On Thursday, British people will be offered a vote to decide whether Britain should remain in an undemocratic bosses' club or leave it in pursuit of 'national sovereignty'. The EU referendum debate has played out as a clash between what Jacques Lacan called the University discourse and the Hysteric discourse, that is, between a discourse invested in knowledge and expertise and another characterised by populist defiance (of which Justice Secretary Michael Gove's attack on 'experts' was a notable expression). Both sides present their case in terms of decency, fairness and common sense; but in my view, neither Leaving nor Remaining will bring any good for the majority of working-class people in Britain.
Many Remainers are apt to cloud the issue of EU membership by denouncing all Brexit supporters as racists and thickos (you can't have a plebiscite, you know, without plebs) or by appealing to a sentimental Europhilia. But such appeals overlook the very pragmatic, political motives underlying Britain's EU membership. European states joined the EU in the first place largely to exempt themselves from the criticisms of their own populations, bypassing democratic accountability for capitalist 'reforms', as James Heartfield has argued; indeed, the EU has undermined collective agreements and restricted trade union activity in member states - something that seems to be poorly understood even among left-wing Remainers. And for all their supposed anti-racism, very few Remainers care to talk about the EU's current role in effectively pitching thousands of desperate refugees into the Mediterranean or pushing them into mass deportation camps. In light of this, EU is not an institution that can be defended by socialists. It is an inhuman behemoth that threatens the pay and conditions of workers across the continent and shows a callous disregard for human life.
Some Remainers - such as the Guardian's Polly Toynbee - have drawn the recent, horrific murder of the pro-EU Labour MP Jo Cox into the discussion, warning that an exit from the EU will unleash the forces of 'fascism' (the familiar bogeyman of the liberal imagination) or at least pave the way for a right-wing cataclysm led by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. I'm not so sure. Johnson and Farage, it is true, have nothing to offer working-class people except hatred and oppression. But politicians on the Remain side of the debate - the Camerons, Osbornes and Hunts of this world - have been responsible for inflicting terrible suffering among the unemployed, disabled and immigrants for many years. They are at least as dangerous as the Brexiteers, not least because they are the ones who have actually been attacking the working class, as opposed to merely bloviating about immigrants and benefit scroungers.
On the other hand, it is true that many right-wing and some left-wing Brexiteers appeal to racist and anti-immigrant sentiments ('they' are a 'drain' on 'our services' or take 'our jobs', and so on). Such appeals must be rejected outright. Nor do I see any reason to buy into the 'progressive' Leave campaign's narrative that exiting the EU - once the common goal of most British leftists - will improve the lot of ordinary people in Britain. For the advocates of a certain left-wing, Bennite social democracy, the case for Brexit is clear: this vote is purely about EU membership and the EU is a patently undemocratic, 'neoliberal' apparatus that only recently hammered Greece over its debt repayments. Yet even if a Brexit does come about (and it should be remembered that a referendum victory for Leave would not be legally binding), an 'independent' British capitalism will continue to be locked into the structures of global capitalism and will continue to exploit, degrade and divide workers. This is not because the campaign has been hegemonized by the populist right - although it certainly has - but because Britain is a capitalist state that cannot, even without ties to the EU, be truly democratic. The exact makeup of political forces in post-Brexit Britain is largely unknowable at this point; but in the absence of large-scale working-class struggle, the idea promoted by some left-wing Leavers that an exit vote could usefully destabilize the British state seems fanciful. The financiers and business-people funding the Leave campaign are doing so in order to avoid EU financial regulation, bonus caps, and suchlike; working-class people have no shared class interest with them.
This referendum is the stage for a bourgeois faction fight in which the dominant faction of British capitalism aims to strike a decisive blow against the anti-EU blowhards. But whichever side prevails on Thursday, it's hard not to feel that the big winner will be the British ruling class as a whole, which will have succeeded once again in persuading us to participate in another of its electoral spectacles. The fight over EU membership is really not our fight. Instead of voting for one gang of capitalists or another we would do better, I think, to focus on our own struggles. True internationalists should consider what is going on just across the Channel in France, where the current, massive labour reform bill protests are a reminder that the working class can and must fight on its own terrain, regardless of the capitalist formations - national, European, or global - in which it finds itself.