At a glance, Brexit seems like an irrational vote made by uneducated people fed up by open borders. At least, this is how it has been repeatedly portrayed in the media. Racism, it would seem, has been the consistent guiding principle of the exit vote. How could anyone suggest otherwise? This interpretation is inaccurate, as it blatantly ignores the damages caused by the ongoing project of Neoliberalism, achieved within the institutional confines of the European Union. This has disproportionately affected the working poor and welfare-dependent, who overwhelming voted to exit.
The story goes that free trade is supposed to deliver greater wealth to the nations that practice its guiding principles. This is how it has appeared to middle-class voters, who were quick to identify the cheap terms of trade achieved under the European Union, and the freedom of movement available to those who could afford it. While it certainly has achieved growth and prosperity, these gains have not been evenly spread across British society. Brexit is not simply a rejection of globalisation. In a class society, globalisation cannot simply be a neutral project.
Globalisation has led to widely divergent outcomes across income and wealth demographics. Specifically, it has disproportionately affected the livelihood of those who depend on lower-skilled jobs and their wages to make ends meet. For the working poor, it has meant the slashing of the social security net in favour of ‘survival of the fittest’ market fundamentalism. As an ideological project, people have become skeptical that the terms of free market capitalism are truly in their interest. And they are right to be suspicious.
It should not be understated that Brexit represents a profound betrayal of these concerns at the hands of the British conservative movement. The Nigel Farages and Boris Johnsons of the world are not the working poor. They are capitalists; at best, trying to advance the interests of capital in Britain, and at worst, merely trying to win what they view as a debating match amongst elites. In this context, the ideological power of nationalism has supplemented the viable alternative of workers solidarity as an organising principle. As an outcome, this is a great tragedy.
Brexit should not merely be understood as a xenophobic protest vote. It is also the outcome of Neoliberalism, and the decimation of fair society in Britain. It is also a protest against the harsh austerity that has been a hallmark of British society since Thatcher’s assaults on the miner’s strikes in 1984-5. While the conservative party remains in a position of disunity, we can only hope that Labour is able to adopt a progressive policy program, which can support the great deficit in the post-Blairite left. They offer the gateway to progressivism necessary to turn a tragedy into a re-engagement with popular democracy. That is, if they decide to keep Corbyn.