Amazing Brexit: Identity and Class Politics


From its inception in 1951 as the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), through its phase as the European Economic Community (EEC) formed in 1958, to the treaty known as the Single European [Market] Act of 1986, setting the birth of the European Union (EU) for 1992, the planners of the free-trade area in Europe knew that the consequences would be unemployment and migration—the result of curbing the power of unions, depressing wages, and removing the social safety net. If there is a culprit in the Brexit vote it’s the “free trade” orthodoxy of the EU and its assault on the welfare state and workers’ rights.

But this has not been the perspective from which officialdom and the pundocrats pronounced their hysterical verdicts. In a classic move of reversing cause and effect, they blamed the victims. Even more cynically, they divided the victims for public consumption into good guys (immigrants) and bad guys (the British working class), thus setting the liberal humanitarians howling at those crude, illiberal, and anti-immigrant workers. Brilliant societal mind fuck.

To wit.

In “an act of raw democracy,” as John Pilger has characterized it, fifty-two percent of British voters opted for leaving the European Union. A resounding majority of the Labour Party and trade unions voted for remaining. The disparity between the people’s vote for leaving and the vote of the party and institutions, which supposedly represent them, for remaining prompted even left observers to conclude that the people, like sheep, had gone astray and handed racist xenophobes a shameful victory. That is how the liberal commentariat transformed into a scandal the significant first step toward halting the momentum of the EU’s expansion and its enslavement of labor. As a good friend, fellow-CounterPuncher Carl Estabrook, put it, “The class politics of the Brexit vote are being denied with an identity politics wash. In response to the neoliberal assault of the 1970s, US liberals cravenly retreated from class politics to identity politics. The move has become traditional.”

Metaphorically speaking, in the genetically racist United States, “race” operates a strange alchemy on portions of the liberaliat and the compatible left. When it comes to bombing people in the darker corners of the earth, they are silent or compliant; when, however, it comes to sporting the anti-racist colors in a comfortably conformist context, they sing like parrots. This is liberal imperialism. None other than the by now politically compromised George Orwell confessed the hypocrisy behind the imperialist liberal mindset. In his psychologically penetrating essay, “Shooting an Elephant” (1936), using himself as a representative of the liberal anti-imperialist class, he concedes that theoretically he was all for the “natives” freeing themselves from the yoke of British imperialism. At the same time, he admits that nothing would have given him a greater pleasure than “to stick a bayonet in a [troublesome] Buddhist priest’s guts.” These conflicted feelings, he wrote, were the by-product of imperialism.

In our times, especially in Europe, this anxiety of the liberal conscience is chronic. It expresses itself most dramatically among the scattered tribes of the post-Marxist left, subsisting mainly on academic and other intellectual reservations, set aside for them by the dominant culture for gradual extinction. In this captivity, the intellectual left has gradually become a crutch for the establishment’s tottering status quo. It is ashamed of its past. It has lost its belief in the historical battles necessary to advance the progress of humanity. It has junked the class struggle. It has replaced it with a sterile identitarian ideology of rights, which has no power to alter the economic nature of the capitalist system. The current left is the sarcophagus of a once vigorous idealism and a solid identity. Without a sense of itself, its past, its heroic victories and tragic defeats, it champions the identity of Others. It has become selectively protectionist and herein lies its subtle arrogance and its sense of moral superiority, blissfully unconscious of its own subordination and co-option.

This shell of a once fighting left embraces the culture of identity but excludes the entity of class. As a result poverty has become the P-word, and the poor the pariahs of neoliberal dystopic utopia. When we talk about class in a Marxist, materialist, scientific sense, we are talking about a relation of power, specifically about who does and who doesn’t have power to shape society. Identity politics makes this conflict of interests in society invisible. Neoliberal economics, however, is class war. It has advanced in part because identity politics depoliticized the public. Does it not strike you as strangely coincidental that post-marxism, identity politics, and neoliberal economics saw the light in the same post-sixties decades? Together, they form the heart of the reaction, which is the take-back by the economic elite in the last four decades of every gain the fighting left loosed from the fist of capital before and since World War II. The rapacity of contemporary capitalism is enabled by the weakness, dishonesty, and cowardice of the flaccid and collaborationist left.

We should look at the Brexit referendum as an effect with many more causes than a single conclusion requires. The richness of its multiple causes—its overdetermination—is reduced, for example, by selecting racism as its single motive force. Having been put in motion by Tory PM David Cameron to distract the public from his savage attacks on the NHS and benefits for the disabled, the Brexit referendum took on a life of its own. The right-wing, anti-immigrant party of UKIP, led by Nigel Farage, slid into the breach left open by an absent radical left. Ninety-two percent of UKIP members voted for leaving the EU. This allowed the liberal identiterians to interpret the result as a virtual “hate crime” and to dismiss the class-based reaction by the people to an economic order they can no longer tolerate. Pilger wrote that charging the “leave” voters with racism was “barbarous.” In the sense that “barbarians” to the Greeks, who invented the word, meant people who babbled an unintelligible language, he was right.

But see for yourself. Identity hate crime in England and Wales is three percent of overall crimes, according to the British government’s Office of National Statistics (ONS). The offenders tend to break down into categories of thrill seekers, territorial defenders, mission offenders, and retaliatory offenders. The majority of hate crime offenders in the UK are white, male, and under 25. Hate crimes tend to occur in demographic “hot spots” in which the offender’s profile reflects the demographic distribution of that area. The majority of hate crimes are not committed by strangers, as classic portrayals would have it, but by a person known to the victim. Research studies, including ONS’s, give us little insight into why offenders commit hate crimes. Disciplinary questionnaires and interrogations are so constructed as to exclude collection of data that might expand the general attribution of hate crimes beyond personal and sexual insecurity. They are geared at extracting psychological rather than socio-economic motivations.

White, male, under twenty five, occurring in “hot spots,” targeting victims they know, acting out of sexual and personal insecurity—does this profile, even missing the narrative of organized extremist groups, apply to the eleven million who voted for leaving? Even if we dismiss the limitations of statistic-speak, why should we assume that the working class is any more racist than the gentrified upper, middle, lower middle class or the insufferably superior British aristo-capitalist ruling elite? As Stathis Kouvelakis notes in a comprehensive analysis of the Brexit event, racism among the working class should be understood as “a displaced form of class struggle”:

As the French philosopher Etienne Balibar formulated it in Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities a canonical text of Marxist literature devoted to this topic — racism should be understood as “a displaced form of class struggle” that can become prevalent when the class consciousness of subaltern groups is at its weakest. Instead of turning outward, against the class adversary, the violence of class antagonism — and the anxieties and moral panic it generates — turn inward and accentuate preexisting differentiation within the subaltern groups. The result radically undermines their collective agency. That is, the Brexit vote’s class dimension and the hegemony of the Leave campaign’s reactionary discourse are not mutually incompatible.

It should be noted that the EU is alone among economic unions to insist on the completion of the single market into a final or unified market, the unrestricted flow of people and goods among member states, the elimination of tariffs, and the integration of the political and legal structures of each state into a supra-nation state run by financial elites. This means that the eventual goal of the EU is the replacement of national sovereignty of the twenty-eight members states by the financial sector’s dogmatic, undemocratic, and authoritarian rule. The EU’s final goal is rule by oligarchy, the worse of the tyrannies. This goal was evident in the case of the Greek crisis of 2015. Was the troika interested in getting its money back by helping the Greek economy to stand on its feet and repay the debt? No, what it demanded was further indebtedness and subordination of political life through economics to the unelected institutions than run the EU.

If we turn to what Marx called “reality”—the thing one knows is real because it hurts —and examine the path of Britain’s accession to the EU, we get a sense of how the working class came to be disempowered. The primary cause was the decision, culminating in Margaret Thatcher’s policies, to de-industrialize Britain, shifting to a service-based economy and exactly mirroring the American choice prescribed by Reaganomics. By contrast, Germany kept to its industrial base and is today the industrial powerhouse of Europe.

From the beginning, a market-based, free-trade European Union was a Tory-supported project. In 1973, the Tory government of Prime Minister Edward Heath signed the Rome Treaty, joining the European Economic Community (EEC). Fatally for working Britain, its ruling class made the decision to ditch the nation-state, which had been based on manufacturing to generate wealth. Throughout the process of gradually surrendering self-determination and national independence, every popular referendum returned a negative vote. Relentlessly, the process for adhesion to the union rolled on. In 1974, the Labour government of Prime Minister Harold Wilson, though his cabinet was split on the issue, supported the EEC. In 1986, Thatcher’s Conservative Government ratified the Single European Act, which set the date for a single market by 31 December, 1992—the birth of the EU. Ireland held up ratification for one year, protesting that it violated its constitution. Ireland was prescient. In Britain, a similar resistance could have materialized if the labor movement had been encouraged to take conscience of the dangers, as Labour Party dissenters in the Wilson cabinet had warned.

Until 1988, the British trade union and labor movement opposed membership in the Common Market, or EEC. In 1988, however, Jacques Delors, member of the French Socialist Party, Finance Minister for the Socialist Party of Francois Mitterand, and in 1988, president of the European Commission, appealed to the Irish, British, and Danish trade unions to consider a compromise. In exchange for membership in the eventual EU, he offered the trade unions a Social Charter, promising to advance legislation, protecting workers’ rights. The Charter was a toothless, vacuous document, but it provided the fig leaf for the social democrats to stop opposing the free-marketeers and present the EU as a guardian of workers’ rights.

So there it is, folks—the answer to the question of why “socialists” such as François Hollande today are waging war on workers’ rights: it’s tradition. Since the 1980s socialists, liberals, social democrats, and leftish groups have got on board the neoliberal ship of deluded and dishonest fools, who have reduced the working class to beggary, loss of dignity, and burning anger. Both Tories and Labourites have put the working class in a tightening vise, squeezed by both sides. The Leave vote in Britain marks the dawn of the fight back to come by a class the free marketeers, of the left and the right, have reduced to a pool of cheap and precarious labor in competition with economic migrants fleeing the even cheaper and more precarious labor markets of their own neoliberal hells, the newly liberated masses from Eastern Europe, freed from the supposed oppression of communism to the realities of actually existing capitalism.

Questions for the Western left: whose side are we on—the workers’ or the market free-loaders’? Identity or class-conscious politics?“

Luciana Bohne was co-founder of Film Criticism, a journal of cinema studies, and taught at Edinboro University in Pennsylvania.