“No borders, no nations! Stop deportations”
The crowd of over two thousand protesters chanted as they marched through East London, an area that is notable for its history of multicultural inhabitants. The crowd donned Anti-Fascist Action flags, many with faces covered for fear of further police repression. The voices echoed a complexity to the “Brexit” vote that those outside of the European Union (and even those inside of the EU) attempt to grasp with what this decision means and symbolizes.
This week, a majority of 51.9% of voting United Kingdom residents voted to leave the European Union, a project that they have been a part of for over forty years. This is the first country in the EU to do this, a zone that was intended to both reconcile political tensions and to smooth over neo-liberal capitalist expansion. This is the first vote since the 1970s, and, at the time, the vote was not even close. Today, the force to leave toppled over the edge and is forcing a push away from the united continental project. Even after a Britain First affiliate and advocate of Brexit killed a pro-immigrant British MP, the vote still passed through with a slim majority.
While it has been largely acknowledged that the Brexit campaign was a xenophobic and racist push from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and Britain First, there has also been a reasonable Lexit (left exit) side to the campaign. Internationally, left circles have been debating the merits of this position, debating the role of a left contingent inside of a hard right campaign. Groups in the United States like the International Socialist Organization have showed a certain admiration for the Lexit contingent, while most mainstream progressives are standing back in horror.
The primary impulse for many on the radical left is to look at the vote as a series of component parts that have meaning, while the politics themselves will largely play out as business as usual.
A comparison to the Donald Trump campaign stateside is useful, especially as it has often been used by the British left to put the recent events in England in context. When comparing the realities of the political choices of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump it quickly reminds us just how little a vote allows for real decision making as it retains ruling class power no matter the distinction. Though there are great differences between the candidates, they are minor when it comes to large-scale social systems, and do nothing to challenge systemic inequality. You will never be able to vote the rich out of their wealth
But what does the Donald Trump candidacy really represent?
It has mobilized a revolutionary wing of the far-right to begin crossing over into the racialist undercurrent of the right-wing segment of the white working class, creating a populist-right block that is as frightening as it is large. This has shifted the politics in the country to the right on social issues and race, and has created an open space to transform “dog whistle” racist politics into blunt racial nationalism. The possible Trump presidency and the right-populist community, only reinforced ideologically by the Alt Right, could act reciprocally, as Trump’s call for banning Muslim immigration has mobilized their Islamophobia, which will then further push Trump to live up to his promise
This effect is largely meta-political: it effects the underlying values, philosophies, and impulses that drive political decisions. For those of us on the anti-fascist left, this both mutates the working class and creates a violent reactionary force of Stormtroopers against any left revolution. This is the most destructive turn a society can take, the barbarism promised as the endgame of global capitalism.
When it comes to Brexit, this is the largest victory in decades for the far-right, who are growing across all sectors in the country. Given a state of economic turmoil since the global financial crisis, as well as coming after decades of neo-liberal austerity, the white working class of Britain have been pressed to the point of rupture. That angst is painted racially as the right has played on tensions from the “refugee crisis,” attempting to shift the blame from the rich to the immigrants. The targeting of immigrants, especially Islamic immigrants, has been the signature of the far-right since the earliest rumblings of the National Front in the 1970s up through the brief rise of the British National Party. Now that the English Defense League(EDL) and PDGIDA have tried to expand Islamophobia beyond the narrow neo-Nazi crowd, they have been able to sow a deep fear of immigrants in a public that normally would not have been touched by the British nationalist movements. Likewise, the growth of the Alt Right and movements like National Action have brought in a younger generation of educated neo-fascists who are hoping to use the social turmoil to capture a working class who may have had their discontent channeled into the radical left.
This has come together like a neutron star with the Brexit vote, a crossover issue that has given their rhetoric a place in the general public. They were given access to the minds of the people and were able to push through an exit vote not just on the issues of economic “free trade,” but on British identity.
It is less important what the vote was, and more central about why it was. The exit of Britain from the EU was due to a massive campaign with racial undertones, even if the left-wing of that vote came for economic reasons. For immigrants living in the UK, especially those of color, are speaking out en masse right now about the fear they are experiencing, and that racial attacks and harassment have gone through the roof. Right now the streets of London are a scary place for all but a white British base, exactly what Britain First was hoping for. No matter what the ideal economic effects of the vote were for socialists and progressive in Britain who supported the exit, it is having the effect of tossing a massive victory to the far right and allowing the racist undercurrent to bubble to the surface.
The real question here is if there will be any substantive gains for working people in Britain from the vote that would outweigh the social wave of the far-right that they are going to see from this victory. Organizations like Britain First, UKIP, the EDL, BNP, PEGIDA, and others are only going to grow at this point, gaining power not in the ballot box, but in the streets. They will further co-opt the righteous anger of the working class, turning it back on itself and dividing ranks further.
In a world where proxies work as a side-channel for larger meta-political goals, Brexit acts as a shift to the right even if the politics do not divert greatly from standard neo-liberal expansion or if they are even to fit into the larger goals of the anti-globalization movement.
This left-right alliance owes, to a large part, to the vagueness that has permeated from the anti-globalization movement since the 1990s. While Americans often associate it with the hard left/post-left turn of things like the Battle for Seattle. The war against the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were, in essence, the battle against the all-encompassing power of Late Capitalism, where the issues of “globalization” were the issues of unregulated capitalism feeding off of the Global South.
This is where the terminology of “imperialism” fails to recognize what was/is actually taking place in global capitalism, where the term lends itself to traditional empires that ravaged the world through colonialism up to the earliest days of capitalism. Today, it is multinational corporations and institutions of market exploitation that run the world, not monolithic super states. When the UK’s economy dominates the world, that is capitalism running the state, rather than imperialism of the traditional aristocracy(though that aristocracy certainly graduated to the capitalist class when the politics shifted). The use of imperialism rhetorically on the radical left is more of an attempt to maintain continuity to political ideology of the past rather than an accurate description of most nation’s behavior, but one thing is true: whether it is traditional imperialism and colonialism or the unrestrained carnivorous passions of corporations, the Global South always loses.
The anti-globalization movement was a mass action against that, one that united artists and the black bloc and unions and immigrant rights organizations, and which saw the solution to these global problems both as the repudiation of capitalism and the use of localization for economics, food production, and community. This created strange ideological bedfellows as the far-right also saw a certain opportunity in the logic of “going local,” of bioregionalism, and of keeping out of foreign wars. This was old nationalism repackaged in hippie aesthetics and food politics, and they could oppose “globalism” since it also imported cosmopolitan multiculturalism. In a way, this helped to further develop the far-right’s Third Positionist anti-capitalism, since modern capitalism cared not for their “traditional” life and instead looked to commodity and reproduce.
The problem is that, philosophically and meta-politically, the anarchist core of the anti-globalization movement and the eco-friendly fascists crowding their fringes were the core opposite of one another. To help draw this distinction, terms like “para-globalization” began to be used, drawing on anarchist communist notions of “internationalism.” This was meant to say, clearly, that it was not so much globalization that we opposed, but “this globalization.” The globalization of capital. Instead, we support the international struggle of the working class against capital, even if we support decentralized federalism as a more responsive and successful way of organizing society. This rhetorical battle was never primary, however, and a lack of clear politics, both implicit and explicit, allowed the far-right to bloom inside of spaces thought to have radical left hegemony.
In anti-globalization, the issue of “globalization” was always a proxy for capitalism and the racial, sexual, and national oppression that comes along with its expansion into the Third World. For the far-right, globalization was a proxy for the “destruction” of nations, race, gender, and sexual boundaries. If they both see a victory, then it can strengthen the far-right as it mobilizes the radical left. In many ways, many of the more fringe elements in places like AdBusters and in eco-anarchist circles reveled in this murky ideological waters, and flirted with the far-right, not because they were sympathetic to them, but because they needed a broad coalition. This “linking up” with the far-right has never bloomed anything of value, and instead has always been the hallmark of a revolutionary fascist movement that attempts to draw elements of the far-left’s politics into a value set of the far-right. This means that fascist often oppose capitalism, and sometimes even the state, for reasons that they are not sufficient in propping up nationalism and inequality. They want a society more rooted in inequality, where a market does not just produce inequality as a side-effect, but that the inequality perfectly reflects their ideas about race and gender and are reinforced through whatever system of social coercion they see fit.
When Brexit is looked at as a proxy, the reality is that for the right it was a vote on immigration. UKIP ran billboard ads with large pictures of streams of refugees, dog-whistling that they are the “brown hordes invading Britain.” The vote was painted as one about immigration from the start, even when UKIP made promises that this exit will save the country money that they could then put into the National Healthcare Service (a promise they have already backed away from). In this way it draws on the isolationism of the Old Right, where they are saying that we can better take care of ourselves by forgetting everyone else. The Alt Right in the U.S. has also jumped on board to sing their praises, with the Daily Shoah, Fash the Nation, the Traditionalist Youth Network, the Daily Stormer, American Renaissance, and Counter-Currents all claiming a major victory for nationalism. The only real dissent came from Richard Spencer of the Radix Journal, who, while also reveling in the “success” of Brexit, thinks that it could further “divide white people.”
While Lexit may have sided with the removal from the EU for different reasons, they still have created a right-left alliance that has emboldened the far-right through their proxy politics. Since the vote does little to change the actual politics of the country, yet does a lot to fuel the far-right, what does Lexit actually hope to gain out of this? At the same time, while the EU was still an infrastructure for global capital to exploit workers, how did the exit do anything to challenge that dynamic? What it certainly did was guarantee a large number of workers being laid off, foreign employees being deported, and pensions to be sacked, all of which for no tangible gains.
The left of Britain, beyond the few Lexit supporters, were largely united on staying. Neo-liberalism does not depend on the EU; it depends on capitalism as a system. Labor was almost universally aligned, with unions seeing an economic downturn that could effect membership. This turned out true as the markets opened the day after the UK’s vote, with over $5 billion in wealth disappearing and Britain dropping from the 5th largest economy to the 6th. Many laughed for ages about this on social media, especially the fact that the British ruling class is taking a dramatic hit financially. The problem is that this hits pensions and investments of working class families around the country, and will be felt economically through the lowest sectors of the population. This is not an isolated financial problem, nor is the coming recession, and the shudders could mean massive austerity both inside and outside of the country.
The discourse about imperialism has returned in this discussion, especially the idea of “breaking up the empires.” There is a certain logic to this, but it is also important to look at the dominated nations inside of the United Kingdom. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay, despite Donald Trump’s embarrassing statements upon landing in Scotland to promote his bourgeois golf club.
This exit vote presents further problems for Northern Ireland as it will be even more difficult to transfer between the Northern province and the main country of Ireland. Currently, EU member nations are easy to travel between. This is actually part of the strange inter-European xenophobia at play in the Brexit decision, where Polish immigrants are specifically seeing a backlash against them and may have a difficult time staying in the UK in its post-EU form. For the Irish, this further blocks up the nation. On the one hand, this is re-igniting the possibility of Scotland and Northern Ireland leaving the UK to become sovereign nations. At the same time, this Brexit vote does not do much to mobilize that leaving since it essentially puts their identity within Britain only rather than the EU at large.
The question now is if this decision will collapse markets in such a way that working people will take another hit, and if revolutionary movements will actually gain anything from the crushing recession. The answer is likely no since inside or outside the EU, the class positions remain largely the same. The only difference is that remaining would have seen economic stability last slightly longer. For working families in the UK who are barely surviving as it is, this could be the last push towards poverty.
Against Corporate Nationalism, In and Out of the EU
Instead of focusing on the politics of Brexit, it may be worth looking at exactly how this decision reflects the social climate of the country, how the far-right is going to mobilize, and what the left’s actual goals are inside of the larger EU situation. This often comes off as a “fuck both sides” argument, which, given the nature of the corporate EU on one side and the reactionary nationalists on the other, makes sense. Christopher Hayes of MSNBC posted a position that sums up our feelings perfectly:
I don’t want a future in which politics is primarily a battle between cosmopolitan finance capitalism and ethno-nationalist backlash.
It is impossible to ignore the violence and racism that has permeated the country in the wake. Thousands of people have reported harassment, chants of “we voted for you to leave,” and threats on people of color and immigrants around the country. Violence has increased so quickly that people are hiding indoors, frightened that their family is going to be murdered by white racialists patrolling immigrant neighborhoods with guns. Right now, the UK is a scary place to be in.
The battle after Brexit will not be to bring the UK back into the EU, event though a reversal referendum may come through and Scotland will fight tooth and nail to remain. The fight will be to confront the racism that was once subdermal and has now been brought to the surface, given a pass by the semi-respectability of UKIP and the populism behind Brexit. As their economy continues to fall, and working people get a financial attack that was unwarranted and unnecessary, the discontent could further feed the Britain First movement. Those on the radical left cannot stand for this, and instead should develop a strong movement that takes that righteous anger and channels it back where it belongs: in the direction of a financial elite who will do whatever it takes to make the non-rich lose. Crisis is the perpetual state of capitalism, and it is time for the reality of social inequality to obliterate the victim-blaming racial narratives that have divided working people for centuries.