Picking the lesser evil

With a seemingly bungled Brexit deal, the only options on offer are different forms of capitalism. The Left needs to pick its enemies wisely, writes Richard Seymour

November 22, 2018
12 min read

Theresa May faces her critics outside Downing Street. Photo by Tiocfaidh ár lá 1916 (Flickr)

Brexit looms. All the options are bad… The problem is, we know a lot less than is often claimed about how bad. As Gramsci once put it, anyone making predictions has a programme which they are acting on. That, obviously, applies to me, and to what follows.

These are the main possibilities as far as I know. There will either be some form of May’s bad deal, which retains many of the apparatuses of EU membership while losing any say in the rules. In some senses, this is a net loss of ‘sovereignty’. Or there will be a “no deal” Brexit, with ‘sovereignty’ gains but an immediate financial shock and likely long-term economic losses. In that case, the EU remains the UK’s largest trading partner and continues to exercise gravitational pull with its rules and processes. Or there will be a return to the iron cage of ordoliberal bureaucracy, redemption for the ousted Osborne wing of Toryism.

What is the least worst of these options for the Left? This is a constitutional question in which the Left has had very little input. Corbyn got just 6% of television time accorded to politicians during the referendum campaign. It was organised as, and reported on as, a dispute on the Right. Even today, hardly anyone is aware of the Left’s critique of the EU’s undemocratic and neoliberal nature. The default assumption among the majority of Labour members is that to be anti-racist one must of course be pro-EU. (Ironically, Labour Remainers have wasted effort on returning to EU membership when they could have focused on free movement, which has widespread support in the membership, the unions, parts of the PLP and the leadership, it could have been won by now. With salutary effects for the confidence of the anti-racist Left.) Those members have been argued with on the grounds of electoral pragmatism, not principle. That means, in effect, that Brexit continues to be a debate between austere liberalism, and chaos nationalism. Does it have to be that way?

We need to situate this debate in relation to the urgent need to reform British capitalism. Anything less is an evasion. Life in Britain, before June 2016, was not working for millions of people. Capitalism wasn’t delivering. Official measurements showed a recovering economy, reasonable corporate profits, high rates of employment. This didn’t resonate with real life. There had been nearly a decade of stagnation in living standards, unseen since the nineteenth century. There was a crazed financial property market driving young people into a housing crisis. The public sector, especially the NHS, was being driven into the red. Every single NHS trust was reporting deficits and strains. Welfare cuts had driven a surge in suicides. Privatised energy firms were driving up prices. Public-private partnerships were sucking funds out of the public purse. There were serious and growing regional dysfunctions, with large parts of the north of England and Wales effectively shuttered and forgotten about. The financial sector, having crashed the economy, was empowered and largely unreformed.

That’s partly why the Brexit vote happened, but more importantly it is why the Left took control of the Labour Party for the first time in its history. The Labour Left’s agenda is not just a list of nice things: free education, higher wages, renationalisations, redistribution, modernised/green energy, shorter working week, democratised media, public housing, regional development, infrastructural upgrade, and so on.

It’s predicated on reforming the current neoliberal model of capitalist development. It requires the British government to have an industrial strategy in a way that it hasn’t for decades. It requires the remit of the central bank to be reformed, and the financial system to be redirected toward the promotion of new industries. It requires that the balance of economic power be progressively shifted away from the City. It requires new regulations, more public ownership, limits on the rule of competition. It requires a fundamental shift in power from capital to labour.

Millions of people, including some on the Left, don’t really believe in the ability of the state to do much about capitalism. This is not because people consciously believe the neoliberal story. Support for economic intervention is weakest among precisely the demographics that are most pro-Labour. They are not acolytes of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. But, unlike those who grew up in the era of Great British public corporations, optimistic new public services and booming Britannia, most young people have rarely seen real public sector ambition. Legend has it that the last time the state picked winners, it led to ‘lame ducks’ and ‘stagflation’.

What people do experience of the state is darker. We’re perhaps more aware, thanks to the work of feminist, anti-racist and anti-war movements, of its abuses. Its history of racist violence, its wars, its brutal punishments, its over-policing, its surveillance, its harm to migrants, its addiction to nuclear weapons, and its increasingly antiquated and undemocratic structure. We often experience the state as something we need to limit. Cameron and Osborne were, for a while, good at tapping into this. They, along with Clegg’s Liberals, promised a restoration of ‘English liberty’. They promised the end of ASBOs and the reform of the prisons system and a civil liberties bill. They promoted the idea of a “big society” as an alternative to state action. That was the soft sell for the austerity drive.

Capitalist markets give us a very small “margin of freedom” as Mises put it. Market competition imposes intense social and economic coercion, but there is a range of options. You can at least do what you want with your little money. Most young people have never directly experienced the more expansive social freedoms made possible by cheap public housing, free education, a generous welfare state and a thicker sociality. What they have often experienced is that the tiny margin of market freedom can be even further limited by the state. Ironically, it is precisely the austerity of market discipline, and the state’s promotion thereof, that can weaken support for state intervention. It’s not that people believe the neoliberal story, but that neoliberal conclusions are plausibly grounded in elements of practical experience.

Labour’s response to this has been, in the good old-fashioned sense, ‘contradictory’. It does seek to restrain aspects of state violence, while simultaneously pandering to misplaced demands for more police. It does seek to tap into a certain ‘Spirit of 45’ nostalgia for British public service, but at the same time mobilises futurist aspirations for green, high-tech development. Perhaps embodying the contradiction, John McDonnell has mobilised the old radical slogan: “in and against the state”. That means, a coalition of democratic forces occupies positions in the state in direct conflict with its current organisation and management. But it also means, if anything is to get done, adapting to the existing patterns of statecraft. I am not denouncing this. It is a condition of being politically engaged that one works in institutions that are hostile to change. It is a condition of being a socialist militant in capitalism that one reproduces capitalist social relations. It is a condition of being alive in this era that no one, anywhere, exists “outside the state”. To be “inside and against the state” is an excellent benchmark for the kind of contradictions that all radicals have to inhabit.

However. As far as I can tell McDonnell first unwrapped this slogan during the left-Remain campaign. He was talking about the European Union as much as the British state. He wanted to persuade people to remain in the EU in spite of the EU. A Labour government, with its reform agenda, would face difficulties with the EU. The European Commission, an unelected civil service, would be hostile to a radical left government. The European Court of Justice, wielding judicial supremacy, could overrule Labour legislation. The whole point of the European institutions is that they enforce a code independently of national governments. Like the impartial “umpire” sought by ordoliberals, they are prized exactly for not being compromised by electoral politics. They’re part of the problem for the Left. Nonetheless, McDonnell thought the least worst option was to fight within this undemocratic framework, despite the difficulties inherent in it. I think he was probably right in that.

The Shock Doctrine

Today, the dilemma is different but the same. The Left is in a better position, and Brexit has acquired more definite dimensions. It’s a long shot, but Labour might actually have to take control of the Brexit process and try to implement its programme. So the question becomes which of the terrible Brexit options represents the least difficulty for Labour’s reform strategy. What is the least worst choice? Labour’s current opposition to “no deal” and “no Brexit” means that in practice it will end up with a version of May’s fudge: perhaps a slightly better version, but no better than damage limitation.

So let me ask a seemingly stupid question. Why is the Labour leadership unwilling to leave the EU with “no deal”? Why is that self-evidently not on the cards? Why is any deal better than no deal? You’ll say, the economic consequences. The financial shock. British banks, acting as a clearing house for EU transactions, would reel into chaos. There would be a loss of investment, layoffs, shortages, price rises. Much of that is plausible, I think, with all due allowances for Project Fear. But it can’t be the whole answer. Left-wing economists like Larry Elliott will claim that these consequences are overstated and could be managed with sufficient state action. At any rate, the British economy tied to central Europe is not a particularly good or just economy. One couldn’t reform this without some sort of rupture. And one can see Corbyn and McDonnell, at a different stage in their career, agreeing.

I think the underlying issue is political. To make a hard Brexit work for the Left, not the apologists for Singapore-style capitalism, would not just be a matter of emergency programmes. It would require a fundamental renegotiation of the terms on which the economy, society and state operate. It would require a far-reaching radicalisation, a social rupture. Were there some sort of Oxi-style mass movement, precipitated by a direct confrontation with the European Union over a popular policy agenda, one can see how a hard Brexit could be a red Brexit. That would be an audacious experiment. But it is not where we are. Most of the direct conflicts that Labour-voters in this country have with the state are with the Home Office and the defence and security establishments. Most of our potential conflicts with the EU are, because long-range and mediated, rarely experienced as such. And, of course, since popular belief in the potential of a radical, expansive public sector is as yet underdeveloped, there isn’t yet a significant base for the kind of radical policies that would be necessary to make hard Brexit work for the poor, for migrants, for public sector workers, and so on.

On the other hand, there is nothing to be gained from simply imitating the hard-nosed hard-centre, the austerians and their well-meaning allies. If the UK is stampeded back into the European Union, it will not be on the basis of a militant “inside and against the state” stance. It will not be on the basis of defiance. It will be out of pure fear of the alternative. It will signal clearly, once again, either that there is no alternative, or that all alternatives are awful. It will be an object-lesson for others. Even if a “people’s vote” won, and even setting aside the ways in which that would stir and ferment the toxic betrayal myths and vengeance-seeking emotions of the Right, it would be a profoundly conservative decision. It would restore the ‘four freedoms’ — free movement for goods, capital, services and labour — only one of which is unambiguously positive.

Room for manoeuvre

But where does that leave us? Granted that May’s negotiating team has been spectacularly incompetent. Granted that it sought a Tory Brexit, which protected markets and competition, rather than living standards and rights. Granted that May’s deal is unexpectedly bad. Granted that, in the event of the general election and Labour victory that we all want, negotiations could be re-opened. The EU holds most of the cards in that case. The resulting deal might be less worse than that negotiated by May’s team. But we have to be realistic about what even that would mean. The EU would likely want to bind the hands of a Corbyn-led government, so would insist on state aid and competition rules, among other things. Labour would be negotiating on the terms of its shackles, in order to have an economy that could sustain its reform agenda. It would be negotiating for wiggle-room. It’s hard to say how well any resulting deal would go down, although the effect of passing any half-sensible deal at all would likely be to temporarily boost the economy.

This much isn’t a condemnation of Labour’s leadership. It is, rather, a status report on the development and cohesion of the British Left. But the situation is such that the Labour leadership now has to go beyond its six tests and set out in detail what it wants out of the negotiations and what it is and is not prepared to give up. And the grassroots Left has to start thinking about how, in the medium-to-long-term, it is going to do better than that.

This article was originally posted on Richard Seymour’s Patreon page.

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