Brexit means… what? Hapless ideology and practical consequences
Aufheben № 24
A number of left groups and individuals campaigned for the UK to leave the European Union. Aufheben argue that the Brexit campaign, and the referendum itself, its results and its implementation, have been one with a victory of the ruling class against us. The implementation of Brexit will negatively affect solidarity among workers and radical protesters, setting back our strength and potentials to overturn capitalism. Many people in the radical left were blinded by the ideological forms of our capitalist relations, the reification of our human interactions, to the point of accepting a victory of the far right with acquiescence, or even collaborating with it.
The EU migrants’ ordeal and the limits of direct action
We begin this article with a case dealt with by Brighton Solfed (SF) and CASE Central social center — the story of an EU migrant in Brighton.
At the end of 2015, L., a Spanish hospitality worker, sought help from SF. She had worked in a restaurant for more than a year but, as soon as she fell ill, her employer sacked her with a flimsy excuse, in order to avoid paying Statutory Sick Pay (SSP). Receiving SSP would have been this worker’s right under both domestic and European Union (EU) legislation. However, the employer insisted that she left her job voluntarily, and refused to re-employ here.
One then claimed a sickness benefit, Employment and Support Allowance (ESA). As an EU worker, she should have been entitled to equal rights under EU legislation, and to ESA. However, the state refused the benefit: they said that, due [to] a “gap” between the end of her job and her claim, she was no longer a “worker” when she claimed ESA. A benefits advice group helped with an appeal, but the state refused to reconsider. L. was in a desperate situation, with no money and far from her family, and was tempted to move back to Spain. This would amount to economic deportation — not imposed through physical force, but through extreme hardship.
Back in [the] 1970s the UK’s membership of the European Common Market was opposed by left-wing militants, as the Common Market was seen as a neoliberal club designed to prevent the advance of socialism, or just the implementation of Keynesian policies.
Yet the UK joined the EU. As a consequence of the Treaty of Maastricht since the early 1990s one of the rules that the UK government had to abide by was the “free movement of labor.” This principle obliged each government to treat EU citizens equally as British citizens; both workers, and, following EU Court rules, also those who entered the UK to seek work, as long as they were “genuine jobseekers.” This included giving them the rights to claim benefits and receive help with housing.
The best aspect of migration from the point of view of the individual employer is the migrants’ normally disadvantaged and vulnerable position, which the imposition of equality tended to mitigate. Once entitled to equal rights at work and to all benefits, EU migrants had the option of refusing crap jobs. They had also the same incentive as their British workmates to fight for better pay and working conditions in their workplaces, side by side.
Thus since day one, the right-wing press relentlessly attacked the principle of equality underlying freedom of movement in the EU, depicting them as “benefit tourists.” Sensitive to this pressure, the Conservative government made a series of efforts to deny equal rights to EU migrants, above all the unemployed. A “habitual residence test” in the UK in order to claim many out of work benefits.1 What this “habitual residence” meant was so vague that it was equally as easy for the state to immediately reject a claim, as it was for claimants to eventually win their appeals. A lengthy appeal procedure would however prolong the wait for a hearing for months, and would oblige migrants, through destitution, to return to their country. Only those who received help from friends or organizations (e.g. churches, political groups, squats), or had some savings, could persevere to the hearing.
The “habitual residence test” was the first challenge from the British government against the Freedom of Movement, and was introduced with caution and great reverence towards the newly born principle of equality. Not to contradict this principle, the state felt obliged to impose the test to anyone coming from abroad, including British citizens.
In 2006, after part of Eastern Europe was allowed to “access” the EU, the government restricted the “habitual residence” rules. This was paradoxically done by exploiting a new EU law, Directive 2004/38/EC, which had been created to clarify and strengthen the rights of EU citizens. As the directive produced a list of “qualified persons” who had automatic right to residence, the government used this list to exclude from equal treatment many thousand EU citizens who had so far been treated equally under the “habitual residence test,” if they did not match the list. For example, “Workers” and “Self Employed” had a right to reside, but ill people who had not worked much or at all, carers or single mothers who were not in work were excluded. A Right of Residence test based on the directive became a prerequisite for many out of work benefits.2
This new test was the UK government’s first challenge to the principle of equality, as British citizens who had lived abroad were automatically exempted from it. In May 2013 the EU Commission took this challenge to court, but failed: the inequality of treatment of EU citizens was approved by an EU court as “justified” by the interests of the member state.
Since the introduction of the right of residence test in 2006, workers who became ill, such as L. could have their claim for sickness benefit simply denied, with any flimsy excuse, or even with no reasons at all. Isolated and ill, they were put in the position of having to “prove” their Right of Residence and, to do so, wait up to nine months for a tribunal hearing on no income.
Not happy with this, the nationalist anti-migrant lobbies continued to pressurize the government. In 2015 unemployed migrants were stripped of unemployment benefit (Job Seeker’s Allowance [JSA]). Following a reinterpretation of the directive and case law that protected the right to reside of unemployed EU citizens as long as they had “genuine chances of finding work,” the state subjected EU citizens to a “Genuine Prospect of Work Test.” This test was as abhorrent as the trial of witches by ducking stool: all unemployed EU citizens would lose their JSA after a fixed six month period after their last job unless they got a new job within this period. Failing this they would lose all rights of residence, including the right to Housing Benefit and could be made homeless. The statistical concept of “prospect,” was then redefined as a limitation to all benefits to a strict period of 3-6 months. At the same time, all those who lost their status as workers were denied Housing Benefit altogether.3
Still unhappy about this, and threatening to leave the EU, last year the Tory government went for the whole hog and obtained an opt out from paying all in-work or out-of-work benefits to all EU migrants for their first four years in the UK.
Recently, the EU migrants have also started being deported, under the allegation of not having, or “abusing,” a Right of Residence. A pilot scheme that began in 2011 with the deportation of homeless and jobless East European citizens has now been extended to all EU nationals.4
Activist groups such as Solfed and Brighton Benefits Campaign obviously oppose all this. Yet when the means to tackle injustice is based on collective solidarity there is a limit to what one can do. L. could not get financial support from a group composed of people like herself, who struggled to pay bills and rent. Also, direct action was precluded by the remoteness of the decision making. Where to protest, and what office to picket, if the decisions regarding L. were taken in Belfast and revised in Inverness? Perhaps in better times, a network of protestors could act nationally and reach remote offices, but at present there was no hope to resolve L.’s problem through direct action.
In the absence of a self-sustaining alternative community, or a mass benefits campaign, demanding that the state abide by EU law was the only option; and after a few nasty letters from CASE, the state acknowledged L’s rights and paid her ESA.5
Of course, the laws and institutions do not act for us; we still need to act, and even simply invoking the laws can be a mini war against the state. CASE volunteers are now used to receiving phone calls from government officers who try to convince them that this or that piece of EU legislation do not mean what they say, or that there are other new mysterious “laws” that contradict it. Any weak response at this stage would encourage these bureaucrats to issue an unfavorable decision. It is clear that the government has given guidance to its officers to deny EU rights at all costs. This attempt to make EU laws ineffective for benefits claimants is the frustrating experience of many benefits advisers across the country.
Thus when, on 23 June 2016, Brexit won the plebiscite, both migrants and those who had been involved in defending migrants” rights felt alarmed. Brexit will set aside all EU rights, with no guarantee of any automatic rights. If the same visa system that applies for non-EU migrants is applied to current EU workers living in the UK, nine out of ten would no qualify.6Crucially, the abolition of the rights emanating from EU laws is not the result of our success in establishing more radical options, but the success of nationalist lobbies.
In the following we will discuss the position of people in the radical left, such as the political groups (SWP, etc.) or individual Bennites, on Brexit. But before, let us ask ourselves the question: what has the radical left done during the previous decades of attacks on EU migrants? What did these people do while EU migrants were made penniless by the grueling General Prospect Tests? What have they done when workers like L. were denied all their rights as soon as they fell ill? The answer is: nothing. In fact, most of the groups and individuals in “the left” have never even bothered to know about these issues.
Of course, the non-EU refugees escaping from war, especially the ones from Syria, have deserved a lot of interest and action. However, as we will show later, many people in the left have been very busy with other, more ideological, issues, such as the burkini ban in France. Similar issues seem to deserve more enthusiasm, time and efforts than the sorts of EU citizens reduced to homelessness and desperation. And even than the xenophobic murder of a Polish citizen in the summer of 2016.
The big blunder
It was clear since the beginning that the referendum about the EU was not about the EU as an institution at all. Previous opinion polls had repeatedly shown that EU matters were at the bottom of a scale of concerns for most Britons. The referendum was, in reality, the product of internal infighting within the Conservative Party.
As David Cameron once put it, the only people that insisted on “banging on about Europe” were the “nutters” in the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), old diehard Thatcherite Tory Party activists and a few dozen backbench Tory MPs, cheered on by the right wing press. But Cameron’s project of rebranding the Conservative Party as an electable, modern, socially liberal party depended on keeping these diehard social conservative[s] in the Tory Party quiet. To placate them Cameron had repeatedly thrown them the odd euro-skeptic bone to chew on. But the more bones he threw the hungrier they became.
Finally, encouraged by the bad publicity caused by the EU’s handling of the Euro crisis, the Tory right became so vociferous that Cameron was obliged to promise a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU at some time in the future. It was not possible right then, of course, because his coalition LibDem partners would not go along with his referendum plans. But this commitment was included in the Conservative Party manifesto for the 2015 elections.
At the time this seemed quite a clever move, since it was widely expected that there would be another hung Parliament, and any Conservative-led Government would have to share power again with the LibDems. Cameron would therefore be able to blame Nick Clegg for any failure to deliver on his pledge to hold a referendum. But unfortunately for him, the Conservatives won the election, but with a small majority. Cameron then risked the fate of John Major in 1990s, who spent much of his second term as Prime Minister being dogged by repeated Euro-skeptic rebellions threatening to bring down his government.
Thus the best option was to press on with plans for a referendum. With all three mainstream parties expected to support Remain, Brexit would be fronted by a motley collection of minor Tory backbenchers, and by Nigel Farage and various other UKIP “nutters.” Although a tiresome Referendum would waste the government’s time and effort, a resounding Remain vote would at least stop “them banging on about Europe” once and for all.
But Cameron made a mistake that would bring about his ignominious political demise: he let it be known that he was considering standing down as Prime Minister after his second term. The heir apparent, George Osborne, was entrusted to lead the Remain campaign.
Osborne’s rivals then faced a dilemma: either support Remain or jump ship and support Brexit, in the hope that this would win favor amongst Tory activists, which could prove crucial in stopping Osborne’s coronation as party leader.
Shortly before the official Referendum campaign was due to start, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove took the plunge. Opinion polls had growing support for Brexit and they could that a good showing for the Leave campaign, with them at the helm, would oblige Cameron to be magnanimous in victory. After all Cameron had suspended party discipline and collective responsibility for the referendum. So these pro-immigration, neoliberal internationalists made an unholy alliance with the xenophobic little Englanders of UKIP.
On the morning of the 24 June, no one was more shocked than Johnson and Gove.7 It was apparent that they had expected that Remain would win, and had no concrete plan for a Brexit — yet Johnson was appointed by new PM Theresa May as one of the Brexit ministers, with the task of leading the actual thing.
Brexit and ideology
UKIP and its leader, Nigel Farage, were the ideological winners of Brexit. They were able to use a populist, nationalist, anti-establishment message which united a large number of people from different classes: from middle class Tory voters in the south of England, who contributed to the majority of Brexit votes, to working class people in industrial cities of the north, disillusioned with social democracy. In the eyes of everybody, from immigration experts to MPs, it was clear that the campaign for Brexit boiled down to a campaign against the Freedom of Movement. This emerged as the only consistent message, amidst a mishmash of half-baked issues, such as a £350m per week of EU fees that should rather go to the NHS or the imposition of straight bananas by Brussels.
Part of the left and the Green Party, Trotskyist Socialist Appeal and the Left Unity party campaigned against Brexit. Probably the age composition of Socialist Appeal, popular among university students, played a major role in its pro-Remain position.
But for others it was a dilemma. On the one hand Cameron and a large part of the bourgeoisie supported Remain: the capitalist market depended on stability and would be vulnerable in the massive economic change created by leaving the single market. On the other hand, the Brexit campaign had an appealing, populist, anti-establishment, pro-working-class message. And, of course, the EU was part of the capitalist system…
For all these reasons, supporting Remain could have come across as supporting global capital against the British working class, and supporting Cameron. All this could taint a left-wing soul. Assuming that Remain would win, one can then hold a principled stand against the EU thinking that this would have no real consequences.
For many leftists, used to decades of simplistic political common sense, arguments that raised complex issues, such as the political meaning of a victory for the Brexit campaign, were perhaps too difficult to take in. Instead of struggling with the political and moral complications of the present, it was thus easier to dust off the Eurosceptic reasons of the 1970s, when the left opposed the Common Market, and to follow the ghostly authority of Tony Benn.8
Yet also claiming to support “Brexit” would taint a left-wing soul. To get out of the dilemma, they just renamed the same thing… “Lexit” (i.e. “exit from the Left”). Problem solved. The Lexiteers’ arguments were packaged as readymade slogans loaded with good left-wing values. Questions regarding the EU protection of workers’ rights or the environment, or migrants’ rights, were confronted with banal answers, such as “it’s all scaremongering,” “what about the TTIP,” or “the EU is bureaucratic” (sic). More pathetic, some Trots voted leave to support Johnson’s attempt to destabilize Cameron. While these people were blinkered by ideology, the fact that Brexit would, in concrete, be a victory for the far right was meanwhile clear to the far right across Europe and the USA, and to Donald Trump, who all celebrated the victory of Brexit.
Momentum, the movement which arose in support of Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the Labour party itself, officially campaigned for Remain. By age and affiliation, Corbyn could well have been a follower of Eurosceptic Benn, but led the campaign — but, only two weeks before the vote, nearly a third of Labour party members were still in the dark about the position of their own party! But many [of] Corbyn’s supporters did not worry about Brexit. With Jeremy leading the opposition, and the fantastic prospect of him leading the country, the UK could soon have new good laws, protecting workers, migrants and the environment. Who needs the EU?9
Yet a prerequisite to lead a country is that to have clear positions; and Corbyn’s positions equivocated. Interestingly, as soon as Brexit won, “Remainer” Corbyn stated that[:]
It was communities, often in former industrial heartlands, that had tended to vote for Brexit…10
Respecting these “communities,” Corbyn was happy to say that Parliament should accept that Brexit would happen and “work with it.”11
On the sorts of EU migrants, Corbyn and his allies equivocated too. Worryingly, not a comment was said on the status of the EU citizens currently living in the UK, threatened by Theresa May. For Corbyn what mattered was the protection of the British workers’ rights in Britain:
The red lines have to be: access to the European market, European Investment Bank, protection of maternity leave, paternity leave, minimum wage legislation. There has to be protection for people against workplace discrimination. Those issues to me are absolutely crucial.12
The rights of EU migrants to equal treatment could well slip through Corbyn’s “red lines.” This is part of an ideology that conflates the Freedom of Movement, a specific principle, with the general issues of border controls and “anti-racism”; and in turn conflates EU migrants with refugees.13 This conflation can well unite left-wing Remainers and Brexiteers, by sacrificing, and forgetting about, EU migrants and their rights.14
On his part, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, John McDonnell, repeated that the free movement of labor would end with Brexit and that Labour would “consult the British people” (sic) on the issue of future migration.15 More enlightening, Corbyn replied to a question about the need for an upper migration limit with the following, unquestionable, statement:
I don’t think you can have one while you have the free movement of labor [sic]…16
a truism which even the telegraph agreed with.17
At the end of September, Corbyn’s refusal to make promises on migration control under a future Labour government was generously interpreted as a combative defense of freedom of movement by leftwing media.18 In the face of this devoted trust, probably Corbyn and his allies have not clarified even to themselves what migration policy can be reasonably envisaged in the context of leaving the EU, an action that they have supported.
In the anarchist scene too, the referendum challenged radical purity. Anarchist issues are normally founded on a clear-cut moral stand, where what is bad is unquestionably bad and only needs action. As long as issues are chosen to fit moral categories, it is all indisputable: freedom and self determination is good, state control is bad, sexism and patriarchy are bad, animal cruelty is bad, racism and fascism are bad. But Brexit was a problem. On the one hand, the Brexit campaign was a nationalist and xenophobic campaign, which could comfortably fit the category of “fascism.” On the other hand, the Remain campaign was supported by Tories, politicians and experts who were part of the establishment, and the EU is an institution embedded in global capitalism, and controlled by bankers and international lobbies. This many simply sat on the fence, seeing the vote as an option between two bad authorities (the UK and the EU). A few even supported Lexit.
As a result of these moral dilemmas the campaign for Remain was left to liberals and important reasons for opposing Brexit were not highlighted from a radical standpoint.
What’s in the law?
In his essays on class consciousness in capitalism, Georg Lukács said that while past social relations were mystified by religious or other ideological constructions, in capitalism we can clearly see economic relations as driving society, and due to this clarity it is now possible to transform society through a conscious movement against exploitation. Yet, he also saw that our relations create their own mystification, which can affect the proletariat itself; for this reason, he concluded, a clear consciousness is only embodied by “the party.”
It is indeed true that consciousness is shaped by capitalist society… but is it true that a Leninist party or an elite of radical intellectuals see better than the riff-raff?
It is a matter of fact that every social class system develops its special mystification. It is easy for us to see and criticize, for example, the religious beliefs that expressed and veiled at the same time feudal class relations, but it is incredibly difficult to disentangle the exploitation and unfairness of capitalism from its veils of liberal glitter. The problem is that this is difficult for Leninist or a radical campaigner, too. In this section we will show that the demoralizing ineffectiveness of the left in front of the Brexit campaign was rooted in the mystification of capitalism: commodity fetishism.
Commodity fetishism is an inversion of reality, where a relation among humans appears as a relation between commodities and money. In this inversion, capital or “the economy” becomes the real protagonist of history, and dictates its needs and its rules to people — needs and rule[s] that are more compelling than our individual needs or desires. Our bullying, misery and exploitation then appear as caused by objective, almost “natural” forces, not by people. The fact that our relations are transformed into an objective “thing,” separate from any individuals, was called by Lukács reification. At the same time, individuals relate to each other as free and equal buyers and sellers — only the money we have in our pocket dictates what we can eat, study, hope and be, and if we need to get a job… and there are people who can hope and be whatever they want, others who can’t hope anything at all. Reification mystifies the fact that we live in an unequal society, where a class of people control all the means of production and another class of people have to work for them day in, day out.
Reification shapes every aspect of social life. Political, economic, and cultural spheres appear too, to have a life on their own, dictating their “objective” rules to people. The state and its laws are objectifications too. These structures are not an illusion, but a reality: for example, in order to make a political career one needs to play along with the rules of electoral democracy, and navigate the structures of unions, parties and states. Simply telling ourselves that these structures are “a social construction” or an “illusion” won’t help — the need remains, for making a political career, to accept them as real and play along with them.
In this inverted relation, otherwise free and equal individuals, “relate” to the state, by voting or being elected in it, and by abiding by or opposing its laws. But even being critical of the state, however clever our criticism is, will not abolish the state and its laws, because they are based on actual relations among people.
Yet, we can defy this “solidity,” and we do it through class struggle.19 When workers, tenants, claimants, etc., are involved in a struggle connected to their needs, the focus can shift from things like money, laws, economy, to our concrete situation and experience. The stronger we are, the more cheeky questions we ask, shaking the solidity of capitalist constructions: “fuck the legal contract, why should we be treated this way and paid so little?”, “fuck the Human Right to private property, why can’t I use this empty flat?”, “there is no money my arse, why can my bosses go on holiday to Bali?” … The mystification is then unveiled and during the struggle our relations reveal themselves as what they are: a balance of forces between people (or better, people “like us” and people “like them”: classes).
When past struggles ended, capital re-solidified. A law forbidding farmers to use some pesticides, or a law protecting pregnant women at work, expresses our victory, and the redefinition of a balance of forces, but they appear again as things: new legal rights, which apparently emanate from something alien: a state. Those laws still reflect our victory, and, however weak we have become, we can still use them for our protection in our ongoing daily struggles with bosses or the government.
However, this “solidity” is also challenged by the ruling class. As soon as our capacity to fight back has shrunk, the ruling class will try to redefine new “objective” conditions, changing the laws. The fact that this happens through the objective realm of the state and its laws can paralyze our radical mind. After all, a law that protects pregnant workers or wildlife comes from the state. So why should we defend this law when the government wants to change it? Thus when various governments enacted attack after attack: benefit cuts, the abolition of security of tenure, the abolition of legal aid, the privatization of public spaces… all this happened in the impotent silence of many radical people. To be fair, we can see the material weakness of the class behind this silence, but these unchallenged attacks have led to our increasing weakness and impotence.
The latest attack was the campaign for Brexit. It was UKIP’s clear intention to get rid of EU laws that impose equality at work, maternity and paternity pay, disability rights and holiday pay; as well as laws restricting the freedom for capitalists to pollute air, land, and sea.
The fact that Brexit is the objectification of our defeat is also apparent from the dynamics of the campaign itself. While our challenge to capitalism involves the cheeky suspension of the “solid” appearance of bourgeois structures of power, Brexit has emerged through state institutions. It used a referendum organized through the state, confirming the objectivity of the political sphere and of bourgeois democracy. Also, the result of the referendum immediately appeared as a legal mandate for the state: a “thing,” more solid than any real people. The migrants whose lives may be wrecked by Brexit do not count, the democratic mandate does. The voters who “repented” do not count, the democratic mandate is more real than them. Any concrete objections do not count. Remarkably, the relation between this “democratic mandate” and real individuals is the same as that between the state and “people.”
As the Brexit campaign played with, and reinforced, the reification of the political sphere, the “left” and many radical people were caught by the same mystification.
The retreat of the anti-cuts movement, which petered out in 2012, following the defeat of the public pension dispute, encouraged an ideological counterattack from the far right, which culminated with Brexit. Meanwhile, class struggle was substituted by its weirdest reified surrogate in the history of the British left.20
Just a few months before the EU referendum, Labour party back-bencher Jeremy Corbyn was propelled into leadership through an online vote of left-wing supporters. All eyes and hopes then focused on this newly elected leader and his heroic navigation through the structures of the party and the state, and a new group, Momentum, was created to support him. An institutional power game appeared to do the magic of advancing the left into prominence: a success that real people had been unable to achieve through industrial disputes and a mass movement during the anti-cuts campaign.
In the past, the power of socialist governments or politicians had normally emerged from the settlement of some class struggle or mass movement into institutional shapes — the Corbyn effect appeared to have inverted this dynamic, with an electoral victory within bourgeois institutions leading to a movement pivoting around the electoral victory after the actual defeat of a class struggle.
If all the left-wing eyes and hopes focused on the reified structures of capitalist power, it is not surprising that the Trots who voted for Brexit had no time for its consequences on migrants and workers. What’s the point of considering real people, when people are eclipsed behind the glitter of reification?
Also many radicals were caught by the same reification. If it’s all about “us” and solid, abstract, authorities over there, a radical position would be to oppose both the state and the EU or even vote against the EU, because it is a form of state. Again, any appeal for solidarity from the real individuals threatened by Brexit was dismissed.
In the next sections, we will see how the victory for Brexit would reinforce capitalism by dividing the working class, and that those who are involved in however small struggles around, can see this.
The “Freedom of Movement” and freedom for the movements: The contradictions of capitalism
Since its beginnings, capitalism has been faced by moral criticism based on ideal positions — money is bad, the bourgeois state is bad, the police are bad, poverty is bad, industrialization is bad…²¹ Yet a moralistic challenge will not destroy capital; for example, good-hearted Christian criticism has never challenged it, but also abstract radical moralism can be as ineffective.
The applies also to the issues of the EU. There are plenty of moral/radical judgments that are abstractly true — the EU is a capitalist institution; it does reflect the interests of capitalists; it is embedded in a global economy, etc. Yet knowing and proclaiming all this will not liberate us from capitalism or from the global economy — let alone asking a Tory government to lead us out of the EU! Instead, the practical actions of people who take advantage of the present, including the EU, can be a good start.
One of these contradictions is the Freedom of Movement. It is true that European capital uses migration to divert competition in the labor market towards areas where labor is in demand. The unemployed individual who is forced by his country’s economy to move abroad for jobs is in this sense a pawn in a machine intended to make production efficient. Yet, at closer inspection, all the unemployed and workers who are forced to compete against each other for jobs or careers are pawns of the same machine, and the British workers who feel forced by these same laws to antagonize with migrants are the best pawns of all, as this division effectively defuses our potential for rebellion.
In fact our rebellion against capital must first of all challenge our division along national lines, as well as along other lines such as gender or race. In light of this, in this section we discuss the success of a collaboration among activists from all parts of Europe and how these protesters took advantage of the Freedom of Movement, turning it into a motorway for solidarity and direct action.
In May 2016 social center CASE Central gave its minibus to a group of people from Brighton and London, composed of British and EU citizens, to attend an international protest against a huge opencast coal mine in Lusatia, Germany.²² Air pollution and carbon emission is an international issue and it is important that protests are international — a national protest would have attracted far less people and would have been seen as a local issue.
The participation from Brighton and London was made possible because of the Freedom of Movement. The minibus could be driven by both a British and a German, it crossed the English Channel, traveled through Belgium and France, arrived in Germany, and came back. No problems with borders, no problems with traffic wardens, no problems with the insurance: all this because we are in the EU. The EU legislation on freedom of movement was turned on its head to become our freedom to challenge capital around Europe.23
This freedom has been already exploited by many European movements, allowing, for example, the creation of a large European LGBT, and allowing people to travel to France and Greece in solidarity with workers on strike. Other examples of such international networking are the international anti-fascist self-defense gatherings that have taken place around Europe, last time in Poland, and which will continue in spring 2017 with a gathering in Brighton.
It is true that people could travel around to protests before the EU opened its borders, and that wealthy radical students can travel to Seattle or Brazil for anti-capitalist gatherings. But the Freedom of Movement has made connections much cheaper and accessible: just grab a minibus and go! Together with making our connections easier, the Freedom of Movement has created the conditions to abolish our mental divisions: by developing concrete solidarity across borders and nationalities against the common enemy. This is more than clear to the far right, who would be happy to see environmental, anti-fascist and LGBT activism set back in Europe.
Freedom of Movement and the Freedom of Movement: Illegality as a weapon of capitalism
The Freedom of Movement is a contradiction of capitalism also in another respect: our potential to establish solidarity in our workplaces.
We need to clarify that the Freedom of Movement of labor is not just… freedom of movement, i.e. “allowing free access” to migrants: it is also, and fundamentally, a set of rules that obliges each member state to treat all EU workers and self employed equally. Understanding this is fundamental: without the Freedom of Movement, all EU migrants would be desperate for any crap job, and their struggle to survive would work more efficiently in undermining all wages and working conditions. The principle of the Freedom of Movement were agreed to avoid the most extreme effects of migration.
Brexit will not stop migration, whether legal or illegal. In fact the leader of the House of Commons at the time), Chris Grayling, suggested that EU migrants entering the UK from the Republic of Ireland would not need a visa, but could simply be denied a National Insurance number. It is clear that the ruling class is not interested in stopping the movement of EU workers to the UK, but to undermine their rights and divide them from national workers.
The separation of workers into “legal” and “illegal” is already an instrument of division which has a significant impact on solidarity in workplaces. In order to see how subtly this works, we will now mention a workplace issue, which involved foreign workers.
The scenario in this case was a small food outlet run as a family business. The owner ran the outlet with patriarchal authority, creating a system of personal favors, hiring illegal migrants and paying them under the counter and below the minimum wage. This created a bond between employer and employees, based on gratitude for the favors, and perhaps also a shared feeling of solidarity against the state, as both the petty bourgeois employer and their employees dodged the law. Yet all this also consolidated a very exploitative relationship, where lack of rights made the illegal workers subject to the whims of their employer.
At the same time this situation also divided illegal and legal workers. The employees from the EU had rights, guaranteed by the Freedom of Movement. This meant that their entitlements did not depend on the employer’s patriarchal good heart at all and that they could then see themselves in antagonism with the capital that hired them. Yet, with such a divided workforce, solidarity was impossible. In fact, the case started when a worker from the EU fell out with an illegal workmate: the illegal workmate stuck to the employer, and grassed the other up for minor issues, obtaining an unfair dismissal. After a brief dispute, the leaving worker obtained holiday pay, yet she did not, and could not, receive support from within her workplace.
We need to add that not just “illegal” workers, also non-EU migrants who are granted a visa through their employers will be at their mercy, as they can have their work permit withdrawn at the employer’s whim.
Currently, all workers from the EU are treated equally as British workers and their status does not depend on the will of their employers. For this reason, their loyalty can then develop along clear class lines. For example, we know about Eastern European health and social care workers who tried to initiate a workplace struggle in a care home, involving their British colleagues. By depriving EU migrants of their rights, Brexit will undermine this potential.
Besides our solidarity against the employers, Brexit will undermine our solidarity against the state. Currently, Polish, Italian, and German citizens are not uncommon in protests such as anti-fascist demos or direct actions in the UK. Less common are people from outside the EU. This is not because of a lack of political awareness (in fact, for example, many Iranian refugees were leftwing activists in their country) but because of a condition of vulnerability, as non-EU migrants depend on leaves issued by the national state. Unlike them, EU citizens feel that they can happily antagonize the state and risk arrest, without fearing repercussions, precisely because their right to stay is an “aura” that derives from EU laws and not the state.
It is true that the British government has worked hard to undermine this aura. Following an appeal from the UK government, in January 2014, an EU court decided that prison terms can seriously disrupt EU rights of residence.24 Yet, most EU citizens are still protected, and feel safe in rebellious events, side by side with their British mates. These rights, however, can be wiped out by Brexit. The intention is there: Home Secretary Amber Rudd has just announced at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham that even before Brexit the new government will push to deport EU citizens found guilty of repeated minor offenses.25
Brexit will be the victory of a system which uses borders and illegality as a weapon to divide and weaken us. But the Lexiteers are still proud of this. After all, their anti-racist beliefs will shine unspoiled under the new conditions, which they’ve voted to have — and why not, with migrants under threat and the far right empowered, being an anti-racist will be even more exciting! This is, again, ineffective ideology. Our belief that “solidarity has no borders” does not stand on abstract truths written once and for all by the Marxes and Bakunins and preserved in formalin, but on what we are going to lose: the concrete practice of struggle side by side.
In fact, perhaps we should not expect any exciting left-wing actions in defense of EU citizens at all. It is indeed instructive to compare the reaction to the banning of the Islamic “burkini” garment in France and the xenophobic murder of a Polish migrant in Harlow, which both happened in the late summer of 2016. The search engine reveals the following posts/entries between August and 1 October 2016 (pictured below).
Significantly, the Facebook group “EU leave and remain voters united against racism and prejudice” had in the same period no posts at all on the assault in Harlow or on the vigil that followed it, which would be expected from a group with such a name! In terms of action, while we would expect at least a mini demo in Brighton after a murder, there was none, while the burkini ban had a beach demo on 27 August, as well as an emergency demo in London on 26 August.
If this happened after a murder, we wonder what level of action we are going to see when thousands of EU citizens lose their rights. It is more realistic to think that the left will be too busy with other, more ideologically uncontroversial, issues.26
Brexit means what? Working rights and exploitation
Also the loss of EU directives that protect workers’ rights (minimum wage, pregnancy and sickness rights etc.) is not a step out of global capitalism at all, especially in a situation, like the UK, of very low class militancy.
Like all laws and rights, EU rights are the result of a class settlement, but in this case the settlement has congealed the outcomes of struggles which have taken place in Europe.
While the working class in the UK has quietly accepted to work harder on zero hour contracts after the financial crisis, other countries still face resistance from their working class. Although one may simplistically expect that an institution of the ruling class should automatically be against workers’ rights, it is in the interest of capitalism that standards achieved in other countries, for example France or Germany, are imposed throughout the EU in order too protect national capitals against unfair competition. Thus EU directives impose, at least formally, minimum standards on British employers.
For a few years already UKIP had campaigned against rights at work, especially those imposed by EU directives, and their Brexit campaign was consistent with this. Attacking the EU and its “red tape” meant to attack the laws that regulated work as well as the use of pesticides, gas emissions, animal welfare, etc.
When the British people voted for Brexit, they were not told what Brexit meant — but this question became relevant only after the vote was made. Crucially, the question “what does Brexit mean for the working class?” was not spelled out during the campaign. But something is now taking shape, with May blatantly pushing for very right-wing changes, for example the re-introduction of grammar schools.
The alliance of UKIP and Johnson was a winning combination. Johnson had been pro-EU for years, even demanding that Turkey be admitted to the EU “to reconstruct the Roman Empire.” For the neoliberal Johnson, Brexit means to fully expose the UK to global capitalism. More than an opportunity, this will be a need: if the UK leaves the EU, it will be desperate for any trade deals, and will have to negotiate these deals with large powers and aggressive multinational corporations as a country on its own. China is well aware of this weakness: in the aftermath of the referendum, May was told that a refusal to go ahead with the controversial nuclear power station at Hinkley Point would jeopardize any future trade deals with China. A similar blackmail of the EU would have been impossible, but the UK needs to trade with China, while China does not need to trade with a small island.
Although UKIP’s nationalism would superficially appear to be at the nadir of Johnson’s globalism, the conjunction of “stars” Farage and Johnson makes sense if we see Brexit, simply, as a victory of the ruling class. If UK industry is open to global competition, as Johnson is happy to prospect, national industry will have to adopt a new ethos of production of the sake of international competition. Already in September 2016, Brexiteer Trade minister Liam Fox said at a Conservative “Way Forward” event for business leaders:
We’ve got to change the culture in our country. People have to stop thinking about exporting as an opportunity and start thinking about it as a duty…27
And a new ethos of work and money discipline will have to be re-imposed after decades of “laziness”:
This country is not the free-trading nation that it once was. We have become too lazy, and too fat on our successes in previous generations.28
What appeared to be a reproach to “lazy” chief executives, was in fact an appeal to make British production more efficient — after all, efficiency of production does not depend on whether its directors play golf, but on their capacity to squeeze their workers. In order to survive, British industry will have to streamline production to the standards of Jakarta, or Bangladesh — this means first of all to reduce the costs of labor as well as environmental costs, degrading the treatment of workers, animals, land, water and air. Thus the protection of workers imposed by the EU, however flimsy and difficult to enforce, will have to go, as Farage was happy to prospect.
The smaller domestic industry and petty bourgeois businesses will be under threat from global capital, but there will be lots of illegal migrants from the EU to squeeze.
So, all the pieces of this the Brexit puzzle fit together, suggesting one meaning: Brexit means UKIP. The British capitalists who have been reluctant to face dramatic changes may accept the new challenge and its potential for extreme exploitation of the working class. All this, in the silence and acquiescence of many British workers who think that Brexit is a fantastic pro-working-class achievement, and in the silence and acquiescence of a politically obtuse radical left.
In this article we have argued that the Brexit victory reflected a victory of the far right. We have also seen that many people in the radical left have been blinded by the ideological forms of our social relations to the point of accepting this victory with acquiescence, or even supporting it.
A question remains: since the mystification of capitalism acts upon anyone, why are we able to criticize them? Have we read the right books? Or are we more clever? Not at all. We can criticize them because we have been involved in campaigns and direct action, supporting migrants and casual workers in their benefits and workplace disputes. Unlike some left wing or “political” people who can only see the world from a secure job and a secure home, those who have a direct experience of class struggle for their survival are more likely to perceive the direct relations of bullying and exploitation behind the forms of bourgeois power — even if they have never read Marx! From this perspective, Brexit is not an abstract issue of “globalization,” or “bureaucracy” or any other clever, politically educated issues: it is simply, and obviously, the ruling class’s concrete attempt to undermine our solidarity in the workplace and in the streets.29
From this point of view, supporting a movement to defetishize the “democratic” results of the referendum and sabotage the Brexiteers’ plans would make sense.
1 The test applied to “means-tested” benefits. Benefits acquired through paying National Insurance contributions were not subject to residence conditions.
2 The government would also try to refuse benefits to those who had worked, arguing that their job was not “genuine and effective” or that they had not worked long enough, causing endless legal controversies.
3 The only EU jobless still protected by the directive are those who had lived in the UK for five years “legally,” and, have then acquired a permanent right of residence. “Legally” means: with a right of residence.
4 Non-EU migrants have been subject to a harsh visa scheme allowing only those with jobs earning more than £28,000 per year, which was increased by Theresa May to £35,000 from April 2016, to remain. Being married to a British citizen would not help: husbands or wives of British citizens are deported, and families destroyed. “Immigrants ‘have to earn £35,000’ to settle — from 2016.”
5 In “The renewed imposition of work in the era of austerity,” Aufheben № 19 (2011), we described the resurgence of new benefits struggles after the financial crisis, and expected that these struggles could grow. We were a bit too optimistic. The whole of the anti-cuts movement, including claimant struggles, failed to take off.
6 “Brexit: nine in 10 EU workers might not qualify for a visa.”
7 A journalist described Gove on the morning of the 24 June as “someone who comes down from an acid trip and discovers they’ve killed their best friend”!
8 The issue of the Common Market had the same contradictions as today — indeed, leftwing Tony Benn campaigned against it alongside extreme rightwing Tory Enoch Powell.
9 It is not clear how many Corbyn supporters were “neutral” on Brexit; some polls show that most Momentum supporters (>60%) were pro-Remain; the new people joining Labour through “the Corbyn effect” appear to be a mixture of old left types coming back to Labour (and so anti-EU) and other people who were new to politics; these latter have no prior commitment to anti-EU Bennism and many see the EU as progressive.
10 “Jeremy Corbyn pledges to change Labour’s policy on immigration after Brexit vote” The Independent, Saturday 25 June 2016. As we explained several times in Aufheben, this romantic idea of “communities” is just ideological. In fact most of those who voted to leave were just individual tabloid or Telegraph readers.
11 “Jeremy Corbyn: Brexit is happening and Parliament must accept it,” The Independent, 19 September 2016.
13 Which is a mirror image of the ideology of the far right, as this conflation was used during the Brexit campaign.
14 Facing the attack from the new government on EU migrants, a Socialist Workers Party hack stated at a public meeting that the solution to the post-referendum racism was that to have lots of demonstrations against… the EDL. This only shows how far these ideologues are from reality.
15 “John McDonnell: Brexit will end free movement of people,” The Guardian, 1 July 2016, and BBC News, 19 June 2016, op. cit.
16 “Jeremy Corbyn says EU free movement means no immigration limit,” BBC News, 19 June 2016; and “Jeremy Corbyn refuses to promise immigration cutback,” The Week, 28 September 2016.
17 “At least Jeremy Corbyn tells the truth: being in the EU means unlimited immigration,” The Telegraph, 19 June 2016.
18 “Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to promise EU migration cuts wise if the Tories’ track record is any guide,” The Huffington Post, 28 September 2016.
19 In “Reclaim the state debate,” Aufheben № 18 (2010), we discussed excellent criticism of structuralism, which assumes that subjectivity is shaped by such “objective” structures, in particular that of Simon Clarke in The State Debate (edited by Simon Clarke), St Martin’s Press.
20 For a detailed chronology and analysis of the pension dispute, see S. Johns (2012) “‘The fight of our lives’: An analysis of the UK pensions dispute,” Libcom.
21 E.g., Rousseau.
22 “UK activists to shut down one of Europe’s biggest coal mines.”
23 The merits of individual actions or demos across Europe is a separate issue. What is important is that the potential for transnational solidarity would be affected by a clamp down on the freedom of movement.
24 Nnamdi Onuekwere v Secretary of State for the Home Department.
25 “EU criminals facing deportation and UK ban for up to 10 years,” Sky News, Tuesday 4 October 2016.
26 This bankruptcy is exemplified by the action taken in July 2013 by six senior officers of Brighton and Hove District Trades Council and managers of the Brighton Unemployed Workers’ Center, when a worker from the EU who had lived, studied, and worked in the UK for 20 years, complained about a xenophobic email sent to a British co-worker by her manager and UNISON officer Tony Greenstein: “P. is a liar who only half understands English I’m not speaking 2 the bitch give me some credit.” The reaction was: silence — not even a single word in solidarity with the worker, let alone a word censoring the email. In fact concrete solidarity was better shown to the worker by the supposedly politically illiterate proletariat of the local council estate.
27 “№ 10 distances itself from Liam Fox remarks on ‘lazy’ companies,” The Guardian, 13 September 2016.
29 Analogously, it was only because of involvement in struggles with the German proletariat that gave Marx the opportunity to see through the veils of the capitalist forms — and not because of his philosophical studies.