The Viewpoint of the Pathways Group on Brexit

Not exactly a downfall of Hegelian world-historical import: David Cameron's pathetic resignation speech

Not exactly a downfall of Hegelian world-historical import: David Cameron’s pathetic resignation speech


The contempt for elementary principles of democracy shown by the elites of the Council and Commission and their subordinates, not to speak of an army of obedient publicists in the media, is reciprocated by the disdain of the masses for the Parliament that supposedly represents them… In the absence of any collective vision of the structures of power that hold all those without capital in their grip, let alone of how to replace them, beleaguered minorities on the margins of social existence become the focus of every kind of projection and resentment.

Perry Anderson, ‘The New Old World’


Slightly over a week ago, on June 23, the UK voted in a momentous referendum to quit affiliation to the European Union. Forty-three years of membership, ratified in a previous plebiscite in June 1975, are set to be wound up, to the consternation of pollsters, EU commissioners and the bulk of Britain’s ruling class. A contest of mounting irascibility, culminating in the shocking murder of Europhile Labour Party MP Jo Cox, saw the Leave faction beat its Remain rival by a margin of 51.9% to 48.1%. Some 33 million voters were split along geographic lines, with Scotland and Northern Ireland at variance with the overall trend in England and Wales, where London was the sole region to throw its weight behind Remain. Here in Stoke-on-Trent, a Leave vote of 69.4% was the largest registered in a major city. Designed as a sop to Conservative Party voters inclined to defect to the United Kingdom Independence Party, in the belief that state propaganda would ensure a pro-EU outcome, the referendum has turned out to be a monumental blunder on the part of incumbent prime minister David Cameron. The propaganda of what was dubbed “Project Fear” duly arrived in abundance, but failed to counter the bluster emanating from UKIP and the rabidly Eurosceptic wing of Cameron’s own party; nor did it cow an electorate in anti-establishment mood over austerity measures and the perceived hazards posed by migration into the UK from its EU neighbours, especially those poorer countries granted accession since 2004.

With a single exception, members of our group cast their votes in favour of Britain exiting the Union, the so-called “Brexit” option. (The exception was Frank, who, quite understandably, was troubled at the prospect of lending encouragement to the racists and xenophobes of UKIP.) We devoted much thought and discussion to the issue. In the end, the EU’s paucity of democratic accountability, an increasingly doctrinaire enforcement by the Union of a neoliberal agenda, the disastrous Eurozone, and aversion to David Cameron all played a role in our nearly unanimous decision. Dave Williams hoped that Brexit would lead eventually to a revival of UK manufacturing at the expense of parasitic finance capital, while Dave Sweetsur was at odds with the corrupt authoritarianism of EU mandarins such as Jean-Claude Juncker. The present author, Mark Conlon, did not veer from longstanding antipathy to the EU as bastion of capitalism. Not even the pleas of local MP Tristram Hunt, or the imprecation placed on Brexit by a jug-eared, inanely grinning war criminal with whom Hunt is not wholly unconnected, sufficed to persuade us of the error of our choice. The reader of our site must judge whether, as alleged by hysterical advocates of the Remain camp, our voting record damns us as uneducated dolts separated by a doctrinal hair’s breadth from adherence to outright fascism.

None of our group takes an iota of pleasure in the fact that the Leave coalition was dominated by populist rightwingers relentlessly harping on anti-immigrant prejudice as their chief means of leverage. We are not Europhobic Manicheans who imagine that nothing has been sacrificed. I’ve adverted previously in this blog to praiseworthy (if somewhat belated) EU directives concerning disabled persons, and those protections have been rendered moot, together with “bureaucratic” hindrances to capital accumulation – that is to say, rudimentary workplace rights – upheld by Brussels. Certainly such needless appurtenances will not be prized by the likes of UKIP leader Nigel Farage and Tory minister Michael Gove, whose noxious rhetoric went largely unanswered on the left, most egregiously by a Labour Party led into tepid EU endorsement by an erstwhile Bennite who’d lost the courage of his convictions. Above the hubbub of reactionary scapegoating, the ear strained vainly to catch any reference to the European Central Bank, neoliberal trade deals or the corporate asset stripping of Greece. There was a time when we would have heard loud denunciations of a “bosses’ club” from a substantial number of Labour MPs, but that era is long gone. Jeremy Corbyn, in snatching defeat from the jaws of what could have been a famous victory, has left one with nothing but disgust for a rejectionist campaign compounded of little besides falsehood and bigotry. In all probability, this pusillanimity will cost an otherwise admirable and sincere man either his job or the next general election.

Having stated that vital caveat, and bypassing Arthur Schopenhauer’s disparagement of an ignoble sentiment, let’s give way to schadenfreude and contemplate the discomfiture of some of those on the losing side. On the post-referendum morning of June 24, it was marvellous to behold the ashen faces of BBC presenters, stricken with bewilderment and terror as what George Soros terms the “alchemy of finance” threatened to ravage their pensions and portfolios. Voices quivered with a dolorous emotion echoed by David Cameron in his resignation announcement at 10 Downing Street – the prime ministerial departure is lamentably on hold pending a handover of power after the Conservatives’ party conference in October – as realization dawned that an unstinting contribution to Project Fear had come to naught. There will be less alarm felt by those too impoverished to take a personal interest in the irrationality (or “volatility” to use the standard journalistic circumlocution) of stock index fluctuations. As for the premier hoist by his own plebiscitary petard, only those of a saintly disposition will be able to resist savouring his demise. Ancient Rome had a practice called damnatio memoriae, reserved for those whose remembrance deserved to be erased from the historical record. It is a fate that Cameron fully merits. George Osborne, his co-conspirator in class warfare, is similarly doomed, and one can derive just as much joie de vivre from that. The Bullingdon boys dedicated themselves to marginalizing yet further the disposable people of a postindustrial UK, only to discover that, given an outlet for their disaffection, the latter are not as apathetic and susceptible to manipulation as Etonian elitism would cause one to believe.

With characteristic duplicity, Cameron has reneged on a promise to immediately implement Article 50, the Lisbon Treaty’s five-point mechanism for extrication from the EU, and no doubt will continue to procrastinate. US Secretary of State John Kerry, not content with sending Britain to the back of the global trading queue, is impudently goading him to nullify the referendum verdict. A course of withdrawal, nonetheless, has been set in motion, and the contagion of revolt may spread to France, Italy and other internally riven members of the Union. Many consequences might follow. EU-mandated austerity could be undermined as a result of Brexit, even as an embittered George Osborne, in the brief interlude remaining to him as Chancellor of the Exchequer, threatens to double down on the fiscal sadism of spending cuts. The summum malum of neoliberal hegemony, the secretive Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, is likely to be dealt a fatal blow by Britain’s absence from the fold. Ultimately an entire supranational edifice could implode, terminating a malignant trend highlighted by recent events in Ukraine: the development of the EU into an aggressive imperialist bloc. Assailed by reinvigorated Scottish and Irish nationalists, perfidious Albion – the venerable slur was resurrected during the Brexit campaign by French newspaper Le Parisien – may itself disintegrate. Conceivably we are on the verge of all that is solid melting into air, happily so when barely a year has passed since I was lamenting the demoralizing triumph of David Cameron in a national election.

In this Gramscian interregnum, a space has been opened for struggle outside the stifling confines of EU technocapitalism. The path will be far from easy, as modern-day successors to the gnomes of Zurich seek to vitiate any turn to the left. Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and all the other investment bank leviathans – not to mention that scourge of economic autonomy, the International Monetary Fund – backed Remain, and will not be quiescent in defeat. Washington will be furious at the attenuation of the EU/NATO axis as unified belligerent against Putin’s Russia (accused by Western commentators of maintaining a sinister silence on the question of European federalism, though any statements issuing from the Kremlin would be interpreted as heinous interventionism). The Tories, naturally, will bend every sinew toward quashing resurgent leftist movements, and in this, at least, will be in complete ideological accord with UKIP. Without entertaining any utopian fantasies of what is possible, a start could be made with the election of a reformist administration pledged to renationalization of basic public services – something prohibited by the EU’s zeal for marketization – and to the restoration of democracy at a local level. That modest goal goes beyond anything achievable in an EU which has crushed the mild progressivism of Syriza under an iron heel.

In the short term, the outlook may appear discouraging. Already the government has announced a £250 billion subsidy to banks (the periphrastic “quantitative easing”), while abandoning the mass of the populace to sink or swim in turbulent economic waters. The NHS will be in the sights of privatizing hard-right Tories who won out in the referendum over their Europhile colleagues, and one can be sure that not a penny will be diverted to it from the fabled £350 million weekly subventions to be clawed back from spendthrift Brussels bureaucrats. Boris Johnson no longer looms menacingly on the horizon as bumbling potentate of a Eurosceptic junta, but a scarcely less grim future is portended by the career records of the quintet of politicians still in the Tory leadership race. However, a Conservative Party plunged by Brexit into dissension is a gravely weakened force. Its opponents, meanwhile, ought to take heart from the increased latitude for action now afforded them. From a broader perspective, it seems to me that there is everything to play for. Tariq Ali, writing in Counterpunch, offers a Mao Zedong quotation as succinct summary of post-Brexit results and prospects: “There is great disorder under heaven. The situation is excellent.”


The Pathways Group in the Era of Cameron’s “Big Society”

David Cameron election poster from 2010; the following year, 31,000 NHS jobs were axed

An appropriate response to plutocratic promises to safeguard the NHS


In accordance with the UK coalition government’s aim of dismantling those parts of the state of benefit to the working class, the poor and the sick, great damage is being inflicted on the National Health Service and other progressive institutions. This is euphemistically called “austerity” and is, we are told, a regrettable necessity which politicians are compelled to carry out in the “national interest” (whatever that woolly and metaphysical term might mean). There is, of course, never any suggestion that austerity might necessitate the curtailment of imperialist wars – otherwise known, by way of cowardly obfuscation, as “humanitarian interventions” – or a scaling back of those repressive state apparatuses that are called upon to silence any expressions of dissent on the part of the victims; the prison population, for instance, continues to rise inexorably. Through workfare, the unemployed – reclassified, in yet another euphemistic sleight of hand, as “jobseekers” – are to be reduced to a serf-like status going beyond the indignity of mere wage slavery, and this reserve army of labour now includes many mentally ill people who have discovered, courtesy of a medical assessment carried out by the notoriously inept and insensitive Atos Healthcare, that in spite of the fact that they are unable to discern any improvement in their condition, they are suddenly deemed well enough to make a contribution to capitalist profit-seeking.

It is a grim outlook, and one that has already impacted on the Pathways group’s old stamping ground, Shelton’s Bennett Centre, where, in the wake of bed closures, staff have been told that the jobs to which they have dedicated themselves no longer exist, and budgets have become so tight as to prohibit such quotidian tasks as photocopying. A similar facility in Longton, the Sutherland Centre, has lost its inpatient capacity of eight beds; a petition opposing the move was signed by 2000 people but, predictably, this availed nothing when set against the overriding priority of bailing out delinquent banks. Bucknall Hospital, where David Sweetsur and I participated last year in a steering group on local mental health policy, is closing with the loss of twenty beds for older people with mental health diagnoses. All of this will further overburden the area’s main mental health resource, the 148-bed Harplands Hospital in Hartshill, at a time when economic crisis will inevitably produce a rise in mental distress. A spate of suicides at that hospital in 2011, which insufficient staffing levels had failed to prevent, was a worrying indication of the human costs involved in pursuing a “balanced budget” and related right-wing shibboleths.

The public lending library is another enlightened and civilizing institution in the government’s sights: over one hundred have been “withdrawn” – euphemisms abound in the neoliberal brave new world – since April 2011 (including Burslem library here in Stoke-on-Trent), with as many as 600, or 20% of the total number of libraries in England, under threat. It is a development which has left the minister purportedly entrusted with safeguarding culture, Ed Vaizey, entirely unperturbed. Not for him the view of a more paternalistic capitalist, Andrew Carnegie, that “there is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library, this republic of letters, where neither rank, office, nor wealth receives the slightest consideration” (or perhaps his indifference arises precisely from that attribute). Vaizey modestly describes himself as “relatively affluent” and presumably can afford to buy his own books, even if his parliamentary expense claim of eight pence for a 350-yard car journey might lead the unwary to assume otherwise. As our group has found a congenial new home at Hanley library, we are as saddened by this cultural vandalism as we are alarmed at the shrinking and commodification – not to say outright termination – of mental health services.

Nevertheless, for the moment, the Pathways group continues to flourish, having welcomed several new members into its gatherings. Confounding stereotypes about psychotic illness leading to cognitive decline, our Christmas quiz was a keenly contested affair, with one side triumphing by the narrowest of margins (just half a point); it has led to considerations of forming a Pathways pub quiz team. A recent highlight was a talk given by psychiatrist Xenofon Sgouros emphasizing the importance of nutrition in the treatment of psychosis – a pleasing departure from reliance on a conventional drug-based strategy. The possibility of a third music appreciation session has been broached, though the present writer (Mark Conlon) may find it harder this time to smuggle any outre selections past a no longer unsuspecting audience. Walks, cinema trips and an evening of ten-pin bowling are planned.

Living with a psychotic illness (or with any mental illness) is no easy task. Matters are scarcely helped when, as at present, a vicious class war waged by ruling elites is impoverishing millions of people who, rather than confronting the real authors of their misfortune, may all too easily be lured by populist demagogues to focus their anger on a scapegoated “other” as its alleged cause. These “others” may be groups such as immigrants (who statistically are at high risk of developing psychosis) or welfare claimants (it hardly needs saying that many with psychotic conditions often have little or no choice but to fall into this category). They may just be those who fail to conform to “normal” ways of thinking – and the men and women I’ve met in the Pathways group are some of the most wonderful nonconformists I’ve known. Things, then, are at a difficult pass. But, given the intelligence, the humour and the humanity of the members of our group, I have confidence in their ability to weather the storms of political reaction.