While tempting, it is still to early to say what exactly is going to happen in regard to Brexit. This being said, we can look at what did happen.
Brexit has, for the most part, been framed as a kind of anti-globalist revolt that mirrors the Trump candidacy in the United States. The dominant narrative seems to be that after World War II the world got together underneath the light of the mushroom cloud and decided that Keynesian economics was what was going to be what we all agreed to use. The EU was set up to help facilitate this in Europe, and then the world began to globalize and some of the jobs that the Western working class were dependent upon left to other countries. In indignation, like angry Luddites, they decided to leave the EU and vote for Trump.
This narrative leaves a few things out.
First and foremost, we like to think of our recent forefathers as having had a strong hand in creating reality. This is somewhat natural as most of us are still somewhat contaminated with the Great Man theory of history.
The theory is basic enough and, something most of us were taught by mistake if not on purpose: every now and then a great man, an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon rises to change the direction of history and changes it forever.
There have always been problems with this. There’s an old saying that, “Napoleon wanted to be Caesar, Caesar wanted to be Alexander, Alexander wanted to be Achilles, and Achilles never existed.”
In one sense, that can serve to underline the fact that the idea was more powerful than the man. This is the basis of Fresco’s quote that serves as something of a counter to Carlyle’s:
I don’t believe in the Great Man theory of science or history. There are no great men, just men standing on the shoulders of other men and what they have done.
But there’s another side to that same coin. This is that, even while standing on the shoulders of other men, the shoulders are held by torso, held by legs, with feet firmly on the material ground.
I won’t go too much into materialism, as I’ve done so before, but suffice to say that the great men of World War II probably get too much credit for creating this neoliberal or Keynesian system as if it were pulled directly out of the air and was something that they created.
Workers of the World, Fight!
For one thing, we can see that the first-world mobilizing against the third-world working class was in fashion long before the present.
I’m simplifying for the sake of brevity, but in the history of the United States—long before Trump—there was a fight that could roughly be reduced to the Knights of Labor verses the Industrial Workers of the World if we were to reduce everything to a neat binary.
The Knights of Labor were very progressive for their time, but like many working organizations, radically opposed the Chinese workers in the United States and had controversy when integrating black workers into their midst. This policy was followed by other groups like the American Federation of Labor. These were both organizations that were more forward thinking than others of their time, but this is hardly a great excuse. The heirs to the Knights of Labour divided their working class within country and beyond.
More radical organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World regarded the AFL and other groups as too conservative. They took seriously the idea that workers of the world had to unite or else they would be played against each other.
By the time a lot of globalization was opening up, where the IWW would have demanded a unity between Mexican and American workers (for instance) the current Trade organizations found themselves, in time, reduced to getting on to bended knee and begging their bosses not to send more jobs to workers in countries that will do it cheaper, with less safety, and with less environmental regulation. In demanding a national policy, mainstream unions gave everything to workers in Central America, Asia, and everywhere else and the workers in all areas lost some control.
The reason that the IWW seems more farsighted in this is because it based itself, in part, upon principles that had already been established.
Marx and Engels in 1848 explained what was going around them, what we’d call globalization today:
The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country. To the great chagrin of Reactionists, it has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All old-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed. They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life and death question for all civilised nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material, but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old wants, satisfied by the production of the country, we find new wants, requiring for their satisfaction the products of distant lands and climes. In place of the old local and national seclusion and self-sufficiency, we have intercourse in every direction, universal inter-dependence of nations. And as in material, so also in intellectual production. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property. National one-sidedness and narrow-mindedness become more and more impossible, and from the numerous national and local literatures, there arises a world literature.
The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians’ intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.
They were not wise simply for noticing this. It had been something that Adam Smith pointed out almost a century before.
So then, what is the significance of Brexit? If globalization is the same process that has been going on for more than two centuries, why worry about a revolt against it right now?
This answer lies in the devil (in most people’s eyes) that pulled the strings together into what this globalization was turning into.
There was a movement amongst socialists at the beginning of the 20th century to assume that all the world powers were coming together as this process of capitalization of the world happened, and eventually everybody would be on the same big market place, nations would be swept away, and eventually there would be no more conflict and socialism would kind of just arise from the stateless ashes of the libertarian world that was being created. Even as World War I started, Kautsky, the “Pope of Marxism,” believed that this would still occur:
But imperialism has another side. The tendency towards the occupation and subjugation of the agrarian zones has produced sharp contradictions between the industrialized capitalist States, with the result that the arms race which was previously only a race for land armaments has now also become naval arms race, and that the long prophesied World War has now become a fact. Is this side of imperialism, too, a necessity for the continued existence of capitalism, one that can only be overcome with capitalism itself?
…There is no economic necessity for continuing the arms race after the World War, even from the standpoint of the capitalist class itself, with the exception of at most certain armaments interests. On the contrary, the capitalist economy is seriously threatened precisely by the contradictions between its States. Every far-sighted capitalist today must call on his fellows: capitalists of all countries, unite ! For, first of all, there is the growing opposition of the more developed of the agrarian zones, which threatens not just one or other of the imperialist States, but all of them together. This is true of the awakening of Eastern Asia and India as well as of the Pan-Islamic movement in the Near East and North Africa.
The frantic competition of giant firms, giant banks and multi-millionaires obliged the great financial groups, who were absorbing the small ones, to think up the notion of the cartel. In the same way, the result of the World War between the great imperialist powers may be a federation of the strongest, who renounce their arms race.
Hence from the purely economic standpoint it is not impossible that capitalism may still Jive through another phase, the translation of cartellization into foreign policy: a phase of ultra-imperialism
…From the purely economic standpoint, however, there is nothing further to prevent this violent explosion finally replacing imperialism by a holy alliance of the imperialists. The longer the War lasts, the more it exhausts all tile participants and makes them recoil from an early repetition of armed conflict, the nearer we come to this last solution, however unlikely it may seem at the moment.
We can see, especially in retrospect, that this hasn’t happened. In fact, borders are stronger than ever, and there is suspicion between allied states (not to mention states like Russia, China, and the US) which all contribute to the same economy at the same time for the same profits. Why?
The reason is that most of those socialists were incorrect. The person, the outlier, that was made to look like a prophet, kicked his feet back in 1915 and explained why there was a war that started and why there would be another after that, and after that no peace under a unified market:
That is how the plunder of about a thousand million of the earth’s population by a handful of Great Powers is organised in the epoch of the highest development of capitalism. No other organisation is possible under capitalism. Renounce colonies, “spheres of influence”, and the export of capital? To think that it is possible means coming down to the level of some snivelling parson who every Sunday preaches to the rich on the lofty principles of Christianity and advises them to give the poor, well, if not millions, at least several hundred rubles yearly.
A United States of Europe under capitalism is tantamount to an agreement on the partition of colonies. Under capitalism, however, no other basis and no other principle of division are possible except force. A multi-millionaire cannot share the “national income” of a capitalist country with anyone otherwise than “in proportion to the capital invested” (with a bonus thrown in, so that the biggest capital may receive more than its share). Capitalism is private ownership of the means of production, and anarchy in production. To advocate a “just” division of income on such a basis is sheer Proudhonism, stupid philistinism. No division can be effected otherwise than in “proportion to strength”, and strength changes with the course of economic development.
Of course, temporary agreements are possible between capitalists and between states. In this sense a United States of Europe is possible as an agreement between the European capitalists … but to what end? Only for the purpose of jointly suppressing socialism in Europe, of jointly protecting colonial booty against Japan and America, who have been badly done out of their share by the present partition of colonies, and the increase of whose might during the last fifty years has been immeasurably more rapid than that of backward and monarchist Europe, now turning senile. Compared with the United States of America, Europe as a whole denotes economic stagnation. On the present economic basis, i.e., under capitalism, a United States of Europe would signify an organisation of reaction to retard America’s more rapid development. The times when the cause of democracy and socialism was associated only with Europe alone have gone for ever.
A United States of the World (not of Europe alone) is the state form of the unification and freedom of nations which we associate with socialism—about the total disappearance of the state, including the democratic. As a separate slogan, however, the slogan of a United States of the World would hardly be a correct one, first, because it merges with socialism; second, because it may be wrongly interpreted to mean that the victory of socialism in a single country is impossible, and it may also create misconceptions as to the relations of such a country to the others.
That’s why you’ve probably heard of Lenin, but not the “Pope of Marxism.” Lenin was important not only because it explained the problem above, but it also presented the conclusion that there could be no socialism in one country.
I know that I’m a Marxist hiding behind a screen name on an internet site that you came across for some reason. That shouldn’t lend legitimacy to me, and you’d be a fool if that’s all you did. Further, I’m quoting Lenin who comes with his own set of baggage, not the least of which being that it was written more than a century ago and should be updated. This said, it repudiates exactly what should have been repudiated not only amounts Kautsky and other Marxists at the time, but also the conventional wisdom within our living memory. Fukuyama famously predicted that after the Soviet Union there’d be an End of History in which liberal (presumably) capitalist states would become the norm and the long promised global marketplace would sweep in and bring everyone together.
But this has not occurred. Since we live in a world where it has not occurred, we take this for granted. But we’ve been working for an Empire of Liberty for almost three centuries now and are no closer to getting it. We are in the sense that there are fewer conflicts, but we are further away in that a lot of the reason we don’t have bigger conflicts is because the big powers all have nukes and objectively don’t want to wipe human life off the face of the planet.
So we’re left here in the same place that we were. The world is coming together more and more tightly together economically (as it has been for centuries) but is not succeeding in becoming more politically united. This has to do with how the market itself is organized. It’s easy enough to find Marxist sources that examine this, but there are in the non-Marxist canon as well.
Wasn’t this about Brexit?
The thing is that we accept that this is happening and begin to question why. In doing so, Brexit makes more sense. It is an AFL style solution to a global problem. In the American West (and I know that I’m simplifying) the labour problem went something like this:
- The Chinese come and compete with whites for jobs.
- The whites join labour guilds and unions like the AFL and try to beat out the Chinese labour.
- The Chinese labour, not being part of these labour unions, do more work for cheaper and are thus chosen to work more often.
- Exclusion Acts come into place to get rid of the Chinese
- Manufacturing goes to China
What Britain is trying is, essentially, step 4 in this process, and already it’s looking at step 5. The solution is not, and never was, to proclaim a national solution to an international problem. The Wobblies, while a little utopian, were essentially correct in attempting to build a global solution to the issue. But doing such a thing is hard.
Instead there are losers in the economic system rabid to attack who they imagine is exploiting it, there are people that ignore the problem and think their inaction will magically make it go away, and there are your basic hacks that think that assumes everybody is so wealthy that they not only all go on elaborate vacations, but could then afford to buy an authentic experiences (?) and make everybody love Americans and then create the End of History Fukuyama predicted.
Brexit is no more likely to work than any of the above. I’ve shown my hand; I think a Marxist solution is right. Whatever you think though, it’s going to have to be an international solution.
The good that may come out of Brexit could be Scotland leaving and a reunification of Ireland.
The justification for wishing that is simple: