Brexit means… what? Hapless ideology and practical consequences

Auf­heben № 24
November 2016


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.6 Cru­cially, 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.
12 Ibid.
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.
28 Ibid.
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.

4 thoughts on “Brexit means… what? Hapless ideology and practical consequences

  1. Pingback: Brexit means… what? Hapless ideology and practical consequences | communists in situ

  2. A very accurate article, beginning with the Habitual Residence criterion for the dole and ending with the conclusion that Brexit is a victory for the ‘populist’ far-right.

    Also worth mentioning is that in order to receive JSA you are not allowed to leave the country on holiday, to visit – I mention this purely by chance – other European countries.

    You can only get it if you “are going abroad to look for work”.

    This was the result of another campaign against freedom of movement, the idea that people were sitting in the Spanish sun while drawing benefits.

    That hate campaign was over 20 years ago.

    But it continues, “Hundreds of unemployed people are receiving the dole every year even though they have moved abroad.
    Official figures seen by the Daily Mail show that in 2010/11 £1million was paid in jobseekers’ allowance to people who have gone to another European country. The jobless have taken advantage of rules which state that they can continue claiming the dole for up to three months as long as they claim they are ‘looking for work’ and register at the equivalent of a job centre once they arrive. ” (Mail, 2012).–1m-year-jobless-sun-handouts.html

  3. Pingback: Self-loathing on the campaign trail, 2016 | The Charnel-House

  4. Pingback: Taking “leave“ of their senses | The Charnel-House

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