In the wake of the UK’s referendum result to leave the EU, the press is replete with stories about the reasons for both Remain and Leave. A recent petition to have another referendum even received 4.1 million signatures, but was rejected by the government. Luckily, there are already a number of voices who have articulated the left case for Leave.
But first, the galling liberal elitism on display in the face of the referendum result bears a brief examination. Luke Savage’s review of the most prominent material suffices:
Appalled by the concurrent rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, the ongoing success of European far right, and the continuing chaos in both of Britain’s major political parties, the pages of centrist opinion-making are chock full of pieces about democracy running amok.
Here are just a few examples, all published in the last several months: “Democracies end when they are too democratic” (Andrew Sullivan, New York magazine); “Britain’s democratic failure” (Kenneth Rogoff, the Boston Globe); “How American Politics Went Insane” (Jonathan Rauch, the Atlantic).
Now, in an article titled “It’s Time for the Elites to Rise up Against the Ignorant Masses,” Foreign Policy‘s James Traub has given us perhaps the most extreme example of the “too much democracy” genre we’ve yet seen.
That said, the slim referendum margin (52% vs. 48%) highlights the main problem with democracy, namely that it tramples all over consent, in fact does not take the concept of consent into account at all (not to mention its collapse, in this case, into nearly equal polarization, thus lending the result a certain arbitrary quality). Historically, the absence of consent has formed the basis for anarchism’s principle critique of democracy as such, which alone provides no protections for oppressed or out-voted minorities. As Moxie Marlinspike and Windy Hart argue,
The concept of the “majority” is particularly troubling. By always accepting the will of the majority, democracy allows for majorities to have an absolute tyranny over everyone else. This means that in the winner-take-all context of democracy, minorities have no influence over decisions that are made. This is even worse than it seems, since the “majority” in any given situation is usually not even the majority of a population, but actually just the largest group of many minorities. For a stable and consistent minority, this ever-present scenario means that democracies provide no more freedom than that of despotism or dictatorship.
Now, returning to the idea of a left case for Brexit, Paul Mason summarizes the position quite succinctly:
The leftwing case for Brexit is strategic and clear. The EU is not–and cannot become–a democracy. Instead, it provides the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites, and organised crime. It has an executive so powerful it could crush the leftwing government of Greece; a legislature so weak that it cannot effectively determine laws or control its own civil service. A judiciary that, in the Laval and Viking judgments, subordinated workers’ right to strike to an employer’s right to do business freely.
Its central bank is committed, by treaty, to favour deflation and stagnation over growth. State aid to stricken industries is prohibited. The austerity we deride in Britain as a political choice is, in fact, written into the EU treaty as a non-negotiable obligation. So are the economic principles of the Thatcher era. A Corbyn-led Labour government would have to implement its manifesto in defiance of EU law.
And the situation is getting worse. Europe’s leaders still do not know whether they will let Greece go bankrupt in June; they still have no workable plan to distribute the refugees Germany accepted last summer, and having signed a morally bankrupt deal with Turkey to return the refugees, there is now the prospect of that deal’s collapse. That means, if the reported demand by an unnamed Belgian minister to “push back or sink” migrant boats in the Aegean is activated, the hands of every citizen of the EU will be metaphorically on the tiller of the ship that does it. You may argue that Britain treats migrants just as badly. The difference is that in Britain I can replace the government, whereas in the EU, I cannot.
However–incredibly–Mason concludes that, because Boris Johnson and Michael Gove dominated the campaign in the media for Leave, he sides with Remain, despite this ominous conclusion:
All this suggests that those of us who want Brexit in order to reimpose democracy, promote social justice and subordinate companies to the rule of law should bide our time. But here’s the price we will pay. Hungary is one electoral accident away from going fascist; the French conservative elite is one false move away from handing the presidency to the Front National; in Austria the far-right FPÖ swept the first round of the presidential polls. Geert Wilders’s virulently Islamophobic PVV is leading the Dutch opinion polls.
“As if,” responds National Chair of the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) Dave Nellist, “the marginal difference between David Cameron and Boris Johnson, in the context of all Paul has identified, is in any way fundamental.” Indeed, as Nellist points out, “To Paul’s list could be added the EU drive for market liberalisation, or outright privatisation, of services such as rail, post, energy and water, as well as the threat to a publicly owned NHS that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) poses.”
Writing for the New Statesman, John King adds, “The EU has a president and a militarised police force in EUROGENDFOR, is pushing for its own army, and has helped stir up the crisis in Ukraine with its expansionism. Its single currency has caused untold misery for tens of millions of working people across Europe, yet there is no apology, just an arrogant demand for greater powers.” Indeed, as European Commission president José Manuel Barroso opined in 2007: “I like to compare the EU as a creation to the organisation of empire. We have the dimension of empire.”
Guardian reader Malcolm Pittock writes at length about the EU’s imperial dimensions:
As a lifelong anti-capitalist and pacifist who works to promote a just and peaceful world, I can assure [Guardian writer] Owen Jones that there is a strong ethical case for leaving the EU. Whatever the benefits it showers on its members, it is clearly linked to NATO through its common defence and security policy and can be described, not unfairly, as the civilian wing of that military organisation. NATO serves the purposes of US militarism (that is why a US general is always in charge) and the EU gives diplomatic support to those aims through the imposition of sanctions. It also has a major role in the promotion of neoliberal capitalism (look at Greece and TTIP), of which the US is the main sponsor and beneficiary. The evidence of the subservience of the EU to US aims is shown by its support for the siege of Gaza.
Jones and his friends try to persuade themselves that they can turn the present EU into something different. The EU is heavily insulated against ideological change. If the EU parliament were the supreme EU authority, Jones might have a long-term case. But in reality EU policy is not decided by the votes of the citizens of the EU but by a governing oligarchy. Only outside the EU would there be any chance of a UK that tried to promote a just and peaceful world.
Still, “One of the odd things about British leftists’ support of the EU,” writes Richard Tuck with Dissent Magazine, “is that when they are invited to support a very similar institution with a different set of members, they resolutely refuse to do so. Many people on the left now oppose both the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).” And with good reason: in March of this year, for example, the USA used said TPP to successfully sue India in WTO court for its Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission, arguing that the project would harm suppliers in the USA.
To which, from the more specific perspective of the revolutionary left, I would add that virtually any state leaving the EU must be considered necessary, if not good: positive, systematic changes do not take place in powerful, stable governments or economies, but rather in times of crisis and rupture, which create both the demand and the possibility for alternative political solutions. There is no other way around it: imperial units like the EU must be broken up into smaller pieces. On the other hand, this prescription offers no guarantee, of course, that “crisis precipitates change,” since “crisis capitalism” has for a long time been a cliche of everyday reality, without the slightest sign of wavering. Nevertheless, political crises like those now facing the UK and the EU are the prerequisites for lasting change, even when such change is by no means inevitable, nor even positive by any left standard. Indeed, the left must seize on the opportunities at hand, and win the ensuing struggles.