How neoliberalism fuels the racist xenophobia behind Brexit and Donald Trump

It's too simple to blame just racism. The far-right scapegoats migrants for the economic crisis caused by austerity

Published July 1, 2016 11:59AM (EDT)

Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage   (AP/Reuters/Matt Dunham/Scott Audette/Kirsty Wigglesworth/Photo montage by Salon)
Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage (AP/Reuters/Matt Dunham/Scott Audette/Kirsty Wigglesworth/Photo montage by Salon)

The U.K. has voted to leave the European Union, and things have been thrown into disarray. Amid the chaos, many have blamed the unexpected vote on racism and bigotry.

There is no question that xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiments were strong drivers behind Brexit, the British vote to leave the E.U. But describing the vote solely as a racist phenomenon, as some media outlets and politicians have, is an oversimplification. It ignores how economic crisis, fueled by neoliberal policies, has inflamed this racism.

It is misleading to pit a racist explanation of the Brexit vote against an economic explanation and say only one is correct. Rather, both factors were closely tied together, and heavily influenced each other.

There is no question that Brexit was a victory for the far-right, in both the U.K. and in the rest of Europe. It has inspired far-right parties throughout the continent to call for their own referendum votes, a truly troubling development that could help strengthen dangerous neo-fascist movements.

But in order to know how to push back against these far-right, nationalist, racist forces, one must understand how they attract working-class voters by exploiting real economic problems.

Supporters of Brexit made a lot of empty promises. Advocates not only claimed leaving the E.U. would allow Britain to slow down immigration; they also insisted it would give the country more resources to fund social services and would strengthen the economy.

These latter promises were very popular. For the average Briton — and European in general — things are not going well economically. Recovery after the 2008 financial crash has been lackluster, and countries have continuously imposed austerity measures that slash social spending and reduce government services.

While the public sector is being gutted, wage growth in the U.K. is sluggish, and poverty — especially child poverty — is on the rise. As The Guardian put it, "Poverty in the UK is increasing after two years of heavy welfare cuts have helped to push hundreds of thousands of people below the breadline."

It's no coincidence that the Brexit vote comes in the same week that newspaper headlines read "UK poverty levels rise for first time in nearly a decade." Things are getting worse, not better, and everyone recognizes it. They want change, but have few options to choose from.

Right-wing proponents of the Leave campaign, like the far-right throughout the world, have taken advantage of the widespread anger at these growing economic problems and directed that rage at migrants, outsiders and multiculturalism, instead of at the neoliberal policies that have fueled them.

Meanwhile, for years, both mainstream parties in the U.K., the Conservative Party and the Labour Party, have adopted neoliberal economics — that is to say, hyper-capitalist policies like privatization, deregulation and cuts in public spending, policies that shrink the state and give more power to corporations in its place.

Even the U.S. government, which has been implementing its own neoliberal policies for years, urged the E.U. this week to "ease off on austerity."

"It would be wise from the perspective of job growth and economic growth more generally to ease off on austerity," a U.S. official said, indirectly admitting that E.U.-imposed neoliberalism has fueled support for Brexit.

The International Monetary Fund — the leading international evangelist of neoliberalism, an institution that has forced countries throughout the world, particularly those in the Global South, to adopt neoliberal "structural adjustment" programs — recently admitted in a study that neoliberalism is "oversold."

IMF economists concluded that neoliberal policies, like those that have been implemented by the U.K., have increased inequality, which in turn hurts long-term growth and stability in the economy.

The “evidence of the economic damage from inequality suggests that policymakers should be more open to redistribution than they are,” researchers said, noting that, in some cases, the consequences “will have to be remedied after they occur by using taxes and government spending to redistribute income.”

“Fortunately, the fear that such policies will themselves necessarily hurt growth is unfounded,” the IMF economists added, acknowledging that taxing the rich and boosting government spending will not necessarily hurt growth.

The E.U. itself, like the IMF with which it closely works, has for many years forced neoliberal policies onto member states like Greece, which is suffocating in economic turmoil and bleeding from austerity.

The British left, however, did not articulate alternatives to E.U. neoliberalism. It missed the opportunity, leaving a political opening that the far-right took advantage of, by blaming immigration and bureaucracy. There certainly are many left-wing critiques to be made of the E.U., but the Brexit campaign was dominated by not just the right, but by the far-right.

Scapegoating immigration

Before the Brexit vote, right-wing media outlets ran stories with hyperbolic headlines like, "Population to surge by four million due to mass immigration that will ‘change the face of England forever.'" But these exaggerated stories did not just employ racist arguments about a supposed cultural threat; they used economic arguments to instill fear within tax-payers.

"The Vote Leave campaign is expected to have a renewed focus on the impact of migration on public services," wrote right-wing newspaper The Telegraph. It cited Conservative pro-Brexit politician Chris Grayling, who warned that migrants' "additional demand for housing will gobble up vast tracts of green belt land."

It then followed up with a quote from Alp Mehmet, vice chairman of the right-wing group Migration Watch UK, who said, "The country is already facing a housing crisis and there is huge pressure on GP [National Health Service general practitioner] services. Meanwhile there is projected to be a shortfall in primary school places in the very near future."

These problems — the housing crisis and growing cost of rent, the lack of funding for the National Health Service and the budget shortfalls for primary schools — are all direct results of neoliberal economic policies. But instead of blaming the government's austerity measures, Brexit supporters exploited the very real economic problems endured by average Britons and scapegoated migrants.

One of the most popular talking points of the pro-Leave campaign, in fact, was that, by leaving the E.U., Britain could supposedly provide more funding to its National Health Service, or NHS, the U.K.’s system of socialized health care, which is very popular across the population.

This, not just anti-immigrant sentiments, was one of the main selling points of Brexit advocates. Boris Johnson, the right-wing former London mayor who spearheaded Brexit, campaigned heavily on the promise that the millions in tax dollars the U.K. sends to the E.U. every week would instead go to funding the NHS. He even toured the country in a bus with this promise emblazoned on it.

This strategy was odd from the get-go, given that many of the right-wing leaders who backed Brexit in reality support privatization and other neoliberal economic policies themselves, but they cynically exploited the popularity of social services like the NHS for political gain.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, mere hours after the successful Brexit vote, these leaders began to walk back on their promises, claiming they were misunderstood. But their strategy was clearly remarkably effective at attracting voters.

Trump and trade

Far-right Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is pursuing a similar strategy in the U.S. This is partially what explains his tremendous popularity among some segments of the population.

Donald Trump exploits racist myths and stereotypes to instill fear in working-class Americans who have genuine economic problems. He displaces the blame for these economic problems onto migrants, and promises that he can return the U.S. to a time when life was not so hard.

Trump does this while he makes very legitimate critiques of neoliberal trade agreements like NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which have benefited multinational corporations at the expense of average working-class citizens.

TPP, a global neoliberal trade pact that was written in secret with the input of powerful corporations, but without the input of the citizens who will actually be impacted it, has been described as "a gift to corporations" and "NAFTA on steroids." Labor groups and unions warn it will undermine workers' rights and lead to further outsourcing of jobs, destroying local economies as corporations find cheaper labor to exploit — not to mention how it will threaten Medicare and jeopardize the environment.

The fact that the Democratic president, Barack Obama, has staunchly pushed for TPP has alienated large segments of the working class, as have the overall neoliberal policies of the Democratic Party, which embraces privatization and austerity.

On trade, then, Trump is running to the left of the mainstream Democratic Party. He uses this position, in conjunction with his scapegoating of immigrants and even non-migrant Americans of color for economic problems caused by neoliberalism, to stir up popular support.

Far-right demagogues like Trumps capitalize on rightful anger at big business and pro-corporate trade policies and steer it in a hyper-nationalist, ultra-reactionary direction. They do this even when they themselves are economic elites.

Nigel Farage, the leader of the far-right U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, is a former commodities trader who worked on Wall Street. And Trump is one of the richest people on the planet. Yet their supporters understand how economic elites are exploiting them.

"If you've got money, you vote in"

“If you’ve got money, you vote in,” a Brexit supporter told The Guardian's John Harris. “If you haven’t got money, you vote out.”

Harris traveled through economically depressed rural areas of the U.K., interviewing working-class voters, many of whom formerly voted Labour, but were turned off by its embrace of pro-corporate neoliberal policies under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and now vote UKIP.

"This is about so much more than the European Union. It is about class, and inequality, and a politics now so professionalised that it has left most people staring at the rituals of Westminster [the site of the U.K. Parliament] with a mixture of anger and bafflement," he explained.

Person after person told Harris the same thing: They were voting out, and not just because of immigration, but because of outsourcing, a diminishing standard of living, unemployment, dwindling social services and more.

The Guardian created incredibly insightful short documentaries featuring interviews with working-class supporters of Brexit and Trump:

"Most of all," Harris wrote, "Brexit is the consequence of the economic bargain struck in the early 1980s, whereby we waved goodbye to the security and certainties of the postwar settlement, and were given instead an economic model that has just about served the most populous parts of the country, while leaving too much of the rest to anxiously decline."

That economic bargain struck in the 1980s was neoliberalism. The Cold War was coming to an end, the Soviet Union was on the verge of implosion and Deng Xiaoping had put China on the path toward capitalist restoration.

During the Cold War, Western capitalist societies had to provide some degree of social services for their populations, in order to compete against socialist alternatives. With capitalism's victory, this was no longer necessary.

British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the mother of neoliberalism, famously declared, "There is no alternative." American President Ronald Reagan, its father, soon followed. The welfare state was whittled back and neoliberalism took hold. After Reagan, the "New Democrat" followed: President Bill Clinton wholeheartedly embraced privatization, eagerly gutting welfare and signing NAFTA, leading us to where we are today.

Leftist critiques

The strategy being pursued by figures like Brexit advocates and Trump is by no means new. It is a fascistic approach, a far-right (or what some today call "alt-right") response to leftist critiques like those raised by figures like Bernie Sanders.

Sanders, a self-declared democratic socialist, recognizes that immigration is not the cause of the nation's — and world's — economic problems. Rather, the real problem is the capitalist system, which inevitably, by virtue of how it is constructed, benefits what Sanders calls the billionaire class — the 1 percent, the corporate elite, the bourgeoisie — at the expense of workers, who are exploited and do not benefit from the product of their labor.

By embracing this capitalist system in its purest form — that is, neoliberalism — mainstream left-wing parties in Europe, the U.S. and throughout the world have effectively told voters that Thatcher was correct: There is no alternative. Seeing its chance, the far-right has jumped in and posed its own alternative — a fascistic one.

There are signs that average citizens are pushing back against this bipartisan neoliberal consensus and demanding a socialist alternative in lieu of the far-right one. In the U.K., Jeremy Corbyn, a longtime, principled socialist, was elected leader of the Labour Party. In the U.S., Sanders ran an enormous grassroots campaign that took the country by storm.

But Sanders was defeated by his Wall Street-backed opponent, Hillary Clinton. And the neoliberal Blairite wing of the Labour Party is trying desperately to oust Corbyn from power, just as the neoliberal, Clinton-dominated Democratic Party has aggressively fought Sanders and his supporters.

Sanders himself understands exactly what is going on. He warned the Democratic Party in an op-ed in The New York Times mere days after the Brexit vote that, unless it changes its ways and abandons its neoliberal policies, it will face the same far-right defeat seen in the U.K.

"Surprise, surprise. Workers in Britain, many of whom have seen a decline in their standard of living while the very rich in their country have become much richer, have turned their backs on the European Union and a globalized economy that is failing them and their children," Sanders wrote passionately.

"Millions of American voters, like the Leave supporters, are understandably angry and frustrated by the economic forces that are destroying the middle class," he added. To avert this threat, Sanders said, "We must create national and global economies that work for all, not just a handful of billionaires."

Socialists like Corbyn and Sanders recognize that, while the British and American governments continue to implement austerity policies and cut spending on social services, right-wing politicians and pundits can distract from their own actions and instead tell voters to worry about migrants.

Liberal politicians, journalists and pundits, meanwhile, appear largely unable to grasp what is happening.

Missing the point

Vox's Zack Beauchamp asserted boldly, "Brexit was fueled by irrational xenophobia, not real economic grievances," completely dismissing economic explanations for the vote.

In his piece, Beauchamp makes a misleading elision. He argues, and adeptly at that, that the supposedly adverse economic effects of immigration on the British economy were exaggerated by the pro-Leave campaign — which they certainly were. But then Beauchamp makes an ideological leap and concludes that this proves the vote had nothing to do with economics.

Vox points to numerous studies and charts to explain why British voters are being "irrational." If only working-class people who are struggling to make ends meet would peruse scientific journals, then they would understand!

This perspective utterly and completely misses the point. It is not that average Britons don't have real economic grievances. On the contrary, far-right political forces have scapegoated immigrants for those real economic grievances. Of course, this scapegoating of immigrants is irrational, but it is a demagogic political tactic — it is not supposed to be rational; it is only supposed to be effective.

Beauchamp later acknowledges that "British hostility to immigrants long proceeds the recent spate of mass immigration." Compared to other countries, particularly Germany, Britain has not taken many refugees and migrants. If Brexit is solely about racism and the U.K. has been racist for centuries (which it certainly has been), then why didn't Britain leave before?

Because the economic crisis in the U.K. continues.

Child poverty in the U.K. has risen by 200,000 children over the past year. A staggering 29 percent of British children live in poverty. And experts warn that child poverty continues to grow.

At the same moment, instead of trying to tackle the growing poverty rate, the British government passed legislation that scraps its target to reduce child poverty.

Moreover, nearly 4 million British children are in families that are struggling to make ends meet, and two-thirds of these families have at least one adult in work. That is to say, poverty is a serious problem among people who are employed, not just the unemployed.

Today, at least 10 million people in the U.K. live in poverty — an increase of half a million since the previous year. Matthew Reed, head of Children's Society, called the figures "truly dreadful."

"The Government was repeatedly warned of the likely consequences of reducing support for the poorest people in the country and now we can see the results," Reed added.

In the absence of a leftist alternative, all of this only fuels far-right politics.

The neo-fascist threat

Liberals smugly blaming the Brexit vote on stupidity, making fun of working-class Leave supporters for (falsely) googling E.U. after the fact and actively downplaying the serious economic concerns behind the vote only further plays into right-wing hatred of elites.

It also conveniently absolves establishment liberals of responsibility for supporting policies that fueled the rise of the far-right.

We live in an incredibly dangerous moment. It is not hyperbolic to say Europe is going through political changes similar to those of the post-Depression 1930s, when fascism was on the rise for the first time.

Brexit is a big victory for neo-fascist forces throughout the West — actual neo-fascist parties and politicians. And there is no sign that the far-right will decline anytime soon.

Demagogues like Trump in the U.S., or Marine Le Pen in France, or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, may lose the upcoming election, but there will be many more elections after that, and the far-right will only continue to gain strength — unless it faces a real challenge.

A leftist resistance must assert itself in opposition to these growing forces of reaction. The enormous popularity of Corbyn, Sanders and others shows how millions of average people recognize that the system is not working for them, and they want a socialist alternative.

Yet a critical obstacle is in place: Mainstream, centrist parties like the Labour Party in the U.K. or the Democratic Party in the U.S. are actively cannibalizing themselves, viciously attacking any leftists who criticize their neoliberal leadership.

In the process, they are only pouring more fuel onto the fascist fire — a fire that will burn all of us, and the world.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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Bernie Sanders Brexit Donald Trump Jeremy Corbyn Neoliberalism Racism