Brexit vote leaves progressives suspended between nativists and neoliberals

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.

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