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Brexit vote leaves progressives suspended between nativists and neoliberals

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The decision by British voters to exit the European Union last night was predicted by almost no pollster or expert in recent days; so it echoes the unpredicted success of Donald Trump’s populist campaign in the United States. Trump was quick to seize on the parallel; and surely many Brexit voters took great pleasure in ambushing the conventional wisdom among the privileged that they were about to lose.

Trump, of course, celebrated the British vote today as a nationalist call for stronger borders; while Hillary Clinton was coolly respectful of the decision, having lobbied against it alongside her husband. Thus the Brexit vote is a reminder of the lesser-evil choice that progressives face in the United States between Hillary Clinton’s privileged neoliberalism and Donald Trump’s nativism, nationalism, and occasional gestures of isolationism. This choice reflects a leftwing paradox: progressives claim to speak for the many losers of capitalism, but for at least a generation here, progressives have not been able to cut a deal with populists to build a successful coalition. Though, yes, Bernie Sanders made inroads in the last six months.

The duality between elitism and democracy, between highly-educated globalists and less-privileged ordinary voters, has been a theme of the press coverage thus far. Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations says angrily that Brits voted against their own self-interest and the decision to hold the vote was “one of history’s great blunders.” On National Public Radio this morning, Constanze Stelzenmuller of Brookings Institution said that she had cried in the shower this morning over the vote, that “no one in their right mind” in Germany is for withdrawal from the European Union, that only a rightwing fringe and leftwing fringe are for such a thing, but that they have shot themselves in the foot again and again.

Democracy Now did a far better job covering the ideological and material issues at stake, in a piece featuring two British leftwingers, one in favor of leaving, the other in favor of remaining.

Joseph Choonara of Lexit (leftists for Brexit) called the vote a blow to neoliberalism, a “breakup of this huge bosses’ club,” and said it was wrong to paint the huge majority of working English people as racists.

the European Union has been underneath the U.S., one of the key organizers of neoliberal capitalism on a global scale, a key force of imperialism in the world, and the organization that has been punishing workers in Greece, in Spain, in Ireland, under the period of austerity. It’s operated as a sort of reserve army for the capitalist classes of Europe in extremis. And in a sense, I hope that Britain voting to leave—which, of course, Britain is the second-biggest economy in Europe—begins to precipitate the breakup of this huge bosses’ club. So that’s the basis on which we campaigned for exit of the U.K. from the EU. It was on the basis of an internationalist, anti-racist and progressive vote against neoliberalism.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But, Joseph Choonara, how do you respond to those who say that the driving force of the Brexit campaign was an anti-immigrant, xenophobic and nationalist movement, and that this—that your portion of the left in Britain has basically united with that movement?

JOSEPH CHOONARA: Well, actually, we set up the Lexit campaign precisely because we wanted there to be an independent voice that didn’t unite with those people… It’s true that there are people in the exit camp—Nigel Farage, who we just heard from, Boris Johnson and so on—who are perfectly happy to play the race card and whip up xenophobia against migrants. That’s entirely true. However, it would be a gross mistake for people on the left and progressives to believe that all those who voted for exit were motivated by racism. Of course, there was a racist exit vote, but there were also huge numbers of people—the vast majority of skilled, unskilled and semiskilled workers in this country voted to leave. Major cities in the north of England—Sheffield, Bradford and Birmingham, for example—big, multicultural cities, voted overwhelmingly—or, not overwhelmingly, but narrowly, to leave in this referendum campaign. It’s not true that all those people are motivated by racism.

But Alex Scrivener, of a leftwing group that was for remaining, said the vote was sure to foster racist campaigns around the world.

[It’s] a massive defeat for progressive forces, not just in the U.K., but across Europe.

This is a victory that the most unsavory parts of politics, not just here in the U.K., but across Europe, are celebrating. And I think, as people who are progressives and believe in an anti-racist, anti-xenophobic future for our country and for our continent, we should be very, very worried. We’ve woken up today to a Britain in which it is a much, much scarier place to be a migrant…

he second issue, which I think was probably overwhelming and probably led to their victory, was immigration. And I think that should scare us a lot. And it does scare me. I have been up all night, and I’m genuinely terrified about the future for this country and this continent. And, you know, from Trump in America to Le Pen in France, the enemies of progressive politics, the enemies of internationalism are celebrating, and we should be worried.

The difficulty for progressives in adopting Scrivener’s view is that internationalism has been ruined for the left in recent decades because of American militarism and globalization. Internationalism often means neoconservatism in the U.S. And neoconservative Never-Trump’ers have virtually aligned with neoliberals in the American presidential campaign; many of them are supporting Hillary Clinton and many are skeptical about Trump’s foreign policy because he is not as militant as Clinton.

Neoconservative David Frum saw the vote as a rebuke of immigration.

Here is Trump celebrating the vote on his Facebook page as a boost to his America-first campaign, and against immigrants:

The people of the United Kingdom have exercised the sacred right of all free peoples. They have declared their independence from the European Union, and have voted to reassert control over their own politics, borders and economy. A Trump Administration pledges to strengthen our ties with a free and independent Britain, deepening our bonds in commerce, culture and mutual defense. The whole world is more peaceful and stable when our two countries – and our two peoples – are united together, as they will be under a Trump Administration.

Come November, the American people will have the chance to re-declare their independence. Americans will have a chance to vote for trade, immigration and foreign policies that put our citizens first

While here is Hillary Clinton, sounding very much like the Obama White House in respecting the British decision, but then extolling the special relationship and the importance of people coming together, not dividing in the coming election.

We also have to make clear America’s steadfast commitment to the special relationship with Britain and the transatlantic alliance with Europe. This time of uncertainty only underscores the need for calm, steady, experienced leadership in the White House to protect Americans’ pocketbooks and livelihoods, to support our friends and allies, to stand up to our adversaries, and to defend our interests. It also underscores the need for us to pull together to solve our challenges as a country, not tear each other down.

The vote is clearly a rebuke to special relationships between countries, for greater independence. The Forward has a piece explaining how Brexit will serve Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) toward Israel, by making the U.K. a smaller economy with less ability to buy Israeli goods and no ability to stand up for Israel in EU efforts to sanction or isolate Israel.

Though Robert A. Cohen argued that staying in the EU was not just good for the struggle to foster immigrant communities in Britain, but it would have given the Brits greater leverage over European efforts to force Israel to obey international law. No one else in the world is trying to punish Israeli actions, he said.

The EU is well placed to take on that role. Especially if European public sympathy towards the Palestinians continues to grow.

The UK needs to bring its weight to that EU dimension to peace making.

And at Lobelog, Esfandyar Batmanghelidj argues that Brexit will hurt the Iran deal, possibly even cause it to fail, by weakening the EU and undermining the ability of western governments to cut trade deals with Iran, and indeed form the international consensuses that were the basis of the deal in the first place.

There is no other coordinating body for the Iran deal outside the EU-led framework. The EU’s central role, linking the foreign policy interests of the UK, France, and Germany (the E3 states) enabled JCPOA to emerge from a consensus including the United States, China, and Russia. That consensus was crucial to the promise of sanctions relief, which is the most important aspect of the deal from the Iranian perspective. If Iran does not see an economic boon, the Iran deal is at risk of failing.

Troublingly, Brexit will negatively impact the ability of both the UK and Europe to deliver the economic benefits of the Iran deal….

When the Iran deal was announced, it seemed a triumphant example of cooperation and vision where the national interests of seven different countries, representing the global community, eventually produced a single robust agreement. In many ways, Brexit is a rejection of the type of politics that brought us the Iran Deal.

Thanks to Adam Horowitz.

Philip Weiss

Philip Weiss is senior editor of and founded the site in 2005-06.

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26 Responses

  1. annie on June 24, 2016, 2:55 pm

    this is really smart and thorough phil. thank you (and adam too).

    • ritzl on June 24, 2016, 3:40 pm


    • ckg on June 25, 2016, 10:03 pm

      In between banging my head against all sorts of hard objects, I turn to Phil’s writing to calm me down. This post is very calming.

  2. Bumblebye on June 24, 2016, 4:34 pm

    Trump is being widely and roundly mocked for “celebrating” Brexit in Scotland – which overwhelmingly voted to Remain! Just sayin’

  3. Bumblebye on June 24, 2016, 4:50 pm

    I didn’t follow Lexit and never heard of Joseph Choonara, but he echoes my thoughts. I also hope a wise progressive left will use it to reawaken activism.

    I heard an old WWII vet literally sobbing on one bulletin this evening, as he recalled all the friends he had lost, and how he felt they had been betrayed by membership of the EU which in his opinion meant being ruled by Germany, the country they had fought. He was sobbing so hard as he said he had his country back.

  4. Keith on June 24, 2016, 5:38 pm

    Let us begin by noting that passage of this referendum does not guarantee that Britain will, in fact, exit the EU. It is possible, perhaps likely, that the British Parliament will ignore the vote, which is not legally binding, and remain in the EU. If so, pressure will be applied to eliminate Britain’s special exemption forcing Britain to adopt the Euro and eliminate the Pound which would have interesting consequences in regards to London as a powerhouse financial center.

    All of this talk of right wing racism versus left wing progressivism tends to ignore the essence of the situation in regards to what, exactly, the EU is in the organizational sense. The EU is an extremely dysfunctional bifurcation of the political economies of the member nations such that the individual member states are politically weakened whereas the financial sector as represented by the European Central Bank is essentially calling the shots. As such, Big Finance backed by the transnational corporations essentially sets policy at the macro level, individual governments, except maybe Germany, more or less go along or do without. Witness the giant screwing of Greece to bailout French and German banks. It is instructive that the current head of the ECB is Mario Draghi, former vice chairman and managing director of Goldman Sachs International. Can’t get much more obvious than that!

    Consequences? If Brexit actually occurs (I hope), the long term consequences would be an improvement over our current rule by the financial oligarchy. Short term, however, there would likely be dire consequences as the financial elites punish the uppity voters. Historically, Monarchs tended to crush peasant rebellions with considerable savagery. There is no reason to believe that the new capitalist nobility will behave any differently.

    • Keith on June 25, 2016, 12:06 pm

      “Because, Britons voting today should not be in any doubt that a vote to remain in the EU is a vote to catalyse the Lehman Brothers disasters of the future. The EU exists –pre-eminently – to forge a deregulated world with vulture funds and private equity that contaminates every aspect of relations between human beings. From cradle to grave, there will be the privatisation of public space let alone education, health and aspiration. Not only that, but there’s something even more financially lucrative than the European health market : war” (Afshin Rattansi)

      “The EU is one of the key trans-national institutions, along with others like the IMF and World Bank, whose role is to claw back on behalf of the US the social democratic gains made by many European publics after the Second World War. After all, were left wing politics to be seen as a viable or even preferable alternative to US neoliberalism, then European national publics might demand the right to take back governance of their countries – and Washington’s global dominance would be at an end.” (Jonathan Cook)

      “The EU serves Washington and the One Percent. It serves no one else. The EU is a murderer of sovereignty and peoples. The intent is for the British, French, Germans, Italians, Greeks, Spanish, and all the rest to disappear as peoples. Brexit is the last chance to defeat this hidden agenda, and apparently the British will vote tomorrow without having a clue as to what is at stake and what the vote is about.” (Paul Craig Roberts)

      • Bumblebye on June 25, 2016, 12:29 pm

        You might like this article which explains who actually makes EU policy (hint – definitely *not* elected representatives!):

        and this one from Nafeez Ahmed at his new perch:

        please note, the above Canary is the original, not the vile destructive zionist one

      • amigo on June 26, 2016, 10:51 am

        Bumblebye , thanks for that link to evolution.

        When you remove the first 2 layers you begin to see just how undemocratic the EU is —not.The industrialists are driving the process from the bottom of the very murky waters.I am going to have a very different conversation with my next MEP wannabe.

        Thanks for opening my eyes.

    • Citizen on June 26, 2016, 7:40 pm

      @ Keith Bingo!
      Corbin knew it, but was afraid to break Labor up by voting Brexit. He’s double screwed. Israeli papers say Brexit is net bad for Israel.

  5. Rooster on June 24, 2016, 6:56 pm

    Thank you for the fine article.

  6. JWalters on June 24, 2016, 6:57 pm

    Thanks for this summary of views. An interesting big-picture view with some merit is that this is part of a reaction against the financial elite’s oppressive policies.

  7. Qualtrough on June 24, 2016, 11:46 pm

    The images of the City of London toffs looking devastated tells me that Leave was the right choice.

  8. Brewer on June 25, 2016, 2:01 am

    Jonathon Pie is providing some of the best political satire on the net. Here is his classic:

    …..and on Brexit:

  9. Vera Gottlieb on June 25, 2016, 10:20 am

    Excuse me, Mr. Weiss…but unless you live in Europe (and that includes the UK), you should not be making comments or judging. Brexit could very well have started a domino effect…Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal…the common folks more than fed up with being made to support the rich at their expense. I presently live in Europe and have heard very frequently: “now we can govern ourselves”, i.e. Brussels no longer the dictatorial entity. The club of the “elites” for the elites. Tomorrow, Sunday, Spain votes and Brexit could very well influence the outcome. Again…fed up with the rich.

  10. Shmuel on June 25, 2016, 11:10 am

    So that’s the basis on which we campaigned for exit of the U.K. from the EU. It was on the basis of an internationalist, anti-racist and progressive vote against neoliberalism.

    And who will provide this internationalism, anti-racism, progressivism and anti-neoliberalism? Johnson and Gove? Or will this vote miraculously strengthen Jeremy Corbyn and sweep labour at its (socialist) best into power?

    People are angry and fed up and rightly so, but how exactly is a Brexit going to stick it to the capitalists and the bosses? Tories will still be Tories and Blairites will still be Blairites and Ukip will still be Ukip whether the British flag flies at Brussels and Strasbourg or not. The EU is hugely problematic (far more so for countries like the one I live in [one of the “I”s in “PIGIS”] than for the UK), but in this case it has merely been used as a scapegoat for the policies of homegrown “capitalists and bosses” — who will continue as before, without risking a hair on their chinny-chin-chins — and not an actual vote for jobs and workers’ rights and healthcare and education.

    So no, the vote was not “between nativists and neoliberals”, but between bolstering nativism and economic “conservatism” (cf. “Thatcher milk-snatcher”) and muddling on as before. And yes, it will make things more difficult for the rest of us poor slobs on the “continent” (as opposed to the Brussels crowd), but “Britain first”, right?

    • John O on June 25, 2016, 11:27 am

      “And who will provide this internationalism, anti-racism, progressivism and anti-neoliberalism? Johnson and Gove? Or will this vote miraculously strengthen Jeremy Corbyn and sweep labour at its (socialist) best into power?”

      Well said. By way of anecdotal evidence, I have a number of friends well to the left of me politically (including Socialist Workers Party members), and they are all remainers and utterly horrified by the result.

      • Bumblebye on June 25, 2016, 12:40 pm

        My son had been wavering. He told me it was Junckers arrogant intransigent remarks on polling day that turned him back to Leave. His wife had also been wavering. Different voices altogether confirmed her original intention to Remain.

        Both are Corbyn supporters.

      • John O on June 25, 2016, 12:48 pm

        @Bumblebye “Junckers arrogant intransigent remarks on polling day …”

        Indeed. I met a friend in the supermarket yesterday who was furious about Juncker. But then again – who was it who opposed Juncker’s appointment, making an enemy of him? David Cameron, now officially the worst PM since Lord North.

      • MHughes976 on June 25, 2016, 5:23 pm

        I agree completely with Shmuel, I think it’s a disaster which (though miracles do happen) cannot reasonably be expected to lead in any progressive direction. The victors, who will probably collect a whole heap of spoils, are the most right wing group ever to have stood on the verge of power here. It wasn’t about the ME, but this group is as it happens strongly pro-Israel. Israel has not a thing to worry about here.

  11. Ismail on June 25, 2016, 5:55 pm

    Let’s recall that northern Europe’s recent wave of immigrants has been created by US adventurism in the Middle East, Ukraine, and the Balkans, enthusiastically supported by the EU/NATO and similar US Trojan horses. While some of the European reaction to the swelling numbers of refugees is undoubtedly due to racism, it’s sort of shortsighted to fret about much of the working class being concerned re the refugees instead of embracing them in the Warm, Universal Cumbaya Hug of Solidarity, and it’s unfair to deny that vast numbers of newcomers, in a climate of neoliberal austerity economics, represents a legitimate threat to impoverished Europeans.

    US militarism creates refugees, EU neoliberal economic policies immiserates Europeans, then you put them together. I think you can explain most of the reaction without reference to racism. Finance capitalism thrives on workers of all colors, ethnicities, etc being at one another’s throats.

  12. Sulphurdunn on June 26, 2016, 9:33 am

    Cameron said he would invoke article 50 immediately if the Brexiters won their non-binding referendum. Instead he resigned and punted to the victorious Boris Johnson and the conservatives, who are saying they don’t really need to bail right away and should instead enter into informal negotiations with the EU. Hmmm?

    • John O on June 26, 2016, 10:30 am

      The best poisoned chalice I’ve seen for years.

    • Sycamores on June 27, 2016, 12:53 pm

      not really surprise that Cameron didn’t invoke article 50 and i’m not surprise by the leave crowd for not been prepare for that eventuality. but there will be pressure from France and Germany on Cameron to invoke article 50 as soon as possible, in an attempt to prevent further European exits.

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