Brexit result and the rise in xenophobia

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Politicians of left and right have condemned the increased xenophobic abuse and physical attacks on immigrants since the referendum, and indeed do not want the tensions in society to explode in ways that disrupt the exploitation of the working class. They may also recognise the role of referendum propaganda in encouraging the increase in these attacks. But they will never acknowledge the extent to which their capitalist system and their state are responsible for the very attitudes which feed xenophobic and racist populism. It is the nation state that defines who is a citizen, or subject, and who is an outsider, an illegal, or to be accepted on sufferance provided their work is needed and sent away afterwards, which encourages immigration when labour is scare, and turns away refugees when it is not wanted.

Home secretary Amber “don’t call me a racist” Rudd’s announcements at the Tory Party conference are an illustration: on the one hand a work permit scheme for EU citizens who get jobs here, so that capital can bring in the workers it needs, including seasonal fruit pickers; but on the other hand definitely no out of work benefits or social housing, and businesses to be ‘named and shamed’ if they do not make efforts to recruit and train British workers. This is, of course, in continuity with Cameron’s promise to limit net migration, with restrictions on student visas – which upset the universities - and with Gordon Brown’s “British jobs for British workers” policy. However it goes further in making concessions to populism in attacking business for employing immigrants when there is unemployment at home, taking up its anti-elitist rhetoric. If holding the referendum was already a sop to populist sentiment, the May government is taking this further by hinting at a hard Brexit and Article 50 by the end of March, even if no details have been given yet. It seems to have rattled some in UKIP with Steven Woolfe, one of its leadership candidates, getting into an altercation with a fellow member after it emerged that he had held talks with the Tory Party.

Even more dangerous for would-be refugees and migrants are the agreements made by the EU to send refugees who arrive in Greece illegally by boat back to Turkey; and in 2014 there was the EU-Horn of Africa Migration Rout Initiative (or the Khartoum process). The latter provides brutally repressive regimes such as Sudan with equipment to police its borders – in the name of humanitarian concern for the victims of people traffickers the desperate are prevented from attempting to flee to safety.

At the end of July, Byron Burgers set up a fake training session (some employees were told it was on health and safety, other that it was on a new burger recipe) to assist immigration authorities in arresting 35 suspected illegal immigrants, and deporting at least 25 including separating some from the families they have in this country. The employer’s excuse for this deception was the 2016 Immigration Act which makes parts of civil society (in this case, employers and landlords) responsible for checking the immigration status of employees and tenants, and so policing immigration controls. This sort of blatant, and mandatory, snitching is currently of limited extent and this piece of legislation only specifies the bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie, not the working class (although individual workers must undoubtedly be required to carry out some of the tasks involved, whether aware of the motivation behind them or not). It seems likely that the highly publicised application of this Act at Byron Burgers a month after the referendum was an attempt to use the populist mood to get us used to this sort of behaviour, or at least test its acceptability. The state will no doubt have watched carefully not just those expressing indignation about the action of Byron Burgers (there were a number of small demonstrations outside their restaurants), but also those who took the contrary, conformist view that all means are appropriate in arresting illegal immigrants.

Populism and violence

Since the vote in favour of Brexit there has been an increase in reports of “hate crimes” – 57% in the 4 days following the vote and 42% in the last 2 weeks of June, with incidents continuing at over 3,300 in the last 2 weeks of July, which is a 40% increase on the previous year. While most have involved verbal abuse or racist graffiti, in Harlow a 40 year old worker from Poland was killed, in Milton Keynes a pregnant Muslim woman was kicked in the stomach, losing her baby, and in Plymouth a Polish family whose shed was set on fire found a note threatening it would be the family next. This should be no surprise given the nature of the campaign around the referendum which lent heavily on the question of immigration, including UKIP’s infamous poster showing hundreds of refugees in Southern Europe. Nigel Farage’s “I want my country back” slogan was very useful in using, and encouraging, a mood of discontent and xenophobia. It is as though some people think they had just won a referendum to rid the country of all ‘immigrants’, no matter whether they came from the EU and no matter how many years - or generations - they had been here.

These attacks show the dark and dangerous nature of the populist upsurge that contributed to Cameron feeling the need to promise a referendum on Brexit, and to the result going against the wishes of all the central factions of the ruling class in the UK, Europe and the USA. It is not hard to understand the reasons for the discontent that feeds populism. The financial crisis of 2007/8 hit people’s savings. Decades of economic crisis and decline have left old industrial areas completely run down with no prospects. This has all been presided over by alternating Tory and Labour governments since Heath and Wilson in the 60s and 70s, all of which have imposed versions of austerity, and thus eroding confidence, and participation, in elections as a way of ameliorating the situation. ‘Elites’ and ‘experts’ are rejected. Meanwhile the perspective of the working class seems absent. Not only are strikes at a historic low, there is even a feeling that the working class no longer exists, particularly when it is seen not as the class of wage or salaried workers, but only as those who do blue collar, manual jobs and live on a council estate. Migrants are not seen for what they are, fellow victims of the same capitalist system, forced to flee war or move to seek work, but as dangerous competitors for dwindling resources. As put forward in the contribution ‘On the question of populism’ “... when an alternative – which can only be that of the proletariat – is missing, parts of the population start to protest and even revolt against their ruling elite, not with the goal of challenging their rule, but in order to oblige them to protect their own ‘law-abiding’ citizens against ‘outsiders’. These layers of society experience the crisis of capitalism as a conflict between its two underlying principles: between the market and violence. Populism is the option for violence to solve the problems the market cannot solve, and even to solve the problems of the market itself. For instance, if the world labour market threatens to flood the labour market of the old capitalist countries with a wave of have-nots, the solution is to put up fences and police at the frontier and shoot whoever tries to cross it without permission.”[1] However, while these xenophobic attacks show us the reality that lies behind populism, it is important to understand that they are the actions of a tiny minority, even of those seduced by the illusion of getting their country back, or by the idea that cutting immigration will solve any of the problems of housing, education or health services. There have been many expressions of indignation and solidarity with those attacked, even if these have also been drawn into demonstrations in favour of the democratic state. The fact is that even though the working class alternative appears absent, the class has not been defeated, and overt racists do not have a free hand to run amok and physically attack those they scapegoat for the problems in society.

False friends

With the Tories as well as UKIP making xenophobic speeches about limiting immigration, blaming migrants for all sorts of problems, and the increased verbal and physical attacks on them, how do we answer all this xenophobia and racism, how do we show solidarity? The Greens and the Corbyn faction of the Labour Party appear to be standing against the xenophobic mood, or at least refusing to join in. Corbyn was notably criticised for not taking up immigration in his conference speech and instead proposing financial aid to areas with high levels of immigration. Can we, in other words, oppose the populism of the Brexiters and xenophobes with a sort of left alternative, such as the huge influx of new members of the Labour Party supporting Corbyn, or his supporters in Momentum? Or internationally with the likes of Podemos, Syriza or Bernie Sanders? While it is beyond the scope of this article to analyse these forces (see article on the Labour Party in this issue) there are a few things we can say.

These political forces take the view that they should not try to make concessions to populism, not even at the level of propaganda, but oppose it. But they do this on a totally bourgeois basis. Their programmes are all fundamentally based on fighting elections and seeking government office; and where they have a large extra-parliamentary activity this is also based on pressurising or influencing some part of government policy. In other words they base their politics on the nation state and the national interest which they share with all bourgeois forces, however much they disagree on how to defend that national interest. No wonder such parties can completely change policy when they get into office. For instance, the Labour Party has often had a leftwing leader, often considered unelectable, in opposition, but in power it carries on the same old policies. When it comes to demonising migrants we only have to look back to the Blair government and its talk of “bogus asylum seekers” and even “bogus” gypsies[2]. Similarly, in Greece, Syriza in government found itself carrying out the very austerity it had denounced in opposition; and its positive promises to improve things for immigrants didn’t stop it aligning with the right wing, anti-immigrant ANEL (Independent Greeks).

The working class can only rely on itself

The only way we can oppose the populist idea that keeping immigrants out will protect the citizens at home from the chaos of the world today is to understand that we are all victims of the same capitalist system. It is the same capitalist crisis that has caused unemployment in old industrial areas in the advanced countries, that lies behind imperialist wars in the Middle East sending thousands of refugees fleeing for their lives, and that causes the unemployment and poverty leading to economic migration. That means to see things internationally which is the viewpoint of the working class, which is concretised in the practical unity between immigrant and ‘native’ workers that develops in their struggles, as in the strike at Deliveroo recently. It is the apparent absence of this working class perspective that has allowed populism to develop as a product of capitalism’s decay. But it is only the working class that can provide a perspective to resist capital’s attacks, unmask its rotten ideology, and offer humanity the prospect of a world without states and borders. 

Alex, 7.10.16

[2]. In fact the Corbyn led Labour Party has had its own problems with anti-semitism, particularly among his followers, see