Archive | July, 2016

Representative Democracy, Populism and Technocracy

31 Jul

On TCM and elsewhere, we often use the terms “technocracy”, “populism”, and “(representative) democracy”, without necessarily explaining what these terms mean. It’s worth clarifying them now because it helps clarify the problematic nature of calls to invoke Article 50 immediately. In short, it is a populist demand that threatens to dissolve a democratic moment into a technocratic process.

Democracy denotes the rule of the demos – the people. In representative democracy, the people are sovereign and self-determining. However, it’s not assumed that the popular will can somehow directly translate itself into concrete political outcomes. Nor is society unified in its beliefs. A process of representation is required to concretise the popular will, and to mediate between individuals and groups and the actual process of governing. Political parties form to appeal to different social groups. The parties develop policy platforms, based on different worldviews, that seek to combine the interests of different constituents but also to influence their views. Democracy consists in the process of two-way dialogue between the people and their representatives, which gives specific content to the abstract notion of popular sovereignty.

By contrast, technocracy denotes the rule of technical experts – technocrats. It arises when issues that were once matters of political and ideological contestation get turned into technical questions, either because contestation becomes muted, or because issues are defined as so technically complicated that ordinary people cannot understand them. Technocracy is undemocratic because it removes decision-making from political institutions subject to popular influence. For technocrats, policy objectives are taken-for-granted. ideology and politics are dirty words and the only relevant question appears to be how to achieve  pre-given objectives with maximum efficiency – a question best left to technical experts who understand the intricacies of these things.

Obviously, European integration has been a highly technocratic process. It has converted matters previously the subject of political debate in national parliaments, between parties representing competing worldviews and social forces, into a set of technical matters to be resolved in private discussions among likeminded experts. Contemporary political parties across Europe are also increasingly technocratic entities. As ideological contestation between the parties has declined,  they have increasingly approached social, political and economic problems as technical issues requiring technical solutions. Becoming detached from the social forces they once represented, their policy platforms converge around promoting market efficiency.

Populism is a reaction against technocracy, or any form of elite rule that seems unresponsive to the popular will. Unlike representative democracy, populism does not recognise the multiplicity of societal interests requiring representation through parties. Populists appeal directly to “the people” en masse, mobilising them against “the elite”, and claim that the popular will can be channelled directly into political outcomes, most often through an individual “tribune” (Trump, Perón, Chavez, and so on). They do this, and mask real divisions among “the people”, by using what Ernesto Laclau calls “empty signifiers” – slogans that are so intrinsically meaningless that many people can load their very different grievances into them. For instance, “Make America Great Again!” is not a concrete policy platform, but a way of attracting support from people who are simply disaffected, for myriad and possibly contradictory reasons. Populism thus circumvents the process of dialogue and interest representation that gives substantive content to the popular will. It also weakens democratic accountability, because this very hollowness permits populist leaders enormous latitude to act arbitrarily, in the name of “the people”; anyone who opposes them is necessarily an “enemy of the people”. This is one reason why populist government is so often characterised by erratic, irrational policies that threaten individual liberty.

In the present context, “Invoke Article 50 Now!” is a populist demand. The slogan appeals to “the people” against “the elite” and the technocrats, who are assumed (not entirely baselessly) to wish to thwart the popular will. It also assumes that this will can somehow translate directly into a desired outcome. While it urges a concrete political step, it offers no other end except “leaving the EU”. That demand, like the Leave campaign’s “Take Back Control”, is itself devoid of substantive content. One can leave the EU in myriad ways, from “Lexit” to “Little Britain”, from maximum autonomy to “Brexit in name only”. The question of which will prevail does not seem to matter, nor does the process or strategy by which this is to be attained. At a recent public meeting, “Invoke Article 50 Now!” campaigners described such questions as “worrying about the paperwork”, “tiny details” and “minutiae”. Article 50 campaigners seem completely disinterested in the representative processes that are required to concretise the popular will for Brexit into a specific post-Brexit future.

The irony is that capitulating to their demand would swiftly convert a democratic process into a technocratic one, and sideline the people entirely. As we have explained, post-Article 50 negotiations will involve expert negotiators hammering out the technical details of Brexit on the basis of broad objectives defined by their political masters. If Article 50 is invoked tomorrow, given the lack of substantive demands for an alternative programme, the deal sought by Theresa May’s government will most likely be “Brexit in name only” – preserving much EU regulation, budget contributions and perhaps even, in the long term, freedom of movement, in exchange for access to the single market. Article 50 campaigners will likely call this a “fudge”. But it won’t be – Britain will have left the EU, and right now that is all these campaigners are actually demanding. In the absence of more substantive demands, it will be impossible to show that the government has actually betrayed the people.

The EU referendum result exposes the long-running crisis of representative democracy. Where it has been hollowed out in favour of technocracy, the gap between rulers and ruled leave people prey to populism. The solution to this crisis is not to embrace populism, but to rebuild representative democracy. Given four decades of rot, this is bound to be a slow, painful task. But the only way to restore accountable government and true popular sovereignty is to insist that political leaders represent our interests when governing the state. We can start by formulating concrete demands about the kind of society, economy and politics we want to attain through Brexit. But that is far harder than clinging to abstract notions of “democracy” containing no concrete political substance.

Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay

Changing the world doesn’t mean the end of the world

31 Jul

On Thursday 23 June a majority of the British people voted in a referendum to Leave the European Union.For a large minority of people Friday 24 was a ‘dark day’. That is understandable to an extent – they lost a very big vote.But there was something very exaggerated about the fear. That is not surprising: the referendum campaign was dominated by fear. People had said that if we left the EU, the economy would collapse, xenophobia – if not Fascism – would take over Britain, and international peace would be at risk. But none of that has happened.

Economic Apocalypse When?

One month on, the British economy has yet to collapse. There’s a long way to go, especially in working out how Britain will trade with the world from outside the EU.  And the economy has certainly wobbled in the past month, and a slip back into recession is predicted. But the economy has not melted down, nor will it. The markets bet on a Remain vote, and had to re-adjust. The pound fell in value, but it quickly settled about 9% down. That is a problem for British holidaymakers and some small companies, but it is good news for exporters. The FTSE 100 index is up 5%, while the domestically-focused FTSE 250 is down only 2%. Despite the UK losing its AAA debt rating, borrowing costs remain at an all-time low. British pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline told the voters not to vote Leave, but now has just announced £275 million in investment in the UK anyway.

The referendum should make us braver when it comes to politics. For decades, we have been told that ‘There Is No Alternative’ to policies that appease global market forces. Repeated recessions, from Thatcher through New Labour to Cameron, show that deliberately appeasing the markets does not lead to stability. Conversely, voting for a big change has not caused the economic sky to fall. People should now be emboldened to vote for how they want the economy to meet their needs, not to meet the mysterious and unknowable needs of the great god ‘Economy’ – as interpreted by its economist-priests.

Is Britain racist?

The imminent danger of Britain being taken over by right-wing racists was so terrifying for many leftists that they abandoned their criticism of the anti-democratic, elite, ‘neoliberal’ European Union and backed Remain instead. Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee even warned that a Leave vote would be ‘National socialism … in the making.’

But after Brexit, the Far Right has not taken over. If Nigel Farage is a new Home Counties Hitler, he is going a funny way about it – trying to admit defeat before the referendum results were in, and then resigning as party leader a week later. Boris Johnson, always a slightly unconvincing potential Fascist leader, clearly had no idea what to do once he won the referendum and dropped out of the Conservative leadership race shortly afterwards. The British National Party and Britain First are conspicuously absent. Our new Prime Minister is a Tory arch-Blairite who was on the Remain side.

There was a 20% spike in reported hate crimes after the referendum.  For some Remainers and middle-class intellectuals, this confirms their worst fears that Britain’s many racists have been unleashed by Brexit. One British journalist told an American newspaper that the white population of the UK is rotten all the way through with 1,000-year-old imperialist racism: ‘The suburbs dream of violence’. Another British intellectual wrote that ‘millions of our fellow citizens … have spent the last few decades privately muttering to themselves that Enoch had a point … There is a real darkness in this country, a xenophobic, racist sickness of heart’.

Racist abuse is terrible, inexcusable, and must be confronted and defeated. But these tasks require sober analysis to really understand the true extent of the problem – not hysterical exaggeration. If these writers were correct, we would not leave our front doors, never mind the EU.

Even if all 6,000 reported incidents of ‘hate crime’ were racist outages committed by individual Leave voters, that still leaves  17,404,742 Leave voters who have not conducted a hate crime, not to mention the other 29,095,259 eligible voters. Put differently, only 0.0001% of eligible voters have perpetrated a hate crime. Presenting the data this way may seem absurd, but there is a reason why the World Values Survey routinely finds Britain to be one of the most racially tolerate societies worldwide. Indeed, a striking aspect of the popular response to these incidents is that communities have quickly rallied around victims. A 20% spike in incidents is regrettable, but is relatively small compared to the surges in racist attacks that invariably follow terrorist atrocities. Anti-Muslim crimes in the US jumped 1,600% after 9/11; hate crimes in London increased 600% after 7/7; and anti-Muslim incidents in France jumped 281% after the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Like these attacks, the referendum has not created new racists out of thin air, but rather encouraged a small, hard-core minority to come out of the woodwork. Hysterical media reportage may even have exacerbated this by leading this minority to believe its racist actions are widely supported. Similarly, a Remain result would not have made these people vanish; indeed, it might equally have prompted them to vent their anger by attacking immigrants. It would have been ridiculous if Remain voters were blamed for that. Like Leave voters, they voted on whether to leave or stay in the EU, not on whether they supported racist abuse. If the only way to avoid racist violence is not holding a referendum at all, then we allow our democracy to be held hostage by a tiny minority of racists.

Britain is far from perfect. There is undoubtedly a small minority of racist bigots, and a much broader and more deeply entrenched problem of structural/ systemic racism. But despite Remainer commentary, we are not back in the 1970s, where fascists had to be fought on the streets of London and BME citizens or residents had to fear for their lives. Nor, despite a small, despicable number of people shouting “go home!” is there serious pressure to deport migrants. On the contrary: 84% of Britons (including 77% of Leave voters) support the right of existing EU residents to remain in the UK indefinitely. However much British society is concerned by mass immigration, it remains basically tolerant of immigrants as human beings.

World War III still seems some way off

The rulers of the world threatened the voters of Britain with an end to peace if they voted the wrong way in the referendum. The British people voted to Leave the EU over a month ago, and we are still waiting for Germany to invade Poland again.

The EU is not the only barrier between us and World War III. Europe is not constantly one vote away from a return to 1939. It is 2016. Europe is very different now. We are wealthier, more interdependent, less nationalist, no longer tied to rival colonial empires, and all heavily dependent on US domination for our security, that war among European states is unthinkable.

The UK is preparing to Leave the EU without having to declare war on Europe. Theresa May is unlikely to get the best deal for Britain by reviving the Queen’s claim to the French throne and sending the army over on the Eurostar. Instead, Britain is doing what modern rich countries do with other modern rich countries – talking, arguing, negotiating and making deals.

It’s not the end of the world

There’s still an enormous amount to be done to make sure Brexit comes off well. But the referendum has shown to the people of Britain and the world that democratic political change does not have to lead to economic chaos, racism, Fascism and war.

The world has survived Britain’s referendum vote. Hopefully it can show, even to disappointed Remain voters, that we can vote to change the world, without it meaning the end of the world.

James Aber

Invoke Article 50 Now? Be Careful What You Wish For

30 Jul

This is a follow-up to our earlier post, where we argued that invoking Article 50 immediately, as some are demanding, is a mistake.

A majority of voters in the referendum issued a clear instruction: “leave the EU”. The problem, however, is that “leaving the EU” could mean anything from Little Englander isolationism to “Brexit in name only”, retaining EU regulation, budget contributions and freedom of movement without formal EU membership. There is no clarity on what “leave the EU” actually means because the referendum was a democratic moment, not a democratic movement. Just as Remainers offered no positive vision of the EU, so Leave campaigners failed to offer a compelling, detailed vision of a post-Brexit Britain, relying instead on fearmongering and dubious spending commitments. They have not emerged as a triumphant, coherent force leading Britain towards a clearly specified destination; instead, they promptly imploded.

This matters because, when Article 50 is invoked, someone must instruct Britain’s negotiators what to actually bargain for. This is how international negotiations work: political leaders instruct technocrats on the broad objectives and “red lines”, then leave them to work out the details. At present, the task of defining Britain’s objectives falls entirely to an unelected prime minister and a handful of Tory ministers.

If Article 50 were to be invoked tomorrow, as some demand, what would their instructions be? Given the lack of any coherent plan among Leavers, one possibility is that we blunder in with poorly defined or impossible objectives, emerging with an extremely poor deal. Otherwise, given the risk aversion and pro-EU sentiment of the British establishment, the default position is likely to be one that safeguards as much of the status quo as possible. It is also likely to be strongly influenced by powerful corporate interests like the financial sector. They understand that everything is potentially up for grabs and have already begun lobbying government to ensure their interests shape Britain’s negotiating strategy. The risk, then, is an outcome of “Brexit in name only” – which is not what a majority of Leave voters wanted.

Some nonetheless suggest that we could mobilise to influence this process once it has begun. This betrays ignorance of the Article 50 process and the realpolitik of international negotiations. Firstly, when Article 50 is invoked, a two-year clock starts ticking down: after that, Britain is out. Britain’s bargaining power will diminish with every day that passes, because of the necessity of reaching a deal before that deadline to avoid the economic chaos that would otherwise result. If the government radically changes its negotiating objectives mid-way through, that halves the time available, vastly reducing Britain’s leverage. Any government would strenuously avoid this, making massive popular mobilisation necessary to force its hand.

Secondly, unless tremendous popular pressure is brought to bear to change the negotiating format, which seems unlikely, the Brexit talks will be virtually impervious to popular control and accountability. Brexit minister David Davis will not sit around a table with his counterparts from the 27 other member-states, each representing their own publics – that is not how EU negotiations work. Instead, British technocrats – their instructions in hand – will negotiate with EU technocrats with their own instructions, in secret, with no democratic oversight. Davis could only be held to account and prevented from “fudging” the outcome if there existed a clearly defined set of objectives against which the public could judge him. Currently, no such objectives exist.

Thirdly, if Article 50 were invoked tomorrow, the EU negotiating team would likely be led by Eurocrats hostile to British interests. The EU itself is in some disarray following the vote, but a spiteful faction of committed federalists – led by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, EU parliamentarians like Guy Verhofstadt – is already demanding that Britain be “punished” to deter further defections. The Commission and the Council are currently struggling over who gets to lead the negotiations, with Juncker pre-emptorily appointing Michel Barnier as chief negotiator. But importantly, they are united in demanding that Article 50 be invoked without delay – because this empowers them. This faction wants to shore up the EU project, and it lives and dies by the EU rulebook – which states that Britain must first exit the EU, and only then may negotiate a new trade deal. If this faction dominates proceedings, Britain will find it much harder to get a good deal.

Conversely, by delaying Article 50, May buys time to court the leaders of member-states, many of whom are more pragmatic. They recognise their own economic interests are best served by pragmatism and parallel deals, not spite and strict rule adherence. Britain’s best hope for a good deal is that these political leaders are persuaded to instruct the EU negotiating team to follow these national interests, not their own priorities. Inter-state consultations also allow Britain to develop a more realistic approach and find ways to leverage divisions among member-states to its own advantage.

Delaying Article 50 categorically does not mean that citizens should simply get back in their box, and leave matters to the experts. On the contrary, it is essential to harness and expand the democratic moment. The sense of energy and potential generated by the referendum needs to be channelled into developing concrete demands for the Brexit negotiations and insisting that political leaders represent our interests. This is not a step back from a democratic demand, but a step forward to make more, and more concrete, demands.

This is difficult precisely because of what the EU has always represented and entrenched: the longstanding crisis of representative democracy. Ideally, political leaders would now engage the public in concrete discussions of what they want post-Brexit Britain to look like, through grassroots organisations, civic associations, mass meetings and so on. Ideally, parties would turn these demands into concrete platforms and allow the public to vote on them, with a general election determining who leads the Brexit talks and on what terms. This only seems unlikely because representative institutions have crumbled over the last three decades. Parties have detached from their social bases and retreated into the state. Political elites develop policy platforms not by consulting the people they supposedly represent, but through consulting one another, not least through the EU.

This decay is not something easily reversed – but it is essential to try. Citizens should be demanding that parties return to their basic function of representing social groups’ interests. They should also be using every social, political, civic and economic organisation at their disposal to make concrete demands of the government. Universities, hi-tech businesses and the City of London are already doing this – citizens must follow suit.

A good example of a concrete popular demand was the petition demanding that EU nationals in Britain would have their residency rights protected. Despite anti-immigration sentiment, according to opinion polls, 84% of the public back this position, and this has quickly forced the government to include this as a negotiating principle.

This process of organising, formulating demands and insisting that the government represent our interests cannot be avoided if the people are to have any influence over the Brexit negotiations. It would be necessary if Article 50 were invoked tomorrow, or next year, and there is no reason think it would be any easier under either scenario. A short delay in invoking it buys time for the uphill struggle of organising. It prevents the initiative passing immediately to the technocrats on either side, who would likely define objectives conservatively and operate with minimal popular oversight. The only way to hold the British government accountable for the outcome is for the public to do everything it can to shape the UK’s negotiating objectives, then hold their feet firmly to the fire.

This post is based on remarks by Lee Jones at the Invoke Democracy Now meeting in Brixton on 28 June.

Will the UK Actually Leave the EU?

30 Jul

A conspiratorial view is circulating among some Leavers, whereby UK prime minister Theresa May is deliberately delaying invoking Article 50 – perhaps indefinitely – in order to achieve her secret goal of never actually leaving the EU, or achieve some sort of ‘fudge’.

This cynicism is understandable. There was a huge anti-democratic backlash after the referendum. The EU and its member-governments have a habit of re-running referenda whose results they don’t like. The SNP wants to veto Brexit. Much of the Labour party would like a second referendum. There is legal action pending in the high court seeking to put the decision on invoking Article 50 into the hands of our predominantly pro-EU parliamentarians. And May herself, of course, was a Remainer.

But the idea that the government will never invoke Article 50 ignores a range of facts.

Theresa May says “Brexit means Brexit” because 60% of Tory voters opted for Brexit, against the will of their own party leader. The referendum was called partly to staunch the haemorrhaging of Tory voters to UKIP. Failing to invoke Article 50 would be electoral suicide. It was also called to manage Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers who, if betrayed now, could bring down May’s government, given its slim parliamentary majority. The idea that there is no pressure on May, that she can do as she pleases, is absurd.

The referendum outcome is also the only democratic mandate that May claims for her administration. The last time a prime minister took office without a general election – when Gordon Brown succeeded Tony Blair in 2007 – the Tories denounced it as undemocratic and demanded a general election. The only way the Tories can fend off these demands now is to appeal to the will of the people as expressed in the referendum.

The Scottish question is also unlikely to delay departure indefinitely. It is absurd to suggest that 1.66m Scottish Remainers should be able to override the UK’s 17.4m Leave voters. The SNP’s ultimate trump card is a second independence referendum. However, Scotland’s economic prospects outside of Britain – particularly one outside the EU – are even worse now than in 2014, and this question proved decisive then. The SNP has no interest in calling a vote they would probably lose. May is not bowing to SNP sabre-rattling – she is trying to find a way to appease Scottish voters and contain the UK’s constitutional crisis.

Nor is it likely that the eventual deal on Brexit would be put to a second referendum, enabling Brexit to be overturned. Once Article 50 is invoked, the UK will be on an irreversible two-year countdown to departure; to get back into the EU, the UK would have to reapply from scratch. Voting down the deal would not salvage Britain’s EU membership, it would only plunge the country into deeper uncertainty.

Finally, what lends this whole notion a truly conspiratorial air is the implication that all of May’s speeches, foreign trips, domestic appointments and institutional reordering are part of an expensive and elaborate charade to mask her true intentions.

The greater risk now is not that the government will not invoke Article 50 at some point. It is that it will define the objectives of the subsequent negotiations in a way that essentially maintains the status quo. The British establishment is overwhelmingly pro-EU and favours stability above all else. Powerful business interests are already lobbying the government to maintain as much of the existing framework as possible. If these groups are permitted to define the terms of the negotiations, the real risk is not never leaving the EU, but rather “Brexit in name only”, an EU-lite where vast areas of policymaking remain insulated from democratic control. If this happens, the opportunity of the current democratic moment will be squandered, with Leave voters becoming even more cynical about and disillusioned with democracy.

Lee Jones

Article 50 is a trap… democracy needs open political negotiations

21 Jul

In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, there was a vocal anti-democratic backlash, with stunned Remainers openly discussing how to overturn the referendum and thwart the majority’s will. We insisted then on TCM that popular sovereignty must be respected and, to prevent any elite backsliding, recommended invoking Article 50 promptly. A campaign has also emerged demanding ‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’.

But as the dust settles, a different picture is emerging. In current circumstances calling for the immediate triggering of Article 50 is a mistake. It ignores the origins and purposes of this legal instrument and it risks undermining representative democracy in favour of a dangerous combination of populism and technocracy.

It is true that some academic Remainers are still scheming to frustrate the result, and lawyers are taking the government to court in an effort to create new political obstacles to triggering Article 50. The Scottish National Party is also still threatening to ‘veto’ Brexit.  However, most British politicians appear to realise that ignoring the referendum is not an option. We now have a prime minister who pledges that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, and a Eurosceptic team of ministers overseeing the Brexit process. Invoking Article 50 is being delayed not to resist Brexit, but to buy time to formulate a negotiating strategy, including one that appeases the Scots. The looming question is not whether Brexit means Brexit, but what Brexit actually means: what sort of settlement will the UK pursue and get?  Invoking Article 50 quickly can only reduce the influence of the British electorate over the answer to that question.

Article 50 of the EU’s treaties was not written with the interests of an exiting member state in mind. Quite the contrary. The authors of the Lisbon Treaty, including the die-hard British federalist, Andrew Duff (ex-Liberal Democrat MEP), were very clear that the article would make exit as difficult and as unpleasant as possible for any member state who – god forbid – should exercise its democratic right to leave the EU. It is no wonder that those calling for the triggering of article 50 as soon as possible often find themselves in bed with the likes of Martin Schultz, President of the European Parliament, and Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission.

The effect of triggering article 50 is very clear. Negotiations are taken away from the open space of national and European political debate, which is where Brexit and the future of the UK/EU relationship currently sits, and relocated behind the firmly closed doors of the European Council and the European Commission. On the EU side, Donald Tusk (President of the European Council) and Frans Timmermans (Vice-President of the European Commission) are the two likely figures who will head up the negotiations for the EU. On the UK side, a team of ‘Brexperts’ will be put together under the steer of someone like David Davis. The result will be much like David Cameron’s negotiations with the European Council and the European Commission at the end of last year: entirely secret, with the renegotiation package finally pulled out of the hat and presented as a fait accompli to a rightly sceptical British public.

Without any doubt, article 50 transforms negotiations between elected representatives, that are ad hoc and outside of the EU’s legal framework, into a series of private discussions between nominated experts on the specific terms of the UK’s relationship with the EU as a  future non-member state. This is not a coincidence, this was the intention of the article and this is how the EU has always functioned.

The UK government would be wrong to use the uncertainty of being outside of the article 50 framework to ride back on the result of the referendum and any sign of it doing so should be very firmly resisted.

But it is equally wrong to seek to push the UK government into the legal and technocratic straightjacket of article 50. Defending representative democracy means holding our current representatives to account and demanding that we as citizens can follow as closely as possible the discussions being currently held between May, Merkel, Hollande and others. This should not only be the right of UK citizens but of all the citizens of the other 27 EU member states. These are discussions about the UK’s new relationship with the EU, conducted by elected politicians accountable to their domestic publics. Until there is a clear sense of what both sides want as a post-Brexit deal for the EU and the rest of the EU, negotiations should remain like this: as open and directly political as possible.

Calling to trigger article 50 now is to squeeze out representative democracy. What is left is a populist celebration of the ‘people’ that calls for the beginning of a technocratic negotiation process that transforms politics into legal wrangling in the long standing tradition of the EU.

Chris Bickerton

Lee Jones

Peter Ramsay

Should the People Rule? An Exchange

19 Jul

In a guest post TCM reader Chris Gilligan makes a number of criticisms of our responses to the Brexit vote from a Marxist perspective. Following Chris’s post we have added a reply in which we clarify our critique of the politics of Brexit and anti-Brexit.

Popular sovereignty undermines tyranny AND internationalism

The vote for the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU) has shaken up UK politics. It is an important moment in UK politics, and beyond. People around the world are watching with interest. The vote shows that, when an opportunity is provided, ordinary working people are able to challenge the status quo. This has been both one of the strengths and one of the weaknesses of the Referendum. It is a strength because it demonstrates to people who want progressive social change that the working-class is not a spent force. It is a weakness because this exercise of the will of the people was not created by the working-class. The Referendum happened as a result of internal divisions within the Conservative Party, and was precipitated by the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

The strong Leave vote in marginalised working-class areas of England and Wales demonstrate that the Labour Party is a spent force, a fact that had already been revealed by the collapse of the Labour Party in its traditional heartlands in Scotland. Unlike in Scotland, however, there is no political party that looks like drawing in disaffected Labour voters in any sizeable numbers. Labour may be able to hold on by its finger-tips under a Corbyn leadership, but this will be due to a lack of alternatives, rather than due to popular support for Corbyn. In Scotland there are already signs that working-class voters are beginning to mistrust the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). In Scotland the disaffection from the SNP may set in faster than it did with Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain (the Leave vote, however, may help to resuscitate the laughable idea that the SNP are an opposition to the establishment).

The Leave vote demonstrates the gulf between the ruling-class and the working-class. This gulf is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in the claims, made by disgruntled supporters of the official Remain campaign, that working-class Leave voters are racist and xenophobic. This contempt for the white working-class, the assumption that they are  narrow-minded bigots, is shared by the leaders of both the official Leave and official Remain campaigns. Both sides think that the working-class are driven by base instincts. The official Leave campaign cynically sought to harness anti-immigration sentiment to gain support for Brexit. When the Remain campaign lost, its leaders and cheerleaders assumed that Leave won because of a successful appeal to working-class xenophobia. Neither side listened to, or tried to understand, what is behind the concerns that working-class people are articulating.

The majority of Remain voters were also working-class people, many of them with friends and family who voted Leave. The gulf between the ruling-class and the working-class is not solely felt and expressed by Leave voters. It is also evident amongst working-class Remain voters. In Scotland there was a significant Remain vote in those working-class areas where the Labour Party vote collapsed. This was not because of faith in the SNP, or the EU, but because of suspicion of what was viewed as the pro-market right-wing leadership of the Leave vote. This concern about the motivations of the likes of Nigel Farage (UKIP), Boris Johnston (Cons) and Michael Gove (Cons), was shared by many working-class Remain voters in England and Wales.

The nature of the Referendum, a vote to Remain or Leave the EU, obscured rather than revealed the extent of working-class political disaffection. Presenting the post vote issue as one of ‘which side are you on now, democracy [Leave] or slide to tyranny [Remain]’ involves drawing the battle lines in the wrong place. The key issue at stake is not ‘whether popular sovereignty and democracy still have any meaning in Britain’. The turnout and the result in the Referendum clearly shows that both are meaningful to working-class people. The key issue is how to develop, and give organisational expression to, independent working-class politics. It is true, as Ramsay and Jones incisively point out, that there are various attempts to undermine the outcome of the Referendum. It is also, however, the case that the final outcome will be a fudge, no matter when Article 50 is invoked. The failure to invoke Article 50, and the resignation of Cameron are symptomatic of the exhaustion of the political class, they are not it’s causes.

Working-class Leave voters will be frustrated with the final outcome of the Referendum, whatever shape this takes, because the underlying issue is not whether the UK is in the EU or not. The underlying issue, and the positive appeal of the Leave campaign, was the desire to ‘take back control’. The working-class, however, will not be able to take control unless they do it for themselves.

Invigorating popular sovereignty would be preferable to the ‘gradual decay towards real tyranny’. A democratic UK, governed through popular sovereignty, would be a step forward from our current technocratic system of governance. The road to popular sovereignty, however, leads to a cul-de-sac for the working-class. Popular sovereignty is a liberal concept, not a Marxist one. Popular sovereignty must necessarily be exercised within a national shell. Popular sovereignty involves constituting a political community that draws an ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction in national terms, not in class terms. I agree, as Chris Bickerton, Phillip Cunliffe, Alex Gourevitch, Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay put it, that a ‘real internationalist project is possible but that means breaking with both the EU and the comforting certainties of the past’.One clear way of helping to develop a real internationalist project is to make the demand for open borders now. I agree with Peter Ramsay that this is a difficult argument to make and win, but as he also points out ‘it is the only real basis upon which the ordinary citizens of Europe could make common cause with the rest of humanity and begin to take control of our societies from our corrupt and exhausted elites’.

Popular sovereignty is also a barrier to independent working-class politics because it does not directly confront the issue of economics. Prioritising popular sovereignty involves either perpetuating the separation of politics and economics and focusing on politics alone, or it suggests that economics is a matter that can be tackled through policy changes in parliament. Popular sovereignty will not bring working-class control because capitalism as a social system is based on the extraction of unpaid labour at the point of production. Working-class control is inseparable from the struggle against alienated labour. Working-class control must involve control of the means by which society materially reproduces itself, not just control of the levers of political power. Ultimately contemporary politics is confused and confusing because it rests on an irrational social system. As long as we allow forces outside of human control – the market – to govern society, we can never be self-governing.

Most working-class people recognise that capitalism is not working for them. They do, and will continue to, struggle against their bosses in myriad forms. They do so, however, without necessarily understanding how capitalism operates at a systemic level or what is required to overcome it. This does not mean that the working-class need to have their consciousness raised. They understand, better than any intellectual, how capitalism operates at an everyday level. They recognise, better than any paternalist do-gooder, the brutality and irrationality of capitalism as a social system. The structural location of the working-class, as wage-labourers, means that the working-class are instinctively anti-capitalist. The working-class are not defeated. The working-class are, as a class, lacking in political clarity. It is not just the working-class who suffer from this problem. It is endemic across the globe. This lack of clarity is evident in the EU Referendum, in the responses to austerity, in the rise of Jihadist terrorism, and in the anti-terrorist response.

Political clarity, however, is not a purely intellectual problem. It is not just a matter for theorists, it is also a practical matter. It is an issue of political practice. We are at a new conjuncture. We are living through the decay of the old political system of state-welfarist parliamentary democracy in Europe and the rest of the Western world. The new politics is in the process of becoming. These circumstances provide a crucially important opportunity to develop an independent working-class outlook – free from the influence of the state regulated capitalist politics of Labourism and Stalinism. We do not need to start from scratch, or to take a stages approach of recreating liberal democracy first and then developing working-class politics.

We need to ask how the working-class desire to take control can be realised, and we need to ask what role the Left played in frustrating that desire in the past. We need to ask searching questions of our own tradition, not just critique the Labour and Stalinist Left. We should not abandon Marx in favour of pre-Hegelian Enlightenment thought. We should take the highest development of working-class politics as our starting point.

Chris Gilligan


With Sober Senses…A Reply to Chris Gilligan

We agree with Chris Gilligan that the real question revealed by the referendum is less the EU itself and more the wider question of how people get some control over the system they find themselves in. As we have consistently argued, the EU is just one manifestation of the decline of representative politics and the exclusion of the mass of working people from political life.

Where we disagree is on the specific questions of the significance of popular sovereignty and of class politics. Let’s start with popular sovereignty.

The EU is a political mechanism through which governments derive authority from their relationships with other European governments rather than through their relations with their own citizens at home. Although the EU itself didn’t figure much in the referendum campaign, the majority of the electorate nevertheless got it right when they expressed their objections to losing influence in Britain by voting to Leave the EU. Popular sovereignty was therefore at the heart of the referendum. By leaving the EU the political class will lose an alternative source of authority to the people, an external source of authority that allowed it to function despite its attenuated relationship with British citizens. This in itself is not going to turn Britain into democratic paradise. It is, however, a significant gain for the idea that the state’s authority is ultimately grounded in the consent of the people.

For Gilligan, our emphasis on popular sovereignty is mistaken for two reasons. First, ‘The road to popular sovereignty…leads to a cul-de-sac for the working-class’ because ‘popular sovereignty must necessarily be exercised within a national shell. Popular sovereignty involves constituting a political community that draws an ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction in national terms, not in class terms.’

Here, Gilligan mistakes a contingent, historical relationship between popular sovereignty and nationalism for a necessary and logical relation between the two. Popular sovereignty often has been associated with national distinctions in the past, since it was the imagined historical continuity of ‘the nation’ that gave some political substance to the idea of ‘the people’. But the idea of the people does not necessarily constitute a political community in national terms. There is no necessary connection between the people and national identity.

Logically, the ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction in the idea of popular sovereignty is a distinction between the state and the collectivity of individuals that the state rules over, and from which the state derives its authority. The communities ruled by modern states have, in the past, been imagined as national communities. But we can reimagine ‘the people’ differently if we wish: not as a unified community inherited from a parochial, ancestral past but as a disputatious political gathering of human individuals authorizing a state that reaches out to a universal human future. Reimagining the people in this way is a key challenge that is thrown up by contemporary politics in general, and the politics of Brexit in particular, because we agree with Gilligan that freedom of movement is essential if working people are ever truly to gain control over the societies in which they live.

Gilligan’s second reason for discounting popular sovereignty is because ‘Prioritising popular sovereignty involves either perpetuating the separation of politics and economics and focusing on politics alone, or it suggests that economics is a matter that can be tackled through policy changes in parliament.’ In the final analysis, so the argument goes, the liberation of working people is liberation from wage slavery, the separation of politics and economics is, therefore, a barrier rather than a way forward.

There are a number of problems with this analysis.

“First it’s not clear why popular sovereignty necessarily involves a separation of politics and economics. On the contrary, as one Scottish trade unionist famously put it: ‘Government by the people for the people becomes meaningless unless it includes major economic decision-making by the people for the people.’ Or, as an American socialist once put it, ‘there is to be a people in industry, as in government.’ Their point is that once the principle of popular sovereignty is introduced it becomes hard to justify arbitrary rule wherever it is found – in the state, the workplace, or the family. Once it is accepted that the authority of the state derives from the people, why not the authority exercised in productive activity too? The logical tendency of the principle of popular sovereignty is to overrun the boundaries of political relations narrowly conceived. When arguing that popular sovereignty necessarily separates politics and economics and applies to politics only, Gilligan concedes too much. He implicitly accepts the twentieth century efforts to dilute the meaning of democracy and to create limits to the natural tendency of the demand for self-government.”

Second, it does not follow that major economic decision-making by the people for the people could only be done by a parliament like Britain’s. At TCM we have not sought to defend the British constitution or the Westminster model of government. We have sought to defend the principle that the state’s authority should proceed from the people, via the general form of representative democracy. That is the principle that was undermined by the EU and by Remainer attempts to frustrate the referendum decision. Despite the British constitution’s many defects, it is superior to the EU in this respect. However, that does not imply that we are proposing what Gilligan calls a ‘staged approach of recreating liberal democracy first and then developing working-class politics’. The principles of popular sovereignty and democracy are not logically dependent on some connection to liberalism any more than they are to the nation.

Third, it is Gilligan’s own analysis that risks the separation of politics and economics. The question that was posed by the referendum was not whether or how to abolish wage slavery but whether the authority of the state should derive from the people. To insist that this latter question does not matter because in itself it does not address the problems of wage slavery and alienated labour is to separate politics and economics in a way that privileges the economic problem at the expense of the political. It is precisely because the abolition of wage slavery is necessarily a political process that the question of the authority of the state cannot be dismissed as a merely liberal concern. Gilligan insists that ‘Popular sovereignty will not bring working-class control because capitalism as a social system is based on the extraction of unpaid labour at the point of production.’ He is right that, in itself, popular sovereignty does not automatically put the workers in control of the economy or abolish wage labour. But without the political authority of the people being brought to bear, these goals can never be achieved.

Gilligan’s Marxism therefore evades the central questions that are posed by the referendum, even for those who would achieve Marxist ends. Gilligan does this in the name of class politics. He rightly notices that many working class voters quite deliberately took their opportunity in the referendum to deliver a powerful rebuke to the political class. However, he reads far too much into that spontaneous protest. He claims that it shows that ‘The working-class are not defeated.’ In reality, at best, the referendum shows that, given an opportunity created by divisions on the right to deliver a protest, working class voters have not entirely given up on politics. That is not enough to establish that the working class is back as a political force that is self-conscious of its own distinct interests as a class. If anything, the post-referendum leadership struggles within the two leading parties are proof of just how unthreatening the working class really is. The parties’ turn inwards created a serious political vacuum for a few weeks. Any halfway decent organization of the working class could have seized on this moment. But not even a spectre haunted the proceedings. Instead, the parties had the luxury of cannibalizing themselves in the absence of a real social threat to their rule.

For more than a quarter of a century the European working class has had almost no impact or influence on political life, as a class. The hollowed out remnants of its unions and political parties remain. But they long since ceased to represent the political interests of workers as a social class. Indeed, it is this political reality that underlies the nature of the European Union and the political problem that it seeks to manage. The final political defeats of the labour movements of Western Europe led to the rapid decline of representative politics as such. Left wing parties lost members and with the decline of the left, the political mobilization of traditional conservatives also lost its rationale. Ordinary citizens retreated into private life; politics retreated into the state. It is precisely this decline that led European politicians to seek an alternative source of authority in the EU institutions. The politics of the EU and of Brexit are themselves an expression of the political absence of the working class. The protest vote against the effects of this absence, and the disaffection it reveals, does not change that.

If we are to address the problems created by industrial decline, alienation and wage slavery, then we will first have to face the world as it is, with sober senses. The political crisis engendered by the Leave vote does not indicate the return of the working class as a political force. But it does dramatically expose the void in democratic politics. If many citizens despair of party politics they have nevertheless not retreated entirely into political apathy. Their rejection of the ‘post-democratic’ style of contemporary government opens up an opportunity to clarify and argue for a democratic, internationalist perspective through which the mass of ordinary citizens could begin to take control of public life. At TCM we have tried to distinguish such a democratic internationalist perspective from more well established and influential currents: in particular from the liberal left’s attachment to the thin technocratic cosmopolitanism of market integration, but also here from the Marxist left’s nostalgia for the language of class struggle, a language that, for the present at least, has no referent. This ambition may not sound like much. But no movement that is capable of addressing the current political impasse will emerge unless we can develop a perspective that can conceive of collective self-government arising from the political conditions of the present.


Peter Ramsay

Alex Gourevitch



The Kip of Reason Produces Monsters

14 Jul

Theresa May’s appointment as prime minister finally gives the lie to a key claim made by many on the left. For months left-wingers have been warning that a vote to Leave the EU would be a vote for a hardline right-wing government of Eurosceptic neoliberals led by Boris Johnson. The fear of a resurgent right was used to justify refusing to join in the challenge to the anti-democratic EU that was, as a result led by the political right. It turns out, however, that the left has been conjuring up a spectre that had no substantial political existence.

Right-wing Eurosceptics were able to take advantage of the unpopularity of the political class during the referendum campaign, but their victory only exposed the incoherence and unpopularity of their own ideas. UKIP leader Nigel Farage quickly resigned. The opportunist Johnson was caught out by an unexpected victory largely delivered by voters opposed to the open labour market policies that he supports. Having knifed Johnson, Michael Gove, the bête noir of the teaching unions, was abandoned by Tory Brexiteers and eliminated from the ballot. Right-wing Christian Stephen Crabb fell to a classic Tory sex scandal. Andrea Leadsom’s blustering social conservativism – emphasising her opposition to gay marriage and her status as a mother – was roundly condemned by many Tories, forcing her to drop out.

Less than three weeks after the referendum, the Eurosceptic right has imploded, handing the prime ministership to May, an arch Tory modernizer, pragmatist and Remainer. May’s political stance is less neoliberal ideologue, more New Labour authoritarian. She combines a solid record of repressive law-making as Home Secretary (expanding the drugs laws and the Prevent strategy, cracking down on immigration) with strongly centrist One Nation posturing.

As we have pointed out before, the left wrongly predicted this outcome, and is unable to exploit the right’s political incoherence, because leftists have been the most passionate believers in the right’s political strength. By the same token, the left fails to recognise its own victory in the culture wars. Ideologically, all of the pro-business mainstream parties have taken up the ideas of what was once derided as the ‘loony left’ – equal opportunities, anti-racism, gay rights – and adapted them to the needs of business. Faced with the triumph of its own cultural preferences, the left has been forced to invent an influential, hard-line Conservative right that has little real existence in Britain.

What of UKIP? Certainly it seems to have channeled growing popular resentment about immigration, fuelling claims of widespread xenophobia or racism. Doubtless, its anti-immigration populism has been central to its growing support among the working classes, broadening its based beyond the Home Counties Tories disgruntled by the Conservatives’ Blairite revolution. There is now a significant risk that UKIP may displace Labour in some northern, working-class constituencies.

But this does not reflect UKIP’s own inner strength as a party. Organisationally, UKIP is a mess, dominated by a leader who keeps resigning and leading lights who are often exposed as embarrassingly unprofessional and eccentric. Having won the referendum, Farage resigned this time using language that strongly suggested that he thought UKIP’s work was done. UKIP is also in bad financial shape, having received more money from the state than from any private donor.

UKIP’s potential, such as it is, comes from the many working-class voters who feel the country, the government and their own lives are out of their control. The right’s advantage here is one bequeathed to it by the left. Research shows that UKIP’s working-class supporters are the ‘left behind’: skilled or semi-skilled workers sidelined by neoliberal policies and abandoned by New Labour as it triangulated towards the swing voters of ‘middle England’. UKIP has simply stepped into this vacuum, politicising immigration as a cheap way to gain support.

The left is deeply confused over how to respond to this. Pragmatists insist on the need to address voters’ ‘valid concerns’. This ‘strategy’ simply extends the left’s pandering to anti-immigration sentiment, which – if anything – has only fuelled UKIP’s rise. Ideologically, it concedes that the problems voters face really are caused by immigration – not by the hollowing out of the economy, collapsing provision of social goods like housing, and declining living standards. Accordingly, it entirely evades these real problems, failing to devise any solutions to them. Jeremy Corbyn is practically alone in insisting there can be no upper limit to immigration and that the problems of working people result from decades of neoliberal policy.  However Corbyn has up to this point yoked his pro-immigration stance to support for the European Union that voters have rejected, the same European Union whose immigration controls are leading to the deaths of thousands of Africans and Asians in the Mediterranean.

Part of this disarray surely reflects confusion over the sources of anti-immigration sentiment. Many can see it as nothing more than racism or xenophobia. However, in an opinion poll following the referendum, just 16% thought that EU citizens currently resident in the UK should be told to leave, indicating that deep hostility to immigrants as such has limited appeal. Doubtless a hard-core of this minority is motivated by racism. However, there are plainly other causes of hostility to immigration. One is the experience of having little capacity to defend your wages and working conditions in circumstances where foreign workers may be willing to undercut you. Another is the mainstream green idea that Britain is a small, overcrowded island with limited resources. This creates the groundless impression of a limited economic ‘pie’ being shared with growing numbers of people – groundless because that pie has never been bigger, yet it is increasingly gobbled up by a dominant oligarchy. The left’s failure effectively to politicise these issues in an anti-capitalist direction is what has allowed UKIP to exploit them.

Divisions and prejudices remain among the population, but they are not what they used to be. One idea that is very much a minority taste is the old racist nationalism: that the white British are superior to other ethnic groups by virtue of our racial makeup and imperial greatness. This is an idea initially created but long since abandoned by our rulers. Despite the claims of many leftists, it is an idea as remote to most white British people today as the proposition that a woman’s place is in the home. It is so archaic that even UKIP has the good sense not to espouse it. UKIP certainly has its share of racist cranks. But its migration spokesman is of mixed Irish, Jewish and black American heritage. Its foreign policy is opposed to Britain’s warmongering overseas. This is another unacknowledged cultural victory of the left.

The political grip of the old patriotic patriarchal conservative traditions died out a generation ago when Margaret Thatcher’s return to ‘Victorian values’ came to nothing. The neoliberal worship of markets lost what limited appeal it had with the crash of 2008. The exaggeration of the influence of these clapped-out ideas indicates that much of the left is every bit as nostalgic as the Eurosceptic right, still fighting battles that ended long ago. In its reverie, the left dreams up monsters while Theresa May gets on with repairing the damage done by the Eurosceptics to the political class’s already limited authority.


James Aber

Peter Ramsay

Brexit and the fair weather democrats

7 Jul

Of the various attempts to delegitimize the Brexit referendum, one of the most opportunistic is the argument that the decision should be voided or ignored on democratic grounds. A variety of commentators have hidden their contempt for the public by temporarily donning the mantle of democracy, not out of any principled and consistent commitment to popular sovereignty, but instead for the purposes of dismissing the will of the majority. These arguments are problematic because they appear to recognize the principle of democratic legitimacy, only to conclude or imply that those without such legitimacy ought to make decisions instead.

Take, for instance, the well-known Harvard economist Ken Rogoff. Writing about the British referendum in Project Syndicate, Rogoff claims “this isn’t democracy; it is Russian roulette for republics. A decision of enormous consequence…has been made without appropriate checks and balances.” Rogoff gives a list of unconnected reasons as to why the referendum was undemocratic, “Does the vote have to be repeated after a year to be sure? No. Does a majority in Parliament have to support Brexit? Apparently not. Did the UK’s population really know what they were voting on? Absolutely not… The idea that somehow any decision reached anytime by majority rule is necessarily “democratic” is a perversion of the term… The greater and more lasting the decision, the higher the hurdles. That’s why enacting, say, a constitutional amendment generally requires clearing far higher hurdles than passing a spending bill.” Rogoff is representative of a trend in commentary because he packs a number of widely heard arguments in one article.

Consider the argument that the referendum isn’t properly democratic because decisions of enormous consequence should have a higher hurdle than majority rule. This is not an argument that pro-EU intellectuals made prior to the referendum, nor when Parliament voted overwhelmingly to hold the referendum, nor in those instances when simple majorities were sufficient to integrate or expand the EU. For instance, France ratified the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 by a slim 51.1% majority, Denmark passed a qualified Maastricht in 1993 with 56.8%, and Finland, Sweden and Norway passed enlargement referenda in 1994 with 56.9%, 52.8% and 52.2% majorities respectively. It is hard to find anyone looking back and arguing that those were democratically invalid. Nor is it likely these objections would have been raised had the UK voted Remain.

Moreover, this “choice of enormous consequences” objection against majority rule is not made in the case of, say, war. Would Rogoff like the war power to depend upon referendum-based super-majorities? A referendum taken in two consecutive years? The questions answer themselves because they are no more serious than the stated interest in democratic procedures.

How to explain this inconsistent appeal to democratic principles? The most reasonable interpretation is that those who accept Rogoff’s reasoning have a problem with majorities when they return a verdict they don’t like. The interest in supermajorities betrays a desire to defend the status quo against change. In the process, they reduce majorities to something like a stage army, bequeathing authority on institutions fundamentally hostile to the principle of democratic legitimacy. But whenever the people articulate an antagonistic will, a will inconsistent with the preferences of national elites, Rogoff and company decide the people don’t really exist.

Another variety of the democratic argument against democracy appears when some claim that the majority expressed no will at all. This was an argument expressed even before the referendum, when some, like  Jonathan Portes [see correction],* argued that the vote did not allow the voters to express their true preferences. When presented with a binary choice of ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain,’ the people had no opportunity to articulate what they really wanted. On that view, some people wanted to Leave and negotiate bilateral treaties, some wanted to Leave but retain the preferential trade agreements associated with membership in the European Economic Association, and some wanted to Remain. Each of these constituted a minority of the population, with the majority being an artifact of the procedure itself rather than an expression of an underlying reality. There was no true majority because there were multiple majorities. For instance, Portes believes that “given a straight choice…a majority of the electorate would probably have preferred Remain to the Norway option.” Concealed within the Leave vote were two very distinct preferences that the referendum, as presented, did not make possible to express. It is unclear why this is a special problem for referendum since votes that add up to Parliamentary majorities no doubt represent even more different positions and preferences. Yet commentators like Portes have not recommended we see Parliament as lacking democratic legitimacy. Nor indeed does this kind of argument get applied to many of the national-level decisions to join the EU.

But the problem here is not just the inconsistency in the argument but that it is wrong by its own lights. The will of the majority was not ambiguous. A majority of British voters voted to leave the EU. It is true, they did not say on what terms. That is up to Parliament to decide. But Parliament decided – by the overwhelming majority of 544-53 – to ask the people whether to stay in the EU or not, and the people gave an answer. They want to leave. Both the Leave and fully renegotiate or Leave and find a Norway-style option are consistent with the majority will.

What Rogoff, Portes, or other like-minded commentators won’t to admit is that they are only willing to extend the democratic critique of this referendum far enough to dissolve the democratic will that was expressed. After that, their political thinking is profoundly anti-democratic. Rogoff wishes to erect various barriers to majority rule – barriers he calls ‘checks and balances’ but also supermajority rules and, presumably, preservation of the EU itself. Portes says there is in fact no majority preference and therefore, implicitly, no good reason to accept the referendum’s political authority. Not to mention, this whole line of concern about the democratic credentials of the referendum runs up against the fact that its defenders raised little or no objection to the much more serious democratic deficits of the EU itself. As we have argued before, democracy is now the issue. We should not credit opportunistic appeals to democracy as reasons for dissolving the people in one of their rare, if imperfect, moments of appearance.

Alex Gourevitch

* Correction: In a previous version of this post I stated Portes’ affiliation incorrectly and mis-stated the timing of his post at the London School of Economics blog. I have also altered the post slightly to acknowledge the fact that, since Portes wrote the post before the referendum results, he was not involved in the same kind of criticism as those who used this kind of argument after the referendum to attack its legitimacy.




Democracy is the issue

6 Jul

TCM has argued all along that the key issue in the EU referendum was democracy. We have argued that the EU is a transnational, multilevel governance regime dominated by inter-elite networks through which the governments of its member states evade accountability to their own populations for the decisions they make. This way of governing presides over a void in society where a democratic public life ought to be. Leaving the EU is a precondition for reviving democratic political life in British society. Other issues dominated the evasive campaigns mounted by both the Remain and Leave camps notably the economy and immigration. The aftermath of the referendum, however, has forced the question of democracy, of who rules and how they rule, to centre stage.

Nowhere is this clearer than in the response of those many Remainers who are seeking by hook or by crook to frustrate or to reverse the referendum result. What is immediately at stake is not economic or migration policy, or even who runs the Conservative or Labour parties, but whether popular sovereignty and democracy still have any meaning in Britain. If the answer is negative, ordinary citizens will be the losers – regardless of how we voted.

While some honourable Remainers have accepted their defeat with dignity, calling for reconciliation and cooperation to ensure that Brexit works in the interests of as many British people as possible, the dominant response in the intellectual wing of the Remain camp has been denial. Denial that Brexit voters have the intelligence, information or basic decency required to determine the country’s future. This is most viciously expressed in rants about ‘old people’, ‘the regions’ and the working classes, who are routinely derided as selfish, idiotic and/or racist. This is anti-democracy pure and simple. It implies that these voters should not have the vote or at least that their votes should not count. If the people are unfit to decide this time then surely they are unfit every time they vote, including in local or national elections. If politicians lied and ‘conned’ the people in the referendum, what’s to stop this happening in every general election? These arguments are not simply opposed to the referendum, but the very principle of elections.

This elitist sentiment is nothing new: it has been used by tyrants and patricians since ancient times to justify the exclusion of the masses from decision making. However today the most militant anti-democrats are not drawn from the traditional ‘conservative’ elites but from what we have been used to calling the ‘left’, those who claim to stand for the interests of the excluded and those disadvantaged by racism and other forms of discrimination and disadvantage. This ‘left’ has no power itself to overturn the referendum. Perhaps for that reason, left-leaning Remainers are investing much of their intellectual energy in devising ways to present the result as non-binding or simply as anti-democratic. Three main attempts stand out, none of which stands up to analysis.

The legal-constitutional case against the referendum

Constitutional lawyers have pointed out that, from a legal point of view, the referendum is only advisory. Parliament is sovereign and any change to UK law, such as repealing the European Communities Act 1972, is a decision for parliament. Legally there is nothing to stop parliament from ignoring the referendum result. Some MPs have already aired this view. According to leading human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson QC:

It’s the right of MPs alone to make or break laws, and the peers to block them. So there’s no force whatsoever in the referendum result. It’s entirely for MPs to decide.

No ‘force’ in the referendum result? Robertson, being a lawyer, may be suggesting there is no legal or constitutional force. But surely it has political force. Parliament asked the people to vote in a referendum, voters did that and the majority decided to leave the EU. If Britain is a democracy then you might think MPs are bound to carry out the mandate they themselves asked for. Not according to Robertson: ‘Democracy in Britain doesn’t mean majority rule. It’s not the tyranny of the majority or the tyranny of the mob….’ On the contrary, if a bill was brought before parliament to enact British withdrawal from the EU: ‘MPs are entitled to vote against it and are bound to vote against it, if they think [that is] in Britain’s best interest.’ In other words, it would be tyranny for parliament to concede to the will of the majority on Brexit simply because that was the will of the majority, even when that will was expressed in a fair, secret ballot after an open political debate.

This neatly encapsulates the technocratic view of government held by many of the EU’s supporters. Democracy in their view is when the people do what the majority of their intellectual betters tell them to do. When the people don’t do that, it’s mob rule. What is denied here is popular sovereignty: the idea that in the final analysis the authority of the state is created and sustained by the consent of the people over whom it rules. Where the EU presides over a void between the rulers and the ruled, legal experts now advise that this void should be converted into a naked opposition between rulers and ruled.

The legislation calling for the referendum passed by 544 votes to 53 (only the SNP was against). At that time, all parties agreed that the referendum was legitimate and agreed to respect the outcome. If parliament now rejected the outcome, it would be rejecting its own authority in a political betrayal of epic proportions. And it is no answer to this to say, after the referendum, that the constitution ought to require supermajorities for constitutional changes like this to be decided by referendum. Perhaps it should, but that was not the basis on which this referendum was called. Parliament itself called for the referendum to decide the question on a simple majority, and the result delivered the largest popular mandate in British electoral history. Parliament could only reject the result on legal grounds but in doing so it would base its authority on something other than the will of the people.

Ignoring the referendum to save the United Kingdom

A more subtle approach is to use the devolution settlement as a form of political blackmail against a Tory government. The claim is that the United Kingdom is now a ‘family of nations’. Looked at from that point of view, the referendum result was not 52:48 but 2:2. England and Wales voted to Leave, Scotland and Northern Ireland to Remain. Given the constitutional reality of devolution, any attempt by Westminster to act on the referendum result would therefore legitimise breakaway votes in the two nations that voted to remain: an independence referendum in Scotland and a referendum on Irish unity in Northern Ireland. A Tory government that moved on Brexit would therefore be vulnerable to the charge that it was breaking up the United Kingdom, and this might be an effective argument for Tory MPs to use to ignore the advisory referendum result.

On this more subtle argument against popular sovereignty, the small minority of British voters who are Scottish and Irish are being deployed to frustrate the will of the majority of the whole nation. Although it apparently prioritizes the survival of the Union, it is really subversive of the Union’s political meaning. Acting on this approach would only show that United Kingdom is not a political union of its peoples. Indeed it would turn the UK itself into a transnational, multilevel governance regime not unlike the EU that the British people just rejected.

The chief practical problem for this approach is that the SNP’s threat to the Union looks less credible in the context of Brexit than it did at the time of the last referendum. If the SNP is forced to negotiate Scottish re-entry into the EU after Brexit, as EU leaders appear to be making clear that it must, it will very likely be forced to accept the Euro as a condition of entry and there is no enthusiasm for that in Scotland.

The call for a second referendum

A third and more plausible means to frustrate the referendum result is the call for a  second referendum on the outcome of the Brexit negotiations. The second referendum technique has already been deployed in Ireland to reverse the Irish electorate’s rejection of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. Some 4 million frustrated Remainers have signed a petition asking parliament to ignore the Brexit vote. Although there is obviously only minority support for it, this proposal takes advantage of the time it will take for Brexit negotiations to take place, of the complexity of the negotiations and of the likelihood of new events in Europe shifting the position of the other member states. The outcome of any eventual negotiations can be presented as a whole new set of questions requiring a new vote. The second referendum relies on the elite’s control of the process to wear down popular hostility and present remaining in the EU, in one form or another, as inevitable. Crucially this route avoids any outright denial of popular sovereignty, and this has been the preferred method of European governance all along.

The manoeuvering required to frustrate the first referendum has begun. Cameron reneged on his promise to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty immediately, Theresa May has said she is not in a hurry to do it, unnamed business interests have already begun legal action to try to prevent any prime minister doing so without new legislation. Nothing is certain in the politics of Brexit because the unexpected result has caused an unprecedented political crisis in Britain, at a moment of great stress in the EU more generally. Nevertheless, the can of political decay in the relations of government to the governed is already being kicked down the road again in classic Euro-style.

The most important advantage of the second referendum route for those who would frustrate the popular will is the absence of any significant organised political force with a deep commitment to popular sovereignty. If government and parliament take their time over the negotiations and hope that events in Europe turn something up that changes EU arrangements in a way that they can sign up to, then they will be relying on the fact that their manoeuvres against popular sovereignty will go largely unchallenged. The Tory Eurosceptics have had their day. As we pointed out before the referendum, they were nostalgic ideologues with no idea of what the true problem was, and therefore vulnerable to the antics of an opportunist like Boris Johnson. UKIP will no doubt make some hay with this evasion of the popular will. But UKIPs opportunism weakens their political position. UKIP’s focus is on immigration because they think it wins them votes, but controlling immigration has no intrinsic democratic content and allows them to be outmanoeuvred by changes in policy. That should present few problems for Theresa May, a pragmatist with an instinct for ruling, in the classical mode of Tory prime ministers. The populist right has no real interest in filling the void in democratic public life in Britain, and that creates space for Westminster to try to paper over it once again.

Democracy versus its enemies

The only way to ensure that government remains accountable to the people, and that the state does not continue on its gradual decay towards real tyranny, is to defend the will of the majority as the ultimate source of political authority. We need to move past the binary of Brexit-Remain; the real dividing line is urgently becoming that between democracy and its enemies. The only way to defend democracy and ensure the elite is compelled to respect the principle of popular sovereignty is to force the government to invoke Article 50 without delay. Otherwise, not only will elites be continually tempted to neutralise Brexit, democracy itself will suffer.

Democracy only functions if we accept that sometimes we will lose, and our opponents will succeed. Democracy reassures us that losing will not be a permanent condition; we can rally support and try to win next time – which relies, in turn, on our opponents being willing to accept their defeat. Without that acceptance, democratic governance collapses into a no-holds-barred power struggle. The only groups empowered in such a struggle are the elites who control the power, resources and institutions necessary to participate in it. This is where real tyrannies come from.

Remain voters should realise that the silver lining of their defeat is that the result will be a gain for accountable, democratic governance, which empowers all British citizens, including themselves, to play a bigger part in the country’s future. British political leaders will no longer be able to make policy and laws in secret with their European counterparts, then present them as faits accomplis, hiding behind EU institutions to avoid having to justify themselves.

Above all, if democracy is to survive in Europe, we need a political outlook that puts the cause of popular sovereignty at its heart.


Peter Ramsay

Lee Jones





The Left and Brexit: No more excuses

1 Jul

The Brexit vote is an ‘I told you so!’ moment for many on the left. Aside from a handful of ‘Lexit’ advocates, the left’s position on the EU referendum was that only the right could benefit from Brexit: Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage would sweep to power, ushering in radical neoliberalism, racism and xenophobia. Better, the left argued, to stay within the EU:  despite its admittedly undemocratic and brutal nature, it at least locked in free movement, workers’ rights and environmental protections. Essentially, the left doubted that, given a free choice in an unfettered national democracy, the British people would maintain these rules. Now, left commentators say, their warnings are coming true.

This defeatist analysis is not simply wrong. It is potentially disastrous for the future of democracy.

First, as TCM has recently argued, if the left is in disarray, so is the right. Stating that the left was too weak to lead people towards a progressive Brexit was a self-fulfilling prophesy, sacrificing leadership of the referendum campaigns – and thus debate over Britain’s future – to the right. Nonetheless, the referendum has clearly not empowered a coherent, right-wing project. Warnings of anti-immigrant pogroms have proven unfounded: despite a small statistical increase in reports of racist incidents, the country has not been suddenly consumed by a wave of violent xenophobia. Meanwhile, Leave leaders are caught in the headlights, furiously backpedalling on their commitments and proposing to secure as tight a relationship with the EU as possible. The Tories – already deeply unpopular – are in disarray. The ogre Boris Johnson, whom the left told everyone to be so afraid of, is already out of the race to be prime minister, fleeing from responsibility. He was also apparently betrayed by fellow Leave campaigner Michael Gove, who has declared his own candidacy – despite repeatedly saying in the past that he is not suitable for the top job. It now seems likely that quiet Remainer Theresa May will emerge from this political bloodletting as party leader – when a majority of Tory supporters voted to Leave. The left, however, is in no position to take advantage of this shambles as a result of putting itself on the losing side of the referendum.

Second, the EU has clearly provided no safeguard against neoliberalism or other unfavourable policies. On the contrary, the EU is itself a neoliberal project, deliberately removing economic policy from political contestation and constitutionalising a continent-wide neoliberal order. For those worried about the National Health Service (NHS): what exactly did the EU do to stop the shift towards ‘private providers’ since 1989? Have leftists forgotten that the EU was negotiating – in secret – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which would have accelerated NHS privatisation? For those worried about universities: what precisely did the EU do to prevent the introduction of tuition fees, their tripling to £3,000, or their further tripling to £9,000? Or the intensification of the audit culture and marketisation? The weakening of quality controls and the massive, state-subsidised entry of ‘private providers’? What did the EU do to arrest the privatisation of railways, telecommunications, post services, social housing, and every other public legacy of postwar Keynesianism? How did the EU stop cuts in welfare spending on the poor, the disabled or the unemployed? To even ask these questions is ridiculous in light of the EU’s actions in Greece, which is now experiencing 57% youth unemployment, rapidly worsening working conditions, wages and social security, rising homelessness and a massive public health crisis. Similarly, those suggesting that the EU was  a bulwark of ‘free movement’ might remind themselves of the tens of thousands of Africans and Middle Easterners lying dead at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

Third, and most importantly, the left strategy of hiding from the population inside the EU is an attempt to evade the crisis at the heart of British democracy, and ultimately to evade democracy itself. It is this evasion (and not ingrained racism) that is the reason for the rise of the populist right. This crisis can no longer be evaded: it must be confronted head on, and sooner rather than later.

The root of this crisis, as TCM has consistently argued, is the void that has opened between rulers and ruled over the past four decades. Historically, political parties channelled the interests and ideologies of competing social forces into the state, resulting in genuine political contestation. Following the capitalist crisis of the 1970s and the intense social conflicts that lasted into the 1980s, European political parties have retreated from the forces they once represented into the state itself. The parties of the trade unions abandoned their commitments to full employment and state intervention in the economy. With the labour movement politically neutralised, the old rationale for mass conservative parties also vanished. The parties severed their links to social constituencies, membership declined as they became dominated by professional politicians and policy wonks, gradually dwindling into mere electoral machines. They have coalesced around around identikit, neoliberal policy platforms, to which, they openly proclaim, ‘there is no alternative’. The signs of this malaise have been clear for decades: declining party membership, collapsing electoral turnout, the dwindling of serious political participation, the erosion of trust in public officials and institutions, and an ever growing sense that the new political class represents nothing but itself and its own interests.

The EU reflects and entrenches this widening divorce between rulers and ruled. As political elites retreated into the state, they found new sources of support in similarly isolated rulers elsewhere in Europe, and began drawing legitimacy from their relationships with each other, rather than their relationships to their own electorates. State apparatuses were networked across state borders and policymaking shifted from representative, democratic institutions to inter-elite bureaucratic and diplomatic networks. The project of European integration simply deepened the void in domestic politics, as ordinary people were increasingly left behind.

The illusion was to think that this arrangement was indefinitely sustainable. The signs of growing popular dissatisfaction were everywhere. National referenda repeatedly rejected further EU integration – but were then ignored. Most seriously, populist forces began stepping into the void created by the transformation of political parties into technocracies. Populism works by channelling diverse grievances into a generic, anti-elite project. It therefore flourishes where grievances go unheard and people feel unrepresented, where elites appear homogenous and divorced from the people. Contrary to leftist suggestions, then, the EU was never a safeguard against the rise of xenophobic, nationalist populism: it was its breeding ground. The EU reflected and entrenched the very conditions that fomented populism – which is why it is rampant across Europe, and typically far worse on the continent than in Britain.

The left’s consistent instinct has simply been to recoil from this – to sneer at ‘bigoted’ people, to incant the platitudes of anti-racism. Governments have  pandered to and fostered growing xenophobia by pledging to curb immigration, and constructing Fortress Europe, thereby creating the very siege mentality for which they are now being punished. EU officials have no idea how to close to void, proposing instead legal measures and economic sanctions to block any right-wing populists from taking power. Remain campaigners also did nothing to close the void or even defend the EU, relying entirely on economic blackmail.

The Brexit vote has starkly revealed this ever-widening void between rulers and ruled, a void whose true emblem is the elitist disdain for Brexit voters. The left must recognise the historic failure that has led to this outcome. It is not the result of a few weeks of nasty campaigning and dog-whistling. It is the result of the steady collapse of representative democracy – symbolised now by the disarray of both of Britain’s historic ruling parties.

Advocating remaining in the EU was an attempt to evade this fundamental crisis, to kick the can of a decaying democracy down the road. It did not work. Even if it had, it would only have left the void there to widen further – as it will if the result is overturned, as some are still hoping. It would have become increasingly difficult to withstand populist challenges. Increasingly desperate mainstream parties, structurally incapable of offering any alternative, would simply have continued triangulating their way rightwards. Right-wing populists would be kept out of power only at the expense of embracing their policies and resorting to increasingly authoritarian measures to keep the show on the road – measures that will almost certainly accompany the Remainers attempts to frustrate the result.

Leaving the EU offers an opportunity to lance this boil now. The urgent task for political leftists is to restore representative democracy by re-engaging with the people. This does not mean giving ground to their ‘legitimate concerns’ over immigration. It means changing the terms of the political argument. It means arguing that it is not immigrants who are the reason that far too few houses are being built, not immigrants who are failing to create long-term, secure, decent jobs, not immigrants who are failing to revive depressed areas, not immigrants who are sitting back and enjoying the benefits of growth while half the country is left to rot. Of course, this is far easier said than done; but it is simply not a task that can be indefinitely postponed.

For those arguing that the left, or the country, is not ready for this struggle, the question must be: when would it be ready? By what mechanism was a better left leadership meant to emerge? The last 30 years have offered no basis for optimism that, a few years from now, the left would be better placed to exploit Brexit. Within the EU, the left has only retreated further from the masses and avoided confronting the demos. The same left commentators now saying ‘I told you so!’ had no positive response to the void, merely rejecting both Brussels and Westminster. Faced with neoliberal economic constitutionalism, mainstream left politicians also have no reason to devise radical solutions to close the void. It is only now, when confronted with its inescapable reality and urgency, that political leaders have any incentive to do so.

Lee Jones



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