The alternative to Brexit: A workers republic and a United Socialist States of Europe
Much of the discussion about Brexit tends to ignore the context; the crisis in British society, in European society, in the US and more widely for global capitalism and working class retreat in the face of many offensives.
The crisis has a timeline; the banking collapse, the imposition of austerity, the collapse of social democracy and then of left reformism (as demonstrated by the failure of the Syriza government) and the failure of austerity to restore stability (as is shown by the economic collapse in Greece and the failure of the Irish recovery as wages stay down, public services collapse and a new housing bubble led by vampire capitalism leaves thousands on the streets). The new phase we see is the rise of right-wing populism and the scapegoating of refugees. From the point of view of the working class, the battle between the European Union and the populist movements is largely sham. As the Dutch election shows, capitalism defeats its populist enemies by adopting many of their policies. The rise of racism and xenophobia serve to disguise yet more austerity and further attacks on the working class. The populist solution cannot work, as refugees are not in any sense to blame for the collapse of European society and economy. What populism will do is clear the way for the suspension of democratic rights and the imposition of strong states relying on the police and army to suppress opposition.
In the British example we hear on all sides that Brexit means Brexit. There is no examination of its history. Yet the British capitalist class has always been divided on the issue of Europe and the link has been the focus of frequent crises, usually involving the relationship between the pound and the euro. In the internal battle the choice has not been between Europe and a return to Empire, but between Europe and a consolidation of a much reduced British imperialism under the aegis of American imperialism. There has also been a contradiction between what is left of Britain’s manufacturing base and finance capital centred on the city of London, an additional dimension of which has been the clash between the small-scale Rentier capitalists mobilised by Thatcher and the big finance capitalist that she actually represented.
These were the contradictory forces that led to the rise of UKIP and the decision by the Tory party to hold a referendum. What tipped the scales was the collapse of labourism and the movement of some of the most deprived elements of the working class to UKIP. In Britain we see most clearly that there is no contradiction between the populist right and the ruling class, as the Tories swallow up UKIP and their policies to ensure the stability of the British state. The response of the Labour Party shows that the election of Corbyn has not led to a revival of the social democratic cause. A debate between right-wing populism and support for European reaction will lead nowhere, as shown in the Dutch elections, where the right-wing was contained through the major capitalist parties moving to adopt some of their policies
A broken back
It is Ireland that will suffer a broken back in the battle between Britain and Europe. For the 26 county state, already in crisis as recovery runs alongside poverty and the decay of services, it spells economic collapse with 40% of native industry subject to a British tariff. The north of the country, already the poorest area when listed as a UK region, still has to face the full effects of the grinding austerity contained in the Fresh Start agreement. When the effects of Brexit are taken into account the only realistic outcome is as a poverty stricken province, riven by sectarianism.
It cannot be said that there are any plans to mitigate the crisis. The Irish government is extending its role as a tax haven in the hope of securing hot money from property speculators and bankers. It is scurrying around the globe searching for new markets while attempting to cosy up to the British and Europeans simultaneously and desperately kowtowing to president Trump in the belief that an America First policy can in some way be customised to include Ireland. In the North expressions of dismay on one hand are mirrored by mindless expressions of loyalty to the Crown from unionism.
The failure of capitalist policy is reflected in the poverty of the trade union and socialist response. In the 26 counties this amounts to lobbying the government for reform within a fiscal space left over after payment to the European Central bank, a space that is totally inadequate to meet even the most basic needs of the workers. In the North the unions, with at most token opposition from their supporters in the socialist groups, have gone even further and signed off acceptance of the new austerity package on the grounds that the workers must sacrifice themselves to save the local Stormont assembly. The crazed notion is that this assembly can be reformed in the future to meet the needs of workers. This view is held despite the assembly’s history of sectarianism, corruption and collapse and the content of the legal framework set up to preserve sectarian-ism.
A United Ireland?
In desperation a number of leading politicians have called for a united Ireland. No one takes them seriously. The most credible call comes from Sinn Fein, but as they are immersed in negotiations to resuscitate the partitionist Stormont assembly, their sincerity is somewhat in doubt.
For capitalists who raise up the slogan for a united Ireland the immediate question is “which united Ireland? If a united Ireland jumped inside the Eurozone with its current economy then it would have to take over a £10 billion subvention to support the northern economy. Some have suggested that it jump the other way. The most extreme version would simply see Ireland back inside the United Kingdom. A less extreme version would quietly set the British border with the EU at Dublin port and the various airports. This is not beyond the bounds of possibility as Ireland is quite comfortable with ceding control of Shannon airport to the US war machine and handing over territory at its airports to the sovereignty of U.S. Customs. The problem with this version of unionism by stealth is that Ireland would be stuck with Britain outside the European market and as a consequence would lose the transnational investment that is the dominant aspect of its economy.
The Irish difficulty is just a specific example of the more general dilemma across Europe. Any appeal to nationalism will fail because it will lead to restrictions on markets and economic decline. Any submission to Europe will involve being tied into a mechanism of oppression operating in the interests of big capital and the Banks.
Yet the demand for a united socialist Ireland has a central part in any working class fightback. Ireland continues to be a country oppressed by imperialism and that makes the call for unity a revolutionary demand. It cuts across current attempts by the British to revive the sectarian and partitionist Stormont assembly and the savage austerity budget it is pledged to deliver. It challenges the legitimacy of the Dail, run by a minority alliance, mired in corruption and with the central role of extracting value from Irish workers at the behest of the troika.
An alliance of workers and Democrats in the call for an all Ireland constituent assembly does not by itself present a solution to capitalist rule, but it would immediately present itself as opposition to imperialist interests and create a better terrain on which workers can organise.
On that terrain socialists would call for a Workers Republic. The linchpin of that republic would be expropriation. Where the workers needs are contradicted by capitalist property relations then it is the capitalist property relations that lose out. If workers need houses the NAMA property is made available for them. The same principle would apply to public services on the protection of jobs and conditions of service.
This process is not a process of Irish exit. It is a process of confrontation with capitalism and imperialism where the Republic would immediately repudiate the debts held by the European bank and by the speculators and the property rights of vampire capital in Ireland. This would be a vicious struggle against imperialism and victory would depend on the Irish working class acting as the spearhead of struggle along with the workers and oppressed across Europe under the slogan for a United Socialist States of Europe.
Such a scenario will be dismissed by many as grandiose and impossible to bring forward. Not so long ago the same people would have told us that a successful Syriza government in Greece would reform European capitalism and lead to left governments springing up across Europe.
The task of socialists is to present an alternative to capitalism itself. If they do not do so then the opposition acts without a goal. Even worse, those who limit themselves to reformist demands act in an elitist way towards the workers, strengthen illusions in parliamentarism and act as a brake on radical action when the possibility arises.
The decay of capitalism, the convulsions of Brexit, will not resolve themselves in any short-term way but they represent a ferocious and concerted attack on the working class. By presenting a revolutionary socialist alternative and a programme of opposition to imperialism we ourselves can prepare for the work of resistance to that attack and hold out the promise of a socialist future.