Saturday, 20 February 2016

The Brexit Vote

The confusion of the left on the question of the European Union was shown by an event at my alma mater, the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, on 16 February. It also revealed a more general absence of critical faculties among many of those who do not like the way the world works today. Tariq Ali was promoting his latest book, The Extreme centre: A Warning. He made the standard complaints about the lack of any political alternative to ‘neoliberal’ politics in most major countries, and he also tied this theme into the question of the vote on Britain’s membership of the EU (now set to be on 23 June 2016). I have not read his book, but based upon what he said in his presentation, I would make the following comments, ones that also set out how to understand the forthcoming UK vote on EU membership.
Firstly, as an old hand at these events, it was surprising that Tariq Ali did not reflect upon the lack of any widespread opposition to what he calls the ‘neoliberal extreme centre’. He did hope that the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the lofty pinnacle of the British Labour Party leadership showed that the Labour Party was not actually dead, and he also cast a positive gloss on the popularity of the Scottish National Party as a sign of some popular opposition. My problem with this searching in the dustbin for a gem is that it does not understand that much UK public opinion is welfare-nationalist at best – ‘save our NHS’ – or that any materialist analysis would have to draw the conclusion that this opinion is because the mass of people see that this is where their immediate economic interests lie. A prime piece of evidence for my perspective is that half the British public voted for the Conservatives or UKIP in the 2015 general election, while the Labour Party had ‘controls on immigration’ as one of the policy demands carved into the infamous stone monolith of Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader. Instead, Tariq Ali gave credence to the implausible notion that the British media are responsible for right wing opinions.
Secondly, Tariq Ali made a telling point, almost as a confession. He had formerly been in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU, but now he had grave doubts. There seemed to be two connected reasons: what ‘EU policy’ had done to Greece, Spain and other countries was unacceptable, and the EU-driven policy was a machine for implementing the wider policies of financial capital, not those of the mass of people. Just consider what this position amounts to. It identifies a policy driven by the EU as the problem, not recognising that it results from capitalists in each country trying to restore their viability in the global market, still more that it is one that the richer countries are imposing on the poorer in order to get some of their money – bank loans, etc – back. So, it becomes a policy decision that progressive forces could change, not one that is inevitable unless the market logic of capitalism is overturned. It is not a question of ‘the EU’ demanding nasty policies; these are the consequence of the crisis that these economies face. The ECB, EU Commission, etc, are the messengers, and the message is that your economies are uncompetitive in the world market!
Thirdly, the political confusion of Tariq Ali, and many others, on the question of the EU is based on accepting the alternatives such a vote gives the electorate. There will be a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer to leaving/staying in the European Union. But the terms of the debate are already set. Each side is based on what is best for Britain: whether to stay in a ‘reformed’ (on capitalist terms) EU, although the changes are minimal, and so keep the UK’s global bargaining power, or whether the UK should strike out on its own into what might be a more enticing, faster growing, wider world. The debate only reflects an anxiety of the British ruling class since at least 1945: what to do about a Europe in which the UK could only realistically play a manipulative, tactical role, when it is a minor country with much wider global interests. I have covered these issues previously on this blog (see, for example, here). There is no basis upon which the Stay or Leave vote could be construed as being in favour of something else, anti-capitalist, given the lack of any progressive alternative in the UK. For this reason, I will not be voting Yes/No on which is the best way to save British capitalism.[1]
Tariq Ali’s confusion also goes further. In the SOAS meeting he noted that there was a political problem of many of Europe’s right wing parties – for example, the Front National in France – being in favour of welfare spending. ‘And so are we!’ Well, the unacknowledged problem comes down to the fact that western welfare spending is based upon the privileges that rich countries have in the world, something that his kind of analysis is reluctant to recognise. The attack on welfare spending today results from the chronic stagnation of most economies, ones that are just about buoyed up by huge levels of debt, but which debt also calls time on the previous status quo. Rather than recognise this, Tariq Ali bemoaned the attacks on the welfare state and the ‘breach of the consensus’ that had previously been achieved. So much for the analysis of an anti-capitalist who sees unfavourable policies as a result of decisions that could be changed within capitalism. I heard nothing from him to suggest that what he called ‘neoliberal’ policies could not be changed by a more enlightened policy under capitalism.
The rich country welfare system represents part of a deal/consensus that is now being broken by many governments. Policies that are called ‘austerity’ have not been implemented much in the richer countries, though they will be in the next couple of years. However, the political reaction, especially in northern Europe, is often to bolster reactionary nationalists that want to restore the status quo ante against the ‘hordes’ of migrants and other unwelcome drains on the national wealth and welfare that rightfully ‘belongs’ to the ‘legitimate’ recipients. This is the basis of a reactionary trend in European politics today. While this is exacerbated by the flows of migrants into Europe from the destruction of the Middle East and North Africa, such events only harden the views of those in Europe (and the US) whose states have done so much to cause the damage. It is heartening to see the humanity of many people in Europe helping refugees, especially in Germany. But the problem remains that the overwhelming majority of the population in European countries takes a different view of the world and their economic interests in it.

Tony Norfield, 20 February 2016

[1] For the record, I will probably turn up and scribble something on the ballot paper. Pointless, but amusing for me, at least.


  1. Hi Tony one question I have is that if welfare spending in a country like Britain, for example, is as you say the result of British imperialism being able to gain privileges in the world economy, how does that work out for smaller countries like the Scandinavian countries? Are they also able to finance welfare spending on the back of their "imperialist" power? Thanks an really looking forward to reading the book.

  2. I am also struggling to get my head around the notion that the poorest sections of the West (welfare recipients) are the ones living off the backs of the rest of the world.

    Surely it is the richer folk (who have no need of welfare) who are the ones living off the backs of others?

  3. Reply to Bis:
    Imperialism is a term to describe the nature of the world system. Within that system, there are leading countries to which one can give the label ‘imperialist’. But even the smaller, less important ones have a particular role or position in the world, determined by their history and policies. The Scandinavian countries are in a relatively privileged economic position, benefiting from monopolistic control in a number of industrial sectors and large foreign investments. This has helped them fund their welfare systems. Of course, they are economically very developed, and so are better able to afford it. I do not argue that all their, or any other country’s, wealth/income derives from other countries.

  4. Reply to SteveH:
    My point is that the welfare payments made in the ‘West’ do depend upon its economic privileges. The positions of the richer countries in the world economy are not simply derived from their greater productivity, although they will be more economically developed than others. A network of rules and market control reinforces their position at the expense of other countries. The recipients of capitalist income are living off others, both within their respective countries and outside. In the past, to buy social peace, some of this income has been funnelled into welfare payments. Those payments are now becoming unaffordable, given the crisis, big debts, etc, and are being cut back.

  5. "Those payments are now becoming unaffordable, given the crisis, big debts, etc, and are being cut back."

    So the poorest in the West are becoming unaffordable but the wealthy are not? Doesn't make sense to me. You make it sound like the poorest in the West are simply living off the back of the Western Middle classes, and now the Middle classes have turned off the tap the poorest will have to succumb. Meanwhile the Middle class go on as always.

    1. Your comment fails to take into account an evident reality. What is obviously unaffordable is to spend money on welfare when capitalist business cannot bear the burden. Those who do not make money for capitalists are a burden, including the sick and unemployed. That's a fact of capitalism not a moral judgement. The middle classes have usually been able to make sure they get some of the profits and benefits of the system, because they make themselves useful by managing it. But even they are being squeezed now, given the intractable crisis. Most clearly in the case of crisis-stricken countries like Greece and Spain, but this is also a growing trend in Britain and elsewhere. What is really 'unaffordable', from society's point of view, is capitalism.

    2. If the capitalist can afford to pay bloated salaries to the Middle Classes, which they are still doing despite all this talk of them being squeezed, then they can afford welfare provision. You claim that the Middle Classes are being squeezed when they are not because that is the only sensible way you can make the case that welfare is becoming unaffordable.

      I agree the problem is capitalism but I will not accept capitalism is the the trouble you claim it is until I see executives jumping out of office building windows.

      My message to the poorest is do not accept this assault on your living standards. While ever the Middle Classes have their privileges do not accept their talk of the necessity of austerity. And do not accept any narrative, left or right, that claims your small and meagre rations are any kind of burden on anyone.

  6. Hello,

    I discovered your blog through Michael Robert's review of your new book.
    It seems logical indeed that the yes/no vote is in itself meaningless as long as it is the ruling class that will manage the outcome. But then, why both major parties are in favour of staying in the EU? The british ruling elites do not seem indifferent to the outcome of the referendum.
    More importantly, i'm trying to think what would Brexit mean for my country. I live in Greece. The people cast their vote last year against further austerity and humiliation only to be told (effectively by both Left and Right, en bloc) that there is no way other than the EU/eurozone. Brexit would be a huge boost of morale as it would show that there is life outside this monstrosity after all.


    1. Hi George, While both major UK parties are in favour of staying in the EU, each has a significant group of those who want to leave. The majority capitalist opinion, I would judge, is for staying, and they are not indifferent to the outcome. But that does not change the point that the debate is about the best option for British imperialism’s prosperity, ‘security’ and projection of power. There are different views on this and popular opinion is close to 50/50, so the outcome of the vote is far from certain.

      I don’t think a UK vote to leave would be of much use to Greece. There is another monster outside the EU as well. The EU/euro has shaped the form taken by the crisis in Greece, but I would not agree that without these factors Greece would have been OK. I did a review of the origins of the Greek crisis on this blog, 24 June 2011, and have covered other aspects since.

  7. Unfortunately, this acceptance of one of two capitalist options is not confined to Tariq Ali and the British left.

    Indeed, here in NZ it is far worse than in Britain. It infects almost all of the left outside a couple of small circles - one around the Redline blog and one around class-struggle anarchists in AWSM. Economic and political nationalism pervades the bulk of the rest of the left.

    In Britain the big issue that this takes form around now is the EU; down here it's around the TPPA. Left groups that take formally correct positions - that NZ is imperialist and that economic and political forms of NZ nationalism are reactionary - suddenly abandon all this when they see protests on the streets about the TPPA.

    These protests, in historical terms, are not huge, but they are much larger than anything else that has occurred in this country in about 20 years. The left is in awe of this. Never mind all the NZ imperialist and all the economic-nationalist and political-nationalist garbage on display, look at the size of that thing!!!

    An organisationally, numerically and politically enfeebled left then gets swept up; principles are subordinated to tactics - always a problem on the left in this country.

    Philip Ferguson

  8. There are many good reasons why British socialists should actively boycott the forthcoming European referendum. The one which is the least commented upon concerns, as ever, the Irish question. As I noted in my open letter to the Revolutionary Communist Group: ‘The wording on the ballot will read: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ No self-respecting socialist would give legitimacy to so rotten a geo-political entity as the United Kingdom. Socialists who support the ‘right’ of the British to vote on behalf of the Irish are social-chauvinists of the worst kind. So far, however, British left groups seem not to have noticed (or if they have noticed, seem not to care) that the forthcoming European referendum will have a decidedly colonial character. I earnestly trust that the RCG will break the mould of British chauvinism and signal a return to socialist sanity.’ See ‘Dear Michael MacGregor’ at