Theresa May negotiating in Brussels. Photo: Nudge Factory Theresa May negotiating in Brussels. Photo: Nudge Factory

Brexit is exposing the crises inherent in contemporary British and European capitalism, argues Sean Ledwith

Rarely can Gramsci’s famous diagnosis of an organic crisis within a capitalist state have seemed as relevant in a British context as the current atmosphere of imminent political meltdown swirling around Westminster. Writing in the 1930s, the great Italian Marxist noted the characteristics of such a breakdown in the normal running of the status quo:

‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear

Gramsci elaborated on how a convergence of economic, political and ideological contradictions could throw the entire legitimacy of a capitalist state into doubt in the minds of millions when such a crisis unfolds. Theresa May’s tortuous and seemingly doomed attempt to negotiate a Brexit deal acceptable to both the EU and the House of Commons is set to be decisively rejected by the latter in a pivotal vote next Tuesday. There has even been speculation the vote might be pulled to avoid a terminal humiliation for May’s ailing administration.

Constitutional experts have scurried off to their textbooks to try to find guidance on how the UK’s centuries-old parliamentary system should respond to the unprecedented scenario of the PM not only losing the crucial Brexit vote but also a highly probable vote of no confidence shortly afterwards.

Recent days have witnessed previously unthinkable events such as the government being held in contempt of parliament for not publishing its legal advice on the Irish border backstop and losing three votes on the same day for its handling of the Brexit process. This tumultuous sequence of legislative mishaps, added to months of internal bloodletting in the higher echelons of the Tory Party, entirely vindicates the view of Left Leavers in 2016 that a victory for Brexit in the referendum would send a series of shockwave through the ranks of the ruling class at home and abroad that would not only destabilise their arrogant complacency but also create an opportunity for a socialist alternative to the neoliberal consensus.

Rubik’s Cube

Brexit’s emergence as the ultimate Rubik’s Cube of British politics has left the establishment desperately scratching its head in an attempt to find a way out of the impasse. Hard Brexiters in the ranks of the Tory Party such as Jacob Rees-Mogg are now confronted with the headache of torpedoing the May deal and thereby opening the door to the very real prospect of Jeremy Corbyn entering Number 10.

If the Brexit vote goes against the government, the likelihood of Britain exiting the EU on schedule on March 29th will recede, stirring up anger among large swathes of the 17.4 million who voted for such an outcome in 2016. The blocking of Brexit would undoubtedly fuel the already alarming resurgence of the far right in British politics. Continuity Remainers in parliament have not given up on their goal of reversing the 2016 referendum result as evident in Dominic Grieve’s amendment for the (predominantly pro-EU) legislature to take over the process in the event of the May deal going down in flames.  The phenomenon of the British ruling class falling out among themselves is one that would have brought a nod of recognition from Gramsci.

The current deadlock has also exposed the true nature of the EU itself. The steely determination with which Barnier, Juncker, Tusk and others have engaged with their hapless British equivalents will not be a surprise to those who have observed the EU’s dealings with states such as Ireland, Portugal and most conspicuously, Greece, during the peak of the Eurozone crisis at the start of this decade. It has been apparent since the day after the referendum that the EU elite would adopt a punitive and uncompromising stance against the people of the UK for their temerity in seeking to break out of the neoliberal behemoth.

The crux of the seemingly doomed May deal is that the UK remains in the customs union for the duration of the transition, and potentially beyond 2020 if no trade deal is forthcoming after that. Hard Brexiters among the ranks of the Tory Party and the ultra-loyalist Democratic Unionist Party are especially rankled by the now infamous backstop that would lock Northern Ireland into an even closer relationship with both the customs union and the single market. Not only does this element make a mockery of the supposed political unity of the UK state, it also hollows out the claim of the official Leave campaign that Brexit would restore sovereignty to Westminster as the backstop can only be removed with the authorisation of Brussels.

Pound of flesh

May has previously expressed her commitment to avoiding any compromising of the constitutional integrity of the UK state; obviously with wilful historical blindness to the fact that the current border between Northern and Southern Ireland is based on the British-inspired partition of its neighbour nearly one hundred years ago.

The EU’s determination to hang onto Northern Ireland in all but name is part of the pound of flesh it is demanding as the price for May’s truncated version of Brexit. Remainers have promoted the notion that somehow it was the EU devised the 1998 Good Friday Agreement and that without supervision from Brussels, the province will be plunged back in the dark days of the Troubles.

Such a misconception ignores both the fact that the Common Travel Area that guarantees virtual free movement between North and South predates the entry in 1973 of both the UK and Southern Ireland to the old EEC; and the fact that EU membership did nothing to prevent the worst intensification of the violence in the 1980s. There is no reason why, with sufficient political will, London and Dublin could not agree to sustain the current soft border situation.

 Although Northern Ireland remains plagued by sectarian discrimination and occasional spasms of violence, there is no appetite among the majority of the population for a return to the era of armed struggle. The IRA has long abandoned the notion of physically expelling the British from the province and has ceased to exist as a viable military force. It is a total red herring on the part of Remainers to argue that Brexit would destroy the GFA. Of course, the optimum political solution would be for the British state to abandon its defunct political allegiance to the Orange state in the North and facilitate a pathway to Irish re-unification. The archaic Unionist ideology that is, unfortunately, hard-wired from birth into the scions of the elite such as Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson makes such a political leap of faith currently unthinkable. However, the noticeable increase of speculation on such a prospect on both sides of the border is another ‘morbid symptom’ of the accelerating crisis of the British state.

Financial waterboarding

Throughout the Brexit process, the British capitalist state has found itself out- powered and outmanoeuvred by the EU27 due to the former’s longstanding structural weaknesses, particularly in the areas of productivity and infrastructural investment, and because of its excessive dependency on financialisation as encouraged by decades of Tory and New Labour rule. 

The European consensus, in contrast, has been built around the powerhouse of the German economy riding the wave of its suppression of domestic labour costs in the name of an export-orientated model. The German capitalist hegemony, in turn, has entailed the imposition of brutal regimes of austerity on the weaker economies of southern Europe. Last month a directive from the EU Commission to Rome reprimanded the elected Italian government for a budget that included increases in public spending, including a minimum income for the unemployed. Rome has been told such non-compliance is not acceptable to the neoliberal experts in Brussels. This is only the most recent example of what the Varis Varoufakis memorably described as the ‘financial waterboarding’ the EU likes to inflict on member states that try to go off-script. Last week, with nefarious timing, the European Court of Justice ruled that it would still be possible for Brexit to be reversed.

There is no doubt that a Corbyn government – the best-case scenario emerging out of the current political quagmire – would be similarly disciplined by the EU Commission if it tried to embark on the type of programme of nationalisation and state intervention promised in last year’s general election. The tragic irony is that many of the spending commitments made in the 2017 Labour manifesto are impossible according to the demands of the custom union and single market which the party is currently seeking to remain part of. Jeremy Corbyn managed to add 10% to the Labour vote last year because millions of Britons saw the possibility of an alternative to the neoliberal dogma that is encapsulated by the EU. Accepting the May deal, or even some tweaked version of it, would create a Brexit in name only that would both restore the hegemony of the EU and leave a Corbyn government hamstrung before it even enters Number Ten.

Offshore Socialist laboratory

In contrast, a renewed commitment from the left to an exit from the EU with total separation from all its processes, alongside a policy framework based on wealth redistribution, raising living standards and progressive taxation would re-ignite the passions that almost swept Corbyn into power last year. All of these elements, which most on the left regard as desirable, are far easier to implement outside the control of the EU. The current British state is locked into a terminal decline, with the Brexit crisis being its most visible manifestation. The tantalising prospect of a Corbyn government provides the opportunity to create an alternative destiny for a British state that acts as an offshore socialist laboratory that exposes the neoliberal structures in Brussels, Washington, and elsewhere.

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters