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Brexit: the Elite, the Workers and Populism

Statement by "Arbeidersstemmen" in the Netherlands (June 27, 2016)


In the following we publish the contribution of the webblog in Dutch, "Arbeidersstemmen" (Workers’ Voices"), on the significance of the referendum in the U.K. about the European Union.


What does the "Brexit" mean to the working class - not only in Britain or in the European Union, but on a world wide level? The result of the referendum clearly conflicts with the interests of the overwhelming majority of British capital. Are we therefore witnessing a weakening of capital? Has the political elite, who has begged to vote "Remain", from the majority of the Conservative Party to Labour, from the Church of England to the BBC and with the assistance of Goldman-Sachs, been beaten?


An immediate worsening of the financial and economical crisis

The value of the Pound Sterling has dropped dramatically and the stock markets are panicking on a global scale. This could be the trigger of the worldwide dive into recession that leading financial analysts have already been expecting for some time. The consequences for world trade are serious as well. Of course, all kinds of scenarios for the trade between Great-Britain and its partners, within and outside the European Union, are possible but, for the time being, obscurity dominates, which is paralyzing trade and investment decisions. Financial and economic problems already existed enough and to spare, without the possessing class seeing a way out. "Brexit" worsens the economic situation, and notably the working class will feel this by more unemployment, lower wages and benefits, still worse social services, from health care to education.

The political crisis is increasing

Politically, "Brexit" shakes up all parties in Great-Britain. We see all kinds of efforts in the business of party politics to better anticipate future surprises from the populist fringe. The same goes for other countries, in which the possibility of undesired election results and even secessionist movements - like in Scotland - has approached unpleasantly. The populists are encouraged to spread still more xenophobia and narrow-minded nationalism.

More local wars

At the geopolitical level "Brexit", and its possible consequences, raises serious questions. Once more a blow has been struck against a bloc of states, as the heart of the European one has been hit. What changes does this imply for the relationships within the EU and for the spheres of influence of the Russian Federation, China and the United States? How will it impact on the open and potential conflicts and the secret wars in the Middle East, the Pacific and Africa? With the Brexit local conflicts and the disintegration of states and blocs of states will only increase in favor of local gangs and terror.

The danger of a large scale war

At the same time, the likelihood of large scale wars has increased. What will be the consequences, for instance, should Russia feel encouraged to invade one of the Baltic states? This tendency towards war will at first further weaken the working class. In the longer term war is not favorable for a workers’ revolution , as we can see by the limitation of the workers’ insurrections during and after the First World War to the countries that were most weakened of all, not to mention the Second World War.

Gains for the working class?

It is impossible to exactly predict the result of the Brexit for capitalism. Innumerable economic, political, social and military factors interact at world level in a chaotic way. In addition, the historically unique combination of crisis and wars makes any prediction extra difficult. However, even a superficial discussion shows what was already clear before the referendum:

1. British capital as a whole and even capital at world level are in still greater trouble after the "Brexit";

2. The attacks on the working class will increase.

This raises the question whether both consequences combined are favorable to the development of the workers’ struggle in a revolutionary direction. Capitalism shows that it can only offer more misery to mankind. Will the attacks by capital on the living standard and the looming war incite the working class to revolution? This could come about by a massive development of consciousness within the working class of the necessity of revolutionary struggle (our idea). As an eventuality also by the emergence of a revolutionary vanguard who is able to rally the working class behind it, by advancing smart slogans, and leading it towards revolution, as all kinds of Leninists imagine. Both options are however very unlikely in the present situation. The development of revolutionary consciousness is not a mechanical process. Even the Leninist variety that tries to circumvent the development of a conscious class by smart tactics, like the Trotskyist "transitional program", cannot succeed if the working class is not even able to recognize its most direct "economic" interests and to engage in struggle for them.

This is the situation for the overwhelming majority of workers in Great-Britain, the Netherlands, Germany, the Scandinavian countries, etc. It is not even organizations illegitimately claiming a working class character who find an audience with a large part of the proletariat, it’s the right-wing and ultra-right populists with their narrow-minded nationalism, their xenophobia and their nostalgic craving for the times of the British Empire (who in the Netherlands are in need of going even further back in history); [1]it’s the petty bourgeois shopkeepers who are successful in spreading cheap slogans, easy solutions and scapegoating of migrants for the crisis and wars - where the ultra-left have tried the banks, without putting into question capitalism as a whole.

Globalization, migration and industrial reserve army

Those parts of the working class who voted in Great-Britain for "Brexit" largely coincide with those on the continent who constitute the supporters of populist parties like Le Pen’s Font National in France, the AfD and Pegida in Germany or Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands. In general they are elder workers with little education who have lost their jobs by the relocation of production towards low wage countries like China and India, and who discover that the "welfare state" for which they payed insurance contributions and taxes during their working life, does not exist anymore for them. The younger (among whom the 2nd, 3rd or 4th generation of immigrants) experience the competition by labor migrants with a legal or semi-legal status from Eastern Europe or by illegal workers from other parts of the world. The populists put the blame for labor migration on the European Union and the "ruling elite" they are eager to replace. From the trades unions, the left and the ultra-left so-called workers’ parties they have heard nothing but abstract-humanistic, moralist trifling about "tolerance" and "multiculturalism".

Class solidarity

The truth about the necessity of labor migration can only come from revolutionary minorities of the working class. Capital has a constant need for an ’industrial reserve army’. In the 19th Century a constant supply of new workers for the ever more expanding production was needed to prevent workers from wrestling for an amelioration of wages and working conditions by trades union struggle. In the 20th Century the increase of production workers stagnates, but the necessity to put pressure on the wage volume by an influx of labor migrants has only increased. The capitalist class, populists included, has no interest in diminishing a labor migration that is profitable for it. Capital has an interest in dividing up the working class into legal, semi-legal, quarter-legal and illegal ’immigrants’ and ’native’ workers. This splitting up of the proletariat is effected by a division of labor between several fractions of the bourgeoisie. The right-wing populists ’defend’ the ’own’ workers and the left moralists ’defend’ the migrants. Only the revolutionary minorities of the proletariat are upholding the old defense of the working class: its solidarity and internationalism.

The divisions of the bourgeoisie against the proletariat

Skilfully playing out the international labor migration against the working class is not the whole story. In the whole world the bourgeoisie is wildly enthusiastic about the nationalism within the working class in Britain, massively claiming back "its country". It looks as if the massive support for national capital during the First and Second World Wars has returned. Capital is dreaming about the possibility to impose its solution to the economic crisis: by employing the living human material that has become superfluous for capitalism, and the surplus of dead capital (machines, automates and robots) in the wars that spread everywhere, to secure its imperialist interests on a global scale, bloc against bloc, country against country, and gang against gang.

Nationalism and imperialist war is the very own terrain of the bourgeois class. Capital knows how difficult it is to seduce its arch-enemy, the working class, to enter this terrain, and foremost to keep it there, ideologically poisoned and stunned, hedged in by its ’own’ trades unions and treacherous parties. The "Brexit" campaign was indeed wholly situated on this bourgeois terrain of false choices for the voting citizen for one or the other "solution" to the economic crisis, for one or another foreign policy of the bourgeois state, eventually for participation in one war or the other, for joining one front or the other.

It’s getting still worse

In the next period we will see still more divergence within the bourgeoisie coming to the fore. These divisions signify that capitalism leads humanity to its downfall. It would however be fatal to conceive of this as a weakness of the bourgeois class. Classes are not strong or weak by themselves, but only with regards to one another. When we take class relations as our point of departure, we see that "Brexit" has strengthened capital and has weakened the working class. Capital has succeeded in luring the working class still further away from the terrain of the workers’ struggle and in having itself divided still further along bourgeois lines. This situation will not only make the autonomous workers’ struggle more difficult in Great-Britain, but on the European continent and even globally as well.

It is up to the most conscious workers and other revolutionary elements in the world to explain to their class comrades what "Brexit" implies for them. We will return regularly to this subject, every-time when the developments provide for a clearer image than is possible at present.

Fredo Corvo, June 27, 2016

Source: Arbeidersstemmen ( Workers’ Voices)

Translation: Jacob, July 4, 2016; editorial corrections on July 14


[1Namely to the "V.O.C." (Verenigde Oost-Indische Compagnie), the United East Indian Company, on from the beginning of the 17th Century. Translator’s note.