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The referendum that went out of control
More than thirty years ago in the “Theses on Decomposition”,1 we said that the bourgeoisie would find it more and more difficult to control the centrifugal tendencies of its own political apparatus. What this might mean concretely is demonstrated by the “Brexit” referendum in Britain, and Donald Trump’s candidature for the presidency in the United States. In both cases, unscrupulous political adventurers from the ruling class have exploited the populist revolt of those who have suffered most from the economic upheavals of the last thirty years, for their own self-aggrandisement.
The ICC has been late to recognise the rise of populism and to take account of its consequences. This is why we are publishing now a general text on populism, which is still under discussion in the organisation.2 The article that follows aims to apply the main ideas put forward in the discussion text to the specific situations of Britain and the USA. In a rapidly evolving world situation, it has no pretension to being complete, but we hope that it will give food for thought and further discussion.
The ruling class’ loss of control has never been more strikingly evident than in the spectacle of unprecedented shambolic disorder presented by the EU referendum in Britain and its aftermath. Never before has Britain’s capitalist class so far lost control of the democratic process, never before has it found its vital interests at the mercy of adventurers like Boris Johnson or Nigel Farage.
The failure on all sides to prepare for the consequences of Brexit shows the extent of the disarray within the British ruling class. Within hours of the results being announced, the main Leave campaigners were explaining to their supporters that the £350 million per week extra for the NHS3 which they had promised a Brexit vote would bring – and a figure which had been plastered all over the sides of the Leave campaign buses – was in the nature of a “typing error”. Within days, Farage had resigned as UKIP4 leader, dumping the whole Brexit mess in the laps of his fellow Leavers; Boris Johnson’s former director of communications Guto Harri declared that Johnson’s “heart wasn’t in the Brexit campaign”, and there is more than a strong suspicion that Johnson’s espousal of the Brexit cause was a purely opportunistic, self-serving manoeuvre designed to boost his leadership challenge to David Cameron; Michael Gove, who had been Johnson’s campaign manager all through the referendum and was supposed to run Johnson’s campaign for PM (and who had repeatedly declared his own lack of interest in the job), stabbed Johnson in the back with only two hours to go before the candidature deadline, putting forward his own name for leader on the grounds that his longtime friend Johnson was not fitted to be PM; Andrea Leadsom entered the Tory leadership race as a firm Leave supporter – having declared only three years previously that leaving the EU would be a “disaster” for Britain. Lies, hypocrisy, double-dealing – none of this is new to ruling class politics of course. What is striking is the loss, within the world’s most experienced ruling class, of any sense of the state, of an overriding historic national interest which goes beyond personal ambition or the petty rivalries of cliques. To find a comparable episode in the life of the English ruling class, we would have to return to the Wars of the Roses (as dramatised in Shakespeare’s life of Henry VI), the last gasp of a decaying feudal order.
The unpreparedness of the financial and industrial bosses for a Leave victory is equally striking, especially given all the signs that the result was going to be “the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life” (if one may be permitted to quote the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo).5 Sterling’s immediate collapse by 20%, then 30%, against the dollar is an indication that Brexit was not an expected result – it had not been factored in to Sterling’s value before the referendum. We were treated to the unedifying spectacle of banks and businesses rushing for the exit as they looked to move offices, or even incorporation, to Dublin or Paris. George Osborne’s snap decision to reduce corporation tax to 15% was clearly an emergency move to keep companies in Britain, the British economy being one of the world’s most dependent on FDI (Foreign Direct Investment).
The Empire strikes back
All this being said, Britain's ruling class is not out for the count. Cameron’s immediate replacement as PM by Theresa May (not initially expected before September) – a solid and competent politician who had campaigned discreetly for Remain – and the demolition jobs done by the press and Tory MPs on her opponents Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove, demonstrate a real capacity for rapid, coherent reaction on the part of the ruling class’ dominant state factions.
Fundamentally, this situation is determined by the evolution of world capitalism and the balance of class forces. It is the product of a more general dynamic towards the destabilisation of coherent bourgeois policies in the present stage of decadent capitalism. The driving forces behind the tendency towards populism are not the subject of this article: they are analysed in the “Discussion contribution on the problem of populism” mentioned above. But these general international phenomena take concrete shape under the influence of specific national histories and characteristics. Hence the Tory party has always had its “Eurosceptic” wing which has never really accepted Britain’s membership of the EU and whose origins we can define as follows:
Britain’s – and before it England’s – geographical position off the coast of Europe has meant that Britain has been able to remain detached from European rivalries in a way that continental states cannot; its relatively small size, and its non-existence as a land power, has meant that it could never hope to dominate Europe as France did until the 19th century or Germany since 1870, but could only defend its vital interests by playing the main powers against each other and avoiding commitment to any of them.
Britain’s geographical position as an island, and its status as the world’s first industrial nation, have determined its rise as a maritime world imperialism. Since at least the 17th century, the British ruling classes have had a world outlook, which again let them maintain a certain aloofness from solely European politics.
This situation changed radically after World War II, first because Britain’s status as a dominant world power was no longer sustainable, second because modern military technology (airpower, long-range missiles, nuclear weapons) meant that isolation from European politics was no longer an option. One of the first to recognise this changed situation was Winston Churchill, who in 1946 called for the creation of a “United States of Europe”, but his position was never wholly accepted within the Conservative Party. Opposition to membership of the EU6 grew as Germany increased in strength, especially after the collapse of the USSR and Germany’s reunification in 1990 substantially increased the latter’s weight in Europe. During the referendum campaign, Boris Johnson famously caused a scandal by saying that the EU was an instrument of German domination “à la Hitler”, but he was hardly being original. The same sentiments, in much the same language, had already been expressed in 1990 by Nicholas Ridley, then a minister in Thatcher’s government. It is a sign of the loss of authority and discipline within the post-war political apparatus that whereas Ridley was immediately forced to resign from government, the repercussions for Johnson have been membership of the new cabinet.
Britain’s one-time status, and loss of status, as the world’s greatest imperial power is a deeply-rooted psychological and cultural phenomenon within the British population (including the working class). The national obsession with World War II – the last time Britain could appear to act as an independent world power – illustrates this perfectly. A part of the British bourgeoisie, and still more the petty bourgeoisie, has still not got the message that Britain is today merely a second or third rate power. Many of the Leave campaigners appeared to believe that if only Britain were free of the “shackles” of the EU, the world would rush to buy British goods and services – a fantasy for which the British economy is likely to pay a heavy price.
This sensation of resentment and anger at the outside world for a loss of imperial power is comparable to that felt by a part of the American population as a result of the United States’ perceived loss of status (a constant theme of Trump’s calls to “Make America a great again”) and inability to impose its own rule as it could during the Cold War.
The referendum as a concession to populism
The populist antics of Boris Johnson are more spectacular, and got more media hype, than David Cameron’s old school upper-crust “responsible” persona. But in reality, Cameron is a better indication of how far the rot has gone in the ruling class. Johnson may have been the principal actor, but it was Cameron who set the stage by using the promise of a referendum for party political advantage to win the last general election. By its very nature, a referendum is more difficult to control than a parliamentary election and as such always represents a gamble.7 Like an addict in a casino, Cameron showed himself to be a repeat gambler, first with the referendum on Scottish independence which he won by the skin of his teeth, then with Brexit. His Conservative Party, which has always presented itself as the best defender of the economy, the Union,8 and national defence, has ended up putting all three at risk.
Given the difficulty of manipulating the results, plebiscites about important matters of national interest are for the most part an unwarranted risk for the ruling class. In the classical concept and ideology of parliamentary democracy, even in its decadent sham form, such decisions are supposed to be taken by “elected representatives” advised (and lobbied) by experts and interest groups – not by the population at large. From the point of view of the bourgeoisie, it is a pure aberration to ask millions to decide on complex issues like the EU Constitutional Treaty of 2004, when the mass of voters were unwilling and even unable to read or understand the treaty text. No wonder the ruling class so often got the “wrong” result in the referenda held over this treaty (in France and the Netherlands in 2005, in Ireland in 2008 with the first referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon).9
There are those within the British bourgeoisie today who seem to hope that the May government will pull off the same trick as the French and Irish governments after their botched referenda over the Constitutional Treaty, and somehow just ignore or overturn the referendum. This seems to us unlikely, at least in the short term, not because the British bourgeoisie is more ardently democratic than its fellows but precisely because ignoring the “democratic” expression of the “popular will” merely gives credit to populist ideas and makes them more dangerous.
Theresa May's strategy so far has thus been to make the best of a bad job and to set out down the Brexit path with three of the best-known Leavers in ministerial posts, with responsibility for organising Britain's disentanglement from the EU. Even May’s appointment of the clown Johnson as Foreign Minister – greeted abroad with a mixture of horror, hilarity, and disbelief – is certainly part of this broader strategy. By putting Johnson in the hot seat of the negotiations to leave the EU, May has made sure that the Leavers’ main mouth will have to take much of the flak – and the discredit – for what will almost certainly be unfavourable terms, and is prevented from sniping from the sidelines.
The perception, especially by those who are voting for the populist movements in Europe or the USA, that the whole democratic process is a swindle because the elite simply ignores inconvenient results, is a real threat to the effectiveness of democracy itself as a system of class rule. In the populist conception of politics, “direct decision making by the people” is supposed to circumvent the corruption of elected representatives by the established political elites. This is why in Germany such referendums are excluded by the post-war constitution following the negative experience of the Weimar Republic and their use in Nazi Germany.10
The election that ran off the rails
If Brexit was a referendum that got out of control, Trump’s selection as Republican candidate for the US presidency in 2016 is an election that ran off the rails. When Trump’s candidacy was first declared it was barely taken seriously: the front runner was Jeb Bush, member of the Bush dynasty, preferred choice of the Republican grandees, and as such potentially a powerful fundraiser (always a crucial consideration in US elections). But against all expectations, Trump triumphed in the early primaries and went on to win state after state. Bush fizzled like a damp squib, other candidates were never much more than also-rans, and Republican Party bosses ended confronting the unpalatable prospect that the only candidate with any chance of defeating Trump was Ted Cruz, a man considered by his Senate colleagues as wholly untrustworthy, and only marginally less egotistical and self-serving than Trump himself.
The possibility that Trump might beat Clinton is in itself an indication of how insane the political situation has become. But already, Trump’s candidacy has sent shock waves through the whole system of imperialist alliances. For 70 years, the USA has been the guarantor of the NATO alliance whose effectiveness depends on the inviolability of reciprocal defence: an attack on one is an attack on all. When a potential US President calls into question the NATO alliance, and US readiness to honour its treaty obligations, as Trump has done by declaring that a US response to a Russian attack on the Baltic states would depend on whether in his judgment they had “paid their way”, it certainly sends shivers down the collective spines of the East European ruling classes that confront Putin’s Mafia state directly, not to mention of those Asian countries (Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Philippines) that are relying on America to protect them from the Chinese dragon. Almost equally alarming is the strong possibility that Trump simply does not know what is going on, as suggested by his recent statement that there are no Russian troops in the Ukraine (apparently unaware that Crimea is still considered part of the Ukraine by everybody except the Russians).
Not only that, Trump has gone on to welcome the Russian secret services hacking into the Democratic Party’s IT systems and more or less invited Putin to do his worst. How much, if at all, this will damage Trump is hard to tell, but it is worth recalling that ever since 1945 the Republican Party has been vigorously, if not rabidly anti-Russian, in favour of a powerful military establishment and a massive military presence world-wide no matter what the cost (it was Reagan’s colossal military build-up that really sent the budget deficit through the roof).
This is not the first time the Republican Party has fielded a candidate regarded as dangerously extreme by its leadership. In 1964 it was Barry Goldwater who won the primaries, thanks to support from the religious right and the “conservative coalition” – the forerunners of today’s Tea Party. His programme was at least coherent: drastic reduction of the Federal government especially social security, military strength and readiness to use nuclear weapons against the USSR. This was a classic far-right programme, but one that fitted not at all with the needs of US state capitalism and Goldwater went on to be heavily defeated in the election, partly as a result of the failure of the Republican hierarchy to back him.
Is Trump just a Goldwater 2.0? Not at all, and the differences are instructive. Goldwater’s candidacy represented a seizure of the Republican Party by the “Tea Party” of the time, which was sidelined for years following Goldwater’s crushing electoral defeat. It is no secret that the last couple of decades have seen a comeback for this tendency which has made a more or less successful takeover bid for the GOP.11 However, the Goldwater supporters were, in the truest sense, a “conservative coalition”: they represented a real conservative tendency within an America undergoing profound social changes (feminism, the Civil Rights movement, the beginning of opposition to the Vietnam War, and the breakdown of traditional values). Although many of the Tea Party’s “causes” may be the same as Goldwater’s, the context is not: the social changes he opposed have taken place, such that the Tea Party is not so much a coalition of conservatives as an alliance of hysterical reaction.
This has created increasing difficulties for the big bourgeoisie, which cares little or nothing about these social and “cultural” issues and is basically interested in US military strength and the free trade from which it profits. It has become a truism that anyone running in a Republican primary must prove himself “irreproachable” on a whole series of issues: abortion (you must be “pro-life”), gun control (against it), fiscal conservatism and lower taxation, “Obamacare” (socialism, it should be abolished: indeed Ted Cruz based a part of his credentials on a publicity-seeking filibuster against Obamacare in the Senate), marriage (sacred), Democratic Party (if Satan had a party this would be it). Now, in the space of a few short months, Trump has in effect eviscerated the Republican Party. Here we have a candidate who has shown himself “unreliable” on abortion, on gun control, on marriage (three times in his case), and who has in the past donated money to the Devil herself, Hillary Clinton. In addition, he proposes to raise the minimum wage, maintain Obamacare at least in part, return to an isolationist foreign policy, let the budget deficit go through the roof, and expel 11 million illegal immigrants whose cheap labour is vital to US business.
Like the Tories in Britain with Brexit, the Republican Party – and potentially the whole American ruling class – has found itself saddled with a programme which is completely irrational from the standpoint of its imperialist and economic class interests.
The only thing that we can say for certain, is that Brexit and the Trump candidacy will usher in a period of increased instability at every level: economic, political, and imperialist. At the economic level, the European countries – which, we should not forget, represent a major part of the world economy and its biggest single market – are already in a fragile condition: they have weathered the financial crisis of 2007/8 and the threat of a Greek exit from the Euro zone but they have not overcome them. Britain remains one of the major European economies and the long process of unravelling its connections with the EU will be fraught with unpredictability, not least on the financial level: nobody knows, for example, what effect Brexit will have on the City of London, Europe’s major centre for banking, insurance, and share trading. Politically, the success of Brexit can only encourage, and give greater credit to the populist parties on the European continent: next year sees a presidential election in France, where Marine Le Pen’s populist, anti-Europe, Front National is now the biggest single political party in terms of votes. The governments of Europe’s major powers are torn between the desire to make Britain’s separation from Europe as smooth and painless as possible, and a real fear that any concessions to Britain (such as, for example, access to the single market together with restrictions on movement of people) will give ideas to others, notably to countries like Poland and Hungary. The attempt to stabilise Europe’s south-eastern border by integrating the countries of ex-Yugoslavia will almost certainly come to a halt. The EU will find it more difficult to present a united response to Erdogan’s democratic coup d’Etat in Turkey and his use of Syrian refugees as pawns in a vile game of blackmail.
Although the EU itself has never been an imperialist alliance, most of its members are also members of NATO. Any weakening of European cohesion is therefore likely to have a knock-on effect on NATO’s ability to counter Russian pressure on its Eastern flank, destabilising further the Ukraine and the Baltic states. It is no secret that Russia has for some time been financing the French Front National and is at least using if not financing the German Pegida movement. The only outright winner from the Brexit referendum is in fact Vladimir Putin.
As we said above, the Trump candidacy has already dealt a blow to US credibility. The idea of a President Trump with his finger on the nuclear button is, it must be said, a frightening prospect.12 But as we have said many times, one of the major elements of instability and war today is the United States’ determination to maintain its dominant imperialist position against all comers and this situation will remain unchanged whoever becomes president.
Rage against the machine
Boris Johnson and Donald Trump have more in common than a big mouth. Both are political adventurers, devoid of any principle or any sense of overriding national interest. Both are ready to twist and turn, to adjust their message to what their audience wants to hear. Their posturing antics are blown up by the media till they seem larger than life, but in reality they are complete non-entities, nothing but mouthpieces through which the losers from globalisation howl their rage, their despair, and their hatred for the wealthy elites and the immigrants they hold responsible for their misery. Hence Trump gets away with the most outrageous and contradictory statements: his supporters simply do not care, he is saying what they want to hear.
This is not to say that Johnson and Trump are identical, but their differences are less to do with personal character than they are with the differences between the ruling classes to which they belong: the British bourgeoisie has been playing a major role on the world stage for centuries, while the American’s brash, buccaneering, self-absorbed phase only really came to an end with Roosevelt’s defeat of the isolationists to enter World War II. Important fractions of the American ruling class remain deeply ignorant of the outside world, one is almost tempted to say that they are stuck in a state of retarded adolescence.
Electoral results will never be an expression of class consciousness; nonetheless they can tell us something about the condition of the working class. Whether it be in the Brexit referendum, in support for Trump in the USA, for Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, or for the German populists of Pegida and Alternative für Deutschland, all the voting figures suggest that where these parties and movements gain workers’ support it is predominantly among those who have suffered most from the changes in the capitalist economy during the last forty years, and who have not unreasonably concluded, after years of defeat and endless attacks on their living conditions from governments of right and left, that the only way to frighten the ruling elite is by voting for demonstrably irresponsible parties whose policies are anathema to that same elite. The tragedy is that it is precisely these workers who were among the most massively involved in the struggles of the 1970s.
A common theme in both the Brexit and the Trump campaigns is the idea that “we” can “take back control”. No matter that “we” have never had any real control over our lives: as one resident of Boston UK put it “we just want things back the way they were”. Back to when there were jobs, and jobs with decent wages, when the social solidarity of working-class communities had not been broken down by unemployment and dereliction, when change seemed something positive and happened at a manageable speed.
It is undoubtedly true that the Brexit vote has created a new and ugly mood in Britain, one where the outright racists feel freer to crawl out from behind the woodwork. But many – probably the great majority – of those who voted Brexit or Trump to stop immigration are not racists as such, rather they are suffering from xenophobia: fear of the foreign, fear of the unknown. And this unknown is basically the capitalist economy itself, which is inherently mysterious and incomprehensible because it presents the real social relationships in the process of production as if they were natural forces, as elemental and uncontrollable as the weather, but whose effects on workers’ livelihoods can be even more devastating. It is a terrible irony, in this age of scientific discovery, that people no longer believe that bad weather is caused by witches, but are quite prepared to believe that their economic woes are caused by their immigrant fellows in misfortune.
The danger confronting us
We began this article by referring to the “Theses on decomposition”, written almost 30 years ago in 1990. We will conclude by citing them:
“We must be especially clear on the danger of decomposition for the proletariat’s ability to raise itself to the level of its historic task (…) 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”.
That danger confronts us starkly today.
The rise of populism is dangerous for the ruling class because it threatens its ability to control its own political apparatus and at the same time maintain the democratic mystification which is one of the pillars of its social domination. But it offers nothing to the proletariat. On the contrary, it is precisely the proletariat’s own weakness, its inability to offer any alternative perspective for the chaos threatening capitalism, that has made the rise of populism possible. Only the proletariat can offer a way out of the dead-end that society finds itself in today, and it will never be able to do so if workers let themselves be taken in by the siren songs of populist demagogues promising an impossible return to a past which, in any case, never existed.
Jens, August, 2016
1 Published in 2001 in International Review n°107
2 See this issue of the Review.
3 National Health Service.
4 United Kingdom Independence Party: a populist party founded in 1991 which campaigns essentially for leaving the EU and against immigration. Paradoxically, it has 22 MEPs which makes it the largest single British party in the European Parliament.
5 It is true that the EU and the British Treasury made some effort to envisage contingency plans in the event of a victory for the Leave camp. Nonetheless, it seems clear that these preparations were inadequate and – perhaps more to the point – that nobody really expected Leave to actually win the referendum. This was even true of the Leavers themselves. Apparently, Farage conceded victory to Remain at one in the morning the night of the referendum, only to discover to his shock the morning after that Remain had lost.
6 Britain entered the European Economic Community (EEC) under a Conservative government in 1973. Its membership was confirmed by a referendum held by the Labour government in 1975.
7 It is worth remembering that Thatcher remained in power for more than ten years despite never winning more than 40% of the popular vote in parliamentary elections.
8 That is to say the Union of the United Kingdom of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
9 Following these inconvenient results, the European governments dropped the Constitutional Treaty, but rescued its most essential elements by simply modifying the existing arrangements with the Lisbon Treaty of 2009.
10 One should make a distinction here with referenda in places like Switzerland and California, where they are part of the historically established political process.
11 “Grand Old Party”, a colloquial name for the Republican Party, dating back to the 19th century.
12 One of the reasons for Goldwater’s defeat was his declared readiness to use tactical nuclear weapons. The Johnson campaign countered Goldwater’s slogan “In your heart, you know he’s right”, with the slogan “In your guts, you know he’s nuts”.