This essay was first published in Jacobin.
(2015 Plan B conference: Stefano Fassina, Oskar Lafontaine, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, and Yanis Varoufakis. via melenchon.fr)
Dear friends and comrades,
To a foreigner who has been living and working in the United Kingdom for the last sixteen years, the immediate post-referendum situation appears highly paradoxical. It seems as if the shock has been of such a magnitude that even the most celebrated British virtues — sense of humor, understatement and, above all, solid common sense — have faded away.
On the losing side, which includes, of course, most of the media and the economic and political establishment, the impact is as devastating as it is unexpected. The markets are plunging all over the world and the City of London, the economy’s central nervous system, faces disaster.
Its quasi-official voice, the Financial Times, laments that after Jonathan Hill, the British EU commissioner for financial services, resigned, “the City of London has lost its voice.” Some are already petitioning for a new vote, or for the referendum to be ignored.
From a continental perspective, this blatant rejection of democracy is no shock. After all, in nearly every past referenda in which a proposal emanating from the European Union (a constitutional proposal, a treaty, euro membership, even an obscure trade agreement with Ukraine) was at stake, “no” votes prevailed and were ignored.
However — and this is where the paradox lies — the fact is that it’s not only the City that looks voiceless and agitated. So does the Left.
Of course, as was entirely predictable, all those within the Labour Party who never accepted Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership found the pretext they were looking for to launch an assault against him. But what is stunning is their justification: Corbyn didn’t do enough for the Remain cause, and is therefore responsible for its defeat.
Almost two-thirds of Labour voters supported Remain. However, the results show that Leave won in nearly all the Labour heartlands outside of London and a couple of cities such as Liverpool and Manchester. Even there, the more working-class districts didn’t follow the Euro-enthusiasm of the gentrified inner-cities.
A significant chunk of Labour voters rejected the Remain line their leadership officially defended, a line the Parliamentary Labour Party’s anti-Corbyn majority even more vigorously pursued. They were joined by a majority of voters. Yet bizarrely, the MPs who have just been disavowed by their constituencies are now plotting to overthrow a leader because he didn’t do enough to support their unpopular platform.
A bad defeat for British common sense, indeed.
This argument’s logical conclusion is the type of social Darwinism, deeply ingrained in the mind of the British ruling class, that is more or less explicitly argued by all kinds of pundits, particularly those in the “center-left” media like the Guardian.
Brexit won, they say, because the most impoverished, essentially white, part of the working class supported it. And these cohorts of losers and uneducated people voted for Leave because they are racist and ageing.
Figures — like the over 70 percent Remain vote in areas such as the London councils of Haringey or Lambeth or in categories such as those aged eighteen to twenty-four, or those who hold university degrees — are constantly repeated as the ultimate evidence.
The class configuration of the vote is certainly a complex one. Substantial parts of the working class, essentially in the greater London area, voted for Remain, and a large part of them are nonwhite. But as results from the multiracial areas of the Western Midlands testify, not all of the nonwhite working-class electorate voted Remain.
Even constituencies considered “white working class” — such as Barking and Dagenham in the Greater London area where the far right had some success in the previous election — have a high proportion of residents born outside of the United Kingdom (30 percent) and voted in a way similar to Luton, which has a similar proportion of foreign-born residents.
Conversely, many very white and affluent areas in West London or in Oxfordshire voted overwhelmingly for Remain, which reached nearly 70 percent in Kensington and Chelsea.
Actually, as indicated by the Guardian’s graph, which breaks down the vote by an area’s annual median income, very few places outside of Scotland (and some relatively big cities such as Manchester, Liverpool, and Cardiff) with an annual resident income below £25,000 voted for Remain.
And the overwhelming majority of the areas with a below 60 percent proportion of residents belonging to the so-called “ABC1 grades” (that is the three layers of the “middle class” labeled by the statistical jargon as “upper,” “middle,” and “lower middle”) voted in favor of Brexit.
Once again the exceptions were those mentioned previously (Scotland etc.), whereas the near entirety of the areas where the proportion of those strata reaches 70 percent and above voted overwhelmingly in favor of Remain.
According to the Ashcroft polls there is a strict linear correlation between the belonging to the higher social grade and the propensity for a Remain vote (57 percent for the AB “upper middle class” grade, unfortunately not differentiated between the A and the B grade, 34 percent for the C2DE “working-class” and “non-working” grade).
The class logic is therefore strongly prevalent but overdetermined by the spatial polarization that has characterized Britain since the Thatcher era. So, a nonwhite worker who lives in a declining area tended to vote — with her white neighbor — for Brexit, while her counterpart in the economically thriving capital city, although not necessarily wealthier, tended to vote with the more affluent population, with whom she shares the reasonably grounded hope for a better future (if not for herself, then at least for her children).
Something similar can be said concerning the younger population’s electoral behavior, particularly the fraction holding a university degree that hasn’t yet properly entered the job market. The rate of Europhilia drops sharply among the bulk of the active population (thirty-five to fifty-five). The youngsters’ Euro-enthusiasm has to do with cultural and ideological parameters, but even these correlate to the upward social mobility expected by holders of post-secondary degrees.
Interestingly, the Guardian graph shows that otherwise very different areas that had comparable proportions of degree holders — such as Haringey, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Oxford, and Edinburgh — voted in similar proportions in favor of Remain.
In any case, the figures contrasting young people’s Europhilia with their elders’ Europhobia have to be mitigated by taking into account two variables: the first is that the turnout among the eighteen-to-twenty-four set was significantly lower than the average.
As a result, while the young Remainers were the most motivated to express their views, their weight was relatively limited within their entire cohort.
The second mitigating factor is that the economic decline endured by the non-metropolitan areas has translated into an exodus of the young and most educated layers of their population, which raises the median age of those who still live there.
Once again, the spatial division of economic growth, which has to be understood as a particularly brutal — that is, neoliberal — version of capitalism’s combined and uneven development, overdetermines factors such as age and education.
Needless to say, this aspect also played a crucial role in the emergence of Scottish nationalism, explaining the “anomalous” — in social and class terms — success of Remain in what increasingly looks like an independent country-in-waiting. To put it differently, Scottish nationalism could never have achieved that level of power had the Thatcherite restructuring of the British economy not produced such intense spatial-economic polarization.
Displaced Class Struggle
Let’s leave the “objective” side of the question aside and discuss head-on what seems to be the main issue for most, and certainly for all those who stood against Brexit on the Left. Was the vote actually a referendum on immigration? And if so, does this mean that its undeniable class dimension was dictated by a racist outlook particular to the working class?
The pro-Brexit campaign was dominated by a discourse with strong racist undertones and explicit xenophobia. The argument that Brexit would stop the influx of immigrant workers from Eastern European countries was repeated ad nauseam by Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, and their likes. It is also true that those who chose Brexit often mentioned the rejection of immigration as a serious, or even a decisive, motivation.
But it rarely, if ever, appeared on stage alone: even when anti-immigration was cited as the main reason for the vote, it was mentioned as part of a broader picture that almost invariably included some or most of the following: job and housing shortages, low salaries, overburdened public services, an overall sense of alienation, downward social and individual trajectory, and the loss of control over one’s own life. Entirely real issues fueled legitimate anger but were misdirected against immigrants.
As the French philosopher Etienne Balibar formulated it in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities — a canonical text of Marxist literature devoted to this topic — racism should be understood as “a displaced form of class struggle” that can become prevalent when the class consciousness of subaltern groups is at its weakest.
Instead of turning outward, against the class adversary, the violence of class antagonism — and the anxieties and moral panic it generates — turn inward and accentuate preexisting differentiation within the subaltern groups. The result radically undermines their collective agency.
That is, the Brexit vote’s class dimension and the hegemony of the Leave campaign’s reactionary discourse are not mutually incompatible. Their conjunction comes out of a contingent, but effective, situation that combines the Left’s weakness with the Right’s capacity to channel popular anger. This is also why there is nothing inevitable about large sectors of workers’ class anger taking on a racist outlook.
The working class is not by definition more racist than other social groups — we know how strong the upper classes’ exclusivity is. But neither is the working class immune to racism, particularly when it seems caught in a downward spiral of social degradation and loss of its collective ethos.
The fact that in the case of Brexit working-class revolt picked up — to a significant extent, although the precise level of which is still subject to debate — a racialized outlook has first and foremost to do with the Left’s and the trade union movement’s political weakness, their total inability to overcome the damage produced by decades of Labour’s neoliberal conversion, which culminated in the Blair-Brown era.
In a moment I’ll come to the deeper reasons for the left Remain campaign’s failure. It is enough for now to highlight how much more successful the Right’s Brexit campaign was in articulating the working classes’ anger and the need for a radical shake-up, of course by channeling it into xenophobia and nationalism.
From this angle, the worst thing the Left could do to confront the Right’s hegemony is to conform to the dominant narrative that Brexit’s success is a racist outburst from the depths of Britain’s psyche. Not only because this interpretation is analytically incorrect, but also because this discourse has an immanently performative dimension.
If a consensus emerges — as it unfortunately seems to be doing — that voting Leave unmistakably indicates racism, then the complex and contradictory set of motivations and actions that led to that result are retroactively “fixed.”
To put it differently, the Left failed not only to intervene effectively in the referendum campaign but also to win the battle for the interpretation of its result. Losing that battle could indeed ease the way for all those who will try to turn the ongoing political crisis into an opportunity to further turn toward an authoritarian and xenophobic form of neoliberalism.
There is however a more sophisticated argument that dismisses Brexit’s political meaning: the vote expressed legitimate social anger, but had nothing to do with the European Union.
Instead, it came from decades of neoliberal policies, hardened during the Cameron-Osborne years of austerity, which Johnson and Farage, thanks to an accumulation of lies and demagogic statements, succeeded in presenting as a consequence of the belonging to the European Union.
The center-left media has systematically promoted this narrative, and it will most likely become dominant within the broader left, including sectors of the radical left.
At first sight, this seems like a more credible story, one that dispenses with the overtly patronizing and essentialist explanation of a racist working-class pro-Brexit vote. It is however perhaps even more illogical and ends up producing quite a few misleading assumptions.
Let’s start with the core claim: the vote had nothing to do with the European Union, but was the misplaced expression of domestic grievances that some manipulative politicians succeeded in turning against Brussels.
Well, if after no less than forty-three years of European Union membership, the majority of the British public remains so ignorant about its exact role that voters appear ready to believe buffoonish demagogues blaming Europe for their difficulties, then this tells us something about the complete alienation of the people from such a union. Far from pleading against Brexit, such a claim, if it were true, would provide a decisive argument in its favor.
Secondly, the argument assumes that there is some kind of British exceptionalism in the vote — an exceptionalism of the wrong sort, of course, that combines backward insularity and outward ignorance. But the result of the British referendum isn’t exceptional at all. For many years, the European Union has lost all popular referenda on its proposals and its authority.
The list is quite long and includes the 2000 and 2003 referenda in Denmark and Sweden on joining the euro, the 2001 Irish referendum on the Nice Treaty, the 2005 referenda in France and in the Netherlands on the European Constitution, the Irish 2008 referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, and, last but not least, last year’s Greek referendum on the so-called “Juncker plan” — in reality another draconian austerity plan that Alexis Tsipras surrendered to just one week after a resounding 61.3 percent “Oxi” vote from the people.
Shameful as it was, Tsipras’s capitulation wasn’t an anomaly, either. In all the above-mentioned cases — with the exception of the euro referenda held in Scandinavia — the European Union ignored the popular decisions. And in some cases — Denmark in 1993, and Ireland in 2009 — it even forced the electorate to return to the polls to make at last the “right” choice.
This history — in which popular referenda reject the European Union and the European Union rejects popular referenda — points eloquently to the fact that the union’s primordial problem lies in its denial of democracy — to which we will come in a moment in more detail.
But let’s make first a final observation on the “nothing-to-do-with-the EU” argument. For the sake of the discussion, let’s assume that it’s true.
How then to explain the complete inability of the left Remain campaign — promoted essentially by the Labour Party, but also by the Greens, the Scottish National Party (SNP), and the main trade unions — to make the case that staying in the European Union would bring some improvement in British people’s social standards?
Very simply: such an assertion is laughable. Why should the European Union do tomorrow the opposite of what it has been doing for the past forty-three years? Don’t the terms of Cameron’s February 19 deal — terms that would have been put into effect had Remain won — further confirm that the European Union is ready to make as many concessions as it needs to as long as it can further entrench neoliberal policies?
How credible is it to claim that staying in would improve social standards when everyone knows that the EU is designed to relentlessly promote its founding principle of “free and undistorted competition,” a principle that entails free movement for capital, the deregulation of the labor market, and the privatization of public services?
And if there was the slightest possibility that a Remain vote could trigger the relaxation of austerity policies, why then was Remain almost unanimously supported by the City, big business, and of course by David Cameron and the majority of his Cabinet and Parliamentary Party — with the generous help of guests like Obama and the usual European Union extras?
Replacing the Nation
To conclude on this point, let’s ask a final, and perhaps even more painful — at least for the author of these lines — question. How is it possible for people who pretend to be so aware of European realities to ignore so blatantly what happened to Greece and its first elected left government?
Syriza was initially elected, in January 2015, to abolish austerity and cancel the major part of an odious and illegitimate debt. It confronted an immediate all-out war launched by the European Union, which started with the strangulation of its banking system and the escalating restrictions on its liquidity provision that took effect days after its victory.
Tsipras and the majority of his cabinet capitulated last July precisely because they were trapped by their own illusions about their ability to “reform the EU from within” and “shift gradually the balance of forces.” As a consequence, they had no “plan B” to allow them to confront the troika’s blackmail, which produced a liquidity shortage leading to bank closures and the economy’s near collapse.
Such an alternative plan would have required exiting the euro, and thus breaking fundamentally with the European Union. Between Grexit and signing up for another austerity plan — thus reneging entirely on their platform and raison-d’être — Tsipras and his followers opted for the latter. The result has been an unmitigated disaster, the weight of which the entire European left feels heavily.
There is however an even more embarrassing question that the British left needs to ask and start answering, which brings us back to the domestic situation. Where did the energy and the impact of the Right’s pro-Brexit faction come from? Their capacity to articulate a displaced and racialized form of popular anger partially answers the question, but it’s not the whole story.
Let’s not fool ourselves: without a strong argument against the European Union as such, the rejection of immigration would have been radically insufficient to create a pro-Brexit majority. Despite embittered progressive Remainers’ denials, this was a referendum about the European Union. And the key to Brexit’s success is very simple: democracy.
“Take control” was its main motto, and it appeared credible because the European Union’s refusal of any notion of democracy is now obvious not only to the British public but also to an increasingly significant part of Europe.
According to a Pew Research Center poll, released on June 7, the European Union had lower favorability rates in France and in Greece than in the United Kingdom, which was actually tied with Germany, Spain, and the Netherlands.
Further, democracy only makes sense in connection with some notion of the people’s sovereignty — even in the very distorted and archaic British version of “parliamentary sovereignty.” Which brings us to the complex and slippery — but unavoidable — terrain of the nation, about which more in a moment.
Let me first put what has been said in somewhat stronger terms, since here lies, in my view, the real danger of the current situation. By leaving the terrain of a principled opposition to the European Union to the Right, the British left — with the limited exception of some far-left groups that constituted the low-visibility “Lexit” campaign — didn’t just abandon any credible anti-austerity platform.
It also handed over the task of defending democracy to reactionary forces. And the latter isn’t any less devastating than the former. After all, in the United Kingdom — as in most of continental Europe — the labor movement emerged as a political actor during the battle for voting rights, a moment of intense class struggle that also constituted the founding moment of modern democracy.
To sum up, the pro-Remain left was caught in a double bind: trapped by a Europeanist faith, it bypassed the issue of the European Union and the denial of democracy that its institutional setup requires. Having abandoned this decisive battleground to its adversary, it had no other choice than to retreat to a type of syndicalism, focusing on a minimal social agenda of workers’ rights.
Alas, the Remain side’s overall configuration — which itself reflects the sheer brutality of the European Union’s neoliberal policies (see the wave of so-called labor law reforms in various countries, France being the most recent case) — made that claim entirely fanciful.
Of course, democracy — or more precisely, democracy in its narrow, procedural, and institutional sense — is neither a magical solution nor an absolute. Ancient Athens showed that polities with internal democracy — notwithstanding their limitations — can become brutal imperial and colonial powers.
This is why Marx thought that “political emancipation” wasn’t the whole of “human emancipation” and why the “political state” should abolish its separation from “civil society” via the radical transformation of the social relations that both levels organize and reproduce.
However, no such emancipation is possible without waging and winning the political battle through which the subaltern groups become the hegemonic, leading force in society.
The decisive terrain for that battle is democracy, and its exercise implies a positive, conquering attitude at the level of the national formation. If we start from the premise that any positive reference to the nation inherently produces nationalism, racism, imperial and colonial nostalgia, then the Left is doomed to lose this political battle by losing touch with the working and the popular classes.
This reference to the nation opposes those who defend concessions to anti-immigrant rhetoric and racism in order allegedly to reconnect with the “white working class.” Instead, it requires hegemonizing the very concept of “the people” that constitute the living substance of the nation to transform it into an inclusive, multiracial, multicultural, welcoming, and sovereign body politic.
The significance of the national level from the subaltern groups’ hegemonic perspective is that it would raise them to what Gramsci called “the national-popular,” transforming them into a new historic bloc constituted by the exploited and the oppressed who then lead, seize power, and orient the social formation’s development in an entirely new direction.
As Marx and Engels famously put it in the Communist Manifesto:“Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word.”
Such a concept is not only compatible but also quite logically leads to genuine internationalism, distinct from abstract bourgeois cosmopolitanism. To be genuine, internationalism — that is, the consciousness of a unified, universalistic, struggle against a common adversary — needs to be concrete.
And concreteness means that it can’t bypass the national level, which is where class struggle occurs at the political level and where the subaltern groups’ organizations acquire their distinctive existence and identity.
Let me emphasize one last point. The British left, in its majority, might want the rest of the European left to share in its mourning over Remain’s defeat. This is certainly true of the social-democratic parties who, with the Christian-Democratic right and other conservative forces, have been the pillars of the “European project” since its outset. But for the rest of the European left, it’s rather good news.
Destabilizing the European Union, shaking its legitimacy and leadership to the ground, is an opportunity not to be missed. See for instance how Jean-Luc Mélenchon — the leader of the French radical left who is currently getting higher approval ratings than President François Hollande — reacted.
For Mélenchon, Brexit reveals the European Union’s total deadlock. The lesson to be drawn is that a proper left government in France should immediately propose “exiting from all the existing European treaties” in order to implement an anti-austerity, “ecosocialist” program. And if Germany blocks this move, then a French referendum to exit the European Union will become inevitable.
Mélenchon’s reaction is neither isolated nor opportunistic. After Syriza’s capitulation, Mélenchon launched the “Plan B project” with other forces of the European radical left, including Oskar Lafontaine in Germany, the left wing of Podemos in Spain, Eric Toussaint and his Committee for the Abolishment of Illegitimate Debt, those who left Syriza to create Popular Unity, and Zoe Kostantopoulou’s new Course of Freedom movement in Greece.
The idea is quite simple: the existing European Union bars the implementation of any agenda that would halt — or even moderately slow — the advances of neoliberalism and austerity, as amply demonstrated in Greece.
It is therefore absolutely urgent to break the founding European treaties, which enshrine perpetual neoliberalism and negate democracy and popular sovereignty.
If this is not possible through negotiations — as once again the Greek case suggests — then a plan B, leading to an exit from the European Union — starting with an exit from the eurozone — is necessary. The plan needs to be specifically elaborated according to the needs of each country and also from the perspective of a genuinely new Europe to emerge from the ruins of the existing, failed European Union.
Two international “Plan B” conferences have already been held, in Paris and Madrid, with more to come. I am certain that all the parties involved in the project would be delighted to see comrades from the British left participating in its forthcoming activities and starting a serious conversation about these issues.
Such a move would no doubt help build the type of strategic thinking that is so much needed today. It would indeed be sad irony if — in a country with a rich tradition of labor struggles — the Left remained paralyzed under the weight of its own insufficiencies and contradictions at a moment when the dominant class and its political personnel are facing the most severe political crisis of the last decades.