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Brexit: conservatism, capitalism and class

Worldwide we are in the middle of, what Heinrich Geiselberger calls, “The great regression”, a reaction against seemingly irresistible economic globalisation and planetary integration.


Steve Latham


The trend combines Brexit and Boris Johnson’s premiership, with Donald Trump’s election, Matteo Salvini in Italy, and Viktor Orban’s rule in Hungary.

Further afield, it links the totalitarian system of Communist China under Xi Jinping, to Brazil’s President Jair Bolsanaro.

These are responses to conditions of deep economic and political uncertainty, where national sovereignty has been blindsided by international corporations.

People’s feelings of insecurity have been exploited by populism, which has looked to nationalist nostalgia to defend a sense of borders and protection against perceived threats.

This has overturned several decades of neo-liberal propaganda. But it is does not entail a retreat from Capitalism as such.

Laissez faire is only one form of capitalist ideology, and is often seen as an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (per)version.

Actually-existing Capitalism has, historically, been compatible with a variety of ideological and sociological formations.

The ultimate logic of Capitalism may be, as Marx and Engels noted in “The Communist Manifesto”, to dissolve all pre-existing social ties and bonds, into a naked individualistic cash nexus.

Nevertheless, in practice, and for political reasons, it is compatible with localised customs, and welcomes support from state bodies. For example, Apartheid in South Africa, aided Capitalism’s early development, but was eventually discarded as a break on economic progress. Germany and Japan, after their defeats in World War Two, found a strong state a powerful prop for initial capital accumulation.

During economic crises too, big business welcomes state intervention, for instance in the banks bail-out during 2008.

But global capital does not always have its own way. There is no doubt, Brexit goes against the interests of the planetary ruling class.

The direction of history is not unilinear. Although the flow of a river may be powerful, there are also localised eddies and currents, swirls in the overall course.

Some of these, temporarily, go against the general direction, although they form part of the total fluvial system.

There are, similarly, different fractions, within the capitalist class. Some are based on sectional economic interests, others on political and ideological positions.

Nicos Poulantzas used this interpretation to understand how the ruling class is not always the class in charge of the state, nor drive society’s hegemonic ideology.

This, he applied in his analysis of Fascism. Similarly Antonio Gramsci recognised that there are times when the dominant class ceases to actually rule.

In these crises, he wrote, strange new phenomena emerge from the social substrate, including Fascism or, we might add, Populism.

But there is a difference.

In Brexit Britain, for an instant, during the referendum, the ruling class lost control to lumpen elements.

A fraction of that class, the Patrician, Eton-educated, elite, has now re-asserted control, thereby re-establishing stability; though Britain’s fate outside a powerful economic bloc remains uncertain. However, this is Populism without a populist. Johnson’s affable, jolly-good-bloke, persona is not the Strongman needed to impose a fully authoritarian regime.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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