“… a crisis occurs, sometimes lasting for decades. This exceptional duration means that incurable structural contradictions have revealed themselves (reached maturity) and that, despite this, the political forces which are struggling to conserve and defend the existing structure itself are making every effort to cure them, within certain limits, and to overcome them”. (Gramsci, 1971: 178)
Whilst my other pieces have focused specifically on Wales, I wanted to use this one to answer some questions that have been posed by comrades of mine on the Welsh left who are hostile to the idea of a left led (or indeed any) exit from the EU.
If it wasn’t already obvious to anyone who follows me on Twitter, my all-consuming hostility to ‘#FBPE Liberals’ has often led me to double down on a Lexit position in relatively crude ways. This is unacceptable- Marxists must always strive for a concrete analysis of a concrete situation, and such emotional, kneejerk reactions are entirely the wrong way to think.
I find the Brexit culture war (that I have clearly also been sucked into) deeply depressing and exhausting. I resent the way Brexit dominates everything and prevents us from discussing poverty, austerity, housing, militarism, or the many other awful ways in which capitalism impacts on people’s lives. It is very tempting to just want Brexit to be over- and not care how or in what form- and to never have to talk about it or think about it again.
Writing about Brexit in this way has therefore been somewhat cathartic and helpful for me. Hopefully the following will help clarify some of my reasoning and sharpen my own thinking on it all, although this is still very much a work in progress.
First, some mea culpas. I’m still by no means entirely confident in Lexit, although the recent birth of the LeFT campaign has given me some hope. I think it would be surprising if anyone on the left wasn’t wracked with doubt about everything at the moment- the far right continues to grow stronger in the UK and fascist rhetoric about ‘treachery’ is becoming normalized, as are attacks on leftists. In 2016, I agreed with James Butler’s analysis that the worst thing about Brexit was its timing, as the balance of forces in the UK at that moment massively favoured the right. Whilst the left has grown much stronger over the last three years, we shouldn’t kid ourselves about the mountain we still have to climb.
Claims that Lexiters are ‘on the same side’ as people like Tommy Robinson, Nigel Farage and so on is absurd- no more than those leftists marching against the Iraq war were ‘on the same side’ as the BNP, who also opposed it- but nonetheless, the logic of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, has quite understandably turned many socialists off any left exit project.
Moreover, I am deeply hostile to the ‘blue Labour’ Lexit position which fetishizes the working class, a tendency personified by the ridiculous twitter troll Paul Embery. This grim authentocracy revels in the allegedly innate social conservatism of an abstract, white working class, and writes off nearly all racism (if it acknowledges it at all) as being rooted in economic precarity.
The fact is that the UK is an imperialist country, and as a consequence is a deeply, institutionally racist society. This racism and imperialism has historically permeated the British left as much as the British right, and there is undoubtedly a huge element of imperialist hubris to the Brexit vote. Whilst this is likely far more prominent amongst the affluent English middle classes, it nonetheless also infects some Lexit positions. Some of the rhetoric used by the ostensibly left wing ‘Full Brexit’ group, for example, has been worrying, and equally I have heard some comrades on the left shrug off the implications of no deal using language which veers close to British exceptionalism- we will be fine, our economy is strong, Europe needs us, etc. Similarly, nowhere near enough has been done on the rights of migrants and of EU nationals within the UK- this should have been prioritized by the Lexit project from the start.
As a final caveat, whilst my previous pieces were a pretty straightforward defence of the simple ‘left behinds’ explainer, I also realize that the Brexit vote (like the Trump vote) is far more complex than this and is not simply a ‘working class project’, and was also driven by a huge chunk of the middle classes (although I do believe the left behind thesis retains great explanatory power in Wales).
Conjunctures (or how society changes)
Many good socialists in Wales ask us how any socialist could back Brexit. They say that Brexit is clearly a right wing project: it’s led by Farage; it was won by stoking and riding a wave of terrifying xenophobia; it’s now ushered in Boris Johnson. I don’t disagree with any of this.
To understand why some of us on the left want to leave the EU and are so uncomfortable about the idea of overturning the 2016 referendum, it’s fundamental to understand the nature of capitalist crises, and our current one in particular. There isn’t a simple, short answer to all this, and it’s a position that in my view can only be understood by explaining at length how we arrived at Brexit in the first place.
First though, we have to understand how society works. One of the most observable, basic splits between socialists and liberals is on the basic question of how politics, and indeed society, works and changes. For liberals, politics is essentially about civility, discourse, being smart. The smartest people win, so if you’re not a good speaker, or if you make mistakes on talk shows, or if you haven’t read Ulysses, you shouldn’t be in charge.
This understanding of ‘politics’ is why for liberals, our current epoch simply makes no sense. Trump is in charge in the USA, and Boris Johnson is in charge here, even though both of them are happy to subvert political norms, play the clown and don’t care about being polite to people.
Liberals above all have no theory of societal change. This has driven their obsession with a second referendum, which betrays their lack of understanding of the fundamental societal changes which have brought us to where we are today.
Marxists, in contrast, recognize that contradictions within capitalism and changes in the economic mode of production continually produce radically different forms of society. Economic changes produce different forms of social organization and different relationships (and antagonisms) between people and ‘the system’- and therefore different politics- in each societal period.
One of the ways we can understand political and societal change is by zooming out and looking at broad periods, or ‘conjunctures’. As Stuart Hall put it:
“It’s… partly about periodisation. A conjuncture is a period during which the different social, political, economic and ideological contradictions that are at work in society come together to give it a specific and distinctive shape. The post-war period, dominated by the welfare state, public ownership and wealth redistribution through taxation was one conjuncture; the neoliberal, market-forces era unleashed by Thatcher and Reagan was another. These are two distinct conjunctures, separated by the crisis of the 1970s. A conjuncture can be long or short: it’s not defined by time or by simple things like a change of regime — though these have their own effects. As I see it, history moves from one conjuncture to another rather than being an evolutionary flow. And what drives it forward is usually a crisis, when the contradictions that are always at play in any historical moment are condensed, or, as Althusser said, ‘fuse in a ruptural unity’.
This is a very useful and modern reading of Marx’s own worldview on societal change, which is known as dialectical materialism.
We therefore move through distinct periods of history, each with its own features, driven by the development of new technology which creates new economic modes of production. These periods are interrupted by crises which then generate new periods.
Neoliberalism, the democratic deficit, and the rise of the technocracy.
Our current conjuncture is neoliberal capitalism. Beginning in the seventies, neoliberalism was itself an attempt by the world capitalist class to solve the crisis of stagflation and profitability which had emerged in the 1970s from welfare state capitalism.
Neoliberalism represented a radical rupture with the previous welfare capitalist paradigm, which was completely dismantled. Our conjuncture is defined by a move towards financialisation (and away from manufacturing, etc); a dramatic restructuring of the state apparatus to serve capital, most noticeable being the mass privatisation of public services and a strengthening of the repressive state apparatuses such as the police and security services; and the manipulation of crises, aka ‘disaster capitalism’. The world transition to neoliberalism has been largely underpinned by US imperialism, in both its hard (war) and ‘soft’ (trade deals, NGOs) forms.
Neoliberalism has a protean ability to embed itself in different ways in different countries. In the UK, neoliberalism has largely taken the same, turbocharged form as in the USA, defined by financialization, increasing agglomeration around the city of London, mass privatisation and selling-off of national infrastructure and assets, and an almost complete disregard for the former industrial regions, which have been largely left to rot.
For David Harvey, neoliberalism is ultimately a political project, a global class war. The global capitalist class, which was briefly muzzled during the post-war era, have now restored and deepened their old power.
On a global scale, neoliberalism is defined by the mass transfer of wealth and power to an increasingly small elite, as the rest of the world has been plunged into poverty and misery. The power disparity across the world now closely resembles feudalism.
Neoliberalism has also fundamentally transformed social relations, that is, our relationships with ourselves and with one another.
Neoliberalism, then, is not just about economics. It has created a crisis of democracy across the world.
Starting with Pinochet, Thatcher and Reagan, trade unions, the defenders of working class interests, were systematically attacked and defeated. These institutions and mass parties had previously aided democracy: working class people had clear representatives drawn from their class and community, and their vote fundamentally mattered.
However, changes in the economic base of society, away from manufacturing and extractive industries and towards services and financialization, drove the destruction of old, uniformly working- class industries and communities, and led to the emergence of new classes and ‘class fractions’ such as the white- collar working classes, whose economic interests were less obviously in conflict with capitalism.
This all had huge repercussions: since the working classes were now greatly weakened, there was less incentive to engage with them politically and to pander to their needs. Political parties of the ‘left’ instead began to increasingly to move towards the centre, focusing on appealing to the new, ostensibly enlarged middle class, and leaving their old working- class base behind. This change took place in policy, which became far less concerned with the redistribution of wealth; and in image, as former working- class parties were rapidly colonized by professional, middle class public relations experts, smooth talkers designed to appeal to the mythological centre ground of politics.
New Labour in the UK exemplified these changes, with former spin doctor Peter Mandelson famously bragging that new Labour could afford to ignore working class voters because ‘they had nowhere else to go’.
On top of these changes to the political sphere, the penetration of capitalism into all areas of society have made it increasingly difficult for ordinary people to have any meaningful control over their own lives. If we want to make a complaint about something, or to change something to do with our benefits or bills, we are now faced with a kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare of robot voices on the other end of the phone, being passed from pillar to post when we do finally speak to a human.
The democratic ideal of the ‘public sphere’ has also been destroyed. Public debate and knowledge of politics has been systematically degraded as control of the media has been increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small number of huge corporations. These corporations have saturated the public sphere with advertising and led a race to the bottom of moronic, lowest common denominator light entertainment and clickbait. This logic now permeates all corners of the media and culture. All of this has served to pacify and depoliticise people.
What little ‘politics’ and ‘debate’ that does exist within the new public sphere has been deliberately reduced to a grotesque spectacle of showbiz tropes (such as televised debates) which has in turn elevated those who are essentially the most grotesque).
In response to these changes, people, particularly the working classes, increasingly (and entirely rationally) withdrew from politics across the world. Whilst we now have a record number of liberal democracies, we simultaneously face a mass withdrawal/disengagement from politics as people have stopped voting (figure 1).
On top of non-voting, polling has repeatedly pointed to a mass distrust of politicians (figure 2), and the belief that ‘all politicians are the same’ (figure 3).
Combined with the ongoing, dramatic decline in living conditions across the world, such as the increase in precarious work; decline in wages & disposable income; and the housing crisis, these are all clear symptoms of mass alienation, cynicism and despair. We are now living in what Crouch terms a ‘post-democracy’, whereby the “institutions of democracy continue to exist, but in which they increasingly become a formal shell”.
Neoliberalism has ultimately caused the hollowing out of democracy and the rise of a new paradigm of ‘technocratic’, managerial politics that lies beyond the control or accountability of normal people. Peter Mair’s brilliant, influential work ‘Ruling the Void’ brands this a ‘mutual withdrawal’: just as the masses distrust politics and politicians and have stopped engaging with it, so political elites also distrust the masses and want nothing to do with them.
The EU: ruling the void
For Mair, the paradigm of technocratic, neoliberal politics is the European Union. Whilst the EU has a far friendlier, more liberal face than US and British neoliberalism, it nonetheless represents an attempt to enshrine free-market capitalism into law through its constitution, to prevent any alternatives to this paradigm emerging, and to prevent the mass of people within the bloc having any say into on how it is run. Indeed, this was always its explicit goal, because its founders were, in the main, anti-socialists who were motivated by their fear of the Soviet bloc and of the unwashed masses who they blamed for ushering in Nazism. This legacy of rabid anti-communism remains a unifying force amongst the political leadership of the bloc.
To their credit, some left remainers in the UK, centred around the campaign group Another Europe, have attempted to engage analytically with the problems of the EU and to plot a way forward for a Corbyn government within the EU. This group is diverse and includes liberals, centre-left figures and younger Labour members concerned with migrant rights . The group drove the recent motion on freedom of movement in the Labour conference.
Yet this group provide very little serious analysis of how the EU can ever be reformed, other than by (presumably) simultaneously electing 28 left led governments. They acknowledge that the current balance of politics within the bloc is cripplingly right wing, and that even in previous eras, when the EU contained a significant amount of left governments, these were unable to influence the constitution in any meaningful way. They have nothing to say about the enforced rules on the 3% deficit, nor the fines that are imposed on countries that dare to produce ‘excessive macroeconomic imbalances’, nor the ways in which even powerful core countries are being rapidly forced to conform with EU austerity policies. They cannot explain how a left Labour government would not fall foul of EU competition laws, and even concede that a Labour government would likely have to take the EU to court, which is quite a bizarre proposition given the extremely fragile position a nascent Labour government would be in anyway .
Portugal is frequently cited by this group as an example of successful anti-austerity policies in the EU, ignoring the mounting arguments from within that country that this ‘left wing success story’ is a complete illusion; that the public sector, including health and education, are still not being invested in (the left coalition are spending less on the public health than their right wing predecessors did), as a direct result of EU anti-deficit laws. What is happening in Portugal is, at best, a limited, defensive strategy against austerity:
“While Portugal is known for having a left-wing government, it is not meaningfully an “anti-austerity” administration. A rhetoric of limiting poverty has come to replace any call to resist the austerity policies being imposed at the European level. Portugal is thus less a test case for a new left politics than a demonstration of the limits of government action in breaking through the austerity consensus”.
The elevation of Portugal as an example to emulate belies a fundamentally limited political imagination, conditioned by capitalist realism. Are EU countries better places to live in than the UK? Absolutely. But socialism doesn’t just means nationalizing stuff like rail and utilities, which is what defenders of ‘socialism in the EU’ often point to as an example of ‘what is possible’. Instead, it means that the working class themselves own the means of production and run the economy for the benefit of the working class. This is what we want to achieve, and this is and never has been the case in any EU country, including Portugal.
The true nature of the EU is ultimately revealed in its actions, not its faux-progressive rhetoric (which Another Europe bizarrely take at face value): the punishment beatings of Greece and Spain and the enforced privatisation of public services in these countries; the ruthless exploitation of peripheral southern and accession states as pools of desperate cheap labour that can be moved around the bloc by large multinationals; the imposition of a technocratic, unelected government on Italy; the role of the EU in exploiting the global south; its relentless drive towards creating an EU army; and above all, the shameful, racist ‘Fortress Europe’ policy which has seen thousands of migrants die in the Mediterranean.
Leftists may understandably disagree about next steps, and may legitimately argue that leaving the EU will be damaging for the British economy, but it is surely ridiculous for any leftist to continue to claim that the EU is a force for good in and of itself.
The continued fetishisation of the EU from parts of the left is reliant on what Streeck calls ‘European-ness’, i.e., affect: extremely vague notions of anti-nationalism and a nebulous ‘internationalism’ rather than an engagement with material realities. I understand and sympathize with this: it is natural to want to believe in and cling to those noble ideals if we feel they are under threat. Ultimately, though, we have to engage dispassionately with how the EU actually is, and not how we would like it to be. The cognitive dissonance on the left regarding the actions of the EU represents a chronic, solipsistic inability to distinguish between the (very) positive experiences of the EU as experienced by individuals, and the structural policies which immiserate millions of people. Internationalism, or indeed feeling European, shouldn’t be dependent on the EU as a state, as an institution, just as it’s not inherently nationalistic to oppose it.
Ultimately, the EU is a class project. On the one hand, for example, the Erasmus programme and European city breaks; on the other, the mass emigration of desperate unemployed young people from accession and southern states to the northern core to pick fruit, or wait tables, or work in vast warehouses for multinational corporations. These are both byproducts of ‘free movement’, but experienced very differently based on class background and where you come from.
The Current Crisis
Crises represent moments of huge instability which blows apart the dominant social settlement and ushers in a new conjuncture. Crises do not have to be economic- they can be political scandals or wars (although the latter have historically been the direct result of economic crises). The contradictions of the period’s mode of production can no longer be contained, sending the economic and political settlement into meltdown. Crises are inevitable because capitalism is prone to crises, in particular the historic tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Even during periods of ostensible stability- such as the welfare capitalism epoch- crises are always bubbling underneath the surface.
We are currently living through a worldwide crisis of capitalism, which began in 2008. This is the fourth organic meltdown of the world capitalist system.
As the invidious effects of the crises spread throughout the state, the state can no longer afford material concessions to subaltern classes, and instead retreats back into its purest, naked form, which is as a tool of capitalist interests. During periods of crises, therefore, the state is ‘unmasked’, and the ruling classes are revealed to be “a narrow clique which tends to perpetuate its selfish privileges by controlling or stifling opposition forces” (Gramsci 1971: 189 ).
This ‘unmasking’ of the state may lead to a crisis of authority, whereby the popular legitimacy of the state is punctured, the unity between subaltern classes and dominant classes is ruined. As Gramsci puts it, the ruling classes lose their consensus (Gramsci, 1971:275). Society therefore moves from a united, ‘harmonious’ settlement, to one marked by corporate antagonisms and unrest.
The state, having lost the consent of the masses, frequently falls back on coercion to attempt to police the crisis and prevent it spreading. This coercion can take many forms. In ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’, Ian Bruff argues that the EU’s punishment beatings of Greece and Spain following their banking crisis represented an attempt to stop the crisis spreading throughout the Eurozone and to send a warning message to other states. In France, we currently see the Macron regime shamelessly cracking down on the yellow vest protesters, not bothering how this looks to the eyes of the world. The Spanish state has responded to its own ongoing national crisis by falling back on outright oppression to subdue calls for Catalan independence, including imprisoning democratically elected, peaceful politicians (something tacitly endorsed by the EU)
Gramsci states that under conditions of crisis “the great masses become detached from their traditional ideologies, and no longer believe what they used to believe previously” (1971:276). During periods of crises, people essentially have awakenings. People become uniquely receptive to new ideas, as old certainties collapse. People lose their faith in their rulers, in the system.
Over the last decade or so, austerity and the hollowing out of democracy have been steadily rebelled against across the world. In the USA, this was exemplified by the Occupy movement. In Latin America, the Zapatistas. In Europe, the rebellion against neoliberalism led to the death of old social democratic parties, which have been rejected for meekly implementing austerity, and in their place a series of new, more radical political parties and social movements have emerged across the continent.
In the UK in 2010 we had mass protests against austerity, starting with the student protests against the hiking of tuition fees, and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn must also be seen as a continuation of this wider backlash. The radicalism of the Corbyn movement meant that in the UK the reaction against neoliberalism came from within the traditional social democratic party, which has avoided pasokification precisely for this reason.
Of course, the crisis has also led to the rise of the far right across the world, which has cynically exploited people’s disenchantment and alienation and channelled it into the easy answers of xenophobia and racism.
It is vital that we realise that Brexit is a symptom of this wider crisis, not the crisis itself, as many left remainers seem to think. It is a national, British manifestation of the far longer, worldwide crisis of neoliberal capitalism. Indeed, symptoms of the British state’s crisis of legitimacy emerged long before Brexit, in the rise of UKIP and in the rise of Scottish nationalism.
Brexit is therefore not an innately right- wing phenomenon, but rather a profound expression of discontent and alienation, born of the crisis of the British state, which got channeled into anti-EU sentiment.
As Bob Jessop argues, “The dominance of neoliberalism indicates that the choice posed in the referendum was misleading: the real choice should have been in or out of neoliberalism rather than in or out of the European Union”.
This time the crisis got shaped into Brexit, but it could just have easily been moulded into another issue .
‘Curing’ the crisis.
Jessop argues that there is a key difference between this current crisis and the earlier crisis of welfare capitalism which led to the rise of Thatcherism. Whilst Thatcherism represented the British state, political establishment and capital coming together in unity, Brexit represents a huge, unprecedented split in the British ruling class, which is currently tearing itself apart.
One section, traditionally the strongest, wants to remain in the EU. The other, smaller Atlantacist rump (led by Boris Johnson and now in the ascendency), wants to create a hard right, free market dystopia in alliance with American disaster capitalists. Both are deeply right wing, anti-socialist, imperialist projects, even though the pro-EU side is led by marginally more socially liberal forces.
Gramsci argues that during periods of crises, the ruling class is continually attempting to ‘cure’ the crisis, to restore order, preserve the status quo, and to prevent a new conjuncture emerging which might remove their class power. As Jessop notes, David Cameron called the EU referendum as a pre-emptive attempt to ‘cure’ the crisis of the British state and conservative party by defeating UKIP and bringing together the Tory party by finally defeating the Eurosceptic element. He underestimated the influence of the fascist tabloid press and the scale of mass alienation in the UK, and so Leave won.
Whilst a crisis represents a breach in the defences of the ruling class, and therefore a huge opportunity for socialists, the ruling class, (in the West at least), has the experience, strength and guile to quickly man the barricades and prevent radical forces capitalising on their momentary weakness.
The crisis therefore has no innate class character, nor any guaranteed outcome. The shape and outcome of the crisis is ultimately open to contestation and is given its character by political actors who harness and mould it. Whilst crises are clearly huge opportunities for socialists, given the temporary weakness of the ruling classes, if this is not seized on then the opportunity will soon be lost.
In the UK, the formerly dominant liberal capitalist establishment has attempted to do everything within its power to block Brexit and to return to the old status quo (it is not right wing to point this out). The EU rulers have also similarly attempted to obstruct Brexit, which they fear could catalyse copycat referenda across the EU, as anti-EU sentiment grows stronger across the bloc.
Occasionally, as an attempt to solve the crises, dominant forces co-opt the anger and radicalism of the masses and attempt to appease these by introducing moderate concessions so that subaltern demands are “satisfied by small doses, legally, in a reformist manner- in such a way that it was possible to preserve the political and economic position of the old feudal classes,” (Gramsci, 1971: 119, my emphasis). It is therefore a technique designed to co-opt and neutralise protests from below and ultimately preserve the status quo. Gramsci calls these tactics passive revolutions, or a ‘revolution… without a revolution’ (Gramsci, 1971:59). In the UK, Blairism represented such a passive revolution, a (doomed) attempt to modify neoliberalism, to give this paradigm a human face whilst not changing any of the fundamental elements.
Remain and reform
It is in this context of ruling class attempts to ‘cure the crisis’ (coupled with the hugely transformative potential of the Corbyn project) that current ‘stop Brexit’ proposals from the liberal/left must be examined.
There are a gamut of voices across the ‘remain’ camp. These range from a cross party centrist/liberal bloc which seeks to revoke article 50 and elect a new, centrist coalition; to the aforementioned socialist groups such as ‘Another Europe’ calling for ‘remain and reform’ under a Corbyn led Labour Government.
Both these groups have been influential in gradually altering Labour’s original Brexit position. Both, at the very least, seek a second referendum as the centrepiece of their strategy of stopping Brexit.
The cross-party liberal bloc of Swinson, Umunna, Soubry et al, represents a straightforward attempt to ‘cure the crisis’ by restoring the very status quo that has driven the crisis, to save the crisis-wracked British state, to continue the neoliberal paradigm. The majority of this tendency wants a return to austerity (former Tory coalition minister Swinson recently openly admitted this), and more technocracy.
The more socially liberal element of this bloc, whilst they would probably not openly call for more austerity like Swinson, simply cannot let go of the new Labour years, yet new Labour and centrist social democracy more generally helped cause the hegemonic crisis in the first place: the administering of austerity by tokenly progressive parties is precisely why social democratic parties across Europe have imploded. As the predictable implosion of the liberal messiah Macron in France demonstrates, this is a paradigm that isn’t ever coming back, and it is surreal to see erstwhile leftist parties like Plaid Cymru, The Greens and the SNP attempt to ally themselves with this ludicrous group of useful idiots for the establishment.
What of the calls of the ‘left wing’ ‘remain and reform’ camp to stop Brexit and then deliver an anti-austerity left government?
My own view is that the youthful elements in this group are possibly quite naïve about how the right wing of the PLP like Tom Watson and Owen Smith have weaponised the issue of Europe as part of their attempts to get rid of Corbyn (although a cynic might say it would indeed be quite impossible not to notice how the issue of ‘division over the EU’ has been used by the rightwing press to batter Corbyn). I suspect that in reality, figures like Chessum and Mason would undoubtedly favour- and if push came to shove, agitate to achieve this end- a pro-EU centre-left candidate like Clive Lewis over Corbyn.
It seems that given the balance of forces within the Labour party at present, the ‘transformative vision’ planned by Another Europe would likely amount to installing a tokenly progressive figurehead like Clive Lewis- or maybe even John McDonnell, who is rumoured to have pivoted to a pro-EU position- to deliver some elements of Labour’s manifesto whilst remaining in the EU. This new centre left, pro- EU bloc would presumably seek support from (and in turn have to be acceptable to) centrists like Swinson, and so even before dealing with the constraints of the EU would necessarily have to forfeit much of its radical potential, as this form of coalition would certainly never allow the best parts of the Labour manifesto to pass.
Yet even if we put aside any cynicism about the aims of Another Europe and accept that they do in fact wish to retain Jeremy Corbyn as leader, the ‘remain and reform’ movement simply does not understand the scale of the world crisis of neoliberalism and democracy; the role played by the EU in creating and exacerbating that crisis; the impossibility of radical socialism within the EU; nor the urgency and delicacy of the present moment and the need for a radical break with the past system.
Whoever is in charge, a Labour Government that remains in the EU would represent an attempted passive revolution- change that may appear radical, but would ultimately represent a continuation of neoliberal capitalism with a left veneer, similar at best to what is happening in Portugal, (i.e., clearly better than what we have now, but ultimately not socialism). It would not be moving to a new conjuncture, but like Blairism, would represent an attempt to tamper with the edges of neoliberalism without fundamentally moving beyond it.
Passive revolutions are ultimately temporary solutions: they momentarily suppress the conditions which drove the crisis, but these situations cannot hold forever. The organic crisis is always present within this period of history, and it is inevitable that at some point, change ‘bursts through’, and blows apart the process of restoration. As Gramsci puts it, “it is certain that in the movement of history there is never any turning back” (1971: 219–220). Any moderate reform movement that remained within the EU would still have to reckon with the crisis at a later date.
Rather than being an example of ‘how the left can win in Europe’, Portugal represents a stark warning, an example of what not to do. Crisis still haunts Portugal, whose ‘recovery’ remains extremely precarious, based as it is on low paid sectors and a property bubble. Whilst Portugal’s precarious economy is not entirely the fault of the EU itself, the constraints of the EU’s austerity rules make it impossible for the tokenly left government to embark on measures that might alleviate the crisis.
The tactic of defensiveness, of checking rather than reversing austerity, whilst understandable, has now trapped the left bloc in Portugal, who have been neutralized by the rules of the EU (mediated by the more moderate socialist party). Their radical programme has been co-opted and gutted, and they are now unable to ever move beyond a defensive strategy and into a new conjuncture.
Meanwhile, mass discontent in Portugal continues to grow, and like the experience of Syriza, the left in the country will bear the brunt of this anger because of their inability to break away from neoliberalism. It is likely that this passive revolution will end in tears for the left in Portugal and usher in reactionary forces at a later date.
Crucially, Corbyn himself realises the limitations of a defensive approach and in his recent speech to the Labour conference re-iterated his desire to move beyond welfare capitalism, to rupture the current system. A left Labour government would face a huge challenge under the best economic circumstances. As it is, another global crash is on the horizon, and a left government would need every tool at its disposal to fight this, including capital controls and the ability to fully nationalise significant swathes of the economy. The EU would make this impossible and would cripple a left government with a programme as radical as Corbyn’s.
Socialism or barbarism
The problem we face at the moment is that although the old neoliberal world order is in crisis , we have not yet been able to move to a new conjuncture. No new, distinct period has emerged. Neither progressive nor reactionary forces dominate but instead ‘bleed each other mutually’ (Gramsci, 1971:219).
The gridlock that has characterized British politics for the last 3 years therefore represents a microcosm of what has been happening on a larger scale since 2008, as capitalist forces have done everything they can to prevent a new, progressive social settlement emerging. Neither the left or right have been strong enough to break the impasse.
This period following a crisis, in between epochs, is known as an interregnum.
During such interregnums, Gramsci warns that if left parties do not emerge, become hegemonic and lead subaltern classes and parties with them, then the ground is prepared for ‘men of destiny’: charismatic leaders (or ‘Caesars’) who ‘arbitrate’ these periods by breaking the deadlock and resolving the crisis. These Caesars can be reactionary or progressive, depending on context and their social function, whether they lead society into a progressive period or usher in a period of darkness.
This interregnum in British politics should be the perfect moment for Jeremy Corbyn to act as a progressive Caesar and usher in (following a transitionary period, likely defined by a broad left coalition government) a new period of radical social democracy that breaks entirely with neoliberalism, and hopefully act as a bridgehead for the left to overthrow capitalism entirely (this should be our goal).
After a series of failed attempts to ‘cure it’, the global crisis is finally reaching its maturity, something made more terrifying by the fact this is happening alongside the visible, rapid collapse of the world’s ecosystem and growing tensions between the major imperialist powers. The conditions worldwide increasingly resemble those extant in Europe before the first world war. We therefore stand on a terrifying precipice, where if we do not choose socialism, a new conjuncture, we will once again plunge into a period of unimaginable darkness.
In order to avert this descent into barbarism, we need to heed the lessons of history and observe and learn from what is currently going on around the world. The far right is now in the ascendency in many parts of the globe. They have done this by effectively (and easily) positioning the left, particularly in the USA, as ‘the establishment’ and channeling people’s anger into xenophobia.
This has been aided by the fact that even the ‘new’ radical left (such as Syriza and Podemos) is so easily sucked into legalism and ‘the system’. Not only do we need socialism to save the planet and the human race, people are clearly crying out for socialism, yet the left, including Corbynism, seems unable to avoid capitulating to the same centrist delusions which caused the crisis in the first place.
If Brexit, and indeed the world crisis, has taken a right- wing turn, this is simply because the left have allowed the right to take control of the crisis by shunning popular, radical, anti-establishment solutions and messages and instead falling back on moderation, timidity and compromise. In this impasse, reactionary Caesar figures like Trump and Bolsonaro can easily emerge as desperate people look for answers.
On a most basic level, re-running a second referendum and then remaining in the EU would allow the right in the UK to easily position the left as undemocratic defenders of the status quo, and allow the right to essentially to own the crisis in the UK and indeed give them ammunition and weaken the left for decades to come. ‘Brexit’ is not innately right wing, yet it is rapidly turning into a right- wing project because the left is washing its hands of it.
Boris Johnson at present resembles a Caesar figure. The ground is being prepared for him to resolve the crisis in favour of the forces of reaction, and he will be able to do this quite easily if he has a powerful (albeit bogus) narrative of ‘the people versus parliament’.
Whilst few people on the left would have chosen this exact path, the crisis cannot be put back in its box, and re-running the referendum and remaining represents an attempt to contain that which cannot be contained. It represents moderation and timidity when we have no time for these things. There can be no turning back now, nor any half measures.
Faced with few options, the left therefore has to be bold, ‘ride the tiger’ of the crisis and harness people’s anger and frustrations and offer them new solutions: namely socialism, and a society run for the working class, by the working class.