Brexit or Lexit?

CjC9SHcXAAAU8OOWhen the campaign over Brexit kicked off it appeared as an internal Tory argument over just how tough Cameron’s deal with the EU would be in hitting the welfare entitlement of migrant workers.  Two cheeks of one arse, as my granny would have said.

Socialists are against restrictions on the movement of workers and against cuts in welfare that are simply a means of hitting not only migrants but putting pressure on workers further up the ladder.  So socialists were on neither side of this particular argument.

The debate moved on to the economic impact of Brexit, with dire warnings of the impact on living standards of the UK leaving.  House prices will fall 18% says George Osborne, as if this were the worst nightmare of every civilised human being. The IMF also predicts drastic consequences while the OECD says it will cost UK households £2,200 by 2020 if we leave.  PricewaterhouseCoopers states that “by 2030 . . . EU exit could result in total UK GDP in 2030 being between 1.2% and 3.5% lower in our two exit scenarios”.  The UK Government brochure put through my door says “voting to leave the EU would . . . reduce investment and cost jobs.”

The ‘Northern Ireland Better in Europe’ leaflet that has sat about my house before I read it for this article lays it on thick – “leaving Europe is a leap in the dark for you and your family” – “NI Jobs AT RISK”; “Investment AT RISK”; “NI Security AT RISK”; “NI Farming AT RISK” and “NI Trade AT RISK”, at which point the author ran out of paper or things to put on the risk register.

In my work I get an email every morning, which is a digest of the local economic stories in the press and invariably over the last few weeks it has consisted of warnings of job losses and reductions in living standards if Brexit takes place.

Socialists don’t take kindly to such warnings as they usually greet any demand by workers for higher pay or better terms and conditions.  We are told that a major change like Brexit will create uncertainty and involve a leap in the dark, while socialists are of course in favour of even more fundamental change (though it cannot be a leap in the dark), so instant or unreflective rejection of such claims might be an instinctive reaction.

But such a reaction would be misplaced.  Going further, to conscious rejection, would be an example of taking one’s cue from the enemy and putting a minus sign where the establishment puts a plus.   In other words it would be a failure to form an independent view.

Similar warnings of disinvestment and threats to living standards surfaced in the Scottish independence referendum and I wrote at the time that there was no point in crying foul if you didn’t have a sound argument that either the threats were invented or that their effect could easily be countered.  Neither response could be said to be true in the Scottish referendum nor can they be said to be true now.

Whatever the exaggeration there is no doubt that a UK economy torn from the EU would witness increased barriers to trade and to domestic and foreign investment and that this would lead to job reductions and reduced living standards.  Since socialists are the most consistent defenders of workers and their conditions, and if we know that Brexit will have these effects, on what grounds could it possibly be supported?

Not caring for the good health of capitalism, which is a healthy socialist attitude, is not the same as basing one’s politics on seeking its malfunction and disintegration.  After all, we don’t advance policies to screw up capitalism, capitalist crises arise from its own contradictions – it screws itself up.  We advance a movement to replace it.

There are many people who claim to be anti-capitalist, but socialists don’t start from this but from the contradictions within capitalism, which show in what way the system contains an alternative, the replacement that is socialism.  We are not therefore in the business of seeking to prevent the development of capitalism, including its internationalisation, but in favour of building the alternative that will replace it as it develops.  It is this development that increasingly provides the grounds for the socialist alternative.

So on the two issues dominating the debate – on migration and economic consequences – socialists take a view.  We are not bystanders in this debate and when we look at the issues it should be clear on which side we stand.  We should know how this position not only informs our view of wider questions but how our wider view informs how we can understand the role of particular issues.

The left that supports Brexit have their own wider view of socialism, heavily reliant on action by the capitalist state as the vehicle for income and wealth redistribution and state ownership of the economy etc.  This nation-state centred view is revealed in their approach to Brexit.  They propose a different term -‘Lexit’, one with little currency that has even less purchase on either the debate or on the reality it purports to describe.  “Leaving the EU will be part of a process of creating a different Ireland which puts people before profit,” says one organisation, but what is this process?

People before Profit, from whom the statement above is taken, mention five grounds for leaving the EU and we will come to these in a moment.  But first, the essential socialist case for remaining in the EU is that it creates better grounds for fighting to create the international unity of workers than their separation into multiple nation states.

Those who propose Brexit base themselves in one way or another on nationalist solutions.  With the right wing of the Tory party this is obvious in what it says; when it comes to the left it is obvious in what it doesn’t say.

So we have a proposal that “leaving the EU is part of a process” but where is the international element of this process?  People before Profit believe that socialism is international so just where is the international aspect of this strategy?  In its statement on ‘Lexit’ it says nothing.  In its 2016 general election manifesto it also says nothing. (Opposition to war and to Israel do not constitute a strategy by which socialism may come about).

This stems from no serious consideration of how socialism can come about, aside from a moralistic opposition to an evil capitalism that culminates in a revolution that itself is just an accumulation of anger arising from this opposition. It’s a failure to understand that the alternative does not arise ex nihilo on the day of revolution but is built upon and arises out of the existing system and its development.  This is how the existing labour movement has been created; it could arise in no other way. The growth of People before Profit (PbP) itself is an illustration of this, being created out of the electoral system of the Irish state’s political structure. Whatever the limitations of this, and there are many, this is how People before Profit presents a strategy to Irish workers, so how does it think the socialist alternative can grow internationally?

As I said, it gives five grounds for a ‘No’ vote:

Neoliberal policies have been sealed into the EU – but the EU is a creation of nation states and so is its neoliberal policy but PbP wants to go back to these individual states.  It calls the EU a ‘bosses club’.  But who are the members of this club but the member states who in or out of the club will still be the bosses?  How does going back to separate bosses take us forward in defeating either particularly right wing policies or creating an alternative?

The EU is developing military structures to fight ‘resource wars’ – this is possibly the most patently weak argument because the EU is noted for not having an army, not having an armed force capable of asserting its collective capitalist interests and not being able to punch its weight in world affairs.  Again it is the individual states that have armies and that deploy these in capitalist wars.

The EU is fundamentally undemocratic – and so it is and so are the individual member states which are responsible for the EU’s undemocratic structure and functioning.  However it is not the job of socialists to exaggerate the democratic opportunities offered to the working class by the democratic features of capitalist states.  While these are important it is the democratic content of the working class’s own movement that will be decisive in the fight for socialism and the division of this movement by nationalism is one of the key fractures that has historically divided it and disfigured its development.

The EU legitimises racism though fortress Europe – the EU has indeed acted scandalously in its treatment of the refugee crisis but the actions of many individual states has been just as bad if not worse, including the British.  The refugee crisis is a particular example of a crisis that can only be addressed at a European level and hardly even on this scale.  It certainly cannot be solved at the level of the individual states.  How does Brexit or Lexit help?  How does Brexit help the common travel area within the EU or will this be sacrificed because it does not go far enough for those outside?  Will we go backward because we’re told we can’t go forwards?

Finally it is argued that claims that the EU protects workers’ rights are false – PbP argue that these came about during the boom times and capitalism is no longer booming.  In fact this isn’t even true and can British workers expect better working conditions arising from a right wing Tory Government?  One doesn’t need to dress up the EU to see this.  People before Profit say workers can defend existing gains, which draws attention to the real motor of advancement, but it should be obvious that separate states in competition to lower conditions is not advantageous to workers in defending legal rights and working terms and conditions.

The policies of People before Profit are themselves a good example of the difficulty of resisting this sort of capitalist state competition.  The Irish state’s 12.5% corporate tax rate is a central part of the state’s competitive strategy and has gained widespread acceptance in the process.  People before Profit also support it but just demand that 12.5% equals 12.5%.  It has accepted this race to lower taxation on corporate profits.  If there were a common EU-wide tax rate the grounds for such a strategy would be removed.  Why then would this not be supported rather than creating more grounds for state competition that impact negatively on workers?

The arguments for ‘Lexit’ do not add up.  We are debating Brexit, not the fantasy of a left exit, which is so fantastical that it cannot even be hypothesised how workers would be better off the day after exit and what the second step is to follow this first one.

The establishment say that Brexit is a leap in the dark and should be avoided.  In fact a vote to stay in the EU is more a vote for an unknown future than is voting to leave.  The political consequences, and onerous tasks, facing the British state for example, are known to a degree –   joining “the back of the queue in seeking a new trade deal” according to Obama, or making “the UK a less attractive destination for Japanese investment” according Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Staying in the EU on the other hand is not a vote for history to stop.  The EU will either move forward to further integration or it will start to move backwards; the Euro crisis and the treatment of Greece and the breakdown of the free movement of people within the EU are examples of this. Do we want to be part of this fight or declare that it is worthless because the EU cannot be changed?

The fundamentally conservative approach of People before Profit is illustrated when we consider how it would answer this question.  This conservatism appears everywhere, assuming bad things would change and good things not.  It assumes that border controls would not return within Ireland or between Ireland and Britain.  But why, when trade treaties are being torn up, would we have any reason to assume this to be the case?  Why would a common travel area continue when preventing unwanted migration is the major impetus behind Brexit?  Why would the Irish state be allowed to become the back door to entry into Britain from the EU?  It assumes the world will not essentially change for Ireland from a Brexit vote and that partition will not be strengthened.

It assumes that voting to exit is a ‘No’ vote to bad things it cannot possibly believe that it will be interpreted positively as a vote for workers and refugee rights, a vote against imperialist war, against neoliberalism or for a different national democracy.  But it is not even a negative vote, it implies something affirmative.  But what it affirms is nationalist – that in their separate little national states workers will be in a better position.

4 thoughts on “Brexit or Lexit?

  1. Pingback: The EU Referendum: Lies, Immigrants and Lexit | howupsetting

  2. “The ‘philosophy of Marxism’, was universally opposed to the building of the EU, I think this had been the rule during the entire period of history covering the cold war 1947- 1990, it was accepted by socialists that the EU conception was consistently encouraged by Washington to help thwart the rise of mass based Communists parties gaining government power in France, Italy and Germany in the 1950s.”

    Not true. Marxists generally from the time of Marx envisioned a United States of Europe. Trotsky advocated a United States of Europe, and Lenin only originally opposed the slogan because he believed that the existing European colonial powers had too many political divisions amongst them to bring it about. Philosophically and economically, Lenin said the argument for a UNited States of Europe was unassailable, and he later adopted the slogan himself.

    In the post-war period, the attitude of Marxists was one of abstention. The thrust of the argument was, “In or Out, the Fight Goes On.” The only people who opposed that principle, were the Stalinists who did so for their own reasons of promoting the interests of the USSR, at the expense of workers across Europe. During the 1960’s, when the question of British entry into the EEC was being raised, nearly all Marxists held to the position of abstention, on the grounds that we are for a Socialist United States of Europe. Arguing for a capitalist united states of Europe would be like arguing for workers to support a monopoly in place of a small firm, but likewise opposing entry into the EEC on the basis of continuing with the existing capitalist nation states, would be like arguing in favour of breaking up monopolies in favour of the re-establishment of small firms.

    In the 1970’s, various Left groups abandoned that position they had held during all the post-ware period, as they tailed the sections of the working-class who were being misled and drawn in behind the reactionary nationalist ideas put forward by the Stalinists, and their fellow travellers amongst the Bennite/Tribunite left, around the ideas of the Alternative Economic Strategy. They had made a similar opportunist zig zag in order to retain industrial support in relation to the question of British intervention in the Six Counties. That opportunist policy was not the principled position that had been held by the Marxist left in preceding decades, and represented part of the ideological collapse of that left that has continued since.

    The position now is different. The UK is already in the EU, and a vote for abstention would be like abstaining over the question of whether an existing monopoly should be broken into smaller firms, or that a nationalised industry be privatised. We are opposed to moving backwards to those more primitive forms of capital. We give no support to the existing EU, other than the obvious point that to move forward from it to a Workers Europe, it makes no sense to step backwards from it to individual reactionary nation states.

  3. I don’t find your contribution on this matter satisfactory for a number of reasons. The first problem is you don’t tell us what kind of specific object the EU is, this is common to almost all commentary left and right. Does the EU represent capitalism in general, does it represent a dominant fraction of capital in general say monopoly capital as it once did for the now largely defunct consistent communist party opposition, does it represent international finance capital ie the current reactionary banking interests? There is very little background discussion of the institutions of the EU or reference to the Constitution and the relative importance of these. A case could be made that the most important institution is no longer the Commission or even the Council of Ministers but is in fact the supervening ECB but you pass over it.

    Then there are questions relating to the nation State. Not all nation states are equal within the EU Constitutional framework, on any analysis there are at least three Imperialist nation States, France, Britain and Germany, i put them in order of their foreign political and military activities. Is it politically sound for national States like Ireland and Greece for example to be drawn into ever closer Union with the Imperialist nation States that have such reactionary foreign policies? There can be no doubting the fact that the presence for the EU has been seen in Ireland as a good reason to bury everything to do with the historic partition of the Island. Should capitalist nation States without Imperial an past now form a diplomatic Union of solidarity with the three imperialist Powers?

    There there is little mention of the most contentious issue of Unionism and Federalism. You frame you discussion in terms of Internationalism as an alternative to nationalism. If you look at the earlier theories of integration associated what are now spoken about as the EU Founders they were seeking to lay out a one way track toward Political Federalism. Yet they spoke very little about what they intended by Federalism. Did they mean by Federalism something like the Unites States of America, if they did then their understanding of the history of that Federal Union was flawed, for this became a one nation State par excellence. The theories on incremental integration don’t say what the political telos of the object called the European Union is. Would a finished Federal Union of Europe do more than mitigate the right of national self-determination of the existing nations but aim to finally cancel and supersede it. This is what happened with the federation of the United States. The issue had to be settled by war in 1860-1865. When the civil war ended the economic issue of black slavery was still to be settled but the political issue had been settled, no individual State or group of States had a democratic right of secession from the Federal Union.

    I recently heard the journalist Paul Mason sat that while he was philosophically opposed to the EU he was not prepared to campaign or vote against it for socialist tactical reasons. My first thought was that, here philosophy does not count for very much. In my understanding, philosophy should at the very least mean to act on the basis of a thought out principle of action, it should be subject to tactical substitution only in exceptional situations. The ‘philosophy of Marxism’, was universally opposed to the building of the EU, I think this had been the rule during the entire period of history covering the cold war 1947- 1990, it was accepted by socialists that the EU conception was consistently encouraged by Washington to help thwart the rise of mass based Communists parties gaining government power in France, Italy and Germany in the 1950s.

    This philosophy question is important because it has been erased from the discussion of the British referendum. It seems obvious that the Brexit campaign is led by conservatives and reactionaries so the tactical conclusion appears equally obvious, socialist most oppose the reactionary Brexit vote on tactical ground of their own persuasion, so let us not worry about the philosophy question, the one about principle. But would we take the same tactical stance if the same referendum question was being put to the Irish people or the people of Greece? What this indicates is that before we decide to tactically call for a vote to Remain in Britain we should try to settle with the more philosophical question as to the what is the object and purpose of the EU as an historic project. I don’t think you are philosophically in support of the EU but as with Paul Mason you can’t get away from facing up to the numerous difficulties of acting on your philosophy given the circumstances. Bur perhaps I am mistaken and you can now see an implicit logic of progress contained within the EU, like Hegel you can see the reason in the actual and are taken by the cunning of reason in History.

  4. I agree entirely. I continue to be amazed just how much of the left’s politics seems to be driven by a sort of “cut your nose off to spite your face”, moralistic anti-capitalism, rather than Marx’s attitude, also advanced by Lenin and others, which was that our main criticism of capitalism is that its not capitalist enough, that it does not carry through its historic function of developing the productive forces rapidly enough, and does not carry through capitalist rationality fully.

    I find Marx’s warm enthusiasm for Ricardo’s scientific method instructive in that regard. Marx follows it through in his own opposition to the moral socialism of people like Sismondi, and Lenin applied the same vitriol to the Economic Romanticism of the Narodniks.

    This is what Marx says,

    “Ricardo, rightly for his time, regards the capitalist mode of production as the most advantageous for production in general, as the most advantageous for the creation of wealth. He wants production for the sake of production and this with good reason. To assert, as sentimental opponents of Ricardo’s did, that production as such is not the object, is to forget that production for its own sake means nothing but the development of human productive forces, in other words the development of the richness of human nature as an end in itself. To oppose the welfare of the individual to this end, as Sismondi does, is to assert that the development of the species must be arrested in order to safeguard the welfare of the individual, so that, for instance, no war may be waged in which at all events some individuals perish. Sismondi is only right as against the economists who conceal or deny this contradiction.) Apart from the barrenness of such edifying reflections, they reveal a failure to understand the fact that, although at first the development of the capacities of the human species takes place at the cost of the majority of human individuals and even classes, in the end it breaks through this contradiction and coincides with the development of the individual; the higher development of individuality is thus only achieved by a historical process during which individuals are sacrificed for the interests of the species in the human kingdom, as in the animal and plant kingdoms, always assert themselves at the cost of the interests of individuals, because these interests of the species coincide only with the interests of certain individuals, and it is this coincidence which constitutes the strength of these privileged individuals.”

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