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Reflections: Before and After the Brexit Referendum

A colleague shared his impromptu reflections on Brexit, both before and after the referendum last Thursday.


Regarding Brexit, basically I think “a plague on both your houses” — nationalists and liberals. But for now more a plague on the Tory “Leave” side, so severe is the noxious brew that’s been stirred up: a strong revival not only of a “little Englander” politics of national chauvinism, but also the airing and stoking of openly racist, anti-immigrant and a quasi-fascist politics. The balance of forces is such that I believe it’s correct to characterise this as having become a referendum on a specifically Tory and a specifically far-right Brexit. It seems to me that “Lexit,” for those who believe in the possibility of “social democracy in one country,” or even an incipient Europe-wide left tendency, appears at this point to be fantasy politics. I think that Brexit would only strengthen the hand of the far-right. So although I certainly agree with many of the left critiques of the EU, sadly I fear that a progressive outcome cannot be accessed along what has become a largely right-wing and nationalist move.

As you’re probably aware, this referendum is only taking place because it was imposed on the Tory manifesto by the right-wing press and the resurgent right-wing of the Conservative Party during the last election. And as such, Tory party politics, and the kinds of chauvinism that drive the tabloid media, have essentially been projected onto the party-political and media discourse at large in the UK, driving a very conspicuous wedge between the centre-left in the guise of the Labour Party, and what seems to be a substantial portion, if not the majority, of working class sentiment.

There are so many layers and “disconnects” in the various arguments that one barely knows where to start. Overall, it’s the same old story: the poisonous conflicts emerging here within the working class (so-called “normal people” versus “immigrants”) turn on feelings of economic desperation, as well as a daily diet of pure effluent pumped out by the tabloids, which is echoed and given legitimacy by the other branches of media. You probably saw the egregious poster that UKIP brought out last week, depicting lines of swarming non-white immigrants with the slogan “Breaking Point.” That is barely exceptional with respect to the kinds of sentiment that have been expressed over the years on the front pages of British newspapers. Syrian refugees and bullshit claims around Turkey joining the EU sometime soon have become alibis for open racism, with ethnicity becoming a sign of cultural and economic belonging.

It should be said that a wave of immigration from Eastern Europe (i.e. white people) did emphatically crank up the competition for work within the working class over the last decade — that is true. It’s therefore unsurprising that blaming migrant labour seems to make intuitive sense to many working class people in the UK. Unfortunately this is even more the case because the politics of austerity, “belt tightening,” and so on have been largely accepted as necessary steps on the road back to prosperity, and in people’s minds the politics of destroying the welfare state are dissociated from the resultant stresses on state and social resources — labor competition is the only thing in the spotlight. In this respect, it is especially egregious and maddening to encounter a seeming majority of working-class people aligning themselves with a Brexit that would only strengthen the hand of the most far right-wing elements of the Tory party, further undermine worker protections and so on, privatise more of the welfare state, and expose those same workers ever more to the headwinds of global competition.

So I think some powerful things are at stake here, which one can’t really help but get involved in. It seems to me that what’s immediately at stake is to try to curb the move to the far right. But of course that’s all to do with the failure of a sense of possibility in terms of the capacity for solidarity within the working class, and between the permanently precarious and the unemployed. The overall dynamics seem to me quite similar to those around Trump in the US, pitting “migrants” and other convenient scapegoats against nationalists and a mythic white disenfranchised working class – what with their loss of historic (and entirely relative) “white privilege” within a decimated working class, and encroaching sense of economic desperation.

In my conversations with Brexit-inclined people, I’ve found it is indeed usually about immigration, and so I tend to emphasise likely rapid losses in worker protections, wage levels etc., under a Tory Brexit, whilst also trying to have a conversation about the ways in which the EU is an institution that systematically wages war on workers, albeit at a rate marginally encumbered by some historically-won social democratic worker protections. All of that in order to also point up the idiocy of capitalism as a form of social organisation.

The other issue that seems to resonate with people concerns a putative reclaiming of “sovereignty.” Here a quasi-fascist sentiment holds sway, in which people positively self-identify with the nationalist rhetoric of odious national-capitalist figures like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

One thing I’ve found surprising is the degree of anti-immigrant chauvinism amongst even recent and second-generation British “immigrant” communities. For example, I participated in a small discussion two days ago in London, where one British Afro-Caribbean woman, about 50 years old, said she was pro-Brexit because (a) the Poles were taking all the state benefits, as well as jobs in the NHS (where now “no-one speaks English”) and (b) black people have no voice in British politics, anyway. Someone else at the meeting, a Black guy of about the same age, mentioned how similar the contemporary Polish experience is to the Afro-Caribbean experience of the 1950s-70s — but she again situated her particular ethnic and cultural experience in opposition to recent migrants. She felt her community was “unrecognised” by the culture at large (in the media and so on), and ironically this seemed to militate against solidarity with the more recently marginalised. I find that positions like this are not dominant ones amongst Britain’s BME (black and minority ethnic) working class communities, but they’re also not an insignificant trend, and of course it is driven by real political and economic disenfranchisement which is shared across the working class as a whole. For some there’s a sense that the working class and previous immigrants helped build the country, and now they’re being pushed aside in favour of newer, cheaper labour. For some, there’s also a sentiment that Brexit would “shake things up,” and that the shaking itself would probably be a good thing. That’s shared by some “Lexit” folks too, and it strikes me as delusional — but it seems to be widely felt. Across the working class, certainly, there’s a sense for many that everyone’s been pushed too far, and some push-back is called for: “The world’s already shit and I have nothing to lose (no job, or very precarious employment). What could possibly be worse than this?”

Lastly, it does strike me that the murder of MP Jo Cox may mean that some pro-Brexit people are shamed by association into withholding their vote — although the tabloids like the Sun and Daily Mail have done their ludicrous best to dissociate the murder from the kinds of hateful bile they’ve been spewing for years. Seems to me the vote will go in favour of Remain (my guess is 55:45), leaving a very significant sense of castration and further disempowerment on the part of the pro-Brexit working class (plus middle-class nationalists), and ever more anger about the both the real and simply perceived economic injustices, corruption, and anti-democratic forms of governance perpetrated by the EU as it presently stands. Corbyn does seem to have gained a degree of favour, in part thanks to the platform he was granted after Jo Cox’s murder. His “reasonable” tone, alongside his “with reservations” Remain position, and tangible sympathy with working people, may translate into longer-term political success for the left of the Labour Party, but to be honest that seems unlikely. Corbyn is rarely granted a political platform, and similar to Bernie Sanders in the US, the “New Labour” orthodoxy in the centrist media perpetually spin against anything perceived as “unelectable” or too “old Labour.” Unlike in the US, Corbyn is not enough of a phenomenon to get much respect amongst the commentariat — and unfortunately the press and media seem to function as significant gatekeepers on the capacity for political organisation in the UK. There’s a general cultural timidity and conservatism — paradoxically, Brexit’s strength has been that it’s given people some psychological promise of their capacity to “gain control” and “break free,” through the most reactionary and conformist route possible. There is no “mass disappointment” awaiting Corbyn supporters, but as far as the left is concerned it seems to me there’s an ever more vital need to connect real working class disenfranchisement to a critique of capitalism and to build class solidarity in a manner that also connects with some kind of emancipatory promise.

And after…

…Not least I was clearly very mistaken with predicting 55:45 for “in” several days ago! Writing in the aftermath of the Jo Cox murder, a turn seemed to be in place, and I thought it might be a clear win for Remain, but the last 24 hours of campaigning showed it to be only transitory or superficial. 55:45 even accorded with exit polls around midnight local time, but how wrong I was. Even fewer people than I suspected (if any) switched back to favouring the status quo from the privacy of the polling booth. A total “fuck you” revolt.

I must admit I’m in shock today, the day after. Anti-racism and anti-nationalism are only more important now, with the left potentially decapitated here — all the more so if and when Scotland leaves. Ironic for a once colonial power to be destroying itself over delusions of an independence struggle. So much to process and discuss, and it seems unclear how things will play out. Possibly not much will change for a while except the scapegoating will accelerate as the proposed “gains” of leaving predictably evaporate into thin air. I’m in no particular mood for making predictions at this point, but that much seems sure — and the media is awash with hypotheticals.

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