Academic journal article Capital & Class

Brexit, Xenophobia and Left Strategy Now

Academic journal article Capital & Class

Brexit, Xenophobia and Left Strategy Now

Article excerpt

The economic consequences of Brexit are dire. But an even more serious problem for the left thrown up by the vote to Leave is what it shows about working-class consciousness regarding 'immigrants', and how the anti-immigration Leave campaign has shifted working-class opinion to the right. It is this aspect of Brexit that I focus on in this article.

In England and Wales, the majority of the working class (in the everyday rather than Marxist sense) voted for Brexit. Many Remain voters, of both right and left, have seen this as a sign of a deep, inherent xenophobia and racism among British-born working-class people, or as evidence of their inability to understand economic questions. I wish to argue, on the contrary, that the working-class Brexit vote was a logical coping strategy in the circumstances, that is, given the political economy of Britain over the last 40 years and its present configuration. Correspondingly, the vote was not based in xenophobia and racism as such, but rather an opposition to further net immigration because of its perceived impacts on access to jobs, public services and housing. This view, however, blames another section of the world working class and thus removes culpability from capital and capitalism. The left can change this economic view and challenge xenophobia only by leading a struggle based on a different economic strategy, one which opposes capitalist austerity, proposes measures which benefit the majority of the population materially, and which breaks through in practice the mystifications of capitalist value relations.

Explaining popular consciousness requires going beyond a description of dominant ideologies; analysis of discourses in themselves cannot explain their hold on people's imagination. Rather, we need to see them as part of praxis, the unity of material practice and consciousness (Oilman 1993). Widespread ideas--ideologies--do not arise simply from discursive interventions; they develop over long periods through lived experience. Thus, my focus is on everyday life and its structuring by political economy and class relations. I use a pragmatist approach to how people choose their behaviour, including its moral aspects: that these are not an unmediated result of their intrinsic personal interests, but are rather framed within materially feasible strategies whether personal or collective.

The view that immigration is the problem rather than neoliberal capitalism is, in Marxist terms, based on appearance' rather than 'essence'. However, in the Marxist approach, 'appearance' is not mere illusion or mystification, but is rather rooted in real materially based social relations (Geras 1972). This is a further reason for my emphasis on working-class coping strategies.

The vote to leave and its motivations

The majority of the working class in the everyday sense, standard classes C2, D and E, in England and Wales voted for Brexit. The majority of classes Cl, B and A voted to remain. (I will use the term Working Class (capitalised) in the Marxist sense, which means all those directly or indirectly dependent on wages over their life time. This includes the majority of standard classes E to B and some of A.) The majority of the working class appears to have voted to leave mainly on two bases. First, scepticism that the state, governments and elites' are capable of ameliorating people's material lives. The EU was here a stand-in for the state in general. The Leave campaigns slogan, 'Take back control', and its attacks on 'the establishment' and 'experts', appealed to this anti-state sentiment. The roots of the latter lie both in the ideology of neoliberalism, which has preached for 40 years that the state cannot solve economic problems, and in the experience of those decades in which the state has manifestly failed to meet working-class economic and social needs.

The second main reason for the leave vote, on which I focus in the rest of this article, was that 'immigrants' are to blame for lack of jobs, poor wages and conditions, inadequate public services and shortage of decent affordable housing. …

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