Screenshot: Bozar Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, Saturday, September 9.You don’t need me to tell you BREXIT is a dangerous mess. Ever since Theresa May – in that common sense tone which is a sure sign of ideology in Britain – uttered the fateful words “BREXIT means BREXIT!” – we have been trapped on a roller-coaster of unknowing. Grim rumours that the UK might become “the tax haven of Europe” or the “hostile environment” apparently preferred by the Home Office, come and go and come again like flashes of lightning over our benighted landscape. The process hitherto seems designed to show us and everyone else just how deeply polarized but also poorly represented we are as a people, and how broken our democratic system.
On the eve of the EU referendum, I happened to find myself in a showing in London of David Bernet’s quintessentially European film, ‘Democracy’, about the heroic struggle within the European Parliament to secure key digital laws protecting citizens and consumers from big data mining. Katarzyna from whom we heard earlier, stars in this epic tale, alongside the heroic German Greens Jan Philipp Albrecht and Ralph Bendrath and Joe McNamee, Director of European Digital Rights. This David and Goliath story is actually a rare, gripping account in all its multilayered complexity, of a triumphant democratic law-making process.
Remember that Dr. Schauble mantra from the Eurogroup meeting that Yanis quotes – that “elections cannot be allowed to change an economic programme of a nation state”? Well for those who haven’t seen the film, Albrecht’s mission as rapporteur is the direct opposite. He argues, “99% of the lobbying in Brussels is by companies… but millions of citizens have their interests too… No one has the right to claim their interests are worth more than that of the citizens.”
"Democracy", David Bernet, 2015. All rights reserved.Asked to raise our hands at the end if this film gave us more confidence or less in the EU that night, a large majority of that London audience said yes. I wanted everyone I knew and didn’t know to see it. Indeed there could be no better introduction to what is worth fighting for as Europeans. Not because, for Brits reared on tabloid anti-EU propaganda, it was brilliant counter-propaganda. Let’s be clear – the picture it paints is of a democratic process in deep jeopardy from giant vested interests. Yet exactly because it was such an unflinching record of the odds we are up against and the space for a political alternative that really exists – here was everything that was missing from our BREXIT debate, and everything that we Europeans must be doing over the next two years, leading into the 2019 elections and beyond.
Why the urgency? Because all over Europe there are people like the British majority who voted for BREXIT, who need to know what is possible in politics and that they can do something about it, people who associate the threat to their jobs, security and daily lives with the European institutions, simply because, for far too long, we have been told over and over again what is not possible, due to the out-of control forces that we are encouraged to believe are all the more irresistible at the transnational level.
“Take back control” was the message of the 2016 Brexit referendum, seized on at the first opportunity, to express how fed up people were at the lack of accountable agency, the lack of empathy, the technocratic disavowal of responsibility before the socio-economic forces of austerity. As if on cue, only days after Theresa May lost her majority, in June, Grenfell Tower in the country’s richest borough of Kensington and Chelsea, went up in flames – its blackening hulk an instant monument to the gulf between the authorities’ shameless neoliberal negligeance, and a disenfranchised global working class who could get no-one to listen to or do anything for them.
This rejection of impotence that was BREXIT, might have remained at the level of a finger towards a world where all is said to be inevitable, had it not been for the snap elections in June. Here, not only did the Labour party come up with one of the most progressive social democratic manifestos in living memory, but their new cohorts of activists launched a process of large-scale engagement with local publics, complemented by a wave of party and non-party grassroots supporters of an emerging progressive alliance politics. Ordinary people stopping other ordinary voters in the street to talk about politics is not something many have seen before in much of the UK. But now we too had a glimpse of the energies unleashed in the Scottish independence referendum, or emerging out of the 2011 social movements into frontline innovative politics in Ada Colau’s international network of fearless cities. Watching the Grenfell Tower survivors organise their fightback for political and existential recognition was another lesson in dignity and democracy for us all.
Labour and their progressive allies, using their initiative to salvage a recognisable, bottom up ‘politics’, have given Britain a chance to pose a supremely political question: what is the room for manoeuvre for advancing social justice, turning the tide against the worst effects of the financial crash and its extractive neoliberal aftermath?
One key factor in this room for manoeuvre we are beginning to understand better has only emerged in recent months. Research on both sides of the Atlantic shows how susceptible our mainstream press has been to an alliance of big data, billionaire friends of Donald Trump and the disparate forces of the Leave campaign in both the US elections and the BREXIT referendum, and how fear-mongering over immigration and Islam, targeting different parts of the population with their radical right messaging, was successfully fomented on a major scale by some of the most sophisticated communicators of our era.
What are these people up to we might ask? As has been pointed out, among others by Alan Finlayson in a groundbreaking essay in the London Review of Books, much of the political content of Brexit demands – ethnicised nationalism, economic protection – is in flat contradiction to their political outlook. They are globalists through and through. Take Arron Banks, the insurance millionaire who funded Leave.EU, who describes his as a “very simple agenda: to destroy the professional politician”. The politics of continuing referendums and recalls they advocate aims at stalling action by elected politicians and public service professionals alike, “draining the swamp” to leave the way clear for a new kind of nihilistic governmentality, where the ebb and flow of mood and opinion in big data can be surfed and any useful wave amplified and capitalized upon. In this hyper-political anti-politics, politics reduces to perpetual theatre.
For them, Brexit will make it easier to remove legal and political obstacles to the establishment of this new regime, through an increase in the power to win support of those who own the data. (Can we be sure that a Ukipised Tory Government intent on hijacking the Brexit binary referendum choice for a ‘hard Brexit’, will scruple to misuse the inordinate powers they have given themselves to amend EU laws as they are converted into UK law, for example, on the retention, processing and sale of our personal data? Will we see those Democracy digital rights agreed in 2016, coming into effect across Europe in 2018, in full force in the UK? This vulnerability of 40 years’ worth of lawmaking is at the centre of this week’s key battle over parliamentary scrutiny of the ‘Repeal Bill’.)
My point is this. The anti-politics I’m talking about is predicated on one key assumption about the relationship between people and knowledge. That in this digitalised world, the people do not need to know and understand about their own conditions of existence, as they are the thing to be known about and manipulated accordingly!
If this is the enemy, then a politics dedicated to what people as agents of their own fate can make possible together, overcoming the barriers of fearmongering and hatred, is what I believe DiEM25, ably led by that generator of political alternatives, Yanis Varoufakis, wishes to serve. So I am here to ask, can the BREXIT rebuff to the mainstream political agenda in Britain and Europe be turned into an opening for the transformation that we all so urgently need?
We in DiEM25 are glad that recommendations for a substantial transitional post-Brexit referendum period, backed by our movement’s entire membership from London to Warsaw, have been embraced by key players in Britain’s political class, starting with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour party.
Can’t we take this new opportunity for adequate democratic process and scrutiny far further in generating European alternatives and the experience of democracy in action? The UK must play a key role in the open-sourced, democratic, transparent and radical transformation that Europe needs.
Will we succeed? I'm not sure. But I am sure that what is possible, including a referendum on a transformed UK rejoining a transformed democratic EU, will only come about if we are in this fight together.