Monday, 11 July 2016

On Brexit

Short attention span warning :  this is a long post and will take several minutes to read.

A meme popped up on my Facebook page just after the Brexit result was announced. It was described by the poster as the ‘most intellectual and eloquent piece about Brexit’ he had read. I hope he's gone on to read more widely since.

The writer of the snippet claimed it was the ‘working classes’ who voted for the UK to leave and that is sad as they will be worst hit by the fallout because they have 'exchanged one distant and unreachable elite whose governance results in a dearth of jobs and investment for another’.

Given the lament was about the tragedy' of Britain leaving the EU – it could be interpreted that the distant and unreachable elite they rejected was the European parliament and the EU’s vast bureaucracy but I assume the writer was referring to the Johnson / Farage / Gove cabal versus the Cameron cabal.

The writer did not even admit the possibility of Britain voting in a progressive government after leaving the EU i.e. getting rid of all distant and unreachable elites whose governance results in a dearth of jobs and investment.  After all, the UK does not need the EU to protect workers rights, it just needs to vote in a government that will stand up to the bosses and the banks. It does not need the EU to pass laws that safeguard the environment or protect the rights of women and minorities - it just needs to vote in a government that will do those things. 

Of course whether it would be permitted to do so by the political and financial forces that would be arrayed against any move to a more progressive and rational system of governance and production - forces which include the EU as it is currently structured  -  is another question. 

The writer also lamented the fate of a generation of young people who are ‘drowning in the debts of (their) predecessors’.  To stick with the aquatic theme, whilst there is a large cohort of young people who are drowning because they’re in deep water and no-one taught them to swim, quite a few of those who claim to be to be drowning because they can’t get on the property ladder as easily as their parents or grandparents did, will inherit the assets those forebears acquired during their working lives.  

Far from drowning, quite a few of the younger generation in Britain and here in NZ - and I suspect a large proportion of those who are waving most frantically - are actually just standing in knee deep water and are wearing life jackets. 

I do agree with the writer of the snippet - anti-intellectualism is scary but so’s a culture of pseudo intellectual headupbuttism. If you want to pontificate about the leave vote being the outcome of Britain having become a post factual democracy characterised by a prevailing culture of anti-intellectualism - then less of the glib ascription of a whole generation economic advantage / disadvantage please. However superficially attractive generational labels are, not all older people own their own homes and have property or share portfolios to buffer their retirement. 

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I lived in Britain through the notorious 'winter of discontent.' I watched British squaddies with their green goddesses fight a house fire next door to mine during the 1977 firefighters' strike. I  watched the country lurch to the right and elect Thatcher.  I watched in horror as sections of the British public slid into xenophobic blood lust during the Falklands debacle.  I remember joking with friends when the Tories started to sell off state owned assets, that the next thing would be they'd privatise water.  The joke was on us. Little did we know what the neo-liberals had in mind for us. The 1984 Miners' strike and Wapping brought that into sharper relief. 

I was politically active enough to have my application for British citizenship denied in 1984 (auspicious or what?) despite being married to a British citizen and being a law abiding, employed, tax paying person in my own right. When I applied to find out the reasons why, I was told they were to be kept secret 'in the interests of state security'.  I must point out that this was way more a measure of the depths of the Thatcher regime's anti-left paranoia than of my political significance.

When Tony Blair led the Labour Party to victory in 1996 there was such relief at the end of the loathed Tory rule, even those of us who had watched his smooth and rapid rise with some disquiet, were happy.  It did not take long for reality to kick in. Blair was Thatcher revisited - without the crazy megalomaniac eyes. They came later. Blair was to be the good cop to Thatcher's mad, bad cop to disguise the fact that the neo-libs were still in charge. The underlying agenda was the same, but there was a smooth icing on the top making it look superficially more attractive.

And there was Europe - with its requirements to widen legislation against discrimination, to ensure equal treatment, to limit maximum working hours and grant paid annual leave, to enact health and safety legislation in workplaces (albeit making much of it workers' responsibility) and to extend limited employment rights to part-time and temporary workers.  

The European Courts had provided a safety net in the vertigo-inducing days of rampant Thatcherism. The threat of taking unfair treatment claims to the European courts went some way to keeping racists and unscrupulous, exploitative employers in line and allowed workers in more progressive areas of employment to protect pay and conditions of service and sometimes even improve them. 

It seemed like a beacon of fairness and decency and international cooperation. 

The move towards the European Union as being openly an arm of global corporate capitalism has been steady and undeniable but for some people, the essentially pro big business, anti trade union and anti democratic nature of the EU is still obscured by its rhetoric and its stand on certain aspects of human rights. 

There are four essential 'freedoms' enshrined in the EU Treaty: the freedom of the movement of capital and of labour; and the freedom for businesses in one EU country to operate in, and to provide services to, any of the member states.  

Removing restrictions on the movement of capital was the first shot fired by the Thatcher regime. It signalled the neo-libs' intent.  The free movement of labour principle seems like a progressive idea and it does work to the benefit of certain workers - mostly it must be said, people who don't see themselves as workers.  It has also been the means by which some workers can be exploited as cheap labour and the use of that cheap labour has allowed employers to push down wages and conditions and undermine collective bargaining. 

Although the right to collective bargaining is protected as a fundamental right within the EU, the right of an employer to run a business invariably takes precedence over workers' rights to contractual benefits that have been gained through collective bargaining. Time after time the EU has come down in favour of employers and against workers in the area of trade union agreements.  

The role of the EU as a facilitator for corporate capitalism has been thrown into starker relief by secretive free trade agreements which aim to reduce regulatory barriers for big business in areas such as banking regulations, the environment and food safety. The daddy of all free trade agreements is the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the twin brother of the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement  (TPPA).

The negotiations exclude most of the people they will affect but open the doors to powerful industry lobbyists. The TTIP and TPPA have the potential to undermine the democratic authority of governments.The essentially undemocratic nature of the negotiations signals a dangerous erosion of fundamental rights and freedoms.  

The argument for the likes of the TTIP is that the current social and financial system which runs the world is robust, rational and well ordered.  It has declared itself to be the most efficient, effective, economic and, by virtue of being global, the most equitable way that governance and trade can be arranged. 

But when Britain, a country which has always kept one foot out of the EU by virtue of keeping a separate currency, voted to opt out of the EU,  the global markets went into immediate meltdown.  Billions were wiped off the stock market; the pound slumped and the pundits all predicted a world shaking recession.  

Why?  Why would a system that claims to be the most robust, rational, efficient, economic and effective possible go pear shaped so instantly and so massively because of a non-binding democratic referendum?

The answer may be that within the deep structural fissures of the capitalist finance system there are myriad opportunities for people to make vast profits when the markets are volatile.  After having created a period of hysteria during which some people make a lot of money and others get a kicking - miraculously the markets restabilise.

Not only do some people get to make a load of money but the fear and uncertainty that is unleashed drives many people towards authoritarian governance.  They turn to those who have proclaimed themselves to be fiscally responsible - in contrast to the spendthrifts who want to waste money on social housing, free healthcare and education instead of on armaments, massive salaries and bonuses for the technocrats and tax cuts and open slather for the corporatocracy.

We all know that the trickle down of benefits to the base promised by the propagandists for global corporate capitalism, is all smoke and mirrors.  It's an illusion which serves to obscure the flow down of detriments which, in a crisis, can gather so much force it destroys whole swathes of the poorest and the most vulnerable - sometimes even affecting those who are relatively privileged.  

Relatively privileged people like the woman who wrote angrily about Brexit because she will not be able 'to buy the house in the sun' she planned for her retirement; because the value of her house has dropped, her food will cost more, and her son will not be able to live and work freely in any one of 28 countries. 

There's a lot of bemoaning the loss of employment and other rights for the younger generation of Britons. What's actually meant are the reduction of opportunities for the educationally and socially advantaged to sell their labour in the small number of the 28 European economies that have the sort of jobs such people want.  The fact that most of the EU countries are exporting labour, not importing it, is ignored.

The people doing the loudest moaning mostly avert their privileged gaze away from the flood of impoverished people imported into the EU's powerful economies to work for low wages and in poor conditions - the fruit and vegetable pickers, the labourers on construction sites, the sex workers, the industrial and the domestic cleaners, the shelf packers - the literal and the figurative shit shovelers

The world outside the bubbles of relative privilege is heaving with people who are living at or below subsistence. There are millions of EU citizens whose life choices are circumscribed by massive structural inequalities that have resulted in poor education and health, inadequate or non-existent housing, unemployment or underemployment, and disproportionate rates of incarceration. These are people for whom travel, the wider range of foods, the cheap wine, the holidays and the second homes - are not just unattainable but are like salt in many deep wounds.

It's as if the rainbows on the surface of the bubbles of privilege have obscured the ugly reality of the world outside because how else could the privileged not have noticed how awful it actually is for a very large proportion of their fellow Britons and their fellow Europeans – not to mention the rest of the world’s poor and oppressed?  

And how could they not have noticed there was a large and vicious racist underbelly about to pop out of the nation's trousers? 

On Facebook someone posted a pictorial representation of the results of Brexit:  a photo of a table on which there were a load of 'European' goods grouped in one corner - cheese, wine, danish pastry etc - and on the other side of the table, a tin of baked beans.  I thought it was funny until I stopped to consider the number of people for whom a tin of baked beans may well be representative of the sorts of food they can afford to buy. 

Choice is meaningless without the means of exercising it.

The self-proclaimed spokespeople of the 48% who voted to remain depict the 52% who voted to leave, as provincial, stupid, parochial, racist, beer swilling, baked bean eating,  xenophobes. They see themselves as sophisticated, cosmopolitan, well informed, progressive internationalists - veritable guardians of the enlightenment.

What those caricatures obscure is that among the 52%, along with rabid and not so rabid right wingers, were people of colour, principled left wingers and decent working class people who are deeply disillusioned by the whole political system.  And in the 48% were the likes of David Cameron and his cabal,  the entire Blairite faction of the Labour Party and other people who did not and still don't give a toss about the impoverished peoples of their own country or the rest of Europe.  

The vicious lies of the Brexit campaign derailed the debate and obscured the fact that the EU is no longer a progressive entity.  In the context of the referendum, to question the EU, to argue the case for leaving was to stand alongside a bunch of racists and xenophobes.  

However disgusting many in the leave camp are, the fact remains that the EU has shown that it is prepared to interfere in, and override democratic decisions of member states; that it is as anti-nationalisation as it is pro-austerity, and that it will collude in the undermining of workers' rights by making loans conditional upon labour market 'reforms' which invariably strengthen capital at the expense of labour.

Where the EU once passed laws that protected workers' rights,  it now requires a free movement of labour which permits the hyper-exploitation of workers by hand inside the richer economies, and strips the poorer economies of many of its skilled workers by hand and by brain.  It spouts rhetoric that appears to be internationalist and progressive but in truth is little more than a pleasant flavoured froth on top of a toxic brew of neo-liberalism.  The dulcet tones of the EU’s human rights rhetoric do not drown out the sound of NATO's sabres being rattled on Europe's eastern borders – leastways not to those of us who have good hearing.

When it comes to the EU I see austerity measures that hit poor people hardest. I see collusion with the IMF's economic blackmail and NATO's war mongering. I see interference in democratic processes in member states. I see a coating of apparently progressive laws that serve to obscure a primary role of ensuring the smooth functioning of global markets  that are controlled by and for global elites.

I do not see the EU as a force for good, for progress, for internationalism any more than I see the likes of Johnson, Gove and Farage, Cameron and the Blairite faction of the British Labour Party as having the back of the working class  - unless it's to stand on. 

I have spent my entire adult life standing up against racism in all its ugly forms. I would have struggled to vote leave because of some of the people I'd have been voting with and what their rhetoric risked unleashing. I'd have been equally appalled at voting to remain because of some of the people who I'd be voting with and what they have already unleashed on the world and what they are planning for the future. 

To typify the leave voters as racist, gullible, parochial idiots and the stay voters as disinterested, well informed guardians of a united Europe and all things progressive and good reduces a complex situation to a crude caricature.  It’s as crude a caricature in its own way as those painted by the right-wingers who, to further their own political ambitions, tapped into a wellspring of racism and xenophobia - a wellspring they have been party to creating.

The people behind the inflammatory and ugly anti-immigration propaganda of the leave campaign loosed a pack of attack dogs that the ruling elites in Britain and Europe have bred and fed.  The pack comprises not just white power pudding-heads, but the cynical and vicious rabble rousers in the media and reactionary forces within the various arms of the state.  

The dogs were intended to intimidate and divert political opponents and to terrify the vulnerable but what those who hold the leashes always forget is that, having tasted blood, the dogs may not come back to heel.