July 13, 2016, by lqzam1
How radical is Brexit?
The decision by British voters to leave the EU has been described as an act of defiance against political elites by disenfranchised working classes. Gary Younge has referred to this as a ‘piercing cry of alienation’ and Owen Jones calls it a working class revolt. There is little doubt that Brexit reflects the desire for change among those who feel powerless and marginalised. That anomie or a sense of unfairness has mobilized many to act is evident from the fact that the referendum achieved a higher turnout (72%) than has been recorded since 1992. Voters who haven’t been inside a polling booth since Thatcher have voted Leave in a bid to stick two fingers to the political clout of Europe. This is not an insignificant development given anxieties around a democratic deficit in the wake of falling electoral engagement in western democracies in recent decades. However, what this means for restoring the lost legitimacy of politics is less obvious.
The fact that resistance has been expressed through a mode of action called for by former public school boys Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage, and supported by global media magnates like Rupert Murdoch, is equally noteworthy and revealing. It has almost become a cliche now to explain social phenomena with reference to the highly contested term neoliberalism, which tends to either subsume all other explanations or be dismissed as a catchall that means very little. Yet it is difficult to ignore the effects of neoliberalism in the preceding decades when you try to reconcile the scale on which governments have been slashing welfare and social security with the fact that those who are worst affected by these changes have largely responded by withdrawing from the political sphere. This paradox points to the normalisation of neoliberal ideals of individualism, competition and economic self-sufficiency that have occluded social and collective goals as the basis of citizenship. In establishing economic progress as the core function of contemporary governance, neoliberal rationality has managed to undermine the ideals of welfare and inhibit dissent by casting it as a destabilizing threat to industry and business.
Against the relative passivity of the British public in the face of biting austerity cuts, compared to their European counterparts, the Leave vote may be seen as a revolt of sorts but it is hardly a sign of radical politics intent upon changing the balance of power. In many respects, though not entirely, it is a reflection of the cultural politics of a neoliberal state that has reduced welfare and hollowed out democracy but sought to deflect responsibility for consequential social failures onto external factors like immigrants and the EU. While only a minority of MPs rallied for the Leave campaign, Remain politicians who scrambled to stop the horse that had bolted from under their noses have never been known for their great love of immigration or Europe. Politicians from both the main parties have been lamenting out of control immigration and the excessive interference of the EU in domestic decisions for decades. It was not so long ago that Cameron was telling the public that the EU was not working for Britain and making promises to curb immigration. So now that the electorate has swallowed this rhetoric and acted accordingly why is it any surprise? Defiant it may be but the Leave vote is also a warning sign and not simply that the working classes are enraged. This is because it is not just one class of voters that supported Brexit and neither are the reasons for wanting to leave by any means uniform or unequivocal. Rather it indicates that political subjectivities that are cultivated in the interests of power can also be subversive and have unexpected consequences.
The positive spin being given to Brexit by the Left is that free from the EU’s unbridled neoliberalism Britain may create more space for left and socialist politics to flourish. This underestimates the pernicious and enduring effects of neoliberal ideologies that often function invisibly through what is socially deemed to be possible and imaginable. Current limits on the debate are evident in the lack of imagination to even contemplate that a reserved, unassuming and straight-talking socialist politician like Jeremy Corbyn can ever win an election in this country. There is no doubt Brexit offers transformative opportunities but any hope of overturning decades of neoliberal hegemony lies in some kind of organised alternative to the existing status quo, which appears to be largely absent. The mini-revolution within the Labour Party which saw the surprise election of Corbyn as its leader represents a glimmer of hope to some, but even this faltering attempt to produce a grassroots movement faces serious obstacles both from within and outside, not least of all a hostile and contemptuous media.