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.   

Three Simple Questions about Brexit & NATO for Y’s Men of Westport and Wise People Elsewhere

Our Y’s Men of Westport/Westin (CT) and its Current Affairs Discussion Group has decided that the focus of its next meeting will be Brexit (British exit from the European Union) and the future of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

The Y’s Men umbrellas a group of 400 or so retired men who meet weekly for fellowship and informative programs on community and national concerns. Its clever name comes from some association with the YMCA that has never been clearly explained to me.

In any case, one of the Y’s Men’s many subgroups meets bi-weekly to discuss world issues precisely like Brexit and NATO. That topic was chosen because at the time of its selection, NATO was holding its 70th anniversary meeting in London.  Meanwhile, Great Britain was looking forward to a General Election on December 12th, which would once again centralize the Brexit issue.

In preparation for the meeting, the leader of the Current Affairs Group shared numerous articles with us. One was entitled “12 Questions about Brexit You Were Too Embarrassed to Ask.” Others were drawn mainly from the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist.  They detailed further information about Great Britain’s attempt to withdraw from the international trade agreement known as the European Union. Other articles asked the question whether or not NATO should or should not be dissolved.

As it turns out, both issues are intimately connected with questions of borders and immigration. After all, the European Union has virtually erased borders across the continent to facilitate what it terms its “four freedoms.” These include free movement of goods, services, capital, and people. Meanwhile NATO is also and obviously a multinational body. In fact, it treats member states as one. According to its central policy, an attack on any single member is considered an attack on all.

So, with those two issues in mind (borders and immigration) let me pose three questions related to Brexit and NATO. They are intended not only for Westport’s Y’s Men, but for thoughtful people in general.

Here are the questions:

  1. Are you in favor of absolutely open borders for people?
  2.  Are you in favor of absolutely open borders for multinational corporations (MNCs) and/or military operations?
  3. What’s the connection between Brexit and borders on the one hand and NATO on the other?

Open Borders for People

So, what about immigration and open borders? Should foreign workers be allowed to cross unrestrictedly from one country to another as they currently are under the European Union rubric?

To this question, I’m quite confident that most people’s initial answer would probably be “no.”

At least that’s what 52% of Great Britain’s voting population said last March when asked whether or not their country should remain within the European Union. By most accounts, disapproval of the Union’s policy of unrestricted immigration lay behind the votes of those approving exit from the EU.

That’s because open borders in Europe have led to massive relocations of population across frontiers that were closed in the pre-EU world. Such migrations especially intensified “foreign” presence in Great Britain whose borders had already long been open to immigrants from the country’s former colonies, e.g. India and Pakistan.  Add to these the climate and war victims who have also found refuge in Europe in general including Great Britain, and you’ll begin to understand why many there might rashly blame their growing sense of lost national identity exclusively on the European Union. Boris Johnson has given voice to such discontent.

And all of that stands to reason, doesn’t it?  That’s true even for those of us who (unlike the British) have not actually experienced free movement of people from one country to another. We can hardly imagine a world without passports, visas, or government control of entry or exit. It all sounds like a recipe for anarchy and chaos.

In our context, it would mean, for instance, that low wage workers could enter the United States and take our jobs. Our way of life would be completely upended. Our culture would be profoundly and unacceptably altered as well.

No, I’d venture to say that open borders are completely unacceptable to most of us.  That’s why conservatives can get away with constantly ridiculing opponents of Mr. Trump’s border wall as advocating “open borders.” Life without borders simply doesn’t make sense. It’s clearly threatening to most Americans. And it’s largely the lived experience of open borders that has driven Great Britain out of the European Union.

Open Borders for MNCs

Yet despite our objections to free movement of people, most of us take for granted open borders for transnational corporations. We do and so does Mr. Trump! So, I’m quite confident in predicting that the answer of most Y’s Men to my second question would be “yes” — at least implicitly. “Yes, I approve of free movement of capital from one country to another. And yes, (in the case of NATO) I approve of attacks on other countries even though those forays pay no attention to borders.” Or (perhaps more accurately) the “wise” response might be: “Well, I’ve never thought about that.”

The latter response comes from the fact that on the face of it and for most of us, the movement of capital and of armies seems somehow harmlessly abstract and less devastating than the unrestricted movement of people. Moreover, we’re taught that treaties like the EU, NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) and the proposed TAFTA (Transatlantic Free Trade Area) are good for us because they create jobs. So, why not allow transnational companies like Exxon, Wal-Mart, Monsanto, Ford Motor, Kennecott Mining, Weyerhaeuser Lumber, Ralston Purina, and Del Monte to cross borders freely?

The answer to that query comes loud and clear especially from the Global South – from indigenous tribes, Mexicans, Hondurans, Guatemalans, or Salvadorans. They shout: “Free movement of capital is far more devastating to us than you’ve experienced in the European Union or imagine in North America. Free movement of capital destroys more jobs than it creates. It’s the main reason behind what you describe as your ‘immigration crisis.’”

Their evidence? Mom and Pop stores are driven out of business by Wal-Mart. Millions of campesino farmers are forced off their land when, for instance, Ralston Purina lobbyists persuade the U.S. government to dump subsidized corn on the Mexican market. The displaced farmers are forced off the land and driven into urban slums. Food consumption patterns are altered by McDonalds. Indigenous tribes have burial sites dug up and defiled by Exxon’s oil pipelines. Rain forests are cut down indiscriminately by Weyerhaeuser regardless of the impact on ecosystems and climate. Entire ways of living and interacting with nature and community are disrupted and thrown into chaos.

But that’s not the end of the devastation wreaked by the open borders most of us take for granted. NATO and its de facto leader, the U.S. military, demonstrate little to no respect for borders either. Think about it. Despite international laws to the contrary, those military entities claim the right to indiscriminately cross national frontiers to bomb and drone wherever they see fit — and without the required approval of the United Nations. In the recent past they’ve done so on a large scale in the former Yugoslavia, as well as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Ethiopia. We don’t even know where they’re bombing; borders make no difference to them.

And the chaos produced by such disregard of borders is unbelievable.  As its result, homes, schools, hospitals, churches, synagogues, mosques, stores, warehouses, factories, water, sewage, and communication systems lay in ruins across the planet.

The NATO Connection

But what’s the connection between all of this and NATO?  The short answer is that a disbanded NATO represents a source of funding for remedying the just noted deficiencies of free trade agreements like the EU, NAFTA, CAFTA, and TAFTA.  

To begin with, those defects can only be remedied satisfactorily by democratizing them to protect jobs, cultures, and local social values. And that will cost a lot of money. That’s because true reform 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. Those whose towns, homes, churches, schools, and hospitals have been destroyed by NATO wars will want them rebuilt. They’ll demand compensation for the needless deaths caused by the bombs, drones, planes, tanks, and military personnel employed in the service of corporate-friendly trade pacts.

Again, all of that will take money – lots of it!

And the source of the money should be NATO. It must be dissolved. And its annual funding must be diverted to meet the working class demands just listed.

After all, the organization has outlived its usefulness. Its enemies have disappeared. The Soviet Union (the very raison d’etre for NATO) vanished 30 years ago. Moreover, announcements that the Russians are coming once again and that a new Yellow Peril is on the horizon are nearly laughable.

In fact, when those threats are examined, they turn out to be only pale reflections of standard practices the United States has engaged in since the conclusion of the Second Inter-capitalist War.

Take Russia first. Its “crimes” include:

  • Interference in the 2016 U.S. elections
  • Alleged cyber-attacks
  • Dissemination of “fake news”
  • Aggression against the Ukraine
  • Annexation of Crimea

China’s alleged threat is represented by:

  • Its repression of democracy in Hong Kong
  • Its attempts to take over the world through its Belt and Road Initiative
  • “Stealing” intellectual property of U.S. corporations
  • Its jailing of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities

To repeat: “crimes” like those have been central (and on much larger scales) to United States policy for the past 75 years and more.

For instance, since 1823 under the Monroe Doctrine, the United States has routinely claimed the right to intervene militarily in its “backyard” (all of Latin America) whenever it perceives any undue foreign influence in the region. All during the 1980s, the U.S. invoked Monroe to counter Russian influence in Central America.

Yet, the U.S. insists that Russian military action in the Ukraine and Crimea (which arguably remain parts of Russia) is a threat to world peace. And this even though the new leadership in Ukraine promises to seek membership in NATO in clear violation of a 1990 agreement that the alliance would not expand eastward. In fact, NATO bases currently surround Russia. If the U.S. claims Monroe Doctrine protection for itself, logic demands honoring parallel claims by Russia.

Similarly, immediately following the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States interfered in the Russian electoral process to ensure that Boris Yeltsin would be elected president there. And U.S. interference in electoral processes world-wide is beyond dispute.

The bottom line here is that Russia is only doing in its backyard what the United States has long practiced in its own backyard and across the world.

The case is similar with the alleged Chinese threat. Remember, Hong Kong is not in China’s backyard; it is indisputably part of China itself. Moreover, if the U.S. and its NATO allies were implementing their own Belt and Road Initiative, they would be trumpeting it as an example of their generosity and openhanded foreign aid.

As for China’s alleged stealing of intellectual property . . . As Vijay Prashad has noted, such ownership is a fiction concocted by industrially developed countries to guarantee that their former colonies will remain in situations of extreme dependence and relative poverty. The concept of intellectual property ignores the essentially communal nature of human knowledge. For instance, concepts foundational to modern science (such as the links between the Vedic zero in the east and imaginary numbers in the west) are part of the world’s intellectual commons. To pretend otherwise itself constitutes an act of intellectual larceny.

In fact, reverse engineering has long been the backbone of industrial development everywhere in the world including the United States as it strove during the 19th century to catch up with its European competitors. It is inevitable that workers and states will attempt to understand and replicate rather than purchase the technology they are asked to operate.

Conclusion

With all of the foregoing said about trade agreements, military spending and the artificially manufactured threats posed by Russia and China, it now becomes possible to recognize that the Global North has no enemies. And in turn, that realization frees up huge caches of money already there, allocated, and set for diversion towards correcting the defects of so-called free trade agreements – even like the European Union.

The money’s to be found in the NATO budget; it’s also there in Pentagon allocations.  (In fact, just last week, the U.S. Congress set aside more than $2 billion each day for military purposes, even though the prime reason for doing so has completely disappeared from the world stage.)

So, the answers to my original questions might well be these:

  1. No:  Immigrants should not be allowed to move unrestrictedly from one country to another
  2. Unless that freedom is extended to MNCs. Or to reverse the assertion: MNCs should not be allowed to move unrestrictedly from one country to another unless labor is accorded the same freedom.
  3. A disbanded and now pointless NATO can provide any funds necessary for democratizing otherwise one-sided trade pacts like the European Union, NAFTA, CAFTA, and TAFTA.

Do you agree?