Brexit: ‘national economy’ and class

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Food-bank Britain: not on the referendum ballot paper, but central to ‘Brexit’

Ed Miliband is staking out the kind of territory on Brexit he tried to occupy as Labour leader.

His argument concedes to calls for cutting immigration. But he says that there is a trade-off between that and “access to the single market” of the EU, which is in the “national interest” of the “British economy”.

Politically, the case then tries to base itself on the rising worries people are reported to have about the economic impact of a Tory Brexit as a way to displace the immigration question.

There is a difference between Miliband’s argument – which he voiced in the parliamentary debate on 7 December 2016 – and interventions by the likes of Andy Burnham who, for transparently electoral reasons to do with his mayoral bid in Manchester in May, made an appalling anti-immigration speech, with incendiary language.

But it is a weak position – just as it proved to be under Miliband’s leadership. The initial “balance” he struck in the first of three major speeches as leader on immigration rapidly vanished. We went through Yvette Cooper’s tenure as shadow home secretary, constantly attacking the Tories for failing to cut immigration numbers, and ended up a couple of years later with the anti-immigration mugs in the 2015 election.

You cannot meet the anti-immigration propaganda by refusing systematically to argue against it. Xenophobia or racism will not be pushed back by saying: look – we do need to cut immigration, but if we want to be able to sell things in Europe then we will have to put up with some immigrants.

If you never challenge the false idea that immigrants are a bad thing, then it is wishful thinking to imagine that you can get people reluctantly to accept a bad thing in the hope of achieving a good thing that they do want. Any “success” on that basis will turn out to be built on a sand of rising resentment.

That was the approach – by implication – of the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years: unwelcome immigrants are the price you have to pay for Britain’s economic success.

In so far as there was a positive case, it was put largely in terms that could make sense to better off people and not to the rest. I remember several Blairite columnists a few years ago responding to the claim that Polish plumbers were undercutting the price for the job with the argument: “What’s wrong with that – I’ve just had my bathroom done at lower cost?”

That argument does not carry to people who do not fairly regularly get their house done up. And that applies to most people – though not to most national newspaper columnists.

This is the main problem with the whole approach. It wants to put “economic concerns” centre in order to trump “immigration concerns”. But it talks of “the economy” as an abstraction and in terms fixed by the neoliberal period: the EU single market, trade with the rest of the world, the success of the City, the level of the FTSE 100, and so on.

It is “the economy” emptied of class content – and 0f economic realities. That just fails to speak to what has happened to people’s lives. It says that unless the core economic relationship between the British economy and the EU is maintained, then things will be bad for ordinary people. Brexit means economic contraction and that means austerity. Some go further and equate any call for an alternative plan to the Tories’ over Brexit as tantamount to a call for austerity, unless it amounts to overturning the referendum outcome and staying in the EU.

Austerity is a political choice 

Leave aside the enormous damage the left would do to itself if it were to go down the Blair/Lib Dem route of undemocratically overturning the referendum result (which is not going to happen given the balance in parliament, in any case). This line of argument exonerates those who have been responsible for austerity – now, and in the last seven years: not at some point in the future.

We have had austerity since the end of the Gordon Brown government in 2009-10. We had austerity in years during which the EU expanded and deepened.

Hourly wages in Britain have fallen by 10.4 percent. The only other advanced country where that has happened is Greece, enforced by the European institutions, lest we forget.

John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn were right in seeking to popularise the soundbite “austerity is a political choice not an economic necessity” (I hope that the Labour frontbench can find ways to return to doing that – it was effective).

Governments decide on austerity, NHS cuts, wage freezes, lower spending per pupil in schools, tax cuts for the rich and higher VAT for the rest of us, inducements for the City and for the bosses of Nissan while a regime of threats is applied to working people, cuts to disability benefit…

If you start to say those things are a product of something called “the economy” or that “the balance of trade” means that “public spending must be cut” or that “the fall in sterling” means that “you will be worse off due to inflation”, then you analytically cut out all the intermediary steps between those “causes” and “effects”.

More importantly, you miss out entirely that these things do not operate as a blind force of nature. Decisions are made by governments and bosses to bring about those effects. “The economy” comprises opposing interests, and clashing social and political forces. If you do not insist on that, then you end up with saying that the reason we have public spending cuts is because of “the national debt”. But that is precisely what the Tories say to justify austerity. It is what the IMF and ECB say about Greece.

For socialists, there is no such thing as “the economy” abstracted from the share of production that goes to capital or to labour. There is no economy without profit rates, without rates of investment, without shares of wealth owned by different classes, without a private and a public sector – and without looking at how that public sector works, who it serves, who it takes from in taxation and gives to in services. There is no economy in Britain without rising tuition fees for students and corporate speculation by universities. There is no “Great Britain PLC” without food banks on the one hand and Sir Philip Green’s $150 milli0n yacht on the other.

These were points emphasised brilliantly by the Polish-German Marxist Rosa Luxemburg over a century ago. We can add to her forceful polemic insights once made by Karl Marx but which are now much more widely shared: there is no economy without its impact on the relationship between human beings and nature. In the case of fossil-fuel capitalism, that means no economy without climate change and environmental devastation.

More recently, the basic points were made by then mainstream labour movement figures against Margaret Thatcher in the early 1980s when she tried to usurp the parable of the Good Samaritan by claiming that the good-doers had to have made a profit in the first place in order to have the wherewithal to dispense charity.

You do not need the Marxist commitment of a Ralph Miliband to recognise this: just the basic class politics which are the rationale of the movement in whose name Ed Miliband takes his parliamentary seat in Doncaster for the Labour Party.

What’s at stake with Brexit

The political consequences have been acutely apparent in Greece over the last two years. The argument that it was in the interests of the “national economy” to stay in the euro at all costs meant that a left government elected on the basis of opposing austerity has ended up enforcing it in order to secure that national economic outcome. That has meant the burden being thrown in even more extreme ways onto working people and the poor in Greece to “turn the economy around”. This is not new. This is capitalism.

The argument over Brexit is but an aspect of a more fundamental question. Who is to pay for the restructuring of society and its way of producing wealth (or wasting and destroying it) to escape the long depression which began in Europe with the EU at the height of its power? In whose interests will that restructuring be done? That question was posed by the post-2008 global crisis, not by the British referendum in June.

That is what the labour movement and the left have to fight over. And we would have had to fight over that if the referendum outcome had been different. That outcome would have meant the continuation of the David Cameron government and of George Osborne’s methods of implementing austerity.

It was common ground on the left in Britain, whichever way one viewed the referendum, that the fundamental antagonism in British society is one of class, that the British economy is structured to the enormous benefit of the rich against the interests of the rest, and that we need to present a radical alternative.

The Brexit vote does not change that common ground – or should not. There is no essentially separate Brexit question. The reason why Brexit appears in the opinion polling as the central concern for most people is precisely because it crystallises the pressing issues that shape people’s lives: their job or lack of, their loss of pay in the last eight years, their economic and social well being, the deteriorating health service…

That is the content of people’s “concerns”. And that is the content that the left and labour movement need to give answers to, rather than to become mesmerised by reified talk of the “national economy”. As if what was good for Nissan, Amazon and Sports Direct was good for “Britain” – and by extension for working people in Britain. The logic of that argument goes way beyond any debate about Brexit. What it leads to is that in order for working people to have a life, capitalism must make profits. That’s capitalist ideology, against which socialists seek to offer an alternative.

Ed Miliband cannot make this radical political case. He is tied to the strategy of pursuing the national interest and a view of how the economy and society work which absents the fundamental class antagonisms. The left – boosted by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Miliband’s successor – is not thus inhibited.

It is also on the basis of common class interest that the arguments against the anti-immigration brigade stand a much better chance of being won. They will certainly not be won by telling people that immigration is good for something called “the economy” when that economy – supposedly enhanced by membership of the EU – has resulted in them losing 10p in every pound of hourly earnings in the last few years.

Before June of this year it was uncontroversial on the left and in much of the labour movement in Britain that we needed to fight for a radical alternative to Cameron’s austerity. Since then, the referendum has happened and Cameron has gone. The government of Theresa May is trying to carry through Tory priorities in the course of Brexit. It ought to be uncontroversial that we should respond with fighting for a radical alternative to that also. That is what a People’s or a left Brexit means.

And just as with opposing Cameron, it is about building movements which are not restricted to what the Labour frontbench can achieve in parliament – under the adverse circumstances of the entrenched opposition from internal party opponents.

There is, for example, a growing crisis in the NHS. It is the politics of despair to respond by harping on about the lie that Michael Gove and Boris Johnson span during the referendum campaign over £350 million a week for the NHS if we vote to Leave. I suspect that the response of most people would be “so they lied – they all lie”. And that is essentially the truth.

Instead, we need to focus the issue around a demand for money for the NHS and against the Tories’ mass privatisation plan.

Leave aside what the economy might look like in two years’ time – pay is stagnant now. Pay is not determined by Britain’s membership of the EU. But agitation for pay increases should be what the labour movement raises over Brexit.

These are all things which can be fought for at every level – from a local hospital campaign in Shropshire to the left wing members of the Labour frontbench supporting union pay campaigns or the drive for a living wage.

This was the spirit that animated the various fronts of struggle against the wave of austerity imposed by the Tory/Lib Dem coalition following the 2010 election. An array of initiatives worked together – from Disabled People Against the Cuts to the People’s Assembly Against Austerity. And that is the spirit which underpins the People’s Assembly event on 19 January, which is a step towards cohering a radical alternative to the Tories’ Brexit.

Throughout the Coalition years the then leaders of the Labour Party – at the time including Ed Balls – did not embrace that approach. They failed at the 2015 election.

As the Tories struggle with the enormous problems of implementing the referendum result against a backdrop of their own divisions and the mourning of the British capitalist class, we have a chance, thanks to the election of Corbyn, to create a much more effective and radical response this time. We should seize it.

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