Democracy, Brexit Stage Left: A Socialist Critique of the Brexit Vote

Bryant William Sculos I Politics & Government I Analysis I July 19th, 2016

Of the People or For the People?

How do we understand an instance when a demos votes for something that is largely motivated by anti-democratic sentiments and produces anti-democratic results? Now, imagine a similar scenario but the people doing the voting have little to no say in the process leading up to voting, and some of the people who will likely be most dramatically harmed by the outcome lack both a vote and any power in the process. This second scenario is the kind of "democracy" that we're witnessing in the Brexit referendum-a democracy hardly worth the name.

In Marxist theory, this first scenario is typically categorized as an instance of false consciousness-when peoples' subjective perceptions of their interests are different than their objective class-based interests (of which they are ostensibly unaware). This is often where the role of communist party and leftist intellectuals comes up; their role being to cultivate a class consciousness among the oppressed workers so that their subjective and objective interests are identical. This is relatively familiar to those on the Left, and could seem like a good enough reason to criticize how democracy currently manifests, but there is a better more principled reason to reject democracy as it is practiced under capitalism and this approach can be understood by examining the recent Brexit vote calling on the United Kingdom to extricate itself from the European Union. The result in this essay is a democratic critique of "democracy."

The people voted, right? Right. There were no organized gangs intimidating voters or forcing them to vote a specific way, right? Right. There was even fairly high turnout across demographic groups, right? Right. Given all of this, how could socialists oppose this process without opposing democracy itself?


Without staking out a firm position on whether Brexit was indeed an instance of a working class voting against its own interests, Brexit, at the very least, brings important questions to the surface: how should we understand this vote-hailed by those on the Right and Left, even among Remainers, as at least a victory for democracy-if indeed it is actually against the interests of most working people in the United Kingdom? Beyond that though, we should not limit ourselves to simply thinking about whether the results of the vote were in the interest of the people of the UK. We need to think about whether the process by which the results came to be were actually democratic.

Socialists inspired by, and forthright believers in, socialism-from-below cannot accept democracy under capitalistic conditions, because capitalism is systematically in contradiction with anything worth considering democracy. This however does not make us in any way opponents of actual democracy. In fact, quite the opposite.

Under (neo)liberal capitalism, democracy equals voting-and usually under extremely limited circumstances that themselves were not voted upon. We could call this "democracy-in-name-only." Democracy-in-name-only, as mere voting, cannot be the basis for socialism in principle, that much is obvious to most on the Left who value at the very least some kind of economic democracy, to say nothing for the fact that democracy as mere voting under capitalism often produces very harmful and regressive politics.

This is where false conscious and ideology are indeed important. Because of the ideological power of capitalism to reproduce itself through the very people that it exploits and oppresses, democracy manifests itself in conservative and often undemocratic policies. Democracy-in-name-only identifies non-democracy with democracy and gives capitalism an ideologically sophisticated discursive advantage. If capitalism has democracy, it is easy to paint socialists as anti-democratic, regardless of our protestations to the contrary. This is exacerbated by leftist arguments based on false consciousness-whatever the actual merits of such arguments.

The agents of capitalism, business and political elites, have, for centuries, convinced working people to support policies that are manifestly opposed to (socialist) interpretations of the interests of the working class. There is more justification for opposing the capitalistic performances of liberal democracy beyond just capitalism's propensity to get working people to vote against their own interests and the interests of others whom they should be in solidarity with.

Even if one tends to reject this idea of false consciousness explaining the Brexit vote as elitist, verticalist, or otherwise undemocratic, socialists should still refuse to consider the Brexit vote as an example of democracy. Socialist democracy (or as we call it, socialism), is about process as much as it is about just, egalitarian results.

Why isn't Brexit an example of democracy then? Why must we refuse to think about it-despite our academic or personal political views about the EU and the UK's place within the EU-as a glowing example of democracy in action, as an example of the people speaking out and registering their displeasure and dissatisfaction with the very undemocratic and neoliberal capitalist European Union? (as has been suggested by Green Party US candidate Dr. Jill Stein)?

Brexit was not an example of genuine democracy, not because the people voted against their own interests (again, for the moment, I'm arguing based on the contingent assumption that this is true), but rather because my mother asking me if I want either dirt or smelly gym shoe flavored ice cream is not a democratic choice. Put more seriously, being able to only choose between two bad options, with little to no say in altering or expanding those options, should never be considered anything close to democracy, never mind the kind that socialism demands.

While it is worth making the respective cases whether the results of the referendum do or do not serve the interests of the British, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and the multitudes of non-European residents and citizens on the islands, the point I want us to focus on here is about process. The Brexit vote was undemocratic, not only because the potential perniciousness of false consciousness, not only because of the lack of genuine workplace democracy that fosters class-consciousness and national and global solidarity among the oppressed (while that is entirely true), the primary reason the vote was undemocratic was because those people who will be most detrimentally affected by the vote had absolutely no say in the decision, nor in the decision-making process to determine how the eventual decision would be made. This is a violation of what Jürgen Habermas has called the "all-affected principle"-the legitimizing norm that all those people who are affected by a decision should have a say in that decision, even if the eventual decision goes against their interests.

Despite that, for Habermas, his broader theory of discursively-legitimized democracy has never been adequately connected to socialist politics, it seems like a natural fit. Why do workers deserve workplace democracy? Because they are the people most affected by the policies, practices, and maldistributive consequences of their work environment. This is a socialist application of the all-affected principle.

Given the motivation of so many Brexiters to expel immigrant workers and reject future migrants and refugees entrance into the UK, it is absolutely crucial for the Left to not only criticize the bigotry of those motivations and the harmful consequences of it being implemented in policy, but even more so to emphasize the undemocratic truth that even the migrants who have been working in the UK for years who lack citizenship (and do not come from a Commonwealth country) could not participate in the political process that very well may result in their expulsion from their homes-to say nothing for the thousands of potential refugees "residing" outside the UK hoping to immigrate or be granted asylum. This is where the Brexit referendum was most horribly undemocratic.

Even for the citizenry of the UK this was not democracy. The referendum was foisted upon them, and their "democratic" power was strictly limited to saying "yes, exit" or "no, remain." Occasionally getting to say "yes" or "no" has got to be one of the most impoverished definitions of democracy around, and yet since it was solidified by thinkers like Schumpeter and Huntington, it remains a very popular understanding of democracy.

This is what socialists must refuse. Beyond whatever you may think about Brexit, the people of the UK and the immigrants who will be most affected by this vote, did not have any functional power in determining the process by which this decision was made. This was a narrowly, nearly completely non-participatory plebiscite. Plebiscitary democracy can never be socialist democracy-and should hardly be considered democratic in any substantial way, just like this referendum.

Inclusivity, Participation, and Left Democracy

Socialists interested in purely democratic forms of socialism must not hesitate to criticize something that may superficially appear to be a democratic process and result for fear of being called elitist or undemocratic. Socialists should take up a stronger mantle against false mirages hailed as democracy simply because some people's voices were momentarily audible. Socialists must call for an inclusive, participatory version of democracy that stands opposed to liberal, nationalist, exclusionary, plebiscitary democracy.

While the debates on the Left about the consequences (bothpositive and negative) of Brexit will and should continue to be had, it is absolutely necessary that we not overlook the process by which these consequences came to be. It is not irrelevant whether the results are good for the working people of the UK and the EU more broadly, but it would be easy to overlook the extremely undemocratic process if the focus is nearly exclusively on the manipulation, fear, anger, and nationalism that motivated the core constituency of Brexit.

Socialism is as much about process as it is about results, and while the consequences are being explored, taking a step back to remind ourselves that process is intimately related to the consequences is important if we want to limit the possibility for a resurgent right-wing shift in the UK, the EU, the United States, and around the world.

Democracy is more than the momentary voice of people. It is a way of structuring society and life itself, and it is a social, political, and economic form that the EU has militated against since its inception. This is the kind of ideological perversion of democracy that the democratic Left can be proud to oppose without ever risking tip-toing into the waters of anti-democracy.

Bryant William Sculos is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at Florida International University whose research uses Critical Theory as a basis to explore the relationship between capitalism, democracy, and global justice. His work has been published inClass, Race and Corporate Power, Political Studies Review, Marx & Philosophy Review of Books, New Politics, and with The Hampton Institute. Bryant is also an at-large member of Socialist Alternative in the US.