Brexit: The UK Joins the World-Wide Rebellion against Neoliberalism

Most of us are scratching our heads over the magnitude of the Labor Party’s loss in last week’s election in the United Kingdom. The mainstream media (MSM) would have us believe that the Tory Party’s victory under Boris Johnson represents a massive rejection of left politics by the British working class.

However, that’s by no means the only conclusion possible. Indeed, it is entirely credible to conclude the opposite, viz. that last week’s vote was a resounding victory for the working class. That is, it represented their rejection of the very type of free trade pacts that have made lives miserable for wage earners across the planet.

It’s also possible to conclude that the British elections have issued to the world a clarion call to reform all free trade pacts while suggesting a clear direction for reform.    

Let me explain.

The Elections and Brexit

To begin with, think about the elections and Brexit. 

That, of course, is what the voting was about – Brexit (British withdrawal from the European Union). No other country has yet exhibited the courage needed to do so – not even Greece, despite the extreme austerity the EU has imposed upon it for years – and despite the promises of SYRIZA and the will of the people expressed in huge demonstrations and national referenda.

So, unlike the Greeks, the Brits set the stage for the actual exit of a member state from the European Union, which is the kind of free trade pact that has cursed working classes for more than 25 years.

Remember that: the EU is basically a free trade arrangement. Its central feature is its single market allowing its “four freedoms:” free movement of goods, services, capital, and people within EU borders.

The EU was formed in 1993. Its counterpart across the pond, NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement) was signed a year later. Then came CAFTA (The Central American Free Trade Agreement) in 2004. As indicated, working classes have been suffering ever since not only from NAFTA and CAFTA but from EU austerity administered by unelected and therefore unaccountable bureaucrats headquartered in far-off Brussels.  

With such hardship and lack of democratic control in mind, voters chose Johnson over Jeremy Corbyn. That’s because no one, including Corbyn and his Labor Party, was as clear as Johnson and his Tories about withdrawing from the EU come hell or high water.

On the other hand, Corbyn and Labor were not only relentlessly vilified by the country’s corporate media; they also remained ambivalent and split about Brexit. Together those factors proved fatal. The best the denigrated Laborites could do was to promise yet another referendum on the topic.

Clearly, that wasn’t enough. Evidently, the British were tired of the entire debate. As a result, Labor suffered the consequences. However, British laborers made the point that eluded their Greek counterparts: no more unelected decision-makers in Brussels, no more free trade agreements favoring capital over workers; no more neoliberal austerity, and no more unrestricted immigration to drive down wages.

Last week’s election results represented the Brits way of courageously joining the protests against neoliberal capitalism now taking place across the planet.

Free Trade and Immigration

Now, think about free trade agreements and that just-mentioned issue of immigration. Obviously, it has become a free trade sore point both here and in the United Kingdom. However, immigration pain has originated from opposite but intimately related sources.  

Within the boundaries of the EU, the immigrant problem has stemmed from the earlier-listed “four freedoms,” while in North and Central America it comes precisely from the fact that only three of those freedoms are honored.

More specifically, the EU free trade arrangement recognizes that provision of goods and services essentially involves both capital and labor as roughly equal partners. Consequently, if a treaty allows free movement of capital across borders, justice and the logic of capitalism demands that it also permit similar liberty to labor which is as essential to the free market equation as capital. So, borders must be permeable to immigrants from one member-country to another.

This recognition has led to major relocations of population across frontiers that were closed in the pre-EU world. Movements of this sort have occurred with a vengeance in Great Britain, whose borders have long been open to immigrants from the country’s former colonies, e.g. India and Pakistan.  Add to these the climate and war refugees who have also found refuge in Europe in general including Great Britain, and you’ll begin to understand why many there might blame their growing sense of lost national identity exclusively on the European Union. Boris Johnson has given effective voice to such discontent.

Similar unhappiness with the NAFTA and CAFTA has surfaced in North and Central America.

However, there the pinch of globalization is caused by closed rather than open borders.

That is, while NAFTA and CAFTA allow free movement of goods, services, and capital across the borders of the United States, Canada, Mexico, and the countries of Central America, they deny such freedom of movement to labor. Consequently, the agreements have at their disposal a captive labor force. So, while capital can go wherever it finds low wages, Mexican labor for instance cannot freely move to high wage areas in the United States or Canada. This has been a source of great frustration (and poverty) for workers under NAFTA and CAFTA.

As a result, Latinix workers have taken matters into their own hands. In what some have called a modern reconquista (a reconquering or reclaiming) of lands confiscated from Mexico in the middle of the 19th century, thousands of immigrants from Mexico and Central America have ignored one-sided laws prohibiting labor’s mobility. Regardless of the consciousness behind them, their actions implicitly insist that if capital is allowed to move freely across borders, so should labor be permitted cross-border transit.

Such economic rebels added to victims of climate change and of U.S. wars in Central America during the 1980s comprise the immigrant multitudes that President Trump has blamed for U.S. economic problems. In reality, they represent the collateral damage of free trade pacts as much as do their counterparts in the European Union.

(In other words, despite Trump’s assertions, it is right wing capitalists not liberals or progressives who insist on absolutely open southern borders – however, for themselves, but not for workers.)

Reforming Free Trade

So, what’s the answer to the EU, NAFTA, and CAFTA conundrums? Is it abandonment of free trade agreements altogether?  Not necessarily. (And this brings us to the implications of reform involved in last week’s vote.)

In a word, the answer is DEMOCRACY.

That is, the defects of free trade agreements can only be remedied satisfactorily by democratizing them to protect jobs, cultures, and local social values.

To begin with, democracy demands that all stakeholders (not merely corporate representatives, lawyers, bureaucrats, and politicians) be present at the renegotiating conference table. This includes trade unionists, environmentalists, and groups representing the specific rights of indigenous peoples, women and children. All those affected must have equal voice and vote. Nothing else will work. Nothing else is just.

Yet, if all stakeholders have voice and vote, they will predictably complicate matters. (Democracy, remember, is messy.) Predictably, they’ll make demands that will radically restrain the freedoms of the corporations involved – even to the point of rendering unworkable the type of trade pacts we’ve come to know.

For instance, (and perhaps most crucially) workers in places not only like Greece and Italy, but in Mexico and Central America will require the same freedom their employers enjoy to move to where the money is. Developed world workers will demand compensation for their lost jobs. Everyone will vote for the unrestricted right to unionize. They’ll want seats on corporate boards of directors. At the same time, environmentalists will demand industrial technology that is clean and non-polluting. They’ll want waste and chemical dumps along with polluted rivers and aqua firs repaired.

Once again, meeting such demands requires profound democratic changes in common understandings of international trade arrangements. We can thank UK voters for suggesting that requirement in the clearest of terms.

Conclusion

Following Labor’s defeat in the UK, the corporate media and mainstream politicians have rushed in to announce the end of progressive programs like those advocated by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. For instance, Joe Biden argued that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s resounding victory should “warn Democrats against veering too far left in their fight to defeat President Donald Trump.”

Instead, thoughtful analysts should see the results of Great Britain’s electoral process as yet another instance of a world-wide rebellion against neoliberal capitalism. Bernie and Elizabeth Warren are essential elements of that insurgency.

True, voters have elected a Trump-like figure in Boris Johnson. And he will predictably immiserate the lives of wage earners even further. However, voters’ overriding intention was to reject EU membership once and for all. For them, one-sided free trade agreements that prioritize capital over labor are no longer acceptable.

Such unambiguous rejection of capitalism-as-we-know it, is now evident throughout the world – including at our border, where immigrants and refugees implicitly declare the system’s absolute failure in their own lives.   

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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