Crisis? What Crisis? – part 5 Brexit? What Brexit?

supertrampGeorge Monbiot wrote an article on Brexit for The Guardian that was subsequently reprinted in Village magazine.  In it he says that we should not only accept the Brexit referendum vote but “should embrace it.”

Yes, the Brexit campaign was ‘led by a political elite, funded by an economic elite and fuelled by a media elite.  Popular anger was channelled against immigrants but the vote was also a howl of rage against exclusion, alienation and remote authority.’ That is why the Brexit slogan “take back control” resonated.  “If the left can’t work with this, what are we for?” he said.

But, like the old Irish story of the response to someone who was lost and needed directions to a particular place – if I was going to there I wouldn’t start from here.

What the left is for, hopefully, is not to pretend that we can work with reactionary politics to sugar the pill, which is altogether different from having to deal with a reactionary situation and trying to make the best of it.

‘Working with it’ first of all means understanding that the “howl of rage against exclusion” was captured by those seeking their own exclusion of foreigners.  Alienation is of no use unless it can be overcome and not displaced onto the wrong target, and blaming a remote authority in Brussels just gets us back to the “rage against exclusion” and blaming foreigners.  As for “take back control”, this was a reactionary nationalist response that showed incredible levels of ignorance of the power, position and role of the British State.  Even if this power were not severely diminished; even if its position of weakness were not more and more exposed, and even if its supplicant role is not becoming more pronounced, it would still be a reactionary commitment to nationalism that we ‘cannot work with’ except in the sense of attempting to undermine and defeat.

Monbiot presents Brexit as a land of opportunity – “If it is true that Britain will have to renegotiate its trade treaties, is this not the best chance we’ve had in decades to contain corporate power – of insisting that companies that operate here must offer proper contracts, share their profits, cut their emissions and pay their taxes? Is it not a chance to regain control of the public services slipping from our grasp?”

But who exactly is going to exert control in this way, assuming for the moment it’s possible?  We can be sure that, in any Brexit negotiations, containing corporate power will not be an objective of Theresa May.  We can even be confident that, in negotiations between the greater capitalist power wielded by the EU and the lesser power of Britain, the weaknesses of the latter will be exploited by the former.  And this balance of forces would weigh to an even greater extent on any sort of left Government in Britain facing a much more powerful EU.

Only with allies in the EU, primarily in the shape of a European-wide workers’ movement, would it be possible for the balance of forces to tilt towards the workers.  But this obviously points in the direction of staying in the EU.  As part of the EU there would at least be the beginnings of a political unity within which the workers’ movements of the various European countries could achieve some measure of unity and seek to exercise power at an international level.

But such a perspective would mean rejecting Brexit and continuing to fight it.

I looked at the arguments surrounding such an approach before and said that “there is no principled reason why there could not be a new vote.  What matters is how this might come about. Brexit is reactionary and its implementation will provide repeated evidence of it.  In fighting against its effects such a fight should not renounce fighting their immediate cause.”

I further said that “it could be claimed that there is little point in observing that the Brexit campaign lied through its teeth and has immediately retracted pretty much all its biggest claims – about money saved going to the NHS or of a future large reduction in immigration.  If telling the truth was a prerequisite for maintaining the results of a vote the Tories would not still be in office.”

Except of course unlike a general election, in which the winning party takes office immediately, we do not have Brexit immediately and it has become increasingly obvious that the Brexit campaign has no idea how it will deliver on promises it is still making, promises that become ever less credible.

There are some steps to limit the damage that the Tories have taken, such as the secret deal with Nissan, but this exposes any notion of taking back control.  We don’t know the cost or even whether it involves state support the EU could sooner or later simply nullify, whether Britain were in or out.

But there have been and will be consequences which no Government can do much about; such as the depreciation of the currency, inflation and rising interest rates.  When the Governor of the Bank of England says that he will let inflation overshoot the target of 2% to save jobs that’s really very good of him, because there’s nothing short of cratering the economy that he can do about it.

So to give up on fighting Brexit is to put British workers at the mercy of the most reactionary and frankly stupid sections of the Tory party.  It is to accept their risible promises and seek simply to expose them through their failure, a failure whose heaviest price will be paid by workers.  It is to accept the drastic fall in living standards that has already begun and it is to accept the secrecy necessary to cover up the unfolding disaster.

In this respect the demand for parliamentary scrutiny of the Government’s plans and their progress, including sweetheart deals, is important.  Not just to expose the policy of Brexit but also the nationalist alternatives that will flourish in the twilight of Brexit failure. Such nationalist intervention will come from the SNP pointing to a betrayal of Scotland or a UKIP narrative that accumulating failures of Brexit come from an insufficiently committed Brexit Government.  So far it has been the Treasury mandarins who have led the fight against Brexit and we can expect further leaks if, or rather when, the current trio of Brexit ministers demonstrate the failure of their policy.

However, the perspective of the Labour Party is not opposition to Brexit but to fight for a “people’s Brexit” as opposed to a “bankers’ Brexit.”  John McDonnell has argued that:

“Britain voted to leave the EU, and that decision should be and must be respected.

We should not pretend that the referendum result can be undone.  If we do that, and walk off the field, we will simply be allowing other forces to give their own answers to those questions it has posed

The simple truth is that the Tory establishment cannot be trusted to make a success of Brexit. Labour in government is the only party that would be prepared to take the necessary measures to make a success of Brexit

We are also committed to making sure that Brexit works for everyone not an elite few. Labour would work with our European neighbours to protect our key industries like steel, and negotiate deals with the EU to make sure big multinationals like Google pay their fair share in tax.”

On the other hand –

  • If the vote for Brexit means severe cuts to working class living standards, why should a vote based on lies and deception be respected?
  • The Labour Party is assuming that there are progressive answers possible to the questions posed through accepting Brexit.
  • It assumes that there can be a “successful” Brexit.
  • It assumes that the protection of industry and jobs and fair taxation of multinationals is possible in Brexitland.

But Brexit puts up barriers to trade and it puts up barriers to effective taxation of the wealthy and international companies.  Were a Labour Government outside the EU how could they enlist the support of other European countries to increase taxation of the rich?

When France increased its taxation in 2012 to 75% on those earning above €100,000 the number moving abroad jumped 40 per cent.  Between 2000 and 2014 42,000 millionaires left France, many of them moving to London, and particularly to South Kensington, referred to by some as Paris’s 21st arrondissement.  Many of its banks and its bankers also moved, although thanks to Brexit this has now stopped.

Inside the EU such tax increases have a greater chance of being coordinated.  Outside, the competitive position of weaker countries often drives them to lower taxation on multinationals and the wealthy. And as we have seen, there are economic effects which are largely outside the control of Governments to prevent.  What they can do is take offsetting measures such as increased public expenditure and investment, and this is what Labour promises, but this can only be offsetting and the weakening of Britain’s capitalist economy also weakens the capacity to do this.

Of course Labour’s model of Brexit is very different from the declared objective of the Tories.  John McDonnell declares that “Labour will insist that any deal with the EU includes, at least as an interim, tariff-free Single Market access. Full Single Market access implies freedom of movement, as in Norway’s European Economic Area deal.”

Without the xenophobic hang-ups of the Tories Labour is happy to see free movement alongside as much access to the EU single market as the EU is prepared to allow.  This is one possible transitional deal that the advisors to big business, in the shape of ‘The Economist’ and “Financial Times’ are pointing to.  A transition that might, like those of Norway and Switzerland that were initially temporary, prove more permanent than first intended and that might be open as much to a transition back to full membership as complete exit.

However, once again all this will be in the gift of the EU.  All the calculations involved in a permanent divorce apply to such a separation – whether the interests of the remaining EU are better protected and advanced by accepting a relationship with Britain on these terms or whether a clean break is preferable.  Once again it is necessary to note that given its size, Britain is not Norway or Switzerland and it makes no sense for it to pay into the EU and be subject to its rules without any say in those rules.  Such a transitional arrangement is the very opposite of ‘taking back control’.

Whenever we look at the relatively weak position that Britain is in we can also see the weakness of the Tory Brexit policy – when even speeches at Conservative party conferences occasion steep declines in the currency.  The pound has hit a 168-year low and this is before Article 50 is triggered, the lousy terms of the exit start to be revealed and the two-year exit timetable has been exhausted.

This weakness is also reflected in the political weakness of those seeking Brexit.  UKIP, which spearheaded this policy, is in disarray.  The political leadership of Brexit in the Tory party includes someone who was considered a star before imploding and heading for obscurity before being given a plum job at the Foreign Office; another who was already discredited and already in obscurity before being given a job in Trade, and a third who was also a twice loser in contests to lead the Tory party.  The majority of MPs are opposed to Brexit but they have no idea of how to make popular a campaign against Brexit that would make its reversal legitimate.  That task lies with others.

The referendum was largely portrayed in the media as an inter-Tory dispute and the struggle that big business will put up to resist Brexit and/or to deliver a ‘soft’ Brexit may also seek to do so primarily through that parry.  Once again the struggle could come to be seen as primarily an inter-Tory argument.

Considerations that this may severely damage the Tory party are secondary to the necessity that the struggle against Brexit is open, clear and honest.  In this sense the instincts of the primarily young Remain Voters who demonstrated and signed petitions immediately after the referendum were all these things, which an inter-Tory dispute will not be.

In order for the Labour Party to truly defend working people it is necessary for Brexit to be stopped – to nullify the dire effects that no amount of negotiation for a ‘soft’ Brexit may put right.  If this is to be done it must be done openly or charges that democracy is being subverted will appear to have some truth.  The defeat of Brexit is still possible but it should be done openly and on a progressive basis of defending the living standards of working people; defending EU workers and other immigrants who live in Britain; defending those British people who live in other EU countries and in defence of international unity.  A lying, xenophobic referendum result with reactionary consequences deserves no respect and should be reversed.

Back to part 4

Forward to part 6

1 thought on “Crisis? What Crisis? – part 5 Brexit? What Brexit?

  1. I have to say I disagree with the terms of your analysis in so many ways . If I had the patience for it I would question your use of certain Marxist tropes, for example that Internationalism is a principle of revolutionary politics, Marx had no principles when it came to the understanding of politics, he was a consequentialist not a man of principle like some Cosmopolitian Kantian, also he never held the viewpoint that nationalism is always reactionary either, precisely because he was a consequentialist about all political movements. However rather than offer notes about your Marx and mine, I will state what I believe to be the nub of the Brexit problem.

    The cause of much of the confusion is that the EU has developed in such a way that some people now recognise it as a potential alternative Government to the one the more regularly one they look up to to in their separate National territories. In Ireland and Greece we now accept (by we I mean the Government Parties), if begrudgingly that we have to get the permissions from the EU to do many of the more urgent and important things, very soon our governments will have to submit their entire annual spending plans for EU approval. Some of the historic- national Governments within the EU still think they are above this sort of savage humiliation. Think of Britain, why should the country that won the second world war prostate itself before the shambolic sway of a pretentious Continental Government?

    When did the EU become a potential alternative Government to the historical national ones? Some argue that it was always intended, I can’t say this is true, in the beginning the EU was instigated mainly to contain the threat of Communism and the American Govt played a leading role. One can more accurately say that by a series of accidents and adjustments to economic facts the EU gradually began to resemble something like an alternative Government in the wings. The proposals for a monetary union were certainly made for political and not economic reasons. Even the statistical economists believe that monetary union increased GDP by less than one 0.5 percent after its introduction in 1992.

    The English born philosopher Thomas Hobbes traced the instability of politics in his own time to the fact that there were competing and rival claims to rule over the State, the ultimate source of the problem was that the religious sects or Churches made alternative claims to exercise political authority over the secular State. His argument was that a State can only be at peace with itself if it has only one uncontested political authority, ie has only one legitimate Government. Yet we are living at a time in Europe when we have two competing claims to Government authority at play in every territorial State. The British people were informed during the referendum debate that the EU was probably the source of about 60 percent of all new laws, this was disputed, but nobody argued that the EU was not the source of any of the new laws. Most of the time these laws are being drafted and enacted without the people having a conversation about them. The crucial point is that the EU is now a contentious source of lawmaking and therefore of an alternative Government authority.

    If Hobbes was around today he would no doubt argue that the STATE can only have one political master not two. This is the heart of the matter. There are those who think that having two origins of Government claim to rule and enact law can continue to work in some harmony, let us call them the liberals, their case is the evidence of last 50 years of European experience. One should recall that Liberalism proper never accepted the Hobbes thesis, for if liberalism means anything in politics it means, the possibility for a separation of political powers. This liberal understanding I think has a weak case, for the political influence of the EU as an alternative source of Government decision and law making in the earlier years of the EEC was very limited, it has increased enormously since 1992, if anything the British people have had only a limited experience of this expansion in external Governance in comparison to the peoples of Greece and Ireland. Then there are those, lets call them the radicals or Federalists, who concede the thesis of Hobbes that there can only ever be one origin of real political authority and lawmaking, they conclude that the uncontested political authority should now pass fully over to an enhanced EU, the national Government should become subordinates parts to an EU ultimate authority. Then we have the Conservatives who also think that the Hobbes thesis is correct, they seek to push in the opposite direction to the radicals, the EU must be eliminated as an alternative source of lawmaking and Governance.

    The thesis of Marx concerning Government and State is hard to peg. In the lifetime of Marx the conversation about politics was conducted in the context of a running polemic with anarchism. In the German Ideology, the main polemic was directed at a philosophic anarchist called Max Stirner. In the period up to the publication of Capital the polemic was with another influential anarchist, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and his mutualist philosophy, in the period of the First International, including the Paris Commune the polemic was directed at yet another anarchist, the Russian one, Bakunin, most of the Paris workers of 1871 were confessed anarchists. It can be argued that Marx was bending his intellectual stick to meet these anarchists half-way when he disclosed his thoughts about Government.

    It is not easy to say what really came out of Marx’s polemic, Lenin attempted to summarise it in his State and Revolution. Two propositions come to mind, one that the anarchists are correct to seek the abolition of the State, the State is an oppressor, yet the anarchists are also wrong because the State is a consequence of class society and therefore cannot be abolished in one blow, by a mere political revolution, real emancipation requires a social revolution, the abolition of the classes and capitalist society. Lenin seemed to think that the State would continue to persist in a changed form after the social revolution for a period under the guise of a Workers State. No matter about the rights and wrongs of Lenin’s interpretation, the relationship between State and the Government is still very much with us, the political thought of Hobbes has not yet withered away, because the question of rule is still with us. The thesis of Hobbes is that you can’t have two government sources claiming lawmaking authority over the State, if you want to keep the peace that is. It might be put that Lenin and Trotsky paid their homage to Hobbes the moment they concluded that any potential Dual Political Power could only be something very temporary.

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