When 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.