BREXIT– HOWL OF FRUSTRATION AGAINST THE RULING CLASS? Prof. Kenneth Surin, Duke University
The Brexit decision in last week’s UK referendum was never the outcome of anything resembling a debate– the ensuing fallout, full of twists and zig-zags, reversals and retractions, recriminations and finger-pointing, indicates this more clearly with each passing hour.
Brexit was of course a loose configuration spearheaded by the right, lacking even a moderately thought-out agenda for what would follow Brexit, while able to mobilize ideological resources (the negative stereotyping of immigrants and xenophobia primarily) to take advantage of those not necessarily on the right, but who in the main have been bludgeoned economically and socially ever since the ascendancy of Thatcherism. The bullied and cajoled have now roared their “No More!” after decades of being pushed around by an increasing callous political and business elite.
Lexit was a position (it was never more than that) of those on the left who eschewed centrist compromise and its continuing collusion with the EU’s unbending neoliberalism.
The Remain bloc consisted overwhelmingly of the beneficiaries and factotums of this neoliberalism, along with a younger generation generally more comfortable with things European than their elders, and who saw no good reason to trust rightwing bluster involving such meaningless phrases as “sovereignty” and “getting our independence back”.
Unlike the Brexiters and Lexiters, the young displayed more confidence in the EU’s perceived willingness to pursue broadly technocratic objectives, than they did in the saloon-bar twaddle of Nigel Farage or those Tories pandering to an older generation longing for a “Great” Britain no longer corresponding to the everyday experience of this younger generation.
It is perhaps a sign of our desperate times that entry into this decidedly double-edged technocracy– with its nebulous promise of money and status, but also an expanding horizon of contingent employment with its plethora of precarious gig jobs– seems nowadays to be the primary repository of youthful hope.
The situation before and after the referendum was overdetermined on all fronts, having many more complex causes than the single comprehensive outcome of a verdict in favour of Brexit.
With the exception of Corbyn and a few of his close allies, all the primary political protagonists in the referendum showed themselves to be “post truth” politicians, saying whatever it took: (i) to cement their positions as potential successors to the oleaginous Cameron (namely, Gove and Johnson) and to add a few more watts to their own political limelight (Gove, Johnson, and Farage); or (ii) to release a pent-up resentment at the disdain meted-out for decades by his patrician superiors (to wit, the talentless but malevolent George Smith, the name given by his parents when he was born, later transforming himself into the posh(er) “Iain Duncan Smith” before marrying into a minor but wealthy aristocratic family); (iii) or to create a ghastly spectacle of their greasy-poled opportunism (Cameron himself and the Blairites now plotting their coup against Corbyn).
In a word: the left was in a quagmire, with no genuine options before it. The EU is irredeemable to the clear-eyed, and Brexit, whatever its merits, was dominated by a puke-inducing jingoism and Little Englanderism.
Moreover, as Tariq Ali correctly points out, Labour’s Red Tories clearly prefer Dodgy Dave Cameron to Corbyn. Corbyn has said that because the Iraq war was illegal he will probably initiate proceedings for Blair’s despatch to The Hague for war crimes after the Chilcot Report on the war is published. Cameron would of course do no such thing to the man he’s taken as his model. So there’s no real surprise at what the Red Tory Blairites are seeking to do by undermining Corbyn.
Given all this, Corbyn played what seemed like a fairly decent hand, i.e. lukewarm support for Remain (his understandable avowals to the contrary notwithstanding), and making it obvious he was tacitly aligned with the non-elite, for whom this was much more about giving the finger to the ruling class than anything to do with the EU per se.
How else to account for the fact that Cornwall, the UK county which is the largest recipient of EU funds, voted for Brexit (but wants now to continue receiving those funds despite what it voted for!), as did the deindustrialized ex-mining towns in south Wales, also beneficiaries of significant EU largesse? At the same time, the north of Ireland, a big recipient of EU money, did the opposite and voted against Brexit.
These topsy-turvy voting patterns reflect the ambivalent and conflicting motivations of the UK body politic, something highly indicative of the overdetermination mentioned earlier.
Corbyn, one senses, would have preferred to make a case for Lexit, but this would have destroyed the parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). The PLP is hollowed-out and moribund, now that the days of any kind of viable parliamentary socialism, and indeed parliamentary “democracy” itself, are over.
Corbyn probably thought it would be preferable to let the Tories scratch each other’s eyes out, rather than instigate an all-out war within the PLP. Corbyn, for whom politics is about principles and platforms rather than plots and vendettas (even his opponents concede this while railing against his obvious faults), probably had little warning of what the Red Tory vipers in his midst were slithering towards– in effect, the all-out war within the PLP he was trying to avoid.
The PLP is dead, or deserves to die, because it functions, or perceives itself to function, solely as a vote-harvesting machine. If circa 2010-2015 austerity was the media-orchestrated political mood of the season, well, Labour would supply austerity lite through Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband.
If anti-immigration is the ostensible mood of voters in 2016, well, Labour must needs be in touch with its so-called traditional base (which in truth no longer exists) by echoing anti-immigrant sentiments in ever so subtle, or not so subtle, ways.
Conning and winning over voters with focus-group viewpoints in order to be in government and advance political careers is the PLP’s sole raison d’etre today. So the austere Corbyn, who refuses to acquiesce in this flummery, must get on his bicycle and buzz off.
The Brexit vote has created an obvious crisis which needs to be exploited by the left. What should its objectives be? In summary form, I’d like to think they’d include the following:
(1) Using the disarray in the Tory and Labour parties to end the austerity hoax and to fight neoliberalism;
(2) assisting the break-up of the EU in order to undermine neoliberalism (and in the process to help ordinary Greek people whose own Grexit was so cruelly betrayed, and so forth);
(3) hastening the break-up of the UK, now that Scotland is going to want another referendum, and this time is likely to vote YES to leaving the UK. Hopefully the north of Ireland will favour reunification with the south which is solidly behind the EU, leaving Wales as a mere appendage to England, a fate it might resent and subsequently reject;
(4) if the UK dissolves, the monarchy is less likely to survive—for instance, what will the Prince of Wales, the heir to the English throne, do if the Welsh people say it’s high time, where Wales is concerned at any rate, for him to “mynd ar goll (get lost)?”.
For the UK, these are perilous times, but also vastly interesting times.
Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org