Brexit, Trump and the populist right

Brexist - Trump

20 years ago ‘globalisation’ was the latest fashionable term to describe the all-pervasive forces of a rampant capitalism. It was said to be a new stage of capitalism in which multinational companies and financial institutions, attached to no particular nation state, moved their capital around the world in search of the highest returns, and in so doing created a truly global market and global capital. At the time FRFI explained that, far from being new, globalisation was a return to those unstable features of capitalism which characterised imperialism before the First World War. It had begun to recreate the very conditions which produced those dramatic shocks to the international capitalist system that led to the revolutionary developments in the first decades of the 20th century. It reflected a deep crisis of the capitalist system that would soon lead the most powerful capitalist countries into a renewed struggle over world markets and global spheres of interest, into brutal wars in less developed parts of the world, into a new process to redivide the world according to economic power.1

Until the late 2000s, Martin Wolf, chief economic commentator at the Financial Times, was an enthusiastic advocate of neo-liberal globalisation. In 2002, the deepening crisis of the capitalist system forced him to raise the question whether the global expansion of capitalism had come to a halt and was about to be reversed. Will the second era of global capitalist integration, he asked, end like the first, which went into reverse between 1914 and 1945, after inter-imperialist rivalries led to war and socialist revolution in Russia? Wolf’s answer was no. Conditions he assured us were very different this time.2 Today, 14 years on, he is no longer convinced.

In a thoroughly downbeat article, ‘The march to world disorder’, filling a page of the Financial Times (6 January 2017), Wolf tells us that the era of globalisation under a US-led order is drawing to a close. He puts this down to the ‘lure of false solutions’ and asks whether protectionism and conflict will define the next phase. He remonstrates at the failure of the ‘west’ to learn the lessons of the ‘dark period between 1914 and 1945’, and tells us we are living, once again, in an era of strident nationalism and xenophobia, but shows no understanding of how the capitalist crisis and the consequent rivalry between the dominant imperialist powers has brought this about.

The wars undertaken by US imperialism after the Second World War were to fight off any perceived challenges to its dominance over the capitalist world economy: yet from Korea (1950–53), Vietnam (1963–75), to the first and second Gulf wars (1990–91 and 2003), the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq and the resulting carnage in the Middle East, they have accompanied and exacerbated its relative economic decline. The US is still the dominant imperialist power, economically and militarily, but it is now forced to pre-empt rival economic and political claims not only from a European imperialist bloc dominated by Germany, but also from an increasingly assertive Russia and a rapidly emerging economic challenge from China. The imperialist states, with the US and Britain playing a central role, are directly responsible for destabilising entire regions of the world so that millions are forced to flee in order to survive. The so-called ‘migrant crisis’ is the direct consequence of a crisis-ridden, war-driven capitalist system. This is also the backdrop to growing anti-immigrant racism, and the right-wing nationalism gaining ground in the dominant imperialist nations. Recent developments – Britain’s Brexit, Trump’s election to the US presidency and the political rise of the populist right – are the latest expressions of this systemic crisis of the capitalist system.

Brexit

Britain’s role as ally of the US in the brutal war and occupation of Afghanistan (2001) and Iraq (2003) caused, at the time, an increasingly strained relationship with the European Union (EU). It raised ever more concretely Britain’s role within a European imperialist bloc contesting US imperialism’s global domination. Ten years ago we wrote: ‘How long the British economy can sustain itself outside Europe, with Britain becoming more and more dependent on the parasitic dealings of the City of London, remains to be seen. The British ruling class knows that sooner or later it will have to make a choice between Europe and the United States. Whatever choice is forced on the ruling class, it is certain that any independent role of the City of London will be severely curtailed.’3 The global crisis precipitated by the financial crash of 2007/08 set in motion the developments which have now brought Britain’s relationship with the EU to a head.

Since the Second World War, the British ruling class has been divided on the issue of Europe. Britain is in favour of European co-operation but only to the degree that it does not interfere with British plans to retain its status as a major imperialist power and the City of London as one of the world's leading financial centres. Britain, therefore, will not accept that it should submerge its sovereignty in Europe. The decision to hold a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU on 23 June 2016 was driven by two important developments: the ongoing and threatening eurozone crisis arising from the financial crash of 2007/08 and the urgent need to contain the deep splits in the Conservative Party over Europe, splits exacerbated by the challenge of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), its anti-EU stance and racist immigration policy. The unexpected vote by a small majority, 51.9% to 48.1%, to take Britain out of the EU gave the Conservative Party little choice if it were to remain the governing party – Brexit really means leaving the EU.

With the rallying catchphrase of a ‘Global Britain’, as a global force outside the EU, the Conservative government will sustain the illusion of an independent British imperialist state, albeit as a junior partner of US imperialism. When the Conservative Prime Minister, Theresa May, visited the new US President, Donald Trump, the week after his inauguration, she even told senior Republicans in Philadelphia that the US and Britain can ‘rediscover our confidence’ and ‘lead [the world] together again’.

In taking this stand May is forced to make an alliance with a deeply reactionary, nationalistic and xenophobic US administration under Trump. Brexit is welcomed by Trump. He sees the EU as ‘a vehicle for Germany’ and claims that ‘the UK was so smart in getting out’ (The Times 16 January 2017). He understands that Brexit undermines the process, led by Germany in alliance with France, to build a European imperialist bloc capable of challenging US imperialism’s global domination. He would welcome the undoing of Europe.4

Brexit and Trump’s election also give confidence to reactionary, anti-immigrant neo-fascist parties in Europe: Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France, Frauke Petry’s Alternative for Germany (AfD), Geert Wilders Freedom Party in the Netherlands (PVV), and Matteo Salvini’s Northern League in Italy. Speaking at a meeting of these parties in Koblenz, Germany on 21 January, Le Pen said that Brexit would unleash an unstoppable wave of ‘all the dominoes in Europe’. She called on voters in Europe to ‘wake up’ and follow the example of US and British voters (The Observer 22 January 2017). A victory for Le Pen in France’s coming presidential election in April/May could be a dramatic setback for European imperialism. That is why the French ruling class will pull out all the stops to prevent that victory.

Fighting back

The financial crash of 2007/08 and, in Europe the consequent eurozone crisis, were decisive in producing the populist reaction against ruling class government elites. Millions of people were made to pay for the crisis, driven into poverty and losing their jobs through government austerity programmes, while the government bailed out the financial institutions and the asset-rich ruling elite got even richer as a result of government monetary policies. Brexit, the election of Trump and right-wing populism are an expression of popular anger and seeming impotence in the face of these developments.

Nevertheless millions took to the streets to protest against Trump’s inauguration as President. More than 500,000 took part in a women’s march and rally in Washington a day after Trump was sworn in. Over two million demonstrated in simultaneous protests in cities throughout the US, and throughout the world. 675 women’s marches took place across the world, with 29 demonstrations in Canada and 20 in Mexico (Financial Times 23 January 2017). Many people took to the streets for the first time. Millions used this opportunity to start the fight back.

Resistance is necessary and inevitable against the right-wing populist reaction that this never-ending crisis of the capitalist system has generated. Communists and revolutionary socialists have an unprecedented opportunity now to put forward an alternative to this crisis-ridden capitalism. As an RCG/FRFI placard on the women’s march against Trump in London said: ‘The decaying nature of capitalism poses two possible futures: socialism or barbarism’. Fighting back means rebuilding the socialist movement. There is no alternative.

David Yaffe

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 255 February/March 2017


  1. See David Yaffe ‘Globalisation: a redivision of the world by imperialism’ in FRFI 131 June/July 1996, ‘The politics and economics of globalisation’ in FRFI 137 June/July 1997, and ‘The world economy facing war and recession, in FRFI 171 February/March 2003, all on our website.
  2. See FRFI 171 February/March 2003 op cit for an outline and critique of his argument.
  3. See David Yaffe ‘Britain: parasitic and decaying capitalism’ in FRFI 194 December 2006/January 2007 on our website for a discussion on the parasitic character of British capitalism and the importance of the City of London for the British economy.
  4. See articles on the consequences of Brexit (p3) and Trump (pp8 and 9) in this issue.