Brexit Confirms: The Center Cannot Hold
Above Photo: Demonstrators gesture outside the Houses of Parliament during a protest aimed at showing London’s solidarity with the European Union following the recent EU referendum, in central London, Britain June 28, 2016. | Photo: Reuters
Britain is in a general state of pandemonium. The U.K. finds itself in the midst of a full-blown constitutional crisis, Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned, and both the country’s governing party and the opposition are in the throngs of a fierce internal power struggle.
As the cheerleaders of the leave campaign dither with no clear plan on how to move forward, the financial consequences continue to ripple through the City: the pound has collapsed to its lowest level since 1985, the government’s credit rating has been slashed two full points, and world markets are in turmoil, with a record $3 trillion in share value lost on Friday and Monday alone. As if things could not get any worse, recent days have also seen an epidemic of racist hate crimes spreading across the U.K.
Reading the headlines, one could easily be forgiven for experiencing the creeping sensation of living through the postmodern equivalent of the apocalypse: the financial press is providing minute-to-minute coverage of the “battering” of world markets; liberal establishment columnists repeatedly declare this to be Britain’s and Europe’s single greatest crisis since the Second World War; and the New York Times has already held Brexit up as the telltale sign of a decaying world order.
To top it all off, a hysterical Tony Blair took to the same pages last weekend to make a desperate plea in defense of globalization and for more of his failed Third Way recipe, proclaiming in characteristic platitudes that “the center must hold” — as if Yeats’ “blood-dimmed tide” and “mere anarchy” were about to be loosed upon the world once more.
The immediate cause for all the commotion is clear: Cameron’s risky bet to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership has backfired disastrously. The unexpected victory for the leave camp has shaken both Unions to their very core, dividing left and right on either side of the Channel and burning all bridges between them. There is no denying the historic nature of these developments; the world is a different place after last Thursday, and it is clear that Europe and Britain now find themselves in uncharted territory.
Yet the unspeakable truth is that, at a deeper level, the financial fallout and political pandemonium of recent days has less to do with Britain’s place in Europe than it has with the widening gulf between political elites and European citizens more generally. While racism and anti-immigrant sentiment have been central to the leave campaign from the very start, it is difficult to believe that all 52 percent of Britons who voted to leave the EU are committed fascists. Many of these people are ordinary working class folks who are simply fed up with the erosion of their living standards, the disintegration of their communities, and the lack of responsiveness of their political representatives and the unaccountable technocracy taking over their lives. Brexit was first and foremost a political statement.
The reason this statement has proven so explosive is because it happened to sit on the convergence point of a number of profoundly unstable social and political fault-lines, all of which were shaking well before Brexit, all of which would have trembled even in the absence of Brexit, and all of which will continue to quake and thunder for a very long time after Brexit. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that a victory for remain would have produced a very different outcome in the long run — it would certainly not have stemmed any of the discontent, pacified any of the social tensions, or resolved any of the political conflicts that underlay the referendum’s result.
While Brexit clearly hands victory to the bigots of UKIP and the Tory right, a victory for remain would simply have perpetuated the anti-democratic neoliberal masochism that produced the motivation for people to align themselves with these bigots in the first place. In this light, we have to stop seeing the rabid nationalism of the far-right and liberal cosmopolitanism of the pro-EU camp as polar opposites — in reality, the former is the logical outgrowth of the latter; its deformed Siamese twin in flesh and blood. The only thing the pro-EU camp was able to offer British voters was a continuation of the structural conditions that led to Brexit, combined with fanatical fear-mongering over the consequences of that outcome.
In truth, the British vote to leave the EU, whether it eventually materializes or not (and there is no guarantee that it will), is symptomatic of a much deeper and much more debilitating crisis: a structural crisis of democratic capitalism that has in recent years evolved from a global financial crisis into a deepening legitimation crisis of the political establishment, which is now in turn exploding into a full-blown crisis of governability of the existing social and political order. The fault-lines currently opening up in British and European politics would have eventually laid waste to the stability of the continent’s postwar order regardless of the outcome of this particular referendum. Brexit will merely speed up that ongoing process.
It is important to remember in this respect that Cameron did not call this referendum because he truly cared about the opinion of ordinary people on the EU. Like Alexis Tsipras last year, he called the referendum in a risky and desperate gambit to keep his flailing party together — to silence the Tories’ eurosceptic right wing, disarm the constant backbencher challenges to his leadership, and inoculate the government against future defections to UKIP. This vote was never really about the EU; it was about one of the figureheads of Europe’s crumbling neoliberal center trying to reassert his hold over a party that was once the stable bedrock of the UK’s landed aristocracy and its metropolitan bourgeoisie, but that is now rapidly disintegrating in the face of a resurgent reactionary right.
The ongoing coup against Jeremy Corbyn similarly has little to do with Europe. As an article in theTelegraph from June 13 confirms, Labour MPs and the Blairite wing of the party have been plotting an anti-Corbyn revolt for weeks, if not months, aiming to bring down their leftist leader in “a 24-hour blitz” after the referendum, regardless of its outcome. Again, this is not about the EU; it is about the incompetent lackeys of a crumbling neoliberal center trying to reclaim their hold over a party that was once Europe’s most enthusiastic cheerleader of neoliberalism, financialization, and overseas military interventions, but that is now rapidly disintegrating — or realigning itself — in the face of an insurgent “radical” left.
In this respect, Blair’s apocalyptic reference to Yeats in his New York Times op-ed was awkwardly on point: things are falling apart; the center cannot hold. This is the crux of the matter, and it helps explain the hysterical doomsday discourse of the centrist establishment: their globalized post-democratic fantasy world is crumbling in front of their eyes, as their once-passive voter-cum-consumer base is suddenly gobbled up and mobilized by a motley crew of “angry populists” who thrive on the electoral spoils of a crippling legitimation crisis and feast on the popular discontent sowed by years of austerity and decades of neoliberal restructuring.
The answer to the steady disintegration of the established political order clearly cannot be more of the same. Against Blair’s hopeless cries that “the center must hold,” and against the thinly-veiled conspiracies of his neoliberal acolytes in Parliament — who are now closing in on Jeremy Corbyn in a last-ditch attempt to reclaim the Labour Party and destroy from within, once and for all, the only political force that could possibly pose a counterweight to the far-right in this defining moment in British history — the left must stand firm and insist: the center cannot hold.
To avoid ceding this open space to the racists and reactionaries, the weakened and dispersed forces of the left will need to rally in face of the historic battles now coming their way. Despair as one may, this means the choice is now very straightforward: it’s Corbyn or nothing. Not because the embattled Labour leader will bring democratic socialism or fully automated luxury communism to a newly independent Britain, but because this decent, principled leftist is the only bulwark still standing between ordinary working people and the monsters that are about to be unleashed on them.