“In these circumstances… victory or defeat, in political as well as economic terms, comes down to a hopeless choice between two kinds of beatings for the European working classes.” – Rosa Luxemburg
Aufheben, the long-running Brighton-based theoretical journal, recently published a lengthy, in-depth analysis of the issues around Brexit. I found it to be an impressively confused, patronising, and occasionally dishonest piece of writing, one that I would broadly summarise as putting across the message that “everything about the EU is good all the time and everyone who has issues with the EU is just a Telegraph-reading posho who doesn’t understand Marxist theory properly and has never done a day’s class struggle in their life.”
But to go into slightly more detail about my issues with it:
Near the start of the article, Aufheben set out a history of government attempts to limit the rights of EU migrants, noting that, for instance, in 2006 the government was able to restrict residence rights “by exploiting a new EU law, Directive 2004/38/EC… the inequality of treatment of EU citizens was approved by an EU court as ‘justified’”. They blandly note this fact in passing, but fail to provide any analysis of what it means, or what lessons we might draw from this example of EU law providing the form through which EU migrants can be attacked. Does the use of EU law and EU courts to restrict the rights of EU migrants complicate the “defending migrants = defending the institutions of the EU” equation at all? Aufheben seemingly don’t have much to say on that subject.
They then detail further attacks on EU migrants: “Following a re-interpretation of the directive and case law that protected the right to reside of unemployed EU citizens as long as they had ‘genuine chances of finding work’, the state subjected EU citizens to a ‘Genuine Prospect of Work Test’… all unemployed EU citizens would lose their JSA after a fixed 6 month period after their last job unless they got a new job within this period. Failing this they would lose all rights of residence, including the right to Housing Benefit and could be made homeless… all those who lost their status as workers were denied Housing Benefit altogether.”
Are these moves horrible? Undeniably. Are they entirely compatible with EU membership, has the EU done anything to stop them? The answers would appear to be “yes” and “no” respectively. They then mention how “last year the Tory government… obtained an opt out from paying all in-work or out-of-work benefits to all EU migrants for their first 4 years in the UK” – an opt-out that those stalwart defenders of migrants’ rights in Brussels were willing to grant – and that “EU migrants have also started being deported, under the allegation of not having, or ‘abusing’, a Right of Residence” – again, something that the EU, that institution we’re supposed to be rallying round because it’s so good at protecting freedom of movement, has done nothing to prevent.
In this section, they also include a passing footnote mentioning that “Non-EU migrants have been subject to a harsh visa scheme allowing only those with jobs earning more than £28,000 per year, which was increased by Theresa May to £35,000 from April 2016, to remain. Being married to a British citizen would not help”.
It’s unclear why they mention it in this context, since pointing out that EU membership helps enshrine a two-tier immigration system that viciously discriminates against non-EU migrants is hardly a great argument for defending the EU as a beacon of freedom and equality, but beyond that, part of what they say is simply untrue.
Certainly, people applying for work visas and hoping to achieve settlement that way have to meet these increasingly harsh income rules; but, while they say that “[b]eing married to a British citizen would not help”, the truth is that if you’re married to a British citizen, you can apply for leave to remain, and then for settlement, as their partner. This does mean having to prove that you can demonstrate a joint income of £18,600 per year if it’s just you, or £22,400 a year if you’re applying with a non-UK citizen child, but there’s still a big gap between £18,600 and £35,000. It’s fair enough to criticise these income requirements, or the demeaning snooping that the Home Office conducts in the name of proving that people’s relationships are “genuine and subsisting”, or the absurd Knowledge of Life in the UK test, but it’s misleading at best and outright dishonest at worst to say that being married to a British citizen doesn’t help, as if there was no difference between needing a job earning £35,000 and needing to show a joint income of £18,600 per year between a couple.
We’ve all seen, and tutted or rolled our eyes at, racist propaganda that distorts and misrepresents how the immigration system works, and wondered at the people who let themselves get taken in by such sloppy lies. We do ourselves no favours if we allow similarly inaccurate information to circulate unchallenged under the guise of anti-racism.
At the end of this section, Aufheben ask a series of rhetorical questions: “what has the radical left done during the previous decades of attacks on EU migrants? What did these people do while EU migrants were made penniless by the gruelling General Prospect Tests? What have they done when workers like L. were denied all their rights as soon as they fell ill?” Fair enough.
But, to answer a question with a question: “what has the EU done during the previous decades of attacks on EU migrants? What did the EU do while EU migrants were made penniless by the gruelling General Prospect Tests? What has it done when workers like L. were denied all their rights as soon as they fell ill? And do the answers to these questions at all complicate the arguments in defence of the EU?”
At the start of the next section, Aufheben remind us that “The referendum was, in reality, the product of an internal infight within the Conservative Party.” This is true, and important, and something that Aufheben seem completely unable to draw any lessons from, as they hector the rest of “the radical left” for our inexplicable reluctance to take sides in an internal infight within the Conservative Party.
In short order, they move on to berating the left for “our” perceived refusal to oppose Brexit. In a stab at some kind of attempt at fairness and accuracy, they do concede that “[p]art of the left and the Green Party, Trotskyist Socialist Appeal and the Left Unity party campaigned against Brexit”, which is technically true, but a massive understatement: they neglect to mention the stance taken by the TUC, Momentum, the AWL (public enemy number 1 according to Newsnight), popular news and comment website Novara, Paul Mason (probably the most prominent public intellectual associated with “the radical left” at the moment), and the existence of the Another Europe is Possible campaign, among others – including, for what it’s worth, pretty much every individual/non-aligned lefty I know. Just to restate, the TUC and Momentum. When reading Aufheben bemoaning how no-one on the left was willing to stand up to Brexit from a pro-working-class perspective, just remember that they actually mean “no-one on the left (except the TUC) (and Momentum, probably the largest left grouping going)”, which makes their complaints read a little bit differently.
They do attempt to assess the reasons why un-named “others” or “many leftists” might have been reluctant to support Remain, but somehow manage to skip over the most blindingly obvious one: the role played by the European Commission, executive body of the EU, in crushing any resistance to austerity in Greece and making it brutally clear that the role of the Greek government was to serve the interests of financial capital, not to do anything at all that might even slightly alleviate the misery being inflicted on real live Greek people. Hey, ‘member that? ‘Member when the IMF – not an organisation traditionally associated with bleeding-heart humanitarianism – had to repeatedly plead with the EU to relax the stringent debt repayment conditions imposed on Greece? I wonder if that experience might have had any kind of impact on people’s willingness to campaign in defence of the EU?
Having berated “many leftists” for refusing to endorse the EU, for mysterious reasons that definitely don’t have anything to do with learning the lessons of the recent past, Aufheben do stop again to make a slight concession to reality, acknowledging for the first time that “Momentum… officially campaigned for Remain”. But here the skilled dialecticians of Aufheben see sharper than us ordinary mortals: while the rest of us might allow the fact that the main organised movement of Corbyn supporters campaigned for Remain to trick us into thinking that Corbyn supporters tended to support Remain, Aufheben see beyond such mere surface appearances: using their amazing powers of Marxist telepathy, they can tell that the Momentumers out campaigning for Remain actually weren’t worried about Brexit, because they what they were actually really thinking was “Who needs the EU?”
Having shown that they won’t let a little thing like Corbyn supporters campaigning for Remain dissuade them from reproaching Corbyn supporters for not campaigning for Remain, Aufheben then turn their confused gaze to Corbyn himself. They tell us that “as soon as Brexit won, ‘Remainer’ Corbyn stated that: ‘It was communities, often in former industrial heartleands, that had tended to vote for Brexit…’”. I thought this was an interesting little fragment, so I checked the source they gave to see it in context, and immediately learned that it’s not something Corbyn stated at all, but a newspaper paraphrasing his words, and so to attribute them as a direct quote indicates either outright dishonesty or just being too lazy to read your sources.
If we check the footnote where Aufheben give the source that shows their quote is not actually a quote, we get another amazing truthbomb, one of the most jawdropping of the whole article: “As we explained several times in Aufheben, this romantic idea of ‘communities’ is just ideological. In fact most of those who voted to leave were just individual tabloid or Telegraph readers.”
Aufheben actually go one better than Thatcher here – she was at least prepared to allow individuals to have families, whereas Aufheben confidently state that Brexit voters don’t even have those, they’re just alone with the Telegraph. Of course, it’s possible to exploit the idea of “communities” in romanticised, manipulative and otherwise undesirable ways; but it’s possible to reject the sloppy thinking often associated with the idea of community without going to the opposite extreme, as Aufheben do here, confidently pronouncing from their bunker in Brighton that those posh, isolated Telegraph readers in Birmingham and Sunderland don’t have any shared systems of communication and sense-making, they don’t construct ways of understanding the world together with the people around them, they just get their worldview straight from the Telegraph.
The last word on this particular piece of crap should really go to Southwark Notes:
“Some people like to talk about how there is no such thing as ‘community’ but we tend to think those people don’t know because they either have never lived in one or they do but don’t know how to be in it.”
Anyway, all this dishonest misquoting and Thatcher-one-upping is meant to establish a point, and the point is that Corbyn is inconsistent and equivocal, because he campaigned for Remain before the vote, but after it happened he “was happy to say that Parliament should accept that Brexit would happen and ‘work with it’.” Fancy that, eh, saying that one thing should happen before a vote, and then accepting that the other thing was going to happen after the vote. But Corbyn’s not alone in this blatant hypocrisy: for a more recent example of this kind of cheek, just see Hillary Clinton, who spent months going around the place saying people should vote for her to be the next President, and then after she lost gave a concession speech admitting that she was not actually going to be the next President after all. By Aufheben’s logic, this would make her a flip-flopper who didn’t really want to win in the first place.
Having given us this confused and confusing tour through left positions on the referendum, Aufheben arrive at the anarchist scene, and conclude that anarchists can only cope with clear-cut moral issues, so the referendum was just too complex for our soft little heads. Certainly, there is a great amount of simplistic moralising around in the broad anarchist scene; there are also a number of class-struggle anarchists who, much like the more intransigent and uncompromising Marxists, try to keep alive the lessons that have been hard-won through struggle. One of the lessons that’s central to this approach is that the working class and the employing class have nothing in common, and so there’s nothing to be gained by throwing our lot in with one side or the other when our rulers quarrel over the drawing of national borders, let alone when that quarrel takes the form of, as Aufheben put it, “an internal infight within the Conservative Party”.
Once upon a time, I would have expected Aufheben to endorse this kind of perspective. Thankfully, their tour of the left stops with the anarchists, and so they decided not to spend a few more paragraphs wailing “why don’t left communists love the EU?”
Anyway, the grand conclusion that Aufheben want to arrive at is that “[a]s a result of these moral dilemmas the campaign for Remain was left to liberals and important reasons for opposing Brexit were not highlighted from a radical standpoint”. And it’s true, no-one made the argument that Brexit would be bad for workers, as long as you’re willing to ignore the stance taken by the mainstream of the trade union movement, or the largest left grouping in the country, or the very existence of the Another Europe is Possible campaign. If you look at what leftists actually did and said in the run-up to the referendum, then it becomes apparent that Aufheben’s squawking is roughly equivalent to someone after the last general election complaining that things could have been so different if only there had been some kind of a trade unionist and socialist coalition standing.
In reality, of course, the Remain campaign didn’t lose because of some shortage of handwringing, Chicken Little-esque warnings about the sky falling in, or because “important reasons for opposing Brexit were not highlighted”; Remain lost because the people doing the highlighting didn’t have enough social weight or credibility with enough people. In light of this rather obvious fact, we see just how pointless Aufheben’s objections to the Lexiteers and abstainers are: are we really supposed to think that, if Socialist Worker or Class War had run a few more editorials opposing Brexit, it would’ve made much difference to anything?
Next, Aufheben give a whirlwind tour through reification and commodity fetishism, to arrive at the conclusion that Brexit must be a bad thing because it “has emerged through state institutions. It used a referendum organised through the state, confirming the objectivity of the political sphere and of bourgeois democracy.” This is, of course, very true. But voting Remain would have been somehow different? Really?
For Aufheben, reification is apparently the key to why we don’t all love the EU, because “all the leftwing eyes and hopes focused on the reified structures of capitalist power… had no time for… consequences on migrants and workers” and radicals dismissed “any appeal for solidarity from the real individuals threatened by Brexit”. Because, of course, it’s only Brexit that harms real individuals. The EU has never harmed any real people. The mass deportations to camps in Turkey, the uncountable thousands who drown in the Mediterranean every year trying to dodge Frontex, the epidemic of suicides in Greece – all just glittering abstractions. If we think there might be some connection between the EU insisting on Greek debt repayment terms harsher than those favoured by the IMF and a 35% spike in the suicide rate, well, that’s clearly just commodity fetishism tricking us into thinking such naughty thoughts.
For their next trick, Aufheben promise to show how “the victory for Brexit would reinforce capitalism by dividing the working class”. Of course it has, only a fool would deny that. But the point is that a victory for Remain would also reinforce capitalism by dividing the working class, because the function of the referendum campaign as a whole was to reinforce capitalism by dividing the working class; this is the function that the state’s power games always serve, and you don’t heal this kind of divide by lining up on one side or the other.
I recently came across a quote by Rosa Luxemburg which seems to sum up these issues quite well:
“This war’s most important lesson for the policy of the proletariat is the unassailable fact that it cannot parrot the slogan Victory or Defeat, not in Germany or in France, not in England or in Russia. Only from the standpoint of imperialism does this slogan have any real content… From the standpoint of class for the European proletariat as a whole the victory and defeat of any of the warring camps is equally disastrous. It is war as such, no matter how it ends militarily, that signifies the greatest defeat for Europe’s proletariat.”
Admittedly, we’re not in a situation of open war yet, and we may not be for some time; but still, I think it’s worth repeating, it is the willingness of workers and “radicals” to identify their interests with one faction of capital or another, no matter which one ends up triumphing, that signifies the greatest defeat for us. Compared to Luxemburg’s clarity, reading Aufheben’s huffing and puffing on the Brexit issue makes me think of the socialists who reacted to the outbreak of WWI by explaining that German imperialism was a threat to workers across Europe, and so we all had a duty to line up behind the British, or Russian, or French, war effort.
After this, we come to one of the weakest sections of all, where Aufheben offer up the example of some people from Brighton and London who were able to drive a minibus to a protest in Germany with “no problems with traffic wardens”, which is supposed to prove that EU membership “has created the conditions to abolish our mental divisions”. It’s hard to know how to respond to such a stunningly feeble argument, one that seems to simultaneously rest on the deeply insulting idea that we’re only able to show solidarity with other people as long as our rulers are in a trading bloc with theirs, and on the wild fantasy that Brexit would mean a new Iron Curtain or a Trump-style wall being erected on the channel tunnel.
When delegates from across Europe gathered in London in 1864 to found the International Workingmen’s Association, did they all hold Schengen visas? When the Spanish antifascists called out for assistance in the fight against Franco, did volunteers from across the continent respond with “sorry, if only our governments were in a single market with common policies on fisheries and agriculture, we’d love to come to your aid, but as it is it’s just a bit too much of a faff?”
To say that our ability to develop concrete solidarity with other workers depends on the trading pacts made by our rulers would be a daft and insulting claim at pretty much any point in history; at a time when the internet is facilitating what’s probably the greatest cross-border exchange of information and communication ever seen, it’s just absurd.
It’s also worth taking a moment to consider what this kind of joke argument would sound like in the context of debates about the UK. Certainly, the freedom of movement between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has facilitated all kinds of exchanges and solidarity between workers and radicals in these countries, but it’s hard to imagine anyone seriously claiming that this means communists have a duty to rally to the defence of the Union in a debate about Scottish or Irish independence.
Next we get an overview of how capital exploits the insecurity and illegality of migrants, with a look at divisions between legal and illegal migrant workers, with a passing note that “not just ‘illegal’ workers, also non-EU migrants who are granted a visa through their employers will be at their mercy, as they can have their work permit withdrawn at the employer’s whim”. Sadly, we don’t then get a more detailed consideration of the status of non-EU migrants, how they might feel about this situation, and whether this kind of legalised discrimination and inequality might complicate a straightforward defence of the EU at all.
We also get an assertion that “Polish, Italian, and German citizens are not uncommon in protests such as anti-fascist demos or direct actions in the UK”. I understand that this is the sort of thing that it’s hard to get reliable statistics on, since it’s not the kind of thing that lends itself to surveys, but I was still taken aback by this claim, as it’s not really something that chimes with my personal experience – again, allowing the caveat that I’m not really in the habit of going on black blocs and then quizzing the people around me on their nationalities.
Thinking about it, one possible explanation for this discrepancy suggests itself – when Aufheben write “Polish, Italian, and German citizens are not uncommon in protests such as anti-fascist demos or direct actions in the UK”, do they actually mean “anti-fascist demos or direct actions in London and Brighton”? If that is the case, then I had really hoped that, if nothing else, Brexit might have taught London/Brighton-based radicals that there is life north of the M25, and that experiences there can’t necessarily assumed to be reflected nationwide, but I suspect I may have been overly optimistic on that point.
We then get a reminder of how “in January 2014, an EU court decided that prison terms can seriously disrupt EU rights of residence” – that is to say, yet another reminder of the fact that, rather than being stalwart defenders of “freedom of movement”, EU courts and laws are equally likely to be the forms through which EU migrants’ rights are attacked.
Next there’s a warning that “Home Secretary Amber Rudd has just announced at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham that even before Brexit the new government will push to deport EU citizens found guilty of repeated minor offences”. Just to spell out what this means: if anything comes of it, then it will be yet more proof that attacks on the rights of EU citizens are perfectly compatible with continuing membership of the EU.
Approaching a conclusion, we’re told that “Crucially, the question ‘what does Brexit mean for the working class?’ was not spelt out during the campaign” – which is true enough, as long as you ignore the TUC’s repeated highlighting of the potential impact of Brexit on workers’ rights, which is something Aufheben seem determined to do.
They continue that “something is now taking shape, with May blatantly pushing for very rightwing changes, for example the re-introduction of grammar schools”.
During the referendum campaign, I was repeatedly annoyed by misleading pieces of propaganda that tied Brexit to policies that clearly had nothing to do with the EU, and so it’s good to see Aufheben determined not to let this fine tradition die out. Would a win for Remain really have blocked the prospect of grammar schools being re-introduced? Really?
To put it another way: when I got up to go to work the morning after Trump won, it was pissing it down, and it was tempting to read these two things as being somehow connected. But of course that would be daft, the reason it was raining heavily was nothing to do with the election and everything to do with the fact I live on a small island where it rains all the time. Similarly, the fact of May pushing for very rightwing changes after the EU referendum took place might seem to be a case of cause and effect, until we take a moment and remember that we’ve had six years of tory Prime Ministers continually pushing for very rightwing changes – or can the lifting of the cap on tuition fees, the introduction of the bedroom tax, Universal Credit, workfare and the squatting ban be blamed on Brexit too?
At the end of this confused overview of the situation, Aufheben unsurprisingly end up at an equally wrong-headed conclusion: “Brexit means UKIP”. This would be accurate enough in a parallel universe where the referendum fallout had ended with Farage as PM and Mike Hookem as Minister for Brexit, wandering through Brussels invoking Article 50 and decking anyone who stands in his way; but in this world, looking at who ended up on top, it seems clear that Brexit means Theresa May and Boris Johnson, which is to say: Brexit means tories. And there’s the problem, because Remain would also have meant tories, and there’s no way that picking one side or another in the Conservative Party’s internal feud would ever have meant anything other than tories.
They warn that the terrible consequences of this tory regime, which is of course entirely different to the tory regime we faced on 22 June, are being met with “the silence and acquiescence of many British workers who think that Brexit is a fantastic pro-working-class achievement, and …the silence and acquiescence of a politically obtuse radical left.”
I don’t want to just copy and paste the paragraph above about the left forces backing Remain, so I’ll just say again: The TUC! Momentum! Paul Mason! Added to which, even those left forces who had a more nuanced position on the referendum and didn’t straightforwardly campaign for Remain, such as Plan C, London Antifascists or RS21 (aka the version of the SWP that other people are actually willing to talk to), have taken up positions against nationalism and in defence of migrants – although to judge from Aufheben’s sneering at “an ideology that conflates the Freedom of Movement… with the general issues of border controls and ‘anti-racism’”, they might feel that slogans like “defend migrants’ rights” or “solidarity with all migrants” are insufficiently sophisticated, and something like “defend EU migrants and EU migrants only” would be better suited to proper grown-up Marxists who understand reification and stuff.
At the end of all this, Aufheben choose to sign off with a massive, and somewhat dishonest, “fuck you” to everyone who’s not fully convinced of their wisdom. They ask the question we’re all dying to know – how did these clever people get to be quite so insightful? And then proceed to let us in on their secret: you see, unlike the rest of us retired colonels who sit in our armchairs harrumphing over our copies of the Telegraph, Aufheben actually, like, get out of the house and do stuff, yeah?
It’s worth quoting this bit in full, to grasp just how snide and mendacious they’re being here: “we have been involved in campaigns and direct action, supporting migrants and casual workers in their benefits and workplace disputes. Unlike some left wing or ‘political’ people who can only see the world from a secure job and a secure home, those who have a direct experience of class struggle for their survival are more likely to perceive the direct relations of bullying and exploitation behind the forms of bourgeois power” – so they go from point A) “we have been involved in… supporting migrants and casual workers in their benefits and workplace disputes” – that is to say, supporting Others; if they meant “we are migrants and casual workers who are involved in our own benefits and workplace disputes”, presumably that’s what they would say – to point B) “Unlike some left wing or ‘political’ people who can only see the world from a secure job and a secure home”, Aufheben are aligned with “those who have a direct experience of class struggle for their survival”.
This bit of prolier-than-thou point-scoring falls down because the credentials set out at point A, noble as they are, don’t necessarily support the point set out in point B – supporting other people in their disputes is all well and good, it should be encouraged, but it’s not the same thing as being engaged in “direct experience of class struggle for [one’s own] survival”, it’s perfectly possible to support other people in their benefits and workplace disputes, and to be one of them bad poshoes with a secure job and a secure home.
Of course, even if this point didn’t fall down on its own terms, the whole “class struggle = enlightenment = loving the EU” equation is also just very obviously utter nonsense – are we to hope that one day, those bloody posh wankers in Ebbw Vale and Grimsby will stop being so smugly prosperous, because if some kind of real difficulty ever came to Blaenau Gwent or North-East Lincolnshire then maybe they’d have a chance to become as perceptive as the battle-hardened proletariat of Brighton?
Next, they state that “Brexit… is simply, and obviously, the ruling class’s concrete attempt to undermine our solidarity in the workplace and in the streets”. This is, broadly speaking, quite true; but the important bit that they miss is that the referendum farce as a whole is a concrete attempt to undermine our solidarity, and this is just as true of the more fundamentalist free market side as of the nationalist-protectionist side.
I don’t think this is a particularly obscure or difficult point: for another example, just look at the recent US elections, where Trump’s victory certainly represents an offensive for the right and a defeat for the rest of us, but a Clinton victory would also have meant a ruling-class offensive and a defeat of some kind, because the real defeat happens whenever we accept our choices being narrowed down to something as pathetically uninspiring as “Trump or Clinton”.
The attempt to undermine our solidarity succeeds whenever we obediently line up into camps, like “Remain” or “Leave”, that are totally defined by the interests of competing factions of capital; to beat the divide-and-rule trap means reaffirming our solidarity with all those who share our material interests, whatever their views on the EU are.
They conclude by calling for “a movement to defetishise the ‘democratic’ results of the referendum and sabotage the Brexiteers’ plans”. I just hope they have the courage to see this perspective through to its logical conclusion: it would appear that, at the moment, the actual activity of the real proper grown-up class struggle Marxist movement to dissolve all illusions and defetishise everything mainly consists of saying how judges must always be respected and singing the praises of parliamentary sovereignty, and so presumably Aufheben, like their comrade Paul Mason, will be hoping to lock arms with bond traders to defend our sacred institutions against the unruly mob.
At a time when the Trumps and Farages of this world seem to be strolling to victory after victory by invoking anti-establishment rhetoric, some might be tempted to suggest that it’d be a good idea to work on presenting a genuinely anti-establishment alternative, one that’d show them up as the posturing, elitist frauds they are, and could take on both the nationalist right and the neoliberal centre at once; but the wise sages of Aufheben know that this is just false consciousness playing its tricks. The role of real radicals is to tie our fates as closely as possible to the most unpopular, discredited institutions of the centrist establishment that we can find: then we can all join hands with Owen Smith and Hillary Clinton for a rousing chorus of “Nearer My God to Thee” as the waves close over our heads.