Should the UK leave the European Union? Differing Ideas about the Coming Vote

Editors’ Note: MHI, which takes no position on this question, publishes here two detailed analyses of the case for remaining in the European Union (EU), the case for leaving it–known as Brexitand the reasons for turning your attention to other issues. The UK will vote on whether to leave on June 23.

The Case for “Remain”

 

by Peter Glover

“They’re stuck with each other and they’ve got to ride all the way to the end of the line and it’s a one-way trip and the last stop is the cemetery.” Edward G Robinson; ‘Double Indemnity’

The EU is a capitalist entity just like the UK. But I am in favour of not discarding some of the Legislation or Directives that emanate from the EU and that provide minimum standards to workers. That seems to be too subtle a distinction for 95% of the “Marxist Left” who have happily climbed into the passenger seat of the Brexit campaign. They are deluded into thinking they are driving, but they forget that deranged nationalism is in control of the car. However, like Walter Neff, from the film “Double Indemnity,” the Left Brexiters are stuck to the Right. They have got to ride all the way to the end of this Little England campaign.

Goals of Brexit: Destruction of Workers’ Rights,  Anti-Immigration, Anti-Regulations

Employment Minister and leading Brexiteer Priti Patel was very clear. She wants to see the destruction of workers’ rights straight after a UK exit from the EU. In a speech to the Institute of Directors before the spotlight fell on her she said “If we could just halve the burdens of the EU social and employment legislation we could deliver a £4.3 billion boost to our economy and 60,000 new jobs.” Her speech echoes the views of the main “Leave” campaign.

That’s one half of what the Referendum campaign is about; it was conceived of as a means of smashing workers’ rights in the aftermath of a Brexit and reducing the costs of labour power. The other half is about is immigration, eliminating the rights of migrants. The class forces behind Brexit originate in the petty bourgeois and represent a nihilistic cry of pain from small capital, sole traders and shopkeepers. But the poison has spread beyond the party boundries of the Tory and UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party).

A while back, I got talking on a regular basis to the owner of a small shop where I get the occasional loaf of bread. He liked me because I used to stand against the local Labour Party and I’d fought against environmental damage they were happily causing the community. Seeing me as a bit of a maverick, he got the wrong end of the stick and would whisper his weird opinions to me, whether I wanted to hear them or not. Surrounded by commodities, his world was dry goods.  He resented big business; a giant supermarket had opened not far from his shop and was killing his trade. But the thing that riled him more than anything else was the EU and “red tape”.  As part of his long monotonous hours as a small shopkeeper, he had to handle cold meats, and he particularly resented the hygiene regulations that he believed the EU imposed.

Regulations. You know… bureaucratic regulations which cut the wafer thin profit margins, Regulations which stop us from being poisoned. His views were a British reflection of the Poujadist movement in the 1950s. The Poujadists were the first post-war European Far Right movement. Their support was based on shopkeepers and the “small man”. They particularly disliked the French State, the US, intellectuals and immigrants.  The Poujadists came and went in a flash. They went mainly because the 1950s was an era of huge growth for capitalism and there was room at the table for all.

Racism and nationalism dominate

The “Marxist Left” of the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers’ Party and the Communist Party forget–or won’t remember–that the Referendum was the brainchild of the Tory Right Wing. That’s why we are having it. This campaign has animated a British variant of Poujadism, with the EU as the stand-in for the Poujadist hatred of US domination and the French State. The referendum is only taking place because of the pressure from small Capital in the Tory party and UKIP pressure on traditional Tory territory. Adventurers such as Boris Johnson have been molded, almost overnight, by these social forces into ardent Brexiteers with a nationalist anti-migrant, anti-workers’ rights programme.

The programme of the Brexit campaign is a programme–and a plan–for an unelected Far Right alternative government. The Brexit campaign is a continuation of the UKIP campaign of a few years ago when Romania and Bulgaria entered the EU. That campaign was not only racist in tone, attacking EU migrants for taking “our jobs” and for lowering wages, it was also a reflection of deep seated nationalism within parts of the Left. For example, Bob Crow, the late leader of the RMT (Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union) and the founder of Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, openly expressed views, indistinguishable from UKIP, that European migrants should be subjected to an Australian points-based system, “like Premier League footballers,” he complained, because they, the migrants, were lowering wages. The ideological reflection of small capital’s prejudice within the labour movement has had an effect.

The Left’s Position

On the other hand, leading Left Brexit figures such as Joseph Choonara, from the SWP, peddles a different line and tries unsuccessfully to distinguish the pathetically small Left Brexit campaign from the juggernaut official campaign. It equates EU “nationalism” with UKIP racism. It’s just the same thing for Choonara. He claims that the EU is just the same as UKIP because, in Choonara’s words, it has created a “fortress Europe” (he uses exactly the same language as the official campaign), meaning it deports migrants, and this is racist in exactly the same as the UKIP is. This is a popular but dangerous and false analogy. Yes, the EU disgracefully deports migrants. But Choonara overlooks the fact that Germany took in a million migrants, and actually said “welcome”. The EU is in discussions with Turkey for EU accession, as well as Ukraine.

The fact that the EU does not allow free movement of peoples from people outside its borders means that of course it is not socialist in any way. But this lazy and dangerous argument minimises the Nationalist threat and does not address the real point of the referendum campaign, which is to destroy the existing right for migrants within the EU to move across borders and work. There is an imminent threat to migrant rights and worker protection. Saying that they are each as bad as each other overlooks the rise of a Far Right populist phenomenon.

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EU Directives on Agency Workers, Equal Pay, Working Time and Parental Leave, which provide floor standards for millions of workers, will in all likelihood be dismantled by a victorious nationalist campaign. An unelected new Far Right Government is the likely consequence of Brexit. The status and the rights of millions of migrant workers to remain in the UK will be seriously put into question. Many migrant workers from Eastern and Southern Europe are openly fearful of the Brexit campaign, not just because of the immediate practical problems they might face, but also because they fear a steep rise in nationalism and anti-migrant sentiment would follow in the wake of an exit.

The hope of the petty bourgeois social forces behind Brexit is that by driving down wages and conditions for workers, they will somehow restore their own weakened economic position in relation to big Capital and the working class. The Little Englander venom in the context of the Great Recession has achieved mainstream prominence. The Referendum was not constructed by a ruling Council of Philosophers and did not fall from the sky into an impartial debating chamber. Its genesis was in the intrigues of the Right of the Tory Party and UKIP.

Protecting workers’ rights does not equal support for the EU

To vote to remain, therefore, is not an endorsement of the EU for millions of workers. It isn’t a question of distracting workers from their real interests. It is a blindingly obvious recognition for workers that some EU legislation protects them and that it would be foolish to vote for an outcome that would destroy those pieces of legislation. An exit vote on the ballot paper represents a vote for the programme of the openly racist and anti-workers’ rights xenophobes.

There is an argument that a vote for “Remain” would distract the working class from its key task of organising for independent activity. A “Remain” vote would sow illusions in institutions like the EU or even the Labour party and would distract from the ability of workers to transform society themselves.

This is not my take on it. Legislation on things like Equal Pay, Working Time, Agency Workers etc. are useful, nay, imperative for workers. Supporting legislation does not mean that workers necessarily have faith or should have faith in the institutions that put this legislation forward.  Workers are perfectly aware of the fact that not just the EU but the whole Parliamentary system is inadequate. However, workers are able to make the rational judgment that unless there is a wholesale change in the socio-economic system, then some protection is better than none at all. How does an “Abstain” vote enable the working class to assert anything about themselves? If you are under attack, then you will use the tools available to you. Workers see voting as perhaps the weakest means available, but nevertheless it is a method that workers can and will use.

A successful vote to defeat Brexit would temporarily defeat these dangerous nationalist and anti-worker attacks. It’s not a great victory, but any defeat for the Far Right is an immediate relief. A victory for Brexit will embolden the Right and demoralise large sections of the working class. It will also cause the working class itself to begin a process of disintegration as national group turns against national groups, all carefully played off by a new ruling Party.

What would Marx say?

Marx would have taken a great interest in the UK referendum. He paid close attention to the changing conditions of the working class. There are countless examples throughout Marx’s writings and his life where he took pains to defend even small gains made by the working class. For example Marx’s concerns for even limited worker protection intrude even into Capital itself, Marx’s greatest theoretical work. On the question, for example, of the second round of Factory Acts in 1847, which put a ten-hour limit to the working day, a parallel with the limited protection offered by some EU Directives, Marx makes this extremely interesting point and tells a story that could almost have been made in the context of the Referendum debate:

The new Factory Act of June 8th, 1847, enacted that on July 1st, 1847, there should be a preliminary shortening of the working-day for “young persons” (from 13 to 18), and all females to 11 hours, but that on May 1st, 1848, there should be a definite limitation of the working-day to 10 hours. In other respects, the Act only amended and completed the Acts of 1833 and 1844.

(Marx clearly is in favour of legislation which improves the lot of workers in Factories, but then he goes on to say…PG)

Capital now entered upon a preliminary campaign in order to hinder the Act from coming into full force on May 1st, 1848. And the workers themselves, under the presence that they had been taught by experience, were to help in the destruction of their own work. The moment was cleverly chosen.

(Marx explains that Capital tried to undermine even this very inadequate legislation! He then quotes the Report from a factory inspector who explains why this legislation became useless.)

“It must be remembered, too, that there has been more than two years of great suffering (in consequence of the terrible crisis of 1846-47) among the factory operatives, from many mills having worked short time, and many being altogether closed. A considerable number of the operatives must therefore be in very narrow circumstances many, it is to be feared, in debt; so that it might fairly have been presumed that at the present time they would prefer working the longer time, in order to make up for past losses, perhaps to pay off debts, or get their furniture out of pawn, or replace that sold, or to get a new supply of clothes for themselves and their families.”

Marx goes on to explain how even these basic rights were undermined once an economic downturn took hold. There was even a populist campaign for the removal of these limited rights, under the auspices of protecting jobs:

Under such favourably prepared conditions the agitation among the factory workers for the repeal of the Act of 1847 was begun. Neither lies, bribery, nor threats were spared in this attempt. But all was in vain. Concerning the half-dozen petitions in which workpeople were made to complain of “their oppression by the Act,” the petitioners themselves declared under oral examination, that their signatures had been extorted from them. “They felt themselves oppressed, but not exactly by the Factory Act.” But if the manufacturers did not succeed in making the workpeople speak as they wished, they themselves shrieked all the louder in press and Parliament in the name of the workpeople. They denounced the Factory Inspectors as a kind of revolutionary commissioners like those of the French National Convention ruthlessly sacrificing the unhappy factory workers to their humanitarian crotchet. This manoeuvre also failed. Factory Inspector Leonard Horner conducted in his own person, and through his sub-inspectors, many examinations of witnesses in the factories of Lancashire. About 70% of the workpeople examined declared in favour of 10 hours, a much smaller percentage in favour of 11, and an altogether insignificant minority for the old 12 hours.

Marx supported legislation which protected workers without in any way supporting the Parties or politicians that proposed it. In Capital, Marx describes how the Congress of the International Working Men’s Association, at their Geneva Congress, on the recommendation of the London General Council, resolved that “the limitation of the working-day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvement and emancipation must prove abortive …. the Congress proposes eight hours as the legal limit of the working-day.”

Marx puts it very bluntly not just in his letters, but in his main theoretical work. Workers need to fight, under the capitalist system, to protect limits to the working day using legislation. He’s not of course saying that taking action to support legislation prevents workers from independently organising.

For “protection” against “the serpent of their agonies, the labourers must put their heads together, and, as a class, compel the passing of a law, an all-powerful social barrier that shall prevent the very workers from selling by voluntary contract with capital, themselves and their families into slavery and death. In place of the pompous catalogue of the “inalienable rights of man” comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working-day, which shall make clear “when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins.

Trade Unions fight to oppose legislation that attacks workers’ rights. On this basis alone many workers understand that the referendum is similarly a threat. But Brexit poses a far larger threat to the working class. It is the most serious threat for many years. It does not bring democracy nor socialism nor an upturn in struggle.

 

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Reflections on the Case for Brexit, and Another View

 

by Ravi Bali

In asking what does the referendum on Britain’s continuing membership of the EU represent, I think we need to assess it by the criteria of what impact it will have on the lives of working people and what will be clarified by the argument we make in our decision.

What is wrong with the Left Remain Position?

It is established fact that the referendum was granted as a consequence of the electoral calculation by British Prime Minister David Cameron, that if the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) continued to eat away at the votes for his Conservative Party it could be politically fatal for him. It was this sectional concern from a part of the establishment, not any great clamour from below, that pressured the PM into announcing a referendum if the Conservatives won the election. There has been a growth in support for UKIP in the polls from a low base of 3.1% of the total vote at the previous election up to 12.6% at the 2015 election. There is a sizable Euro-sceptic minority within the Conservative Party and a smaller one inside the Labour Party. So what does the growth of UKIP say about what is happening to the political allegiances of the British population?

UKIP is not a far right party in the way that extremist parties across Europe that have emerged in recent years are. It does not espouse repatriation of foreigners, it does not call for bans on Muslims, it is a centre right, patriotic party that is personified in one man–its leader Nigel Farage. UKIP has only one Member of Parliament (not Farage, who stood but failed to get elected), Douglas Carswell, a defector from the Conservatives who held his seat despite switching parties. In a first-past-the-post system, smaller parties tend to get squeezed, because even a very close second place in any constituency will not show up in the allocation of seats in Parliament. It is important to recognise that UKIP, while talking tough on the need to control immigration, does not use the explicit jingoism of even some past Labour and Conservative politicians. There are far right parties in Britain: British National Party, Britain First and English Defence League, all tiny and dwindling, but it is wrong to elide the distinction between these explicitly racist parties and the more tempered nationalism that UKIP share with all the mainstream parties.

Old vs. new British nationalism

I would not for one moment suggest that nationalism is not a problem that needs to be challenged, especially if we wish to develop an independent working class opposition. Nationalism will need to be confronted so that workers do not identify our interests to be tied up with those of our rulers, but we do ourselves no favours by suggesting that the growth of UKIP represents a rise of neo-fascism. It simply doesn’t. UKIP is explicitly a one-issue party with its primary purpose to get Britain out of the EU. Its secondary aims flow from this central concern, with tighter control over Britain’s borders being part of it. There are no UKIP spokespersons who are not nationalistic and that maybe true of its voters too. This is little different from the nationalism displayed by the British Labour or Conservative Party until recently. The reason for making a distinction between the nationalism of today and that of yesteryear is because not to do so will impose outdated categories of the past to explain a changed reality of now.

The difference between British nationalism up until the 1990’s and today is that the earlier kind still contained a remnant of the idea of empire and was tied to identification with Britain–an idea of national superiority, which, given that Britain’s empire consisted largely of non-white peoples, did often spill over into a sense of racial superiority. The continued decline of Britain’s influence in the world, combined with a permanently established non-white population in Britain, has taken much of the chauvinism out of an attachment to being British. The tribal identification with one’s own nation for people in this country is now little different from that of most nations. It is a more modest identification rather than imperial in character. Adding to the mix that two of the most economically dynamic countries, China and India, are predominantly non-white, a sense of a racially superior British people is not possible to sustain anymore. That is not to say that non-white immigrants will not face raids in London from Border Agency staff and the police, but racism does not have the traction amongst the mass of working people that it has had in past decades. The British nationalism of today is a different order of problem in that, while still a barrier to working class internationalism, it does not automatically shade into the chauvinism of the more muscular period of British domination over large parts of the world.

The question to be considered is what does national sovereignty mean in the context of a discussion to leave the European Union? There is on paper the right of free movement for the citizens of any EU member state to any other country within the EU. There has been a gradual build up of workers from Eastern Europe into Britain, particularly in London and the South East of England. The admittance of workers into Britain has had more to do with the needs of the economy pulling migrants to meet its labour requirements rather than the arrival of refugees from war zones outside of Europe. Migration into Britain has been more a pull from within than a push from without. Only half of immigration into Britain is from EU countries, and the other half is from outside. It is important to bear in mind what the drivers of immigration are–the rules of the EU are far less significant than the performance of the economy. If there is no demand for labour in a given country, it will not attract people to fill those jobs. The reciprocal arrangements between EU member states is supposed to allow workers of any country to freely travel within the EU, as well as do goods that meet the internationally established set of standards. The direction of travel within the EU has been from the less wealthy to the more wealthy countries, so Britain as one of the richer countries in Europe is growing through immigration faster than the EU average.

Old vs. new internationalism

The EU since its formation has a tendency towards becoming an economic union. This did not happen automatically through a declaration, but has had to be built through a sometimes fraught negotiation between its members. There are many critics of the whole EU project who now declare that an integrated economic union without a political union is neither possible nor desirable. To have a fully integrated economic area across Europe would require a political union to allow a much greater degree of transfer between different economies. There are some on the Remain side of the referendum who regard this as a type of internationalism, the rejection of which is a narrow nationalism.

It is, however, a very different kind of internationalism from the one traditionally associated with working class movements. When Marx said “workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains,” he was articulating a view of the working class that was already widespread, that they had no strong identification with their own nation, hence they were described as the “international class.” The growth of internationalism was so rapid and overwhelming that despite the degeneration of many organisations purporting to represent the working class, they all still pay lip service to bonds between workers across national boundaries.

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The key point about the internationalism of the past was that it was directed against capitalism as a system and against our own rulers for their part in running it. The EU, by contrast, is entirely a project for managing capitalism, so it is actually an accommodation to the nationalism of our rulers. It is a very peculiar form of internationalism that has us lining up behind the majority of the European elites, and certainly has nothing to do with revolutionary working class internationalism. We simply cannot argue for a Remain vote as compatible with struggling against the domination of our rulers over us. The EU is unlikely to have the dynamism to restructure capitalism across all its 28 member states, so it is very likely to fragment and break up in the longer term. The wealthier countries like Germany and Britain would not be able to sell to their own electorates a massive cross-subsidisation of the poorer new EU entrants. The really critical point here is that even if the dream of the EU for a full economic and political union was realisable, it would only represent a change in the forms of distribution not a transformation in the relations of production. Our lives would still be dominated by capital, where those with money and resources decide how we work and what we produce, and only after this is there any consideration of who gets what out of the things produced. Since bourgeois democracy is narrowly conceived, it ignores the fundamentals of how people live and work, we are only ever offered a chance to make relatively minor adjustments to the form of our domination.

What the hostility to immigration means

So the Left Remain campaigners, who see it as important to prevent a xenophobic nationalism, are misreading what people who are concerned about immigration are actually saying. Being opposed to immigration is no longer driven by hostility to outsiders, but is an expression of their own needs not being met and their worry over what would happen if there were a greater strain on resources from more people coming in. Unlike in past discussions of immigration, today it is largely confined to the numbers of people coming in rather than the undesirable nature of them. It is not enough for these people who feel left out and whose concerns actually have not been addressed, to say that migrants into Britain are higher net contributors to the economy than settled British people. In a period when many are feeling squeezed from global competition, if the problem is not posed as one of capitalism itself, then it will be understood as one of the character of Britain’s relationship to other countries (the EU being part of that).

There are some who argue that the rights on paper underwritten by the EU will act as a brake on the needs of capital, but it is utopian to expect this of the state. Whether at a domestic or European level, the state is there to ensure the most favourable conditions for capitalist stability, and workers needs will always be sacrificed to that end. The institutions of the EU are no different to the British state in that respect. To argue to Remain in the EU is to say that current arrangements are better than shaking things up. The EU is a supra-national entity that is entirely compatible with nationalism. It is a mistake to see an opposition to the EU as representing an automatic aggressive nationalism, despite the murder of the Labour MP Jo Cox who was killed by a right wing extremist, while she was campaigning for a Remain vote. Even after this there is certainly no coherent positive case for the European Union.

What is wrong with the Left Leave (Lexit) position? 

The leave campaigners do have the merit of being correct that the EU is  more undemocratic than even the national governments of its member states. There are, however, two problems with the Lexit position. One is based on the idea of democratic accountability being reducible to national sovereignty, and the other is an accelerationist position–that whatever undermines ruling class stability is good for us.

The first strand within the Lexit case is that we must take more control away from unelected policy makers of the EU commission. They draft all the Union’s legislation, which the elected European Parliament can only then ratify, amend or reject. The nature of this relationship is in part intended to avoid jockeying for what will be presented as acceptable to all the countries of the Union, which given the economic unevenness between strongest and weakest countries, would pull policy in wildly different directions. The effect of this is EU being seen as a bureaucratic imposition on all its members, though of course the stronger members will have greater influence. For example, Germany, as the biggest contributor, was able to demand the conditions for Greece to be able to secure EU loans during its troubles a short while ago.

The EU has many petty regulations that people find ridiculous such as Boris Johnson pointing out that because of an EU directive, packets of nuts had to carry a label saying “could contain nuts”. A perfectly sensible measure to prevent people with nut allergies from inadvertently consuming foodstuffs that might be dangerous to them, appears stupid because of it being applied to the obvious. It is the imposition of such seemingly pointless regulation that has people questioning, “why do we have to abide by these rules and pay for them to be enforced?”

The Common Fisheries Policy is supposed to prevent overfishing and results in dead fish being thrown back into the sea when they exceed internationally agreed quotas. Fishermen resent not being able to simply land and sell these excess fish since they are already dead when thrown back in the sea. There are many actions by the state at both national and international level that will be irrational because they are trying to compensate for an irrational uncoordinated form of industry based upon profit-seeking for people to make a living. Any production for profit is only indirectly there to satisfy human need. It is this capitalist system that is irrational from the point of view of humanity and nothing short of workers directly and freely cooperating to organise production can overcome this irrationality. To prevent over-fishing and the depletion of stocks to dangerous levels simply by an outside diktat, will not work. Any externally imposed rules come up against what is central to all capitalist production, maximising profits for the smallest possible outlay. In this example of fishing there is a profit incentive to catch as much as possible to maximise the income. The fact that the efforts of the state to offset this problem leads to a different irrationality is due to the nature of capitalism, not the specific policy of the state.

Getting to the real problem

The problem of the free marketers and those who oppose the EU is that their focus is on a symptom rather than the cause of the problem. In that respect even though the Brexiters are right in pointing to the irrationality of much EU legislation, their criticism is superficial because it does not go to the root of the problem, which is the capitalist system itself–the EU being just one form of its expression.

The argument that we can take decisions back to a national level and have more democratic accountability by at least deciding what is good for us even if we get it wrong, is also confused. It is worth remembering that Britain actually entered into Cod Wars with Iceland over fishing rights in the North Atlantic. These fights were eventually resolved in Iceland’s favour due to its threat to withdraw from NATO, which would have deprived the Pact Organisation of an important submarine route and refuelling point. In that period of a free-for-all to assert their rights, both Icelandic and British fisherman resorted to cutting each others’ nets. The development of a fisheries policy was an attempt to end those kind of conflicts, but capitalism itself is a conflicted system and cannot remove the competitive struggle to make profits. It can only modify the terms in which the struggle takes place. Today British fishermen see the decline of their industry and the restrictions placed upon them as an unfair imposition from the EU.

The regulation of what level of state support can be given by member states to their national industries is also seen as a democratic decision that should be in the hands of nationally elected representatives. The failure of the British government to safeguard the British steel industry from cheap imports from China was seen as following an anti-protectionist demand from the EU, which gave an unfair advantage to those not bound by EU rules. There is a discussion of how protectionism between nations is likely to escalate into military conflict, so the agreement to be bound by anti-protectionist rules is seen as the necessary price we pay for not going to war. The ceding of a degree of national sovereignty is seen as the trade-off for international security and peace. In that sense, the EU is a neo-liberal project that undermines certain policy options at a national level.

What is democracy? What is revolution?

The case for leaving the EU is to restore some of those policy options to our domestically elected politicians. The question of what is meant by democracy is not raised, as though it were self-evidently the ability to vote for our representatives based on the policies they offer and remove said representatives if we don’t like them. The level of democratic accountability is, however, far more constrained by factors separate from membership inthe EU. We have elections only once every five years, which is a rather long time for any mandate. There is no right to automatic recall of our representatives regardless of how badly they behave or how far they stray from their election promises. There are whole areas of life that are left “out of bounds” for any policy consideration, so the terms an employer is able to demand from a worker is supposed to be a free decision between contracting parties. The obvious inequality between capitalist and worker is not something that any politician, however radical, is properly able to overcome. The political representative system constrains the meaning of democracy because it arises out of capitalist production and is unable to meaningfully question that basis without at the same time questioning its own existence. The aspiration of working people to have real control over the factors that shape their lives will always be frustrated by a system that leaves, and cannot but leave, the capitalist system to continue.

In this sense, the development of EU regulations are the equivalent of domestic mechanisms for containing the fundamental tensions between different classes or between competing groups of capitalists. To deal only with symptoms rather than root causes is an inadequate response to the lack of control we have over our lives.  The EU is only an expression of the problem rather than the problem itself. We need to deal with the problem itself.

There are some who argue that because the EU is an important forum in which the ruling classes try to contain fundamental tensions, its break-up will be a good thing for exposing their lack of solutions and will allow an alternative to emerge. This idea that we should encourage the disintegration of the political mechanisms by which our rulers maintain control, sees the process of revolution as one of having the right people in control with the right policies. It is a form of political determinism, in which the economic relations are supposed to be created by the political will of whoever is in charge of society. This is an inversion of reality. It is the reality of a society divided into classes that gives rise to its political forms of representation, so any transformation of that society has to come from below in the breaking up of socio-economic classes, which will allow political forms to reflect this new reality.

The idea of a revolution from below, an idea that Marx spent his whole adult life working out and was further developed by Raya Dunayevskaya, is premised on the inability of capitalism to meet workers’ and oppressed people’s aspirations for freedom. It is only when the common people act upon the recognition that their human freedom requires overcoming the limits imposed by capitalism, that our class society can be overcome. If the workers are not prepared in advance for taking control of society for themselves, then any efforts by politicians or leaders to do it on their behalf will fail. It is for this reason that the accelerationists who look for the collapse of the old underestimate what is required in preparing the working class to take control.

The new society does not emerge spontaneously out of the old, however much people desire it, but needs to be built–which requires theoretical preparation. The crisis of the establishment is only one part of the process and that will happen anyway. To move beyond it requires some serious theoretical development of the working class to be able to carry through the necessary transformation. This would be a self-development of something workers already have as part of their outlook, if only implicitly. It is important for theory to take these aspirations and relate them to what a new society, based on their control, might involve, and since it is the working class that needs to make this happen, theory needs to be rooted in their ideas and experiences. Even if the EU does break up (which is very likely), we will not be any closer to a fundamentally new society unless the working class has developed to to the point of bringing it about.

We have no stake in taking sides in the EU referendum. The important task for those who want a new society is to reject the terms of the referendum, because a vote either way is an inadequate form of advancing workers self-development. That means refusing to accept that one set of representatives of capitalism deserve our support more than another. We should actively boycott the referendum, explaining what we do want instead.

6 Comments

  1. I disagree that internationalism of the past was “directed against” capitalism. It may have caused much upheavel for capitalism, which is a very good thing, however cosmopolitan universalism does not seem to entail anti-capitalism or even democracy. All it requires is membership to a world community and to have to take up those kinds of responsibilities, which modern day leftists declare opposition to out of total reactionary infantilism having nothing to do with the anger of the workers over the illusory situation that has been made apparent to them.

  2. I was disappointed to read Peter Glover’s article calling on a Remain vote in the UK referendum on the 23 June although I welcome MHI’s hosting of material on an important political turning point for us in these islands.

    I would agree with much of Ravi Bali’s contribution which, in my opinion, is a far more sober and balanced analysis of the issues surrounding the campaign although I think he doesn’t examine the anti-working class nature of the EU as a capitalist institution in sufficient depth.

    My concern with Peter’s article is that he portrays the case for Brexit almost exclusively in terms of the pronouncements the leaders of the official Brexit campaign as being anti- immigration, racist, xenophobic and for anti-worker legislation. These have been among some of the key themes but given that the official opposition Labour Party have collapsed into the pro EU Remain campaign they have handed over the leadership for Brexit to fringe elements of the populous right and Tory erosceptics.

    Peter appears to suggest that because the Brexit campaign is led by right wing members of the Tory party such as Boris Johnston and Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independent Party, who stand by an austerity plus programme with dreams of rolling back workers’ rights to the Victorian era, that this means working people have to vote to remain in the EU.
    Unfortunately Peter has seriously distorted the true facts relating to both the role of the EU in defending worker’s rights and in the importance of EU legislation relating to those rights as they currently exist in the UK.

    The EU, Peter argues, has a raft of legislation in place that protects workers’ rights. Should Britain vote to leave he seems to think that these rights would disappear overnight.
    Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Peter is echoing the position of Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party and many Labour MP’s. Corbyn has backed staying in the EU saying a vote to stay is to protect worker’s rights. In reality this is a delusion. The EU certainly has legislation in place applying to British workers like Health and Safety regulations or the Working Time Directive. Yet even a report commissioned by the Trade Union Congress about EU legislation noted of the Working Time Directive:

    “An empirical study in 2003, for example, found that about 90 per cent of employees in the manufacturing, financial, engineering and legal sectors were subject to individual opt-outs, as well as almost 100 per cent of managerial staff in the hotel and catering sector, and between 10-15 per cent of staff in the health sector.”

    Furthermore, most of the workers’ rights mentioned by Remain were already UK law, like paternity leave and other rights, where the UK far exceeds the EU minimum already, such as maternity leave. Equal pay also existed before Britain joined the EU. The minimum wage was established without any EU legislation, for example.

    It has even been suggested that paid holidays for workers would be abolished if we vote leave when workers in the UK have had legislation guaranteeing paid holidays since 1938. 35 years before Britain even joined the EU!

    This is a complete red herring by the Labour Party and Trade Union bureaucracy who have hardly been the staunchest defenders of workers’ rights in practice.

    Moreover Peter ignores the many anti-working class rulings by the European Court of Justice that on most important issues tend to side with capitalist employers across Europe.

    It should be remembered that this is a referendum purely on the question of whether the UK should remain a member of the EU or not. It isn’t a general election and no party programmes have been presented.

    It is true that the leaders of the Brexit campaign have an agenda of more brutal cuts in social spending and the extension of privatisation (not dissimilar to current Tory government policy) but they aren’t in government.

    Peter suggests:

    The programme of the Brexit campaign is a programme–and a plan–for an unelected Far Right alternative government.

    This is pure conspiracy theory. The Tory eurosceptics involved in the Brexit campaign are a minority of Tory MPs on the right of the party. Should Britain vote to leave the EU, which is unlikely in my view despite the polls being close, the government would remain in power.
    There is no mandate for a Far Right government nor is there a political basis for it in the current parliament. David Cameron’s government is very weak with a majority of only twelve and it is tearing itself apart during this campaign. Who knows what will happen within the confines of official party politics but any attempt by the right to seize control of the government would fail. The most likely outcome would be a major Tory split and a general election if there were moves by the right to control the cabinet.

    It is pure speculation that a Brexit vote would automatically lead to a Far Right government. Even if Brexit wins there is a two year negotiating period to transition from the EU and any number of political trajectories are possible. One possibility is that if there was a Brexit vote that the government would just sit on the result and play for time allowing negotiations to drag on. I wouldn’t put it past the vipers in Brussels to collude with the government to call another referendum. They have done this in relation other referendums on major treaties before. Who knows?

    Given Peter’s misapprehension as to the place of EU legislation regarding workers’ rights I found the lengthy digression into Marx’s Capital on the struggle for the working day one of the most bizarre contributions to the debate on the referendum. A modest magna carta was at least won by in our islands by the direct struggle of the working class. Unlike the EU which churns out directives by the dozen from an army of faceless bureaucrats while the EU Commission, ECB and IMF suck the lifeblood from Southern Europe for the benefit of the bond holders. Citing Karl Marx as support for the EU capitalist neo-liberal project might well have caused rumbles in Highgate.

    I think Ravi Bali’s contribution avoided the frenzied tone of parts of Peter’s article with the analysis of the right wing populist Farage and Ukip being on the mark.

    My only quibble was that what has been missed is the terrible plight that the EU has inflicted on the working class of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and Ireland.

    Currently, French workers are battling the “Socialist” government of Hollande who is hell bent on “reform” of French labour law, but in reality the target is the hard won rights of the working class. This offensive in the name of austerity has been welcomed by Valdis Dombrovskis, the European Commissioner for the Euro and Social Dialogue (?). France is still under a Commission-imposed excessive deficit procedure which requires drastic cuts in public spending. These proposed reforms are a direct response to demands from Brussels in line with the EU executive’s analysis of the French economy. The EU is demanding that restrictions on the sacking of workers be abolished and other so-called restrictive practices.

    The French workers aren’t taking this lying down and have responded with a rolling strike wave hitting transport and mounting mass street demonstrations involving pitched battles with the riot police. Dombrovskis said “we are paying close attention to the political debate (?) and we understand that this bill must strike the right balance”. I bet they are – in order ensure that the French government doesn’t retreat in the face of the militant opposition of the French working class.

    The EU is a straight-jacket which controls the ability of member states to break with the economic programme of the European capitalist class. That programme is for a neo-liberal economic strategy of privatisation and the use of the European working class as a massive reserve army to drive down wages and boost capitalist profitability. For example, the proposed economic programme of Jeremy Corbyn of renationalising the railways and founding a national investment bank, limited and illusory though it is, would be illegal under EU law!

    We should remember who is backing Britain to Remain. All those friends of the working class; the Tory Government, the Labour Party (?), the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, IMF, TUC (?), The Financial Times, The Times, the CBI and Barak Obama et al.

    For these and other important reasons I’ll be voting leave on 23rd June along with millions of other workers.

    No to the Bosses EU! Yes to a Socialist Europe!

    Bruce Wallace
    Scotland

  3. I have been kind of torn between Ravi’s excellent analysis and Bruce’s perceptive point that the EU is fundamentally anti-worker, a layer of state bureaucracy that needs to be destroyed. To take the Greek example, the left wing government of Syriza were bullied and threatened by the EU not to default on their loans, which might have contributed to a chain of events towards undermining capitalist priorities in the direction of society. Instead, as is well known, Syriza have been forced into imposing austerity against their own principles and the wishes of the Greek electorate. So, at first glance, it would seem important to destroy the EU. However, if there were no EU, wouldn’t such threats simply be deployed by the main financier nations such as Germany? Of course they would. So Ravi’s point that all we are talking about when contrasting EU power with nation-state power is just different forms of the same thing. Any capitalist state is obviously hostile to socialism, whether it bears an EU flag or something else. So, Ravi is right to stress that the task that needs to begin to unfold is to assist the working class in their theoretical development of what the problems and challenges really are. I therefore share his concern that ‘Lexit’ has been something of a delusional side-track.

    I voted Brexit back in June, as did most of my town. There was a palpable sense of joy when we won, and people were slightly more receptive to political discussion for a couple of weeks in the aftermath. People were also going out more – previously under-attended pub gigs experienced a boom that only now is beginning to fade back to where it was. But the reason this momentum is starting to dissipate is surely because our theory (‘Lexit’, and here I’m referring to groups like SWP, spiked, and some other lefties), was itself wrong. If through Lexit we were only tinkering at the edges and not changing anything, yet at the same time convincing ourselves this was really radical, then we would be bound to experience temporary elation followed by disillusionment. So to create an ongoing sustainable force for change, I think the majority needs to take seriously Ravi’s reasoning. Without correct theory, we are stuck in the same rut – ongoing austerity, coercion and repression, and all the rest.

  4. A great article by Ravi that explains the issues with great clarity. The problem I have is with the ending and conclusion. It suggests that we cannot go forward without a comprehensive understanding of the true nature of capitalist society: “needs to be built–which requires theoretical preparation”. This suggests that until we’ve all read Marx’s capital we can’t go forward on an issue. It seems to be separating theory from everyday life and experience. The suggestion seems to be that until we understand the true nature of the EU we must sit on the fence and wait. But as Ravi also says “..theory needs to be rooted in their ideas and experiences.” and these are not just in theory but through everyday struggle around a concrete issue. The EU referedum provides one of the most important political issues of our time that is engaging the working class. This provides a unique opportunity, it is a great shame for the left to opt out of this because it believes the working class is not yet ready, that it is said to be not adequately educated on the subject.

  5. It is not about the working class needing to be educated, but rather there was no form that the referendum offers a positive framework in which working class aspirations for more control can be realised. It is not that the working class were not engaged, but it was in something that was on both sides of the argument worse than useless.

    A vote to remain is essentially a support for a continuing to be part of a remote, bureaucratic and unaccountable institution that has pushed austerity onto its weakest members.

    The way the demand to leave was framed, by those who would be responsible for putting it through, was reactionary and nationalistic.

    The squabble amongst the elite asked the population to act as a stage army for something that either way was not to the advantage of the vast majority of us. Unless we first challenge the nationalist assumptions behind both sides in the referendum debate, we are not in a position to advance clear demands that represent workers rather than our rulers. That would be part of a theoretical preparation, although reading Marx never hurts.

  6. ‘..there was no form that the referendum offers a positive framework in which working class aspirations for more control can be realised’ writes Ravi. A demand to leave the EU is the form of more control, it represents working class desire for more control over their lives, and ‘Leaving’ means more control in the form of a more accountable Parliament in contrast to a less democratic EU governance. As the issue has developed since the Referendum is has become increasingly clear that the central issue is about democracy. Its actually the opposition against the Leave vote that has exposed the anti-democractic sentiment of the Remainers and has raised the stakes. They are the ones who, unconsiously, are making it more and more about democracy. Their attempt to portray the working class as ignorant and racist, their attempt to circumvent the Referendum result, their celebration of the High Court ruling to prevent the Government to implement Article 50 reveals the anti-democratic nature of the opposition to Leave. Its very difficult to judge the mood and sentiment of the electorate that voted for leave but it seems apparent that was a jesture of defiance and an articulation of the desire to take control of their lives. There is no leadership (though the Remainers continue to wish it was Farage, UKIP, facists and extreme right wingers who lead) neither left nor right. It was just a vote to Leave. But this is a fantastic opportunity for us to provide anti-capitalist direction. I make no pretence that we have yet made such an impact but the opportunity is there for the taking. We need to focus demands on our democratic rights. That is a very clear demand that represents workers rather than our rulers. So far it is our rulers that have advanced their desire to quosh our democractic right. We need to make it clear that we intend to fight for it.

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