The british referendum to quit the european union, driven by populist nationalism, racism, xenofobia; a referendum organised by a right-wing political party and imagined by all others; the fantasy of substituting one authoritarian capitalism by yet another more vile: none of this can offer any anarchist, even leftist, any solace.
The foolishness however would be to read the vote, in the words of france’s jack-of-all-trades intellectual, Bernard-Henri Lévy, as “the victory of the hard right over the moderate right, and of the radical left over the liberal left.” Or as “the victory of the mob of Metropolis over the luncheon of the boating party [Renoir]. As “the victory of the casseurs [rioters] and stupid leftists, of fascists and drunken hooligans, of illiterate rebels and neo-nationalsts …”. In sum, as “the victory of ignorance over knowledge … of the small over the great, of cretinism over the spirit.” (Le Monde 26-27/06/2016) To refer to all of those who voted for the Brexit as lobotomised brownshirts is itself cretinism, for what many desired in so voting was to free themselves from the destruction of a rapacious neo-liberal capitalism that renders evermore people superfluous and redundant, and all of this in the name of enlightened and technocratically administered economic progress.
The european union is a machine of war leveled against all of those who can not make themselves useful, profitable, both within and outside europe. And as it conquers and divides it engenders, and indeed, presupposes, the very things that Lévy rails against: racism, bigotry, ethnocentrism.
Tragically, europe’s traditional left is, has been for many years now, part of the problem. When it has completely collapsed before the new neo-liberal, it can serve up nothing more than an impossible warmed-over social-democracy.
With political fascism ever more manifest on the horizon of europe, another politics must be imagined and acted upon.
We share three reflections below. The first is from the anarchist Workers Solidarity Movement in Ireland, and the second is short reflection by Antonis Vradis posted on the Verso Books blog, and the third is an essay by Slavoj Žižek published in Newsweek, which regardless of the differences that we may have with his political views, properly identifies what is at stake politically in the wake of the referendum.
Observations on Brexit and Lexit in the UK EU membership referendum
ANARCHISM AND DIRECT DEMOCRACY
1. Anarchists are generally hostile to decision making mechanisms that demand people put their faith in others to make decisions on their behalf without mandate or recall. We favour systems of direct democracy where the people either discuss and vote on an issue directly, or delegate other people to meet up for such discussions but these delegates are both mandated and recallable.
2. However, we insist that even a perfect democracy has no right to oppress a minority. There can be no democratic mandate for racism, sexism or homophobia.
3. Anarchists generally advocate abstaining from the decision making mechanisms allowed for by the boss class as for the most part these, in order to preserve the power of that class, are built around systems of indirect decision making. From parliaments to local councils the general rule is that lawmakers cannot be mandated and they can not be recalled.
4. A referendum can be an exception to this because referendums may allow the people to directly make a decision, if only at the level of selection between the choices offered. However it’s not unusual for the choices offered to be no real choice at all.
5. The UK referendum on continued EU membership is one where little real choice is actually on offer. Crudely the choice could be said to be one between a UK under the control of the British bosses and a UK under the control of British bosses with some oversight by EU bosses. The parts of the left that are invested in the issue on both sides have advanced various arguments as to why one or the other of those setups might result in more favourable legislation for workers in the UK with citizenship. This isn’t a gamble we find at all useful and on that level we would simply abstain or spoil our votes in the referendum.
6. The referendum does not just effect the UK and UK left but also the left in Ireland, including southern Ireland. In particular the somewhat successful ‘good cop, bad cop’ routine of recent governments has led some on the left to believe that austerity was largely a result of the EU imposing its will through the Trokia. This is despite the fact the Trokia role started in November 2010 while austerity began started with the 2007/8 one. In that context it is not surprising that the years of the crisis have seen a strengthening and expansion of anti-EU sentiment in the left and water charge movements in the south.
7. We think this is built on the mistaken premise that austerity would somehow have been kinder if it was implemented by the southern establishment without EU involvement. But leaving that aside, the point to be made is that because of our very different but intertwined histories a UK departure from the EU would have very different implications than a southern Ireland departure. Brexit as advocated would be a turn back towards the politics & economics of the British Empire both in terms of the commonwealth and the post colonial relationship the south had with Britain. This is not an attractive proposition, indeed were the south to Exit with the UK the danger would be that the economy would be stripped back down to a subservient cheap food producer for the cities of the UK.
8. This also sets aside the significant cost for people living in Ireland who do not have citizenship of either the republic or UK. This population, which is now a sizeable section of the working class here, including some of the most marginalised sectors, may lose easy access to the UK and with that lose access to traveling for abortions there. Asylum seekers and people without papers are already in that situation with horrific results as some have been forced to carry through unwanted or unviable pregnancies.
9. Returning to the UK what is very obvious from then Brexit campaign is that in the current context an exit would be on a right wing, racist basis. The core idea that has dominated the campaign has been ‘taking the country back’ and the need for even stricter border controls that those the EU already imposes. Controls that have killed 10,000 people since 2014. In the situation were even parts of the far left have already capitulated to these sentiments, repeating them with a left gloss, it is clear that a post Exit UK government would at the very least turn towards a migration system designed to end free movement within the EU and replace it with a boss friendly points system that favours the white former colonies even more so than is currently the case.
10. This has already been signaled in the determination of who gets to vote in the referendum and who does not. Migrants to the UK, who are the ones likely to suffer the consequences of Brexit are excluded from the vote. Except for those from Ireland and the commonwealth, i.e. those least likely to be effected are the only migrants with a vote. As if to underline the point, most of the very large population of people with British citizenship who have migrated to other countries will also get to vote, providing they have been registered in the UK at some point in the last 15 years.
11. The run up to the referendum and the referendum campaign itself has right wing nationalist and racist positions within the population and political parties. In the preceding week this reached the extreme of the fascist assassination of Jo Cox and, that same day, the unveiling of an official leave campaign poster that reflects the sort of racist hate imagery used by the Nazis in the 1930s. But these are just the extremes of a widespread shift to the right demonstrated by Economist polling that shows for the first time the vast majority of voter segments identify Immigration as the most important issue.
12. The referendum opened with sections of the far left deciding to also support an Exit position, the so called Lexit (for Left-Exit). This appears to have been an electoral opportunist calculation that an Exit would damage the government, perhaps forcing an election and that in the election ‘the Party’ might make some minor gains. This is dressed up for public consumption in welfare state nostalgia and NHS protection as if the reality was anything other than the welfare state has been dismantled not by the EU but by successive domestic governments. And that the NHS is likewise targeted not by the EU but by the Tories. Those leading the mainstream Exit campaign are the same people who have argued against minimum wages and limiting working time. If Lexit was originally foolish opportunism choosing to continue to advocate a Lexit vote now that the reality of the campaign is clear is criminal stupidity. We do hope the stakes are not so high but it is worth recalling that this sort of foolishness is not new, in the early 1930s the German Communist Party coined “After Hitler, our turn!”.
FOR INTERNATIONAL SOLIDARITY AND A PROGRESSIVE DEMOLITION OF THE EU
13. The EU is properly understood as part of the modern state rather than some separate entity above it. The state has layers of decision making bodies to make rules to impose on us, each layer with its own characteristic. And layers of court bodies to impose those rules with finally layers of armed personnel to impose them. Demands for reform that simply amount to shifting powers from one layer to another change nothing fundamental – indeed post EU Britain would not eliminate international treaties but simply have them at another level.
14. For the left in Ireland, a tiny country on the margins of Europe, there is no road to freedom that does not involve a common struggle with workers across Europe and the planet. Retreating into nationalist isolation under the likes of Denis O’Brien is no alternative. For the left in the UK a return to the nationalist colonialism of Empire is even less of a way forward. The path forward will involve the demolition of the EU but not on a nationalist country by country basis. That demolition can only be progressive if it’s the work of the working masses of the European continent, regardless of their citizenship, and hand in hand with those on the open prison that is the European periphery.
About this text
Work on this text began too late for us to agree it by simple majority vote. It failed to reach the needed supermajority for it to be published as WSM policy because a minority felt that the language used in relation to Lexit supporters was too harsh. So it’s published here as an opinion piece that is indicative of where our views on the questions lie.
For a more detailed analysis of the Brexit vote from the Workers Solidarity Movement, click here.
Antonis Vradis: Stop shedding tears for the bureaucratic European Union monster
Pretty much exactly one year ago, me and a group of friends found ourselves in a remote village in the countryside of the Peloponnese, watching with awe and some admitted excitement as Alexis Tsipras was announcing a surprise referendum on something whose wording didn’t quite help one understand what it was about. Yet most of us took this as a veiled suggestion, a hint at questioning Greece’s place in the euro (and potentially the EU), and voted accordingly. This is where the similarities with Britain’s turbulent moment lie: the majority of the Greek population, just like the British one yesterday, did bite the bullet and voted against both what the status quo had paternally asked for, against what was perceived to be its own self-interest.
But this is also pretty much where the similarities end. The Brexit vote was led by nationalism and racism, as we saw: the fictitious “migrant influx” into the UK elevated to a major national calamity that has to be avoided by any cost. We chilled as we watched the Nazi-reminiscent propaganda and gasped at the frivolous way in which the dominant discourse sank into a vile anti-foreigner rant. In this sense there is, of course, nothing to immediately celebrate about yesterday’s vote. The most reactionary side has won. But what was the other side ever about? Why did the progressive voices of Britain?and much of Europe as a whole?largely uncritically align themselves with the likes of David Cameron, Martin Schulz and all those Heroes of the People?
A vote for Bremain would not have averted the current trajectory of the European Union mechanism, which is way worse than merely vile xenophobia. It is what leads to this xenophobia, building up a mechanism that forms and perpetuates a colonial-like injustice across the continent. This not only by dramatically altering the relationship between member-states (a dangerous argument at such, as it plays into the far-right propaganda itself), but also and primarily by exacerbating the class divide: creating jaw-dropping super-rich and an abysmal super-precariat in all member-states, at a staggering level each country on its own would never be able to produce.
“Vote Remain to keep the far-right genie in the box, then we can talk progressive EU reform” went the liberal line of argument, if I got it right. It’s because of “the urgency of the times”, we were told. “Make sure we can weather just this one last storm, and then we can talk it all through”, and so on and so forth. But these two simple words, “and then” can only come from those who have the luxury to wait. And there’s clearly not as many around any more. So, a nice and well-intended try, but it will no longer cut it. The EU has morphed itself into a gigantic, monstrous mechanism that is destroying the livelihoods and the prospects of millions in its fringes. Not in some distant future: this is happening right now. And not in some far-fetched, run-down province or suburb: the fringe has now taken centre-place.
By a funny twist of history interlacing with personal life, me and largely the same group of friends find ourselves in the same Peloponnesian village in the morning Britain awakens to the Brexit shock. There is already the smirking suggestion that any vote going against the establishment will be declared void, that Britain will “do a Tsipras” and chose to simply ignore what happened. What shocks and saddens me the most is that the liberal and progressive forces in the country are already quick to line themselves behind this suggestion, unable to understand the colossal disregard of popular opinion it presumes and demands.
Brexit was instigated and celebrated by the vile and reactionary forces of the far-right. But this does not refute the fact that too many of us have mistaken a bureaucratic mechanism perpetuating injustice for the land mass and the 330m people that make up Europe. If there is anything of a formidable progressive force left in our continent that is able to capitalise on a historical opportunity dawning upon us, it must stop shedding tears for the bureaucratic European Union monster that fades away, and help strike the final blow instead.
Slavoj Žižek: Could Brexit Breathe New Into Left-Wing Politics?
Late in his life, Freud asked the famous question “Was will das Weib?”, “What does a woman want?”, admitting his confusion when faced with the enigma of the feminine sexuality. A similar perplexity arouses today, apropos the Brexit referendum—what does Europe want?
The true stakes of this referendum become clear if we locate it into its larger historical context. In Western and Eastern Europe, there are signs of a long-term re-arrangement of the politica. Until recently, the political space was dominated by two main parties which addressed the entire electoral body, a Right-of-centre party (Christian-Democrat, liberal-conservative, populist) and a Left-of-centre party (socialist, social-democratic), with smaller parties addressing a narrow electorate (ecologists, neo-Fascists). Now, a singular party is emerging which stands for global capitalism as such, usually with relative tolerance towards issues such as abortion, gay rights, religious and ethnic minorities; opposing this party is a stronger anti-immigrant populist party which, on its fringes, is accompanied by directly racist neo-Fascist groups.
Poland is a prime example—after the disappearance of the former Communists, the main parties are the “anti-ideological” centrist liberal party of the former prime-minister Donald Tusk (now President of the European Council) and the conservative Christian party of Kaczynski brothers (identical twins one of whom served as Poland’s president from 2005-2010 and the other as its prime minister 2006-2007). The stakes of Radical Center today are: which of the two main parties, conservatives or liberals, will succeed in presenting itself as embodying the post-ideological non-politics against the other party dismissed as “still caught in old ideological specters”? In the early 90s, conservatives were better at it; later, it was liberal Leftists who seemed to be gaining the upper hand, and now, it’s again the conservatives.
The anti-immigrant populism brings passion back into politics, it speaks in the terms of antagonisms, of Us against Them, and one of the signs of the confusion of what remains of the Left is the idea that it should take this passionate approach from the Right: “If the leader of France’s National Front Marine le Pen can do it, why we should also not do it?” So should the Left then return to advocating for strong nation-states and mobilize national passions—a ridiculous struggle, lost in advance.
Europe is caught into a vicious cycle, oscillating between the Brussels technocracy unable to drag it out of inertia, and the popular rage against this inertia, a rage appropriated by new more radical Leftist movements but primarily by Rightist populism. The Brexit referendum moved along the lines of this new opposition, which is why there was something terribly wrong with it. Look at the strange bedfellows that found themselves together in the Brexit camp: right-wing “patriots,” populist nationalists fuelled by the fear of immigrants, mixed with desperate working class rage—is such a mixture of patriotic racism with the rage of “ordinary people” not the ideal ground for a new form of Fascism?
The intensity of the emotional investment into the referendum should not deceive us, the choice offered obfuscated the true questions: how to fight trade “agreements” like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership ( TTIP) which present a real threat to popular sovereignty and how to confront ecological catastrophes and economic imbalances which breed new poverty and migrations. The choice of Brexit means a serious setback for these true struggles—it’s enough to bear in mind what an important argument for Brexit the “refugee threat” was. The Brexit referendum is the ultimate proof that ideology (in the good old Marxist sense of “false consciousness”) is alive and well in our societies.
When Stalin was asked in the late 1920s which political variation is worse, the Right one or the Leftist one, he snapped back: “They are both worse!” Was it not the same with the choice British voters were confronting? Remain was “worse” since it meant persisting in the inertia that keeps Europe mired down. Exit was “worse” since it made changing nothing look desirable.
In the days before the referendum, there was a pseudo-profound thought circulating in our media: “whatever the result, EU will never be the same, it will be irreparably damaged.” But the opposite is true: nothing really changed, except that the inertia of Europe became impossible to ignore. Europe will again waste time in long negotiations among EU members that will continue to make any large-scale political project unfeasible. This is what those who oppose Brexit didn’t see—shocked, they now complain about the “irrationality” of the Brexit voters, ignoring the desperate need for change that the vote made palpable.
The confusion that underlies the Brexit referendum is not limited to Europe—it is part of a much larger process of the crisis of “manufacturing democratic consent” in our societies, of the growing gap between political institutions and popular rage, the rage which gave birth to Trump as well as to Sanders in the US. Signs of chaos are everywhere—the recent debate on gun control in the US Congressdescended into a sit-in protest by the Democrats—is it time to despair?
Recall Mao Ze Dong’s old motto: “Everything under heaven is in utter chaos; the situation is excellent.” A crisis is to be taken seriously, without illusions, but also as a chance to be fully exploited. Although crises are painful and dangerous, they are the terrain on which battles have to be waged and won. Is there not a struggle also in heaven, is the heaven also not divided—and does the ongoing confusion not offer a unique chance to react to the need for a radical change in a more appropriate way, with a project that will break the vicious cycle of EU technocracy and nationalist populism? The true division of our heaven is not between anemic technocracy and nationalist passions, but between their vicious cycle and a new pan-European project which will addresses the true challenges that humanity confronts today.
Now that, in the echo of the Brexit victory, calls for other exits from EU are multiplying all around Europe, the situation calls for such a project—who will grab the chance? Unfortunately, not the existing Left which is well-known for its breathtaking ability to never miss a chance to miss a chance.