By Alex Cachinero-Gorman
It is a strange time indeed to be European.
We’ve woken up to the news that Britain has voted to leave the EU, and the shock is palpable enough that wild pronouncements are being made on all sides (some worse than others). Perhaps this is the death knell of the over half-century old project, as John Gillingham recently warned. Still, it remains to be seen which will be be the first of the declining Western nation-states in the race to succeed the ill-fated Weimar Republic, but if it isn’t to be Britain, there’s much to do.
It is obvious that there is a specific kind of racist populist gambit being made across Europe (and the States)–not necessarily an ‘authentic’ upswell from below, but a combination of popular unrest and cunning center-right opportunism that is presenting the sense of an alternative all across our Westphalian nightmare. Still, with unprecedented turnouts and a very narrow margin, there remains a great deal of disagreement and confusion over the potential consequences of Brexit. And perhaps this is because, as some have pointed out, the debate is something of a smokescreen.
Unlike the short-lived promise of pseudo-revolutionary confrontation with the Troika in Greece, the popular momentum in the UK has been stoked by the supremacist politics that are increasingly taking the center and conquering political/cultural territory in Western democracies. This, more than any other aspect of the referendum, meant that it would always be a gain for the Right in spatial terms–in terms of social war, we might say. However many lies or half-truths are spewed as covert, or barely-hidden bait to stigmatise migrants, they are making a claim to political legitimacy and they have succeeded, in the short term. Sadly, this is something that the likes of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson understand, that authoritarian leftists like Tariq Ali and other “Lexiters” do not–politics is the art of the possible, not necessarily the actual or even the ‘real’ (if such a thing even exists).
And therein lay the tragedy for any hoping to make the best of a bad brunch (at least, that’s how this whole referendum’s felt to me). The Lexiters wanted a hand in a debate in which they had no mobilised forces, no real impact, and were arguing entirely on someone else’s terms. And while the limits of the possible may not be strictly legally shifted with a ‘no’ vote, at first–there is always the potential, as they sometimes say, for a ‘new day’, a new legitimation of a certain kind of politics. Even if the Referendum had zero ‘technical’ or legal value, for this alone it should have been feared. After all, the body politic can be formidably moved by entirely abstract and performative measures, something used tp great effect in recent European history (under the watchful eye of USAID, of course).
And yet, I am growing quite tired of sober political analyses that are unable to account for the unknown factor in social unrest. All is not (yet) lost. There is a good deal more going on here–there is a lot left unsaid, and for that matter, ‘un-done’. The establishment press is playing catch-up, and their shock should lay to rest–once and for all–wicked portents of the capitalist class having arranged all outcomes ahead of time. The very unexpectedness of this turn could just as easily galvanise a street movement or another cultural formation that pushes back on all the carefully-laid plans of the would-be inheritors of Cameron’s post. And then, perhaps–entirely too late, but perhaps–we might see a true possibility of intervening on Brexit for the good.
Some–too blithely in my opinion–argued that this would be a perfect chance to get what we’ve always wanted. This might have been true, except that the ensuing battle to retake the public sentiment away from the openly rightward turn is not something any of the increasingly-irrelevant “Left” forces are ready or capable of doing.
Ultimately, the arguments about workers protections and human rights that Remain employed must have rung hollow to people who quite clearly could name the neoliberal oligarchs that have screwed them over, and who were no safer today than during any other decade of EU maneuvers & politicking. There’s a base there of actual unhappiness with the status quo that’s been untapped, or worse, thrown to the reactionaries–and it may be the only chance the “Left” (this tiresome and tortured idea) has to intervene in this process and create something truly new, and truly liberatory out of it. New times call for new conditons, and as Greenland demonstrated in the ’80s, worker protections are born from the political will to sign on to such agreements, not from external institutions’ guarantee.
There are other factors at play, of course. I don’t think we should discount how much white supremacy plays in all of this, but I also don’t think we should discount how much a certain kind of formless, sanguine middle-class liberalism missed the mark here, endlessly lecturing and hectoring the working class precisely from a position of a certain social ease and comfort within EU freedom of movement protocols, a kind of non-profit utopianism born of the Erasmus generation. It seems that the feeling in the air is that this is indeed a racially-charged referendum on migrants–but if it is so, it is at least partly because the liberal arguments for ‘in’ consistently accepted the slovenly terms of the debate as being about immigration in the first place.
As Remainers never supplied a truly sound argument that would appeal to the vested interests of anyone trying to scrape to get by, the result was a milquetoast and confused plea for “reform within the EU”, a concept with no clarity or traction for the notoriously bureaucratic and unaccountable body (and one which similarly failed for Syriza). Large amounts of workers were stuck between siding with a Brussels and Cameron government they knew was already against them, or voting against the very same (and either taking the blame for, or warmly welcoming accusations of racism), leaving Brexiters consistently looking pretty–or I should say, cool, rational, reasonable.
Perhaps the glibness comes from a place of superiority–like the Federation, Cameron and other neoliberal Remainers assumed their authority as implicit, in need of no explanation (even if in direct violation of the Prime Directive!). Thus the only remaining recourse, even for the ‘Remain-with-reservations’ crowd, being a lukewarm appeal to unity and immigrant’s rights–the very same immigrants constantly being victimised or ignored by Cameron’s own administration and the EU as a whole.
Conversely, can we imagine what a Remain victory would have looked like? Not many people seemed to be prepared for this. What, in our wildest dreams, was to happen then? Wouldn’t we be in the unfortunate position of switching sides yet again, the very next time an EU country is strong-armed into drastic cuts, or another public service privatised with full EU cheerleading right here in the UK? Neil Davidson of the University of Glasgow portrays the awkward reversal well: “‘Er…sorry we didn’t mention this before, but the EU is actually a regime for imposing neoliberal austerity which we should maybe think about leaving’”?” And though a hardened Lexiter, his question is worth pondering–“Why would anyone listen to you then?”
Even if there was a better argument for Remain–and I’m convinced there was–it certainly was not articulated in the glaze-eyed spectacle of TV “debates”, which amounted to little more than different segments of the ruling class taking the stage and assuring viewers that everything, indeed, would be fine. No wonder that the false populism of Leave had such an appeal, as populism always does. For even if they are merely another segment of the bureaucratic-managerial class making a play for power, they can appeal to everyone’s better instincts that Something is Not Quite Right with All of This–which it most certainly isn’t.
The ‘three-way fight‘ analogy typically used by antifascists seems apt here, both in its traditional sense and in the sense that Tories, Labour, UKIP, and all manner of EU bureaucrat will be sticking their hands in this putrid pie, trying to divvy it up as quickly and as brutally as possible. “Neither Westminster nor Brussels”, as Richard Seymour has written.
But I think, too, that this should orient our attention not to abstract ideological points of unity, but conditions on the ground. The Greek example should give us pause: how could the very same populous sway indeterminately back and forth between massive “revolutionary” outpourings filigreed with red banners and seemingly the next day covet the imitation-swastika of neo-Hitlerites?
The truth, as always, is annoyingly complex: it was not simply a “battle for ideas”, and there are not merely distinct “camps” to bring on board, but a terrain which must be fought for and won. And the ones we fight are called “reactionary” for a reason–they spring from, and thrive as, a reaction to the situation people find themselves in–meaning, that reaction is pliable depending on your circumstance. Meaning: there is some measure of hope.
And in the worst case scenario–that somehow all of our worst fears come to pass, when we open our doors and look out our windows and see the goose-stepping menace–we can rest assured that not only will we meet them in combat, but that the disaffected will ultimately realise that Farage and his ilk aren’t worth the SS uniforms they’re fitted for (as Seymour would have it), and that only a truly radical, “progressive” cause can be populist in the way any of us wants to imagine.