The European Union is a failed political project. What was supposed to be a union based on common interests and mutual respect has become a tyranny of neoliberal technocrats imposing their will on disenfranchised peoples of Europe, especially those from less prosperous countries (see Greece for details).
This reality upsets some on the left, who hoped the EU could be a new political and economic system that incorporated the best aspects of the democratic state while avoiding the poison of nationalism. Unfortunately, the EU fails on both counts—it is exceedingly undemocratic and the ultimate effect of its callous operations is to fuel reactionary politics.
In truth, the EU, along with other transnational organizations such as the World Trade Organization (WTO), have set back the cause of democracy and equality in Europe for a generation. The modest gains made by social democrats in individual nation-states have been undone through the surrender of power and authority to transnational corporate cronies and members of the European Commission.
So, why is it that so many on the left are lamenting a form of undemocratic liberalism that is finally starting to get its comeuppance? The reaction on some parts of the left to the vote, which was cast by people in the United Kingdom wishing to discard the yoke of EU oppression, has been to impugn voters’ intelligence and claim that the will expressed by the people, in a free and fair election, should be disregarded completely.
Left-wing Brexit critics cite the xenophobia and nationalism, which British conservatives used to argue for leaving the EU, as grounds to entirely dismiss the working class voters who stood up for their rights. They are literally siding with the neoliberal (and largely kleptocratic) transnational elite whom they constantly attack in every other instance.
And to what end? All they are doing is acting as neoliberalism’s useful idiots, providing cover for antidemocratic policies of the elite they claim to oppose, while further alienating working people with their smug condescension.
The solution to the problem of conservatives and reactionaries grabbing the mantle of popular sovereignty and democratic accountability is not to attack popular sovereignty and democratic accountability, but to take the damn mantle back.
The ascension of right-wing populism, both in the UK and the United States, is not a problem of populism, but a failure of left-wing movements to address and harness the power of the public’s anger at inequality and injustice. While the left in the US dithered on Wall Street corruption, the right launched the Tea Party and offered a narrative for the 2008 financial crisis (poor people did it)—which is as absurd as conservative Brexit campaigners blaming immigrants for Eurocrat malfeasance and incompetence.
Eventually, the left in the US did get its act together and responded to the economic destruction brought by Wall Street and a corrupt government by launching, among other things, Occupy Wall Street, as well as supporting an insurgent candidate in the 2016 Democratic primaries. Decrying the conservative backlash is not enough; the people need an alternative.
All the left-wing critics of Brexit are doing is justifying the status quo, when they should be launching their own movements to lead the fight against neoliberalism and win the people away from the reactionaries.