immigrants and asylum-seekers, accusing the Leave voters of xenophobia brings to mind an idiom about people living in glass houses. Within Fortress Europe, the Dublin system (which puts responsibility for asylum seekers on the EU point of entry countries) also ensures that the EU peripheries, especially Greece, end up with the biggest burden of handling the refugee crisis. This system only reinforces the EU’s stringent regional, ethnic, and socioeconomic hierarchies. Some voters on the left, especially Labour supporters, sided with Remain not because it had something to offer (it never promised anything) or because they had any delusions about the virtues of the EU, but because the Leave campaign was so overwhelmingly xenophobic. This stance, however, only accentuates the weakness of the left, which is continually forced to enthusiastically embrace the “lesser” of two evils.

In addition to the indefensibility of the EU, the Remain campaign represented the typically tone-deaf and dismissive attitude of liberal elites and technocrats (in both major parties) towards legitimate concerns expressed by many British workers and pensioners. The Remain campaign took pride in focusing on “facts” and “expert opinions,” forgetting that the British public has, for good reason, been increasingly hostile to those kinds of arguments and the technocrats who formulate them. As one Stronger In campaign staff member noted: “Voters are very skeptical about our warnings on the economy. They don’t trust these reports. They don’t trust the numbers. They don’t trust the Treasury. And many don’t like the messengers.” The Remain side, consistent with the liberal hegemonic approach since the 1990s everywhere, made no promises of a better future; instead, it mounted a fear campaign. “Project Fear,” as Leave side referred to the Remain campaign (the name originated from the Scottish independence referendum of 2014), was a campaign based on pessimism not hope. In contrast, the Leave campaign focused on what it could promise voters, even if those promises were largely framed in an anti-immigration narrative and based on outright lies. For example, the Leave side stressed that the UK paid £350 million per week to Brussels and that after Brexit, this money could be used to fund the National Health Service and quality education. The Remain’s response that it was only £250 million hardly played in their favor; if anything, it probably only reinforced the obvious: that the elites were out of touch with the rest of the country.

The Brexit debate, then, was largely a struggle between two pro-capitalist positions; both Leave and Remain positions aimed to demonize and exploit different segments of the working class. The left’s limited attempt to carve out a space of its own vis-à-vis Brexit has generally split it into two camps, both claiming to speak on behalf of democracy: Lexiteers reject the xenophobic rhetoric of the Leave campaign, but welcome appeals to sovereignty, democratic accountability, and the possibility of radical leftist reforms at the national level; Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), launched by Yanis Varoufakis, aims to reform the EU, to make it more democratic, transparent, and egalitarian. Both positions have severe limitations, though the DiEM25 movement is perhaps the more unrealistic of the two. However, Lexit and DiEM25 positions are not necessarily at odds with each other. Some leftists support Brexit because it represents the rejection of the EU and also support the DiEM25 because they still believe in the movement for a kinder, gentler, more democratic Europe. This potential synergy between pan-European and national perspectives illustrates a way forward but also one of the biggest challenges for the left: while strong national left movements, unimpeded by the EU’s undemocratic and neoliberal rules and regulations, are best equipped to address local needs and demands of the workers and do so democratically, ultimately, there can be no national solution to the problem of global capital. At best, to borrow from Wolfgang Streeck, such solutions can “buy time,” but it is not certain that this option is still available in the age of global finance capital and climate catastrophe.

The irony of Brexit, then, is that even though the Leave vote represents a repudiation of neoliberal hegemony, it is still very much a neoliberal affair. The left was not able to unify and mobilize around this crisis. But the opening still exists, and the left needs to develop a consistent narrative about Brexit and its meaning. That narrative must present a clear break with both dominant positions within the Brexit debate. And it must be both anti-capitalist and class-based.  

Class society and the failure of liberalism to capture “the end of history”

In 1989 Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the victory of liberal ideology and the supposed “end of history” that accompanied it. He declared that the future would be an age of boredom, of a political life filled with non-ideological debates about “economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands,” adding that “surely, the class issue has actually been successfully resolved in the West.” One would be hard-pressed to find another piece of political argument that has aged so poorly. Yet, in the 1990s, politics in the West seemed to closely follow Fukuyama’s predictions. In its 1997 manifesto, the UK Labour Party presented its own variation on the theme: “We aim to put behind us the bitter political struggles of left and right that have torn our country apart for too many decades. Many of these conflicts have no relevance whatsoever to the modern world – public versus private, bosses versus workers, middle class versus working class.” As the Labour Party in the UK and social democratic parties in the West in general stripped off their working class identity and embraced “third way” politics, many commentators tied the loss of the traditional working-class support for social democratic parties to the rise of the post-class society. The age of class politics was declared over. In the era of growing inequality, stagnating wages, and cuts in public programs, no party was left to represent the downwardly-mobile working class, not even on paper. Not surprisingly, voter turnout, political engagement, and trust in political institutions took a hit. It is in this context that Brexit, with its 72% turnout and a resounding “fuck you” to the political elite, renewed observers’ attention to class dynamics.  

But where is class in Brexit? This, perhaps, is one of the main sources of disagreement among Liberal and leftist commentators. While some argue that the working class predominantly voted for Leave, it is clear that the evidence is mixed, and the working class represents both sides of the referendum. After all, the majority of Labour voters (65%) voted to remain. And while Labour has long stopped representing workers as a class (Labour’s “Corbyn turn” was too recent and has been vigorously resisted by many within the party), party identifications are sticky. Plus, who were these voters to turn to once Labour abandoned them? In contrast to Labour voters, 61% of Conservatives, not a party known for its working-class roots, voted to leave. Overall, these numbers reveal that the vote to leave cut across party lines, representing different segments of the population. Therefore, critics of Brexit dismiss suggestions that the Leave vote represented a renewal of class conflict. They are, of course, correct. It is difficult to organize around class in a “classless society,” rebuilt around personal responsibility and individualism. However, what critics of Brexit identified as resentment and xenophobia was also the expression of helplessness and frustration in an age where neoliberal reforms have exacerbated the misery of the working classes, but where neoliberal ideology, along with anti-labor policies, eliminated the class basis for organizing. Labor as a class formation has been replaced with angry “losers,” coopted by movements and politicians that are decidedly anti-worker. While the tensions that made Brexit possible have been a direct result of the forty years of unbridled capitalism, no explicit criticism of capitalism was expressed by either side of the referendum. The absence of a clear-cut class divide in Brexit illustrates not the bigotry or ignorance of the British people but the absence of a strong left in the UK.

Overall, Brexit offered people no good choices. In the struggle between Leave and Remain campaigns, the losers were always going to be the working people, no matter the outcome. Brexit also presented the left with important lessons. First, in the absence of the strong left capable of organizing victims of capitalism along class lines, other forces are only too ready and eager to take advantage of people’s resentment of the status quo and to turn workers, struggling to survive and to live with dignity, into bigots and xenophobes. Second, Brexit represented a referendum on (neo)liberal elite consensus, consolidated in the 1990s, and people voted firmly against it: the Labour and Conservatives may have come to an agreement over how to run the economy, but that agreement wasn’t shared by the rest of the population. Finally, when liberal elites threw all their available resources into scaring people to support Remain, they banked on voters being risk-averse. To side with Remain was to agree to the much-despised status quo; but to leave was to take the step into the unknown and to suffer enormous and incalculable costs. If voters are indeed risk-averse, the Leave vote showed that the support for neoliberal status quo is now the riskiest option available. The 1990s are over. History has returned and people are ready for an alternative vision of the future.

So exactly what lessons can socialists draw from the Brexit crisis? The most important lesson is that we must resist the temptation to take shortcuts, regardless of how “respectable” and “pragmatic” they may appear. The answer lies neither in nationalist calls for protection of the native workforce nor in siding with technocratic elites who defend the neoliberal status quo by deferring to unaccountable experts and rules made by undemocratic institutions of the EU. A socialist response must be grounded in worker solidarity, internationalism, and radical democracy. Building worker solidarity requires, in part, rebuilding labor unions, decimated in the past forty years (in the UK, for example, union density currently stands at 23.2 percent; in 1979, it was 55.4 percent). Socialists must emphasize the focus on class struggle and the internationalist nature of this struggle if we are to avoid employers pitting workers against one another. Labor unions that embrace the language of xenophobia and chauvinism are no friends of the workers. Internationalism requires that the left build movements and networks across national lines. However, these networks cannot be built within the EU institutions, as Varoufakis’ DiEM25 aims to do. It is not enough to increase the EU’s institutional transparency and achieve “socialist” representation within the existing EU institutions, where they can be granted an illusion of challenging the power and interests of capital by playing by the rules of capital. Since reforming the EU sounds less sweeping than arguing for a revolutionary break with the past and building new, radical national and transnational movements, it appears more “pragmatic.” But there is nothing pragmatic about working on reforming neoliberal institutions so that they can begin to represent the interests of European workers. In contrast to nationalism, we must build class-based internationalism; in contrast to undemocratic and anti-democratic liberal internationalism, we must defend radical democracy. These goals may sound unfeasible, but they are far more pragmatic than attempting to reform the EU from within or impoverishing the workers in the name of national competitiveness, patriotism, and xenophobia.

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Yekaterina Oziashvili

Yekaterina teaches Politics at Sarah Lawrence College.