A tale of two Brexits

24 Sep

I am in many ways a fully paid up member of the liberal middle classes, even if I appear to have gone off the rails of late. Ours is an extreme world. How else describe one of such staggering and racially slanted inequality, and decades of war by its richest and most powerful nations on those poorer and weaker? A world, moreover, whose systemic addiction to ‘economic growth’ – as measured in more stuff made, more stuff sold, more stuff junked and above all more private profits accrued – brings us closer with each passing day to environmental disaster?

It is a measure of the success of our media, and other agencies of opinion manufacture, in the normalising of these things that those who denounce them are easily dismissed as extremists. As novelist Dresden James put it:

When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous and its speaker a raving lunatic.

Correction. It is not the calling out of dysfunctional inequality, destitution in the global south, predatory wars on the weak and reckless disregard for nature which draws the ‘extremist’ label. Those who do so are not merely tolerated. They perform a vital function – witness the media fêting of Greta Thunberg – as proof of our healthily pluralistic and truly open society. No, the extremist moniker is reserved for those who locate, in ways irrefutable and by that fact to be dismissed a priori, the root causes in capitalism’s intrinsic laws of motion.

So what has this to do with Brexit? This. Most of my friends are also in the liberal middle class. They don’t much care for capitalism but few see the extent of its rapaciously totalitarian nature. There’s a reason for that. We live in comfort. We do interesting and well paid work, own homes in leafy neighbourhoods, enjoy travel, the arts, international cuisine and all round cappuccino cosmopolitanism. We deplore racism and xenophobia, and rightly so, but then why wouldn’t we? Unlike those “racists” and “morons” who voted Leave, we don’t compete with immigrants for social housing or low paid jobs.

Our lives furnish ideal conditions for internalising dubious but self serving assumptions without even being aware we are doing so. We suppose, to greater or lesser extent and with greater or lesser self awareness, ourselves to be less racist than workers at a Lincolnshire canning factory or Middlesborough call centre. Not because of more favourable material circumstances, mind, but because we are more civilised.

In our heart of hearts we believe ourselves better than them.

There’s more. Not only are we complacent in putting our ‘greater tolerance of difference’ down to idealist factors and ignoring material ones. We are also selective in this putative tolerance. We’ll be enraged and rightly so at Boris Johnson’s ‘picaninnies’ and ‘letterboxes’ oafisms, and Trump’s ‘pussy grab’ boorishness. But we take at face value official explanations of wars1 on a global south whose victims are dark skinned and disproportionately female; a global south whose leaders stand directly or indirectly in the path of northern capital’s freedom to exploit its wealth. This lazy credulity, even of many on the Left, follows as night on day from failure to grasp the nature of capitalism in its highest stage of imperialism.

Such is our complacency on the one hand, our naivity on the other, that we see Leave voters as nasty and stupid, and the European Union as both internationalist and – to quote from Owen Smith in the Guardian last April – “a defender of workers, human rights and the environment”.

(Or, quixotically, an institution that can be transformed into such – a project I’ve more than once likened to turning the US Empire into a progressive force.)

I’ve given in other posts, most recently this, my reasons for describing the EU as ‘a capitalist-imperialist club, and as such antithetical to the interests of workers’. I won’t torture you here by doing so again. Or by restating my reasons for fearing Brexit – given the balance of class forces now prevailing – in spite of what I know the EU to be .

Here I simply want to make more explicitly a point I’ve been hammering away at in asides and footnotes since before the Referendum of 2016. Of far more significance than whether Britain stays or goes, or even whether the EU implodes through its irreconcilable tensions, are deep divisions now apparent within the West. Those divisions, containable during the long postwar boom by super-exploitation of the global south, are now at danger level.

We asked for signs. The signs were sent. My list is far from exhaustive but consider these. One, trickledown economics, prime legitimator of the Thatcher/Reagan ditching of Keynes in favour of the Chicago School,2 stand disproved by big data and the power to crunch it. Two, the blue collar job for life of the social contract has been replaced – in what is mendaciously referred to as our ‘post-industrial’ world3 – by soaring casualisation and an attendant precariat. Three, the upsets to liberalism, neoliberalism and globalisation by voter defiance in the US Election 2016, the close shave of Scotland 2014 and Brexit 2016. Four, the upsets to liberalism, neoliberalism and globalisation brought by the rise of both Left and Right populism.

What Tariq Ali called the Extreme Centre is under threat.


With all this in mind, let me tell you  a story. Two to be precise.

Last week I spent two days canoeing the River Trent from Nottingham to Newark. It came to pass that on the evening of day one I tied up at a waterside pub for a meal and pint. The place being busy, I shared a table with a couple in their fifties.

The next ninety minutes were most agreeable. We had much in common – interest in canoeing, well paid jobs with attendant benefits, Asian travel, grown up daughters and, of course, liberal disposition. When it came time for us all to go, we rose to shake hands as I voiced my pleasure at so unexpected an interlude. Likewise, said the man, then paused a second.

And we haven’t yet mentioned the B-word – but we are passionate Remainers …

Clearly he recognised the truth of the claim I made in sentence one of this post. Seeing in me a fellow member of the liberal middle classes, he deemed it safe to put his cards on the table.

We sat down again, he saying his piece, she doing the same. Wthout going into fine detail – all this took place inside five minutes – I said mine, summarising my position as “between a rock and a hard place”. No offence was taken on either side; indeed, they seemed genuinely to enjoy my depiction of the EU as “about as internationalist as the Freemasons”. I doubt we’ll meet ever again but, in the event we do, I’m sure it will be an equally enjoyable encounter.

They went home. I went to sleep on my canoe.

Next day I woke early, to be on the water at seven. Before eight I had my first lock to negotiate, bypassing one of the Trent’s weirs and whitewater stretches. In the course of getting out and putting back in, I struck up a conversation with a group of anglers: tough looking blokes in army fatigues camping on a thin strip of land between lock, and river proper. As boy and young man I used to fish myself, and can hold my own on the topic provided we don’t get too detailed. A lot has changed since my day.

In thick West Midlands accents reminiscent of the Peaky Blinders, they confirmed my guess that they were after barbel, weight for weight Britain’s most powerful freshwater fish, and present in numbers which – as with otters, salmon and diverse bird species – mark how far a once grossly polluted Trent has bounced back after the relocation of heavy industry to the global south.

But here’s the interesting bit. I was commenting on the numbers of cormorants, especially on and below weirs like the one we now looked down over: me because I’d been forced out of the water; these guys because barbel favour fast stretches. Whereas I see the cormorants’ return as a Good Thing, they do not.

This has nothing to do with class. You’ll find the same sentiment on prime trout streams costing tens of thousands of pounds a season to fish. What unites anglers across the UK, transcending social class, is a desire to gain exemption from protected status for certain birds.4 Some want to shoot cormorants and herons – otters too, given half a chance – whose dietary requirements pose a threat, real or perceived, to their pastime.

Knowing all this, I’d kept my tone neutral on the cormorants – I don’t go canoeing for the fun of picking arguments with everyone I meet. But what interested me was the way one of the barbel men’s predictable response on cormorants – predictable, I repeat, not on ground of class but of hobby – merged seamlessy into something else.

Yeah, they’d all be in tears if we shot one, wouldn’t they. Remainer arseholes the lot of ’em.

Superficially this seems a non sequitur but at a deeper and more visceral level it made profound sense. Yes, maybe I’m making too much of so short, so narrowly confined and so statistically insignificant an exchange. But I can’t help sensing in these two encounters something running wider, deeper and with toxic implications. The gulf between white and blue collar is not entirely synonymous with that between winners and losers in the globalisation project, of which the EU is an utterly reactionary driver. But nor is it easily separable.

Which wouldn’t matter half as much if that gulf hadn’t grown so alarmingly wide, as measured by at least three of the four indicators set out earlier. I sense trouble ahead, regardless of – and so much more consequential than – whether Britain Stays or Leaves.

* * *

  1. I count economic sanctions, which kill in millions, as warfare too.
  2. I’m not here to defend Keynesianism. The shift from demand-side to supply-side economics strikes me as significant less as a root cause of current woes than as an indicator on the one hand of capitalism in crisis, on the other of its ability to make workers pay for that fact.
  3. The smokestack industries have not been rendered obsolete. They have shifted to the global south, with its cheaper labour, capital-friendly repression and leaders willing to let those they rule bear the brunt of environmental mayhem wrought by prioritising – pious platitudes notwithstanding – private profits over every other consideration.
  4. Conservationist Chris Packham, of BBC Springwatch, campaigns extensively on the ease with which such exemptions are granted. This has brought him opprobrium.

20 Replies to “A tale of two Brexits

  1. It’s all about class. And, as usual the real problem is not the primitive customs of the uneducated poor but the incredible hubris of the fans of The Establishment. Mrs Watson’s clever lad Tom-“He’ll go a long way”- and Ms Thornberry and their ilk, all those who know better, which is to say, know which side their bread is buttered on and who, inevitably, wins. And it’s not the miners.
    This entire class, which for centuries has been nodding approval of one holocaust of poor people after another-Enclosures, The New Poor Law, the Empire, the Western Front, the 1930s, Cold War, Thatcherism- no longer has the capacity to doubt its instinctive approval of the powers that be, the smart set, the clever ones, the people that they would like to be.
    The Remainer is a sentimentalist. Rip van European, who went to sleep in the eighties some time, when Social Europe was in the air-that gentle weaning of the left from the crude business of struggle onto the elevated plains of being told what to expect by experts-and the Four Freedoms had not been authoritatively defined as the iron hoops on the tub of Mr Gradgrind’s (and Mr Bentham)’s neo-liberalism.
    The Europe of which they so fervently desire to remain a part no longer exists. It never really did, except as a constantly deferred promise. It tells you all you need to know about the Remainers that they never noticed it, that Greece came and went and its screams (not to mention Gaza’s or Yemen’s) were lost in the cocktail party chatter. That they can still smile as they look at the homeless on the corners, and the Food Banks (much more economical than workhouses) thriving and the death rate climbing as fuel becomes too expensive for the poor, and insist on preserving all those lineaments of civilisation that the EU signifies, is a tribute to the empty headedness of our natural rulers, the Philistine middle class.
    The baby, alas, has gone but the bath water, rich and mellow, is of a very superior vintage.

    • “It tells you all you need to know about the Remainers that they never noticed it, that Greece came and went and its screams (not to mention Gaza’s or Yemen’s) were lost in the cocktail party chatter.”

      Indeed, bevin. Indeed. Though to be fair, some of those Remainers have noticed Gaza and – because liberal media are now beginning to speak up on it – Yemen. But Greece, that really was something. In footnote 2 of this post at the end of August, I wrote:

      “While an understanding of German prosperity as driven by a hard working protestant ethic is widespread, this – and the corollary that Greece’s fecklessness led it to Hell – is self-serving amnesia. German prosperity owes its all to being chosen at Bretton Woods, for reasons given by Yanis Varoufakis in The Global Minotaur, as best placed to play lead creditor nation in the cold war reconstruction of Free Enterprise Europe. A Eurozone straitjacket only tilted further an already stacked deck. As did the old “heads we win/tails you lose” trick, enabled by conflating ruling class and national interests in both the creditor and debtor nations. This was a three act drama. Act One, Greece’s corrupt elite half squander/half trouser loans from the greedy bankers of pre crash Northern Europe. Act Two, post Lehman Brothers, German taxpayers kindly take on Greece’s debt. Act Three, that old chestnut of German industriousness versus Greek indolence and spendthriftery comes in handy for selling the whole dirty business of 2015, not least to millions of uncritical EU fans, as tough love and fiscal rigour.”

  2. Just found your site Philip. It’s refreshing to find a UK blogger who can see, objectively, through the mire of mindless official narrative and the increasing futility of our political system. Your Brexit insights parallel my own, and your recent canoe journey was a blindingly good read. With beautiful photos.
    Looking forward to more of your writing…..it’s a treat to discover a quiet, strong mind.

    • Thanks for the kind words, Kevin. And it’s good to find other folk thinking with some nuance on so polarised an issue.

  3. Phil you are right to highlight the growing gulf between the winners and losers of the globalisation project as something that is going to have serious consequences for us all – including many of us who would have to identify ourselves as currently winners.

    With regard to the specifics of Brexit little has been done to heal the divisions between Leavers and Remainers – or to successfully persuade more people that remain is the better option – as maybe evidenced by the current Tory lead in the polls. The EU is proving a difficult sell – which maybe just reflects the options open to the country – between 2 imperialisms. Personally I favour, just, the European version ( especially, and selfishly, as we aren’t encumbered by the euro) but its democratic and economic / social policy deficits are difficult to gloss over in my experience when talking to Leavers.

    • Hi Bryan. I agree. That my posts on the subject tend to focus on Remainer delusions, with less space devoted to Brexit delusions and Lexit denialism, reflects the fact I know far more Remainers than Leavers.

      I do engage with Leavers though, and have yet to find one able to show me how leaving the undeniably corrupt – and irredeemably so – EU can possibly be a gain for workers in current circumstances.

      In a recent post I set out the conditions which would change my assessment, and make me a committed Leaver.

  4. First time here from OffGuardian. Excellent article. Thank you. It is refreshing to read restrained good sense.

    You are right, Philip. We are in trouble. What is manifesting now began when Labour started throwing the working classes overboard decades ago.

    What the EU (and the finance globalists who created it) do is make it structurally impossible for ANY country to become self-sufficient and thus, in any meaningful way, sovereign. Production of A here, B there, financial market C there, administration D there … were are manipulated into total dependence by the predatory parasite that produces nothing usable of real value and oversees all.

    A good start might be to legislate to prevent the media from being the monopoly holding that it is. The intensive brain-washing of society has rendered the ‘educated’ middle-classes, who think they’re clever, more blind and stupid than the workers they tend to regard as their inferiors.

    I’m with the fishermen.

    • Hi ThereisaGod. Your third para opens up an important development in the age of imperialism, one underappreciated by Remainers and Leavers both, and ignored by ‘our’ media. I refer to the fact that capitalist relations of production are now globalised. In the past my writings, here for instance, have focused on the effects on a global south policed by IMF, WTO and World Bank but you are right to point to the division of labour/production within the imperialist states of the global north as well.

      On monopoly, there are of course laws in the UK but these have been interpreted very generously by quangos charged with media oversight. (See how quickly the once in a lifetime opportunity for serious reform in the wake of the phone-hacking scandals was allowed quietly to be lost, and business as usual resumed.) But I don’t see the problem with those media consumed by the liberal middle classes – led by the Guardian – as stemming from ownership patterns. Rather, the Graun et al cheerlead for capitalism (with a degree of subtlety and internal contradiction necessary for the appearance of genuine difference and pluralism) in the last analysis because they depend (indirectly in the case of state run media) on advertising revenues.

      Also, of course, on the occasions when that discipline won’t suffice, direct interference by the state agencies.

  5. There are two things that strike me on reading this much appreciated article:

    First, that it confirms my basic feeling that the aristocracies of old – confined to single countries in the past – have gradually expanded until we now have a global aristocracy which, at present, encompasses a certain area of the world i.e. “the West”. I know this is a crude observation since even the affluent countries have poverty. But the insultingly naïve sentiments of past aristocracies (“Let them eat cake”) seems to me to be a much repeated phenomenon in the West where much of the population displays a condescending incomprehension of those suffering actual poverty.

    Second, an observation from John McMurtry’s book “Unequal Freedoms” that even (especially?) the wealthy are dehumanised in this brutal system in that they become neutered pampered parasites who come increasingly to lose their personal independence, their powers of perception, their critical faculty etc. while their tastes become increasingly degraded and their imaginations increasingly numbed. The final result: total apathy. And I should emphasise that these remarks are aimed not at the ones we would consider wealthy – but at all of us living in the West.

    • NB – you’ll see above that my icon, not yours, appears against your name, George. This is because your comment was to a post linked from this one. I’ve left your comment, and my reply to it, there. But because I deem it relevant here too, I’ve replicated it. Alas, WordPress doesn’t allow me to disguise my identity!

      Thanks George. I will check out the McMurty book. As a marxist, I am concerned with what appears to be a widespread misconception that Marx was concerned only with the liberation of the proletariat. This is false. Marx recognised that all of humanity is oppressed and diminished by a law of value which fetishises commodities, disguises human relations as relations between things and strips life of its spiritual dimension (for which organised religion is a meagre and pallid compensation – “the sigh of the oppressed, the heart of a heartless world, the soul of soulless conditions – the opium of the people”).

      Marx focused on the proletariat not because it suffers so much (though it does) or because it is unique in its suffering. He focused on the proletariat because he saw it and it alone as having both means and motive for bringing down capitalism. To what extent he was right is open to debate. All the great revolutions of the modern era, from 1789 onwards, were made by cross class alliances – workers, peasants, petit-bourgeois and elements of the aristocracy. But the bigger point is that, as I think you are suggesting, we are all oppressed by the tyranny of the market.

  6. Great article. Perhaps however you should have qualified it as pertaining mainly to England. Scotland has an almost wholly different atmosphere, and I see that recent reports are that the Brexit vote in Wales was due almost entirely due to English residents. NI again was not in favour of Brexit, apart from the rabidly unionist DUP. I realise that you were limiting the article to your own experience, but you can’t make the mistake of implying by default that the whole (temporary) UK is the same.

    • Also: I realise that the SNP is only marginally ‘left’. However, the idea that Socialism must be internationalised to succeed has been proven to be wrong. We in Scotland will have a much greater chance of getting a Socialist government in than if we remained in the UK, where tory governments have generally prevailed or where Labour has been at best (since the first Labour government after WWII) supine in the face of capitalism.

      If we manage that it would serve as an inspiration to England, whereas if we remain part of the UK there is no indication that there will be any radical change. Even Corbyn is no more radical than Harol Wilson was, and Wilson was hardly an extremist

    • Hi Jams. Not sure how I forgot to reply to you – most discourteous. I’ve little experience of Scotland since the Referendum but even now, few seem to get the explosiveness of the border issue in Ireland. That’s because Brits – English if you insist – know fuck all about Ireland, least of all the partition which created the gerrymandered statelet.

      On the generality that the Brexit threatens every nation within the “union”, and does so in quite different ways, I of course agree.

  7. you know philip, i would love to read your take on the Dugin/Bertrand Levy light heavyweight fisticuffs currently marketed as a philosophical theater of “the clash of civilizations”

    • Er, you got me there Gabriel. Is it something I should know about? But this I do know: Levy called for Western ‘intervention’ in both Libya and Syria, which kind of scrubs him off my Xmas Card list.

  8. it sometimes seems to me that political philosophers are more spurious than nutritionists who also sell supplements, but they seem to be exempted even from the modest prepositional nicety “studies show “, and they are allowed to replace that with “as I myself once previously wrote”..

    • Well it may seem unkind to say so but the fate of the seventies and eighties batch of French brainiac celebs seemed like a darkly comic morality tale. Lacan threw himself from a window with his books strapped to his legs. Althusser strangled his wife and was found unfit to stand trial due to insanity. Roland Barthes was hit by a laundry van on his way to one of Mitterand’s cultural soirees. And Derrida is slightly less widely read than Finnegan’s Wake in Swahili.

      To be fair, Barthes I had some time for. And Foucault. But really, all seem pretty marginal to me. Žižek too. Maybe I’m getting philistine in my old age but I’ll take a Jonathan Cook, a John Pilger, a Julian Assange or Caitlin Johnstone over the lot of ’em. Any day of the week.

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