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.
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.