Predictions are the central business of political pundits. The problem is what we do when we actually get it right. I’ve previously argued that political and cultural elites ignore the effects of austerity to their own peril, we are beginning to see precisely that: with numerous heads toppling, British politics is emerging as a rather different beast. After an unexpected Brexit victory, complete with mass political resignations and an attempted Labour Party leadership coup, the dust is beginning to settle around the newly empowered Theresa May, who emerged as the only viable leader of a post-Brexit Conservative Party. While notionally a ‘Remain’ supporter, May’s tenure as Home Secretary saw her enforce a series of harsh restrictions on immigrants, international students and asylum seekers, helping to create the political climate so central to successful Brexit vote.
Knee-jerk invocations of a ‘Second Iron Lady’ will however find themselves misplaced, save for the fragile strength of their leaderships: both Thatcher and now May stood up when others could not. Nonetheless, May’s nomination is not a capitulation to the right-wing of the Tory party compared to Cameron’s more liberal attitudes. The Conservatives have not ruled as the Nasty Party, but as the compassionate helping hands whose dedication to austerity is to fulfil its redemptive promise of a utopian society in which everybody pays back their debts. Where Thatcher used austerity policies to divide and rule, today’s Tories instead utilise them to actualise ordinary Britons’ full capitalist potential and even their inner happiness.
This is not surprising, as the history of debt is an entirely political one, subject to social conditions and class struggle. While neoliberal doctrine enforces this debt-austerity logic as a moral good in and of itself – producing fine, upstanding entrepreneur-citizens – political elites worldwide appear to be getting the message that the rampant inequality this produces is no longer tenable as part of a stable social order. As Britain’s post-Brexit PM, May will recognise that if she wants to create any sense of stability, she will have to address the very real grievances made by pro-Brexit forces of economic insecurity and lack of democratic accountability. But strengthening this popular sovereignty can only politically and ideologically occur through the assessment of who is and is not a British person: if the state is not to crumble under sheer weight of demands, it has to begin racially profiling. The task for Britain’s political class is to determine whose voices they listen to and whose they will diminish.
In short, expect to see the Tories rule as right-wing populists, a Daily Telegraph, UKIP-style government. Ostensibly anti-neoliberal and anti-austerity, but only able to ameliorate capitalism’s brutal excesses through the strengthening of state sovereignty, with a kind of us-and-them politics inherent to sovereignty itself. These are hardly unpredictable developments in British politics, when understood outside of the prism of general elections and reified political culture. Given these shifting political dynamics, the main surprising factor of the Brexit referendum was that it actually succeeded, and that democracy – with all of its contemptible, populist dimensions – actually worked. In real time we were able to see the trajectory of world politics shift – not due the success of Brexit per se, but it becoming a paradigmatic case of global powers embracing sovereignty as a political goal.
I was and still remain anti-Brexit for reasons that it promotes autarky as a legitimate form of governance for the twenty-first century as opposed to the implicit notion in the European Union of nation-states shedding sovereignty in favour of governance and instead attempting to formulate an ideal, democratic society. Despite its extreme failures, some accidental while some inherent in the project – its status as ‘Fortress Europe’ was solidified in response to the refugee crisis – a response to the EU which abandons its democratic tenets of cooperative decision making between nations and instead embraces autocratic ‘love it or leave it’ style politics of nation against nation is one which should give us all significant pause for thought.
Contrary to the doom and gloom predictions of anti-Brexiters, of Britain isolated and alone in the world, several nations have stepped up to offer Britain a post-EU trajectory. Nations such as Australia and India have been very keen to increase their ties with an independent Britain, securing their own access into its markets as well as strengthening bilateral relationships. In framing the Brexit vote as an economic disaster, many commentators have adopted an apolitical economistic framing of ‘good or bad’ which lies at the heart of neoliberal politics, leaving themselves absolutely incapable of explaining why people would vote for a ‘bad’ option. Instead of being an irrational vote or a protest vote, many people actually voted for something, whether it was for democracy, for independence or for ending austerity. However, the result of this ‘for something’, at least for now, is the strengthening of state sovereignty as a political goal, with all the racist connotations it is likely to produce. Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and Donald Trump all recognise that Brexit, like any crisis, is actually an opportunity to build new social relations in the world. The problem is that this current trajectory suggests that without a significant subversion of current political trends, Brexit will make the world a whole lot more Trumper.
Nonetheless, my own opposition is meaningless: merely the protestations of an academic as opposed to the actual force of history. The task of intellectuals of the Left is to rescue the political aspect of the anti-Brexit vote that was a firm rejection of neoliberalism, political elites and everything that the present political status quo represents. To do so we have to understand the social history leading up to the vote, understanding the social tensions latent within British society.
Brexit’s victory lay in the unrecognised defeat of the Conservatives in the 2015 General Election, who were mistakenly celebrating a victory that was nothing of the sort. At a mathematical level this was clear: the Tory Party managed to squeak over the line into a razor-thin majority as a result of the most statistically unrepresentative election result in modern history. Cameron, and the Tories in general, took a widespread ‘meh’ as a complete endorsement, and pursued with a series of political calculations that presumed ‘meh’ would be the standard political response of the British public. They vastly overestimated their own political strength. Politically uncaring and economically aspirational, the most that any government could be seen to do for the people would be to guide them through the increasingly harsh world of post-crash capitalism, utilising the violence of the state through internal policing, racist and anti-immigration resentment and a few subterranean foreign wars to shore up internal legitimacy and political homogeneity.
This is Cameron’s legacy, and as Owen Jones beautifully illustrated, it has come crashing down around him. Cameron faced several challenges to social unity, from class warfare to anti-immigration sentiments to two referendums dedicated towards dividing the British identity. On his own terms, he was a recklessly divisive leader. His failure to effectively stymie class resentment – the hallmark of any ‘progressive’ leadership, the kind of ‘one nation’ conservatism which defined Cameron – and his active encouragement of fear of the other – from Muslims from foreign lands to black youths in the heart of the UK – were symptoms of the failure of his government’s austerity utopia. Unable to effectively create any political coalition, Cameron’s government stumbled from one political crisis to another, retaining government in 2015 through sheer inertia.
These are not problems, divisions or issues created by Cameron himself, but rather the evidence of a growing split in the capacity of liberal democracy to function at all. What was so flawed about Cameron’s premiership was that it was singularly incapable of seeing which way the wind was blowing; his appeal to a mythical middle Britain was one singularly out of touch with the post-crash society that his political program produced. This is most beautifully evident in Cameron’s letter to his own county council, viscerally aghast and surprised by the effects that his own austerity has had on frontline services, even in wealthy Oxfordshire.
His own resignation was not just the result of the foolish decision to call an EU referendum, but precisely due to the kinds of politics his government pursued. It is worth remembering that anti-immigration sentiment was not particularly high in the UK prior to the 2010 General Election. UKIP certainly could not accurately claim to represent ordinary people’s views until successful local and European elections years after. It did not help that the Labour Party under Ed Miliband helped legitimise people’s ‘concerns’ about immigration as opposed to addressing the economic conditions lying under these concerns, or attempting to resolve racial tensions through community programmes. The left-liberal anti-racist and anti-austerity consensus – which looked like it could coalesce around Jeremy Corbyn, which remains to be seen – can only react defensively to this new reality.
It is increasingly worthless to make predictions in today’s idol-toppling politics. The Left lacks any consensus narrative surrounding Brexit. Is it more likely to empower despots and racism, or is it a rupturous moment that breaks through this neoliberal consensus? The capacity for theory itself is becoming increasingly redundant. If Owen Smith eclipses Corbyn as the Labour Leader it might well be a positive development, as a final abyssal break with the post-war political institutions which precipitated the global political, economic and ecological crisis. Or the left might have lost one of its final institution bastions to connect it with ordinary people. But if Corbyn does win, will this merely ‘channel back discontent into the traditional structures of power’?
Yanis Varoufakis’s political project of reviving European democracy will certainly regard the enthusiasm for Brexit among the far-right as a grievous blow, yet it might harden his personal political gamble that democrats need to coalesce around the European Union if they do not want to be overrun by the right’s agenda. But is the EU even salvageable? Why save it from itself when we need to transcend it eventually? Some truths do deserve to be rehashed: our crisis is international. As Slavoj Zizek argues, the for-or-against Brexit debate is a false narrative: ‘socialist nationalism is not the right way to fight the threat of national socialism’. All our various theories about the importance of one struggle or another are in the end somewhat meaningless without the potential for a radical, transcendent movement to arise. Without this, the capacity for the Left to theorise about contemporary political issues is in jeopardy, as all predictions circle around the fact that there are no dominant Left political actors capable of blasting these false choices apart.
Politically speaking, austerity was a failed response to the crisis produced by neoliberal capitalism in 2008: without any successful consolidation, it is fair to argue that the bourgeoisie have lost political power and the people have won. It was Brexit which succeeded and Cameron who resigned, his political career an abject failure. Yet in terms of ideology, austerity was successful in entrenching neoliberal norms deep into society, such that the only effective political response has been when the populace has lashed out in violent spectacles. Again: it was Brexit, not class conflict, which managed to genuinely upset global politics to a remarkable degree. With two competing losses: the bourgeoisie of political power, and the proletariat of any kind of class formation, the time has never been better for Left intellectuals to fill in the gaps.
We now live in the extraordinary time in which anything is possible, and yet every brief pocket of hope is inexorably surrendered to right-wing extremism or – at best – centrist dogma. This will continue until the Left is capable of delivering an effective form of political praxis beyond blogging and sloganeering – this article notwithstanding. We live in the world that is, not the world that we want. The Left’s role is not to actualise the latter in the shell of the former, to impose our vision of what the world should look like. It is instead to unleash the unseen potential of social forces in ways we cannot ordinarily predict. The Left is unique in its ability to reshape the world. Let us remember why it exists, and not succumb to the myopic worldview of fascists and their accomplices.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!