1. The historical and international significance of the UK’s exit from the EU marks a qualitative acceleration of the impact of decomposition on the political life of the world bourgeoisie. Brexit demonstrates the increasing impact of populism, the political expression of the deepening of capitalist decomposition, which has also taken the form of populist governments in eastern Europe and Italy, and the strengthening of populist parties and factions in Western Europe and the US. The Brexit mess has become a veritable caricature of political crises internationally.
With the impasse over Brexit, the whole of the British bourgeoisie, state and society has been thrown into a political crisis due to the irresponsibility of minority factions of the bourgeoisie, the result of the contamination of these factions by the upsurge of populism.
To this can be added the other manifestations of the deepening historical crisis: the growing undermining of the post-World War Two institutions of the Pax Americana: the EU, WTO, the World Bank, NATO, and, underlying all this, the irresolvable global economic crisis.
The historical roots
2. Brexit has been able to have such an impact in Britain because of the historical tensions within the ruling class over Europe that have been generated by its decline as an imperialist power. Before 1956 the British ruling class believed it could influence Europe from outside, but after the humiliation of Suez it had to accept the end of its time as an international power of the first rank. Being part of Europe was not only about economic stability but also, very importantly, about continuing the long-term British imperialist policy of trying to keep the continental powers divided, and particularly of opposing the influence of German imperialism.
At the same time, British imperialism also needed to balance its involvement in Europe with the “special relationship” with the USA, a relationship that only really had substance if the UK was part of Europe.
Fundamentally British imperialism had been grudging about having to be part of the EU; nevertheless it had bitten the bullet in order to further the national interest.
Growing chaos and the question of Europe
3. The end of the division of the world into two imperialist blocs in 1989 unleashed powerful centrifugal tendencies. The Eastern bloc collapsed and the Western bloc lost its reason for existence. This pushed all the major imperialist powers into a new historical period, trying to find the best way to defend the national interest in a much more chaotic world. At the imperialist level this meant all of the secondary powers having to navigate international waters in which the US was in decline, and thus all the more determined to maintain its role.
This placed great pressure on the British bourgeoisie, exacerbating the already existing divisions within it, especially in its political apparatus, over how best to defend the national interest in relation to Europe. The rise of German imperialism over the last 30 years and the weight of French imperialism in the EU have both underlined the weakened role of Britain. Thatcher’s stated disquiet about the impact of the rise of Germany expressed a deep historical fear haunting British imperialism, fueling Euroscepticism within the Tory party and xenophobia amongst its electorate. By the early 2010s the ability of the British bourgeoisie to manoeuvre within the EU was thus being undermined due to the increasing weight of Euroscepticism within the Tory party and to the electoral successes of UKIP. It was this that led to the decision to hold the referendum in 2016.
The disaster of the referendum and the impact of populism
4. The political gamble of calling the referendum to counter the growing influence of Euroscepticism and populism ran up against a number of fundamental problems. In particular, the bourgeoisie underestimated the depth of the impact of populism within the population and parts of the working class, the result of:
- the proletariat’s loss of confidence in itself over the last 30 years under the impact of a series of important defeats;
- the growing weight of despair and lumpenisation in areas and regions which have been abandoned to rot;
- a growing cynicism and distrust towards the parliamentary system, not in the context of a developing proletarian alternative but rather in one of confusion, frustration and anger which has left parts of the proletariat prey to the influence of populism. The fact that the Leave campaign was able to mobilise 3 million to vote who had previously abandoned voting enabled them to win the referendum;
- the use of Euroscepticism as a panacea for austerity, the blaming of immigration for the decrease in workers’ living standards.
- the ideology of blaming the economic recession of 2008 on the bankers and the traditional political elites, rather than capitalism itself.
The depth of the political crisis
5. Brexit has thrown the British bourgeoisie, one of the oldest and most experienced in the world, into a profound political crisis. It has faced other crises but never one which has so fundamentally weakened every aspect of its political life.
In the Theses on Decomposition of 1990 the ICC showed that this was one of the manifestations of decomposition:
“Amongst the major characteristics of capitalist society’s decomposition, we should emphasise the bourgeoisie’s growing difficulty in controlling the evolution of the political situation. Obviously, this is a result of the ruling class’ increasing loss of control over its economic apparatus, the infrastructure of society. The historic dead-end in which the capitalist mode of production finds itself trapped, the successive failures of the bourgeoisie’s different policies, the permanent flight into debt as a condition for the survival of the world economy, cannot but effect the political apparatus which is itself incapable of imposing on society, and especially on the working class, the ‘discipline’ and acquiescence necessary to mobilise all its strength for a new world war, which is the only historic ‘response’ that the bourgeoisie has to give. The absence of any perspective (other than day-to-day stop-gap measures to prop up the economy) around which it could mobilise as a class, and at the same time the fact that the proletariat does not yet threaten its own survival, creates within the ruling class, and especially within its political apparatus, a growing tendency towards indiscipline and an attitude of ‘every man for himself’”
30 years ago, when the Theses were published, the main expression of this dynamic was the collapse of the Eastern bloc. However, as we said at the time:
“The spectacle which the USSR and its satellites are offering us today, of a complete rout within the state apparatus itself, and the ruling class’ loss of control over its own political strategy is in reality only the caricature (due to the specificities of the Stalinist regimes) of a much more general phenomenon affecting the whole world ruling class, and which is specific to the phase of decomposition”.
6. The political destabilisation of the ruling class in Britain has been most graphically expressed in the chaos that has developed as the date for the UK’s exit from the EU has drawn ever closer. This has led to the paralysis of parliament. The British state was once seen as a master of controlling the political situation; now the political apparatus is being openly mocked, but also distrusted, due to its inability to manage the Brexit process.
The main factions of the state accepted that they had no option but to accept Brexit following the referendum. Nevertheless, British state capitalism has sought to do all it can to try and make the best of a very bad situation. The main factions in the Tory and Labour Parties around May and Corbyn accepted this policy. But with the deepening tensions generated by the realisation of the full implications of Brexit, each of the parties has become increasingly divided by numerous factions pushing their own solutions to the irreconcilable contradictions of Brexit. Even within the main factions of the Tory and Labour Parties there are divisions over how to achieve a planned Brexit. May has to struggle against the hard-line Brexiteers of the European Research Group, while Corbyn seeks to reconcile supporting a planned Brexit in a party that is overwhelmingly Remain. This situation has resulted in more than two years of conflict in both parties as all the factions have battled it out. Both May and Corbyn have had to fight off ‘coup’ attempts in the form of parliamentary confidence motions.
This situation of increasingly irresponsible political conflict has been exacerbated by the faction-fighting as the state desperately seeks to avoid crashing out of the EU. Through May the state has been reduced to attempting to bribe MPs into supporting the Withdrawal Agreement, with millions of pounds being offered to the most pro-Brexit Labour constituencies, which are usually the most deprived. This has generated even more tensions within the Labour Party, with pro-Remain MPs denouncing other MPs for accepting these bribes.
These divisions are not limited to the main political parties but extend into the unions and the leftist groups, which underlines just how integrated they are into the state structure.
7. The state’s efforts to negotiate a deal have not only had to cope with the political crisis domestically but have increased the political crisis in Europe. The result of the referendum poured petrol onto populist bonfires across Europe. The populist governments in Hungary and Poland drew renewed strength from the result. In France, the Front National gained inspiration, whilst in Italy the populists of the Northern League and Five Star Movement rode to power on the coat tails of Brexit. Faced with this upsurge of populism, the main factions of the EU have no choice but to make Brexit as difficult as possible. The most responsible parts of the European bourgeoisie are particularly angry about this fall-out from the British bourgeoisie’s inability to control its own political situation.
8. It is very difficult to make a precise analysis of the perspectives for the unfolding of this crisis because the bourgeoisie is engaged in an increasingly desperate effort to avoid a no-deal Brexit. However, what can be said with certainty is that this crisis and political instability will continue and worsen. Even if the bourgeoisie was able to achieve a planned Brexit it is still faced with the increasingly complex question of steering its way, in a weakened state, through the deepening chaos of the international situation. Given the chaos already inflicted on the British bourgeoisie by the process leading up to Brexit, the accentuating pressures towards political irresponsibility, ‘every man for himself’ and the fragmentation of the political apparatus can only continue.
The impact on the two-party system
9. Over the course of the last 100 years British state capitalism has maintained a two-party system in order to contain and control the political situation. However, even before Brexit this system was being weakened by the emergence of nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. Now we are witnessing a process of fragmentation of the Tory and Labour Parties themselves. The last two years have exacerbated these tensions to levels that threaten the very existence of the Conservative Party. Post Brexit these divisions will widen as the party’s factions blame each other for the deepening problems faced by British capitalism, entering into new battles over which policies to follow. This is assuming that the party does not fracture under the pressure of achieving Brexit.
10. The situation in the Labour Party will not be much less fractious. The rise of Corbyn enabled the bourgeoisie to establish a clear difference between the Labour and Tory Party. This is now in danger as Corbyn’s strategy - trying to please the Leave faction by agreeing to Brexit, but at the same time insisting on the need for the closest possible relationship with the EU in order to contain the Remainers - comes under increasing strain. Fundamental to these tensions is the fact that the greatly increased party membership, who joined in support of Corbyn, in a large majority support a second referendum. This is being used by the Remain MPs to put pressure on Corbyn. The Blairites in particular will continue to use this tension in order to undermine Corbyn. As with the Tory Party, if the party survives Brexit, there will be a sharpening of these tensions as the anti-Corbyn factions try to depose him for allowing Brexit to take place.
The fragmentation of either of the parties would be a major problem for the British ruling class, because it would open up a political arena that could be exploited by the populists, thus further deepening the tensions and difficulties in its political apparatus. Such a collapse of the two-party system would be a further expression of a growing loss of control of the political situation.
11. To this political instability has to be added the prospect of the strengthening of moves towards independence amongst the Scottish fractions of the British bourgeoisie. Such a threat to the integrity of the United Kingdom would provoke unprecedented tensions within the ruling class. Not only between the Scottish Nationalist Party and the rest of the national bourgeoisie, but also within the Scottish bourgeoisie, as not all agree with independence, and also within the national bourgeoisie as a whole, as those who wanted to Remain blame the Brexiters for undermining the territorial integrity of British capitalism.
12. Tensions will also worsen in Northern Ireland between the Loyalist and Irish Nationalist factions of the bourgeoisie. The Good Friday Agreement that brought about the ceasefire was based upon the UK being in the EU, thus providing the Nationalists with the ability to appeal to the EU over the UK. The loss of this framework is not discussed by the bourgeois media. However, the Irish bourgeoisie is very aware of the potential for renewed instability in the North and that is why they are insistent upon the withdrawal plan which tries to ensure there is no hard border and the subsequent potential for reigniting the ‘Troubles’.
The majority in the North voted to Remain in order to avoid this. However, the hard-line Democratic Unionists are fervent Brexiteers, while Sinn Fein was for Remain. These divisions in the context of political instability in the wider political apparatus will accentuate pressures towards the outbreak of open conflicts between the different factions of the bourgeoisie in the North.
The Welsh Nationalists who also supported Remain in order to have a counter to the national bourgeoisie will renew their calls for independence.
Weakening of Britain’s imperialist and economic position
13. Leaving the EU marks a qualitative moment in the 100-year decline of British imperialism:
- being forced out of the EU through its own political weakness means that British imperialism has retreated from one of its most important areas of interest. The whole imperialist policy of Britain within the EU was to contain and undermine a resurgent Germany. For example, Blair’s push for the extension of the EU into Eastern Europe was aimed at bringing into the EU states who historically have opposed Germany. Leaving the EU undermines this ability. British imperialism will now have to stand on the sidelines as its main European rivals Germany and France are given a freer hand. It will only be able to have an influence by provoking tensions within the EU, supporting those countries opposing Germany. However, these countries distrust the UK as it walks away from Europe.
- The ‘special relationship’ with the US is threadbare and will become even more exposed because, without Britain in the EU, the US no longer has the UK to counter German and French imperialism. Trump has already made it clear that he sees Britain as a state whose political life he can openly seek to destabilise, with his support for Brexit. This may have helped to deepen the political crisis in Britain and the EU, but once Britain leaves what role can Britain play for the US in its efforts to undermine the EU and confront Russia and China? A profoundly weakened British imperialism will find itself marginalised and forced into desperate actions in order to try and assert itself.
- For China, Britain outside the EU becomes a secondary European power that it will try to use as a counter-weight to the US.
In this context tensions within the bourgeoisie will be worsened as the ruling class desperately seeks ways to maintain some international influence. The idea of moving closer to the US will provoke strong opposition given the bitter experience of the US’s undermining of Britain’s imperialist role over the last 100 years, intensified by the loss of international reputation caused by the Blair government’s support for the US in Afghanistan and Iraq. The EU will keep the UK at arm’s length. British imperialism will be left looking increasingly like a third-rate imperialist power.
14. Brexit has already had a very important impact on the economy. A central part of the manufacturing base is the car industry but this has seen a 50% fall in investment since 2016. The main business bodies, the City, the Confederation of British Industry, the Chambers of Commerce, have all expressed their anger about the political crisis and paralysis. They, along with other more responsible parts of the bourgeoisie and the state, are determined to avoid a no-deal Brexit, hence their support for the Withdrawal Deal. However, the political instability caused by trying to get this deal agreed holds out a grim prospect for the future trade deal with the EU and this will reignite the tensions over Brexit. The achieving of a trade deal with the EU is of huge importance to the economy not only because of the size of the EU, but also because, as Japan has made clear, until such a deal is agreed it will not discuss a deal with the UK. Given that the EU and Japan in January 2019 signed one of the biggest trade agreements in the world, they will not want to give British capitalism any advantages when it comes to an agreement between them. The signing of this deal underlines just how damaging Brexit is: British capitalism is being forced to leave one of the world’s biggest free trade areas. All the talk of a new, expanding ‘global Britain’ is just hot air.
This is further underlined by the situation facing the UK in relation to the USA. The Brexiteers made much of being able to strike a deal with the US rapidly. The brutal use of US economic, political and imperialist power by Trump to openly attack its main rivals, to rip up existing free trade arrangements and to impose bilateral deals are the most obvious indications that any hopes placed in the US being ‘nice’ to British capitalism are delusions.
The impact of Brexit on the proletariat
15. The referendum campaign and the period since have seen an unprecedented ideological onslaught, outside of a situation of world war, on the proletariat in Britain. Five years of being suffocated by a blanket of democratic, nationalist and xenophobic ideology has seen important divisions generated within the proletariat. The social atmosphere is saturated with manufactured tensions between Leave and Remain, the North and South, City and Country, the poor white working class and the rest of the class. A climate of irrational hate, social tension and boiling potential violence pervades society.
These destructive forces are not new but express the advancing ideological decay of bourgeois society, the noxious fumes seeping from its rotting flesh. The proletariat cannot escape this poisonous atmosphere. As we said in the late 1980s the decomposition of bourgeois society, as its contradictions tear at the fabric of society, would have an impact on the very qualities that are the strengths of the proletariat:
“The different elements which constitute the strength of the working class directly confront the various facets of this ideological decomposition:
· solidarity and collective action are faced with the atomisation of ‘look out for number one’;
· the need for organisation confronts social decomposition, the disintegration of the relationships which form the basis for all social life;
· the proletariat’s confidence in the future and in its own strength is constantly sapped by the all-pervasive despair and nihilism within society;
· consciousness, lucidity, coherent and unified thought, the taste for theory, have a hard time making headway in the midst of the flight into illusions, drugs, sects, mysticism, the rejection or destruction of thought which are characteristic of our epoch”
The impact of these tendencies is clearly manifested in the present situation. Already, before the referendum, these toxins were seeping into the working class.
16. The series of defeats suffered by important bastions of the working class in the 70s and 80s combined with the international retreat in the class struggle following the collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1989 led to a sense of disarray and loss of confidence within the working class. This was strengthened by the growing impact of the abandoning of whole regions, cities, towns and villages to a process of social decay following the destruction of the regional and local economies under the impact of the crisis. Workers were abandoned to the crushing poverty of long-term unemployment, or the desperate search for increasingly temporary and insecure jobs. These areas were also faced with a rising tide of destructive drug use, gang rivalries and criminality.
The weight of this decay was also reinforced by the bourgeoisie with its campaigns against asylum seekers, people on benefits, etc. The central message was that the problems of society are the responsibility not of capitalism but of scapegoat communities: shirkers, migrants etc. This ideology is all the stronger because of the lack of open class movements in the recent period (for example, the Office for National Statistics says that the number of strikes in 2017 was the lowest since records began in 1891); but it can also have an impact on struggles around unemployment and low pay, as we saw in 2013 during the Lindsay construction workers’ strike when workers took up the slogan “British jobs for British workers” which had been promulgated by the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
The whole Brexit campaign fed on and deepened this putrid atmosphere, and all the factional divisions it stirred up have had the result of obliterating any alternative to the proletariat lining up behind one faction or other of the bourgeoisie.
The key to the situation is for the working class to recognise that it has separate interests from all factions of the ruling class. A sober analysis of the present situation must admit that the proletariat’s sense of its own identity as a revolutionary class has weakened. A central aspect of the activity of revolutionary organisations is to contribute to the process that leads to the revival of a conscious class struggle. WR January 2019