Thomas Fazi
Civil rights

Why Brexit is a massive smokescreen (and why Britain should leave nonetheless)

The actual challenge is not to cede national sovereignty to some mythical state of international economic integration, but to resist the corruption of the national policy-making process by shifts to technocracies and to ensure that the voting systems are not corrupted by lobbyists working in the interests of specific capital elites”.
3 June 2016

Brexit. I was hoping to avoid writing about the topic since I consider the whole debate to be as ludicrous as the name suggests. But reality has a way of insinuating itself into our lives, whether we like it or not. To paraphrase the adage, just because you don’t take an interest in a topic doesn’t mean that topic won’t take an interest in you. So here are my two cents (sorry, pennies) on the issue.

Firstly, before delving into the thick of the matter, I would like to offer a meta-reflection on the issue. Let’s all take a step back for a moment and reflect on the significance of the fact that, with all the problems that currently beleaguer the UK and Europe as a whole – rampant inequality, despicable levels of poverty and unemployment, widespread existential precariousness, environmental devastation, etc. – here we are talking about, er, Brexit, when in fact Britain’s EU membership has little or no bearing whatsoever on any of those (or other) critical issues. Has there ever been a better demonstration of the agenda-setting power of the elites? And – what’s worse – of our willingness to sing along to their tunes? They say jump, and we spend months debating exactly how high we should jump. Hell, we even write dozens of books about it.

If we were to believe the comments made in recent weeks by both the “Remain” and “Leave” sides, we would be justified in concluding that on June 23rd Britons will indeed be called to decide on a matter of life or death – not just for the UK but for the entire world! On the one hand, we have the ‘inners’ – an unlikely ensemble ranging from business magnates and right-wing politicians to socialists and trade unionists – claiming that Brexit would destroy Britain and the European project, give you cancer and even trigger World War III. LOL. Leftist variations on the same theme include claims that Brexit would plunge Europe – and Britain itself – into 1930s-style fascism, threaten the rights and protections of British workers and even harm the UK’s environment. On the other hand, we have the ‘outers’ – comprised mostly of right-wing nationalists but including also groups such as the ‘Christian Brexit-ers’ (or #BeLeavers – true story) and even some solitary left-wingers (even though Owen Jones subsequently retracted his support for an exit, he will not be forgiven by linguists and historians for coining the dreadful #Lexit hashtag) – arguing that, if Britain remains in the EU, it will soon be overrun with Koran-wielding immigrants and colonised by the EU fascist super-state. Boris Johnson, who is evidently running short of arguments by now, has even stated that as long as Britain is in the EU, it is not allowed to cut taxes to the UK’s poorest households. I know this is a serious matter but… ROFL. As for the claims that ‘every UK citizen’ would be better/worst off by x pounds per year if the country leaves the EU, , it should be clear to everyone by now that predictions made by economists are about as reliable as tasseography. (Anyway, if you’re interested, here’s an article that debunks the economics of both sides).

Needless to say, most of these assertions are rubbish. Both sides of the debate, and all the groups involv should be deeply ashamed for resorting to such low-level scare-mongering tactics simply to feather the nests of their respective campaigns (though I must say that the Remain campaign wins when it comes to Project Fear). In the name of reason, let’s set the record straight: Britain, Europe or the world will not come to an end in the case of an unlikely ‘yes/out’ victory (or of a ‘no/in’ victory, for that matter). The fact of the matter is that Britain’s fate – like that of any other country – to a large degree does not depend on its EU membership (or lack thereof). (Being part of the eurozone is, of course, a whole different matter, which is why not even the most ardent Remain-er is suggesting that Britain joins the monetary union). As for the EU as a whole, Paul De Grauwe has argued that it would benefit from a Brexit.

The fundamental problem with the whole Brexit debate, besides the fact that we are being forced to have it in the first place, is that both sides of the argument are premised on a wildly embellished notion of the extent to which being part of EU impacts (positively or negatively) the scope of government action. The everyday life of the average British citizen is, quite obviously, influenced much more by the decisions taken in London than by those taken in Brussels, which is what makes this whole debate so surreal. The decision to slash social provisions to the poorest and most vulnerable members of society (such as disabled people); to cut funding for libraries, healthcare, education and environmental protection, while allowing massive corporations to get away with paying little or no taxes; to partially privatize the NHS, etc. – these were all taken by the British government in full autonomy, and any claims to the contrary are simply untrue. On the issues that matter the most to most people – work, housing, healthcare, etc. – Britain, as a powerful, currency-issuing economy, is as ‘sovereign’ as a country can be.

In this sense, the referendum appears like little more than a massive smokescreen to temporarily divert the people’s grievances away from the real culprits, the ones sitting in Downing Street and Westminster. It follows that the Leave-ers’ assertion that the UK is negatively constrained by the EU, i.e., that the EU is preventing the British government from acting in the British citizens’ best interest, is utterly unfounded. Equally unfounded, though, are the Remain-ers’ claims that the UK is positively constrained by the EU, on issues such as workers’ protection, immigration, civil rights, environmental protection, etc. Not only have EU institutions, and most notably the European Commission, overseen in recent years a brutal assault on the social and economic rights of the citizens of Southern Europe; they have also proven utterly powerless to prevent member states (such as Hungary and Romania) from violating the rights of their citizens and/or from disregarding some of the basic tenets of the EU, such as the Schengen Treaty. Hence, the contention by some on the Left that the EU is the only thing preventing the UK from plunging into a Johnsonian fascist dystopia is frankly laughable. Moreover, it betrays a worrying distrust of the British people’s ability to defend their rights in the absence of some form of (non-existent) ‘external constraint’.

In summary: I think that the result of the referendum in itself won’t make that much of a difference, to Britain or to Europe, though I agree that it would arguably give Boris Johnson a short-term electoral boost, which would be unfortunate (though not as apocalyptically tragic as the ‘inners’ contend, so let’s all calm the f**k down).

So why, in light of these observations, do I support Brexit, as the title gives away?

Because, once the UK drops out of the EU and it becomes apparent that the world is still spinning, and the country hasn’t sunk into the ocean, it might help us break us free of the TINA (there is no alternative) spell which most of us on the Left have been under for decades. Underpinning the Left’s rejection of Brexit is, in fact, the notion that nation-states have essentially been rendered powerless by globalization, and thus that it makes no sense to initiate a political fight at the national level. The claim is that the internationalization of finance and the growing importance of transnational corporations have eroded the ability of individual nation-states to autonomously pursue social and economic policies – especially of the progressive/redistributive kind. Markets – and particularly financial markets – rule supreme, it is said, and these will punish governments that pursue policies, not by the profit ambitions of global capital through capital flight, delocalisations, etc. The conclusion is that ‘Keynesianism-in-one-country’ is a thing of the past, and that change, today, can only be realized at the supranational (and ideally global) level. This is particularly evident in the European debate, which is not surprising considering that the European Left – and Labour, in particular, I’m sorry to say (James Callaghan, anyone?) – played a crucial role in cementing this ideological shift towards a ‘post-national’ (and post-sovereign) view of the world.

As Labour MP Clive Lewis – a member of the Another Europe is a Possible campaign, which sees the former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis join the UK shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and others to make ‘a progressive case for the UK to stay in’ – says: “Capital long ago fled national borders. To build a society which is fair for everyone, we need an international response to austerity and the financial crisis”. The same claim is regularly made by Varoufakis as well. Not only is this line of thinking – which essentially promises change on the achievement of an impossible alignment of Left governments/movements at the international level – arguably the main cause of the Left’s global decline in recent decades. It is also theoretically flawed. The notion that the state, today, has essentially been overpowered by the markets implies the existence of a fundamental separation/opposition between states and markets, with the balance of power constantly tilting between one extreme (socialism) and the other (free market capitalism, the system allegedly in place today). As Karl Polanyi pointed out more than seventy years ago, though, the state-market dichotomy is a myth. In his 1944 classic, The Great Transformation, Polanyi dismantled the orthodox liberal account of the rise of capitalism by arguing that the development of modern market economies was inextricably linked to the development of the modern state, since the state was needed to enforce changes in social structure and human thinking that allowed for a competitive capitalist economy. “There was nothing natural about laissez-faire; the free market could never have come into being merely by allowing things to take their course,” he wrote. “Laissez-faire was planned. It was enforced by the state”.

The same is true today – truer than ever, perhaps. As Bob Jessop writes: “Neoliberal forms of economic globalization continue to depend on political institutions and policy initiatives to roll out neoliberalism and to maintain it in the face of market failures, crisis tendencies, and resistance.” In other words, the state, despite the rhetoric of the free-marketeers – and, what’s worse, of most contemporary leftists – remains central to the well-oiled functioning of capitalism. In this sense, Philip Mirowski says, neoliberalism is not the triumph of the market over the state; it “is simply what we get when the boss class exercises power over the state.” As Bill Mitchell, with whom I am writing a book on the topic, notes: “The actual reality [is] that politicians still have legislative capacity to restrict economic activity across borders. The actual challenge is not to cede national sovereignty to some mythical state of international economic integration, but to resist the corruption of the national policy-making process by shifts to technocracies and to ensure that the voting systems are not corrupted by lobbyists working in the interests of specific capital elites”.

Of course, telling people that nation-states are powerless is politically very convenient, since it allows national elites to depoliticise their decisions, thus reducing the political costs of unpopular policies, by ‘scapegoating’ international institutions (such as the European Commission) or simply ‘the markets.' Which brings me back to the question of Brexit: while being part of the EU does not pose any real constraints to the government’s policies, it does provide the government with a convenient scapegoat for its failure to deliver decent jobs and social provisions to its citizens (see Boris Johnson’s argument that the EU doesn’t allow him to cut taxes to the poor). With the EU out of the way, British politicians would have no such excuse anymore (though, of course, they would still be free to blame ‘the markets’ or ‘globalisation’). More importantly, though, the realisation that Britain has not sunk in the ocean or been crushed by ‘the pressures of globalisation’ as a result of Brexit might, one would hope, embolden Labour and UK progressive movements, in general, to dream much bigger than they have done in recent decades – and to realise that they don’t need to wait for the rest of the world to overturn austerity to do so themselves. They can do it on their own, simply by reclaiming the state back from the forces of capital that have hijacked it – inside or outside of the EU.