‘I was absolutely clear about my belief that Britain is stronger, safer and better off inside the EU,’ said British Prime Minister David Cameron, his hands trembling, ‘but the British people made a different decision [and], as such, I think the country requires fresh leadership to take it in this direction.’
‘The will of the British people is an instruction that must be delivered,’ he said, top lip quivering. Standing behind a platform outside Downing Street, with his wife at his side and the British people at his front, history records David Cameron as the Prime Minister responsible for fracturing the European project – and perhaps the man who took the first steps towards breaking apart the United Kingdom.
I had always imagined that the British prided themselves on good old-fashioned common sense, a kind of hard-won pragmatism and down-to-earth realism, but Brexit is beginning to look more and more like a dark fantasy, an outcome so absurd that it would make Samuel Beckett proud. The pound is falling. Frustrated Londoners are picketing outside Boris Johnson’s home. Nigel Farage, the triumphant UKIP leader, proudly declared Britain’s ‘independence day’. Yet the weirdest thing, at least from our distance, is that the celebrations and backlash seem to come as a surprise to the British establishment: the polls were tight, but the bookies were predicting a remain result, and in any case how could one vote for Brexit when it’s an ‘act of economic self-harm’?
We live in a world where those who practice politics as a profession – most of whom are very smart, some of whom are quite brilliant – struggle to grasp the central fact of social life: insecurity. Capital chases lower labour costs in the Global South, making the old industrial centres redundant, and at the same time governments and bureaucracies are cutting holes in the social safety net. House prices, from London to Sydney, are through the roof. Employers are using immigration as a tool for suppressing wages for working people. ‘All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify,’ wrote Marx and Engels in 1848, ‘[a]ll that is solid melts into air.’
Of course, this insecurity is not just local phenomenon. Oxfam calculates that the world’s richest 1 per cent own more wealth than the rest of us combined. ‘We are the 99 per cent’ takes on a whole new – global – meaning. For the political left, this was always the predictable outcome of reducing top tax rates, opening borders for capital and not labour and privatising public assets. But as the gap between the top and the bottom grows from crack to chasm, who is going to bridge it?
The social democratic left, in both Britain and the continent, is offering technocratic centrism: a tax credit here, a social security transfer there, and bold speeches to the press gallery. But the populist right is offering a return to the old ‘imagined community’. On the continent, politicians like Marine Le Pen promise to reassert their country’s national identity, while in Britain Tories like Boris Johnson – and Tories-in-all-but-name like Nigel Farage – promise to reclaim Great Britain (no more Perfidious Albion, thank you very much). After all, it was not so long ago that a quarter of the earth’s surface and one-fifth of its population was under the thumb of Pax Brittanica.
The British remember.
If my Twitter timeline is a fair sample of British leftists – and I concede, it’s probably not – then the default response on the political left is to sneer at Sunderland factory workers who don’t know what’s good for them and attack Dorset retirees who hate their grandchildren. It’s not for me to police other people’s anger, but sneering at those ‘below’ means accepting the populist right’s central premise: that Britain is a divided country. This is how they want us to structure the world. For the Conservative Party’s two prime ministerial aspirants, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, their path to power relies on the British people feeling like society’s faultline runs between Hamsptead and Hull, as Andy Burnham put it, or between those who know and those who are told. But for British leftists like Corbyn, the dividing line is between bosses and workers, between a tiny elite and the rest. Yet this made the leftwing case for the European Union rather ambiguous. On the one hand, it is a bosses’ union, interfering in democracies like Greece and Portugal when their citizens go left, but at the same time Brussels helps uphold minimum labour, welfare and consumer standards in Britain. ‘Better in than out’ is not a very encouraging reason to vote.
If a country’s ruling class is ‘no longer leading but only dominant’, wrote Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, ‘this means [that] the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies’. To what extent this is true in Britain is unclear. The ruling class is still leading, but power is shifting from one faction to another. Britons are rejecting the ‘aspirational’ class – think Blair and Cameron – for the certainties and security of the old populisms.
At this point, it seems tempting to count one’s losses and call it progress. After all, aspiration was always a code word for deferring to the interests of big business, a kind of promise that the balance of political forces would not change. Good riddance to it. But complacency is a mistake. We know the shape of things to come. Witness Nigel Farage posing beneath a billboard that reads ‘breaking point’, or delivering a speech urging Britons to take back their ‘birthright’ and control the border. Yes, Brexit relied on feelings of economic security, but it was organised around racial animosity. Where this will take Britain, perhaps no-one knows, but we can guarantee that the emerging ruling class will be as reactionary as the one it replaces. ‘The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,’ wrote Gramsci, ‘in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.’