Looking at Lexit : Everyday Lexiteers - Interview 3 : Oliver

"When viewed in [the] Europe-wide context, it becomes clear that a vote for Leave is not a vote for UKIP or for neoliberalism. In fact, it may deprive such forces of the international structures which sustain them."

Oliver Eagleton Xavier Buxton
16 August 2018

Eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem arrives at the Finance Ministry after his meeting with Greek Fin. Minister in Athens on September, 2017. NurPhoto/Press Association. All rights reserved.

As part of our Looking at Lexit series, we’ll be asking left-wing Brexit voters about their reasons for voting Leave. Our third “Everyday Lexiter” is Oliver, a recent graduate now working as an editorial assistant.

Describe your political outlook/background/loyalties

Becoming disenchanted with Obama was a significant part of my political education. I went to his inauguration at the age of eleven and got swept up in the euphoria, only to look back on the 2008 inaugural ceremony and question my uncritical participation in it. I later joined the Irish Socialist Party and began campaigning against the EU-IMF austerity regime which had been devastating the country since the crash. The group did a lot of good work, but was run by tunnel-visioned ultra-leftists whose outlook was too obstinate to be effective. They ended up expelling me after I wrote a satirical play about Trotskyist fringe parties.

I moved to England in 2015 and became a member of Corbyn’s Labour. I usually describe my outlook as Leninist, in the sense that I believe socialist principles should always complement the concrete analysis of concrete situations, and that revolutionary politics should allow for maximal flexibility and improvisation without yielding to reformism.

Describe, in two or three sentences, your political utopia: what your ideal community would look like, and how would it function?

I think that any revolutionary act creates new possibilities which lie beyond one’s current cultural horizons. For me, socialists should try to create that space of possibility by exploiting capitalism’s contradictions, supporting its oppressed groups, and creating forms of collectivism to counter its atomising effects – but we shouldn’t try to draw up some utopian blueprint which will inevitably become ossified and redundant. Instead, we should unite behind a few broad principles (radical equality, mass democratisation, collective ownership) and use them to propel us towards a future which is unthinkable in the present: a future in which the texture of everyday life – not just the structure of our state apparatus – is deeply affected by political transformation.

What was your main reason for voting for Brexit?

As a teenager, I followed Yanis Varoufakis’ confrontation with the EU in great detail, and felt unable to forget it when the Brexit referendum was announced. The Greek debacle left no doubt as to what happens when a progressive movement gains popular support and political traction inside the EU: it is subjected to what Varoufakis rightly called ‘economic terrorism’, forced to betray its mandate and stripped of its power by an unelected technocracy. The sight of Syriza politicians breaking down in parliament – knowing that their EU-imposed legislative programme will condemn millions to hunger and destitution, yet having little alternative given their failure to plan for Grexit – is haunting, and underscores the EU’s contempt for both democracy and dignity.

I could never support such an institution as a matter of principle. But in realpolitikal terms, the necessity of Brexit is just as urgent. It is naïve to think that Labour would escape the fate of Syriza – that the EU would not use Britain’s treaty obligations and state aid rules to prevent any deviation from neoliberal orthodoxy. It seemed to me that, faced with the unpalatable prospect of a Tory Brexit, left-wing Remainers wilfully ignored the ways in which social change is incompatible with EU membership. Their ability to neglect this fact also signalled a broader political defeatism: we’ll never win an election anyway, so why not keep the EU as a bulwark against Tory deregulation? Why opt for ‘national sovereignty’ when our sovereign decision-makers will be Conservative for the foreseeable future? Meanwhile, those who believe that the left might soon take power (a belief validated by the last general election) seemed more willing to prepare for that outcome. An ineluctable part of that preparation is Brexit.

The short-sightedness of the Remain position also struck me as incompatible with the kind of structural thinking which the left claims to deploy. For me, the most compelling reasons to remain were the reluctance to galvanise xenophobic nationalism and the fear that Liam Fox’s libertarian cronies would hijack the economy. But even these arguments rely on viewing Brexit as an event with exclusively national significance. They do not reckon with the EU’s capacity to stoke anti-immigrant sentiment across its member states, impose ‘structural reforms’ which entrench an extreme free market ideology, and sign trade agreements that threaten workers’ rights internationally. Instead of seeing Farage and Fox as nutters to be reined in by the EU, we should understand them as symptoms of a far-right free-trade movement whose rise is abetted by the EU itself. When viewed in this Europe-wide context, it becomes clear that a vote for Leave is not a vote for UKIP or for neoliberalism. In fact, it may deprive such forces of the international structures which sustain them.

Were you influenced by any politicians? Friends, family, colleagues?

I was influenced by Tariq Ali’s unequivocal support for Brexit. During a crisis of confidence some months after the referendum I asked him whether he still believed it was a progressive result, to which he replied ‘Of course’ with total, relaxed certainty. But, aside from that, all my friends and family were Remainers. I found it instructive that many of them seemed to accept the dominant middle-class opinion in a manner which reminded me of uncritical Obama supporters and (in a very different way) of the ideological lemmings whom I met in the Socialist Party. I was instinctively allergic to that Remainer herd instinct – especially since it affects the very people who describe Leave voters as brainless, impulsive and easily manipulated.

How would a Labour-led Brexit differ from a Tory one?

In either case, the EU will try to make leaving as costly and unappealing as possible. But I think Labour’s policy on the customs union is more coherent than anything proposed by the Tories, and Corbyn’s commitment to solving the Irish border question is sure to win him a morsel of goodwill in Brussels. Labour would liberate Britain from the constraints of the single market (whose worst aspects would be retained by the Tories) while also forging a ‘soft’, humane and sensible approach to immigration. Concessions will have to be made by any British negotiator, but the reclamation of sovereignty would be accelerated by a left-wing government which cares more about popular self-determination and less about the flow of capital.

What would have to change about the EU, or the UK’s relationship with the EU, for you to support continued or renewed membership?

It would have to ditch the euro, radically overhaul the ECB, drop plans for further political and economic integration, become democratic, accountable and transparent, flatten out destructive hierarchies in the EU27, change the functioning of the European Parliament, and send Jeroen Dijsselbloem to live with Greek fishermen for the rest of his days. None of this seems likely.

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