Warnings About the Consequences of Brexit Are Falling on Deaf Ears – Here’s Why

by Luke Ilott

23 June 2016

On the economy, Remain is winning a debate against an empty chair. For all their expert calculations about the damage Brexit might do to growth and jobs in Britain, Remainers have been wrongfooted by the fact that Leavers don’t seem to care. A recent poll revealed nearly two thirds of all British voters would accept a short-term economic slowdown as the price to pay for controlling immigration.

There is a curiously devil-may-care element to the surge in support for Brexit. It reflects the fact that in an era where all of us are constrained by our dependence on millions of others around the world, opportunities to make decisive interventions in our communal lives are rare. The call to ‘take back control’ isn’t just about clawing back British sovereignty from a European bureaucracy. It’s about voters visibly demonstrating their freedom to break with the disempowering, machine-like logic of global systems.

The appeal of Brexit does not lie in meticulous predictions of what a post-European future might look like. In fact, Brexit’s attractions end the day after the referendum: its crowning achievement will be simply to have happened. Yes, it may be accurate to read Leave’s last-minute poll slump as a sign that voters never seriously rated Brexit as a policy proposal. But if that is the extent of our analysis, we’re missing something. Viewed as a momentary revolt against the inevitability of business as usual, the Brexit vote is far more instructive for the future of the left.

The Leave campaign has been a kind of carnival in the old-fashioned sense: an overturning of the normal hierarchies, a celebration of chaos, tolerated by those in charge as a release-valve for social tension. Nigel Farage’s absurd flotilla and panoply of racist billboards represent a kind of right-wing counterpart to the left ‘folk politics’ identified by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams in their book, Inventing the Future. Just as Occupy activists lived for today, discouraged from serious ambition by the vastness of capitalism, so too are the Leavers motivated more by the moment of Brexit than by any real idea of what might come next.

A vote to leave Europe today would be a symbolic political earthquake; a disruption by self-described ‘normal people’ of what the establishment had intended to be a foregone conclusion. When sceptics ponder what exactly Leave supporters mean when they shout about ‘taking back control’, our first presumption must be: they wish to be reassured of their own freedom as citizens to do exactly what elite voices from around the globe are telling them they must avoid.

Boris Johnson grabbed the Telegraph front page on Monday with a bombastic rallying cry to ‘vote Leave, and take back control of this great country’s destiny’. We can scoff, if we like. There is an unpalatable dose of selfish regressiveness in calls to reclaim power which echo from the mouths of white, privately-educated men. But, as Paul Mason laments, these elite opportunists are speaking over a large section of society which rightly feels that it has been excluded from the national conversation. If Brexit represents a rebellion against the official logic, it is because that logic rules out substantive agency on the part of millions of British voters.

The first commandment of 21st century governance is that no political initiative is justified if it damages the economy. Rates of profit have been so depressed in the last two decades that the hands of left and right have been tied by the same dilemma: prop up the private sector, or lapse back into recession. Disillusionment with democracy reflects a party-political system which filters out all serious threats to capital before they can be seized upon by the electorate.

Jeremy Corbyn is the exception which proves the rule. Selected directly by the people after several Labour MPs misused their veto over candidates, Corbyn now faces constant challenges from his ‘moderate’ flank. The new Labour leader is right: this was never about personality. His opponents simply fear that no one will benefit when his ambitious ideas, like those of Syriza’s Alexis Tsipras before him, rub up against the powerful constraints of globalised capitalism. In his reluctant endorsement of the Remain campaign despite obvious personal disapproval, Corbyn has already rehearsed the fate of his broader challenge to politics as usual.

A referendum offers all British voters the same kind of opportunity that Labour supporters had a year ago. Bypassing the filters of the parliamentary system, we have what Johnson in the Telegraph labels “a chance that will not come again.” It is a chance for direct democracy to stick two fingers up at the hegemonic economic narrative which has told us we cannot afford substantial choice in general elections. Remain’s constant hammering of the economic argument to stay in Europe can only serve to make it more appealing to vote to leave.

Repurposed as a perspective on Brexit, Slavoj Žižek’s 2002 account of the rise of the far-right remains as pertinent as ever. Observing the theatrics of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his ilk, Žižek argues their appeal is derived from their perceived willingness to set the pace, to break norms, to fly in the face of apparent economic necessity. Even in 2002, voters appeared to have been disenfranchised by a liberal-democratic consensus which served to insulate the markets from the risk of any substantive political event. Now as then, disillusioned citizens have been drawn to a far-right which throws economic sense to the wind in pursuit of almost fetishised social priorities: if a recession is the price we must pay for keeping out migrants, the thought goes, so be it.

This casual disregard for consequences is short-sighted, usually unpleasant and often – as we now know too well – outright dangerous. Activists for staying in the EU can take pride in the fact that their uninspiring moderation has, up to now, rendered the very idea of Europhile violence a nonsense. But implied in the careless rhetoric of Farage and Johnson is a radical reordering of priorities – which the left would do well to reclaim for the forces of tolerance.

The British left has acquiesced too readily in a Remain campaign that feels too much like the status quo reasserting itself. Dutifully knocking on doors to get out the vote for a referendum that many of us never thought should take place, we have only served to reinforce the perception that voting is an obligation levied upon us periodically for the maintenance of an advanced capitalist economy. Political participation must not be a rubber-stamping exercise for the compromises economic necessity has already forced us to make.

The left, too, must show itself willing to break with logic, for as long as ‘logic’ means the non-negotiable demands of global capital. We do not welcome migrants on the basis that they contribute marginally to raising GDP. We do not argue for European co-operation because markets are too fragile for us to leave.

Our hearts beat to a different kind of logic: that of solidarity, community and a life beyond alienation. Those goals, like the flurries of misguided nationalism we see around us, are also incompatible with the conventional economic wisdom. If we are to achieve them, we must be bold enough to say: your Leave vote is economically risky, but I have much better reasons to oppose it. In a tragic week of blood and bile, the case for unity and understanding rises above bean-counting.

Photo: Garry Knight/Flickr

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