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The UK referendum on leaving the European Union:
Stop thinking like Brits (and Europeans!) – Start thinking about humanity!
6 June 2016. A World to Win News Service. By Robert Borba. On 23 June, Britain will vote on whether to “Remain” in the European Union or “Leave” it. Regardless of the side, this referendum is a reactionary trap.
On the one side are those who argue that the best way to control Britain’s borders, keep out “hordes of immigrants”, unleash the power of Britain’s corporations, defeat the country’s enemies and project British power globally is to leave the EU. On the other side are those who argue that the best way to control Britain’s borders, keep out “hordes of immigrants”, unleash the power of Britain’s corporations, defeat the country’s enemies and project British power globally is to stay in the EU. The central issue being put to the people is quite simply how best to advance Britain’s imperial interests. Supporting either side in this debate is not neutral: it only makes people complicit with British imperialism and the horrendous crimes it will continue to carry out, at home, in the Middle East, in Africa and worldwide – whether as part of the EU or not.
The Remain campaign is led by British Prime Minister Cameron alongside Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and has support from the heads of Britain’s key allies – US President Obama, German Chancellor Merkl, France’s Hollande – and from the IMF, the OECD and giant firms like Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs. It is hard to imagine a group more in opposition to the interests of the British people. But the heads of the Leave campaign are neck and neck: it has won support from Donald Trump and Russia’s Putin and is led by top Tories including former London Mayor Boris Johnson, who is seeking to use the campaign to become Prime Minister, and the right-wing UK Independence Party (UKIP).
Cameron first pledged to hold a referendum on Britain’s EM membership in 2013, in an effort to deal with serious divisions in the British ruling class and in particular the Tory Party, which was then heading up the government. Even so, at the time this must have seemed like a safe move – few then imagined anything other than a continuation of the status quo. Now, in a context of intensified global tension, including rivalry between Russia and the US, infighting within the EU, and the rise of resurgent nationalism throughout Europe and the West, the outcome is far from certain.
Leaving the EU, dreaming of an empire regained
Initially, the “Brexiteers” argued argued that freed from the “red tape” of “unelected” EU bureaucrats, Britain would prosper. These claims have been hit by a barrage of studies appearing several times a week arguing that the UK could not leave the framework of the EU single market without some economic damage, at least in the short term.
While refusing to concede this point, the Leave forces have sought to shift the terms of the debate. As UKIP leader Nigel Farage put it, “It’s not the economy, stupid! It’s sovereignty.” By this Farage is appealing to deep feelings seething among millions that they have been cast aside and marginalized by the way the world is working today and to aim that discontent away from its actual source. The Brexiteers’ evoke the hardships being suffered by broad sections of British society, the stagnation or decline of real wages, the slashing of benefits, the deterioration of public services like transport and health care, and they use all this to play on the sense of entitlement that has been deeply embedded in British society through generations of privileged life under the Empire and continuing today, and direct all that anger and frustration at those supposedly “beneath them”, in particular immigrants and Muslims. Prominent Tory David Davis for instance denounces the EU as a “job transformation machine – shifting jobs from British citizens into the hands of immigrants coming from the EU” (Sunday Times 28 May 2016), mainly East Europeans from Romania, Bulgaria and Poland.
But who was really responsible for the hollowing out of Britain’s manufacturing industry in the last generation, destroying tens of thousands of jobs and driving down wages? It was not Romanian baristas who moved the shipbuilding industry from the docks of Newcastle and the northeast to Asia in the search for greater profits. And who was responsible for the dire shortages of affordable housing that are leading to spiralling homelessness throughout Britain’s cities – was it Polish labourers, who work long hours in the dirtiest, most menial sections of the construction industry? Or was it the result of concerted government policy to dismantle the welfare state and sell off public housing, as initiated by PM Thatcher and continued under Tory and Labour alike – combined with the speculative activity of giant property developers and bankers who, while having benefited from huge government bail-outs in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, finance housing overwhelmingly in luxury sectors beyond the means of all but the global and British elite?
It is this same class of capitalists that has presided over years of imperialist globalization with the rising inequality that has accompanied it in Britain and throughout the world. Less than 1 percent of the population has secured the same amount of increased wealth in the last 10 years (26 percent) as the entire bottom 50 percent, leaving levels of inequality unseen in generations – a process, it should not be forgotten, that took place under both Labour and Tory governments.
This targeting of immigrants as the cause of the masses’ hardships is echoed in a more elegant form by Cameron and the Remain campaign, who promise constantly to “get control of Britain’s borders”. This message amounts to outright deception about the cause of the suffering endured by millions, and it goes hand in hand with an openly reactionary nationalist morality. The immigrant-bashers care not a farthing for the reasons why millions of immigrants are fleeing their home countries or what happens to them.
With their vision blocked by patriotic blinkers, people are trained not to see the blindingly obvious: that one of the main forces responsible for driving people out of their homes from Afghanistan to Africa is British imperialism itself, in complicity and sometimes rivalry with other imperialist powers. Just stroll through the streets of the immigrant communities of East London and look at the faces of the carers, the dustmen, the minicab drivers – Afghanis, Somalis, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Indians, Iranians, Syrians. These are the faces that reflect centuries of Empire, with every face telling a story of invasion, occupation and plunder, from the concentration camps and torture that Britain inflicted on Kenyans during the so-called Mau-Mau rebellion, to its resolute backing of apartheid in South Africa (with British PM Thatcher denouncing Mandela as a “terrorist”) – the list goes on, page after page.
People deprived of histories, the migrants are then treated by both sides as nothing but a source of benefit to Britain and the British people: how much do they take away from (Leave) or add to (Remain) your own well-being? Gone is any consideration of the lives and conditions of the migrants themselves. To take just one example: during the last week of May as news emerged that 1,000 human beings lost their lives in a desperate effort to cross the Mediterranean, this was not mentioned a single time in an hour-long BBC panel debate on the EU featuring Tories plus former Labour head Ed Milliband and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas, even though the discussion focused overwhelmingly on immigration.
The mental straitjacket of this campaign is training people to narrow their vision to their own situation – “how does this affect me”, “us Brits?” – as if British lives were somehow worth more than those of Syrians fleeing war, or Ethiopians or Somalis abject poverty and chaos. But they are not! As Bob Avakian, chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (revcom.us) put it, “Internationalism – the whole world comes first!” This is the only morality worthy of anyone who wants a better world.
The vicious targeting of immigrants on the part of both campaigns is aimed not just at “pulling up the drawbridge” and tightening control on immigration, but also at intimidating and cowing the millions of immigrants already here. The core values of British-ness are being forcefully reasserted – much as Euro chauvinist values are in numerous other imperialist countries. Echoing the American fascist presidential candidate Donald Trump’s populist call to “Make America great again”, UK politicians call for putting the “Great” back in “Great Britain” – which can only mean intensified horror for millions around the world who have suffered at the hands of British domination, militarily and economically, and millions at home too.
The reactionary lure of “European civilization”
Britain’s overall position in the world is left unchallenged by both sides, and Europe is treated as being much like a local community group. “We will”, argues Labour head Corbyn, “be stronger as a country if we cooperate with our neighbours to face them together.” (labourforbritain.org.uk)
But the EU is not some benign neighbourhood association. To the extent that it works together for a common good, it is for the benefit of the capitalist classes in the 28 European countries who, whatever the inequality and rivalry between them, enjoy being on the dominant side of the division of the world into oppressed and oppressor countries. Everything about Europe, from museums that are largely collections of colonial plunder, to its leading businesses and its culture, is stamped with the history of centuries of the slave trade, colonial oppression and wars for empire. Europe is not a geographic fact that can be “redefined”, as many European self-defined leftists maintain, it’s a historical reality that has to be dealt with through revolution and overthrown.
As a recent statement by the Revolutionary Communist Manifesto Group on the migrant crisis argued, “The political power in every European state rests upon and protects a whole socio-economic system of exploitation whose tentacles reach throughout the world. Globalization has only made this exploitation more pervasive, more brutal and more disruptive of the existing social fabric. Every government of these states is required to enforce and facilitate this process…. Belief in the possibility of a welcoming, inclusive but still imperialist Europe is worse than just an illusion. It hides the present and past reality of what Western capitalist democracy and its value system perpetuates on the world; it cannot possibly be implemented regardless of who is elected; and it is incapable of standing up to the reactionary attacks from either the howling fascist forces or the Islamists who pretend to offer an alternative moral and social order in opposition to the decadence and misery dished out by the West.” Just look at how Tsipras and Syriza have been converted from social-democratic critics into brutal enforcers of Fortress Europe!
“The politics of the possible” or really emancipating humanity?
There are many people who are disgusted at both sides of this debate. In an article entitled, “The politicians supporting Brexit are all dreadful, as are the politicians against it”, the comedian Frankie Boyle argues that “both campaigns have been thoroughly racist” and questions whether the British people are “the hideous bigots each of these campaigns has assumed them to be.” (Guardian, 1 June) Another commentator, Gary Younge, laments that: “In the absence of a broader challenge to the neoliberal order, simply voting yes or no is tantamount to choosing a ditch to die in.” But Younge then reluctantly chooses his ditch. Enough of this! “Choosing our ditch” is not neutral – people need to put an end to this “lesser evil” logic, to lowering their sights to “the politics of the possible”, to limiting their vision to seemingly palpable results within the existing capitalist framework: this invariably winds up in reconciliation with horrors.
What many such people do not understand is the utterly reactionary role that these elections are playing in the society in general, regardless of which side is favoured. This referendum is training people intensively in viewing elections in capitalist society as a tool of popular sovereignty and an avenue for changing the world, whereas what they do in reality is cover the rule of a class of exploitative capitalists in the garb of democracy. Whichever side wins, the reactionary crimes of British imperialism will be touted as “the will of the people”. But as Avakian has stressed, “So long as human society is divided into different classes of people, there is, and there can be, no such thing as a ‘free election,’ in the sense that no group in society has a greater influence than others on elections and in general on political decision-making. In a world of this kind, one group in society – fundamentally representing a ruling class of one kind or another – will always have greater influence than the rest of the people.”
People are being hammered with the idea that this is the “most important election in their lifetime” and that their vote can change the country’s fate in big ways. But what this election will not change is Britain’s fundamental position in the global imperialist food chain. Membership in NATO is not being put to the vote, nor its membership of the UN Security Council, nor its occupation of the northern part of Ireland, and so on. Britain’s position as part of the European defence structure and in particular its “special relationship” with the US in the plunder and exploitation of large parts of the world by Britain’s giant multinationals and banks, its armed enforcement of this, and its continuing ravaging of people’s lives at home too – all this will carry on inside or outside the EU.
What this election will do is reinforce illusions that parliamentary democracy represents the people’s will and tendencies to not see beyond the possibilities offered by that framework. At a time crying out for an internationalist and revolutionary perspective that targets the whole system, the arguments of “leftists” supporting both the Remainers (former Greek Finance Minister Varoufakis, Slavoj Zizek) and the Exiters (Social Workers Party, UK) would deceive those who long for an end to the nightmares wrought by Europe and Britain in the world, and tie their hopes to the long discredited imperialist parties as they jockey for parliamentary position.
Whether from the narrower perspective of self-interest (what’s in it for me as a Brit) or from the more “leftist” perspective of what’s in it for “the British working class”, what both of these campaigns represent is intensive training of people to view their relationship to the world through the lens of the interests of British imperialism and confining their struggle to what is achievable within the bourgeois democratic framework. And although it is not hard to see why many would bridle against all the racist bile pouring out of the Leave side, in a world where Europe stands at the top of the imperialist food chain, “broadening” that to a “European perspective” is not progress.
The unravelling of the mainstream political centre throughout Europe and the US and the increasing polarization of society poses serious dangers. But these same explosive conditions also bring real opportunities to carve out a different type of future. There is indeed an urgent need for millions to come together to tackle the huge problems facing people in Britain and around the world – but not from the perspective of “us Brits” or “us Europeans” but rather from an internationalist perspective that starts from the needs of oppressed humanity – and this means putting the Union Jack in a museum where it belongs. We need neither nostalgia for the broken promises of an increasingly bankrupt European social democracy nor tailing pathetically after dreams of lost empire! We need to look beyond the horizons of the present system and begin to construct a movement that not only fights to beat back the reactionary onslaught but can also lead towards the only real solution, communist revolution.