For years academic literature and broader public debates have largely framed the Brexit referendum as a ‘popular revolt against the elites’. While some emphasised the role of economic factors and others boiled it down to anti-immigration attitudes, most accounts seem to converge around this bottom-up perspective that ordinary people disillusioned with the elites have driven the UK out of the EU. Conversely, apart from a few dissenting voices, the idea that economic elites have been mostly opposed to Brexit has been the prevailing view in the literature.
Challenging the over-emphasis on the voting process, Marlène Benquet (University of Paris Dauphine) and Théo Bourgeron (University of Edinburgh) invite us to look more closely at the role played by the economic interests of the upper class. They make the case that the Leave-Remain cleavage was in fact the manifestation of a deeper division within the financial elites. In contrast to common knowledge that the City of London was in favour of Remain, the book shows that more than 65% of all the donations from the financial sector actually went to the Leave campaign.
The intra-elite division consists in divergent interests between what the authors call ‘first-wave’ and ‘second-wave’ finance. The former – made of large banks, insurance companies, pension funds etc. – mostly backed Remain as it had benefitted from the EU’s neoliberal institutional architecture. The latter, consisting of hedge funds, private equity funds, real estate funds, backed Brexit. These ‘alternative’ investors, specialised in over-the-counter transactions, felt threatened by the EU’s more restrictive financial regulations following the 2007-8 crisis, such as the 2011 Directive on Alternative Investment in Financial Markets and the 2012 European Market Infrastructure Regulation. This division was reflected not only in the donations to the two opposing campaigns ahead of the referendum but also in the distinct pressure groups that first-wave and second-wave financiers set up in its aftermath, to lobby in favour of either a soft Brexit (TheCityUK’s Brexit Steering Group and the European Financial Services Chairmen’s Advisory Committee) or a hard Brexit (Financial Services Negotiation Forum) respectively.
The authors of this book go on to map the wider constellation of social forces centred around the ultra-neoliberal agenda of second-wave finance: business leaders (e.g. financiers such as Crispin Odey, Michael Hintze, Arron Banks, Peter Hargreaves, David Buik), professional associations (e.g. UK’s Investment Association, British Venture Capital Association, Alternative Investment Management Association), right-wing politicians (e.g. ex-broker Nigel Farage, ex-hedge fund managers Jacob Rees-Mogg and Rishi Sunak, ex-investment banker Sajid Javid, ex-real estate fund manager Richard Tice), and free marketeer think tanks (Economists for Free Trade, Open Europe, Global Britain). While this mapping exercise is not very systematic, it provides enough evidence to suggest that the pro-hard Brexit wing of the Conservative Party is, more or less, the political vehicle of second-wave financial capital, with the current party leader and Prime Minister himself coming from the ranks of this section of the capitalist class.
Based on these findings, the book then makes the case that we are witnessing the replacement of neoliberalism with a new political regime of accumulation driven by second-wave finance actors, which the authors call authoritarian libertarianism. The authors suggest that the new model is chiefly characterised by its opposition to the international institutions of neoliberalism, such as the EU or the World Trade Organisation. This is coupled with a departure from any firm commitment to liberal democracy: “this regime is hostile to all redistribution of wealth, it uses repression of social movements, curtailment of civil liberties and restriction of public demonstrations and speeches as the main way to enforce social order” (p. 9).
This argument does not hold water though. In terms of economic policy, there is no break with neoliberalism. As the authors point out, one of the political aims of second-wave finance is precisely the “pursuit of the Thatcherian legacy” (p. 105). Thus, if anything, ‘libertarian authoritarianism’ is a radicalisation of the pro-market and anti-welfare views that have defined neoliberalism. This is a difference of degree rather than kind, which the authors acknowledge when writing that “it is sometimes hard to draw the line between libertarianism and neoliberalism” (pp. 105-6). Is it then, perhaps the authoritarian character of the new regime that distinguishes it from neoliberalism? But why assume an inherent incompatibility exists between neoliberal economics and political authoritarianism? It is widely accepted that the neoliberal era commenced in Chile under a right-wing dictatorship that curtailed civil liberties and claimed the lives of thousands. Contemporary authoritarian regimes in Russia or Turkey have also been noted for implementing neoliberal measures. Lastly, ‘libertarian’ entails, at least in theory, a minimal state, which is at odds with the state’s increasing authoritarian tendencies correctly identified by the authors. Hence, the more rigorously theorised notion of ‘authoritarian neoliberalism’ seems more accurate to describe the recent developments that Benquet and Bourgeron write about.
Apart from that, the book surprisingly lacks any discussion of the other sections of the business elites that also supported Brexit. The authors only mention them twice throughout the book, “among them the construction, fossil fuel and tobacco industries” (p. 104), despite the fact that industry contributed with over 43% of the business donations to the Leave campaign. Are these industries’ interests aligned with those of second-wave finance in pushing for more deregulation, or do they instead favour a policy akin to the protectionist measures taken by the Trump administration (which is also given as an example of authoritarian libertarianism)?
These shortcomings notwithstanding, the book makes a convincing case that class indeed mattered in the Brexit referendum but not as it has been commonly thought: it was a section of financial capital that not only has driven but is most likely to benefit from Brexit. Thus, by bringing back capitalist class interests in the debate, Benquet and Bourgeron shed much needed light on the nexus between economic and political elites. More research is required in this direction, potentially allowing us to better understand the fragmentation and instability that have recently characterised British politics (the Conservative Party in particular), as well as broader phenomena like right-wing populism, too often studied from the point of view of its discourse or voter profile and – some recent advances notwithstanding – not enough in terms of its economic policy and underlying class interests.