Why would one of the wealthiest countries in the world, with strong social services, excellent educational institutions, and a diverse population, act against its own economic self-interests by leaving a common market that makes up 44% of its exports?
This was the question that pundits, intellectuals, and citizens were left pondering after last month’s successful Brexit vote, which saw 52% of voters choose to enter into negotiations to end the UK’s membership in the European Union.
The Brexit vote confirms the old Marxist adage- cultural issues are economic issues. The base is the superstructure. While many commentators have claimed that millions of English workers voted to leave the EU because of “culture”- i.e. their desire to control immigration so that fewer foreign nationals can come to live and work in Britain- the problem can’t be separated from the economic anxiety that permeates their lives. For how could one separate this sense of cultural invasion from the economic realities that define British working life- the erosion of stable union jobs, the increase in the cost of living, and the monopolization of capital by the London financial, social, and intellectual elite. As a citizen of working class Wigan put it in a recent Vice documentary, when the economy is going well, no one minds the presence of foreigners in your town. When jobs are scarce, the feeling of being inundated by forces beyond your control prevails.
So culture and economy can’t neatly be separated in understanding Brexit. No doubt, an anger over the general state of things motivated the vote. The EU became a proxy for the erosion of dignity that so many people have endured over the last thirty years, so that a vote against it seemed to be a chance to strike out against the conglomerate of forces working against common people. But one referendum can’t change an entire social system.
There is little surprise that the majority of affluent, educated Londoners voted to remain. Those with good jobs in finance, medicine, and law, those who went to the right schools, those placed in the right economic and political networks, were repelled by the notion of leaving the EU. For cosmopolitan Londoners, Brexit is a crushing blow to not only the economic system that benefits them so greatly, but the cultural ideals they have the luxury to afford: open trade, open borders, open hearts. Of course, cosmopolitan openness is far easier to defend when the other is driving you around in a cab rather than taking your own job.
For the working class in the center of the country- little England, as they call it- Brexit was a once in a lifetime opportunity to actually make their voices heard. They held the hammer on the political and economic course of things. And they decided to swing…as hard as they could, against the entire nexus of power that have made them what they are: a perpetual domestic underclass, languishing in drab, underfunded cities, working in diminishing industries creating ever smaller amounts of value.
In this sense, Brexit may be looked back upon as something of a Cultural Revolutionary moment for Britain- the one time where the elites eased up on political control, allowing the working class to shatter the normal course of things. When things are as desolate and intractable as they are for working class people, the only option available seems to be to tear it all down. The same anarchic impulse courses through Donald Trump’s admirers. As Louis CK put it, to vote for Trump (or, we could add, Brexit) is the ultimate fuck you to everything: let’s just do this, just to see what will happen, just to see the elites squirm a bit, to wipe the satisfied grins off their Oxbridge faces.
While one must respect the dignity of working class anger, one must also insist that such anger be channeled in productive directions.Will Brexit, on the whole, be a good thing for the working classes of Great Britain? Not likely.
If the EU takes a hard-line in negotiations, being shut out of the common market will have a devastating impact on the 44% of exports that currently go to Europe. This will not just affect financial services and real estate firms in London- though they will be hit hard, leading to a slow down in consumer spending that will affect middle class jobs. More importantly, restricted access to the common market will mean international manufacturers (think Honda and Toyota) will pull their operations out of England, wanting to avoid new tariffs that could be part of any UK-EU deal. Thousands of middle class jobs will be lost. Meanwhile, the depreciated value of the pound will make imported goods more expensive, while falling tax revenues from a slowdown in high-paying industries will mean further austerity budgets and less funding for necessary social services. Eventually, an inexorable spiral of low growth and high deficits will become the norm. These consequences could last for decades, marring an entire generation of working class people.
This brings us to the true problem for working class politics, not just in Britain but in all developed countries in the West. Simply put, globalization is never going to stop. Developing countries such as India, China, Vietnam, etc. have discovered that they can manufacture products more cheaply, and with the same level of quality, as any Western work force. Those countries have enjoyed double-digit growth rates over the last two decades, fueled by domestic workers who are willing to labor in manufacturing centers for low but steady wages. Such wages, while small when compared with incomes in the West, still represents greater sums for workers in Vietnam, India, or China then they could make as agricultural laborers back home on their family farms. Thus these men and women commodify their labor power, hoping to save enough money to buy a house in a city, send their kids to university, etc. They are imbued with a sense of generational sacrifice that sees them through the long hours of drudgery in the factories of multi-national giants.
There is no way of reversing this trend. Capital always finds the cheapest source of labor, and it knows no national loyalties. Certainly, working class people in the developing world are not going to turn down the higher wages offered to them, even if it means enduring the industrial nightmare of the factory and the dormitory.
Working class activists in the West talk of “protecting jobs, preventing outsourcing, etc.” but in truth they have no real plan to counter free-trade. Are workers in Manchester going to accept a pound an hour as a wage? Could they survive on such wages alone? Of course not. So the government tells them to retrain, re-educate, become competitive for jobs in the tertiary economy. But not everyone can become a computer scientist overnight, and the good jobs in law, finance, and medicine are reserved for the elite of Oxford, Cambridge, and the London universities. For the working class, there are only a limited number of industries to retrain into. Outside of those, only low-paid service jobs exist to mop up the excess labor power in the country. We’ve all seen these people- the 50-somethings working at cash registers in the local Safeway, the grandmother mixing latte’s at Starbucks. Jobs that should be done by high schoolers on their way up in the world, not by retirees trying to pay their rent.
Thus working class politics stands at a true bottle neck, as it has been since at least the 1980s. Of course, short-term advocacy should be directed towards a more equitable distribution of the enormous amounts of wealth still generated in spaces such as London, New York, Silicon Valley, Toronto, etc. Governments can ask those in the networks of wealth and power to pay more.
And if Western governments were willing to dismantle their war machines, substantial government revenues would be freed up to spend on needed social services. Indeed, all it would take would be a refusal to go to war around the world, and dreams that we are now told are unattainable- a minimum income allowance, plentiful public transport, abundant medical care- would be ours for the building.
A left of center politics must be focused on a more rational use of government funds, away from war and violence and towards education and care.
But in the long-term, this doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of Western market economies: highly lucrative industries remain dominated by a small minority of the population, while the rest languishes in diminishing economic sectors. If one is lucky, one is able to get a public-sector sinecure in teaching, government, or law enforcement, unionized jobs that still offer a modicum of dignity to their employees. Outside of those, though, precarity is lived as a day-to-day reality, creating tremendous social tension in the body politic.
So what is to be done? The system can be reformed to some degree- more redistribution is possible. But global capital is always one step ahead. Raise corporate taxes? They’ll find more tax havens. Raise personal income taxes? Eventually other jurisdictions will become more attractive, meaning widespread corporate transfers. For capital, nothing is fixed, all is decided by quarterly earnings. No government in the world is powerful enough to stop capital from seeking out the best conditions for its self-valorization.
The game, then, is always rigged. And yet, no real, structural alternative seems possible. What would the public ownership of all the means of production look like? What does it mean to live with all resources shared in common?
We have scarcely the ability to imagine such propositions, none the less practice them on a wide scale.
It is this failure of imagination that will ultimately doom the British middle class. In a decade’s time, they will be even poorer and more shut out of the networks of global capital than they currently are. At that point, their nativist anger won’t be enough to satiate them. A new, embittered, more profoundly fascist politics will be their only recourse.
Unfortunately, for our generation, the worst is certainly yet to come.
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies aesthetics, political economy, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.