Lessons from the Yellow Vest upsurge
by Reuben Bard-Rosenberg
When President Macron raised the duty on fuel, few were taken in by his pretence that the measure was primarily environmental. It was, most obviously, a regressive means of cutting the deficit in a country already suffering from double digit unemployment. Yet the policy also had a distinct spatial significance.
As many French protestors would argue, in provincial France you cannot take the Paris Metro. The policy hit low earners across the board. But it was a particularly harsh kick in the teeth to struggling residents of the villages and small towns. And it was here that the Yellow Vest upsurge really began. The spatial unevenness in France mirrors the policies of the centre against the periphery in the EU broadly. Socialists must take this seriously to confront the Europe’s liberal economic order.
The old order holds
When Alexis Tsipras was elected prime minister of Greece in 2015, leftists across the continent were moved to dust off their theories of the centre and the periphery, and to apply to Europe the sort of rhetoric that, in recent times, has mostly been applied to global North-South relations. Many radical social democrats hoped that Tsipras would lead a revolt against a European economic order that was built around German exports and Southern European debt.
As it turned out, the solidarity of state-power across geographical boundaries pulled the European order together more powerfully than divergent national interests pulled it apart. Tsipras became a faithful subordinate servant of the European economic system – and proceeded to pay back debt, starve pensioners, and sell public utilities to German banks.
Across the Adriatic, Italy’s industrial capacity continued to be airlifted across the Pyrenees, largely on account of continental free trade and the single currency, whilst its nominally social-democratic government acquiesced, and continued to cut the social and individual wage in a vain attempt to restore competitiveness. Even the hard-right showboaters currently in power in Rome have shown themselves to have far more bark than bite when it comes to confronting Brussels.
The European order, then, has proven somewhat resilient to the possibility that politicians may act in what they might regard as the national interest. Yet, in France and elsewhere, we see a new spatial crack emerging in the system: namely the divergence between the vast conurbations in which a minority of the European population live, and the smaller settlements everywhere else.
First, let us be clear: notwithstanding the peculiarly unappealing character of Emmanuel Macron, the tensions which have boiled over in France are distinctly European in origin. His is the third successive French government – each clad in a different colour – to try to implement a comprehensive programme aimed at breaking industrial organisation, reducing regulation, and cutting the cost of labour. And their policies are consistent with the programmes that have been implemented by nominally conservative and nominally social-democratic governments right across the Eurozone.
This is not a coincidence. When it comes to the political economy of the Eurozone, there are three basic parameters which oblige both conservative and social-democratic governments to bow down before the god of international competitiveness, and to do so at the expense of jobs and living standards. Firstly, there is Germany, Europe’s hegemon accounting for nearly a third of the entire output of the Eurozone, whose influence on the European economy has been shaped by two decades of wage restraint, rising productivity (until 2007) and therefore falling unit labour costs. In the context of a free trade area this sets the standard with which their neighbours compete, typically at the expense of the domestic working class.
The golden calf of competitiveness
Secondly there is the single currency. Governments cannot make their goods competitive (that is to say, cheaper on international markets) by reducing the value of their currency, since they do not have their own currency. Rather competitiveness must be restored at the expense of working people.
Finally, there is synchronised, Europe-wide austerity – a policy locked in, and generalised across the continent by the Stability and Growth Pact, which obliges governments across the continent to pursue policies of retrenchment. The consequent decimation of demand across the continent has inevitably led to long term mass unemployment across the Eurozone. Equally it means that countries can only hope to control unemployment by seeking to out-compete one another in a shrinking European market, rather than by boosting domestic demand.
The impact of all of this is spatially uneven. Over the past twenty years, right across the Northern Hemisphere, jobs and capital have drained to the major urban centres. This is partly a consequence of freer and freer trade and hence over-specialisation. The sectors which remain competitive within mature capitalist democracies – such as tech and finance – are overwhelmingly located in the very biggest cities. The tendency for only a small slither of internationally competitive sectors to flourish is, meanwhile, locked in by the insulation of trade policy from popular politics. Unelected European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom is at liberty to pursue a policy of freer and freer trade, unencumbered by the interests of those who stand to lose. Meanwhile the prohibition against state aid makes impossible the sort of major industrial strategy that is necessary to achieve serious regional rebalancing.
This spatial unevenness is visible at a political level too. Macron received 29% of the Parisian vote during the first round of the presidential election, compared with 24% nationally. The three establishment candidates (Macron plus the mainstream Conservative and Social Democratic parties) won 60% of the vote in Paris but just 45% of the vote in settlements of under 100k. We are seeing similar patterns right across Europe, as smaller towns bear the brunt of austerity and of changes to the global division of labour. Electorally, the ability of the established parties to cling to power has produced a situation akin to 17th century Europe, wherein the urban centres govern hinterlands whose populations don’t tend to vote for the people governing them.
Yet there is also a sense in which France is unusual. Across the Northern Hemisphere – from Michigan to Dresden – the radical right has often been able to outpace the left at leveraging tensions between city and town, and drawing upon the spatial contours of contemporary capitalist inequality. In France we encounter a somewhat different situation. No doubt, Marine Le Pen piled up votes in the rust belt and much of rural France. Yet it is also the case that Mélenchon won around 20% of the vote in the countryside and the small towns.
When the Yellow Vest movement began, various socialists sounded a note of caution: there was, after all, a far-right presence at numerous road-blocks. If the left had opted, on that basis, to draw a cordon sanitaire around the movement, the results would have been catastrophic. Instead, people got stuck in, and within weeks, radical, egalitarian demands had become dominant, if not absolutely hegemonic, and Yellow Vests marched arm-in-arm with the red vests of the CGT.
What does this all mean for socialists? There is, I think, an important balancing act to be undertaken. We need to avoid romantic appeals to “forgotten communities”, which too often treat neighbourhoods as though they represent shared pools of wealth, and which at worst can slip into nativism.
Yet a focus upon the “primacy of class” should not mean ignoring the particular character contemporary capitalist inequality. We need to take the geographical community seriously – if not as a natural unit of solidarity, then certainly as important determinant of somebody’s subject position in relation to the present economic order. We need to challenge both the conservative determination to let the market do its worst, and the patronising liberal warbling about the “left behind”.
Instead, let us assert that Europe’s liberal economic order has been organised in such a way as to screw over a great many people outside of the gilded spatial and sectoral citadels. Breaking a system that is built around free trade, a single currency, and prohibitions against state aid is the only basis on which we can fight for something better for people everywhere.
by Seán Byers
There are decades when nothing happens; and there are weeks when decades happen.
So Lenin is believed to have remarked about the overthrow of the old order in Russia more than one hundred years ago. These words could equally be applied to Brexit. But it is in this context that the concrete analysis, methodological rigour and political resolve advocated by Bolshevik leader is lacking among sections of the left.
On Tuesday, Theresa May announced to the House of Commons that she will put any revised Withdrawal Agreement with the EU to a meaningful vote on 12 March. If this is rejected, she will offer MPs the opportunity to vote for a no-deal Brexit – which would see the UK leave the EU on WTO rules on 29 March. If that fails, she will ask Parliament to vote on a proposed extension of the Article 50 negotiation process. May has warned that any extension should be short and a one-off, since taking it “beyond the end of June would mean the UK taking part in the European Parliament elections.”
The announcement of a possible extension has been expected for a while and remains the most likely short-term outcome. But there are aspects of May’s strategy that could be seen as marginally strengthening her chances of squeezing through a deal. Most notably, the proposed sequencing of the three Commons votes, putting a no deal Brexit and a potential delay on the table, is designed to spook hard Remainers while simultaneously turning the screw on the right-wing European Research Group (ERG).
Led by the eccentric Jacob Rees-Mogg, a throwback to the eighteenth century, the ERG has the support of up to 90 of a total 314 Tory MPs. They were decisive in bringing about the historic 230-vote defeat of the government when May brought her first deal before the Commons back in January. Now, however, there are indications that Rees-Mogg has softened his opposition to the backstop, and the looming prospect of a delay or a second referendum may ultimately lead the ERG to accept a tweaked deal as the least worst result.
Alongside this May will continue to lobby EU leaders in search of the elusive deal that commands a parliamentary majority and avoids the threat of a hard border in Ireland. She is also set to court the trade union movement and Labour MPs in Leave constituencies, by formally announcing a series of protections for workers and unions post-Brexit. The British Trades Union Congress (TUC) leadership have yet to endorse these proposals, although they have form when it comes to making deals with the Tories. Many will recall that the TUC swiftly fell in behind David Cameron’s campaign for Remain back in 2016, after the government pledged to dilute its vicious anti-trade union bill. Former TUC leader Brendan Barber even penned a letter with Cameron outlining how, in his view, organised labour and the Tories shared a common vision of Europe!
It remains to be seen how many Labour MPs will be bought by May’s modest concessions. But the experience of 2016 and the intervening period tells us that any such tactical alliance will only breed more division within the labour movement, strengthen the forces of reaction and keep the Tories in power.
Old wine in new bottles: The Independent Group
If things are looking up for the once beleaguered Prime Minister, Jeremy Corbyn has just had one of the worst weeks of his three and a half year tenure as Labour leader. The first blow came with the resignation of seven Labour MPs to form the centrist Independent Group, soon to be joined by another Labour MP and three Tory Remainers.
Addressing a press conference for the new group’s launch, the former Labour contingent spoke of their dissatisfaction with the leadership’s handling of Brexit and approach to dealing with allegations of antisemitism in the party. They promised “a new alternative”, one “not led by ideology” or “locked in the old politics of the 20th century”. However, their politics are not in any way grounded in the times in which we live, nor are their motives as clear-cut as they would make out.
To begin with, it can be seen that a centrist breakaway has been long in gestation, based on a deep hostility to the project spearheaded by Corbyn and overwhelmingly endorsed by the Labour membership on successive occasions. Six of the eight defectors voted for Liz Kendall, Corbyn’s Blairite opponent in the 2015 Labour leadership election, while another, Chuka Ummuna, resigned from the Shadow Cabinet immediately following the election. And, despite winning their Westminster seats in 2017 on the back of Labour’s radical manifesto, some with massively increased majorities, all have consistently and actively sought to undermine the party’s left leadership over the years.
Crucially, the breakaway comes at a time when the MPs in question are coming under increasing pressure at a grassroots level. Three of the former Labour MPs have lost votes of no confidence in the past year, while a no-confidence motion submitted against Luciana Berger earlier this month was eventually withdrawn by her local party after coming under criticism. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has already said that “the honourable thing for [the Independent Group MPs] to do now is to stand down and fight by-elections back in their constituencies”. Local Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) have rightly echoed this call. There is no prospect of this coming to fruition, however, as each and every one of the defectors would probably lose their seats.
Beyond rank opportunism and careerism, The Independent Group are united by a history of backing austerity and a hotchpotch of soundbites that hark back to the New Labour era, at best. On progressive taxation, investment in public services, public ownership of utilities and key industries, improved wages and working conditions, a fair welfare system, and free education, they have shown themselves to be out of step with Labour members, supporters and wider public opinion. Indeed, the emptiness of what they actually stand for was badly exposed during a relatively softball interview on BBC.
The centrists round on Corbyn
In short, The Independent Group wishes to hit the reset button and return to 2008. History suggests that this doubling down on centrism is likely to fail when put to the test. But this move has to be seen in the context of a broader and more sustained assault on Corbyn from within and without the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), one which poses a fundamental threat to the Labour left project and the grassroots movement behind it.
The main internal threat is likely to be cultivated by Tom Watson, Corbyn’s long time deputy. Immediately following the establishment of The Independent Group, Watson announced that he would be forming an internal caucus of disaffected Labour MPs – ostensibly to assuage their concerns, provide an outlet for policy discussion and preserve the unity of the party as a whole. But, again, Watson harbours leadership ambitions and is widely thought to have been supportive of past coup attempts. Newspaper reports have suggested that he played an active part in fomenting the recent split, taking part in covert discussions with centrist MPs and arch-Blairite Peter Mandelson as early as July of last year.
Watson and his acolytes have been visibly strengthened by another incident this week, involving left wing MP Chris Williamson. A Corbyn ally, Williamson has been suspended and issued with a notice of investigation following ill-judged remarks that the Labour Party had been “too apologetic” in dealing with accusations of antisemitism. Williamson has since published a retraction and detailed apology on Twitter, reasserting his commitment to anti-racism. Predictably, the Labour right and mainstream media have sought to weaponise the incident, demonstrating the lengths that they will go to in order to bring down Corbyn and prevent a radical social democratic government. Worryingly, some of the left commentariat have instinctively joined the chorus of denunciation, perhaps failing to realise that this gives undue weight to the smear that Labour is institutionally antisemitic at a time when the war against Corbyn is escalating.
Corbyn’s Brexit strategy
Amidst all of this, Corbyn has responded to the unfolding crisis over Brexit in a way that seeks to hold a divided PLP together while building a support base of Remain and Leave voters. On Wednesday, as part of Labour’s official step-by-step approach, Corbyn put forward his alternative Brexit plan which would have enshrined the party’s five demands for Brexit in law. As expected, Corbyn’s amendment for a softer Brexit was defeated in the Commons, with the Independent Group abstaining.
Following this result, Corbyn stated his party’s intention to continue campaigning for its alternative plan, to press for a general election and support a public vote. This is not a new policy, but rather is strictly in line with the decision overwhelmingly endorsed at conference last year. By contrast, the party’s Brexit spokesperson Keir Starmer has gone beyond conference policy to announce to the world that: “A public vote ought to be between the option on the one hand of a credible leave deal and on the other hand remain”.
Corbyn is banking on the parliamentary arithmetic holding up against a second referendum, with the majority of Tory MPs and at least 35 Labour MPs strongly opposed. That way he can credibly argue that he supported Remainers’ demands and was ultimately frustrated in doing so. At the same time, he can tell hard Leave voters that he explored every possible option before reluctantly supporting a second referendum. But the bottom line is that he needs to avoid the entrenched divisions and outright disaster that a re-run of the referendum would bring.
What is to be done?
The risk of this strategy that the clock is ticking while the political balance of forces are gradually shifting in favour of a second referendum and away from the possibility of a general election, pushing Labour’s popular programme into the background. Internal and external pressure on the left is growing, severely narrowing its options. We can be sure that the crisis engulfing the Labour Party will continue to intensify, building towards an inevitable coup.
Faced with disloyalty, deceit and persistent smear campaigns, Corbyn has typically responded with concessions and conciliation, even co-opting some of his most vocal critics onto the Shadow Cabinet. But it is clear that the right will not be satisfied until he is gone and the advances of the past three years are totally obliterated. To halt and ultimately reverse this onslaught, something will have to change. The Labour left, trade unions, local Momentum groups and CLPs will have to mobilise and fight, alongside those outside of the Labour Party who have been advocates for Corbyn’s project. Working-class community structures will have to be supported and integrated more deeply into the Labour left apparatus, horizontally and vertically. Political education will also need to be rolled out in order that grassroots activists can take on their opponents intellectually as well as on the streets.
This mobilisation will need to be on a scale witnessed during Corbyn’s second leadership election victory or indeed the general election of 2017. And it needs to begin now.
The politics of Irish unity and a social Europe – Part 2
by Declan Kearney
Today we bring you the second of a two-part guest post by Declan Kearney, Sinn Féin National Chairperson and Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for South Antrim. Here he sets out the case for a new Ireland within a social Europe, arguing that the current political and economic crisis demands progressive interventions by the Irish labour movement and the political unity of broad left forces across the Continent.
The dawning political and economic reality is that Brexit has changed everything. It has exposed the negative role that partition continues to play in Irish affairs, and the fundamentally anti-democratic nature of the union with Britain. At the same time the British state has been pushed into an unprecedented, existential political crisis.
Brexit has created a defining moment for these islands. All of the established constitutional, political and economic assumptions about the status quo in Ireland have been swept away. International attention has been refocused upon the democratic case for Irish unity. New political discussions have begun about the future of Ireland, north and south, and the relationship between Britain and Ireland.
Significantly a seismic shift has also occurred in the ambition and expectations of republican, nationalist and other progressive minded citizens in the north of Ireland. A new generation is questioning partition. Many within society north and south are looking beyond Brexit and towards the prospect of accelerated Irish reunification.
Europe at a cross road
The fallout from Brexit has also significantly influenced political discourse within the EU itself. Britain’s border in Ireland has now become an EU issue. The level of interest in, and support for constitutional change in Ireland is now at an all-time high across the EU.
The European Parliament and EU institutions have become strategically important arenas within which to promote the democratic aim of a united Ireland and to encourage international support for a unity referendum.
Sinn Féin will continue lobbying and influencing to make the objective of Irish reunification a priority for the progressive left and other strands of democratic opinion represented in the European Parliament.
All this comes at a time when Europe itself is at a cross road. The political direction, policy orientation and increasing need for reform of the EU, paralleled with, and often fuelling the rise of extreme right wing forces, present a serious threat to the principles of the progressive left. Social democracy has all but collapsed both politically and electorally across Europe.
There is an urgent need to build a progressive left alternative throughout Europe and to popularise a new political narrative, or common sense, based upon the vision of a social Europe. To include the following key principles:
• That economies must serve the many not the few.
• That human rights are inalienable.
• That the global environment is protected.
• That Europe should act as a force for international peace and solidarity.
• That racism, sectarianism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia are rejected.
These positions should be central to a common platform upon which to expand the political strength of the progressive left.
The need for left unity
However, such strength will not be realised without unity and cohesion among parties and democratic forces on the left in Europe. Unity needs to be expanded, whilst respecting and recognising the unique national characteristics which distinguish various parties and movements.
Unanimity is not required on all issues, all of the time, but progressives cannot afford to be disunited.
Political sectarianism undermines political strength, solidarity and fraternity on the progressive left. The collective strength of the progressive left in Europe stems from the domestic relevance and political strength of its constituent parts.
The left will only be as strong across Europe and in the European Parliament as progressive left and republican parties are relevant and strong in their national contexts. The success of a real progressive left alternative depends upon securing strategic beachheads of political strength and influence. That is why the resilience of the left-wing government in Greece in the face of huge adversity is so politically important.
And while progressives need to be in a hurry to make change and in pursuit of a social and more democratic Europe, we also need to be realistic and pragmatic. The distinction between strategy and tactical positions need to be understood. Alliances with others are indispensable to changing the overall balance of forces. Rigid or dogmatic ideological positions can prevent agreement upon shared objectives and securing unity among the widest cross section of progressive and democratic opinion.
The political discussion and focus upon an emergent European ‘Progressive Caucus’ embracing the left, social democrats, and environmentalists is such an innovative and welcome initiative. A strategic consensus among the progressive left and others should be based upon support for national independence, social emancipation, citizen’s rights, and democratic economic control.
Campaigning for a new Europe
The fact is that beyond Brexit, the EU will continue to exist and the strategic challenge will be to shift the balance of influence in the direction of securing a new Europe based on equality, rights and solidarity.
Irish unity is integral to the vision of a new Europe.
In the coming months the progressive left needs to focus its collective efforts upon maximising representation and influence in the next European Parliament. In an era where economic models across Europe serve the interests of the few, the European Parliament should be a site of political struggle within which to raise the need for democratic control of economies; collective bargaining rights; tax justice; equal pay for equal work; proper trades union recognition; and the eradication of precarious working conditions.
Sinn Féin will contest the European elections this year on a platform supporting the development of a social Europe. In the next European Parliament mandate we will campaign for, and highlight the protection of rural and fishing communities; the promotion of economic democracy; enhanced environmental policy, human rights and social justice; as well as defence of the Irish peace process and seek to maximise support for Irish unity.
Towards a new Ireland
The debate on Irish unity and the timing of a unity referendum have now moved centre stage. In Ireland reunification is the defining issue for our generation. Brexit means that change in the political relations between Britain and Ireland is now unavoidable, and, while partition never had any democratic legitimacy, its continued imposition is no longer sustainable.
Partition has run out of road. British government policy towards Ireland must change. Negative mismanagement of the Irish peace process and the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) by successive British governments, and the particular pro-Unionist bias of the Tory government since 2010, must be replaced with a recognition that the transition towards Irish unity should begin. Initially that should take the form of preparing for a unity referendum and by engaging in a new political discussion with the Irish government and all political parties on the island of Ireland in relation to reunification.
For many in the British establishment this will be an anathema. For those in the Tory Party leadership who have tied their electoral survival to an alliance with the DUP, this prospect may be unthinkable. However, it is time for historic, decisive and brave leadership to be shown by the British state.
In parallel, the Irish government needs to begin to prepare for the constitutional, political and economic transition towards Irish unity. A Green Paper on Irish unity should be published detailing the constitutional, political, fiscal and economic measures for a successful transition to a united Ireland.
A joint Oireachtas (i.e., the two houses of the Irish parliament) all party committee on Irish unity should be established. The Irish government should commence a discussion with the EU Commission and institutions to explore their practical role and support in facilitating an efficient process of reunification. It should facilitate an open and inclusive national conversation on Irish unity involving all citizens, political parties, social partners and civic society.
That is a dialogue about our collective future on the island of Ireland which addresses all the concerns, accommodations and compromises relevant to negotiating a new, all Ireland, pluralist, constitutional democracy.
Labour should not wait
Today this new focus upon Irish unity provides Irish trade unionists and workers with an opportunity to influence the debate about future constitutional and political change. Previous moments of political change have required that labour should wait. The emerging challenge for the Irish labour movement north and south is to engage with this new discussion. The labour movement will only successfully put its mark on the Irish unity debate by arguing for the primacy of economic democracy, and making the case for a rights-based society in a new Ireland.
That will require Irish trade unionists to take strategic positions on supporting an Irish unity referendum and then to campaign positively for constitutional change. Of course, this will be a challenging discussion for the Irish labour movement, and for some others on the Irish left and within progressive opinion. But it should not be feared or avoided.
Today in modern Ireland and Europe there is a battle for hearts and minds about how society is organised. The old order has failed. A united Ireland and a new Europe which serves the interests of the many instead of the few will not be wished into existence.
In Ireland, Labour should not wait again. The Irish labour movement needs to assert itself on the Irish unity debate by introducing a progressive labour agenda to the unfolding discourse on future constitutional and political change.
Across Europe the progressive left has to unite within itself, and develop the breadth of political and social alliances which can change the balance of forces, and popularise a new vision for a social Europe based on democracy, equality and solidarity.
The politics of Irish unity and a social Europe – Part 1
by Declan Kearney
This week’s guest post, the first of two parts, is penned by Declan Kearney, Sinn Féin National Chairperson and Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for South Antrim. Here he sketches out the historical, economic and political context in which Brexit has brought the question of Irish unification to the fore. Tomorrow, we will bring you his thoughts on the political realignments, alliances, interventions that will be required to build a new Ireland and a social Europe.
The only certainty about Brexit is that it is a product of an ideological civil war within the British Tory Party, which has destabilised that party since the British state joined the European Economic Community in 1973.
Theresa May’s approach to handling the Brexit negotiations since she became British Prime Minister has been governed by how she manages those divisions in order to maintain her leadership and a Tory government in power.
Outwardly the British government’s conduct of negotiations with the EU has been chaotic. It is impossible to predict what may happen next, as developments unfold.
However, in practice all of the vacillation has been about playing for time. In the context of the looming 29 March withdrawal date set by triggering Article 50, it seems the clock is being run down. Ultimately, Theresa May appears to be attempting brinkmanship with the Tory Brexit extremists, and the Tory government’s allies in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), by presenting a zero sum scenario, that the only alternative to supporting her Brexit option is potentially no agreement with the EU.
Brexit ‘a catastrophe’
All the economic forecasts suggest that Brexit will be bad for Britain. However, its imposition will be a catastrophe for Ireland’s island economy, and the regional economic system in the north of Ireland.
The entire political thrust of Brexit runs counter to the foundations of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) which represents the architecture of the Irish peace process. The GFA put in place a power-sharing system requiring cooperation between the biggest parties representing the north’s two main communities – currently Sinn Féin and the DUP. The Agreement also includes strong all-island provisions in addition to protections for those who have an Irish national identity and aspire to the reunification of Ireland. The DUP’s support for Brexit however threatens to further weaken the already fragile political process in the northern state, while guaranteeing a new border and more division in Ireland.
The imposition of Brexit by the British Tory government on the north of Ireland is inherently undemocratic in nature. It is contrary to the will of the majority in the north of Ireland who voted to remain in the EU.
But it is also a direct by product of Ireland’s undemocratic and continued partition, enforced by British colonial policy. Partition is the central fault line at the heart of Irish society and politics. One key historical consequence of British colonial policy in Ireland and its consequences for Irish society has been to divide Irish workers along communal lines. That has paralysed the labour movement from effectively challenging partition and championing the strategic aim of Irish unity.
Labour, partition and counter revolution
The fact is Labour was indeed told to wait when the resurgent struggle for national independence grew in momentum just over 100 years ago. However, rather than securing national independence, that phase of struggle culminated in partition and the emergence of two conservative states in the north and south of the island.
The counter revolution which took place after partition represented a strategic setback for labour and working-class interests in the new southern ‘free state’. It eclipsed the seminal influence which socialist republicanism had on the 1916 Proclamation and the Democratic Programme of the First Dáil.
The rights of workers became subservient to the conservative elites, north and south. Sections of the labour movement were also compliant with British policy in Ireland and the imposition of partition. These tendencies opposed the core position championed by James Connolly, Ireland’s most prominent socialist republican revolutionary leader that “the two currents of revolutionary thought in Ireland, the socialist and the national, were not antagonistic but complementary”.
This division reflects key a contradiction within the Irish labour movement and its relationship with the Irish national liberation struggle, and anti-imperialism generally; and which has endured since the beginning of the twentieth century. As a result, the Irish labour movement, particularly in the north of Ireland, has failed to challenge partition and modern British state policy towards Ireland.
Political Unionism and crisis in the north of Ireland
Partition has been an abject failure. It was never designed to make the northern state a political or economic success. From the beginning this state has carried within it the conditions of inherent instability. It was built upon institutionalised and structural sectarianism which ensured that a substantial minority – specifically the Irish nationalist population – was destined never to be treated as equals.
The Civil Rights Movement fifty years ago exposed the inability of the Unionist state to treat the minority as equals. That belligerent opposition from powerful sections within political Unionism against reform of the northern state persists today. Unionism is a political position that seeks to maintain the north of Ireland’s constitutional status within the UK, and it comes in different strains, including that of a broad-based civic Unionism. However, the DUP represents the dominant force within Unionism – and it is they who have remained hostile towards implementation of the GFA since 1998.
Refusal by the DUP to embrace a rights-based society and equality, culminated in the collapse of the GFA political institutions – the north’s regional government – in January 2017, and the associated political crisis which has continued since then. As was clearly spelt out by Sinn Féin leader Martin McGuinness, who had held the position of Joint First Minister in the regional government since 2007, in his resignation letter:
“The equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement have never been fully embraced by the DUP.
Apart from the negative attitude to nationalism and to the Irish identity and culture, there has been a shameful disrespect towards many other sections of our community. Women, the LGBT community and ethnic minorities have felt this prejudice. And for those who wish to live their lives through the medium of Irish, elements in the DUP have exhibited the most crude and crass bigotry.”
In addition, during the preceding months it emerged that an ill-conceived green energy Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme was seriously mismanaged by departments within the regional government held by DUP ministers, including the DUP leader Arlene Foster. This was the latest in a string of financial scandals implicating the DUP, following Red Sky and NAMA, and thus represented the last straw for many republicans.
As a consequence of RHI, £500 million may be lost to the north’s budget and vital public services. Serious allegations that the scheme was open to abuse and corruption are now the subject of a public inquiry established by the former Sinn Féin Minister for Finance. The scandal threatens to destabilise for decades the financial basis of regional public services due to serious mismanagement and the parallel allegations of insider trading, aggressive commercial exploitation and corruption.
Between March 2017 and February 2018 five phases of consecutive negotiations occurred to try and re-establish the political institutions. On 9 February 2018, Sinn Féin and the DUP arrived at an advanced draft agreement which provided the basis for restoration of the regional government. Five days later the DUP unilaterally stepped away from that agreement and have refused to engage in meaningful negotiations ever since.
It is clear those currently in charge of the DUP do not support proper power-sharing. The party brand has become indistinguishable from financial scandal and sharp practice in government. As a party, the DUP is permanently in conflict with all accepted democratic reforms, social modernity, and standards in public office. Its project is negative and tactical, and entirely focused upon slowing down and blocking progressive change, while maintaining hegemony within the Unionist constituency.
The DUP is in denial about how society in Ireland, and even Britain, views its sectarian, homophobic and toxic pact with the Tories. The overwhelming majority of republicans, nationalists and many others, including sections of civic Unionism, have concluded that the DUP has had its chance and cannot now be trusted in government. They will not be giving the DUP permission to get back into power at the risk of allowing it to continue practicing discrimination, intimidation, bigotry, or sharp practice.
Brexit and Tory austerity
This deepening political crisis is further accentuated by systemic structural weaknesses in the regional economy of the north. The required investment in local public services and protection of workers’ rights are denied by a combination of Tory austerity and imposition of Brexit. Pressures on public services are intensifying. The regional block grant, or public expenditure settlement allocated by the British government exchequer has been reduced by 10.2%.
Real term cuts to public funding are now factored into future budget profiles alongside:
• Actual net cuts in take home pay for public and private sector workers;
• Welfare cuts;
• Higher inflation and living costs.
Moreover, 108,600 adults in working families are living in relative poverty. Average wages in the north remain lower than ten years ago. Precarious working conditions, zero hours’ contracts, and the scam of bogus self-employment used by some employers are in common practice. Workers’ rights and protections are being systematically reversed.
So, the onset of Brexit is set to deepen an existing race to the bottom by further undermining the potential for economic growth, and new investment. The Brexit agenda, twinned with Tory austerity threaten jobs across all economic sectors, workers’ terms and conditions, and, any potential for sustainable public services in the north.
All island threats
The twin challenges of Brexit and austerity extend into the south of Ireland, where the inequality divide continues to deepen notwithstanding its supposed recovery since the financial crash destroyed the southern economy. Huge pay disparities, precarious working conditions, and labour unrest all sit alongside a lack of investment and resultant, endemic crises in health and housing. Four thousand children are made to sleep in temporary accommodation each week due to the lack of affordable housing in the southern state.
In addition, the all island economic activity which has greatly expanded as a result of the peace process and has become a key driver for trade, investment and employment creation within the south is now directly jeopardised by Brexit.
Ireland north and south faces a perfect storm of adversity, which can be weathered only by strengthening the all-Irish labour movement and by pursuing Irish unity within a social Europe.
Europe is facing an explosion of far right movements not seen since the Second World War. This new fascism is well financed, increasingly transnational, and intent on turning the clock back decades on democracy, human rights, gender politics and the freedoms of minorities.
What is it that’s tantalising millions of Europeans into this hallucination of the past? And how can civil society and progressive activists respond? These are the questions we’re discussing on our first ever live international edition of the Another Europe Is Possible Podcast in Vienna, with Luke Cooper, a visiting fellow at the IWM, and Zoe Williams from the Guardian.
Rafal Pankowski is a sociologist based in Warsaw. His four books on Polish fascism and his irrepressible campaigning on antisemitism and minority rights in Poland has moved the ruling far right Law And Justice party to denounce him as an enemy of the state.
Ruth Wodak is an award winning linguist based in Lancaster and Vienna. She’s a leading specialist on European fascism and an outspoken critic of the ruling Freedom Party in Austria, and her indispensable 2015 book The Politics Of Fear mercilessly dismantled the strategies and fictions of Europe’s rightwing populists.
Produced in collaboration with Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Brussels Office.
by Johanna Bussemer
Today, Theresa May asked the UK parliament once again to extend the Brexit negotiations. Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn was right last Tuesday when he countered May’s announcement that she would be making such a request by saying: “We were promised there would be a deal last October – that didn’t happen. We were promised a meaningful vote on a deal in December – that didn’t happen. We were told to prepare for a further meaningful vote this week after the prime minister again promised to secure “significant and legally binding” changes to the backstop – and that hasn’t happened.” The backstop is a reference to the arrangement for the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which May and the EU enshrined in their agreement and which proved instrumental in the deal’s abject failure to pass through the UK House of Commons.
Corbyn accuses May of having just one real tactic: “to run down the clock hoping Members of this House are blackmailed into supporting a deeply flawed deal.” This is not an unlikely scenario, bearing in mind it has also been announced that the crucial vote may not now be held until 21 March, after the next EU summit. That would be just nine days before the United Kingdom leaves the EU.
May’s tactic, instead of leaving the EU via a so-called ‘hard Brexit’, i.e. a very low-level agreement, could come off. It is both destructive and precarious, because nobody can really foresee the economic – and therefore also social – consequences of both a low-level and unregulated Brexit.
But Corbyn, too, is playing a tactical game. On 6 February, when he submitted a five-point plan to Theresa May designed to legally enshrine a permanent customs union, close alignment with the EU single market, and clear agreements on EU-funded projects in the fields of the environment, education, science and industrial regulation, as well as the safeguarding of labour rights and agreements in the security domain, this had two immediate consequences. Firstly, it put May under pressure to involve the Opposition in shaping Brexit. Secondly, it meant that any inclusion of the individual points set out in Corbyn’s catalogue of demands could henceforth be construed as weakness on May’s part. Accordingly, Corbyn is positioning himself as someone who is not standing in the way of plans, but at the same time to some extent has the ‘last word’.
The ‘Labour version of Brexit’ clearly emerges from this five-point plan. For despite its surely fierce internal disagreements, Corbyn’s shadow cabinet still seems to favour a Brexit that raises hopes of a subsequent general election over the holding of a second referendum on the United Kingdom’s EU membership. Yet this second referendum is what the Left and more progressive wing of the Labour Party wants, rightly linking the questions about the referendum with the issue of its own party’s capacity for democracy.
Corbyn’s five-point plan takes up his own party’s main criticisms of Brexit – knowing full well that they will not be met – and in this way is seeking to unite the party more strongly behind his version of Brexit. And this he badly needs to do, because recently his approval ratings have dipped.
Neither Corbyn’s nor May’s manoeuvres will totally come off. Nonetheless, time and time again they are both managing to score points in this enduringly tense Brexit thriller. May now seems likely to win over some critics from within her own party as well as some exasperated Labour MPs to backing a low-level Brexit. As early as last week, the centre-Left Labour MP Lisa Nandy announced that she and another 40 to 60 Labour MPs could imagine voting for a soft form of Brexit to avoid a hard Brexit. Nandy is not a classic Corbynista and is regarded as more pro-Europe. Like many others, she fears the likelihood of rather long-term negative consequences in her constituency, Wigan, which like so many others voted for Leave, i.e. to exit the EU.
About the author:
Johanna Bussemer is head of the Department of the European Section of the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in Berlin.
First published in: neues deutschland
As the Brexit deadline nears with no deal in sight, we bring this contribution from Dr Paul O’Connell on the vexed question of internationalism and the nation-state. Arguing that the state ‘has not been transcended, but rather augmented to better serve the interests of capital’, he puts forward a vision of socialist internationalism that begins with the assertion and restoration of democracy and working-class power at a national level.
An oft heard refrain in sections of the European left holds that while the EU is flawed, it is important to remain in and reform it, to advance the cause of internationalism. This argument is usually run alongside derisory dismissals of some caricatured notion of ‘socialism in one country’, and uncritical assertions about the power of globalised capital.
The problem with this argument is that it fundamentally misunderstands the nature of socialist internationalism, and as such misapprehends what a commitment to internationalism demands of us in the era of Brexit and the multiple crises of the EU. This is a shortcoming we cannot afford, and as such we need to be clear about what the internationalism of the working class means in the current conjuncture.
Back to basics
At the heart of socialist internationalism lies the shared, material interests of working people. This point was well made by James Connolly in 1909, who noted that just as the interests of the capitalist class are international, so too workers must be ‘interested in every revolt of Labour all over the world’. This key insight has provided the basis and impetus for centuries of solidarity amongst working people. It also provides the starting point for socialist commitments to anti-fascism, anti-racism and all forms of liberation politics. And this form of internationalism remains at the heart of any form of socialism deserving of the name.
Indeed, the foundational document of the international socialist movement, The Communist Manifesto, concludes with the rousing call for workers of all countries to unite. Socialism, then, has from the outset been internationalist in its orientation. It has acknowledged that workers shared interests transcend the narrow horizon of nationalism. But even in the Manifesto the complexity of what this internationalism meant in practice was appreciated by Marx and Engels.
A commitment to internationalism in principle, cannot justify the abandonment of concrete, local struggles in practice. As Marx and Engels put it,
Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat … is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must … first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoise.
What this observation draws out is a crucially important, but often overlooked, point about the complexity of socialist internationalism. The internationalism of the working class is based precisely on the strength of working-class movements and organisations at the national level.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is well captured by C.L.R. James’ observation that ‘genuine internationalism must be based on the national scene’. Working class internationalism, then, is not about the construction of castles in the sky, or of unmoored ‘internationals’ with not organic connection to national working classes. It is about building the power and solidarity of working-class communities, movements and organisations at the local, national and international levels.
The class consciousness of the frequent flyer
In contrast to an internationalism that foregrounds the shared interests of working-class people, the EU project represents and institutionalises the interests of capital. It constitutionalises the free movement of capital, and in this way makes governments and states subject to the diktats of capital. As Claus Offe notes the freedom that the EU treaties accord to capital dramatically diminishes the power and rights of democratically elected national governments and enhances the power of capital.
While the political economy of the EU enshrines the transnational interests of capital, the ideology of liberal cosmopolitanism provides a moral veneer for the project. By waving the flag of free movement of people (a freedom that has always been partial, and subject to the interests of capital), and extolling the virtues of a post-national constellation, this truncated internationalism naturalises and valorises the EU project and the internationalisation of capital.
This is, however, a world away from the internationalism of the working class. It reflects, instead, the class consciousness of the frequent flyer. The sections of the national middle classes around Europe who are best placed to take advantage of the opportunities for material advancement presented by the EU project.
In the actually existing EU, notwithstanding allusions to solidarity and Social Europe, the Treaties and political economy of uneven and combined integration constitutionalise inequality between the core and peripheral states, and within countries. This structural inequality then generates resentments, from constituencies in the core who are told they are bailing out their profligate cousins in the South, and from the masses of the PIIGS who see their living standards decimated to service capital based in the core countries.
This form of integration does not, and cannot, foster solidarity, but instead produces stark divisions and enmities of all sorts. It is for this reason that Asbjørn Wahl argues that the EU project represents ‘the greatest threat to Europe’s unity, not on a national, but on a social, basis’. The political project that Europe’s ruling classes are wedded to serves, first and foremost, the interests of capital. The social and economic policies they pursue to advance this project decimate the living standards of working people and provide fertile ground for the siren call of reactionary, nationalist and nativist politics.
It is the EU project itself that fundamentally undermines and precludes the advancement of genuine internationalism. In the face of the deepening crises of global capitalism, the EU’s main role is to try and stabilise and restore the system, in the interests of capital. The EU as it actually exists cannot be reformed in any meaningful way, and as currently constituted it represents a threat to solidarity within and beyond Europe, and would be a fetter on any national, left-wing government which sought to break with the logic of neoliberal capitalism. As such, socialist internationalism today requires a fundamental rupture with the EU.
Global capitalism and the nation-state
One of the central tenets of left-wing arguments to remain in the EU is an uncritical acceptance of the liberal canard that national states have been transcended by global capitalism, and only in a transnational bloc, such as the EU, can the interests of working people or the political left be advanced. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of contemporary capitalism. While capitalism is, and always has been, international, it has never, actually transcended the need for nation-states.
This point was well made by Ellen Meiksins Wood, who observed that, notwithstanding the rhetoric of globalists and neoliberal ideologues alike, the ‘state is more essential than ever to capital, even, or more especially, in its global form’. The truth of this can be seen clearly from the fallout of the financial crisis that began in 2008: after decades of the end of the state rhetoric it was national states that bailed out banks and financial institutions, it is national states that implemented and continue to implement the austerity policies that transfer the costs of these bailouts onto working people, and it is national states that police and repress opposition to these policies, such as the Macron regimes violent repression of the Gilets Jaunes protests.
Certainly, in the era of globalised, finance-led capitalism, the balance of power between democratically accountable national states and capital has shifted decisively in favour of the former, but this has been as a result of policies adopted by states, and regional trading blocs such as the EU. The state, then, has not been transcended, but rather augmented to better serve the interests of capital, and the EU has been a central actor in this process of state transformation.
A central task for socialists, then, is to be at the forefront of asserting and restoring the power of democratic, nation-states vis-à-vis transnational capital. Because, as Samir Amin noted the nation-state ‘remains the [site] in which decisive struggles that transform the world unfold’. It should go without saying that this is not about a retreat into bourgeois nationalism (which it is increasingly clear is served best by the stunted project of EU integration), rather it is about understanding the centrality of building internationalism in the only place that the foundations for it can be laid: the struggles of working people at the national level.
This point is well made by Asbjørn Wahl who notes that
Coordination of resistance across borders … requires strong and active movements at the local and national level. There is no abstract global fight against crisis and neoliberalism. Social struggles are internationalized only when local and national movements realize the need for coordination across borders in order to strengthen the fight against international and well-coordinated counter-forces. But international coordination presupposes that there is something to coordinate. In other words, organizing resistance and building the necessary alliances locally are decisive as a first step.
The illusion that the left can, through sheer will, capture the levers of power within the EU and use these to transform Europe into a more social space is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the EU, but also on what is required to build genuine internationalism. Breaking with the system that constitutionalises and privileges the interests of capital does not sound the death-knell for internationalism, rather it can provide the impetus for rebuilding genuine, socialist internationalism. The nation-state has not been swept from the stage of history, rather it is the principal site for socialists today to launch a counter-offensive against the internationalism of capital.
Our internationalism now
There is a fundamental difference between the truncated liberal cosmopolitanism of the EU, and the tradition of socialist internationalism. It is a fundamental error for anyone on the left to overlook this difference, or to conflate the two. In the context of the ongoing crises of capitalism it is only the internationalism of the working class that can offer real solutions to declining real wages and living standards, and to the rise of the right. Attempting to yoke anti-racist and pro-migrant politics to a defence of the institutions and political forces that were central to producing the current crises would be a tactical dead end for the left and would surrender crucial terrain to the right. In the present conjuncture the threats posed by the rising far right and the ongoing crises of capital can only be confronted by building new forms of internationalism, grounded in the struggles of working people at the national level.
About the author:
Dr Paul O’Connell is a Reader in Law at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. His particular interests lie in the areas of globalisation, public law, human rights (particularly socio-economic rights) and social movements. He is an editor of Legal Form, a forum for Marxist analysis of law.
by John Barry
As the Brexit deadline nears with no deal in sight, we bring you this reflective piece from Professor John Barry. A self-professed Remainer, he gives a thoughtful appraisal of the arguments for Lexit and the slogan of ‘taking back control’, concluding that the upheaval of Brexit opened up important strategic questions for the left.
I write as someone who voted and campaigned for Remain the 2016 Referendum. At the Belfast launch of the Remain campaign where I spoke on behalf of the Green Party I said:
“However, we are not uncritical in our support of the European Union, we do not advocate staying in an unreformed EU. And the TTIP of the iceberg of what needs reform and transformation here is the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership between the USA and EU – that would in our view be a social, economic and environmental disaster … we in the Green Party support staying within the EU, but only as part of a wider and longer struggle to transform it to realise its potentials. The real debate is not over whether we stay in or out of the European Union, but what sort of Europe we want.”
I respect those who advocated Lexit but what can be lost in all the rancour and noise around Brexit, not least amongst the left, is that the differences were in part around Brexit/Lexit as a strategy for the achievement of similar if not the same goals – an end to austerity, a restoration of the welfare state, the disciplining and reining in of finance capital, the provision of decent jobs and housing for citizens, and the de-commodification of food, energy, transport, education and health.
Brexit (like Trump and other manifestations of right-wing national populism) is a symptom rather than a cause, the final release of underlying and deep structural economic and cultural tensions that had been building up for decades. But more than that, Brexit it is also an accelerator and exacerbator of those underlying tensions, contradictions and systemic political economic failings.
And while I cannot decide if Brexit is regressive or opens up progressive opportunities (and at this point I see more dangers than potentials, but there are potentials of course), we need to distinguish the debate and social forces released by the 2016 referendum and Brexit itself. One can disagree with Brexit as a strategy and direction of travel (as I do), yet welcome the politically destabilising impact it has had on a sclerotic political system and politics (even on the left). It has forced some hard issues onto the table (here Brexit acts an accelerator, fast-forwarding political debate and forcing issues onto the agenda despite many of us being unprepared to think about or thought their implications). As Marx wisely noted in a statement especially apposite to our current troubled and turbulent times: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.’ Or, as the wise Irish peasant says when asked directions: ‘Well… I would not start from here…’. Yet here we are.
The debate around Brexit does however have a number of (largely) positive features:
Re-politicisation – Brexit has re-engaged people in politics, with the success of the Leave campaign arguably demonstrating that political ideas and aspirations can trump economic ones. As such the ‘disruption’ caused by Brexit has in effect enabled the transmission of an initial political shock to wider, societal and cultural spheres.
Change – The success of Brexit is evidence of the possibility of large-scale social, political and economic change: the future is not the same as today, but with better apps or a low carbon form of capitalism.
Polarisation – It is a mistake to think polarisation and the expression of differences and disagreements is to be avoided in favour of consensus or a clinging to the status quo for fear of upsetting the apple cart. In these turbulent times we need more than ever to courageously defend the idea of democracy as non-violent disagreement and see that solutions and new ways of thinking and being can arise from such exchanges.
Radicalisation – Related to polarisation is how one answer to right-wing populism might be left-wing populism as opposed to a return to the status quo ante i.e. centrist liberal democracy. Would Corbyn in the UK (or Mélenchon in France, Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez in the USA) have emerged and be possible or credible in absence of Brexit?
Another positive is how in UK some Greens have interpreted Brexit as an opportunity to present their long-standing critique of corporate globalisation and put forward relocalisation of the economy as the only way Brexit can be a success, thus presenting their ideas to a new audience in a new context. As a report commissioned by the Green MEP Molly Scott Cato put it:
“An alternative option is for the UK to make a radical shift in economic policy and become more self-sufficient. This report suggests that reducing dependence on international trade and deliberately boosting the resilience of local, regional and national economies is the only way to make an economic success of Brexit. Shift taxes, subsidies, and public expenditure on infrastructure, away from unfairly favouring large and global companies, and redirect them to help build up local economies.”
‘Taking back control’
The shock of Brexit has not only sent shockwaves through the political system, the normal expectations and operation of representative liberal democracy, but has resulted in the fracturing of the status quo – what once was viewed as solid and fundamental is now fluid. Much as the Tory Prime Minister Theresa May has been transformed from ‘strong and stable’ to ‘weak and wobbly’ under the pressures released by Brexit, so the once unthinkable has become at least publicly sayable if not, as yet, politically feasible. But then we have a wise saying in Ireland, ‘Bionn gach tosaigh lag’, meaning ‘every beginning is weak’. Just because something seems improbable now does mean it must always remain so.
And one progressive response to Brexit, even from those of us who both campaigned for Remain and who are sceptical of the overall progressive impacts of it, is to reclaim and radicalise the dominant slogan and narrative of the Leave campaign, namely ‘take back control’. This slogan demonstrated the genius of the Leave campaign. Here, as an aside, the left and any left-wing populist response must learn from its enemies in terms of articulating and communicating its ideas and objectives. Vague and abstract talk about ‘capitalism’ or ‘neoliberalism’, never mind the other terms like ‘ideology’, ‘capital’, ‘political economy’ will not work to grab people’s attention. As a recovering politician myself (coupled with the handicap of being an academic), I know real politics (or at least political communication and engagement with our fellow citizens) is neither a seminar, nor an earnest ‘political discussion’ beloved of progressive parties and movements.
‘Take back control’ boiled down a complex issue to something that connected with the lived experience of many people who felt powerless, disrespected, lost and ‘left behind’ by globalisation, the normal operation of the political and economic system, Europeanisation etc., who felt insecure and for whom Remain arguments about the potential economic damage of Brexit meant nothing. If you already have little or nothing, what traction will arguments about damage to the City of London and finance capital have for you? And while this mainly while working-class vote was a key component of the success of the Brexit campaign, to reduce the referendum result to ‘a howl of pain at austerity’ (directed at the wrong target – Brussels as opposed to the London) ignores the reality that another major category of Leave voters was the xenophobic affluent, predominantly English, middle classes.
But there is progressive potential in reclaim and recasting this slogan. While it was mainly articulated in relation to state sovereignty – and the people as sovereign taking back control – and mobilised towards controlling immigration, ‘take back control’ can be extended in other directions. In our response to Brexit, can we look to ‘take back control’ of decision-making through greater citizen involvement in policy development? Let’s ‘take back control’ of governance by decentralising political power to local and city governments. Let’s ‘take back control’ of the economy by nationalising it, by decentralising and relocalising it, by internally democratising the sphere of production.
Immigration is another important, though uncomfortable issue for the left, that the Brexit debate has helped bring to the surface and forced us to address. I should here state that I do not for one moment think that everyone who voted Leave is a racist or xenophobe: there were a wide set of reasons why people and parties, organisations chose to Leave the EU, some honourable left-wing/Lexit positions. But while I do not think that all those who voted Leave are racists, I do firmly hold that most racists voted to Leave. And that is one of the many toxic aftershocks of the June 2016 vote. It has legitimised racist and anti-immigrant views, emboldened people to say in public what they once kept to themselves in private.
But having said all of that, I want to make the following point very clearly: it is not necessarily racist to have concerns about immigration. One of the main failures of the left has been to immediately dismiss those who raise immigration as a concern as racists and quasi-fascists. A brilliant illustration of this is the former Labour leader and Prime Minister Gordon Brown who was recorded as dismissing a working-class woman and long-time Labour voter he had just canvassed as ‘bigoted’ for asking him questions about immigration. That voter went on to not only vote Leave but to join the hard-right UKIP. As James Wickham has recently noted:
“It is, however, clear that today those who call for ‘open borders’ – the unrestricted entry of unskilled workers into the EU – are facilitating a more polarised occupational structure, more low paid workers and greater social and economic inequality.”
The left needs to address this issue: the call of ‘refugees welcome’ is not the same as the ‘open borders’ enthusiastically supported by multinational corporations.
Seeking the truth
And so we see, even from the jumble of ideas above, how Brexit has fractured our already fluxed futures, has disturbed settled concepts, interests and ways of thinking. It has released demons, here I cannot help but recall the chilling words of the great Irish poet WB Yeats in his poem ‘The second coming’:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
And this negative outcome of Brexit may still be the one historians of the future analyse. But, even the midst of the chaos, noise and debate that mostly produces more heat than light … there may be some light. After all, while we should scrutinise those who say they have definitively found the truth about Brexit – or anything else for that matter – we can at least trust and engage with those who are honestly seeking the truth (as opposed to the ‘post-truth’).
About the author:
John Barry is a Professor of Green Political Economy at Queen’s University Belfast and a long-standing member of the Green Party in Northern Ireland. He served as a local councillor for over six years before stepping down in 2018, but remains active in grassroots Green politics while pursuing his research on post-growth economics and the transition to a low carbon economy, among other things.
European policies are facing a challenge from the far right unprecedented in the post-WW2 era. The rise of the far right poses a major challenge for democratic and progressive forces. How do we analyse the causes of far right radicalisation? What steps can we take to address this ‘politics of fear’? And what alternatives are needed? And how can civil society and progressive parties respond? Campaigners, journalists, academics and politicians from across Europe in a reflective dialogue on these questions.
Ruth Wodak is Emeritus Distinguished Professor at Lancaster University and the University of Vienna, and author of The Politics of Fear (Sage, 2015).
Zoe Williams is a journalist at the Guardian (UK), the co-host of the Another Europe podcast, and a leading figure in the anti-Brexit movement.
Luke Cooper is a Europe’s Futures Visiting Fellow at the IWM, a senior lecturer in International Politics at Anglia Ruskin (UK) and co-host of the Another Europe podcast.
Rafał Pankowski is an associate professor at Collegium Civitas in Warsaw, deputy editor of Nigdy Wiecej (Never Again) magazine and author of The Populist Radical Right in Poland (Routledge, 2010).