Shambling towards the precipice

Issue: 162

Alex Callinicos

Through a fog of parliamentary manoeuvres, the British state is shambling towards a no-deal Brexit, crashing out of the European Union without any transitional arrangements agreed on. Maybe this will be averted thanks to Theresa May’s last-minute approach to Jeremy Corbyn to try and reach a compromise on a softer version of Brexit. But this issue of International Socialism goes to press amid a haze of uncertainty. Predicting how exactly things will turn out is very hard, but grasping the logic of the situation should at least be possible.

A state out of alignment

Here it’s helpful to start with Karl Marx’s famous distinction between “the totality of these relations of production [which] constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation [Basis]”, and “the legal and political superstructure and…definite forms of social consciousness” that arise from this economic ­structure.1 In Britain the superstructure is now drastically out of sync with the economic base.

As we have demonstrated at length in this journal, the interests of capital based in Britain lie in remaining inside the EU. This is reflected in strident ­business ­agitation against a hard Brexit. Most recently a survey for the traditionally Thatcherite Institute of Directors found that, according to the Financial Times, six out of ten of its members, drawn mainly from directors of small and medium enterprises, “favour the ‘Common Market 2.0’ model that keeps the UK in the single market and customs union; or Labour’s commitment to ‘close alignment’ with the single market together with permanent customs union membership”.2 But the political system is so badly blocked that it seems unable to organise such a softer Brexit. A group of business people who previously backed the Tories has denounced them as “the party of economic destruction”.3

Marx actually accommodated for such a possibility. He writes in Capital, volume 3:

The specific form in which unpaid surplus labour is pumped out of the direct producers determines the relationship of domination and servitude [Herrschafts und Knechtschafts Verhältnis], as this grows directly out of production itself and reacts back on it in turn as a determinant. On this is based the entire configuration of the economic community arising from the actual relations of production, and hence also its specific political form [spezifische politische Gestalt]. It is in each case the direct relationship of the owners of the conditions of production—a relationship whose particular form naturally corresponds to a certain level of development of the type and manner of labour, and hence to its social productive power—in which we find the innermost secret, the hidden basis of the entire social structure, and hence also the political form of the relationship of sovereignty and dependence, in short, the specific form of the state in each case. This does not prevent the same economic base [ökonomische Basis]—the same in its major conditions—from displaying endless variations and gradations in its appearance, as the result of innumerable different empirical circumstances, natural conditions, racial relations, historical influences acting from outside, etc, and can only be understood by analysing these empirically different conditions.4

This passage is helpful for two reasons. First, Marx says that “the relationship of domination and servitude”, that is, “the specific form of the state”, “grows directly out of production itself and reacts back on it in turn as a determinant”. In other words, the state doesn’t just passively reflect what happens in the economic base but acts upon it, within the limits set by the dominant relations of production. This reaction can have negative effects for capital; Marx makes this clear in his critique elsewhere in Capital 3 of the impact of the 1844 Bank Charter Act on mid-19th century financial markets. Secondly, we have to study ­empirically the constellation of historical circumstances that shape a particular state. To understand the Brexit car crash, we have not just to theorise about capital and the state in general, but to grasp the historical specificities of British capitalism and the British state.

Antonio Gramsci refines further Marx’s account of the relationship between base and superstructure by distinguishing between

two major superstructural “levels”: the one that can be called “civil society”, that is, the ensemble of organisms commonly called “private”, and that of “political society” or “the State” [narrowly conceived]. These two levels correspond on the one hand to the function of “hegemony” which the dominant group exercises throughout society and on the other hand to that of “direct domination” or command exercised through the State and “juridical” government.5

So, for Gramsci, what he calls the broader “integral state” includes the “private” associations and institutions of civil society (churches, universities, schools, political parties, trade unions, etc…) through which consent to ruling class domination is secured: “The State is the entire complex of practical and theoretical activities with which the ruling class not only justifies and maintains its dominance, but also manages to win the active consent of those over whom it rules,” or, more succinctly, “the State = civil society + political society, in other words hegemony protected by the armour of coercion”.6

This theoretical framework is very helpful in understanding the British state. Over the past 150 years, British capitalism has negotiated the transition from being the globally dominant imperialism to becoming a middle-ranking power situated at the economic and geopolitical junction point between the United States and the EU, with an “integral state” whose basic structure hasn’t changed fundamentally since the advent of mass electoral politics and reform of the civil service between the 1860s and the 1880s. This state is based on the competition of two major parties where winning a parliamentary majority (a goal made much easier by the first past the post electoral system) gives the victorious party leader control over both the legislative process and a state bureaucracy rooted in the broader ruling class and geared to implementing policies compatible with this class’s interests. This system of what Richard Crossman called “prime ministerial government” has been anchored to the interests of British capital by direct links with the parties, the loyalties of the bureaucracy and the chiefs of the military and security apparatuses, and the discipline imposed by a mass media that has been dominated by big business since the early 20th century.7 The system has survived the replacement of the Liberals (a party whose traditional role of representing manufacturing interests was absorbed by the Tories) by Labour, though maintaining successive Labour governments’ subservience to capital has from time to time required its leaders’ strong inclinations in this direction to be reinforced by the sanction of capital flight (in 1931, 1964-7 and 1974-6).8

This system thus gives exceptional power to an executive whose elected leaders are legitimised by a parliamentary majority and committed to promoting the interests of capital; it has, however, come under increasing strain in recent decades. The fundamental cause has been a process common to all the advanced capitalist societies—the mutual disengagement, as Peter Mair puts it, of ordinary citizens from participation in the political process and of the parties from involvement in civil society.9 While this started before the advent of neoliberalism, it has been reinforced by the tendency of both centre-right and centre-left parties to pursue the same free-market policies. Meanwhile, the parties have fallen under the control of what the Russians call “political technologists” grouped around the leader and focussed primarily on media-driven competition. Finally, the state has become increasingly permeable by corporate lobbyists, while senior civil servants and generals retire to pursue business careers. The effects can be seen in Britain in what political scientists call “partisan dealignment”—the shrinking electoral support for the hitherto dominant Tory and Labour parties (though this process went into reverse in the 2017 general election). This has given openings in Scotland and Wales for nationalist parties that in the first case has put the very existence of the United Kingdom in question.

More dangerously still, against the background of the 2007-8 financial crash, what Michael Roberts calls “Long Depression” that succeeded it and the austerity policies pursued by the Tories since they took office in 2010, a space has opened up for rebellions against the entire political system, disordering the complex mechanisms and alliances that bind the British “integral state” to capital. The privileged vehicle for this irruption has been of course, Europe. Capital based in Britain might be perfectly happy with the country’s role as a platform for financial institutions and transnational corporations seeking access to the Single Market and a privileged intermediary between Washington and London, but EU membership has been a toxic issue within the Tory party ever since the proposals for Economic and Monetary Union precipitated Margaret Thatcher’s fall. David Cameron’s attempt to shoot the Eurosceptics’ fox by holding an in-out referendum had of course the opposite effect, delivering them the famous victory of 23 June 2016 thanks to their successful exploitation of the deep disaffection of the poorer sections of British society.

Thatcherism hollowed out

His successor May’s efforts actually to implement Brexit have weakened the links binding the different parts of the “integral state” together. May must take a significant share of the blame here. A Remainer in the referendum, she sought to appease the Tory right. So she pressed the article 50 red button for leaving the EU as quickly as possible and sought a hard Brexit that would put a stop to the free movement of European citizens, and to Britain’s participation in three key EU institutions—the customs union, the Single Market and the European Court of Justice. She then found herself, entirely predictably, confronted with an EU-27 who have used their bargaining advantage (economically Britain needs them more than they need Britain) brutally, exacting the maximum price for Britain’s departure from the EU and promising nothing in the way of long-term market access for a post-Brexit Britain. The efforts by May and David Davis, the first in a bewildering succession of Brexit secretaries, to play EU member states off against each other have proved completely futile.10

Furious business lobbying forced May to backtrack. Her Chequers plan, unveiled last July, would keep post-Brexit Britain sufficiently aligned to EU regulations to retain access to the Single Market for goods (but not services, potentially a big hit for a British economy heavily reliant on exporting services). This split the cabinet, provoking the departure of Davis and Boris Johnson, but was rejected by the EU—a pattern that has continued to the present. The withdrawal treaty eventually agreed on last November offers a two-year transition of which even Britain’s ex-permanent representative in Brussels, Sir Ivan Rogers, has said: “I dislike the ‘vassal state’ terminology, but anyone can see the democratic problem with being subject to laws made in rooms where no Brit was present and living under a court’s jurisdiction where there is no British judge”.11 During this period London and Brussels would negotiate an agreement on their long-term relationship, but with little prospect of a more favourable outcome for Britain given the imbalance in bargaining power and May’s red lines.

Finally, there is the famous Irish backstop, insisted upon by both Brussels and Dublin to keep the border open between the north and south of Ireland, as required by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended the war in the Six Counties. The fact that this is an issue in the negotiations is a consequence less of the Good Friday Agreement itself (Britain and southern Ireland had established a free trade area in 1965, before both entered the European Economic Community in 1973) than of the EU’s increasing preoccupation with controlling its external borders, which will bisect Ireland after Brexit. This is confirmed by the pressure that Brussels is now putting on Dublin to impose border controls in the event of a no-deal Brexit.12

The backstop would keep the whole of the UK in the customs union until either Britain and the EU agreed on an alternative arrangement for the north of Ireland or, as a default position, the Six Counties stayed aligned with the Single Market. This is anathema to the ultra-Loyalist Democratic Unionist Party and the Tory right because, in the absence of an agreed alternative, it offers a choice between locking Britain permanently into the customs union or the north of Ireland having a different international status from the rest of the UK.

There is a world-historic irony in the way the Irish question has returned to haunt Brexit, as it has at many crucial junctures in the history of the British state. Moreover, the southern Irish government’s bargaining power has been hugely enhanced by the support of the rest of the EU-27. As Rogers puts it, “this may be the first Anglo-Irish negotiation in history where the greater leverage is not on London’s side of the table”.13 The backstop isn’t the only way of keeping the border open: a simpler and more just solution would be to hold a 32-county ­referendum on Irish unity. This too of course would be anathema to the Tory right and the DUP. In their minds Brexit and the Union are now thoroughly fused. This was summed up when the ultra-Catholic leader of the European Research Group Jacob Rees-Mogg called the Protestant fundamentalists of the DUP “the guardians of the Union of the United Kingdom”.14

One way of looking at this is as a symptom of the hollowing out of Thatcherism. In a classic article Stuart Hall called Thatcherism “a particularly rich mix because of the resonant traditional themes—nation, family, duty, authority, standards, self-reliance—which have been effectively condensed into it” alongside free-market economics.15 Thatcher played expertly on these “traditional themes” during the Falklands War and the Great Miners’ Strike. But she didn’t let herself be pushed around by the likes of the DUP when they mounted semi-insurrectionary opposition to the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. And she had a programme for reconstructing British capitalism that centred especially on the creation of the Single Market and the “Big Bang” that promoted a new deregulated and globalised City of London. By comparison the Brexiteers have little more than a set of jingoistic postures and the fantasy of a free-market “global Britain”. Neoliberalism is visibly in crisis as the major Western economies are unable to liberate themselves from the life support machine provided by the central banks. No wonder that the most potent surviving element of the Thatcherite mix—nationalism with a strong dose of racism—is being ­appropriated by the likes of Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson.

The scale of the deadlock is leading to a radicalisation of political language closer to the centre. Steve Baker, ex-Brexit minister and MP for leafy Wycombe, ranted at a meeting of the pro-Brexit European Research Group in the House of Commons: “I could tear this place down and bulldoze it into the river”.16 Hardly parliamentary language. Brexit has become about much more than Britain’s membership of the EU. It’s as if pulling at one thread threatens to unravel the whole cloth. We are confronted with what Gramsci called a “crisis of hegemony, or general crisis of the State”, where “social classes become detached from their traditional parties”.17 It isn’t the only crisis of hegemony that post-crash neoliberalism is producing in Europe, as Jad Bouharoun shows in his article on France elsewhere in this issue. But in Britain it is the imposion at the top that dominates, without—yet—the kind of intervention from below represented by the Gilets Jaunes.

The crisis of the political system has been exacerbated by May’s disastrous attempt to win a larger parliamentary majority in the June 2017 general election, which left her dependent on the DUP. But even if the Tories had won more seats then, the basic structure of the problem would have remained—the EU’s refusal to give the market access British capitalism needs, the polarisation of British society over Europe, and the deep divisions within the ruling party.

Thatcher’s fall showed the limits of “prime ministerial government”: even the mightiest prime minister can be brought down if she loses the confidence of her cabinet, which depends in turn on the support of her parliamentary party. May has lost both, and has been humiliated by the rejection of her deal in three successive “meaningful votes”. The majorities against her—230, 149 and 58—would have destroyed any previous prime minister. But she hangs on thanks to the difficulty of replacing her in the midst of what is meant to be the decisive phase of the Brexit process.

And so the fate of Brexit has come to depend on a deeply divided House of Commons. David Runciman set out the difficulties clearly back in January:

It should in theory be possible to secure parliamentary approval for the sort of compromise deal that May has been working to achieve, given that hardline Brexiteers ought to prefer it to the prospect of not leaving the EU at all, and Remainers should prefer it to the prospect of leaving with no deal. Yet both sides seem united only by their loathing of the sort of compromise May’s deal represents. It is far from clear that committed Brexiteers do prefer it to not leaving at all. They have invested too much in this struggle to be content with any outcome that gives them a half-baked version of their heart’s desire. A compromised Brexit—especially if the biggest compromise is on the question of national sovereignty—does more to devalue the price they have paid to get here than an outright rebuff: better that the struggle should continue fruitlessly than having to live with the thought that we did all that just to get this. Better still to let the clock wind down to 29 March in the hope that no agreement in Parliament means that no deal can be struck.

Meanwhile, for Remainers, secure in the knowledge that there is no ­parliamentary majority for a no-deal exit, the temptation is always there to push for a second referendum in the hope of overturning the original result. Why settle for this when that might be just around the corner? While the three options of May’s deal, no deal and a second referendum are all on the table, there is little prospect of making progress. For that to happen, one of the three options would need to fall away, forcing at least one side to choose between compromise and intransigence. But that is the reason it is proving so hard to whittle three down to two, because it would force at least one side to compromise. We are divided because we are stuck as much as we are stuck because we are divided.18

Working through this logic has generated the increasing breakdown of the executive’s control over parliamentary business (established to overcome the disruption caused by Irish nationalist MPs in the 1880s). This is epitomised by the “indicative votes” on 27 March and 1 April, the result of a back-bench initiative to test support for alternatives to the withdrawal treaty. They also saw the collapse of the Tory whipping machine: in a bizarre arrangement, junior ministers and backbenchers were given a free vote, while cabinet ministers were instructed to abstain. Corbyn has also faced disciplinary problems, though much less acute than those of the Tories; Labour had a three-line whip for some indicative votes, but 27 MPs defied party instructions and voted against a second ­referendum, while 18 (including three members of the shadow cabinet) abstained.

But, for all the talk of parliament “taking control” of Brexit, prime ministerial government remains in place: for anything actually to get done, Downing St has to move, or at least not block. This is one reason why a no-deal Brexit has been the most probable outcome. The repeated defeats of the withdrawal treaty mean that (as a result of the EU summit of 21-22 March) Brexit can only be delayed beyond 12 April if Britain takes part in next month’s European parliamentary elections. Forcing this on the Tories would be unpalatable.

Party cohesion is critical to winning and maintaining power in the British system: in appeasing their respective right wings both May and Corbyn have been obeying this logic. Maybe they can strike a deal that avoids a no-deal Brexit, but the apparent compromise solution—Britain remaining in the customs union—was rejected by 170 Tory MPs (including ten cabinet ministers) in a letter to May.19 If May does defy them, then the comparisons with Sir Robert Peel’s repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws in 1846, which split the Tories and prevented them from forming a government for almost a generation, would be justified. But this was a deeply felt and painful strategic shift by a prime minister who believed that by cutting the cost of food he could alleviate the class divisions rendered so acute by the crisis-driven onset of industrial capitalism. Peel’s biographer writes:

Peel’s conviction [was] that the Corn Laws were part of the Condition of England question… Peel certainly thought that repeal would do something to alleviate the condition of the masses especially in time of hardship. But more important in his view was that repeal would remove a sense of social injustice, would prove that an aristocratic government was not indifferent to the suffering of the unwashed and unenfranchised, and would draw together the different classes of a divided society.20

Rather than a grand gesture of class reconciliation, May’s approach was the last throw of the dice by a cornered politician of limited competence. The vacuum at the centre of the British state has thus induced a condition of increasing paralysis. The effect is to give even more initiative to the EU-27. Further extensions of article 50 depend on their agreeing that it is in their interest to avoid a no-deal Brexit—something that France’s Emmanuel Macron seems unconvinced about, as he dreams of emulating General Charles de Gaulle’s veto of British membership of the EEC in 1963. The hapless British state has made itself vulnerable in the competition with rival European imperialisms. This is the context in which you get dire predictions such as this one from emerging markets fund manager Mark Mobius:

Up to now, the UK is riding on the coat-tails of the EU, in the sense that [the UK] can have very low interest rates. As soon as they break, people are going to start looking hard and fast. The rating agencies will say: “Wait a minute, no more EU association? We’ve got to downgrade”… The UK is like an emerging market now. Their balance of payments is terrible; their government debt is terrible; their fiscal debt is terrible.21

Disarray also on the left

We’ll probably know soon enough how much truth there is in predictions like this. But what is clear is the depth of the crisis of the British state. It is really tragic that the left has been unable to respond to this crisis. This is true whether one draws the left broadly or narrowly. Corbyn’s background as a follower of Tony Benn, who articulated the Labour left critique of European integration, equipped him very well to navigate the rapids of Brexit. And sometimes he has sought to reframe the argument between Leavers and Remainers by arguing that class antagonism, not Brexit, defines the fundamental divide in British society. He did this very well in Wakefield on 10 January:

If you’re living in Tottenham you may well have voted to remain.

You’ve got high bills, rising debts. You’re in insecure work. You struggle to make your wages stretch and you may be on universal credit and forced to access food banks.

You’re up against it.

If you’re living in Mansfield, you are more likely to have voted to leave.

You’ve got high bills, rising debts, you’re in insecure work, you struggle to make your wages stretch and you may be on universal credit and forced to access food banks.

You’re up against it.

But you’re not against each other.

People across the country, whether they voted Leave or Remain know that the system isn’t working for them.

Some see the EU as a defence against insecurity and hostility. Others see the EU as part of an establishment that plunged them into insecurity and hostility in the first place.

But it’s the failed system rigged against the many to protect the interests of the few that is the real cause of inequality and insecurity whether it’s in Tottenham or Mansfield.

And the real solution is to transform Britain to work in the interests of the vast majority by challenging the entrenched power of a privileged elite.22

The problem is that this class argument has been drowned out—partly by the parliamentary hubbub, partly because of the siege mounted by the Labour right. These pressures have been reinforced by the media-amplified departure of some right-wing backbenchers to form, together with a few Tory Remainers, the Independent Group. This breakaway was justified mainly by a barrage of absurd accusations that Labour is “institutionally antisemitic”.23 In response, Corbyn has retreated on the issue of Brexit, increasingly placing himself in the Remainer camp. Deputy leader Tom Watson has been able to blackmail him with the threat of more resignations to extract reluctant but strengthening support for a second referendum. Objections have come mainly from Labour right-wingers (like the rebels on 27 March), who argue that backing a “People’s Vote” will antagonise Labour supporters who voted Leave in 2016. Labour’s shift to supporting staying in the customs union and toying with the Single Market is a major capitulation on Corbyn’s part; if implemented, it would make it much harder for a left-wing Labour government to pursue policies that begin to move Britain away from neoliberalism.

Alas, Brexit has proved even more disastrous for the narrower radical left. Admittedly, the background has been unfavourable, with few large-scale mobilisations or strikes to offer an alternative focus to the parliamentary soap opera. The main exceptions have been the extraordinary waves of climate strikes by school students and the demonstration organised by Stand Up to Racism on 16 March. Important though both are in their different ways, they haven’t been enough to stop the bulk of the radical left disappearing down the Brexit rabbit hole.

Many activists have thrown themselves into the People’s Vote campaign, seeking to persuade themselves and others that the big pro-referendum march on 23 March was comparable in numerical size and radical significance to the giant demonstration against the invasion of Iraq on 15 February 2003. They tend to skate over the minor fact that 15 February in Britain was directed against an imperialist war then being planned by Tony Blair and his instrument Alastair Campbell, while this benighted pair are among the leaders of the campaign to reverse Brexit, alongside Tories such as Michael Heseltine and Dominic Grieve. In effect the larger section of the radical left in Britain have opted to participate in a popular front that represents their political and ideological subordination to the neoliberal “extreme centre”.

Unfortunately, the weaker spectrum of forces that campaigned for a left exit from the EU at the time of the referendum have not been able to maintain their unity. In the meetings that have been held recently, arguments around national sovereignty have made the running, with shamefully few prepared to defend free movement.

Concessions to these arguments are found in an otherwise very powerful and well-developed left critique of the EU by Costas Lapavitsas. He writes:

For the plebeian classes of Europe, sovereignty has never been anathema. On the contrary, it is understood as the power to make and apply laws, to design and implement social and economic policy, and to elect and hold to account those who administer those laws and policies. For workers and the poor, sovereignty has a popular dimension representing the right to be consulted but also to refuse government policies. Popular sovereignty goes directly against the fetishism of the economy as a technocratic entity, while also protecting a cultural and political community from the will of another.24

Lapavitsas goes on to say that the left

should argue in favour of controls on the movement of goods, services, capital and people, in the absence of which it would be impossible to apply a radical programme in the direction of socialism. It should also reject the authority of the acquis and the ECJ, thus beginning to disentangle national from community legislation and re-establishing the pre-eminence of national jurisdiction. Ultimately there is no other way to recoup popular and national sovereignty.25

The element of truth in this argument is that the idea that the neoliberal character of the EU can only be effectively challenged through some transnational movement of European reform, for example Yanis Varoufakis’s DIEM25, is quite Utopian. This isn’t just because, as Lapavitsas shows, the intergovernmental and supranational structures of the EU have been carefully immunised from democratic pressures. Nation-states continue to provide the main framework in which social and political movements develop, and the uneven and combined development of capitalism that underpins this political division ensures that the tempo of struggle varies between states. If a breakthrough to the left occurs in a particular country, this would indeed require a left government defying the EU and introducing a programme of controls over the economy.26

But this development could only be a step in a larger process of transformation that seeks to loosen the grip of capital internationally. The Syriza government in Greece was broken in part because it was too weak to confront the EU on its own; in its own way, the Brexit debacle has showed the same logic at work in the case of a much more powerful state. So the aim of any programme of reforms at the national level should not so much be to “recoup national and popular sovereignty” as to buy time and rouse support for similar movements elsewhere. In this context, talk of imposing “controls on the movement of goods, services, capital and people” has a neat ring to it, rejecting the “Four Freedoms” at the basis of the European treaties, but it would be politically disastrous. A left that opposes free movement sets itself against workers in the rest of Europe. Doing so on the apparently radical grounds that free movement for Europeans leaves people from outside Europe subject to immigration controls is mere leftist posturing. If Brexit turns millions of EU citizens in Britain into insecure migrants, this will weaken the entire working class.27

Reference to migration underlines how, right across the British political ­spectrum, the debate over Brexit has been astonishingly parochial. Little attention has been paid to what the EU is actually doing—for example, the shameful summit it held with the Arab League at Sharm El Sheikh in February, presided over by the Egyptian dictator Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi. As Adam Tooze points out, the great liberal “normative power” cosies up to Middle Eastern tyrants because it needs “its authoritarian southern neighbours to contain and house the migrant and refugee flows” towards Europe.28

Meanwhile, the same day the House of Commons began its indicative voting, the EU gave further evidence of its moral superiority by announcing, as a result of pressure from Italy’s far-right deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, the end of the sea patrols that have saved thousands of lives in the central Mediterranean.29 Honesty requires one to add that, as home secretary, May tried to get these patrols stopped years ago. Brexit has pitted two versions of neoliberalism, equally cruel and ugly, against each other.

But, sooner or later, and probably sooner, Britain will stumble out of the EU. Rogers insists that “Brexit is a process not an event”.30 Not simply will the effects of whatever version of Brexit actually prevails begin to make themselves felt, but the real negotiations about Britain’s long-term relationship with the EU will only start then. This is why so many on the Tory right are now keen to force May out quickly, so that a Brexiteer can be in charge when the future trade deal is discussed. In many ways, this is a dreadful prospect, as Brexit continues to suck up all the political and economic oxygen. The negotiations will allow the Tory Brexiteers and the far right to mobilise against what they present as betrayals of the 2016 referendum.

But, in all likelihood, the crisis of the British state will continue, both because of the damage that the battle to leave has caused, and because of the struggles that will continue over the relationship with the EU. Despite the temptation offered by the spectacle of the Tory Brexiteers and UKIP, these struggles aren’t a product of malice or mass irrationality. There are profound structural reasons arising from the relative weakness of British imperialism and the domination of European integration by French and German interests that lie behind the endless divisions for the past 65 years over the question of Europe. But these same causes will mean that attacks on workers’ wages, jobs and working conditions, and on the welfare state, will continue, with the aim of improving the ­profitability and competitiveness of British capitalism against the backdrop of what looks set to be a slowing world economy.

This suggests there will be three fronts of struggle. First, against these attacks, which will merge into the broader resistance to austerity. This has been comparatively weak recently, but there’s no reason to believe that it will remain so. Secondly, against the far right. They didn’t invent Brexit, and it is the worst kind of folly for left-Remainers to try and conflate the struggle against the far right with their campaign to reverse Brexit—a strategy that essentially consigns working class Leave voters to the Tory right and the fascists. The politics of the united front—of working class unity against the racists and fascists—is essential, as Mark L Thomas shows elsewhere in this issue.

Thirdly, there is the effort to find an effective left voice on Britain and Europe. The sad truth is that this has proved very difficult, ever since the first debates about British entry to the European Economic Community in the early 1960s.31 Benn developed an influential critique of European integration in the 1970s, but it relied on a synthesis of reformism and nationalism—an “alternative economic strategy” through which a left Labour government would begin to move Britain away from capitalism. The neoliberal offensive spearheaded by Thatcher and continued under Blair and Cameron removed the basis of this critique by accelerating the internationalisation of capital. The sovereignism of some left Brexiteers today is a pale caricature of the Bennite critique—and one that offers no basis on which to resist the concessions to Islamophobia and anti-racism made by sections of the reformist left in Europe today. Today more than ever we need an internationalism that rejects both Fortress Europe and Little England, that resists neoliberalism in all its different shapes and that champions the rights of migrants and refugees and the struggles of a working class that is irreversibly multicultural despite all the efforts to divide it.

Alex Callinicos is Professor of European Studies at King’s College London and editor of International Socialism.


1 Marx, 1971, p20. Thanks to Camilla Royle, Charlie Kimber, and Joseph Choonara for their comments on a draft version of this article—a particularly hard one to write.

2 Blitz, 2019.

3 Rogers, Alexandra, 2019.

4 Marx, 1981, pp927-928.

5 Gramsci, 1971, p12; Gramsci, 1975, III, pp1518-1519; Q12 (XXIX) §1.

6 Gramsci, 1971, p244, Gramsci 1975, III, p1765; Q15 (II) §10; Gramsci, 1971, pp262-263; Gramsci, 1975, II, pp763-764; Q6 (VIII) §88. See, in addition to Jad Bouharoun’s excellent discussion of Gramsci’s theory of hegemony elsewhere in this issue, Thomas, 2009, and Tosel, 2016, and, for a contrasting interpretation, Anderson, 2017.

7 Crossman, 1963.

8 Whatever its theoretical limitations, Miliband, 1969, offers a good diagnosis of the workings of these mechanisms.

9 Mair, 2013.

10 See the damning analyses in Rogers, Ivan, 2018 and 2019, and Crisp, 2019. For more on the EU side of the equation, see Callinicos, 2019.

11 Rogers, 2018.

12 Daly, 2017, and, for the EU’s obsession with policing its borders, Kouvelakis, 2018, pp7-22.

13 Rogers, 2018.

14 BBC News, 2019.

15 Hall, 1979, p17.

16 Wilcock, 2019.

17 Gramsci, 1971, p210; Gramsci, 1975, III, pp1602-1603; Q13 (XXX) §22.

18 Runciman, 2019.

19 Foster, 2019.

20 Gash, 2011, p607.

21 Smith, 2019.

22 Corbyn, 2019.

23 Ferguson, 2019.

24 Lapavitsas, 2018, pp129-130.

25 Lapavitsas, 2018, pp136-137. The EU acquis refers to the accumulated legislation that makes up EU law.

26 See, for example, the detailed response to the crash in Ireland in Allen, 2009, and the broader discussion in Callinicos, 2010.

27 For a good recent defence of open borders, see Ypi, 2019.

28 Tooze, 2019.

29 Rankin, 2019.

30 Rogers, 2018.

31 On the history, see Callinicos, 2013, and 2015.


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Anderson, Perry, 2017, The Antinomies of Antonio Gramsci (Verso).

BBC News, 2019, “Brexit: ‘Half a Loaf Better than no Bread’” (27 March),

Blitz, James, 2019, “Business Leaders Back ‘Common Market 2.0’ Deal after Brexit”, Financial Times (26 March),

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