Lexit is the wrong kind of utopianism

In 2007 Larry Elliott, the Guardian’s economics editor, co-published a book on the cracks  beneath the surface of New Labour’s political success. Look deeper, he said, and there were serious flaws in the UK economy that Blair and Brown had never got to grips with.

Unsustainable private debt

Presciently, a year before the crash, he identified how New Labour’s political economy was built on an unsustainable boom in private debt. Moreover, the underlying weakness of the British economy was revealed by a ballooning trade deficit. The result was that the whole country was trying to ‘live beyond its means at every level’—and was in complete denial of that fact. The name the authors gave to Blair’s Britain was ‘Fantasy Island’.

Nearly a decade of Conservative austerity later, and British politics is lost not so much in a fantasy as in a nightmare. But Elliott—and some others on the left, such as New Statesman economics commentator Grace Blakeley—have responded with a fantasy of their own: Lexit.

Destructive utopianism

The case made by Elliott and others is that only leaving the EU fully—escaping the single market and customs union—would give a future Corbyn government the ability to deliver a programme of democratic socialism. The side-argument is that a hard Brexit would deliver such a major trauma to the British system as to remove the establishment barriers to radical social and economic progress. Maurice Glasman, founder of Blue Labour and another Lexiteer, pushes this argument to its logical conclusion. Writing in the Morning Star he advocates crashing out of the EU with no deal, to ensure maximum democratic control of the UK economy.

The sincerity of such advocates of Brexit in wanting the best for the majority of British people should not be in doubt. Ditto, the perceptiveness of their varying critiques of Labour’s previous model of political economy—which for all its successes bought into the nonsense that financial markets had become so sophisticated that crises were a thing of the past. But the positive solution they have backed itself betrays a greater amount of fantastical thinking than any seen under New Labour. Herewe can see the eruption of a particular kind of destructive utopianism which has a long history on the left.

Double-edged sword

Utopianism ought to be recognised as a double-edged sword. It is indeed the life-blood of the left: its role is to inspire us as to the end result, the ideal society we are trying to bring about. But it needs to be treated with care, because in its stress on the ideal it can lead people to become contemptuous of the practicalities that condition the possibilities of political action. In short, we should guard against being utopian about our ability to bring utopia into being: this is to believe in a fantasy that in a vital sense we already live in the utopia we are trying to bring about.

Unprecedented challenges

Lexit is a prime case of utopianism in this pejorative sense. It is a utopianism about the means at one’s disposal to control the outcomesone wants to see. Guided by this misplaced faith, its advocates are dismissive of the probabilities of extreme harm their policy entails.

Lexiteers want a hard Brexit, which they think is essential to freeing the hands of a socialist government. But any hard Brexit—especially Maurice Glasman’s No Deal, and especially if coupled with an avowed ambition of winning a confrontation with capital, as Blakeley puts it—would immediately impose unprecedented challenges.

The direct economic impacts would be dire — capital flight, cessation of private investment, mass closures and redundancies, dramatic labour and skills shortages, and the pound in freefall, leading to stagflation and a sharp drop in standards of living.

And this wouldn’t be the half of it!  We would also be faced with the probable breakup of the UK, the very possible return of the Troubles, Parliamentary gridlock as years were taken up with trade and constitutional legislation, a further rise in xenophobia, and a complete collapse in Britain’s external soft power.

No one would be happy with the outcome—including the millions who originally voted Leave. The morale of the country would be at rock bottom, and the people more bitterly divided than ever. While some within the Leader’s inner circle might welcome the prospects of such ‘disaster socialism’ (as Nick Cohen, cursed not to be believed even though he knows what he’s talking about, puts it), in reality this would be fatal for the cause of socialism in this country—and for the Labour Party with it.

I am fully behind Larry Elliott and others in their passion for thoroughgoing reform of the institutions of British life. Great waves of reform are needed. And the phenomenon which illustrates this need above all is Brexit itself. The witlessness of our chumocracy, the anti-intellectualism of public debate, the contempt for governance and convention, the social Manichaeism — there are other evils of British society which need to be addressed, and which Brexit has helped to throw into relief; but these are the evils of British political life which Brexit itself represents. We must hope that if this can be recognised widely enough, something good will still come out of this crisis, as Anthony Barnett hopes. But not if we actually go through with the kind of hard Brexit the Lexiteers dream of.

Richard Douglas is a PhD student in the Political Economy Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London.

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