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Progressive and right-wing counter-movements are rising in the age of Brexit

Published: 28 February 2019

In the remaining weeks until 29 March 2019 – the currently expected date of the UK leaving the European Union – the political and economic situation could not be more volatile. Members of Parliament of both Labour and Conservative Party have formed the Independent Group, more and more businesses announce that they will leave and move headquarters and offices overseas, while a billboard campaign reminds the public of broken promises and flawed predictions concerning the conditions and outcomes of the anticipated EU withdrawal. The unresolved issue of the Irish border undermines the peace process in Northern Ireland. In addition, the yellow vests movement in the UK contributes to an increasingly violent and hostile atmosphere – offline and online. The People’s Vote still campaigns for a second referendum. A historical perspective suggests that social movements need to be considered as counter-movements – movements that respond to each other. What can we expect for 2019 – and did we learn anything from history?

Trump and Brexit

Neo-liberalism and the associated welfare state retrenchment have resulted in growing inequality in the last decades. Workfare policies promoted by New Labour and other social democratic or centre-left parties around the world have contributed to stagnating and falling wages and an increase of precarious working conditions. Even Sweden, the paradigmatic social democratic egalitarian and multicultural welfare state has been eroded by neoliberalist policies and characterized by worsening working conditions, a rise in youth unemployment, and urban segregation. While conservative parties have an even stronger record in terms of austerity politics, working-class voters who were traditionally aligned with and supported social democratic parties have turned to populist movements (Front National, UKIP, AFD). In recent years, elections throughout Europe and in the US brought wins for far-right parties which include the Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) in Germany, the National Front in France, the Freedom Party of Austria, Lega in Italy, the Polish Law and Justice party, the Progress Party in Norway, Fidesz and Jobbik in Hungary, and the Sweden Democrats to name a few.

The outcome of the EU-referendum in June 2016 and the election of Donald Trump in November 2016 have both been explained as representing the rise of those ‘left behind’. They were cast as the losers of globalisation and neo-liberalisation, negatively affected by de-industrialisation and neglected by New Labour and other social democratic parties that presumably engaged more in identity politics, promoting multiculturalism and gender equality, than addressing the needs and concerns of the (presumably white, male and straight) working class. According to this interpretation widely circulated in old and new media, the call to ‘Make America Great Again’ or to put ‘Britain First’ was a response of those feeling stifled by political correctness who had become ‘Strangers in Their Own Land’  as the sociologist Arlie Hochschild has put it.

However, this interpretation is problematic for multiple reasons. Firstly, it assumes that those hardest hit by de-industrialisation and public sector cuts are the white working class. While it is certainly true that the lower-skilled fare worse in knowledge economies and that wages, employment and working standards of white working-class men have declined over the last decades, inequalities with respect to gender, race and ethnicity persist. In gender and racially segregated labour markets women and ethnic minorities still pay a gender and ethnic penalty – and minority women pay them both. Thus, it is important to acknowledge that the working class encompasses white women and non-white women and men. Furthermore, it is crucial to acknowledge the persisting white privilege that is reflected in labour force participation and labour segregation and linked to different levels of income, job security and career opportunities.

Secondly, a closer look reveals that the ‘Leave’ campaign and Donald Trump were supported by middle-aged and older middle-class, college-educated men and women. Thus the ‘squeezed middle’ rather than the left behind supported Brexit and Trump. Indeed, the lowest social classes represented only 24% of the Brexit voters, whereas two-thirds among the elite and middle classes voted to leave the EU, thus representing a ‘significant cross-class coalition of middle-aged and older men and women’. Post-fascist right-wing movements existed in Europe and the United States long before the Great Recession of 2007/2008. These far-right and anti-gender movements represent a backlash against the progressive movements that (re)emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. Populist movements from the right engage in ‘othering’, emphasize traditional gender roles and gender binaries and exclude ethnic minorities, immigrants and minority religious groups. The Catholic Church plays a crucial role in the emergence of anti-gender movements in many European countries, including La Manif pour tous in France.

Left-Wing and Feminist Protest and other Counter-movements

The rise of far-right movements, anti-gender movements and populist movements from the right has been countered by progressive movements representing broad coalitions of anti-fascist, pro-feminist and pro-LGBT groups in both the United States and Europe. In the United States, a variety of protest groups formed immediately after Trump won the presidency and one day after the poorly attended inauguration of the 45th president of the United States, about 4 million women and men participated in the Women’s March on Washington (WMW) and other women’s marches in the United States. This protest – the largest in the history of the United States – was accompanied by many similar protests around the world. After initial concerns about a lack of racial diversity were raised, conscious and successful efforts were to mobilise and represent a wide range of communities and emphasising diversity. The WMW provides a good example of the difficulties and the need for mobilizing diverse constituencies and crafting solidarities across difference, but it is not the only attempt. Further initiatives to protest the Trump administration include Black Lives Matter, Indivisible, Earth Day, the March for Science, and airport immigration rallies. Each one of these initiatives made significant use of social media to facilitate both online and offline activism. The Indivisible Movement borrowed tactics of the Tea Party to mobilize grassroots support. In March 2017, about 6000 verified groups were active across the United States. Indivisible („unteilbar“) also mobilised 200.000 people who took to the streets of Berlin in October 2018, to demonstrate against far-right-populism in Germany and Europe.

The protest against Brexit initially played out primarily on social media where one can join and follow groups such as @ScientistsforEU, @the3Million, @Vets4EU, @RemainerNow, @Remain_eu and countless others. For a variety of reasons it took longer until people took to the streets in the UK, but in March 2017 and June 2018 100.000 people protested in London, whereas a demonstration in October 2018 saw a turn-out of 700.000 – one of the largest protests in Britain’s history.  In December 2018, the voices for a second referendum – a people’s vote – became louder and it remains to be seen how many will demonstrate and demand a final say at the People’s Vote March on 23 March 2019. Some fear a rise in violence should a second referendum result in support for staying in the EU. However, this is already happening: the outcome of the referendum in June 2016 led to a well-documented increase in hate crimes and avoiding a second referendum due to such fears risks legitimizing violence rather than countering it. Britain could stay in the EU by revoking Article 50 through an act of Parliament. However, while there is no clear parliamentarian majority for any withdrawal arrangement, there is also is no clear support for stopping Brexit. Citizens assemblies might be a solution to the deadlock in parliament and the growing gap between leavers and remainers.

EU Citizens have – and make use of – two responses to the hostile environment promoted by the May government: either leaving the UK (outmigration has increased) or applying for citizenship (which has also increased). UK citizens have fewer options unless they have the ability to claim citizenship in an EU member state of which some allow dual citizenship. Moreover, the Windrush Scandal and the discussion about citizenship deprivation demonstrate – it is not just migrants who are affected by the ‘hostile environment’.

Silke Roth, Professor of Sociology

Department of Sociology, Social Policy & Criminology

University of Southampton

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