Notes on Brexit & Racism
19 min read

Notes on Brexit & Racism

Notes on Brexit & Racism

It is precisely the parasitism and decay of capitalism, characteristic of its highest historical stage of development, i.e., imperialism. As this pamphlet shows, capitalism has now singled out a handful (less than one-tenth of the inhabitants of the globe; less than one-fifth at a most “generous” and liberal calculation) of exceptionally rich and powerful states which plunder the whole world simply by “clipping coupons”. Capital exports yield an income of eight to ten thousand million francs per annum, at pre-war prices and according to pre-war bourgeois statistics. Now, of course, they yield much more.
Obviously, out of such enormous superprofits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their “own” country) it is possible to bribe the labour leaders and the upper stratum of the labour aristocracy. And that is just what the capitalists of the “advanced” countries are doing: they are bribing them in a thousand different ways, direct and indirect, overt and covert.
This stratum of workers-turned-bourgeois, or the labour aristocracy, who are quite philistine in their mode of life, in the size of their earnings and in their entire outlook, is the principal prop of the Second International, and in our days, the principal social(not military) prop of the bourgeoisie. For they are the real agents of the bourgeoisie in the working-class movement, the labour lieutenants of the capitalist class, real vehicles of reformism and chauvinism. In the civil war between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie they inevitably, and in no small numbers. take the side of the bourgeoisie, the “Versaillese” against the “Communards”.
Unless the economic roots of this phenomenon are understood and its political and social significance is appreciated, not a step can be taken toward the solution of the practical problem of the communist movement and of the impending social revolution.

- V.I. Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism

Interpreting Brexit has proved problematic for many, particularly on the Left, due in part to the seemingly contradictory impulses it engenders. On the one hand the Leave campaign appeared to benefit from a great deal working class support, it utilised a new found working class assertiveness and it expressed a rebellion against major financial interests and what could by and large be termed as "the establishment", such that it fundamentally appeared as a vote to take back power from distant institutions ruled by powerful elites. Yet on the other hand this all occurred on the basis of the scapegoating and marginalization of immigrant groups and migrant workers, which empowered far right groups and the forces of English nationalism whereby the demand of many for Britain to “take back power” was read in narrow ethno-nationalist terms. What is therefore problematised is the relationship between nationalism and Left politics today.

By and large such contradictory impulses have been read in terms of the emerging working class racism prevalent in particular areas of England. Within middle class circles such voters are again and again represented as stupid, bigoted, closed minded racists, as little Englanders scared of the outside world, of course opposed to the urbane, cosmopolitan voters of metropolitan areas who value tolerance, openness and multiculturalism.

Some of this is true, some collapses into patronising stereotype (of the kind repeated again and again the world over against the urban and rural poor). But what it ignores is the complexity of the categories of racism, prejudice and xenophobia and what it fails to confront is pressing questions such as why the remnants of the industrial working class in England appears as enamoured with right wing anti-immigrant rhetoric when in Scotland such groups appear more at ease with multiculturalism, and why then Scottish nationalism appears to be expressed in civic and multi-racial terms, whilst English nationalism tends to express itself as violent and xenophobic. What such a conceptualisation also fails to confront is why today there is a resurgent link between working class politics and racism when we know that the English working class has a long history of anti-racist and multicultural struggle.

What is needed then is a more complex history of British (and English) nationalism, one which is capable of explaining the historical dynamics which led to Brexit, and this will necessarily imply relating British nationalism to the figures of race and class. In this sense it will be necessary to read the development of British nationalism alongside the history of the British labour movement and in particular to the relationship between the development of a British working class and the British Empire.

For what is important to understand is the fact that neither the development of British nationalism nor British capitalism emerged within a model of "pure" capitalism nor "pure" nationalism. Rather they emerged both alongside and in tension with relations of imperialism. British development was throughout its history continuously involved in the domination and exploitation of other lands and peoples which fell outside of the sphere of capitalism proper. Thus within the bounds of the class struggle both British capitalism and the British working class were able to make use of this dynamic. British capitalism was able to "buy off" elements of the British working class, and to append imperial pride onto national pride, whilst the working class was able to make demands on the basis of the wealth accrued through empire, and to access the various benefits empire could offer.

In this sense in the history of both British capitalism and British nationalism, imperialism continuously acted as the third term which always mediated the relationship between capital and labour and this dynamic has continually shaped the nature of working class politics and activism. What was traditionally produced on the basis of such a mediation was the constant opposition between the development of an class-conscious working class and a hegemonic bourgoisie which sought to nullify the politics of class on the basis of a politics of nation, empire and race.

This was a tendency which for a long time haunted the political fortune of the British working class. As Engels already noted in the 1880s “Participation in the domination of the world market was and is the basis of the political nullity of the English workers” whilst he would go on to analyse the very production of this "political nullity" in the following terms:

"You ask me what the English workers think about colonial policy. Well, exactly the same as they think about politics in general: the same as what the bourgeois think. There is no workers' party here, there are only Conservatives and Liberal-Radicals, and the workers gaily share the feast of England's monopoly of the world market and the colonies."

Similarly he would elsewhere express despair at the state of the English working class:

"One is indeed driven to despair by these English workers with their sense of imaginary national superiority, with their essentially bourgeois ideas and viewpoints, with their “practical” narrow-mindedness, with the parliamentary corruption which has seriously infected the leaders."

After Engels it was Lenin who later argued that it was on the basis of Empire that the British state was able to bribe a large segment of the English working class, producing a labour aristocracy and thus subordinating the working class to bourgeois interests, reformism and national chauvinism. The British working classes sense of superiority and privilege was thus the problematic site at which this mediation between class, nation and empire took place, and was the problematic site which has confused British working class politics in the UK ever since. For if some interpreted this sense of superiority as an expression of an assertive working class spirit, for others this sense of superiority couldn't be subtracted from nationalism and racist categories. With Brexit today this problem is repeated again, as a sense of superiority and importance appears as simultaneously an expression of popular democratic will and more negatively as an expression of xenophobia and isolationism.

This dynamic between categories of class, nation, empire and "national superiority" was however present at the very birth of British industrial capitalism where it was principally expressed in the relationship between the development of industrial capitalism and a supply of cheap Irish labour such that English industrial capitalism from early on produced a labour market differentiated on the basis of nationality and Empire. Irish Labourers were typically Celtic and Catholic, English labourers, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Within production English labourers were valued in the emerging factories for their supposed sober and rational mind, and their disciplined and steady-application of skilled labour, Irish labour was on the other hand valued for its undisciplined and pre-industrial nature, for its ability to exert large amounts of energy in heavy manual occupations which often followed pre-industrial rhythms of labour, with large contrasts between intensive labour and “boisterous relaxation”. Such a relationship was suggestive of two things. On the one hand that within the capitalist production process itself was reproduced a pre-industrial sphere of labour which, as with processes of primitive accumulation, ensured the functioning of capital itself, such that Thompson would argue that the early industrial employers “had the best of a labour supply from the pre-industrial and industrialised worlds”. Whilst on the other hand it liberated English labour from the sphere of pre-industrial labour which introduced a split into the category of labour which became coded in nationalist and racialised terms. There emerged then a sphere of primitive and unskilled labour which appeared as beneath the competent labourer who pursued more prestigious and worthwhile forms of labour and was opposed to involvement in other degrading forms of labour.

The refusal of certain types of labour is of course a common factor in the development of Industrial capitalism all around the world. In Colonial Malaya for example Syed Hussein Alatas argued that the exclusion of the Malays from the colonial economy and in particular plantation work and mining, was in part a conscious refusal to undertake labour which, on the basis of its low pay and its harsh and dangerous conditions was viewed as beneath them on the basis of their ability to make a living through small holder production, and thus was left to immigrant labour from China or India. Yet what differentiates the example of British labour from others is the relationship between its refusal of labour and its role in imperial domination. .

Thus within such a racialised distinction between English and Irish labour you can on the one hand not fail to miss the Orientalisation of the figure of the Irish labourer who appears dominated by his passions and childlike in nature (which continues today in the representations of immigrant labour in the UK), whilst on the other hand the beginning of a feeling of national superiority, which could turn the privilege of British labour into a sense of entitlement and as something belonging to its very nature.

Such a dynamic continues to shape the British economy today which in a more nuanced way continues to be segregated along national and racialised lines. Thus manual labour and basic service labour continue to be undertaken by immigrant workers, whilst outsourcing sees workers in many former colonies, in particular India, undertaking simple and repetitive administrative tasks and processing work. British workers in a new post-Fordist economy are no longer valued for their skill and dexterity in manual tasks, but remain valued for their "sobriety of mind", in the era of communicative capitalism they are valued for their communication skills, their education, their decision making and problem solving skills and of course their critical thinking and creativity. British labour continues then today to occupy a privileged position within the heirarchy of labour both within the domestic and the global economy with many jobs today entailing the supervision and administration of migrant or outsourced labour. Here migrant and outsourced labour is often valued for its productivity, its ability for hard work and its largely docile and disciplined attitude to work, whilst British labour is trusted with decision making over such labour which continues to reproduce within British capitalism such a distinction between pre-industrial and communicative labour supplies. In this sense the privilege of British labour, its role as a labour aristocracy, continues today on the basis of a racialised and nationalist division of labour, alongside the Orientalization of immigrant and offshore workers.

Empire undoubtedly then in the history of the working class has provided British labour with a privilege denied to other forms of labour. And yet if Empire enabled the construction of a "labour aristocracy" and the assertion of a feeling of "national superiority", such categories have never been static. For if Empire has historically been a key factor in the imposition over the politics of class of a national frame which divided labour, both within the UK and globally another tendency has been present within the labour movement which has continuously challenged this attempt to produce a unified and pure nation and to co-opt the working class into a nationalist and imperial order.

One major chapter in such a struggle was the Chartist movement of the 1830s and 1840s. As Thompson argues, Irish immigrants who had behind them a long tradition of anti-Imperial struggle against British rule and of political organization, brought this history with them as they migrated across the Irish Sea and thus contributed to the emergence of a working class radicalism in industrial Britain, with many Irish figures playing leading roles in the development of Chartism. As Engels would argue at the time:

The Irish and English are to each other much as the French and the Germans; and the mixing of the more facile, excitable, fiery Irish temperament with the stable, reasoning, persevering English must, in the long run, be productive only of good for both. The rough egotism of the English bourgeoisie would have kept its hold upon the working-class much more firmly if the Irish nature, generous to a fault, and ruled primarily by sentiment, had not intervened, and softened the cold, rational English character in part by a mixture of the races, and in part by the ordinary contact of life.

You can't here miss Engels' Orientalized language, but the fundamental idea that it was the joining of alternative radical traditionals which advanced the cause of working class struggle appears fundamentally correct. For Engels. on its own the English working class would come under the power of its native Bourgoisie, it was only on the basis of the foreign nature of Irish labour that English radicalism could survive. And yet if this was the case then the favour was returned for if Chartism fought for the democratic power of British working people it equally fought for the independence of Ireland from British colonialism. Here a powerful working class movement emerged both on the basis of its relationship with migrant labour and through challenging the very fact of imperialism, both at home and abroad.

Yet as Satnam Virdee argues in “Racism, Class and the “Racialised Other” what emerged after Chartism is a tendency which has been a persistent element in British working class politics , the attempt by the ruling elite to divide and segment the working class along ethnic lines on the basis of a practice of divide and rule which it came to perfect in the practice of colonial rule. Thus in the period after Chartism and moving into the long depression there was witnessed the growth in anti-Irish racism and the development of doctrines of scientific racism whilst the development of mass education privileged the inculcation of the doctrine of nationalism and of imperial pride over others forms of belonging. As Virdee then shows there emerges a constant tensions between the developed of cross cultural working class relations between local and migrant labour and the division of the working class along ethnic and national lines. Thus with the introduction of a large Jewish population fleeing Tsarism into the British working class there was witnessed the rise of anti-Semitisim within the labour movement which came to infiltrate the emerging ILP, which itself with the onset of the war turned towards national chauvinism and the politics of patriotism, largely in defense of empire. Yet countering this tendency there was also a continued attempt to challenge such chauvinism along the lines of internationalism and multicultural solidarity, as witnessed in the radical politics of Red Clydeside, of the Community Party of Great Britain and the anti-fascism of Cable Street. And yet over the period the overall experience of migrant and excluded labour continued to be one of marginalization and domination.

The upheavals of 1968 however marked a definitive shift in the politics of the labour movement, challenging its subordination to the figure of the nation and reemphasising the politics of class, as there emerged a period of growing labour militancy with labour coming into definitive conflict with the British state. In the end this was a struggle they lost as all across the Western hemisphere as the neoliberal politics of Thatcherism and Reaganism crushed and co-opted radical labour movements. But in events like the Grunwick dispute (when Asian women workers went on strike over trade union recognition), the found of Rock Against Racism, the Anti-Nazi League and the emergence of militant Labour councils, the struggles of minority workers were placed at the centre of the labour movement and these workers themselves came to challenge their very segmentation along gendered and racialised lines. Thus as with Chartism, a radical British workers movement went hand in hand with a movement which challenged the legacies of colonial rule and fundamentally challenged the power of the British state.

What emerges then from this history is a simple truth, that the British working class has been at its strongest and most dangerous not when it has made alliance with nationalist and racist forces, as many Labour MPs would now like to have you believe, but precisely when it has formed alliances across boundaries of race and gender and when it has challenged the very figure of the nation itself. Central then to Virdee's argument is the very idea that race isn't secondary to the category of class but is tied up in the being of class. That race isn't a segmentation imposed upon existing class divisions, but that class, race and the capitalist nation-state develop interact with one another immanently. Thus when the capitalist-nation state has been able to subordinate the category of class and emphasise racial divisions it has been able to overcome the politics of the class struggle. On the other hand when the working class has been able to integrate racial and national differences into its practice, it has been able to challenge the capitalist-nation state. Such a process marks therefore two tendencies which have been in constant conflict throughout the development of British nationalism.

Yet British nationalism isn't a static category, "Britain", itself being the legacy of processes of imperialism and national division, has been an empty signifier for much of its history and has been defined by the internal dynamics of its constituent parts. When Britain has been able to define itself in nationalist terms it has often been in periods of successful English domination over the other nations.. Yet if Britain has also been able to express a progressive form of nationalism and to challenge its colonial legacy it has only been in so far as it has been opposed to the figure of English nationalism, both through solidarity with migrant groups, and through the developing national consciousness of Wales and Scotland. Within this schema it is then England which has come to be fully identified with ethnonationalism and a colonial legacy, for if Britain dominated much of the globe it was England which often dominated the other home nations, both directly and indirectly, on the basis of uneven capitalist development. The development of Scottish nationalism since the 1970s has in this sense developed in opposition to English domination and privilege through a multicultural and inclusive form of civic nationalism. Since the 1970s then the break-up of Britain has seen the rise of an English nationalism totally dominated by a nationalist and imperialist frame.

Where then does Brexit lie in this? Brexit has to be understood as emerging out of the defeat of the Labour movement under Thatcherism, the reimposition of the figure of the nation and the resurgence of English Conservatism. From the 1980s the category of class came into decline (as talk of a "classless society" emerged) and the icons of British nationalism emerged once again as dominant, in particular a white washed imperial history, the monarchy and its traditions and a growing xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. This occurred not only on the right but also on the left, with the New Labour project premised upon combining its Scottish and Northern working class base with an appeal to Conservative middle-England in an attempt to move from its position as a socialist party to that of a national party. Yet alongside such developments Brexit also had its roots in an elite split in the Conservative party in which “Europe” became the object of an antagonism between competing factions possessing different ideas of Britain's future. Here Eurosceptics increasingly politicized the issue of immigration as a way to appeal to what was assumed to be a silent but growing mass English xenophobia which soon developed into Michael Howard's “Are you thinking what were thinking?” electoral slogan.


Away from Westminster there also emerged amongst the remnants of the English working and middle classes a growing sense of insecurity as their historically privileged position appeared increasingly unstable. (A process which of course had been ongoing for over half a century but which was once again very evident.) Under the threats of globalization, the rise of powers such as India and China and increasing levels of global development, Britain appeared less important and less significant. This fundamentally shaped the nature of everyday English conservatism for it was no longer satisfied with an alliance with the ruling order which could no longer guarantee its aristocratic privileges but began to express itself through a challenge to the established order particularly through the development of a virulent English identity. For a long time such a challenge was expressed in a growing disaffection and disengagement from the political system and in an unwillingness to vote. The parties we were told didn’t speak for them, were all expressions of an elite consensus and didn’t take seriously the concerns of real voter. Yet increasingly such a segment became directly politicized, turning to far-Right parties like the British Nationalist Party, or UKIP.

The 2008 Financial Crisis made such problems more acute however, hitting working communities hard and once again threatening the place of English privilege within the world. In an attempt to shore up its electoral base the Labour party under Gordon Brown (a card carrying British nationalist) increased its nationalist discourse with the declarations of “British jobs for British workers” and the constant reassurance to white working class groups that "it wasn’t racist to talk about immigration" and that there were legitimate concerns, whilst the Tories and UKIP sought to capitalise upon growing anti-immigrant sentiment particularly towards Romanians and Bulgarians and with the Conservative party running in the 2010 election on a major pledge to bring net migration into the UK down to the tens of thousands.

That there was a vote on Britain's membership in the European Union at all then in the end came down to two factors, on the one hand a long term elite split in the Conservative party over the issue of Europe and on the other hand the development of an anti-immigrant sentiment, both at the elite level and in popular discourse which fed into the demand for policies aimed at the rapid reduction of migration levels. That this policy was itself hampered by the freedom of movement prescribed by the EU brought both factors to a head.With such a policy plugged into popular sentiments regarding immigration, there emerged a popular and sustained demand for a say on Britain's place within the European Union. Within such a climate the demands during the referendum to “take Britain back” and regain control, independence and sovereignty regularly had one object, the figure of the migrant. Brexit was thus fundamentally a rejection of multi-culturalism and the attempt to produce a post-racial Britain.

If Brexit is paradoxical then it is because it is caught within the politics of "national superiority" with its oscilation between the exploitation of the British working class and its privilege, which has always been overcoded by relations of imperialism. It appears confusing because it simultaneously seems to combine emotions of superiority, domination, racism and xenophobia with those of victimhood, loss, melancholy and a sense of being under attack and under threat. It also entails practices of obsessive remembering and forgetting, it requires a memory of the superiority brought by Empire, and Britain's greatest moment in its overcoming of global fascism, but a forgetting of the continuous violence entailed in the practice of Empire. It is these oscillations which have allowed for Brexit to appear as so ambiguous to many. On the one hand we appear to be confronted by a great and noble nation brought under the yoke of the neoliberal European Union and having lost its sovereign ability to govern itself. Here there emerges a certain identification between the victimhood of the British, and that of the Greeks and Spanish. And yet on the other hand this sense of national oppression and victimhood has in moments quickly transitioned into its other, aggressive ethnonationalist assertions and racist outbursts.

This is a problem which Marxists such as Engels and Lenin experienced for a long time in relation to the British labour movement, how to understand its place both within the domestic class struggle and within the overall dynamics of global Imperialism. Whilst there was always amongst the working class a sense of deprivation, of loss, of domination by its national bourgoisie, it was also able in another light to benefit from imperial plunder and impose similar forms of domination on other elements of labour. There is a sense then that such a sense of loss and deprivation has always then contained a certain illusory element. That compared to the violence of actually experienced colonialism it merely concealed a great privilege bestowed upon British labour. This is of course important not to lose sight of, for it entails the realisation that the sense of "struggle" present in Brexit is not a struggle for survival or against domination or exploitation, it is by and large a struggle to maintain a privilege and prosperity that others cannot enjoy. To continue to enjoy consumer culture, high wages and high standards of living which continues to occur on the basis of cheap labour from the Global South. It is by and large an attempt to make Britain a nation such a Singapore, an independent and exclusive island nation occupying a privileged position within the Global economy.Yet as has already been argued if struggle has traditionally been dominated by the nationalist and imperialist frame, this hasn't precluded class struggle from escaping from this frame and from realising emotions of loss and deprivation outside of the politics of national superiority.

However Brexit for its part has to be seen as entirely contained within the nationalist frame of British politics. It is both a result of elite struggles over the meaning of the British nation state and the culmination of white working class disaffection and rebellion. Certainly Brexit appears as a rebellion against the status quo, against the government of the day, against the European Union, against the markets, the banks and the major corporations, the experts and the bureaucrats. This isn’t to say that in any sense Brexit is anti-capitalist or a fundamental victory for the working class. In so far as it challenges one elite it does so only to replace it with another, an elite seemingly more in tune with traditional British notions of authority and whilst it appears at odds with the financial markets and big business, the war cry of Brexit supporters, to maintain or regain Britain's historic prosperity will not empower the British government over the demands of capital but will rather make them more dependent upon its whims.

Brexit is in this sense paradoxical, it is a rebellion yes, but a rebellion which appears to reinforce all of that which it rebels against. A rebellion which reacts to a sense of insecurity and threat but which appears to reinforce the very conditions of such insecurity and threat. As the post-Brexit period has shown the sense of uncertainty and crisis hasn’t disipated but intensified. In this sense a distinction has to be made between the Euroscepticism of countries such as Greece and Spain, and the Euroscepticism of a country such as the UK. The struggle against the Eurozone and the EU that has occurred in Greece really is a struggle against a crisis and a struggle against the economic domination of northern states and has avoided a collapse into ethnic nationalism nor isolationism. Rather they have taken on the EU and Eurozone on the basis of a transnational idea of belonging in which it was their claim to be Europeans which stood against Eurozone attempts to marginalize and exclude such countries. Brexit on the other hand doesn't appear as a struggle against domination but a struggle for domination, a struggle to regain British power and privilege without of course any knowledge of this would entail. And it is for this reason there are clear links between Brexit and Trumpism in America on the basis of the development of a nihilisic politics which appears as purely destructive in character and which idealises an ethnonationalist dream of domination and power. Brexit is then as Trumpism, the culmination of imperial privilege and imperial decline in which the will to dominate turns into a form of political nihilism.

What has to be opposed then to Brexit is a politics which looks beyond the horizon of English nationalism, which challenges English privilege and its legacy of imperialism and which can express solidarity with other movements around the world. This will entail many things, at home it will probably entail rewriting the history books, the expression of solidarity with migrant struggles, expanding the concept of Britishness and Englishness away from ethnonationalist ideas. It will require a critique of the basis of British wealth, it will require a critique of processes of outsourcing and labour exploitation. It will require an understanding of Britain's position and role in the world. Internationally it will probably require participation in a pan-European movement which opposes the European Union and its institutions, it will call for the democratisation of international institutions and take concern with its imperial legacy and Britain's post-imperialist foreign policy. Only then will the English be able to overcome the dependency on imperial privilege and national chauvinism.