From the Brexit Revolution to the COVID Restoration

Brexit was perhaps the last significant expression of working-class popular will across the UK. Although ultimately forced back, Brexit was clearly seen by a significant section of the working class as a chance to escape a regime of permanent low and stagnant wages that had been in place for over three decades. Attacking the ability of the ruling class to bring in workers from across a continent-wide labour force was seen by workers as one way of stemming wage losses. The subsequent inability to fill vacancies in transport and agriculture without starting to offer an increase in wages can be seen as vindication of that.  

But the sort of widespread movement capable of pushing through a coherent change in the British political system did not and does not exist.  As things stand—and though we see an increase in strike action—the institutionalization of pro-worker changes never emerged. Without a conscious democratic component to the process, the opportunity to extend the vote against the EU into a deeper democratic renewal was fated to stall sooner or later. Moreover, without a political movement that sought to embrace Brexit as a positive for workers, , Brexit became a struggle between the pro-capitalist forces of free trade and the “socialists” who resisted their attempts to reshore supply lines in a desperate defence of the status quo.

In truth, any of the near-revolutionary effects of Brexit were stumbled into: it was the “conservatives” who overthrew the previous structure of the state, and it was the collapse of a venerable social democratic party under the weight of its own contradictions and tactical failures that finalized a long-developing political realignment in the Red Wall seats. In neither case could the established parties see beyond immediate political calculations to place its actions into any sort of wider context.

Brexit was a failed revolution in the sense that there was for a time the possibility of revolutionary change. There was, though, no revolutionary agency to exploit this opening. In this sense, Brexit remained a democratic moment without a democratic movement. Indeed, some asked during the Brexit process, echoing the slogan of the earlier English Revolution of the seventeenth century, “who shall rouse him up?” 

They received no answer. 

From “Revolution” to Restoration

If Brexit was a failed democratic-popular revolution, then the COVID-19 pandemic brought about a period of restoration for the ruling class. The populist moment of the 2010s is now a distant memory; any gains and advances during the Brexit period have been neutralized; any working-class dissent, or the threat of popular revolt against the status quo has been managed. The ruling class and their petit bourgeois agents are now safely back in charge, even as they continue to deploy more and more irrational diktats upon the working class. 

The speed with which the potentially democratic-revolutionary forces of opposition were defeated is striking. The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, who was interested in the dynamics of revolution and counterrevolution in modern history, sees the twenty years that separated the Jacobin dictatorship of 1793-1794 in France from the seeming monarchical restoration of Ancien Régime by 1815 as an extraordinarily intense and compressed period of democratic politics. In the twenty-first century, the period from the Brexit revolution to the COVID counter-revolution lasted a scant four years. Capital’s space-time compression increases in parallel with the accelerating irrationality of bourgeois rule.

The aftermath of the 2008 recession saw a number of movements emerge in the advanced capitalist nations, from the incoherent semi-anarchism of Occupy to the growth in political formations such as the populist Syriza and Podemos parties in Greece and Spain, and (later) the Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders movements in the UK and US. One by one all of these were folded back into support for the prevailing order by an inability to mobilise working class support in a serious manner and by the bourgeoisie holding the illusion of an “existential threat” over the heads of the leftist petite bourgeoisie. Be it the reality of confrontation with the forces of German capitalism, the “threat” posed by the Trump presidency or Brexit, the insurgencies of the petite bourgeoisie were diverted back into support for bourgeois politics. The subsequent “COVID-19 regime,” therefore, represents a final incorporation of those previously recalcitrant elements of the Sanders and Corbyn movements into support for a new exertion of power by the bourgeois state machine.

These are the phenomenal forms of the essence of contemporary capitalism–one, that is, defined by the absence of a working-class movement. From this vantage point one could say that Brexit is what a revolutionary threat to the current order was always going to look like, under conditions where collective worker agency does not exist; seeing Brexit, albeit with qualifications, as a “revolution” helps us better understand the nature of the COVID restoration.

The COVID Restoration as Driven by the Petite Bourgeoisie

COVID, as an event, has two different faces: one a crisis and the other a class project. As a crisis, COVID was widely constructed as a public health crisis and an economic crisis, but very rarely as a political crisis. In fact, the way in which the pandemic was framed and managed has everything to do with which class is in power, and very little to do with any economic and health objective facts. Instead, the COVID regime was used to obscure the facts about class society. For example, the lockdowns administered by the political class—particularly in the British case—were used to distract attention from the hollowed-out neoliberal state and its threadbare healthcare system. The enormous fiscal and monetary stimulus deployed “because of lockdowns,” concealed an economic system that was already sputtering and on the precipice of a recession months before the restrictions in March 2020. Politicians enacted massive state-coordinated action to maintain the profits and functioning of the capitalist state, not only excluding any elements that would have raised the level of social provisioning for workers (such as sick days or increased health care capacity) but actively further demobilized them via pseudo-scientific restrictions on social interactions.  

As a class project, COVID was driven by the petite bourgeoisie. It was their hysterical reaction to a “medical emergency” that determined the early course of responses. In the British context, the reaction was particularly extreme, and arguably more than proportional to their defeat in the Brexit process. Though numerically small, the petite bourgeoisie is highly organized and culturally visible. As a class—the majority of whom are located in various bureaucratic formations in the private and public sectors—they are driven in the COVID-19 era by two related imperatives: the moral critique (and political management) of the working class, and the reproduction of themselves as a highly credentialed but ultimately economically dependent and precariously situated class. 

In crude terms, the petite bourgeoisie is increasingly composed of economically unproductive functionaries. These functionaries—including academics, civil servants, “knowledge workers” of many stripes, and those in the “charity sector”—approach the market not as producers of commodities or owners of capital, but as consumers. Further, they are ultimately reliant upon the capitalist class for their daily bread. Their direct economic imperatives involve securing greater transfers, either from the state or from wealthy capitalist philanthropists, and moving up the career ladder of their field. Though their credentials and relative control over their work gives them a sense of objectivity and independence, their existence is ultimately in thrall to their capitalist masters, and therefore on Capital’s continuing accumulation. This contradictory and unstable position is the material root of their tendency towards hysteria and moralism. These characteristics were further exacerbated by the fact that the petite bourgeoisie were sent home to answer emails from their sofas. Their class perspective, already constrained under the dominance of the capitalists class, was further limited by a complete detachment from the working class, outside of the occasional food and goods deliveries. Thus, the only mass politics possible during the pandemic was via the “universalism” that the petite bourgeoisie thinks they represent. This class detachment and false populism helps to explain their enthusiasm for the Black Lives Matter protests. The BLM movement was partly defined by the slogan “racism is the real pandemic” and was enthusiastically joined even by members of the upper classes. The slogan reveals more than was intended as both represented a hollow, nihilistic simulacra of what once had been proletarian struggles—the battle for universal healthcare and the struggle against the racialized divide-and-rule tactics of the US bourgeoisie.

In the UK, the COVID-19 pandemic represented an opportunity for the bourgeoisie to stabilize itself following the turbulent period between 2016-2019. Seeking to lash out against the defeats represented by Brexit and the election of Johnson, the petite bourgeoisie were eager to use the pandemic to attack Boris Johnson’s government. Instead they ended up allowing themselves, as always, to be used by their class betters as a battering ram to enforce its COVID regime. After a decade of failed rebellions the petite bourgeoisie had been successfully reintegrated into playing their traditional role as shock troopers for the bourgeoisie.

Looking back almost two years into the pandemic, it is now clear that the COVID era thus represented an opportunity for the ruling class to reassert control over what had become an unstable ship of state. If Brexit was a failed democratic revolution, then the COVID era represents a restoration of ruling class stability and a consolidation of its power. And it was one of the defining features of this period of revolution and restoration that the working class opposed not just the ruling class but its most loyal and obedient functionaries: the previously dissident layers of the petit bourgeoisie. 

The pandemic has generated many casualties; the rule of law, basic liberties and rights, open scientific debate, amongst others. However, one good thing has emerged: a stronger understanding of those who will and will not stand with the working class and democracy. Brexit provided the first hints of who these were; COVID-19 served as the confirmation.