The following article was written before many of the most recent twists in the continuing Brexit drama, such as the confirmation of the prorogation of parliament, the bill designed to prevent a No Deal Brexit, Boris Johnson’s attempt to have a general election, and the expulsion of 21 moderate Tory MPs from the party. Events have confirmed that the “situation is a clear expression of the fragmentation resulting from the present phase of capitalist decline”. The fact that the opponents of a No Deal Brexit have made advances in parliament shows that the Brexiteers do not have things all their own way. But defeats in parliament for Prime Minister Johnson do not mean the cause of Brexit is lost, especially if the threats to break the law by Johnson and Gove are followed up in practice.
It is possible to see other expressions of the rally of moderates elsewhere. In Italy, for example, when Matteo Salvini’s League withdrew from the government, instead of being a step towards a Salvini takeover, it led to a coalition between the Five Star Movement and the Democratic Party. This might only be a short-lived interlude, but it does show that the battle between the factions of the ruling class is not a one-way street toward populism and the extremes.
However, the underlying problem is still there for the bourgeoisie. The loss of control of the political apparatus, the escalation of the conflicts between different factions means the deepening of the political crisis, which will be further worsened by the development of the economic crisis.
The formation of a new government in London under Boris Johnson does not resolve the political crisis and the power struggle within the British ruling class which became a dominant factor in the political life of that country since the Brexit Referendum of June 2016. On the contrary: with the appointment by the Conservatives of Johnson as their new leader and Prime Minister, this crisis has reached a new stage, the power struggle a new degree of intensity. The new phase of this power struggle is not in the first instance one between Johnson and his so called moderate inner party opponents, or between Johnson and the Labour opposition, or between the PM and the staunchly Remainer first minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon. As the London Sunday paper The Observer and the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung both concluded, the opponent Johnson and the Tories are mainly trying to counteract is Mr. Brexit himself: Nigel Farage. The calculation (or the gamble) of Johnson is to ‘deliver Brexit’ by October 31, with or without a deal (as Johnson puts it, ‘do or die’) and if possible without calling a General Election beforehand. Otherwise he risks being obliged to form a coalition government with the new Brexit Party of Farage in order to deliver his Brexit. Farage, the reckless outsider of British politics, would thus gain a direct say on government policy (something the established so-called elites want to avoid). On the other hand, should he be prevented by the present parliament to deliver his Brexit on time as promised, this would be likely to give considerable additional momentum to the political career and ambitions of Farage. The problem for Johnson about this (at the time of writing) is that it is not sure that the present parliament would accept whatever deal (or no deal) Johnson presents to it. It would also be possible for the Prime Minister to sidetrack parliament (for example by temporarily suspending it). But some of his opponents in Westminster have already declared they would consider such a procedure to be a coup d‘État, a veritable Putsch. In a word: The mess is becoming a quagmire. This situation is a clear expression of the fragmentation resulting from the present phase of capitalist decline, of each for himself, at every level: economic, military, social, political. The actors in this process, while not being passive, are largely determined by it.
The political situation (which, for the moment, is much worse than the economic one) is going from bad to worse. The creeping paralysis of the past three years threatens to get out of hand. In this context, it should be noted that, if the new PM is putting all his bets on a quick Brexit at all costs, this is not because he thinks this course of action is necessarily in the best interest of British capitalism. In fact it is well known that Johnson was not particularly convinced of the benefits of Brexit at the time of the referendum, that he reacted with surprise and some dismay to the result. His main motive for supporting the Leave camp seems to have been his ambition to build up his own power base in the Conservative Party in order to challenge the party leader and PM of the time, David Cameron. Caught on the wrong foot by the victory of the Leave camp at the referendum, he soon realised that the putting into practise of this verdict would prove to be a thankless task. He thus momentarily withdrew (or rather: postponed) his bid for party leadership, preferring to leave the dirty work to someone like Theresa May. The main concern of Johnson, therefore, seems in reality not to have been Brexit, but his own political career. The fact that today, three years on, he has successfully bidden for party and state leadership, tells us something about the changes in the balance of forces within the ruling class which have taken place since 2016. At the time the Referendum was called, the two opposing camps were clearly drawn up, each behind their respective leader: Cameron and Farage. Farage was an upstart, operating outside the established party-political apparatus. Cameron, as opposed to this, was not only Prime Minister, he had the support of a majority of the Powers That Be both within his own Tory party and in Labour (the main opposition party) as well as that of the even more firm Remainers from the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists. Initially, the outcome seemed almost a foregone conclusion. But the more the campaign of Farage’s UKIP gathered momentum, the more Tories (including Johnson) began to join in with the Brexiteers. For the most part, this was probably not because they had been convinced by UKIP’s arguments. Not that they did not share the latter’s resentment against Europe for having made the country turn its back on its former Empire. But their main motivation seems to have been a tactical one: that of taking the wind out of the sails of Farage in order to sidetrack him.
But the Tories miscalculated.
The Remainers lost.
And this, in turn, altered the balance of forces within British bourgeois politics. It will suffice to recall that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ Theresa May, who became the successor to Cameron, had originally been a Remainer, as had been many of those who today present themselves as hard-line Brexiteers within the Conservative Party. Indeed the remaining clear cut, Cameron-style Remainers in the Tory Party (‘grandees’ like Heseltine, or current MPs such as Dominic Grieve) are currently having a hard time. As of now, the Brexiteers have more or less taken over the Party, and above all they have taken over the government. One of the architects of the Brexit campaign, Dominic Cummings, has become chief advisor to the government.
The situation transformed by the referendum result
Before the Referendum, the choice was between leaving or remaining in the European Union. As long as this was the case, a majority within the ruling class clearly favoured the latter option. But after the Referendum this choice was no longer on the table. Theoretically, of course, it could still be attempted to hold a second referendum with the aim of winning a majority for Remain. But such a manoeuvre would be difficult. It is by no means certain that the outcome would be any different from the first time round. And such an attempt would even be dangerous. It would risk deepening the already existing divisions around the Brexit issue, including those within the ruling class itself. This is why this option is at present not much favoured among its representatives. So today, the momentum is heading towards a no-deal Brexit, although, as shown in the European parliament elections, there is a polarisation between no-deal and no Brexit. Theresa May spent most of her premiership trying to persuade the ‘political class’ that her Brexit with a deal should be accepted as the lesser evil. Without success. From the point of view of the ruling class, May’s deal is certainly a much less attractive option than remaining in the EU had been. The lesser evil? For many of the country’s ‘policy makers’ and ‘opinion makers’ it is not really an option at all. They see it as amounting to the UK still by and large having to follow EU policy on many issues, but no longer having a say in formulating them.
This dilemma has caused a growing disorientation within sizeable parts of the state apparatus. One of the products of this mess has been the development of a whole swathe of what we might call waverers. Their state of mind is brought to light by the rhetorical and voting behaviour of a number of members of parliament: MPs who either advocate one thing today and the opposite tomorrow, or who have no idea how to position themselves, and who apparently would prefer not to do so for as long as possible. Impossible to know in advance which side they might take in the end.
Another result has been the crystallisation, within the Conservative Party, of a growing axis of real hardline Brexiteers. ‘Real’ in the sense that they advocate a no-deal Brexit, not out of career opportunism or tactical considerations, but because they really agree with Nigel Farage. This hard core regroups around figures like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who argues that a no-deal Brexit is the best thing which could possibly happen. This group undoubtedly played a leading role in the downfall of May (after repeatedly sabotaging her different attempts to get her deal accepted) and her replacement by Johnson. Although possibly still a minority within the party, it has the advantage over the other Tories right now of knowing exactly what it wants. And indeed, its internal party opponents are at present pushed very much onto the defensive, their radius of action restricted by the fear that their time-honoured Conservative Party is in existential danger. Their fear is that the hard-liners, if they do not get their way, might rebel and, by one means or another, join up with Farage. Possible scenarios: a split in the party, or its ‘hi-jacking’ along the lines of what Trump has done with the Republican Party in the United States.
Populism and the manipulation of social discontent
One thing at least emerges clearly, which is that the established so-called elite has underestimated the factor of political populism in general, and the role of Farage in particular. We can readily agree that the term ‘populism’ is not very precise and in need of further elaboration. This notwithstanding, the term ‘populism’ itself already contains an important kernel of truth, as the present example of Britain clearly illustrates. One of the main reasons for the success of Farage has been that he knows how to mobilise popular discontent, stoke up diffuse resentments, and manipulate widespread prejudices, in order to counter the propaganda of the leading factions of his own capitalist class. Britain was far from being the only European country where the ruling class, whenever it could, blamed the effects of its attacks against its ‘own’ working population on ‘Brussels’. But in Britain, this ploy was used consistently over such a long time, with an intensity, and to a degree of hysteria, almost unparalleled anywhere else. Moreover, this policy reached a new crescendo at the beginning of the new century, when a number of Eastern European countries joined the European Union. Part of the deal accompanying their integration was that the already existing member states were allowed to restrict the influx of labour from the East during a transitional phase of up to eight years. The concern behind this was to ensure that the downward pressure on wages in Western Europe which the competition from the east on the labour market was going to exert could be phased in, in order to avoid a too-sudden exacerbation of social tensions. Only three countries renounced the use of this transitional mechanism: Sweden, Ireland and… the United Kingdom. In the case of the latter, the main motive was not hard to detect. Whole sectors of British industry were losing out to a German competition which was benefiting, among other things, from radically lowered wages thanks to the (in)famous ‘Agenda 2010’ austerity policy put in place there under the Social Democratic/Green government of Gerhard Schröder. In face of this, an enormous influx of cheap Eastern European labour was exactly what British capitalism needed in order to counteract this German offensive. And at the level of labour market policy, the measure was a complete success. Many workers in Britain lost their jobs, replaced by imported ‘EU citizens’ in a more or less desperate economic situation, and as such obliged to work more for less. Not only were the latter correspondingly ‘highly motivated’ (as the capitalist euphemism likes to put it), many of them were also highly qualified. This policy did not only help to lower real wages. It had a series of additional drastic consequences at the social level, best described under the term: capitalist anarchy. Almost no preparations had been made for such an influx of hundreds of thousands of new inhabitants. The already acute situation at the level of housing, health care and public services like transport and health, was brought to the brink of collapse. And this not only in the Greater London area, but also in regions which until then had been much less a destination of European Union labour migration. An example of the mood reigning at the time was the announcement by the National Health Service in the London area that it was contemplating ceasing to train nurses, since more than enough already trained ones from abroad were now pouring in.
But that is not all. More or less with a single voice, the UK government and the allegedly so democratic and pluralistic media presented this influx as something being imposed on the country by the EU, which London could do nothing about: a good example of ‘fake news’! So when Cameron made his capital blunder of calling his referendum about the continuation or not of Britain´s EU membership, Farage knew exactly what he was doing when he made ‘taking back control of our frontiers’ a lynchpin of his Brexit strategy. In so doing he was able to kill two birds with one stone: directing popular frustration against his own bourgeois rivals, and at the same time turning worker against worker and thus undermining working class solidarity. The only difference, at this level, to his populist counterparts in Europe such as Salvini in Italy or the AfD in Germany is that he mobilised against European Union migrants more than against refugees.
A transatlantic cooperation against the European union
But there is also a second means which enabled Farage to take his political opponents by surprise. This was the support he obtained from powerful bourgeois factions outside the UK. Much has been said about the role of Russia in the Brexit campaign. It is evident that Moscow had an interest in the UKIP side winning the Referendum, and probably did everything in its power in favour of it. However, it is nothing new that the British ruling class likes to blame everything and anything on Russia, and in fact has a vested interest in exaggerating its role. No, the foreign aid we are referring to here is that coming from the other side of the Atlantic. It’s not for nothing that the US media have started to refer to the Brexit Referendum as having been a kind of dress rehearsal for Trump’s victory at the 2016 American presidential elections. Both were, to an important degree, taken in hand by the same structures such as the (now defunct) electoral algorithms of the Cambridge Analytica firm owned by the American mathematician and hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, or the media empire of the Australian Trump supporter Rupert Murdoch.
There is a long tradition of close collaboration between leading factions of the British and American bourgeoisie, including on economic questions. Famous (or infamous) is the leading role in the establishment of the ‘neo-liberal’ world economic order played by the combined efforts of Margaret Thatcher (GB) and Ronald Reagan (US). More recently, in face precisely of the Brexit Referendum, Barack Obama tried to come to the rescue of David Cameron by throwing in his own political weight and rhetorical skills in his favour. But on this occasion (perhaps the first time ever on such a scale), the ‘official’ support of the Obama administration for the British government was counteracted by a second, ‘unofficial’ transatlantic collaboration: that of the future ‘Trumpists’ for the Brexiteers. The latter collaboration was motivated by a shared conviction that, in the present historic phase, ‘multilateralism’, whether in the form of the European Union or, for example, of the Chinese One Road One Belt Initiative are increasingly likely to be used as battering rams against the interests of the remaining world power, the United States, but also against those of the former world leader, the United Kingdom. Above all, they suspect structures such as the European Union of being prone to manipulation by potential challengers such as China and Germany. The two latter powers in particular are seen in London and Washington as profiting from the single EU market to spread their influence throughout continental Europe. According to this point of view, held by Trump and others, in a more fragmented world deprived of much of its previous ‘multi-lateral’ structure, the strongest power, the USA, would fare best, being in a better position to impose itself on the others. But according to the Brexiteers, the UK could also benefit from a more unilateral/bilateral (dis)order thanks to its historic experience, its longstanding world-wide connections and its status as a world financial power. In this context, the long-term goal of the hard-line Brexiteers cannot restrict itself to taking the UK out of the European Union. As has been pointed out again and again (already by Cameron during the Referendum campaign), in a world in which Britain coexists with, but is outside of the EU, London risks finding itself considerably at a disadvantage compared with the EU. This is why the hard-line Brexiteers cannot be satisfied with withdrawing the UK from the EU. Their final goal is to contribute to the demolition of the EU, at least in its present form. Brexit, in their eyes, is a first step in that direction.
It goes almost without saying that this policy is a gamble of the most hazardous kind. No wonder it was not at all what the traditional political establishment wanted. It is the objective world historical situation – the crumbling of the existing capitalist order – which lends this unlikely project a degree of plausibility.
The response of the European Union
It certainly did not go unnoticed in London how, in recent years, Germany has taken important steps towards affirming its leadership ambitions within the European Union. It has in particular used economic means to that end. It has largely succeeded in converting Eastern Europe into a kind of extended assembly line of Western European, but above all of German industry. And it has profited from its key role as guarantor for the Euro (the currency shared by a majority of EU member states) to at least partly impose its economic policies on Southern Europe. These measures helped, at least for a while, to counter the centrifugal tendencies within the European Union. However, the past few years have witnessed a series of developments threatening this cohesion. As we have discussed in this article, both Brexit and the policy of Trump in the United States at least partly represent an attack against the EU. But also within the European Union itself, in continental Europe, the already fragile cohesion has been more and more strained by developments such as the rise of populism (which in general tends to be more or less hostile towards ‘Brussels’) or the growing discontent of other member states with German economic policy (including the two heavyweights France and – in particular – Italy).
The interaction of these different tendencies and counter-tendencies is complicated and always good for surprises. Indeed, the 27 Remainer EU states have surprised themselves by how well they have succeeded so far in closing ranks in the Brexit negotiations, resisting, up until now, all the attempts of London to divide them against each other. Indeed, the very global turbulences of which Brexit is a part, and in particular the explosion of trade wars centred around, but not restricted, to the big two USA and China, have reminded the Remainers of the benefits of being part of a commercial bloc which is a real heavy weight on the world economic scene. This goes all the more so for the smaller EU member countries who, in addition, are devoid of the economic and political advantages which the British bourgeoisie can at least place its hopes on. There is also the fact that a number of populist governments have been made to consider how difficult leaving the EU can be because of the example of Britain – hence the EU’s uncompromising stance on the question. Another factor of the present resilience of the EU has been the concern of many of its member states about the successes of Russia in recent years. Germany, which does not dispose of the military might which would be needed to impose itself on the European continent, and is thus obliged to employ elements of collaboration and the search for common denominators in its attempt to develop its leadership, has responded to this by developing a foreign policy increasingly hostile towards Russia (with whom it could also have common interests). In the process, it is trying to get the celebrated Franco-German ‘motor’ going again, and to improve its strained relations with Poland.
It is evident that the evolution of the political crisis in London will be influenced by events not only in Europe but also in the United States. The radical Brexiteers (the likes of Farage, Cummings, Rees-Mogg) have little choice but to pin their hopes on the re-election of Trump 2020. But what if he isn´t re-elected? And even if he is, can the Brexiteers be sure that the man in the Oval Office might end up thinking that the break-up, not only of the EU, but also the UK might be in US interests?
Capitalism has always been, in a sense, a casino game, a gambling den, and London is one of its centres. Today, in the phase of capitalist decomposition, this is more than ever the case. A reckless game at the expense of the well-being and the future of humanity. When does this roulette game become a form of ‘Russian Roulette’? We will not even attempt to predict the outcome of the Brexit Game. Except that it will certainly not be to the benefit of the working class either in Britain or anywhere else in the world.