Date finished: February 11th 2017
The final free eBook in the triumvirate of reports by Verso Books on current affairs that I downloaded was The Brexit Crisis, a collection of articles and essays in the wake of the EU Referendum which saw the UK vote to leave the EU by a margin of just 4%.
- The first piece sees William Davies analyse the mood of the nation, suggesting that Labour heartlands like Newport and Sunderland that voted for Brexit weren’t voting in a party political sense. Rather, these areas that had never seen any real hope or change voted to leave the EU because they didn’t see any future in the status quo. It was, in short, a self-destructive desire. He also puts into context the uselessness of facts, showing that we now rely on data which dictates moods, rather than facts reflecting reality.
- Laleh Khalili follows with a piece on xenophobia and immigration, taking into account the EU’s free movement laws, the history of immigration to the UK, and the way the EU referendum vote hinged on anti-immigrant feeling. All this leads her to lament that, without a progressive movement to combat the ills of Brexit, we may end up in an economically weak country that continues to scapegoat against migrants and returns to the “rivers of blood” rhetoric of Enoch Powell.
- The third article is written by the editors of the far-left online magazine Salvage, who look at the woes of Labour in regard to Brexit, and the subsequent No-Confidence Vote, in a piece that could’ve sat easily in Verso’s other recent report Corbyn and the Future of Labour. Eloquently, they argue that the effort to oust Corbyn could only see him replaced with a more centrist, or even Blairite candidate who would give into the anti-immigration rhetoric and put forward a more neoliberal agenda, taking us back to the watered-down Tory agenda of Miliband or, at its worst, Blair himself. They, like Davies earlier on, argue that Brexit, as well as the Labour Right, seem to come from self-destructive impulses, whereby people would rather risk great damage to their selves in order to gain what they perceive to be greater autonomy.
- Peter Hallward argues that Brexit was, in part, a reaction to neoliberalism and austerity as practiced by successive British governments but which have been scapegoated on the EU. He acknowledges that the idea of a “Lexit” (a left-wing Brexit) is extant but unlikely in favourable conditions, let alone the current British political climate. He touches on the rise of the populist right and its hollow slogans which are necessarily meaningless as these people claim to take their countries back using the very ideology that has ravaged their nation in the first place, before urging for a populist, progressive left to rise up.
- Laura Pawson’s short piece opens with details of a Syrian film she watched on the eve of the referendum. Made entirely from mobile footage uploaded to YouTube, Silvered Water: Syria Self-Portrait shows the horrific events of Syria and the slow destruction of the city through the lens of the people enduring it. It occurred to her that Britain could head in a similar direction, and she goes on to decry the normalised racism that underlies so much of British discourse, arguing that we are founded on a colonialist past that has subconsciously informed the rhetoric of the Brexit debate.
- Sam Kriss delivers a scathing attack on the Labour coup which sought to oust Corbyn post-Brexit, arguing that Labour seems to hate Corbyn because he refuses to give into the populist right rhetoric that previous Labour governments have so willingly used because it leads to power. They’re determined to ape the tactics of the Tories, seemingly failing to understand what “opposition” actually means, and, on this shaky ground, they proceed to irrationally vilify Corbyn for daring to be different.
- Akwugo Emejulu confronts the whiteness of Brexit, outlining how it created a joint victimhood and innocence: victimhood in that the government used immigration as a ploy to divert anger at the ravages of neoliberal austerity upon the white working class to another source; and innocence in that the spike of racist hate crimes around and after Brexit was treated as “this isn’t British”, ignoring the history of colonialism and the experience of ethnic minorities in England who have to put up with this everyday. It is only when the ruling class see racism that they must address it as a reality.
- Wail Qasim wades into the racism surrounding Brexit in a similar piece to Pawson’s, arguing that the UK has a history of dividing the rights of migrants in order to find new scapegoats and prevent a solidarity between all migrants which, we can see from Brexit, has worked.
- Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi uses real-life examples to rightly destroy a couple of broadly perpetuated lies about migrants: firstly that Brexit wouldn’t stop refugees coming to Britain because free movement only applies to migrants from within the EU. The wave of Islamophobia the Leave campaign rode was entirely apocryphal. And secondly that the mythical benefit scrounging immigrant is a difficult thing to be. Welfare is constantly being rolled back making it difficult for white Brits to claim benefits, let alone migrants with poor English who are often entitled to nothing.
- Etienne Balibar takes a look at Brexit in the wider European context, Britain’s sense of exceptionalism despite the comparative feeling across Europe, the certainty with which a referendum has been treated as law on a continent where no referendum has been taken so seriously before, and the absence of any will to properly reform Europe into something that works.
- Wolfgang Streeck highlights the failures of the German-led EU, particularly the smashing of Greece in order to save itself, and argues that the project is already past its sell-by-date. He argues for a different kind of EU which dispenses with bureaucratic, neoliberal structures like European Parliament and Court, and says that such an idea is the reason Europe is so keen to see Britain exit straight away: to stop any pondering of reform.
- John R. Gillingham discusses the failure of the European project in terms of its large, bureaucratic failure to achieve anything, arguing that it has rarely been especially important to European affairs outside of a few cases, and only burdens the member states with laws and regulations that cannot possibly span across disparate nations. The single currency is fraught with issues and sees many countries, including Italy and Spain, on the verge of financial devastation, their banks barely scraping by.
- Antonis Vradis takes a look at the Greek/British parallels and argues that a progressive left movement must stop shedding tears for the EU and instead launch the final blow in order to create something new and better after.
- Finally, Stathis Kouvelakis, a Greek leftist living in Britain, analyses the referendum in terms of class and age, and argues that the Leave campaign tapped into the public anger over all sorts of issues and scapegoated it on immigration. That’s not to say that Leavers are racist, but that their broader anger at issues was linked to immigration by the populist right, so that they could not differentiate one from the other.
He argues at the same time that one cannot say that the EU referendum vote had nothing to do with the EU. Even if voters are ignorant of what the EU does, this suggests that the EU hasn’t done enough for them to know about it.
And of course that the Leave and Remain campaigns ultimately promulgated the same thing: neoliberalism and austerity, just whether or not it was outside the EU, which means very little change.
Lastly, he argues that left-wing groups throughout Europe have, unlike the British Left, realised the flaws of the neoliberal EU project and should use anti-EU feeling to put forward a new form of politics impossible within the Union.
The Brexit Crisis gives over a lot of space to the neoliberal agenda that underlies everything, and the plight of migrants and growing racism, both of which are important considerations without which it’s impossible to understand Brexit in the first place, but which we’ve heard a lot of in Britain since Brexit. Naturally then, the stand-out pieces are those that put Brexit into its wider European perspective.
I voted Remain for the same reason most people voted Remain, because they disagreed with leaving. But that isn’t to say I or the majority of people agreed with remaining. The EU is obviously bureaucratic, to big for its boots, corrupt and is beset by problems and inadequacies. But it was a look to the result that decided it: do I want to live in a Britain where the Tories can do whatever they want, or do I want to live in a Britain where the Tories are somewhat tempered by a supranational structure?
I never liked David Cameron, but he seems like a relic of a simpler age now. Whether the populist right would’ve risen in England without an EU referendum is impossible to say, but it does seem that Cameron created his own downfall and contributed to the absurd politics we now find ourselves mired in. His own administration seems almost utopian in comparison to the unelected May’s ravenously incompetent, rampantly far-right government. In short, there’s not much to enjoy about Britain post-Brexit so far and this is more or less what I foresaw from a leave vote (albeit under the leadership of Boris Johnson).
Had there been a socialist government in power at the time (impossible, but this is a big “if”), I would have considered voting leave and indeed said so at the time. But the fact is that a left-wing exit from the EU wasn’t on the table by virtue of the fact that right-wing populists were those wanting to leave. Brexit is and remains irreconcilable to left-wing values at this moment in time.
Brexit, and by extension President Trump, seem less like political event rather than events in the destabilisation of reality. Perhaps we’ve reached a point in the digital era where self-parody becomes a tangible force of nature rather than a human concept. That’s certainly how it seems from here. Nothing about the Brexit process has been rational; all politics now requires a heavy dose of doublethink to take at face value.
I’m just forlornly riffing here. I suppose I don’t see any good that can come of Brexit at the moment. With the mad demagoguery of the populist right winning in both Britain and America, we are seemingly lurching back to the 1930s in preparation for a fascist movement and probably a war. There’s nothing left-wing about either of those states. I will support any left-wing movement that can arise out of the rubble, one that can take the politics of Corbyn and marry them to a party that rallies behind its principles and can quickly rise to fill a gap in the British political system, but all political processes and movements seem to be in a state of disarray.
The Brexit Crisis is a collection of interesting and valuable essays, but they’re ultimately not cheering me up.
The Anti-Inauguration – Verso
Corbyn and the Future of Labour – Verso
The Establishment – Owen Jones
The Shock Doctrine – Naomi Klein