The Brexit crisis is best understood through a strong methodological framework, argues John Rees
As the current crisis around Brexit lurches towards its latest moment of decision it’s worth stopping to consider the problems that such an unprecedented political moment represents for Marxist theory.
It is the complexity of the class and political alignments around Brexit that pose a challenge to any political analysis, including a Marxist political analysis. Single issue referenda are only seemingly simple political events. In fact, because they exist outside of normal party political alignment, they can often produce complex alliances and coincidences of interest.
And we can add to this the fact that it is never a straightforward task to map economic interests onto forms of political consciousness or political party affiliations. Moreover, all this is happening while the leadership of the Labour Party is no longer in traditional right-wing social democratic hands, but under the control of the most left-wing leadership the party has ever had.
But, before we try to unravel these more complex determinations, let’s try and clear the ground of some common methodological confusions. In the course of doing so, we hope to distinguish an effective Marxist analysis from both those merely “cultural” explanations, which stress chauvinistic or nationalistic aspects of the Brexit vote, or some overly reductionist explanations.
Firstly, let’s be clear about the register in which this analysis should take place. It is still a common mistake among friends and enemies of Marxism alike to assume that the simple two-class model of capitalists and workers, which Karl Marx deploys in his most abstract economic analysis of the capitalist system, is applicable when examining complex, concrete political events.
Marx himself never made such a mistake. In his concrete historical writings, for instance, Class Struggles in France, or his masterly analysis of the Paris commune of 1871, the Civil War in France, we find not simply the classes of capitalists and workers, but more than a dozen other social classes, subsections of classes, or fractions of classes deployed in his analysis. The peasantry, the lumpen-proletariat, the petty bourgeoisie, finance capital, and others all play their part in Marx’s sophisticated analysis.
Here, for instance, is the description of the class represented in the government in Class Struggles in France:
‘It was not the French bourgeoisie that ruled under Louis Philippe, but one faction of it: bankers, stock-exchange kings, railway kings, owners of coal and iron mines and forests, a part of the landed proprietors associated with them – the so-called financial aristocracy. It sat on the throne, it dictated laws in the Chambers, it distributed public offices, from cabinet portfolios to tobacco bureau posts.
The industrial bourgeoisie proper formed part of the official opposition, that is, it was represented only as a minority in the Chambers.’
This does not of course invalidate Marx's more general statement that the capitalist state is merely ‘an executive committee for the management of the common affairs of the bourgeoisie’. It merely makes that statement more specific, more concrete, in this particular case.
Nor does it, as some commentators argue, invalidate Marxist economic analysis which relies on abstracting a two-class model from the more complex reality of actually existing capitalist societies. It is simply a question of choosing the right level of abstraction for the purpose in hand. We all do this all the time in everyday life. For instance, “fruit” is a generalised abstraction from actually existing apples, pears, grapefruit, strawberries, etc, etc. But if I wish someone to go to a fruit shop, rather than a hardware shop, then the abstraction “fruit” is very useful rather than having to say ‘can you go to a shop that sells apples, pears, etc, etc’. If, however, I wish them to buy strawberries for a trifle when they get to the shop it will not be good enough simply to say ‘go to the fruit shop and buy some fruit’. For this purpose, a more concrete description is necessary.
If we are to follow this model, then we should first start by laying out the fundamental class alignment in the Brexit debate. It is now established beyond any real doubt, although like much else in the Brexit debate this does not stop it being a still contentious view, that the majority of major corporations want to remain in the European Union.
Some 99 out of 100 FTSE firms back Remain. As the deadline for leaving the EU approaches, many of these firms are making desperate and direct appeals to the political establishment and the wider population urging either an abandonment of Brexit, or the softest of soft Brexits. Airbus, all the major supermarkets and car manufacturers are just some of the household names that have joined the chorus of disapproval which also includes the CBI, the Bank of England, the Financial Times, and the Economist.
But this does not mean that the capitalist class is entirely united behind a Remain position. The bosses of Weatherspoon’s, and Dyson, and, most famously of all, Aaron Banks, are just some of those who have associated themselves with Brexit. And they have enjoyed support from the most reactionary middle-class tabloids, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express.
So the capitalist class is divided between its major international conglomerates, on the one hand, and, on the other, some smaller, often more domestically oriented, capitalists. The methodological point which this fact exemplifies is important: class consciousness is always uneven, and this is true in both the working class and other classes. An economically homogenous class can hold a variety of different ideological positions, so class consciousness can never be reduced to class location. In part, this differentiation may reflect different social circumstances affecting different sections of a single class in different ways. But as importantly, the totality of social experience, not only the immediate economic circumstances, shapes class consciousness. So although a class may have its consciousness predominantly shaped by its own economic experience, it will also be shaped by ideological interventions by other classes, by its experience of struggles across the full spectrum of society, and by the dominant ideology, the media, etc.
As it happens, in this case, the economic differentiation in the capitalist class is fairly easily read across onto politics, at least on the right of the political spectrum. The majority of Tory MPs favour Remain, accurately reflecting the dominant position within the capitalist class. A minority of Tory MPs, plus UKIP, are for Brexit.
This political and economic division reflects a long-standing question at the heart of postwar British capitalism. Should the UK attempt to sustain a post-imperial global economic orientation, or should it throw its lot in with the European nations as a trading bloc competing with the United States, and latterly with newly industrialising competitors outside the old heartland of 20th century capitalism?
By the late 20th century, this question had been answered in favour of the European Union in the minds of the most powerful UK capitalists and the wider political establishment. But the old, Empire-nostalgic wing of the Tory party, with considerable support among the Tory activists, continued to hold high the anti-European banner.
Margaret Thatcher controlled this division with a combination of pro-European substance and high-octane, anti-European exceptionalism on specific issues. John Major had more trouble facing down the, in his words, anti-European “bastards”, but the division did not render the Tory party inoperable during his prime-ministership. David Cameron, with typical Eton glibness, thought he could end the Tory civil war with the referendum. We know now but that was one of the greatest miscalculations in modern politics.
So far, pretty straightforward. As long as we recognise that a single class can contain one or more political strategies, then the nature of the division in the British establishment is pretty clear. But things became considerably more complex when Cameron called the referendum.
Who let the masses in?
The exact parallelogram of forces that produced the vote to leave the European Union will no doubt be debated by historians for many decades to come.
But no serious analysis can possibly leave out the accumulated anger at the political system felt most deeply in some of the poorest working-class communities. Much of that anger was directly expressed in unmistakable terms, and some of it was displaced onto targets, like migrants, that had no share of the blame for the condition in which working people find themselves after a generation of neoliberal economic policy and a decade of austerity.
A study of voting intentions before the referendum came to this conclusion:
‘The results are split here by social class. There is a distinct difference between two halves; in the top three social classes (A, B and C1), the majority of opinion is to remain a part of the European Union, however in the bottom three social classes (C2, D and E) the bulk wishes to exit.’
That pattern was maintained in the actual vote as Ipsos Mori confirmed in their study of the referendum. The first of their five key findings concluded that ‘younger, more middle class, more educated and BME voters chose to remain; older, working class, less educated and white voters opted to leave.’ The second key finding noted that while age was a factor in whether people voted Leave or Remain, nevertheless ‘within each age group the middle-classes were more likely to vote to remain, and the working classes more likely to vote to leave’.
The Ipsos Mori study also revealed some differentiation within the working class:
‘People in work (full or part-time, public sector or private sector), students, mortgage holders and private renters voted to remain. Those who own their home outright, social renters, the retired and those looking after homes all voted to leave.’
But a rather clearer and more important description of differentiation within the working class emerged from a third study. The Social Market Foundation found that ‘As much as 9 percentage points of the 52 per cent support for Leave – around 3 million votes – was decided by concern about austerity and related issues’. In short, we can say that those most affected by austerity, the poorer sections of the working class, were most likely to vote Leave.
But who represented these voters politically? In the case of the capitalist class we saw it was relatively straightforward to map economic interest, political consciousness, and political representation. In the case of working-class Leave voters, it is by no means so simple.
The Leave vote in the referendum is an example of what happens when an economic interest, and the political consciousness it gives rise to, find no accurate political representation. So it was that the millions of working-class people voted Leave, but no mass organisation in the working-class movement represented their interests - not the unions, not the Labour Party. By default therefore, it appeared that the Tory right and UKIP were the representatives of 17 million people when in fact their ideology only accurately reflected the consciousness of a small minority of that figure.
And of course the relationship between political consciousness and political representation is not a linear, one way, relationship. Lack of adequate political representation narrows the horizon of those it is supposed to represent, excluding some elements of their political consciousness and exaggerating others. UKIP would stress nationalistic elements of the Leave voters’ consciousness and suppress their deeper and more fundamental concern with austerity.
However that may be, what is undeniable is that the British political establishment were badly disconcerted by the defeat they suffered. As well they might be. First and foremost, the Tory party, the most successful Conservative party in any Parliamentary democracy, was now more divided than ever. Even more seriously, the Tory party was now bound by the referendum result to a Brexit policy to which the majority of its MPs, and the majority of the capitalist class that it exists to represent, are violently opposed.
There is some considerable irony in the fact that the majority of the British capitalist class now find themselves in the condition routinely experienced by the British working class: the political party which is supposed to represent their interests failing to do so.
The fact that such a rupture between the interests of the majority of the British capitalist class and its political representatives and institutions could occur points to a fundamental fact about the nature of politics and economics in capitalist society.
Capitalist society necessarily produces a separation of politics and economics. The economic world is supposed to be a natural order, the free market a necessary and unavoidable form of economic life. Politics is supposed to take place outside the economic sphere, and it is not supposed to interfere with the functioning of the free market. This institutionalises the fact that economic classes do not directly represent themselves politically. A state machine, at least to an important degree separate from economic interests, is the realm in which politics takes place. Economic actors, whether capitalists or trade unionists, do not represent themselves directly in this realm but form political parties and other organisations in which their interests predominate in order to be effective in the political world.
This is an important part of the explanation of why in the Brexit crisis party political alignment remains, so far, strong enough to prevent the majority of MPs across the House of Commons uniting to express the clearly articulated preference of the capitalist class. The capitalist class, usually happy to see a division between politics and economics because it disables the working-class movement, now finds itself disadvantaged by that very division. Only now, as the moment of decision is almost upon them, are MPs even contemplating the fact that they might have to abandon party loyalties if Brexit is to be either avoided or softened. And, in an unusual manoeuvre, the capitalist class is coming out from behind the arras to try and enforce its view.
And this of course is where the Labour Party comes in.
Labour’s love lost
Before Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party, the divisions within the party over Europe followed traditional left-right lines. The leadership and the right of the party were pro-Europe, and the left of the party, including Tony Benn, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, were all opposed to the EU as an engine of neoliberal economic policy and as an institution over which no effective democratic control existed.
But in the early days of Corbyn's leadership, a deal was struck with the party right wing which committed Labour to Remain in the referendum. Had the referendum been won by Remain no doubt politics would soon have returned to business as usual (literally) and little more would have been heard of the matter.
But the Leave vote contained within it so many Labour voters that it has been impossible for the Labour Party to square the circle ever since. Of course, if Labour had fought the referendum on the Left Leave platform it would have put itself at the head of an anti-establishment revolt and paved the way for an early general election. That opportunity missed for fear of alienating right wing Labour MPs, the leadership have tried to make the best of the situation by opposing the Tories' hard Brexit, keeping faith with Leave voters, and pushing for an early general election.
That Plan B might still work, if Labour sticks to it. But now the entirety of the British political establishment, and the mass media, are pushing the Labour leadership to “save the nation” by joining in a Tory-inspired unity campaign aimed at achieving the seemingly politically impossible task of passing Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
It is hard to overstate how disastrous such a course of action would be. If working-class Leave voters feel that Labour has joined a pro-establishment front with the Tories to deliver a Brexit-in-name-only, their frustration and anger could easily be exploited by the far right. UKIP, now fused with Tommy Robinson’s street thugs, are just waiting for this opportunity to rebuild their fortunes. The Tory government and Theresa May’s leadership would be rescued. The Labour right would be cock-a-hoop. A general election would be pushed into the distant future, and made so much more difficult for Labour to win. In all likelihood, Jeremy Corbyn would face another challenge to his leadership before an election.
The overriding lesson of the whole Brexit debacle is this: classes, both of the exploiters and exploited, have to fight to construct a political organisation capable of accurately expressing their class interests. In British politics, on the Brexit issue at least and for the moment, both the capitalist class and the working class lack such organisation. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, at least on this issue, has the potential to provide such leadership. But to do so it must not allow its right wing, always more loyal to the political establishment than to its working-class base, to drive the party to rescue the British capitalist class when it’s own political party is incapable of doing so.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
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