As Radical as Our Time Requires: Labour, the Left and Brexit
by Paul O'Connell (@pmpoc) on January 20, 2019



What know they of Brexit, who only Brexit know? Very little, it turns out. The obsessive, insular and heavily emotive nature of the Brexit debate within the UK (before, during and after the referendum campaign of 2016) has produced a vast amount of heat, but very little light. And at every turn, the most vocal protagonists on the issue have revealed, time and again, how little they understand the conjuncture that produced both Brexit and the nascent Corbyn moment in British politics. But it is impossible to make sense of Brexit, and to think through what Labour, and the Left more broadly, should do in the current conjuncture without a broader historical and theoretical understanding of where we are today, and how we got here.

A Brief History of the Present

To begin with the most basic point, both the conditions that gave rise to the Brexit vote, and that saw a surge in support for a Corbyn-led Labour party promising a break with the orthodoxy of neoliberalism, are products of the ongoing crises of capitalism. This is not just the crisis that began in 2008 with the collapse of the US subprime market, but stretches back to the deeper, structural crises of the system, which began to manifest in the early 1970s. Put briefly, falling rates of profit and reduced avenues for profitable investment produced a deep crisis in the capitalist system, and to solve this ruling classes around the world turned to various forms of neoliberalisation.1 This saw the rolling back of workers’ rights, privatisation of public services, and the increased financialisation of the economy.

One important part of this process of neoliberalisation was the advent of what is known as ‘new constitutionalism’.2 In short, what this entailed was the re-casting of the legal regimes of states, and supranational organisations, so as to lock in the victories the capitalist class had won on the political field and to constitutionalise the economic logic of neoliberalism. The project of new constitutionalism sought to give teeth to Thatcher’s maxim that ‘there is no alternative’ to neoliberal capitalism. In the context of the Brexit debate this matters for two reasons: (i) first because the EU, particularly post-Maastricht, provides an archetypal example of this dictatorship of no alternatives;3 and (ii) secondly, because the economic and social policies associated with this turn to neoliberalism produced both the conditions for the Brexit vote, and the appetite for an alternative to the status quo, represented in the UK by the groundswell of support for Jeremy Corbyn.

The evidence is now unequivocal that while the era of neoliberal triumphalism produced vast amounts of wealth, it also engendered massive inequality within and between countries,4 hollowed out democratic processes and institutions,5 and led to the deterioration of the living standards of working class people right around the world. None of this was incidental or accidental, as the neoliberal turn was an effort to solve the crisis of capitalism by restoring the power of capital at the expense of the working classes,6 and to this extent it was a success.

When the neoliberal bubble burst with the onset of the financial crisis in 2008, the centre-left which had spent the halcyon days of the neoliberal era purporting to humanise capitalism proved itself to be intellectually and politically bankrupt. Unable to posit a meaningful response to the crisis, centre-left governments around the world willingly played the part of banker of last resort to the capitalist class, and massively increased national debt in the process. Through a mendacious slight of the invisible hand, state bailouts for failed capitalist enterprises were transformed into public debt crises, and the era of austerity was ushered in across the advanced capitalist world, which served to further entrench existing processes of neoliberalisation.

Where the centre-left was unable to offer an alternative, disaffected electorates who saw their living standards collapsing turned to the snake-oil salesmen of the right. It is important to recall that centre-left parties the world over have for decades sustained the slow-burning embers of racism, Islamophobia and anti-migrant sentiment that the right has since stoked. But in the context of genuine dislocation, simple narratives about the threat posed by ‘others’ proved appealing to many. As Samir Amin once observed, in the absence of progressive utopias, disaffected and marginalised people will turn to reactionary ones.7

It was in this context that Donald Trump was elected president of the US, and the far right gained ground in France, Finland, Italy, Germany, Hungary, Poland and elsewhere in Europe (not to mention the ascendancy of ‘strong men’ in India, Turkey, Brazil and the Philippines too). It is also in this context of growing inequality, collapsing real wages and living standards, vicious austerity programmes and etiolated democratic institutions, that the question of leaving the EU was put to the UK public.

The Brexit Referendum

While the mainstream Leave campaign was undoubtedly racist and xenophobic, it must be remembered that so was the mainstream Remain campaign (which promised a ‘handbrake’ would be applied to immigration, and a reduction in the rights enjoyed by migrants in the UK). As such racism played a central part in the entire Brexit debate, but to focus on this alone is to mistake the form of the Brexit debate and vote for its substance. Increased anti-migrant and Islamophobic sentiment, stoked for decades by the most respectable and sensible politicians (recall Ed Miliband’s mugs emblazoned with the commitment to curb immigration) and media outlets, are insufficient to explain why 17 million people voted to leave the EU, as are self-serving liberal fantasies about Russian influence or dark money.

Indeed, the most thorough research on the matter shows that the salient factors influencing the leave vote were relative poverty, economic decline, and marginalisation.8 In large part then the Brexit vote, while being far from a simplistic working class rebellion/victory, was a rejection of the status quo, by people who had been failed by it. During the Brexit debate the weaknesses of the British Left were thoroughly exposed, when the disconnect from working class and marginalised communities meant that many putatively on the radical left succumbed to the caricatures of hordes of racists, and either opted for a notionally pragmatic Remain position, or chose to sit the debate out entirely.

The Labour Party, notwithstanding Corbyn’s own record of principled opposition to the EU, joined the Remain campaign, and thus surrendered the leave vote to the snake-oil salesmen of the right. When the vote went in favour of Leave, the political establishment was temporarily rocked, but the Conservatives shuffled the chairs, and set about trying to seize the moment to advance further attacks on workers’ rights and living standards. The broad Left in the UK has remained riven, with on the one hand the surge in support for Corbyn-led Labour showing an appetite for a radical break with the extant system, and on the other sections of the Left (some for good reasons) seeking to constantly re-run the Brexit debate and referendum.

The Next Step

This cursory sketch of where we have come from brings us to where we are now. The Conservatives have botched the negotiations to leave the EU in a way which is frankly staggering in its incompetence. Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement has just been roundly rejected in Parliament, after which the Labour Party brought a motion of no confidence in the government. This motion was predictably defeated, as Conservative MPs and the DUP, without missing a beat, shifted quickly from condemning May, to supporting her – anything to prop up the government, and avert a Corbyn-led alternative. Nonetheless, it heaped further pressure on May and her government, and kept the focus for the failures to negotiate a decent deal firmly on the Conservatives.

The Labour leadership is rightly pushing for a General Election, on the basis that if they are elected, they will negotiate a better deal (which is entirely possible), but more importantly will set about implementing policies to overcome the social devastation wrought by forty years of neoliberalism in the UK. On the margins of the party, well-funded and well-connected lobby groups are pushing to pressure Corbyn and his team into supporting a so called ‘People’s Vote’ on Brexit. This, in effect, is an attempt to stop Brexit. Notwithstanding the fact that many people have good reasons for being concerned about Brexit, we should be under no illusions that in the current conjuncture the so-called People’s Vote campaign is an elite-led, anti-democratic and reactionary movement.

It is an attempt, by sections of the British ruling class, to restore the status quo ante. But while this is entirely predictable from them, it is galling to see people that identify as socialists and supporters of the nascent Corbyn moment joining this chorus of reaction. Groups like Another Europe Is Possible lead the charge in this respect, arguing that Corbyn should lead Labour in a campaign of ‘remain and reform’ to stop Brexit, and transform the EU into a more progressive, social-democratic bloc.

The remain and reform proposal comes out of a tradition of defeatism: a search for the least bad option, which, if heeded, invariably lays the groundwork for an even worse ultimate outcome. It rests on a fundamental disconnect from the working class communities in the UK that are looking for a genuine alternative to the status quo, and a misplaced faith in an imagined EU. It fails to grasp even the basics of the constitutional character of the EU, and of the political economy of its development. If it did, it would understand that the call to reform the EU is a hollow one. The EU was at all times a project by and for European capital, even if for a brief period (during the post-War compromise) it was able to pursue this course while making some concessions to the interests of the working class. But once the crisis of the 1970s began to bite, this was no longer tenable.

The actually existing EU, notwithstanding allusions to a mythical ‘social Europe’, was constructed in response to the crisis of capitalism, and to solve this crisis in the interests of capital and at the expense of the working class. This logic has since been constitutionalised into the foundational treaties and institutions of the EU. And, by design, these constitutional arrangements cannot easily be altered or broken with. Reforming the EU was, thus, immensely difficult before the onset of the latest crisis of capitalism, but is even less likely now as European capital looks to place further downward pressure on workers’ rights and wages, and to open up more public services to exploitation by capital (it is for this reason that the European Commission was the main driving force behind the now aborted Transnational Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP)). Taken with the dynamics of right-wing ascendancy across Europe (again linked to both the crises of capitalism and the dynamics of EU integration), the prospects of reform are even more distant. In this context, a left-wing, Corbyn-led Labour government would be fundamentally isolated and undermined within an increasingly authoritarian-neoliberal set of institutional arrangements.9

This is not merely about whether or not EU State Aid rules would inhibit the implementation of policies outlined in Labour’s 2017 Manifesto (it is likely they would, but this is open to debate). It is, necessarily, about much more than that. One of the key lessons of the early twentieth century is that it was the timidity of the left which yielded to the ascendancy of the worst of the right. In our current conjuncture, Labour, and the Left more generally, need to be as radical as our time requires. To move beyond the current crisis of capitalism and build a decent society for the many will require much, much more than what the Labour Manifesto promised in 2017. Of course, the implementation of such policies would be a step in the right direction, and the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government should be the priority for anyone on the Left today, but neither of these objectives should be the limit of our ambitions.

The inequality, exclusion and marginalisation in which reaction finds fertile ground, is an inevitable product of the economic and social system that the EU was designed to sustain. While Brexit has many meanings, at its core it shows a desire for a rupture with this system. The battle then is over what a post-Brexit UK and Europe will look like, and it will be impossible for Labour to be at the forefront of the battle for this alternative future if it is side-tracked into campaigning for a restoration of the status quo ante. For Labour and the Left in the UK the focus has to be on seeing the best possible Brexit deal delivered, and then building on that new forms of ownership, community empowerment and internationalism, beyond the truncated cosmopolitanism of the EU.


  1. Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy, Capital Resurgent (Harvard University Press 2004); Bob Jessop, ‘Neoliberalization, Uneven Development, and Brexit: Further Reflections on the Organic Crisis of the British State and Society’ (2018) 26 European Planning Studies 1728. 

  2. Stephen Gill, ‘European Governance and New Constitutionalism: Economic and Monetary Union and Alternatives to Disciplinary Neoliberalism in Europe’ (1998) 3 New Political Economy 5; Magnus Ryner, ‘Europe’s Ordoliberal Iron Cage: Critical Political Economy, the Euro Area Crisis and Its Management’ (2015) 22 Journal of European Public Policy 275; Stephen McBride and Sorin Mitrea, ‘Austerity and Constitutionalizing Structural Reform of Labour in the European Union’ (2018) 98 Studies in Political Economy 1. 

  3. Danny Nicol, The Constitutional Protection of Capitalism, Hart 2010; ‘Is Another Europe Possible’ U.K. Const. L. Blog (29th Feb 2016) (available at https://ukconstitutionallaw.org/). 

  4. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press 2014; Michael D. Yates, The Great Inequality, Routledge 2016.  

  5. Peter Mair, Ruling the Void, Verso 2013. 

  6. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, OUP 2005. 

  7. Samir Amin, The Liberal Virus, Monthly Review Press 2003. 

  8. Sascha O. Becker, Thiemo Fetzer and Dennis Novy, ‘The Fundamental Factors Behind the Brexit Vote’ (available at https://voxeu.org/article/fundamental-factors-behind-brexit-vote). 

  9. Costas Lapavitsas, The Left Case Against the EU, Polity 2018. 


author

Paul O'Connell (@pmpoc)

Paul O’Connell teaches law at SOAS, University of London.

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