I guess that most people following the news media in the UK will consider that the process of Brexit (Britain’s exit from the European Union) is an unbelievably confused and confusing botch up. Media observers around the world also seem unable to make any sense of the numerous bickerings among the UK political class concerning the terms of the withdrawal agreement. Indeed, if one starts from the many political opinions being voiced by all and sundry over this issue it is difficult to make any overall sense of what fundamental problems are preventing a solution. ‘Why can’t they just get on with it’; is frequently heard. Contradictions together with opinions not based upon any reliable evidence are part and parcel of the daily torrent of media speculation but the underlying motives of the current fiasco are rarely exposed.
So analysing the various strains of borrowed thinking, identifying the many cases of confirmation bias, and following the useless combinations of abstractions around the Brexit issue, is a recipe for getting lost in a maze of conflicting ideas. And they are often ideas which are largely disconnected from real life and the real concerns of people who occupy the lower regions of our capitalist economic and political pyramid. Indeed, it is rarely pointed out that exiting the EU as well as the original joining the EU are decision processes exclusively initiated and guided by the UK economic and political elites. By utilising their positions of influence they have managed at each stage to convince large numbers of the public of the in or out decisions importance whilst simultaneously creating an enormous amount of internal and external confusion over precisely who really stands to gain.
Rather than analysing the current bewildering spectrum of political ramblings, I suggest we could achieve more overall clarity on what is really going on by reminding ourselves of two important points. First, this elite squabbling is nothing new. The issue of membership of European structures has always divided the British political class from way back when the European Coal and Steel Community was initiated in 1951. Secondly, it also helps to be clear on what the real underlying economic/financial forces and possible elite motives are behind the disagreements over EU exit terms. Historically this division has manifested itself most strongly within the senior members of the Conservative Party – but not exclusively. Winston Churchill (the British Prime Minister during the Second World War – 1939-45), for example, was for post-war integration in Europe, but strongly opposed to British membership of it.
Before EU membership.
In assessing this reluctance by the British elite to join a European Federation of states, a frequently missing, but very important historical fact, is the economic dimensions of that second world war. From 1919 to 1938 British and European Capitalism had been in the doldrums. Large scale unemployment and poverty for working people had broadly followed the financial and economic downturns, which characterised that period. So the Second World War was not simply a one-dimensional anti-fascist political fight against Nazi led Germany and it’s allies as it is often portrayed. It was also a massive military defence of the economic, financial and political advantages gained by British elites during the establishment of the British Empire.
A German controlled consolidated Europe would have threatened much of British Capitals 18th and 19th century international hegemony and so from the elites perspective it had to be stopped – and this was not for the first time. A previous Germanic expansionary bid in Europe had been stopped by the 1914-18 war. Therefore, with regard to the EU it is not just the general importance of these aspects of the capitalist mode of production (ie. economics, finance and politics) which need to be grasped, but also how they differentially effect the British elite and their international supporters. It is these contradictions which explain their irreconcilable differences and lies at the bottom of the decades long Europe in or out tug of war within the British Establishment.
Military defence of international economic, financial and political advantage as these effected the British elite was something Winston Churchill, for example, was strategically clear about in directing military operations during the Second World War, much to the annoyance of the USA military elite. UK capitalist interests pre and post war were still overwhelmingly for maintaining a dominant position in the markets and sources of raw materials which were the legacy of that earlier Empire and were later embodied in what became known as the British Commonwealth countries. European countries at that time (and even much later) were seen by most British elites as holiday destinations or secondary markets for goods and services but also as potential rivals for essential markets and raw materials.
So apart from a few among the financial, economic and political elite, after the 1939-45 (second) world war there was no majority for joining a federal Europe, precisely because there was no pressing economic, financial or political motive for doing so. According to a majority within the elite, Britain, was still ‘Great’, and was second among the worlds two premier and now victorious superpowers. They felt that Britain could, by maintaining a ‘special relationship’ with the USA, still go it alone at this side of the Atlantic. This sentiment among the elite majority remained largely the case for a decade or so up until the eventual decision to join the European Economic Community, for by then the economic situation in Britain and elsewhere had changed dramatically.
Rival economic powers such as America, and the revitalised previously defeated countries such as Germany, Italy and Japan had by a decade or so become economically stronger and Britain relatively and absolutely much weaker than when it controlled a thriving empire. Post-war international economic competition was increasingly fierce in the decades after that second world war. In addition, independence for many former British colonies eroded many of the special privileges that had once benefited British capitalism. As a consequence an increasing section of the economic, financial and political elite in the UK could see the obvious writing on the wall. Britain as the former workshop of the world with its empire status was something rapidly disappearing into the past. Being part of a growing European Common Market was therefore seen by an increasing number among the elite as the only realistic future.
Yet despite the emergence of such sober and scaled down post-empire perspectives, the economic, financial and political elite were still sufficiently divided upon the issue of Europe that they could not reach a consensus for joining this developing project. Many among the elite could see economic, financial or political advantages for them to join, others only saw personal economic, financial or political disadvantages from membership. Hence the long running (and often bitter) disagreements among the elite over being part of Europe which surfaced frequently. The only thing the elite could eventually agree upon was the tactic of having a referendum to decide whether the UK should join or not.
Accordingly a campaign was initiated in 1970 during which each side of the elite presented to the electorate the supposed advantages of joining, whilst the other side of the elite warned the electorate of the disadvantages of joining. In other words, the elite persuasively drew the mass of the population into making a decision which would primarily benefit one side of the ruling elite or the other. The promise (a hollow one at that) was that joining the European Union would benefit everyone. The yes vote won and the UK joined in 1973, but this did not end the elite divisions, because it did not end the fundamental differences in economic and financial needs or perspectives of the various economic and financial elites. Nor, from the standpoint of the working classes, did it end the economic and social decline of the UK workforce as a whole. Nevertheless joining muted the elite bickerings for a time as Britain was integrated into the European Economic Community.
Britain in the EU.
Meanwhile, in the UK the struggle between capital and labour continued. A ‘Winter of Discontent’ (1978/79) had witnessed the working class in the private and public sectors of employment, still trying to defend their pay and conditions against effective reductions imposed by employers and the government. Growing unemployment and reduced real term wages and salaries, had added to the structural problems of welfare state capitalism in the UK. The defeat of striking coal miners in 1984/85 further reduced purchasing power of the British working classes and increased state expenditure whilst simultaneously reducing state tax revenues. Yet the free movement of labour and capital (enshrined in the European Union Articles) ensured that employers could import cheap labour if British workers could not (or would not) work for low pay. Or alternatively owners of capital would be allowed to freely export it if better profits could be made elsewhere.
The de-regulation of financial markets in 1986 (the so-called ‘Big Bang’) and the full acceleration of the neo-liberal phase of globalisation enabled many fortunately placed people and companies to become super rich and super powerful. Thatcherite, neo-liberal, share-price populism (privatisation of gas, electricity, water, telephones, council houses) along with rising house prices also served to divert attentions from the growing structural problems of British welfare-state capitalism and masked the further domination of the financial services sector. Through inflation, unemployment and government policy a gradual reduction, of what wages and salaries of the masses could purchase, was temporarily offset by the extension of loans and credit card debt. On the surface, and in financial services accounting terms, it appeared that the British economy was booming and Europe along with it. But in fact living standards and unemployment for many working people were still getting worse whilst economic activity was being kept temporarily afloat by huge amounts of public and private debt.
And that was not all that was wrong. Since the domination of capital is a global phenomenon, it’s tentacles reach everywhere. Non-European countries with lower wage costs were quickly able to successfully compete on the world market with European Economic Community countries both in quality of products and cost. They were also easily able to penetrate European Economic Community internal markets and sell their products there. Take Japanese motorcycles, cars and electronics for example which flooded in. Or better still consider the example of South Korea. With low wages and 60 hour working week this small country single-handedly practically demolished the shipbuilding industries of all the advanced capitalist countries. In other words in general, British industrial capitalists producing commodities were losing out, whilst in general Finance capitalists loaning out out capital were gaining.
Between these two sectors the rift was growing. And note the following carefully: Membership of a club of nation states, such as the EU does not (and did not) remove or even mitigate the competitive nature of the capitalist mode of production for those producing goods. The examples of Greece, Portugal and Spain should make this fact abundantly clear. EU membership has neither protected the living standards of the blue and white-collar working classes or the professional or small business middle-classes in all E.U Countries and least of all in the cases of Greece, Spain and Portugal. Not only workers lost their employment, but small and medium capitalist concerns atrophied or collapsed. Only the finance capitalist concerns and a few fortunate industrial companies survived and prospered.
For example, the importance of financial services such as banking and insurance to UK business activity has now grown to become the largest proportion of British economic activity, whilst manufacturing and other goods sent to the EU has shrunk a relatively small proportion. So, here again the two bases for new and renewed tensions among the pro – capitalist elite in Britain (commodity capital and finance capital) has continued to develop. Some had become richer by being in, others had become poorer and wanted out. Yet other sectors such as career politicians feel their path to the Brussels gravy train now threatened. Hence, the conflicting opinions, the ambiguity and confusion.
So while things were in an upward trend for banking and Euro MPs salaries and expenses, etc., things were going downhill for many – including working people – even before joining the EU. And despite some exceptions, for increasing numbers, the downward spiral of living standards and job security whilst inside the EU continued. Unlike the older generation, this historic pattern has not been experienced by the young people of Britain and Europe, and this perhaps goes some way to explain the different generational attitudes toward EU membership. Our older generation are understandably deeply cynical about the elite and this capitalist focused European union. Yet will leaving the EU really halt or reverse this decline as many older voters to leave hoped? Alternatively, would staying in improve things as many young people thought when they voted to stay? To such questions we can add another. Has staying in the EU halted or reversed this decline for ordinary people in France, Greece, Spain or Portugal? The answer is of course – no – for this decline has little to do with being in or out of the EU, but everything to do with the trajectory of global capitalism.
And it is not hard to predict the downward direction capitalism, particularly finance capitalism is taking all of us – in or out. Financial speculation, privatisation of public services and ever increasing lending is all the finance sector can do with their loan capital, when funding commodity production leads to relative overproduction – and it is – on a global scale. So as noted, the fundamental splits and divisions among the elite have not lessened but increased. Some still want out; some still want to stay in. However, another layer of disagreement has now emerged around the terms of the Brexit deal. The political elite in particular are now also split on the question of tariffs, borders, payments to Brussels and free movement of labour. But part of the split is not over tariffs or no tariffs; borders or no borders; payments, or no payments; or free movement of labour or no free movement of labour. It is about what level of tariffs, what kind of border (real or imaginary) how high the payments to Brussels will be, and how much movement of labour there will be.
Even out of the EU, under the current mode of production, UK citizens will still pay direct and indirect taxes and will still face employment competition, from low paid immigrant labour for the constantly reducing employment opportunities in UK based skilled and unskilled occupations. It is also clear, that the majority of the politicians in the UK Parliament have not grasped that the problems humanity faces are caused by the entire mode of production, not this or that tariff or back-stop borders. They too cannot see the wood for the trees. Once more, and before too long, more of the UK public will find out that they have again been conned by representatives of the political elite and their wealthy backers. For in or out of the EU, the situation for working people in general will not improve. The five-fold crisis of capitalism is global. In or out of the EU, unemployment, precarious employment, public services, public welfare, financial stability, ecological destruction and pollution will get worse, not better.
However, as we know, certain sections of the UK elite, inside or outside the EU can protect and increase their wealth and avoid taxation by clever manipulation of the rules. Likewise, movement of labour does not seriously effect economic, financial or political elite occupations in general. Despite this there is still a desire among the elites of most sectors of the economic and financial system within Europe to dominate the others. Such is the level of competition among some financial and political sectors within the EU that the UK financial sector, in particular feel it is time to get out. Indeed, it is arguably the desire, for banking regulation within the EU, particularly by German and French elites which is the prime motivation for the British finance sector wanting out and swinging it’s intellectual and financial muscle behind the campaign to leave.
Despite the lessons of 2008 financial crash, the last thing the UK bankers and financial institutions (and their affiliates) want is for their speculative activities to be regulated. And incidentally this section of the elite are no more competent than are the political sector. Neither group could see the full implications of their self – serving daily activities. The 2008 financial crash came as a surprise to those whose investment strategies caused it and incidentally they have been busy ever since creating more speculative bubbles which in time will also burst. The politicians who voted to invade Iraq allowed themselves to be fooled by dodgy dossiers and couldn’t see beyond the next parliamentary session or by election. So we shouldn’t expect anything better than short sighted self-interest, masquerading as public interest, to emerge from Brexit debates and decisions. Which is precisely what we are getting.
But whilst we are being continually bombarded by claim and counter-claim around Brexit discussions and deliberations we should not fail to note and remind ourselves of the following summary of verifiable facts: In all the decades of post war neo-liberal development, the economic and social condition of the bulk of the workers and lower middle-classes has deteriorated in most countries – whether in or out of the EU – or any other block of countries, for that matter! The condition of the working and lower middle classes in the United States of America, for example has nose – dived drastically after the few post-war years of relative affluence for some fortunate sectors ended. Understandably, the elite along with the media on either side of the Brexit and Trump wrangle and tangle fail to mention these facts for it might shift attention from the localised symptoms to the universal cause of them – the stage reached by the capitalist mode of production.
Over the same period, the fate of workers and lower middle-classes in Argentina and the rest of South America has suffered drastically at the hands of the global capitalist elite, particularly by the ‘conditions’ imposed by the IMF (International Monetary Fund). The situation, for working people in the ex – colonial countries of Africa and the Middle East, to provide yet another example, has reached such crisis levels that, (despite the Arab Spring uprisings), civil war and physical destruction of communities has become endemic rather than peace and prosperity. Again the elite and the media utterly fail to draw attention to these facts of global relative and absolute dispossession of working class economic and social well being inside or outside of economic or financial associations such as the EU .
Of course, in contrast with these global effects of international capitalism, the fate of the working classes in Europe is less severe, than their counterparts elsewhere. However, it is still not what by now should be the birthright of every human being. Adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, leisure and safety should be the guaranteed expectation of every human being. These expectations, I suggest were the content underpinning the way ordinary people voted for and against leaving the EU. As I wrote on this blog at the time, [‘In out -Shake it all About’] many ordinary people thought their lives would be better by staying in the EU, whilst many (slightly more) thought their lives would be better by getting out. In that sense there was largely a unity of content in voter aspirations but the referendum form presented by the elite created a false and divisive choice by what was dangled in front of them as an absolute necessity for an improvement in their lives.
If for example, membership of the EU had delivered excellent or even uniformly reasonable standards of living for all Britain’s blue and white collar working class members, can it be supposed that so many millions would have voted to leave? Essentially the same disappointment behind the UK leave vote is being manifest by working people in the rest of EU countries. This is because these modern standard of living basics expectations are being denied to increasing numbers of the non-elites within Europe as well as without. As a consequence protest movements are inevitable. Despite the current different forms of activism and action, this is the universal substance of the majority of the discontented struggles around the world. From the Arab Spring to Brexit and in between and beyond, the struggle for adequate food, water, shelter and safety are the main motivation of the mass of ordinary people who are stirred into protest. Of course, this universal discontent needs to find a more universal and fitting form than the current retreat into nationalism or religious bigotry.
Increasingly, the pro-capitalist elites use the states armed forces to discipline or suppress protests against this unnatural situation of poverty and hardship alongside obscene wealth and luxury consumption. That too is a universal response to crisis by the various pro-capitalist elites. There is undoubtedly growing universal protest and universal oppression in the 21st century and 2019 will be no exception. It is clear that the elites in control of the nation states of Europe and elsewhere do not see their role as enabling and facilitating the above noted basics of human well being for all, but see their responsibility as defending the capitalist mode of production and their parasitic position within it – at all costs. So Brexit aside, with regard to the EU, it is an undeniable fact that working people, white-collar and blue, not only in the UK but in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and now France (yellow vests) are daily registering their disapproval of EU neo-liberal capitalism. The voters of these countries just haven’t been given the choice to leave or stay – yet!
The real important issue facing the current working and middle-classes of Britain, Europe and the rest of the world for a better future is not the elite-led Brexit campaign or any other nationalistic or chauvinistic ‘back-to-the-future’ campaign. When a global mode of production is constructed so as to be unable and unwilling to deliver the above mentioned basics of modern existence to all its citizens, a really intelligent species, particularly the young of that species, should be organising to change that mode of production. They and we should not be taking sides in the petty squabbles of a Brexit divided pro-capitalist elite who use the masses as voting fodder to settle which of their sides gets the biggest share of our communally created wealth in the future. From the perspective of the bulk of humanity within the UK and Europe as well as the rest of the world, Brexit is a trivial distracting pantomime that solves none of the crucial economic, financial, political, ecological and climate issues facing the bulk of humanity and the planet.
R. Ratcliffe (January 2019)