The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2017

All Issues
NOV 2017 Issue
Field Notes

Welcome to Brexitland

Photo: Jimmy Meyer

From Manchester to Dresden, Reims to Detroit—abandoned factories, rusty machinery and rutted roads form the backdrop to the angry proletarians who have entered the political stage of the deindustrialized countries, at least since the onset of the global crisis in 2008. They have lost their jobs. Or at least they know from friends, family and neighbors that it can happen at any moment. A life between unemployment and insecure, badly paid jobs without the prospect of a better future. After a global wave of struggles—between Occupy, the movement of the squares and mass movements in Greece, Spain and France, the Arab Spring or the Gezi Park uprising in Turkey—a process of social regression has become ever more apparent, with millions of votes for Brexit, Trump, Le Pen, and now also the AfD (Alternative for Germany). Election campaigns and referendums are becoming the scene of new parties and their shrill candidates who agitate the electoral cattle with racist slogans, unambiguous threats, and national-chauvinistic demands. Seemingly, a new era of monsters has begun. The following article reports on a trip through the north of England, once the world's largest industrial region, now abandoned and deindustrialized: Welcome to Brexitland!

To get to the former coal-mining town of Stainforth, you have to take the regional train of the Northern Railway from Doncaster to Scunthorpe. The ride feels like a journey into the past. The train is pulled by an old diesel locomotive. At every stop, a hellish noise sounds, while the oily smell of the now outdated diesel fuel sneaks through the air. Hanging from the ceiling are sweat-soaked leather handles for straphangers. The heavy doors make a real crash when closing. No digital displays, no computer voice announcing the next station. That is taken care of by the grim-looking ticket inspector. “Next station Hatfield & Stainforth.” 

The exit from the small station leads directly from the platform over a concrete stairway to a blue iron bridge. Once at the top, you have the feeling of standing on a viewing platform. Almost inevitably, one’s eyes fall on the old coal mine, the Hatfield Main Colliery, which rises up only a few hundred yards away like a rusty, dead octopus: gigantic towers, storage facilities, and coal conveyor belts now standing still. One might think that the remnants of the old coal mine at Stainforth were supposed to serve as a memorial for a time when Great Britain’s coal mines, steel foundries, glassworks, and car factories were still tirelessly producing for the world market. Villages became small towns. Dark clouds of smoke rose uninterruptedly from the factory chimneys, and workers slaved away around the clock. After the shift, they went into the pubs, which shot out of the ground like mushrooms. Up to 5,000 miners worked the coal mines in the mining towns of Hatfield and Stainforth in their heyday. 

The Making of the English Working Class

Stainforth is located in northeast England, in the Yorkshire region south of Leeds and east of Sheffield, Manchester, and Liverpool. Just a few decades ago, this was the heart of British heavy industry, where thousands of tons of coal and steel were produced everyday for the world market. And here are the “factory towns,” which Friedrich Engels visited 170 years ago to get a picture of the living conditions of the new factory workers. It was the time of the industrial revolution in the 19th century. In his book The Condition of the Working Class in England, Engels draws a gloomy picture:

They are given damp dwellings, cellar dens that are not waterproof from below or garrets that leak from above. Their houses are so built that the clammy air cannot escape. They are supplied bad, tattered, or rotten clothing, adulterated and indigestible food. They are exposed to the most exciting changes of mental condition, the most violent vibrations between hope and fear; they are hunted like game, and not permitted to attain peace of mind and quiet enjoyment of life. They are deprived of all enjoyments except that of sexual indulgence and drunkenness, are worked every day to the point of complete exhaustion of their mental and physical energies, and are thus constantly spurred on to the maddest excess in the only two enjoyments at their command. And if they surmount all this, they fall victims to want of work in a crisis when all the little is taken from them that had hitherto been vouchsafed them.1

Here arose capitalist machinery with its new gigantic factory buildings, and along with it the modern industrial proletariat: the making of the English working class. It is thus the cool irony of history that in the 1970s, it was also here that the iconic de-industrialization began and with it the decline of the great industrial working class of Western industrialized nations. Whether in Detroit, Manchester, northern France, or the Ruhr region, the images are the same: abandoned factories, rusty machinery, rutted roads, and factory workers who are no longer needed. 

The rust belt of England

The dismantling of the factories did not happen without resistance. Massive mobilizations against the closure of a large part of the coal mines finally culminated in the legendary miners’ strike of 1984 – 85 against Thatcher. From today’s standpoint, these were the last gasps of the working class in the region between Liverpool, Manchester, and Sheffield. In the end, the workers suffered their biggest defeat. After that, the collieries closed, then the steel foundries, and finally the glassworks and car factories. After the Iron Lady had broken the power of the workers, the path was free for a radical economic turnaround: social cutbacks, drastic privatization of state enterprises—rail, postal, telecommunications, schools, hospitals—and the liberalization of the financial market. In a short period, the former steel region became the rust belt of England, and the miners became unemployed. Great Britain, formerly the world’s largest industrial power, was crippled into an industrial invalid. At the same time, the country, and above all the city of London, became one of the largest financial markets in the world after Thatcher's deregulation.

At the station of Hatfield & Stainforth, I meet Sheena Moore. After a warm welcome, she immediately changes into battle mode: “Today we get that bitch down.” She means Theresa May. It is the 8th of June, the day of the early elections in Great Britain. May has not only come out with the promise of a hard Brexit, but also with the announcement of massive social cuts. Sheena Moore’s hatred of the Tories was there since she was in the cradle. She is 55 years old, a social worker, born and raised in Stainforth. Her father, her brother, and her ex-husband were all formerly mates in the Hatfield Main Colliery. She herself never worked in the mine, which was a “man’s thing,” she says. But in 1984 – 85, as a young woman, she fought together with ten thousand miners on the street and at the front of the picket lines during the mass strikes. Several times she felt the truncheons of the British riot police, suffering bruises and bloody wounds from the violent confrontation with state power. Here they fought together and went down together. Today the manufacturing sector in the UK only contributes about 10% to the GDP. By way of comparison, the financial industry, which is mainly located in London, now stands between fourteen and seventeen percent, depending on the statistic. 

The colliery was the pulsating heart of Stainforth 

Today Sheena Moore works as a social worker in social psychological care. She could talk for hours about the people and problems on the ground: single mothers without work, young men who are affected by alcoholism and hopelessness, precarious workers laboring in the few small shops, call centers, and, above all, in transport or service. Amazon recently created 500 jobs in a new logistics center, "poorly paid, but at least something," Sheena Moore said. Unemployment in the region, according to the statistics, is only seven percent, but income is among the lowest in the whole of the U.K. A large number of households depend on state welfare, since wages alone no longer meet the cost of living. The dreadfulness of everyday life is mixed with the lack of prospects, which has serious consequences: mental illnesses are up, and the suicide rate is high in Yorkshire, relative to other areas. When Sheena Moore shows me the old coal mine, she casually drops a sentence, which sticks: “The coal mine was the pulsating heart of Stainforth, now it has stopped beating. The houses, the city, and the people slowly die as fast as the rust eats through the old steel beams of the mine.” As if to prove it, she gives me a plausible explanation. Over twenty pubs would have existed at that time, which were always overcrowded in the evening after the shift. People drank, were together, had fun, fell in love, celebrated; the mates, that was a community. Now there’s a single pub in Stainforth—and even that’s about to go.

And now he calls me racist! 

North England is Brexitland. In the Doncaster region, an overwhelming majority of nearly seventy percent voted for Leave. In London, sixty percent voted Remain. The contrast could hardly be stronger. The numbers match the development that the French author Didier Eribon captured in his autobiographical work, Returning to Reims (2009). In France, it was the now surplus proletarians of heavy industry from the northeast that formerly elected the Communist Party who today form the basis of the right-wing National Front. In northern England, usually an impregnable fortress of the Labour Party, the nationalist UKIP, with its anti-immigrant, racist Brexit campaign, was now able to mobilize the old blue-collar workers of the mines and steel mills. A year after the Brexit vote, there are elections again in the UK on June 8. In order to have a comfortable majority for the Brexit negotiations with the EU, Prime Minister Theresa May called for new elections.

Sheena Moore and her people have come home for a tea break. From here the battle continues. The final votes for the social-democratic candidate Jeremy Corbyn must be secured. The living room is like an unofficial party center; flyers from the Labour Party everywhere, lists with the names of the already canvassed streets fly around, while people are discussing excitedly at the dining table. There is a small buffet to gain some strength—boiled eggs, salad, biscuits, frozen pizza, and quiche ready from the oven. The house is full. But only one person there who for days has advocated for the social-democratic party is actually a member of Labour. A friend with his little son is there, Sheena’s older sister Linda, her own son with his little daughter and the forty-year-old niece. Also her best friend Karry.

When the topic of discussion comes to Brexit, Sheena’s sister talks about her son. He is a graphic designer and lives in the capital, the “London Bubble,” as she calls it. He has not talked to his mother since the EU referendum. He says she’s a racist because she’s been working for Brexit. Sheena Moore interferes: “I will say it again and again: it is not about racism, but about class struggle.” Her sister is angry: “We are socialists. I have always told my son that he should respect refugees and migrants, that racism in my house is not accepted. And now he calls me a racist! What drugs do they take in London? And he is not even rich. Does not have proper social security, hangs from job to job. He’s blind.” She breathes deeply. The next round of door knocking begins. It is 3pm, the polling station closes at 10 pm. They have great confidence that “Jeremy,”—as they tenderly call the left-nationalist neo-Keynesian here by his first name—will finally grab an election victory and change something.

We want to take back control of our country!

We pass through the streets of Stainforth. The small red brick houses with their backyard plots recall the setting of Billy Elliot or scenes from Ken Loach’s 1969 film Kes, which was about the young worker Barry, and was actually filmed only a few kilometers away in the former coal town of Barnsley. In the doorways, two issues are continuously discussed: Brexit and Theresa May’s announced austerity measures. Almost everyone agrees: “Leave” was the right decision, because it could not go on as before. Likewise, people are united in the hopes tied to Labour chairman Corbyn. When asked what people would expect from Brexit, there are arguments strongly reminiscent of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” rhetoric. And here are also the nationalist slogans of the Leave campaign: “We want to take back control of our country!”

Jeremy Corbyn has adopted this slogan for the election, giving it a left-wing nationalist turn. Thus his followers heard: the migrated industries should be brought back from Germany and France. They had been fooled back then. London got the banks, Germany the export-strong factories. To take back control means the re-nationalization of railway and telecommunications, but also the control of migration. My ears prick up. Is there no connection between the racist campaign of UKIP and the strengthened nationalist mood as well as the many attacks on migrants after the Brexit vote?

It is played down. “They were individuals. That’s not what Brexit is about.” But if you dig deeper, you get down to business. One should “not in principle be against refugees or labor migrants,” who are not to blame. Two young men are coming towards us by car. Acquaintances of Sheena Moore. They too are campaigning. On the subject of migration, they are on Corbyn’s side: “It can not be that the big companies are bringing people into the country, who only get paid a hunger wage, and we end up with no jobs. This is only good for the businessmen,” says the strongly built, tattooed guy. They drive on through their neighborhood, with slanted windows, the megaphone in their hands. “Choose Labor. Choose for justice. Smash the Tories. Crush Theresa May. Now!” one of the two shouts into the bullhorn.

Dream of the just state against financial capital

In a readable interview with the weekly German newspaper Die Zeit, Didier Eribon commented on the new developments of left-wing nationalism: “The fact that leftists take up right-wing arguments is seen more and more often: the nation against the oligarchy, the homeland against the financial elite, the people against those on top. Many of my friends now say about Brexit: this is bad nationalism, but we represent the good nationalism. I can see no difference.”2

British fans of Corbyn also argue for the “correct nationalism.” Their “take back control of our country” idea is the dream of the just state against financial capital. The illusion of good capitalism against the evil kind, or, as we say in German, social democracy against turbo-capitalism. The logic remains the same: political staging and vote-catching with reactionary and racist ideas. Whether it is the Frenchman Mélenchon, who proclaims in the election campaign, waving the national flag with a thundering Marseillaise: “The supreme good of the people is national sovereignty." Or the Left Party in Germany with its top candidate, Sahra Wagenknecht, and her slogan: “Whoever abuses their guest’s rights has also forfeited their guest’s rights.” Only the NPD expresses this better: “Criminal foreigners out.”

Unfortunately, this is not a new development. Patriotism and the left have a long common tradition. Often, in decisive moments, only socialists and social democrats could make nationalist sentiments really acceptable among the workers. Once you begin with the blood and soil rhetoric, then it is not far from the hate for those who look different or just have the wrong passport. Thus in Great Britain, shortly after the Brexit vote, there were numerous attacks on migrants. Polish guest workers, for example, know a thing or two about this.

Now of all times, as a result of the crisis of 2008, which made the destructive forces of the capitalist mode of production more and more apparent in Europe (even the hardworking journalists in their feuilletons ask whether capitalism is still working properly), many people apparently confuse Keynesianism and tax policy with radical social critique. Although the heads of government and their ministers—often in association with the trade union bosses, leftist parties and employers' associations—are the ones implementing the massive austerity programs against the proletarians, trust in the fatherland has not ended; instead many cling to the nation as a last hope as if it is their last shirt.

With his clear rejection of left-wing nationalist aberrations, Didier Eribon stands on the right side, making himself a sympathetic companion for the humble lot of stateless comrades. Unfortunately, like many critics of the hour, he is not a great dialectician, having exchanged his Marxism for Bourdieusian sociology. A fundamental critique of the state still remains foreign to him. Thus he sees the reactionary turn of the industrial working class as mainly due to the failure of the left: they were the ones who participated in the neoliberal reforms and defended them in discourse, thus alienating their voters and made themselves unelectable. In this way, one can also explain his diffuse hope for a new leftist party, which should fix it all.

The fact that the crisis-prone development of capitalism—in short, the capitalist mode of production itself—might have something to do with the current misery does not arise. Whoever does not want to see that there is a central contradiction between labor and capital, that the class question cannot be regulated by redistribution policies, and that social impoverishment cannot be alleviated in times of crisis has either failed to grasp the scope of the current situation or is simply blinded.

There is already a certain irony that today a large part of the bourgeoisie and their political representatives are trying to mobilize against Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen, to campaign for open borders, against protectionism, and for gay marriage. Proletarians, on the other hand, fearing the consequences of the next wave of rationalizations, bet on the national map as the last trump card in workplace competition, and increasingly understand themselves as the guardians of reactionary, conservative values. So one can say: the class question is back on the table. But not as a united International, but in its most reactionary robe, deeply insecure, dispersed, and often made visible with the ugly face of chauvinism.

Myth of the good old times of the working class

In the middle of the town of Stainforth, Linda, Sheena Moore’s older sister, points to the other side of the main road. “Here was once the market square and next to it several pubs. Here we met, and news was shared. We laughed, and even fell in love.” Her eyes fill with tears for a moment. “The loss of social cohesion is the worst,” says Linda. There is rubbish on the former market square, rusty cars lying around, and it does not look like they will ever be picked up again. Most stores are closed and will probably not open anymore. At an entrance, you can still see the peeled-off inscription: "Fresh Fish Market.”

When looking back on the golden 1960s, both the former mine workers and many leftists indulge in a kind of romantic cult of the proletariat. For a certain part of the working class, material conditions were better and safer, but ultimately they were still decrepit. The myth of the good old times of the working class is wrong and it is important to get rid of it. It was no wonder that, despite the good material conditions, factory workers around the world at that time went to the barricades in Detroit, Manchester, Paris, Cologne, and Turin. In addition to massive strikes and the fight for higher wages—partly against their own trade unions along with their bureaucrats, for whom the new rebelliousness of the proletarians went too far—resistance against work also became a central component.

In many workplaces, a competition broke out for new, creative forms of resistance against wage drudgery: calling in sick, slowdowns, sabotage, long pauses, etc. With the popular slogan from Italy, “We want everything,” everyday life beyond the factory gate was also declared a battleground: from the school to the office, the hospital to the university, the kitchen to the bedroom. The monotony and lethal boredom of the assembly line was seen to cycle through all areas of life. 

Thus, we come to the second myth, which is difficult to demystify in a short dialogue with the former mining workers of Stainforth. It was mainly (wild) striking proletarians, rebellious women, insurgent migrants, gays and lesbians, antiauthoritarian students and pupils themselves, who, through their relentless struggles and demands, threatened capital and state leaders and sunk the profit-rate. And this must also be the answer to all of today’s adherents of social-democratic-Keynesian dreams. The blame for privatization, social cutbacks, and the misery in southern Europe falls on the crisis-prone capitalist mode of production and not on the supposedly wrong decisions of individual politicians. That neoliberalism is to blame is a myth which allows one to fantasize that there could be or might have been another, socially just, not crisis-prone capitalism.

As much as one likes to listen to Lisa and Sheena Moore’s romantic memories of the proud, combative working class in the Stainforth of yesteryear—and, admittedly, the communist in me smiles for a moment—one misses an awareness that even in the past many things were already horrible, that there were thousands of reasons to fight capitalist relations in all its forms, that backbreaking physical labor was more curse than blessing. The Situationist slogan “Ne travaillez jamais” (Never work!) was at that time a serious outcry for general revolt against the rule of the workplace. Now, emptied of any content, it is only used in the high-gloss program of the state platforms to lure the hip urban audience into the theatre with a breath of subversion.

Photo: Jimmy Meyer

If there is austerity, there will be riots in the UK

Nevertheless many things were different then. One had more time to joke with colleagues; the postman did not have to run but could also take a breather at the doorway for a cigarette and chat; one often behaved in solidarity with coworkers against the boss, and could achieve substantial wage increases. With too many sick days, one lost one’s job without much fear, since the next job in a colliery, on the assembly line, or at the checkout was only a stone’s throw away and, because of full employment, almost guaranteed. Unemployment benefits and social assistance also allowed relatively good living conditions. This is the qualitative difference from today’s situation.

It is probably one of the most absurd signs of our time, and thus of capitalism itself, that today no proletarian can look forward to rationalization. Thus, for a sorter in the logistics center at Amazon, the announcement of the use of new machines brings the fear that a remote-controlled robot could soon replace the already poorly-paid worker. Rapid technological progress increasingly produces surplus proletarians, whose prospects for a steady workplace and thus a secure perspective on the future look ever more hopeless.

This state of affairs also has devastating consequences on the subjective side, which can provide a further important explanation for the adoption of national-chauvinist ideas. Gerhard Vinnai formulates this development from the social-psychological point of view: “The weaker the ego, the more the psyche falls under the dictates of unconscious psychological forces. If the ego cannot develop because of failed educational processes or if it atrophies due to a lack of a social space for action, then people are particularly at risk of falling for unintelligible, internal powers.” One could hardly describe better the psychological condition of the people delighted by Trump’s border plans, or those intoxicated by Brexit as a kind of national liberation, or those in Germany who consider themselves the silent majority behind the EU-Turkey deal.

After a long day, as I say goodbye to Sheena Moore, she gives me a warm embrace, and tells me one more thing: "If there is austerity, there will be riots in the U.K. You’ll see!” While I wrote these lines, the Grenfell Tower burned in London. It was one of the few social housing developments still located in a central position for low-income earners in this metropolis of millions. The high-rise burned because fire protection regulations were not observed by the municipal owner. Residents of the house had been drawing attention to the problem for months. Eighty people were killed. Only a day later, there were protests by relatives and residents of the high-rise now lying in rubble and ash. The town hall of the affluent district of Kensington was stormed.

The police were attacked. “Murderers, murderers” and “We want justice,” they screamed with rage at the mayor. A young woman told a reporter: “This incident symbolizes the separation between rich and poor. Only people from the working class have died here.” The left-leaning newspaper The Guardian, referring to The Condition of the Working Class in England, headlined an article: “Over 170 years after Engels, Britain is still a country that murders its poor.”

Certainly, the conditions of the working classes in England have changed considerably: the miserable barracks of the workers of Manchester, without running water, muddy paths, full of feces, children dying of the simplest illnesses—there can be no more talk of this today. Nevertheless, the reality of the proletarianized—whether from the London suburban ghetto or the former coal town of Stainforth—seems hopeless, a better future unimaginable. The alternative to unemployment and the resulting harassment from an increasingly repressive welfare state operating at minimum capacity is shit jobs in the service and transport industries. The fact that these conditions do not provide a good breeding ground for emancipatory struggles is currently shown not only in Great Britain. Instead, the process of social regression has become independent.

The lived powerlessness and boredom of dreary everyday life fuels the collective identity disorder and the formation of an authoritarian character. The hatred of one’s own miserable existence turns in a reactionary way against the outside. The ugly and yet desperate clinging to the nation as a last hope in the struggle against one’s own downfall seems suddenly rational in this crisis-shaken age of madness. Thus, national chauvinism is booming. And in this situation, the choice for Brexit ultimately appears only consistent.

Sheena Moore campaigned strongly for Brexit. Meanwhile, she has become increasingly concerned about the rise of aggressive nationalism in Great Britain. “Instead of making the system and the government responsible for the bad situation,” she told me, “migrants were declared scapegoats. But they are not to blame, of course. They are just as exploited as we are. We are all part of the working class and no matter where we come from, we must hang together in the future.” It is to be feared that with this position Sheena Moore will not win the majority of the frustrated workers in north England.


Translated from the German ( by Jacob Blumenfeld.


The Brooklyn Rail

NOV 2017

All Issues