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Brexit in an Obstinate Red: The Unsung Victory of the Radical Left

2A1069FA00000578-3143346-Euro_crisis_Greek_protesters_burn_a_European_Union_flag_in_the_n-m-14_1435589923757Brexit has been greeted as a darkly seminal event, likely to be enshrined as the first historical breakthrough of reaction in contemporary Europe. Everywhere it is being trumpeted as the triumph of xenophobia, populism and racism. In the eyes of the global media, “Vote Leave” irreversibly bears the signature of the Eurosceptic, nationalist right. And yet the reality of the referendum itself most clearly marks the moment, perhaps above all else, when ideology made its first impactful reappearance in Western politics – an event no more uniquely a boon to the fascistic right than the anti-capitalist left wing.

The imbalance between this media reaction and the strategic reality, between perceived winners and losers, is the result of a crude framing of the situation as a contest between two poles – cooperation versus competition and protectionism versus internationalism. But pretensions towards “technocratic” government and the concept of supranational “post-ideological” administration were the primary casualties of the referendum itself, with both right and left afforded new space to occupy in their absence. What has been revealed in the vote’s aftermath is not the inherent strength of UKIP or Front National, but the incoherency and weakness of message among their left wing challengers. As a result of formerly critical personalities like Corbyn ceding the rhetorical field, what should have been one of few crucial, strategic victories in recent memory for the radical left has been transformed into a massive narrative and propaganda defeat.

It is not hard to see what the left stands to gain by weakening the European Union. Just look to Italy, a country still reeling from the 2008 financial crisis with 11% official unemployment, national debt at 133% of GDP, and an expected two decade recession in the analysis of the IMF. What was the EU response to the IMF’s Italian forecast? Only a reminder that “state support” for individual businesses or economic sectors, i.e. political influence on the economy, was prohibited except in an extreme crisis and that a two decade recession does not qualify. As Greece has shown us, however, the EU is perfectly comfortable using supranational authority to sell off a nation’s public assets to multinational companies and private capital. It seems it is better a people starve than dare to disrupt a market that has been imbued with an almost religious salvational power.

The British referendum has struck this market worshipping EU its first major blow. This blow, the “Leave” vote, signals the first major power shift back towards political organizations at the expense of financial institutions and the dictates of commercial efficiency since the neoliberalization of the world economy[1] – an objective sought and fought for over the course of two decades by a broad world coalition of labor, indigenous activists, students, peasants, intellectuals and radicals of all stripes. After a period of decreased contestation in the aftermath of the wave of occupations known as the movement of the squares,[2] the end of which was perceived by many as a sign of a fatal ennui, the project of this coalition is at last coming to fruition against all expectations, as if out of thin air, in a wraith like resurgence of the anti-globe movement. Finally an objective is in sight, however distant. An end to enforced austerity. An end to business as the driver of policy and politics. An end to the conditions that made it impossible for even the most mild of Social Democrats to enact significant redistributive economic policies. All welcome signs that “The End of History” was announced a bit prematurely.

But this hopeful turn was not noticed by the very people who set it in motion. The very same radical left, even the very same individuals who were deeply enmeshed in the struggle against “free trade” and globalization, have instead joined the chorus of cosmopolitan outrage that has followed “Brexit,” eagerly and passionately. British liberals in particular cannot restrain themselves or their class phobias, calling the referendum a “peasants’ revolt” in print and decrying a vote in which the “uneducated” can decide the fate of nations.

This response, which looks suspiciously like a defense of the once hated status quo, is symptomatic of a larger malady afflicting the left, particularly its radicals and anti-capitalists. In the thinking of the contemporary electoral left ambiguity is an asset. Principles, positions, vital stakes, are all best kept close to the chest. The unstated theory is that votes must be accrued today, and ideology cultivated tomorrow. This type of mentality leads Pablo Iglesias of Podemos to pronounce that they’re “neither left nor right,” cultivate the language of nationalism (“I am a patriot”) and to denounce old militants as “bitter” people with “infectious cynicism,” even as he accepts the communist party into his electoral coalition.

“We repent everything, not just the war…” – FARC-EP Urban Commander Carlos Antonio Lozada

This does not appear to be a geographical or European-centric phenomenon. Leaders of the Colombian FARC-EP, the world’s oldest and most entrenched Marxist-Leninist insurgency, told the Guardian that if peace talks were successful their political party would not be “Marxist,” but a broad, pluralistic coalition. When Telesur reporters asked FARC-EP commander Timochenko how he envisioned a new Colombia (“What is the country you dream of?”) he told them, “a peaceful one, where we can enjoy life, like a prominent politician once said, where you can go and fish… where we don’t have all of these anxieties.” The most pronounced vision Timochenko ultimately offers is a Colombia in which there are “basic services” provided for all.  One gets the sense he is being deliberately coy, even inserting what is perhaps a sideways reference to Marx[3] that is certainly opaque to all but the most devoted students of politics, and positioning the FARC-EP towards the center even before they have been reconstituted as a political party.

In Europe, Varoufakis has been cheerleading for a similarly obfuscatory line, giving TED talk style speeches on the need for a revival of the amorphous concept of Grecian democracy in European governance. While out of one mouth he says that he is an anti-capitalist, out of the other he informs the audience that in practice he assiduously hides it (see his piece “How I Became an Erratic Marxist”). Europe, he says, is in the grip of right-wing reaction and must be saved from itself. The left must not do anything to weaken the center. Implicitly he suggests that we are already defeated, despite all of the evidence to the contrary. This is the story that, in the absence of a counter-narrative, inevitably makes it to print. Words like class, capitalism, egalitarianism, revolution, socialism, expropriation, nationalization, communism, and anarchism become anathema, provocations to be religiously avoided, even by figures with demonstrably anti-capitalist personal beliefs. Former militants find themselves speaking in dull tones about the ever uncontroversial plight of the middle classes.

CorbyBigEUBattleBusHow is all of this relevant to Brexit? Just take a look at the lukewarm “Remain” speeches given by leftist leaders. “No one would leave a fair and united Europe.”[4] “Labour is clear that we should remain in the EU. But we too want to see reform.”[5] While parties like UKIP offered a coherent, consistent (reactionary) message, the left again behaved “tactically” and thought nothing of telling supporters who had campaigned savagely and relentlessly in the anti-globe movement that they must instead fight to save one of our era’s premier neoliberal institutions. Supporters and potential supporters were left with no ground to press their own agendas in the context of referendum. The cumulative weight of this cynicism robbed us of headlines that could have affirmed the vote as a rejection of inequality, of markets run rampant, of austerity and racism, if only these principles were given voice.

Leftists, whether in electoral or extra-parliamentary camps, must now try to emerge from a cultivated schizophrenia that is preventing recent political gains from being articulated into a coherent force. If we are to translate ephemeral protest politics, as represented by parties like Podemos, into an enduring social movement we must propagandize clearly and without pandering at every opportunity.

We must be unafraid to mouth our own core perspectives.

No –

to austerity.

to governance by finance and markets.

to technocracy.

No to capitalism without adjectives. Not only no to “savage” capitalism, or “crony” capitalism, but to capital itself.

Yes –

to a red so obstinate it is again our own.

to a black so thick it is unashamed.

to a time where nothing is bought or sold.

We, the red and the black, need only to remove our masks and speak.


MatthewWhitley_HeadshotMatthew Whitley is a writer, poet and anarchist activist.  His writing has appeared or is scheduled to appear in a number of publications and forums, recently including: Matter, ARCADE’s Poetry After LANGUAGE Colloquy, Artspace’s Political Violence and Militant Aesthetics after Socialism, Vanitas, and The Brooklyn Rail.  In 2011 he was involved in organizing for the NYC manifestation of the “Movement of the Squares” and is presently working to promote solidarity with the revolution in Rojava.  He currently co-edits the radical left artists’ imprint Cicada Press with Anastasiya Osipova.


[1] A necessary precondition for the growth of the left, opening “breathing room” for the radical left to develop as a public, social and even revolutionary force. A succinct analysis of this power shift in reverse was offered by Jeremy Corbyn himself in 1993 when he was a marginal figure and much lesser known. Corbyn said that the Maastricht treaty “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers who will impose the economic policies of price stability, deflation and high unemployment throughout the European Community.”

[2] This “movement of the squares” included a breadth of movements and occupied central squares ranging from Gezi in Turkey, to Occupy in America, to Syntagma in Greece, and the Indignados in Spain.

[3] “In communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.” – Marx, The German Ideology (1845).

[4] Pablo Iglesias of Podemos.

[5] Jeremy Corbyn of Labour.