I had very mixed emotions about the Brexit vote. Having watched the manner in which the European Union strangled Greece, I have not been very sanguine about the EU as a project.
The guiding vision of the EU is neo-liberal globalization. And it is determined to impose this on the continent.
At the same time, there was something very unsettling about the campaign leading up to the vote and its actual result.
Globalization and Changing Living Standards
The vote was clearly an expression of antipathy to neo-liberal globalization. This took the form of targeting the EU as the perpetrator of such a vision and the lack of accountability of the EU for its policies. Yet an analysis cannot stop there. The working classes in most parts of the so-called advanced capitalist world have been experiencing living standard challenges since the 1970s and 1980s, well before the consolidation of the EU.
Neo-liberalism became the dominant framework for economics particularly in Britain – under Margaret Thatcher– and later in other parts of Europe, and for that matter, in the rest of the world.
With neo-liberalism came the crushing of labor unions, increased privatization and the denial of the legitimacy of the public space. Coal mines were closed, manufacturing shifted, shipyards were shut down, and the British economy – much like the US economy – became increasingly dependent on services and finance. The working-class experienced a slow moving but steady strategic defeat.
What complicated the situation was that this was also taking place in the context of the decline of the British Empire and the increased migration to Britain of peoples from the global South (and, specifically, from former colonies of Britain) and, later, with the advent of Britain’s introduction to the EU, from Eastern Europe. A British labor movement that had been quite silent – if not complicit – in the face of colonialism was largely unprepared to address the increasing specter of racism and xenophobia as right-wing populism responded to the pleas of a suffering British working-class.
A Revolt Against the Elites
It is in this context that one must appreciate the complexity of Brexit. Yes, there is popular anger with the crushing of the British working-class through neo-liberal globalization and policies of austerity. Those policies were initiated by the Conservatives. However, Tony Blair’s so-called New Labour adopted neo-liberalism much as Bill Clinton’s wing of the U.S. Democratic Party did. Brexit became a revolt against the elites.
Yet it is revolt where the lens was largely framed through race and so-called homeland. The right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party and sympathetic segments of the Conservative Party had, for years, been playing to themes of race and xenophobia.
[gdlr_quote align=”center” ]The right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party and sympathetic segments of the Conservative Party had, for years, been playing to themes of race and xenophobia.”[/gdlr_quote]
Rather than blaming neo-liberal globalization for growing immiserization – which they could not since they have advanced it – they turned their attention, and the attention of much of Britain, on migrants.
Thus, the evils of the EU came to be represented by the influx of migrants. While migrants did not shut down coal mines, factories or shipyards, they became a convenient scapegoat for the angers of a population that was increasingly marginalized, if not crushed.
Brexit is illustrative of a challenge and phenomenon facing working classes throughout the global North. The question becomes which lens is worn in order to see what actually exists and who is actually the enemy?
Equally, the white working class, who along with the other impoverished ethnic minorities in the UK have borne the brunt of the ultra right wing economic mismanagement and are being played off against those ethnic minority groups who are also suffering. In short, what has been unspoken social and economic ‘policy’ in the US is now being implemented over here in the UK. United we stand…