Neoliberalism, Brexit (and Bernie)

John Quiggin (previously) delivers some of the most salient commentary on the Brexit vote and how it fits in with Syriza, Podemos, Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders (etc) as well as Trump, French neo-fascists, and other hypernationalist movements.

The core of this analysis is that while neoliberalism(s) (Quiggin argues that US and non-US neoliberalism are different things) has failed the majority of the world, and while things were falling apart after the financial crisis, the left failed to offer real alternatives. The "tribalist" movements -- Trump, Leave, Golden Dawn, etc -- are anti-neoliberal, but in the absence of any analysis, have lashed out at immigrants (rather than bankers and financial elites) as the responsible parties for their suffering.

The US political system gives us a choice between neoliberals who hate brown people, women, and gay people; and neoliberals who don't. Trump offers an anti-neoliberal choice (and so did the Leave campaign). Bernie also offered an anti-neoliberal platform (one that didn't hate brown people, women, and lgtbq people), but didn't carry the day -- meaning that the upcoming US election is going to be a choice between neoliberalism (but tolerance) and anti-neoliberalism (and bigotry). This is a dangerous situation, as the UK has discovered.

The vote for Britain as a whole was quite close. But a closer look reveals an even bigger win for tribalism than the aggregate results suggest. The version of tribalism offered in the Leave campaign was specifically English. Unsurprisingly, it did not appeal to Scottish or Irish voters who rejected it out of hand. Looking at England alone, however, Leave won comfortably with 53 per cent of the vote and was supported almost everywhere outside London, a city more dependent than any other in the world on the global financial system.

Given the framing of the campaign, the choice for the left was, even more than usually, to pick the lesser of very different evils. Voting for Remain involved acquiescence in austerity and an overgrown and bloated financial system, both in the UK and Europe. The Leave campaign relied more and more on coded, and then overt, appeals to racism and bigotry, symbolised by the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, stabbed to death by a neo-Nazi with ties to extreme tribalist organizations in both the UK and US. The result was a tepid endorsement of Remain, which secured the support of around 70 per cent of Labour voters, but did little to shift the sentiment of the broader public.

The big problem for the tribalists is that, although their program has now been endorsed by the voters, it does not offer a solution to the economic decline against which most of their supporters were protesting. Indeed, while the catastrophic scenarios pushed by the Remain campaign are probably overblown, the process of renegotiating economic relationships with the rest of the world will almost certainly involve a substantial period of economic stagnation.

The terms offered by the EU for the maintenance of anything like existing market access will almost certainly include maintenance of the status quo on immigration. In the absence of a humiliating capitulation by the new pro-Brexit government, that will mean that Britain (or England) will face a long and painful process of adjustment.

Reaping the Whirlwind
[John Quiggin/Crooked Timber]


(Image: Pete Smith)