The Irish Socialist Party, in common with the Socialist Workers and Communist Party, is a supporter of Brexit. What makes its particular position worth discussing is the way it brings to the fore the consequences.
In an article last year the Socialist Party writer is right about these economic consequences. He writes that “a sudden and sharp economic shock would result . . . an economic recession would almost certainly follow. . . a fall in living standards would be most likely, as inflation would rise and wages fall in real terms. If the hard-right Brexiteers are by then the dominant force in the Tory government workers are right to fear a race to the bottom and attempts to create a low-tax, low-wage, unregulated economy.”
Yet none of this prevented the Party from supporting Brexit and being the force behind the union I am a member of endorsing it, much to the surprise of many of its members. Given that it is the job of trade unions to prevent and resist such attacks it seems incredible that a trade union would invite them, but that is where we are.
In full awareness of these consequences the Socialist Party has said that “an emergency conference, with the widest participation of workers’ representatives from workplaces across Ireland, North and South, must be convened, in order to allow a full democratic discussion on how to best oppose both the EU and the attacks of the Fine Gael and Tory governments.”
As it makes clear, it is attacks from the British Government which will be the most immediate and swingeing and unfortunately while Brexit may be coming, there is no sign of the workers’ conference. This should not come as a surprise.
The Socialist Party will know that Irish workers, particularly in the North, are not in a position to fight the effects of Brexit through any sort of militant action that might provide some minimal chance of success. In the North the Stormont administration was able to impose years of austerity, real wage cuts and thousands of redundancies in the public sector with little difficulty. Effective resistance to a much greater offensive can therefore hardly be anticipated with any degree of confidence.
What should have been expected instead is that, faced with such a threat, socialists in the trade unions would have opposed Brexit. Certainly not invite the attack and then rely on a working class response. This does not absolve socialists from now arguing for such a resistance, but it behoves us to have prevented it in the first place if we could. It is one thing to be up a creek without a paddle trying to do one’s best, and quite another to have wilfully decided to go up the creek and throw away the paddle.
There is some sort of argument in the article justifying support for Brexit through the remark that “workers’ rights have been won through struggle, and will be defended through struggle”; while we should have no illusions in the EU to defend our rights.
Unfortunately, while at a very general level it is true that workers’ rights will be won and defended through struggle, this is only a partial truth. In other words, we have to ask ourselves whether in this particular situation and at this particular time – how do we defend working class interests?
It must therefore be recognised that at this particular time it happens to be the case, as the Socialist Party itself has acknowledged, that the EU is demanding that the:
“UK must observe “level playing field” commitments on competition, state aid, employment and environmental standards and tax. All of this is designed to ensure that UK businesses are not able to undercut EU industry. Brussels has also demanded “dynamic alignment” on state aid, which would oblige the UK parliament to simply cut and paste EU regulations as they are issued. “Non-regression clauses” will prevent the UK from bringing in lower standards on social, environmental and labour regulations such as working hours. These requirements are anathema to Tory Brexiteers, for whom leaving the EU represents an opportunity to head towards a low-tax, light-regulation economy such as that seen in Singapore.”
So at this particular time the EU, for its own reasons and purposes, wants to prevent the attacks on workers in the UK that Brexit is designed to carry out. This is not to sow illusions in the EU but to accept the reality that the Socialist Party has recognised.
The argument put by the Party is that the rules of the EU prevent the British working class from moving forward. And this is true as far as it goes, as far as these rules – such as those relating to state aid – exist and can be applied. There is certainly a debate as to the extent that this may be the case, while there is also the potential to struggle to change these rules or prevent their application.
But all this is also true of the rules of the British State. Along with the other Member States it has major responsibility for the EU rules to which socialists object. It makes no sense to prefer these Member States to the EU on such grounds. Thatcherism’ is not a French or German word. The anti-trade union laws, privatisation and austerity are as much British as EU creations, and what delivered the historic defeats of the British working class was not the EU but the British State.
There is an ancillary question whether, given Brexit, it is even possible to suggest that British workers today can take big strides forward, rather than accept that in such a situation the questions before them relate to defending rights and living standards already achieved. The Socialist Party itself makes it clear that Brexit does not herald a period of advance but the necessity to organise defence on a scale not seen for a long time.
That is why the debate about Brexit has been about Brexit, about its effects, and not at all about how the British working class can move forward to take advantage of it. So rather than call for a conference to resist these attacks it would have been far better to head them off before they could begin.
The idea of an all-island workers’ conference is a good one, but it is currently only a good idea. Given the level of struggle and organisation of the Irish working class it was, and is, unrealistic to expect such a conference to both emerge and be adequate to the tasks that it would face. We know this from the inability of the working class to effectively resist the attacks it already faces, never mind a whole raft of new ones.
We cannot have expected the Irish trade union movement to organise such a conference, since it would not do so over water charges in the South. When sections of it did organise on this issue, they did so in their usual bureaucratic manner, which cripples a movement’s capacity before it has even started.
For the Irish Congress of Trade Unions there is no need for an all-island workers’ conference because that is considered, and indeed should be, the role of ICTU itself. If the socialist movement is unable to turn the existing all-island organisation towards addressing the tasks presented by Brexit there can hardly be much reason to believe it would be able to create a real alternative from scratch. Already ICTU has surrendered and accepted Theresa May’s take on what Brexit should mean and has abandoned opposition.
In any case, one of the first questions that would be posed to socialist organisations at such a conference would be why they supported Brexit in the first place?
One final point is worth making here in relation to the defense of workers’ living standards. It is not true that only working class struggle can advance working class living standards. Capitalism itself has given rise to increased living standards, with the potential for much greater increases in the future, and it is just such circumstances that Marxists believe gives rise to the potential for a socialist alternative.
This is an elementary Marxist understanding of capitalism and socialism but it is not one that, having accepted it for ‘theoretical’ purposes, one can then ignore it for political ones. The dynamics of the capitalist system through which Marx believed this to be the case are still at work and must be taken into account. Our opposition to capitalism comes from our understanding that there is a more progressive alternative, and not simply from the iniquities or barbarities of the current system, which can only finally be condemned if there is an alternative.
What this means in relation to the current situation is that Brexit is an attempt of one country to reverse the development of capitalism and reverse the international socialisation of production that has characterised it for many decades. It seeks that one country can compete with a much larger bloc on the basis of free market principles more applicable to the 19th century. It is therefore wholly reactionary even from a modern capitalist viewpoint, and is an attempt to go backwards rather than forwards.
It is not in the interests of the working class to revert to an earlier stage of capitalism where, for example, regulations are torn up to the benefit of those capitalists willing and able to ignore them. It is not to our benefit to see the costs of our labour power such as health and education imposed on individual workers as opposed to the socialisation of such costs by the capitalist state through organisations such as the National Health Service. It is not in our interest to heighten national division through greater separation of nation states in Europe, when such previous division has only resulted in alliances of the biggest powers in aggressive competition with each other. Such alliances do not result in the freedom and independence of smaller nations but their subordination within the alliances of the great powers.
This is why the EU is a more advanced form of capitalist formation than a Europe of separate nation states and why the illusions of Brexit in Britain are the illusions of an earlier period of British capitalism and British history.
Of course the EU is a representation of big business. Such multinational capital is a more advanced form of capitalism than the small private businesses of the 19th century. Small business has no interest in regulations which it considers to be costly red tape, or minimum employment regulation, or environmental regulation or socialisation of its costs, which it would seek not to incur in any event.
The biggest companies however require state regulation, and regulation that covers multiple state jurisdictions, so that it can produce at the mass scale in as many markets across Europe as possible. This requires uniform regulations to standardise production, while other costs are externalised and socialised such as health and education, provided by the state or by other private capitals.
This is why, as the Socialist Party says, the EU seeks:
“level playing field” commitments on competition, state aid, employment and environmental standards and tax. All of this is designed to ensure that UK businesses are not able to undercut EU industry. Brussels has also demanded “dynamic alignment” on state aid, which would oblige the UK parliament to simply cut and paste EU regulations as they are issued. “Non-regression clauses” will prevent the UK from bringing in lower standards on social, environmental and labour regulations such as working hours. These requirements are anathema to Tory Brexiteers, for whom leaving the EU represents an opportunity to head towards a low-tax, light-regulation economy such as that seen in Singapore.”
Were we simply anti-capitalists then it might be the case that we would not care which of these variants of capitalism we lived under. But this is obviously not the case since we oppose austerity and fight in the short term for a different configuration of capitalism than the one austerity would impose. Because we are socialists it is the development of capitalism, not its retrogression, which allows us to realistically put forward the alternative of socialism, and Brexit and our opposition to it is a demonstration of this.
In the next post I will look at how Brexit fits into the overall programme of the Socialist Party.