After the Brexit, we need a leftist populism
Gianluca Solera - 28/06/2016
Never Facebook has been so proliferous in offering the most disparate views on the same topic, as in the day after the Brexit referendum. Some fellows were predicting the European Apocalypse, others were vocalizing their excitement for their rewarded hate against Europe, and others were sending to hell the Brits. Some distinguished friends were writing: “In an instant of time, we got rid of English people and Cameron”. Or: “Let us zap a couple of Eastern European countries, and Europe will find a new life back!”, probably referring to Hungary and Poland, who have recently distinguished themselves for their anti-liberal stands, nationalistic demands, and refusal of sharing the burden of the refugee crisis. Or again: “Scotts and Irish people, you are now welcomed”. Some others were fearing that these results would boost the rise of new post-fascist leaders such as Putin, Trump or Marine Le Pen.
Commentators were ascribing this success to Nigel Farage and its rightist party. They were rapidly classing this referendum among the expressions of a raising political xenophobia and growing expansion of illiberal and nationalist, even autarchic political groupings, qualified as anti-modern. Brits would have therefore to be punished for their absurd move against progress and production, market and mobility, trade and competitiveness in the name of old-fashioned ideas of fatherland, cultural integrity and safe borders. There is a certain parallelism in the way Brits and Greeks have been depicted after their last national referendum, the latter after last year poll on the bailout conditions offered by international creditors to «save» the country. «They do not want the package? They do not deserve to be Europeans» you could hear in certain corridors. «Stupid and ungrateful Greeks» some politicians blurted out. Every time people give a different voice through a referendum than what the authorities expect, they are made guilty. Will Brits be betrayed as the Greeks were after the referendum, given the fact that the bailout conditions agreed upon after the referendum were as tough if not tougher than the one Greeks were offered before it?
Things are, I am afraid, more complicated than what the first reactions post- British referendum might make us thinking. Almost 17 million people voted for Leave, but only 3,8 million people casted their ballot for the UKIP party, Farage’s party, in the 2015 general elections. The result of this Brexit referendum cannot be therefore just a victory of the Right, and those who qualifies it as such might do it in order to move the public debate toward the danger the political Right represents instead of questioning the motivations of this vote.
Caroline Lucas, British Green politician, was one of the first lawmakers quickly reacting in the long night following the closure of the poll stations. Last Friday morning, feeling heartbroken she declared that this vote was not necessarily against immigrants and the idea of belonging to Europe. It was also and even especially a defying message to the political establishment, which is failing the British people, converting the European project in a tool for big capitals engaged in global competition, thus forgetting the ordinary citizens.
Italian journalist Fubini denounced that commercial bankers and managers of speculative funds commissioned – a couple of weeks before the referendum – private surveys in order to know what to do before the referendum polling stations closed. So, half an hour before that moment, they sold speculative funds in order to reduce their losses. They had the money to pay polling companies, and did it for their own sake. Capitalism is faster than democracy. This is the epitome of what really counts in today’s Europe. John Pilger talks of «an insufferably patrician class for whom metropolitan London is the United Kingdom», and qualifies it of «a bourgeoisie with insatiable consumerist tastes and ancient instincts of their own superiority». UK is not only London, and this referendum has made it clear. In Britain today, 63 per cent of poor children grow up in families where one member is working. For them, the trap has closed. More than 600,000 residents of Britain’s second city, Greater Manchester, are – reports a study – experiencing the effects of extreme poverty and 1.6 million are slipping into penury. The accusations against British people of having given a blow to the European dream – so that they deserve to be kicked out – are stupid and dangerous on the same time. In my country, Italy, last April, an abrogative referendum against seashore oil and gas drilling could not reach the 50% voting turnout threshold, sine qua non condition for the validation of the referendum results. The largest majority of those voting asked for cancelling drilling concessions, but the Italian government campaigned for abstention warning Italians of severe job losses and backwardness should the referendum succeeds.
The problem is not «yes or no to Europe». The problem is this EU. When you attack the EU establishment and point the finger at the involution of the European project at the expense of cohesion, solidarity, labour, human mobility and democratic accountability, then you became a dangerous nationalist, a xenophobic populist.
The reality is that the EU establishment has made more to weaken the European project than all the parties who call for throwing out all immigrants or for leaving the Monetary Union (let me make clear that I do not have any sympathy for them). In an interesting reportage on the progression of rightist populist parties in Europe, authors explain that the Left failed because only the Right gave voice to the little people. Populists appear as the defenders of ordinary and small citizens – die kleinen Leute, les invisibles et les oubliés as Marine Le Pen says. They appear defending them against a globalization that has impoverished and forced them to live with savings not making earnings any more, and without a certain pension, while growing masses of refugees in search of fortune, but assisted by the state surround these people. They appear defending them against a self-referential political class.
Had the Left listened to them, Brits probably would have not needed to recur to a referendum to express their anger and fears, because the Left (and I include the social democratic family in it) would have made of deeply reforming European institutions and policies its forte. Instead, the Left make do with running business as usual in Brussels, European parliament included, and in other European capitals, where they have shared the power in some forms with Conservatives.
«I’m ambivalent about the “Brexit” vote», commented my Irish friend and journalist David Cronin on his Facebook profile after hearing about the referendum results. While fearing the politics of hate carried out by characters such as Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, he denounces the fact that «what they advocate is not dramatically different to the agenda already being pursued. The decisions the EU elite has taken on the refugee crisis – the appalling deal with Turkey – involved pandering to extremists. And that was by no means the first time that the EU elite had pandered to extremists».
The voice of ordinary people must be heard, should not we wish Austrian FPÖ or French Front National or Italian Lega Nord to take the lead of Europe, getting inspiration from the illiberal reforms carried already out by the Hungarian or Polish governments. The worst scenario ever would be to keep the EU as it is, with its Turkey-like deals, its austerity receipts, its untouched capitals fleeing taxation, or its secrets TTIP negotiations, and on the same time to see the rise of xenophobia in different nations.
Again Cronin: «David Cameron has been pushing an agenda of deregulation that undermines any of the positive things the EU has done (not on its own behest but because of the struggles of ordinary people). To please the corporate lobby, Cameron has tried to destroy rules on gender equality, environmental protection and much else. If that’s the Tories’ contribution to Europe (and New Labour were not much better), then I’m inclined to say “good riddance”».
My wish is that the response to the British referendum’s results is twofold. On the one hand, the EU system, its structures, its decision-making mechanisms and its policies must be decisively challenged, showing that the free and united Europe of the fathers is not this EU. On the other hand, the Left must find back its proximity to ordinary people. We need if necessary a new leftist populism, which makes people getting mobilized hoping in Europe, and not fearing it. A populism not in the sense of demagogy, but in the sense of an attitude or political movement tending to enhance the role and the values of the working classes. A populism which looks beyond the old Left parties, and connects different political sensitivities and cultural milieus in the name of accountability, respect, solidarity and social justice: this is what today’s poor results of general elections in Spain, where Podemos had made a coalition with post-communist party Izquierda Unida, teaches us.
I remember that Lech Walesa, at the time of Wojciech Jaruzelski, when he was not what he later became, being the spaces of the political discourse suffocated by the regime, used to jump on city buses to make speeches to the working class, to the common people, as now do the nomads or illegal immigrants to collect a few coins. This is the Left, which is missing. The one that goes in the most ordinary and hidden places, which engages in endless conversation with those it meets on the street. A Left that socializes again corners of the city where no one speaks anymore, that mixes political reflection with grassroots practice, and that overcomes fear of the future and of the «other», which now too much people is suffering from, sharing their daily concerns. All of that, running the risk of being called populists. Lech Walesa, climbing on buses to stir up the people, behaved as a populist; within a few years, however, he guided his country towards democracy.
 In an interview to BBC on Friday morning, June 24, 2016, and on her Twitter account.
 Federico Fubini, «E la City commissionò i sondaggi segreti sul voto» [The City commissioned secret polls on the vote], in Corriere della Sera, June 13, 2016.
 Reports of Radio Radicale, Friday morning, June 24.
 John Pilger, «A Blow for Peace and Democracy: Why the British Said No to Europe», in Counterpunch, June 24, 2016.
 J. Pilger, idem.
 VV AA, «Die rechte Internationale» [The Right Wing International], in Die Zeit, n. 23, May 25, 2016.
 David Cronin is the author of the essay Corporate Europe, Pluto Press, 2013.