Brexit Ungagged Writing

Brussels as the epitome of evil, or a scientific socialist approach?

Written by Joanne Telfer
 I read Jonathon Shafi’s piece in the Independent on the Marxist argument against the EU with interest, but feel it raises more questions that it answers.
Shafi starts off from a very promising declaration:
“In the abstract, the transnationality of the single market fits with left-wing ideals”.
   This is good and very true, but the question is: what does Shafi understand as the distinction between abstract and concrete? Not a great deal it seems, judging by his next sentence:
“Every mass social movement that has laid a national democratic challenge has found itself confronted by the infrastructure of the EU”.

Whilst this is an indisputable fact, it’s not a progression from abstract to concrete in theory (the method of Marx). It’s a juxtaposition of abstract thought with material object. That’s the vulgar distinction of abstract and concrete, which is a legacy of medieval thinking. Under that sort of rationale, the abstract is the musings of mind and concrete is the hard surface of stuff. Two worlds nicely separated from each other, worlds that never meet.

This is not the method of Marx. For Marx, ideas in heads were just as real as physical objects outside those heads, he had no truck with either vulgar materialists or idealists. For Marx, material conditions preceded thought and ultimately dominated it, but the concrete and abstract are not distinct, two world states of existence. For Marx, as was the case in classical Greece, the abstract is abstraction (a sample) and the concrete was the totality of what is real whether this is inert matter or living biological matter, or the products of human labour, either by hand or by brain.


So let’s proceed. You can’t easily raise a polemic against Shafi on the basis of what he says because it isn’t much, but let me try. He cites Yanis Varoufakis which is interesting. Now Varoufakis let me say, is just as much muddled as Shafi is, but in a different way. Y V has direct experience of being on the front line in relation to the EU, in the trenches as it were. Shafi hasn’t as far as I know. I give greater weight therefore to the analysis provided by Y V. Shafi falls down by his abstract concepts, Varoufakis on the other hand, falls down by his abstract solutions.


The key to understanding the EU, lies in its political economy and not in its potential to invoke moral outrage. Beneath the surface appearance of neo-liberal ideology, lurks the essence of finance capital, in its leading historical role in modernity. This is something that Y V gets and that Shafi either doesn’t get or ignores. Where I despair with the former Greek Finance minister, is his popular front remedy. Does he know nothing of Spain in the 1930’s? A transnational problem requires a transnational solution. But it has to be built on a class basis, it has to be based on working people across the continent. The ideological fellow travellers from the liberal bourgeoisie and celebrities of conscience will stab such a movement in the back and in the front when the going gets rough.


So what are the perspectives?


Perspectives should be about short term forecasts of future events, based on probability, there are no genuine clairvoyants. The EU referendum was of course, propagated by the remain side to include dire predictions. In reality what happened was that the pound fell in relation to other currencies, significantly but not disastrously, though it has to be said the significance was felt more acutely by the poor rather than the rich. The value of the pound of course, is a speculative matter. The casino nature of capitalism is abstract, by which I mean it’s part of the totality, even though this has concrete repercussions in some people’s lives.


A paper produced by a group calling itself Open Britain, makes interesting reading (2). Of course to be generous, this is a left reformist take on these matters, a business as usual take with a Neo-Keynsian economic bent. But to me it’s a serious consideration of the facts. It’s by no means Blairite bullshit, unless you think all this sort of stuff is conscious conspiracy and everyone we disagree with is a deliberate liar. To me, that’s not a Marxist approach at all. People do lie and people do conspire but the very best lies and the very best conspiracies tend to be closer to the truth or closer to accepted truth, than conspiracy theorists abstractly imagine. The acid test is always to see how concrete (in a Marxist sense) the propositions are.


Frederich Engels gave weight to the importance of the transformation of quantity into quantity and vice versa. In the concrete concept of Brexit, this transition has many answers but the qualitative change is in most instances, significantly negative in a quantitative result. In other words, Brexit will have a negative economic impact under any scenario, at least in the short term. I don’t think that is really a controversial point, what is controversial concerns what happens next.


In the Brexit version of events, British exceptionalism, the abandoned project of empire and commonwealth will be restored to its former glory. The Lexit version of events is of course distinct but abstractly distinct. It’s in heads not connected to bodies and by this I mean there is no plan of action. Its only concrete expression would be in the framework of accelerationism and I’ve heard this articulated. Brexit will bring about the collapse of the EU and shit will get so bad in the UK that workers in their millions will flock to the red flag. This in a sense is a more concrete position than the moral outrage saga of Brussels bad, London good. It is however bad concrete because by analogy it’s the equivalent of throwing shit and sand into the cement mixer rather than sand and cement.


Marx’s idea of accelerationism was to advocate free trade, remove the feudal barriers to the development of capitalism so that the grave diggers of capitalism, the proletariat would grow in strength and numbers. Anything else is just a fantasy of pure idealism. This is well illustrated by Marx’s critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. (3) and his 11th Thesis on Feuerbach (4). Socialism, scientific socialism is not a matter of lighting the blue touch paper and stepping back in the expectation of fireworks, it’s about plotting the course of history and making calculated informed interventions with a coherent strategy, employing the living brain against the dead weight of past generations. This is what Marx means when he says reality must strive towards thought. There is nothing in the Lexit narrative which points to any practical measures that can be taken for the proletariat to benefit from Brexit.


Corbyn to the rescue?


The situation has developed of course since 2016, when I wrote my article on Bosses clubs,  left wing communism and the fantasy of left exit from the EU (5). Cameron resigned and the Tory party shifted to the right under new leadership. The toffs are out and a new layer of not so posh but the rather more radical, petit bourgeois front line arrived with talk of bringing back grammar schools and of May being the new Maggie Thatcher. The UKIP vote collapsed but ostensibly I think kippers feel that their people are now in charge. Rees-Mogg of course (tipped as a possible future leader and bookies favourite at 9:2) is posh but an arch reactionary who once suggested a pact with the Kippers.


The Blairites and various Brownites immediately moved against Corbyn with the backing of most of the PLP but failed to oust him. ‘Maggie’ May, strong and stable, called a surprise election, throwing the SNP strategy into chaos and labour published the most radical manifesto since the seventies. But does this mean we can declare the Brexit referendum a victory for the left? There’s nothing in labour’s 2017 election manifesto that would be impossible under EU rules or under rules which would apply by membership of EFTA.


Labour came a respectable second with the new Tory government, propped up by the reactionary DUP.  Had there been no EU referendum, my guess is that labour would have won. Class issues have been subsumed to a significant extent because of the great debate over the relationship with Europe. The Tories themselves have been so engrossed in the EU question that  they themselves have little energy to devote to domestic issues, so we haven’t really yet seen just how bad for working people this Tory government can become.


Labour also has a long hard journey to significantly shift the public consciousness, after decades of Thatcherism and Blairism. Of course class consciousness has its own momentum  but the Labour party is now trying to restore itself as the mass party of the working class. Brexit gets in the way of this, especially as the NHS and social care, rely on significant numbers of EU migrants. The ones that the Tory right and the Kippers feel so passionately about excluding.


If the outcome of negotiations is WTO rules, which is the way that it’s looking, the there will be economic decline and this will be self-inflicted. This is never a problem for the rich because they simply pass the burden on to the poor. If you own capital, then you can move it to any part of the world that gives you a better return. The much maligned freedom of movement is always available to those with wealth.


If a Labour government comes to power on or before 2022, they will have a huge task on their hands and the worse the ultimate settlement with the EU is, the harder that task will become. No Labour government in the UK has ever put forward a full blooded socialist programme and any future Labour government would need to be pushed by events to even contemplate that. Whilst they may be pushed by events they will also be restrained by their own inertia. Not just their faith in Keynesian economics but the careerists and renegades in their own midst.


An election of a Labour government in the UK would be a positive development, not so much because it would be bound to deliver socialism which it almost certainly would not, but because it shifts the social narrative and puts socialism back on the agenda of possible futures.

Perhaps the accelerationists are right and I am wrong. Perhaps the whip of reaction, falling living standards and brutal nineteenth century capitalism is what we need to wake us all up but my answer to that is that turning class consciousness into political consciousness and revolutionary praxis, is what is possible when a class is moving forward with renewed confidence, not what happens when a class is in retreat, blaming the immigrant or the bureaucrats of Brussels, for what is really a global international class question, concerning the mode of production and its given property relations.

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