Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker Prime Minister Theresa May held a meeting with European Commission President Juncker. Photo: Flickr/No 10

Brexit must be viewed through the window of the struggle against neoliberalism, argues Dragan Plavšić

You could have been forgiven the other week for thinking the Brexit crisis had hit an all-time surreal low when that great political heavyweight of our times, the spoon-bending fanatic, Uri Geller, waded into it with an open letter to Theresa May promising to use his telepathic powers to stop Brexit and bend Corbyn’s keys to No 10 to stop him getting in (this won’t work, Uri, someone on the inside opens the door).

But you would of course have been wrong, because last week served up a whole new bag of absurdities. Chief among them was the sight of a Prime Minister bribing MPs into supporting her Brexit deal by offering to resign over the very Brexit deal she was bribing them to support. You really don’t get much more absurd than that. The fact that the bribe didn’t even work was merely the icing on this absurdist cake. No wonder Nigel Lawson called May “the most incompetent Prime Minister in living memory”.

Never to be outdone, some Labour MPs have been chucking a few of their own absurdities into the mix.

At the People’s Vote march the other weekend, Tom Watson promised to do the very opposite of what he thinks and vote for a deal he opposes, if May agrees to hold a second referendum, while Caroline Flint said she’d vote for May’s deal because it “protects workers’ rights” (as she did on Friday with four other Labour MPs).

Given that the guiding spirit of May’s deal is to align the UK with the EU as much as internal Tory politics allow, not least when it comes to existing neoliberal rules on competition and state aid – direct causes of workplace oppression and immiseration and would-be obstacles to a Corbyn-led Labour government – Flint’s attempt to give May’s deal a left gloss was simply fantasy politics.

Her logic of isolating an issue out of context to justify her self-serving stance (she’s now terrified of losing her pro-Brexit seat and thinks only of clinging to May to save it) is an acute example of a broader failure to see the bigger picture, to see Brexit from the point of view of totality. But seeing the bigger picture is essential for one compelling reason. Brexit is about more than just Brexit; in particular, it’s about the wider crisis of neoliberalism and the long-diminishing authority and standing of the British state and ruling class.

The bigger picture

To capture the totality at play here, we need a contextual perspective that synthesises Britain’s long-term decline, the medium-term decisions taken in the 1970s to halt it, and the more immediate realities of Brexit to explain what’s going on and what’s really at stake.

The last time the British state and ruling class found itself in a crisis of comparative depth was in the early 1970s. Then miners’ strikes and a three-day week had raised serious questions about whether the ruling class was fit to rule. The crisis reflected a long-term reality, the fact that the double rise of Germany and the US in the late 19th century had caused Britain to slip steadily down the greasy – in truth, bloody – pole of global economic competition it had once sat atop. It took two world wars to decide that the US would now be the dominant global power, with Britain emerging in much reduced straits as its compliant sidekick.

Crises are never short of proposals to resolve them, so the key question is who’s proposing what and why. In the 1970s the British ruling class seized the initiative with two significant decisions designed to provide the necessary traction to halt its slipping global standing and avert future crises.

The first was the decision to join the then EEC in 1973, confirmed by a referendum in 1975. With its fingers already in three other pies – at the UN Security Council, in NATO where it stood second only to the US, and as head of the post-imperial Commonwealth – here was an opportunity, this time to reap directly economic benefits.

Thatcher’s election as Prime Minister in 1979 led to the second decision, to neoliberalise Britain, to turn social benefits into private burdens, state companies into private ones, and generally to shift the weight of social provision onto the backs of the working class so as to deregulate and ‘free’ up business to compete globally.

Chickens come home to roost

The subsequent forty years of neoliberalism have seen one economic crisis after another, but none as dramatic or as potentially catastrophic or as consequential as the crash of 2007-8. This was neoliberal capitalism in meltdown, the direct result of years of speculative deregulation, especially in the banking sector. In that sense, the chickens had come home to roost, but workers, not bankers, would bear the burden of the brutalising austerity we remain mired in more than a decade later.

One political response to the crisis was the rise of UKIP, which exploited the ensuing discontent and sought to channel it into a racist and xenophobic anti-Europeanism. Its rise in turn emboldened the Tory Eurosceptic right who pressed and pressured Cameron as never before, in particular for a second referendum. 

His decision to hold one was an epic miscalculation rooted in his narrowly party political assessment of UKIP and his own Eurosceptics, leading him to think he’d see them off with relative ease. But Cameron failed to appreciate that UKIP and co. were merely one expression of a much broader and deeper discontent roused by the straitening rigours of austerity, a discontent neither he nor his predecessors nor the EU had done anything of any significance to remedy. On the contrary, their inveterate neoliberalism was the cause of that burgeoning discontent.

But UKIP’s rise had also been made possible by the lack of a genuinely left alternative capable of speaking up for this growing discontent. After all, Labour was either glued to Blairism or tiptoeing away from it with the hesitant and unconvincing timidity of an Ed Miliband.

Nevertheless, the sheer breadth and depth of the discontent was such that it eventually found its voice in the course of Corbyn’s first leadership campaign. Drawing on a reserve army of activists and sympathisers radicalised by years of anti-war agitation, who swept into the Labour Party in his support, Corbyn stood apart from his clueless centrist opponents by offering what none of them could or would – an end to austerity and a clean break with the destructive dogma and practice of forty years of neoliberalism.

In this sense, Corbynism represented the authentic expression – in short, the political self-expression – of the deep discontent and developing mood shift against austerity and the neoliberal policies that had brought it about.

Squaring the circle?

The 2016 referendum and the 2017 general election results were therefore of a piece in the sense that they were both of them reflections of this same discontented mood shift; indeed, to see things otherwise is to render inexplicable an allegedly racist referendum result one year and Corbyn’s election success the next. 

This shift and the electoral results issuing directly from it threw the Tories and the ruling class into confusion and disarray. More specifically, they suddenly found themselves struggling to manage two sharp contradictions between an economics and a politics pulling in opposite directions, plus a simultaneous challenge from the left not seen for some 40 years.

The first contradiction stemmed from the fact that the greater part of the economic wing of the ruling class – the City of London and the multinational corporations – had strongly favoured remaining in the EU, but politics had escaped the control of its political wing, and delivered the opposite result. May’s attempt to square this circle has involved cleaving as close to the EU and its neoliberal rules as internecine Tory politics in particular has allowed. Initially seeking to deliver Brexit so the Tories could later pose as the great ‘deliverers’ in a general election, May is now just desperate to secure a deal not so much for the sake of her personal reputation, though that clearly plays a role, but for the wider political advantage of doing so before the door to No 10 swings open for Jeremy Corbyn.

The second contradiction is Northern Ireland. Some 31% of its exports  – or 56% of its exports to the EU as a whole – go south to the Republic, its single largest export partner. Economics pulls the north southwards, then, but the politics of the DUP and Tory Unionism pull it northwards. The so-called backstop arrangement in May’s deal was part of a distinctly unsatisfactory attempt to square this particular circle by giving priority in the final instance to economics; so unsatisfactory, in fact, that Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s leader at Westminster, and hitherto a Brexiteer, said this weekend he’d now prefer to cancel Brexit and remain.

These contradictions explain why May has been neither strong nor stable. Her incompetence has been magnificently exposed by them. In other times, she’d have long since been dispatched by her own. Instead, she has lived on as one of the living dead, banging her head monotonously against a brick wall, because her political demise would mean a general election and opening the floodgates to Jeremy Corbyn.

Neoliberalism, the class struggle and a People’s Brexit

May’s Brexit is of course a neoliberal Brexit. For Tory Eurosceptics, Brexit would be a hyper-neoliberal Brexit; they see the current crisis as rooted in a failure to be neoliberal enough and they look longingly to Trump’s America. And then there are the EU neoliberals who want a second referendum and the status quo ante. They are a mix of One Nation Tories, Liberal Democrats, and the Blairites who are in fact their mobilising core; in other words, this is the extreme centre, whose shrinking parliamentary fortunes have provoked a thoroughly bourgeois turn to the streets.

What they all have in common, Brexiteers and Remainers alike, is a wider commitment to neoliberalism. And it is this commitment that stamps them indelibly with their ruling class character, for the class struggle presently pivots on the question of whether the future will be neoliberal. All political questions must therefore be viewed through this key window, including Brexit.

Corbynism represents a break with neoliberalism and is therefore, from a ruling class point of view, on the wrong side of the class struggle. But the attacks on Corbyn have not on the whole been targeted that directly at his opposition to neoliberalism: his policies are too popular for that. Instead, they have been circuitously focused on pressuring him into a fateful compromise with the EU, because a compromise with the constitutionally and institutionally neoliberal EU is at one and the same time a compromise with neoliberalism itself.

However, if Corbynism is indeed to be true to the discontented mood shift of which it is the most authentic expression, then it has to advocate a Brexit – a People’s Brexit – that provides a future Labour Government with the necessary freedom to undo the destructive and devastating effects of forty years of neoliberalism. A People’s Brexit is therefore the only real alternative to the neoliberals who wish to leave the EU or remain in it. A general election is feared by them all; the sooner we have one the better.

Dragan Plavšić

Dragan Plavšić is a member of Counterfire in London and of Marks21 in Serbia. He jointly edited The Balkan Socialist Tradition and the Balkan Federation 1871-1915 (2003).