George Souvlis: By way of introduction, could you explain what personal experiences strongly influenced you, politically and academically?
Neil Davidson: I was born in Aberdeen, the regional centre of the North-East of Scotland, in 1957. Of all the major cities in Scotland, it was the one which retained the closest links to the surrounding countryside well into the twentieth century. The greatest of all North-Eastern novels (and an outstanding work of Marxist Modernism), Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, is essentially about the end of the local peasantry in the aftermath of the First World War – and in many ways it tells the story of my family. My maternal grandfather, Wullie Farquhar, was a farm servant on the estate at Monymusk who migrated to the city in the late twenties where he got a job as a mechanic on the trams and then on the buses. My grandmother Helen was always too ill to work. My mother Margaret was born in the thirties and went to school during the War: she was one of the brightest girls in her year, but Granny and Granda Farquhar obviously couldn’t afford to pay for further education, so she went to work in a bank as a typist, then as a secretary. My paternal grandfather was an industrial worker on the Donside paper mills, but I never knew him as he contracted a lung disease from breathing in paper fibres (this was before the tyranny of Health and Safety) and died during the War – an end hastened by pre-NHS experimentation with radiation treatment which burned off large sections of his skin and required my Granny Davidson to change his bandages twice a day. My dad Doug was also academically talented and won a state bursary to go to one of the private schools (Robert Gordon’s) he couldn’t possibly have gone to otherwise – one consequence of which was that he always knew professional middle-class people who were much better off than we were. Dad trained as a radiographer while doing his National Service in the army during the early fifties and that became his job at the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary once he was discharged.
For the first 10 years of my life (1957-67) Mum, Dad, my sister Shona and me stayed in a privately-rented, two-room tenement flat in Claremont Street. We had an outside toilet which we shared with our neighbours across the landing. Also outside was a wash-house in which the women would put the cloths through a mangle to get the worst of the water out before pegging them up on the washing line. (Every family had a ‘day’ in which they got to use the line.) Like most of the tenements in our street there was a WWII bomb shelter in the back green. All four of us slept in the same room – Mum and Dad in a double bed and Shona and I in a bunk bed next to it. We washed in the sink and didn’t have a phone or a fridge, although we did have a TV. My students often react with horror when I tell them this, but I had a happy childhood and most of the people of the kids I went to school with lived in similar ways. I was encouraged to read and often retreated into an imaginary world where I made up stories involving my favourite Marvel Comics characters (especially Dr Strange). Granny and Granda Farquhar lived in the flat above us and so we benefited from an extended family situation; they would always take Shona and me in if Mum and Dad needed some space. I was dimly aware that some of Dad’s friends lived in what seemed to me to be palatial homes in the West End. I don’t remember this, but apparently at the age of 7 I asked my parents why these people had more money than us – a very good question which I’ve since tried to answer. I suppose the point is that this was at the height of the post-war boom, of embedded Social Democracy and the emergence of a supposedly “affluent” working class; it is very easy to romanticise this period, particularly after 40 years of neoliberalism, but with the extremely important exception of our health – the impact of the NHS should never be underestimated – actual living conditions had not necessarily improved since the War. Scottish crime novelist Val MacDiarmid has a joke about how, in Scotland, “1968” really only got going in “1979”; with some exaggeration you could say that, for many people, “1945” only got going in “1968”.
Take housing. When I reached age 10 in October 1967 the local Council was legally obliged to re-house us as siblings were not allowed to sleep in the same room after one became a teenager. (It didn’t matter about parents sleeping in the same room as their children, apparently.) We moved to a council housing scheme called Summerhill on (what was then) the extreme western edge of the city. It was paradise. We had an inside toilet, a bath, a bedroom each, a lawn front and back, and our neighbours all moved in at the same time as us. We couldn’t afford to go abroad for holidays until the early 1970s, so we would stay with with my “aunties” in the countryside. One of them, Betty, had a tied cottage on the same estate where my grandfather had worked in the twenties: she was a shepherd and a cowherd – something I suspect not many people in the UK today can say of their female relatives.
In 1969 I passed the “11 plus” which meant that I went to Aberdeen Grammar School, rather than the local comprehensive, although the Grammar itself became a comprehensive in 1971 (when Margaret Thatcher was Education Secretary!). Like most working-clas children who go to these places, I ended up in much the same kind of job that I would have got anyway – a clerk working for the Grampian Health Board. There was never any question of me going to University – the important thing was to get work. It was while I was at secondary School (1969-75 that I became politically aware and began to consider myself a socialist in a fairly vague way. My family never really talked about politics although in retrospect I can see that Mum and Dad were moving to the right throughout the mid- to late- Seventies: even so, in 1977 Dad and I were both on the NALGO (now part of UNISON) Executive Committee for the Health Board, him representing radiographers and me “youth”. Thinking about politics was partly a response to events of the time (my secondary school years almost exactly correspond to the “1968” period), partly to the music I was listening to (Dylan, The Mothers of Invention, Bowie, Roxy Music, Steely Dan, Curtis Mayfield, the MC5, The Velvet Underground – I took my cues assiduously from the New Musical Express), but also because of four books that I stumbled across in the Grammar School library. George Orwell’s Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters had just been published in hardback the previous year and there they were. I must have read Animal Farm by this point , but nothing else. These books opened up a whole new world for me, about Stalinism, the nature of the USSR, literary Modernism, the study of popular culture – even language itself. To this day, “Inside the Whale” remains one of my top ten essays of all time – its up there with “The Peculiarities of the English” and “Breaking the Chains of Reason”. For this reason I get slightly irritated at a kind of snobby, supercilious critique of Orwell – not least from the editors of Salvage – which seems to be more a response to the way he has been appropriated than to his actual writings.
One consequence of this literary encounter was that when I bumped into the International Socialists in the second half of 1976, their state capitalist position on Russia made perfect sense to me, and set it on a properly scientific basis. This was the year a number of things came together for me: culturally, punk was just about to break, as was disco (the supposed hostility of adherents of these forms to each other is a myth: I liked both, as did most of my mates); politically I was enthused by Rock Against Racism and then the Anti-Nazi League, for which I became the Aberdeen Carnival transport organiser. By this point my initial political formation was more-or-less complete, although I didn’t really immerse myself in the literature of the Classical Marxist tradition until I temporarily moved to London in the early Eighties and spent quite a lot of time reading on commutes to and from work. At this point I was very influenced by Alex Callinicos – as I continued to be for the next thirty years – as I thought he was doing the most to actually develop the IS sub-tradition, rather than simply repeat it. My favourite book from the period is probably Nigel Harris’s Of Bread and Guns, though.
I eventually got a degree from the Open University and also did some tutoring for it, but I never really imagined becoming an academic. I only did so because as I entered my fifties it was getting physically much more difficult to spend all weekend and evening writing on top of my day job – I was a career civil servant from 1987 to 2008. The writing itself only started because I wanted to understand what was politically changing in Scotland during the late 1980s, in a longer-tern timescale, and nobody else seemed to be doing this. Why had Scottish nationalism been historically so weak, when Scottish national consciousness was so strong? Was it to do with the particular form of the Scottish transition to capitalism? And so on. I began to work on these issues, but found myself having to undertake much more general explorations of the concepts I had to deploy – nation-state, bourgeois revolution, uneven and combined development – so my later general studies in these subjects all emerged out of my initial attempt to get to grips with the specifics of the Scottish experience.
One of the main riddles of contemporary marxist theory is the issue of the nation, which for many theorists is considered as an incompatible reality with this of class, both in analytical and political terms. Could you delineate the basic lines of an analytical marxist framework that could effectively grasp the national aspect of an historical social formation? Can marxist theories be combined fruitfully with the contemporary literature on nationalism (Hobsbawm, Gellner etc) or they are mutually exclusive?
Of the non-Marxists the key figure here is the one you mention: Gellner, whose work I admire and think can be incorporated into a Marxist account – it is equally “modernist” in that it rejects notions of nationalism which see it as existing during the feudal era, for example. Weberians like Gellner treat nationalism as essentially a substitute for the role of religion in what they call traditional or agrarian societies. In effect they dismiss the idea that nations are permanent aspects of the human condition before industrialisation, only to reintroduce it as inescapable after the process has begun. Marxist accounts place the emergence of nationalism earlier, with the capitalist mode of production itself, since it is demonstrable that England developed both national consciousness and fully formed nationalism long before industrialisation began, which is also true of the United States and to a lesser extent of the United Netherlands. To argue that nations only appeared at some stage in the later 18th century would be as absurd as arguing that capitalism only appeared at the same period. In fact, national consciousness took as many centuries to become the dominant form of consciousness as the capitalist mode of production did to become the dominant mode of production, and it did so as a consequence of the latter.
Outside of a handful of countries, however, capitalism and industrialisation arrived simultaneously, so in a sense Gellner is right to say that mass nationalism was a product of industrialisation, but his insight was too focussed on the functionality of nationalism for industrial societies. At least as much attention should be paid to the way in which industrialisation, and the related process of urbanisation, together produced the changes in human consciousness which made nationalism possible (for the subordinate classes), as to the way in which the more complex societies they produced made nationalism necessary (for the dominant class). It is all too easy to ignore how unprecedented these experiences were (and still are) for the people undergoing them.
What does nationalism mean for the working class? Reformist consciousness was famously described by Gramsci as “dual” or “contradictory”; on the one hand accepting the permanence of the system, on the other rejecting the effect of its operation. The most basic expression of this contradiction is an acceptance by workers of the wages system accompanied by a rejection of the particular level of wages which they are being offered, but it extends to all aspects of social life. Workers remain nationalist to the extent that they remain reformist. And from the point of view of the capitalist class in individual nations it is absolutely necessary that they do so, or the danger is always that workers will identify, not with the “national” interest of the state in which they happen to be situated, but that of the class to which they are condemned to belong, regardless of the accident of geographical location. Nationalism should not therefore be seen as something which only “happens” during separatist movements on the one hand, or during fascist and imperialist manifestations on the other: the capitalist system generates nationalism as a necessary, everyday condition of its continued existence. It develops new structural capacities, new modes of experience and new psychological needs in the people who have to work in the factories and live in the cities. It is this need for some collective sense of belonging with which to overcome the effects of alienation, the need for psychic compensation for the injuries sustained at the hands of capitalist society, that nationalism provides in the absence of revolutionary class consciousness, but in conjunction with reformist class consciousness. One might say that the origins of national consciousness see the emergence of an identity-ensemble adequate to the historical conditions of generalised alienation; but the needs produced by capitalist industrialisation last as long as the system itself.
It imperative that loyalty to a state be secured, and the nation is the means. Workers have often been asked to accept rises in interest rates, cuts in wages and services, or participation in imperialist wars, but never for the benefit of capitalism, always for the benefit of a particular nation, for “the national interest”. It is not only the state which makes such appeals. The organisations of the working class themselves reinforce reformist class consciousness within a national context. At the most elementary level this is because such organisations are unwilling to challenge the nationalism within which political discourse is conducted, for fear of being labelled unpatriotic. More importantly, however, it is because they seek either to influence or determine policy within the confines of the existing nation-state. Typically, therefore, nationalism is invested with the contradictory character of the reformist world view.
The neoliberal reorganization of capitalism heightened three existing tendencies: the transformation of human relationships to market transactions, the reduction of human capacities to mere factors of production and the self-identification of human beings primarily as consumers. The result is to raise levels of atomization and alienation to a previously unimaginable extent, with potentially dangerous consequences for capital, which still has to achieve the tacit acceptance, and preferably the active support, of the working class in the process of its own exploitation. Otherwise, the system is potentially threatened, either by social breakdown, as individualized consumers transfer the competitiveness of the market to all other areas of life, or by social conflict, as workers begin to discover or rediscover their class-consciousness and mobilize in their collective interest. But repression on its own will not produce the degree of willing acceptance that the system requires. In these circumstances nationalism plays three roles. First, it provides a type of psychic compensation for the direct producers, which is unobtainable from the mere consumption of commodities. It is, as they say, no accident that the nationalist turn in the ideology of the Chinese ruling class became most marked with the initial opening up of the Chinese economy to world markets in 1978 and the suppression of the movement for political reform in 1989, which was followed by a “patriotic education campaign” the general tone of which continues to this day. Second, it acts as a means of recreating at the political level the cohesion which is being lost at the social level. Third, it uses this sense of cohesion to mobilize populations behind the performance of national capitals against their competitors and rivals.
This last aspect requires some elaboration, because potentially it involves risks or at least inconveniences for capital. The imperial nationalism unleashed by the Conservatives before 1997 in relation to “Europe,” was not because the EU was in any sense hostile to neoliberalism, but as an ideological diversion from the failure of neoliberalism to transform the fortunes of British capital. The nationalism invoked for this purpose has now places a major obstacle for those British politicians and state managers – the majority – who want to pursue a strategy of greater European integration, however rational that may be from their perspective: we will discuss this later, but Brexit has to be understood primarily as a catastrophe for British capital.
But there is another danger for the ruling classes too, namely that neoliberal nationalism will lead to the fragmentation of neoliberal states. The difficulty here is a deeper one. Because nationalism is such an inescapable aspect of capitalist development, the first response to intolerable conditions is to seek to establish a new nation-state, although this is usually only possible where some level of national consciousness already exists, as it does, for example, in Scotland. In other words, neoliberalism may require nations, but it does not require particular nations. And invoking nationalism as a counterweight to neoliberal social and economic policy can involve a different set of problems for individual ruling classes; not problems of the order of class war or the war of each against all, but those involving the uncertainties and inconveniences caused by the potential fragmentation of the nation-state. This outcome is generally only possible where an alternative national consciousness is available and associated with a distinct territory within the state. This is obviously what has happened in the case of Scotland.
Werner Bonefeld, in one of his articles, described the idea of a “progressive” form of nationalism as an “entirely regressive phenomenon”. Do you agree with this take? Do you not think that the nationalist movements in Catalonia and Scotland contain any potential emancipatory content?
Werner is obviously right that there are limits to how “progressive” any nationalism can be, since – as I have argued – they are products of capitalism. But even if we restrict ourselves to national movements in the advanced West and include, say, Quebec, in addition to the stateless nations you mention, then I think his main point is wrong. It is true that the SNP is committed to the neoliberal agenda – but a vote for independence in the referendum is not the same as a vote for the SNP: support for a national demand such as Scottish independence is quite distinguishable from support for a party which advocates it: it depends on what your reasons for supporting the demand are. There can be both nationalist reasons and non-nationalist (socialist, environmentalist) reasons for secession. One legal theorist (and Scottish Nationalist) the late Neil MacCormick argued that nationalism could take either an “existential” form in which attaining statehood is an end in itself or a “pragmatic” means to achieving social and political ends through statehood. MacCormick himself noted that the latter was a very “weak” form of nationalism, but in certain contexts it need not be nationalism at all. As a political ideology, nationalism – any nationalism, relatively progressive or absolutely reactionary – involves two inescapable principles: that the national group should have its own state, regardless of the social consequences; and that what unites the national group is more significant than what divides it, above all the class divide. It is clear from the Scottish experience at least, however, that non-nationalist arguments for supporting independence were widely used by many Yes activists, particularly around the Radical Independence Campaign. It argued, for example, that the secession is a means of resisting the neoliberal strategy of devolving responsibility for implementing austerity down from governing parties and central state apparatuses to elected bodies whose policy options are severely restricted both by statute and partial reliance on the central state for most of their funding. In the case of the devolved nations the assumption is that the people most likely to participate in local decision-making will be members of the middle-class, who can be expected to behave, en masse, in ways which will impose restrictions on local taxation and public spending, and thus maintain the neoliberal order with a supposedly popular mandate: atomised citizens voting for which services they want to close. In these circumstances, without any illusions in the ability of small states to resist the pressures of the world capitalist system, deciding to secede can be seen as both a progressive and democratic option which need not involve nationalism at all.
There is another point. In a capitalist society, all politics is by definition “bourgeois” unless working-class interests are forced onto an agenda which would otherwise exclude them. Some areas of political life are obviously more susceptible to working-class intervention than others, and some will always have greater priority, but none can be dismissed as entirely irrelevant. The referendum on Scottish independence may have been one of the more unlikely triggers for a mass progressive social movement, but this is in actuality what happened. The sections of the Scottish radical left who actively supported a Yes vote – the overwhelming majority, bar some fossilised sectarians – were therefore right to throw themselves into the campaign and, in doing so, not only took part in but helped create one of the greatest explosions of working class self-activity and political creativity in Scottish history, far greater in depth and breadth than those around the Make Poverty History/G8 Alternatives mobilisations in 2005, the Stop the War Coalition in 2002-3 or even the Anti-Poll Tax campaign on 1987-90. The level of participation and relative closeness of the outcome, for which the left can claim much of the credit, are two measure of this. It would have been madness to abstain or worse, argue for the defence of the British imperialist state.
The tradition of Political Marxism has received a strong criticism in your writings. Would you like to explain the main epistemological and political limitations that you detect in the works of Robert Brenner and Ellen Meiksins Wood in regards to the ‘transition debate’?
Part of the difficulty I find with Political Marxism is the vastly different political positions which its adherents are able to adopt on the basis of the same theory. Brenner himself, and Charles Post, are revolutionaries who in most respects see themselves as standing in the Classical Marxist tradition; Wood was much more ambivalent; others still, like Spencer Dimnock, have argued quite specifically against revolution and for reform. Yet others are essentially academics with no discernible political positions at all. In other words the theory is a highly specific one about the nature and origins of capitalism, which need not have any implications for wider political practice – although as I will argue in a minute, one aspect of the theory leads to some very odd conclusions indeed.
For political Marxists, capitalism is defined by the existence of what they call market compulsion – the removal of the means of production and subsistence from the direct producers so that they are forced to rely on the market to survive. In fact, there have never been capitalist societies, even mid-Victorian Britain or the United States today, where all economic relations been market determined. (In some cases this has been because of the retention of precapitalist relations such as led to the reassertion of “moral economy” against “political economy,” of the “just price” against the “market price,” which occurred in England and Lowland Scotland as late as the end of the eighteenth century. (Indeed, if capitalist social relations of production were already in place by before the English Civil War, then what were these great social struggles actually about?) But more commonly it has been the imposition of public or state provision and regulation by capitalist states. In other words, “pure” capitalist social property relations have never been completely dominant anywhere, nor – unless socialists completely fail in their objectives – will they ever be. For Marx, capitalism was defined not as a system of market compulsion, but as one of competitive accumulation based on wage labour. The existence of wage labour does not in itself necessarily signify the emergence of the capitalist mode of production; wage labour also took place under feudalism, but primarily as a means of meeting the consumption requirements of the lords rather than contributing to the self-expansion of capital. It is rather that the existence of the capitalist mode of production determines that wage labour becomes the central means through which surplus extraction takes place. Equally, however, various types of unfree labour associated with pre-capitalist modes of production, including slavery itself, can also take place within the context of the capitalist mode of production.
Even if some social relations remain, initially at least, those associated with pre-capitalist modes in the purely technical sense, the decisive fact is that these technical relations are subordinated to capitalist laws of motion. Political Marxists repeatedly highlight the radical difference between capitalism and preceding modes of production. This emphasis is useful up to a point, but beyond it we lose all sense of what capitalism has in common with other exploitative class systems. Indeed, if capitalism did not possess this commonality, then it is difficult to see how it could have successfully incorporated aspects of these earlier modes, as it has in most of the world outside of a handful of countries at the core of the system where, quite exceptionally, capitalism exists in more or less pure form. Feudal lords were able, in some circumstances, to transform themselves into capitalists, just as ancient slave owners before them were able, in other circumstances, to transform themselves into feudal lords. The continuing fact of exploitation is what makes these adaptations possible. In this respect, as in many others, it will surely be socialism rather than capitalism that is distinct from all previous modes of production.
In the Brenner thesis the emergence of capitalism, in England at least, is an unintended, contingent outcome of the actions of the two main feudal social classes, peasants and lords. Brenner conceives of feudalism as a self-enclosed, self-perpetuating system that cannot be undermined by its own internal contradictions. It is often claimed that Brenner has an explanation for the – in his terms, highly unlikely – appearance of capitalism: the class struggle. In fact, it is the outcome of such class conflicts that Brenner is interested in, not the conflicts themselves. In the case of England, the outcome of the rural class struggle acted as a mechanism (“an exogenous shock”) for establishing capitalist social relations of production, but in the United Netherlands ecological pressures played the same role. Why does Brenner need such a mechanism in the first place? Essentially it is because Political Marxists cannot conceive of people willingly choosing to become capitalists rather than doing so only when the role was imposed on them. The rejection of one form of bourgeois ideology – that capitalism is “natural” – should not blind us to the dangers of accepting another, albeit with the inversion of its value system. No mode of production is intrinsically alien to human nature. Human beings may not have a propensity for capitalism but they can develop such a propensity under certain conditions and without compulsion. What I am suggesting, therefore, is that the entire elaborate edifice of the Brenner thesis is based upon a conception of human nature in which it is seen as innately opposed to capitalism (another of the many positions Political Marxists inadvertently share with Von Hayek) – indeed, in which it is seen as innately opposed to economic development as such – and will only be induced to accept capitalist relations under duress. While this may allow us the comforting thought that capitalism need not have happened, it also has certain other implications. For if capitalism is essentially a contingent or accidental historical outcome, then so too is the possibility of socialism. One does not have to accept, in Second International or Stalinist style, that human social development has gone through a succession of inevitable stages to reject the ascription of absolute randomness to key historical turning points as a viable alternative.
How did the new, capitalist way of organizing production supposedly first emerge? The elements that would eventually combine to create the capitalist mode of production – not only market competition but also wage labour and commodity production – preexisted it by many centuries. Political Marxists are therefore right to insist that the existence of these elements does not in itself indicate the existence of capitalism as such. One can further agree with them that the socioeconomic activities that ultimately ended up producing capitalism were not, initially at any rate, necessarily undertaken with capitalism as a conscious goal. Neither of these observations should be taken to mean, however, that capitalism was an unlikely outcome. There are very few ways in which exploitation or the social relations of production more generally can be organized. Given this highly restricted range of options, the chances of something like capitalism arising were actually rather high, given certain conditions.
After all, the productive forces do not “develop” themselves: they are not sentient, nor are they even independent variables, “calling forth” this or “selecting” that response from the relations of production. To say that forces of production have developed is simply to say that human beings have been motivated to change them and have then successfully done so in such a way that the social productivity of labour has risen as a result. Human agency is quite as decisive here as it is in the class struggle. When people develop the productive forces it creates a situation in which they, or other people, can adopt new, more compatible productive relations, of which there are not an infinite number. But although developing the productive forces makes certain types of society possible, it does not make them inevitable: it is an enabling condition.
But Political Marxists do not believe that anyone under pre-capitalist modes of production has an incentive to develop the productive forces. Why? Wood in particular appeared to believe that saying human beings have the desire and capacity to improve their material conditions is the same as saying that they have always been subjugated by the needs of competitive accumulation. One consequence of this denial that there might have been any positive incentives to embrace capitalist production is a tendency to portray peasant life before capitalism as essentially based on a natural economy of self-governing communities, which have no incentive to develop the productive forces, and into which the lords or the Church only intrude superficially and occasionally in order to acquire their surplus. Developing the productive forces seems to me to be at least as rational a response to the feudal exploitation it so vividly describes as the alternatives of “fight or flight” that are usually posed. People have wanted to do the former since the transition to agriculture; they have only had to do the latter since the transition to capitalism. The wish to better the circumstances in which we live has been one the main impulses behind the attempts to develop the productive forces and it is intimately bound up with class society, not least because in situations where the direct producers have to hand over part of what they have produced to someone else, there is a very real motive – one might almost say, an imperative – to increase their output, a motive that need have initially nothing to do with market compulsion. And in conditions of crisis, such as those that shook European feudalism in the fourteenth century, the pressure on the ruling class to raise the level of exploitation, and consequently on the peasantry to look for ways of escape, was of course heightened still further.
Here again the role of human agency is decisive. Ruling classes are never passive. By successfully preventing people from developing the productive forces to the point where they can lead to changes in productive relations, they have either ensured centuries of relative stagnation or the repetition of developmental phases that never progress beyond a certain point. In other relatively rare cases, this type of blocking maneuver led to outright regression, as it did across Western Europe in the fifth century, in the fourteenth, and again – although on a more regionalized basis – in the seventeenth; but even in these cases, the “anti-development” of the productive forces also led to transformations in productive relations: change does not always go in one direction. The process by which human beings first make progressive changes to the productive forces, then the productive relations and ultimately the superstructures can explain the two greatest social transformations that have occurred in human history: one was the transition from pre-class society (“primitive communism”) to various forms of class society (slave, feudal, tributary); the other was the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
It is when we turn to the contemporary world, however, that the problematic aspects of the Political Marxist definition of capitalism for socialist politics become apparent. Failure to distinguish between the logical development of categories in theory and their development in history leads to the danger of working with platonic or “ideal” conceptions of the capitalist economy and capitalist states which do not correspond to the operation of any actual capitalist economies or capitalist states. In this case, the danger is compounded by convergence with one the key ideological positions of the bourgeoisie, now attaining something like its purest expression under neoliberalism, which is precisely that politics and economics are, or at least should be, separate realms. In fact, capitals can perform some of the functions of states and states can act as capital.
Throughout the history of the system capitalists have employed extra-economic means to recruit, retain, coerce and control labour. The self-expansion of the total social capital can never be completely based on unfree labour, of course, because it assumes and requires general labour mobility; but “general” does not mean “universal”, and individual capitals can employ, have employed and continue to employ unfree labour. Similarly, from the use of private armies by J. D. Rockefeller in America after the Civil War through to the current universal expansion of private security firms, violence has never been the monopoly of the capitalist state. War and preparations for war involving imperialist states throw these issues into the sharpest relief. Political Marxists have two explanations for the World and Cold Wars of the twentieth century.
One is that the world as whole was not completely dominated by the capitalist mode of production: between 1914 and 1945, conflicts were either between capitalist and pre-capitalist powers; between 1945 and 1989, conflicts were between capitalist powers and those which at least claimed to be post-capitalist. In neither period, therefore, were conflicts generated by the pure ‘imperatives’ (to use Wood’s favoured term) of the system itself. Brenner tends to argue that, while states generally act in support of capital, the system of multiple states which capitalism inherited from feudalism means that even the biggest cannot predict or control the outcomes of their actions, since every other state is also acting in a similar way; as a result, counter-productive outcomes can result. At an extreme, these outcomes can involve catastrophes like the First World War, which is presumably why Brenner believes that a “global-state solution” would be in the best interests of capital. Now, if Brenner was simply pointing to the incommensurability of outcomes it would be difficult to disagree. His position goes further than this, however, to suggest that, not only are the consequences of certain actions unpredictable, but that from the point of view of capitalism, they are incomprehensible.
The theoretical difficulty behind these arguments is, yet again, a conception of capitalism as essentially involving market competition on the basis of price, behind which lies the compulsion to achieve cost savings through technical innovation. Brenner famously distinguishes “horizontal” competition between capitals from “vertical” conflict between labour and capital, which is helpful up to a point, but inter-capitalist competition does not take place only through the market. Capitalist competition can be external to markets, but so too can the agents of competition be separate from capitals: they can be states, and competition between states tends to lead to conflict.
There are two kinds of competition between capitals. The first amounts to a form of regulated cooperation in which all benefit from the expansion of trade. The second, however, involves competition in which the profits of one capital are achieved at the expense of another; the situation ceases to be “positive-sum” and becomes “zero-sum’. This type of competition is not restricted to firms, however, but involves states, beginning with the behaviour of the Italian city-states during the Hundred Years War. In this context, the situations which state managers and politicians face are similar to those which face individual capitalists. When a firm invests in new labour-saving technology which will reduce its costs, rival capitalists ultimately must make similar investments, even at the risk that the initial cost of purchase, installation and training will be so great as to threaten to force them out of business before the savings can be realized. Not investing means the virtual certainty of failure; investing means it is only a possibility. State managers and politicians behave similarly to capitalists in relation to national economies. But state managers and politicians also have to take decisions which, on balance, are likely to result in disaster because the alternative exposes them to even greater risk in the longer term, and this does not only apply to only in situations which are directly economic in nature. The trajectory of geoeconomic competition ultimately ends in geopolitical rivalry.
Finally, the narrowness of Political Marxist conceptions of capitalism exclude every aspect which is not directly reducible to “capitalist social property relations”. This is a form of reverse-economism in which, far from “the economic” (i.e. social property relations) determining every aspect of the social totality, those aspects appear to operate in completely contingent ways, at most overlapping with the needs of capital accumulation, in a way oddly similar to the separate jurisdictions allocated to economy, society, politics and culture in Weberian sociology. Against this, we need to integrate activities and relationships into the capital-labour relation such as those involved in, for example, gendered domestic labour, which the capital relation “presupposes” and without which it could not exist. It is, of course, possible to imagine a version of capitalism in which the only inequalities were economically generated, but these dream visions are best left where they belong, among the discarded ideological armoury of social neoliberalism. The persistence of non-economic inequalities as integral to contemporary capitalism as they were at its origin
In 2014 along with other scholars you edited the volume The Long Durée of the Far-right, An International Historical Sociology, which attempts to offer an analysis of far-right movements and politics, challenging the existing literature through the approach of the ‘longue durée’. What does this approach offer to the study of the far-right? What similarities can you detect between the far-right that is now emerging throughout Europe and that of interwar period? Can we call Le Pen and Trump fascists? Is that a legitimate conceptualization?
We were responding to the way in which the revival of thinking about the far-right – itself a response to the rise of right-wing populism – was dominated by comparative methodology, with its positivist and empiricist mode of enquiry grounded in a methodological nationalism. Our concern was that comparative analyses, along with much of the wider discussion of the far-right across most of the academic literature, have tended to explain the far-right through a rather restricted prism of historical development. Through its focus on the “return” of the far-right, existing studies note the specificities of the contemporary era – the socio-economic context generated by neoliberalism and the political one framed by the fracturing and realignment of the left with the end of the Cold War – but largely fail to recognize and discuss the longer-term set of historical structures and processes out of which it has re-emerged. In consequence, much of the extant literature struggles to explain why the contemporary far-right has come to replicate its historical predecessors whilst also remaining significantly different from them.
Assessing the particular manifestation of a political current involves recognizing and explaining how and why the ideas and positions associated with such currents evolve over time, and how such changes are the products of history: the reshaping of the socio-economic, political and cultural contexts from which such ideas flourish or disappear. Comparative analyses do not of course ignore history, but historical references tend to take the form of comparisons between the ideology, social basis and political methodology of the contemporary far-right and parties and movements of the inter-war fascist era. The problem is that inter-war fascism ends up being regarded as the ultimate template of a generic far-right, which in turn serves to obscure those specificities of the far-right as a political movement that are not reducible to “para-militarism” or any of the other unique characteristics of historical fascism. The result is not only that the contemporary far-right is set up to fall short of fascism, thus appearing to question its “far-right” qualities, but also that the longer-term historical and broader political membership of the far-right are overlooked. That subsequent forms and modalities of far-right ideologies and politics may differ from their earlier manifestations during the inter-war period may in fact be explained by the antecedent socio-historical conditions from which the former emerged. That contemporary manifestations of the far-right might be considered “deviant” examples of some undifferentiated template derived from the specificities of the inter-war period simply serves to demonstrate the inherent limitations of such a historically static comparative perspective: one obfuscating the spatio-temporally variegated and interactive patterns of socio-historical development.
To properly understand and explain the far-right, then, we decided to adopt a methodological approach and a theoretical framework that could both recognize and account for the evolution of ideas attached to political groupings as they develop through historical time and space. Comparative analyses do not do this. The upshot is that the contemporary far-right is, effectively, isolated or detached from history, such that the enduring structural connections between politics and economics and the far-right are obscured and the evolving character of the far-right not properly explained. To take only the most obvious example: the type of statism characteristic of fascist regimes during the inter-war years is unlikely to be reproduced if any of the current far-right movements – including their fascist contingents – were to take power under contemporary neoliberal conditions. There are, in other words, structural aspects of the capitalist system at any time which are likely to be adopted by far-right parties: nationalism is a defining characteristic of the far-right, but nationalization is not.
Given the hysteria about Trump’s supposed incipient fascism, it is important to begin by distinguishing between fascist and non-fascist variants of the hard-right. All wings are united by two characteristics. One is a base of membership and support in one or more fraction of the middle-class (i.e. the petty bourgeoisie, traditional middle-class professionals or the technical-managerial new middle class) – although this does not necessarily mean that they necessarily lack working-class support. The other is an attitude of extreme social conservatism, always in relation to race and nation, sometimes in relation to gender and sexual orientation: far-right politicians in the Netherlands, for example, have for example rhetorically invoked the relative freedoms of women or gays in the West as way of denouncing the supposedly oppressive beliefs of Muslims. The political goal is always to push popular attitudes and legal rights back to a time before the homogeneity of “the people” was polluted by immigration, whenever this Golden Age of racial or cultural purity is deemed to have existed, which is usually at some undetermined period before the Second World War.
There are nevertheless large differences between these two types of organization. Non-fascist far-right parties are distinguished from fascism by three characteristics: 1) they are electoral and seek to attain office through the democratic means at local, national and European levels; 2) they do not worship the state and, while they seek to use the state for welfare purposes for their client groups, some (e.g. the Austrian Freedom Party or the Tea Party) have embraced neoliberal small-state rhetoric; 3) they do not seek to “transcend” class. The first of these distinctions, adherence to bourgeois democracy, is crucial since it indicates the fundamental distinction between the fascist and non-fascist far-right, namely that the latter do not threaten to overthrow bourgeois democracy as such. Activists and commentators often draw an absolute distinction between fascism and other forms of right-wing politics, based on the way the former rely on paramilitary organization and violence as part of their strategy for attaining power. In that sense Golden Dawn in Greece is a classic fascist formation in a way that the Northern League in Italy is not. The distinction is important, not least in determining the tactics of their opponents, but fascism is not defined simply by its recourse to extra-parliamentary or illegal activity. Fascism then is revolutionary and the non-fascist far-right is not; but what does “revolutionary” mean in this context? Many Marxists are reluctant to use this term in relation to any modern political movement not of the left, with the possible exception of nationalisms in the Global South. But if we consider fascist seizures of power as political revolutions – in other words as those which change the nature and personnel of the regime without changing the mode of production, then there is no reason why the term should not be applicable.
The second major difference, which flows directly from the first, is their respective attitudes to society which they are trying to build. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany claimed to be creating “new” men and women with new values. This is a project of transformation. The non-fascist far-right however insists that the people are already the repositories of homogeneity and virtue. The purpose of the non-fascist far-right is to return the people to their formerly happy condition before these twin pressures began to be applied. This is a project of restoration.
The revival of the far–right as a serious electoral force is based on the apparent solutions it offers to what are now two successive waves of crisis, which have left the working class in the West increasingly fragmented and disorganised, and susceptible to appeals to blood and nation as the only viable form of collectivism still available, particularly in a context where the systemic alternative to capitalism – however false it in was – had apparently collapsed in 1989–91. The political implications are ominous. The increasing interchangeability of political parties gives the far–right an opening to appeal to voters by positioning themselves as outside the consensus in ways which speak to their justifiable feelings of rage. The potential problem for the stability of the capitalist system is however less the possibility of far–right parties themselves coming to power with a programme destructive to capitalist needs, than their influence over the mainstream parties of the right, when the beliefs of their supporters may inadvertently cause difficulty for the accumulation process–as in the impending withdrawal from the EU in the case of the UK or, potentially at least, a halt to migration from Mexico and Central America at the behest of the Trump presidency in the case of the US. Here we see emerging a symbiotic relationship between one increasingly inadequate regime response to the problems of capital accumulation and another increasingly extreme response to the most irrational desires and prejudices produced by capital accumulation. Again, this is not a new problem for capital.
There is a problem with some left analyses of the hard right and its far right component in particular, which is the assumption that it represents the “real” face of capitalism unmasked (“the naked dictatorship of monopoly capital”, etc, etc.) . In fact, in the developed world at least, it is only in very rare situations of dire extremity – and usually after facing the kind of threat from the labour movement that has unfortunately been absent for several decades–that capital has ever relied on the far right to solve its problems. Right-wing social movements can relate to the accumulation strategies of capital in three ways: 1) They are directly supportive; 2) They are compatible with and/or indirectly supportive through strengthening ideological positions which are associated with capitalist rule, but which may not be essential to it; or 3) They are indirectly and possibly unintentionally destabilizing. Until recently at any rate, examples of type 1 have been very rare indeed, since capitalists prefer to use corporate pressure rather than mass movements to achieve their political goals. Examples of type 2 are the most frequent but we are currently seeing, and are likely to see more examples of type 3, which raises the question: what is the relationship between the far-right politics and capitalism? What if a fascist or far-right movement came to power which implemented policies against the needs of capital–not because they were “anti-capitalist” in the way that Strasserite wing of the Nazi Party were (falsely) supposed to be, but simply because their interests lay elsewhere?
The Nazi Regime performed two services for German capital: crushing an already weakened working class and launching an imperial expansionist drive to conquer new territory; but while racism and anti-Semitism were important for the Nazis, but not for German national capitals. The long-term development of German capitalism produced, through a series of mediations, the ideology of Nazism which did contained the possibility of a Holocaust, and when German capitalists turned to the Nazis in its moment of crisis, they were given the opportunity to realize that possibility, however irrelevant and outright damaging it was to German capital’s more overarching imperial project. In other words, the barbaric ideology of Nazism and the socio-economic crisis of Germany to which they provided one solution were already connected as different moments in the mediated totality of capitalism. But if the Holocaust was a barbaric irrelevance – except incidentally – for German capital, the Nazi regime also presents us with examples of policies which were instrumentally irrational from the perspective of the capitalist state.
The contemporary relevance of this experience is limited: the working class is not currently combative enough to inspire fear in the bourgeoisie and the states in which the fascist far-right is closest to achieving power – above all, in Greece – are not imperialist powers capable of attempting continental domination in the way that Germany or even Italy was capable of doing. The point is that in the contemporary situation all that may remain are those aspects of the far-right program which are irrational for capital, particularly in its current neoliberal manifestation. The Brexit vote is a classic example of this.
Toni Negri’s recent political writings endorse the European Union, suggesting that it can be reformed into a “social and democratic Europe”, as a political antidote to the emerging nationalisms. Do you think that this “left Europeanism” is the solution to the crisis we are experiencing at the moment? Is it feasible and could this kind of reformism be effective from the inside? How can we approach Negri’s claims on the EU ,bearing in mind that even the current leaders of EU do not seem to endorse such a plan as a real possibility?
The EU and its predecessors have always embodied the way capitalism has been organised at any particular time. It is not, in other words a body suspended above shifts in the capitalist system reflecting “European values” or other liberal fantasies. As the transition to neoliberalism was imposed within the constituent nation-states, it was bound to be embedded in the EU’s own policies and rules and the EU accordingly began its own march towards neoliberalism with the Single European Act in 1986. This has been confirmed and deepened by every single subsequent Pact and Treaty from Maastricht on 1991 onwards. What made the process easier than in the individual nation-states was that the EU always lacked most of the democratic constraints which made the transition at least a contested process in Britain or Italy, even in the period when it did more-or-less embody more social democratic conception of ownership and control.
Hayek argued in 1939 that “Interstate Federalism” at the European level would be desirable because it would ensure that economic activity should be removed as far as possible from the responsibility of meddling politicians who interfered with the market order to win electoral support from ignorant voters. The EU has followed Hayek’s advice by centralising power in the hands of appointed officials, above all in the Commission, which alone has the power to initiate legislation, three types of which–regulations, directives and decisions–are binding. The Parliament has a right to be consulted, in certain circumstances, but none to initiate legislation in its own right: in this respect it has far less power than any national government, or for that matter, any devolved government like the Scottish or Catalan. But this is not the only democratic deficit. If the Commission is a supranational body, the Council of Europe is an intergovernmental one. It consists of the heads of state or heads of government of the member states, who are elected in their own countries, but not of course by the inhabitants of the other countries whose fate the Council decides. These structures are one reason why we should reject claims that the EU is as amenable to reform as any nation-state. In fact it is much less so. Capitalist states are permanent structure until they are overthrown, although they can adopt different policies according to the political parties or coalitions which oversee the apparatus at any time, and these can be more or less beneficial to the working class and oppressed groups. The problem with the EU is that, although it is not a nation-state, the balance between unelected state managers and elected representatives is even more heavily weighted in favour of the former in the EU than in its constituent members. Reforms are never easily achieved, particularly under neoliberalism, since it has removed several mechanisms from control of states. Nevertheless, it is not impossible. We can at least realistically imagine Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister of the UK; there is not the slightest possibility of an equivalent event taking place in the EU – and not just because the office does not exist.
There is also a second Hayekian aspect of the EU: the use of rule-bound policies – on limits to public spending, on debt as a proportion of GDP, on competition – to limit what national politicians can do at the behest of their electorates. Since the rules do not allow for devaluation or the levels of state expenditure or debt which would have been necessary to stimulate the economy, the only remaining response to the crisis of 2008 was austerity. The EU’s embrace of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – far more enthusiastic than Washington’s, incidentally – and the possibly even more insidious Trade in Services Agreement (Tisa) are only the latest and most extreme examples of this. In this context it is incredible to me how lightly how some Remain supporters are prepared to pass over the experience of Greece. In Yanis Varoufakis’s revelations about his encounters with the Troika, it was the EU institutions – the European Central Bank and the Commission – and not the International Monetary Fund which were the most unbending.
The lack of democracy and presence of binding rules would be reasons enough to leave the EU, but there are least three others, each of which attests, not only to the inherently reactionary nature of the project, but to how it fails to perform even the role for which it is most celebrated by liberal boosters: overcoming national self-interest.
First, the EU is designed to maintain the structure of existing inequalities between European nation-states. Beneath all the talk of “solidarity” this is inescapable: a financial and industrial structure designed to meet the needs of the strongest economies – France and Germany and, since the advent of the Euro, increasingly just the latter – but which forces the weakest to play by the same rules, will always be detrimental to them, particularly when there is no mechanism to transfer funds or resources within the EU in the way that can be done within nation-states.
Second, although the EU is not an imperialist power in its own right, as a collective body it does, however, increasingly act as an adjunct to NATO, and consequently as a support to US interests. This role was inscribed onto the EU’s DNA from the beginning. The US initially encouraged and supported the formation of the EU’s predecessors as part of a Cold War bulwark against its Russian imperial rival, and this is the main reason why there was no war in (Western) Europe between 1945 and 1991: although engaged in in economic competition with each other, the EU member-states were united behind the USA in the same geopolitical alliance. But if the EU itself does not act as an imperial power, the main constituent nation-states increasingly do, and they by no means always bow to Washington’s wishes. Here again we see the more powerful placing their own interests over those of supposed European unity. For some this is externalised, as in the persistently underestimated French presence in Central Africa, but for others it is manifested in the heart of Europe itself – most obviously in the case of Germany, whose recognition of Croatian independence in 1992 contributed to the subsequent Yugoslavian bloodbath.
Third, the EU is structurally racist. The very idea of “Europe” is necessarily exclusionary. The much vaunted “freedom of movement” within the EU is predicated on blocking the movement of those without, as tens of thousands of desperate refugees are currently discovering. The spectacle of these people being trapped in the camps, behind barbed-wire fences and facing the police dogs and tear gas on the borders of European civilization is obscene enough, but it is compounded by the attitude of the constituent states themselves. For here again their individual interests take precedence over even collective barbarity, as the Schengen Agreement collapses into a free-for-all to defend individual borders against the alien hordes. We should note that the EU has ben responsible for many more actual deaths of migrants in the Mediterranean than any of the fascist or far-right parties against which it is supposed to be our last defence.
There is one final positive argument for the EU, which tends to be expressed by sections of the radical left and probably informs Negri’s argument. It is that capitalism rules everywhere, from the EU right down to our individual workplaces. But, so this story goes, at least the EU fulfils one of the few positive functions of capitalism: it brings together workers into one of the largest groups on earth, and their pressure can transform the EU. This is a classic example of confusing our wishes for reality. The EU organises the ruling class, it does not organise workers. As Trotsky once wrote in another context, a brake cannot be used as an accelerator. There are no EU-wide political parties, or trade unions, or movements. Solidarity across borders does not depend on constitutions or institutions, but on the willingness of workers to support each other, even if in separate countries. Instead of invoking imaginary battalions of workers organised at a European level, it would more useful to begin building where we are. The struggle against neoliberal capitalism is unlikely to begin simultaneously across the whole of the EU, or to be confined within its boundaries. What we are likely to see is an uneven series of movements of different intensities, within different nation-states which, if victorious, could form new alliances and ultimately a United Socialist States of Europe. However, this vision cannot be realised within the EU, but only built afresh on its ruins.
What then is your take on Brexit? Could it be considered as a potentially progressive development, in the interests of the working classes? How do you think the Scottish Left should deal with it?
As my previous answer probably suggests, I voted to Leave and argued for others to do the same. Let me say, however, that sections of the Leave-supporting left made some extraordinarily misjudged claims about the referendum result along the lines that it constituted a great working class victory. Leaving aside what this says about those sections of the working class, including two thirds of Labour voters, who voted Remain, this interpretation seems to me to be completely untenable. Some Leave voters did indeed do so to reject political elites and members of the ruling class who made the case for the EU; but you cannot uncomplicatedly say that this is some kind of conscious movement from below against neoliberalism. We need ask only one question: did the SWP, SP or any of the other groups arguing for this interpretation call for demonstrations celebrating this class triumph or calling for the immediate triggering of Article 50? Or course not, because everyone is perfectly aware that at least some of the people who would have turned up would be calling for the removal of migrants – and not just EU passport-holders, but British citizens who have been here for decades. Claims that Brexit represents a proletarian insurgency against neoliberalism are attempts to justify taking a Leave position in the first place – quite unnecessarily in my view since the left argument against the EU (which I outlined in answer to the previous question) does not depend on predictions that this result would immediately to an improved balance of forces for the working class.
The class character of both Leave and Remain votes is very complex – except in one respect; the overwhelming majority of the British capitalist class wanted, and still wants to stay in the EU. Once we move beyond the ruling class as such the complexities begin. Some things are clear from relatively limited data that is currently available: the older you were, the less educated you were (in the sense of not attending or having attended University), the poorer and worse housed you were, the more likely you were to vote Leave. And the converse was also the case. On this basis it is easy to caricature the result as primarily a vote by older, more stupid members of the working class, acting against the interests of a younger, better educated generation more attuned to cosmopolitan middle-class values – easy, but wrong. For, although a lot of attention has been paid to the working-class Leave votes in the North of England, equal attention should have been paid to middle-class Leave votes in the South of that country. The middle-classes – the traditional petty bourgeoisie, professionals, and the new middle class (NMC) – were of course themselves divided. The principal support for Leave among them came from the first component, particularly self-employed people who find EU directives difficult to meet because, unlike large corporations, they can less easily afford to meet health and safety standards or regulations about maternity leave. These people, not ‘the white working class’, are central to UKIP. The liberal sections in the public sector, arts and university sectors were generally Remain, and have treated the result as an apocalypse-threatening rejection of their core values. In some cases this is a genuine and absolutely justified revulsion at the racism of the official Leave campaign – although it does tend to forget the more disguised racism of the official Remain campaign, which accepted the premise that there was “too much immigration”, but argued that control could be better achieved by remaining within the EU. In other cases, however, this was more a sense of injured entitlement – an affront to what Craig Calhoun once called “the cosmopolitanism of frequent flyers”. Migration is often treated as what the referendum was ‘really’ about. In particular the Leave vote is seen as a direct response to the supposedly alien presence of migrants changing solid working-class areas out of recognition. However, it is clear that many of the biggest Leave votes were in areas where there was very little migration – and vice-versa. The implication is that it is not necessarily direct personal impact or experience which was decisive in making migration a reason for voting Leave, but rather that migration acted as a synonym for a range of other issues and feelings about unwanted social transformation and even disintegration, which these voters felt were not being addressed or were being too-easily dismissed.
As far as the working class specifically is concerned, there was a spectrum of reasons for voting Leave, many of which overlapped. Moving from left to right, there were people – not only in the revolutionary left, since many more are members or supporters of the Labour Party – who consciously voted to leave because of the inequities associated with the EU. Then there were people who might not have been able to articulate the EU’s exact relationship to neoliberalism, but who understood that they were being told to vote for it by David Cameron, George Osborne and the other politicians who had been imposing austerity on their communities since 2008, and so voted for the opposite of what these people wanted. Next are people who may have no great ideological concerns at all, but who have been badly affected in economic terms by EU regulations and policies – notably workers in the fishing communities of North East England and North East Scotland. Next to them were people who thought that migration was putting pressure on wages, the NHS, and the availability of housing. These people are not necessarily racist – indeed, since some of the people making these arguments are sons of Pakistani shopkeepers or daughters of Afro-Caribbean bus drivers it is difficult to see how they could be, unless you extend the concept of racism so far that it becomes meaningless. They are wrong in their attitude toward migrants, but not for that reason incapable of being won to opposing the EU on a left wing basis. Next to them are the genuine soft racists and, although they also tend to frame their arguments in terms of migrants “stealing our jobs and houses”, the key difference with the previous group is the theme of (white) British culture under threat. Finally, there are the hard racists and outright fascists who were responsible for the attacks which took place mainly in in the weeks immediately before and after the vote. These people were certainly given confidence by the tenor of the Leave campaign, but it is wrong to talk about right-wing “mobilisation” – there were no marches or demonstrations, and fascist parties have not gained support through it. This was a howl of rage, not a project for the future – and the recent result of the General Election suggests that it is not going to become one either.
Working-class Remain voters also occupied a range of positions. There are those who genuinely believe that the EU is a fundamentally beneficent institution, which primarily exists to enshrine trade union and human rights, implement environmental protections and enable university students to study for year abroad. Then there are those who are aware that they benefit directly from EU funding, notably workers in universities and in areas in receipt of Structural Funds. More idealistically, there are those, particularly among the young, who are less sure about what the EU is and what it does, but who feel that support for the idea of ‘Europe’ is to uphold internationalism, cross-border cooperation and a left-wing perspective in general – a position made more plausible of course given the way in which the right have been allowed to virtually monopolise opposition to the EU. Finally, there are those who are perfectly aware of the nature of the EU, but who thought that the need to oppose the racist and anti-migrant discourse of the main Leave position was paramount, even if it meant ignoring the actual question on the ballot paper. Ideologically then, we might say that the pro-EU left has two wings: the ‘idealists’ – or in some cases outright fantasists – who think that the EU exists to prevent war in Europe, bestow rights to workers, implement environmental protections and ensure that travellers are not inconvenienced by border controls – claims which are about as convincing as the notion that the British Raj existed to provide the Indian sub-continent with a railway network; and the ‘lesser-evilists’, who vary enormously in their attitude to the EU, ranging from those who overlap with the idealists to those who are very well aware of the realities of what the EU is and does.
The latter position involves a local variant of a global process – most recently observable in the US and French Presidential elections – in which large sections of the liberal and radical left have effectively turned themselves into cheerleaders for the existing neoliberal order. In the UK, this has meant support for remaining in the EU. We are being asked to put our faith in a “saviour from on high” to deliver us from fascism, and not to utter any criticisms for fear of “playing into the hands of” Farage and co. If persisted with, this reliance on an external power will weaken the ability of the working class and the left to resist on their own behalf. But beyond this, there are two major problems with this argument.
The first is that, as Nancy Fraser has recently pointed out, it relies on ignoring the symbiotic relationship between social neoliberalism and the new hard right, in particular the way in which the former recreates and recreates the conditions for the latter to emerge. If the left avoids the task of opposing both, on the grounds that on this occasion, the latter is really so much worse that we have no alternative, the evasion will never stop, because reactionary populism is not going to vanish: there will always be a Trump or a Le Pen, or a Farage whose defeat requires us to support a Clinton, Marcon or Juncker. Yanis Varoufakis has made this quite explicit in an article supporting Macron: “The imperative to oppose racism trumps opposition to neoliberal policies.” Got that? Our duty is to support the dominant faction of the capitalist ruling class. And once the support has been delivered, the neoliberal saviours will continue with the very policies which produced the racism in the first place. Obviously, if you are in immediate danger then you should deal with it first, before dealing with others which may be equally deadly but less pressing: hence the need during the 1930s to crush the Nazis before turning to the overthrow of existing bourgeois state machine. (Although we should note that this would involve uniting all working-class and social movements, not running to beg for help from the social neoliberals.) No one could possibly disagree with this, but for a parallel with the 1930s Germany to be convincing we have to accept that the threat of fascism, or at least the populist far-right more generally is an immediate danger.
And this is where a second problem flows from the first. Having argued that a majority vote for Leave would have catastrophic consequence, that outcome meant Remainers were logically compelled to demonstrate how we were now living through precisely such catastrophe. Here, the guiding theoretical intelligence is less Nancy Fraser and more Private Frazer from BBC TV series, Dad’s Army – “We’re doomed, doomed!” To say that there cannot be a Left Exit is to announce that we are defeated in advance of the battle, which in my experience is never a winning formula for involving people in political activity. I oppose this kind of fatalism, not because I believe that socialists need to maintain “optimism of the will” regardless of the actual circumstances, but because it massively exaggerates the actual strength of the right, at least in the UK. For some writers (Neil Faulkner springs to mind), we are in the antechamber to fascism, the veritable last Days of Weimar, but these comparisons are ridiculous. The fate of UKIP demonstrates this. In the aftermath of Brexit, the air was thick with predictions that UKIP would sweep all before it, with Nigel Farage perhaps acting as Deputy Prime Minister to a Tory Brexiteer. In the subsequent 12 months, UKIP lost all 145 of its seats in the council elections of May 2017, lost its single parliamentary seat in June 2017 and saw its share of the vote fall from 13% in 2015 to 2% today. It has now lost its third leader in less than a year. Nor have UKIP voters simply moved to supporting the Tories – some certainly have (and many of these are returning working-class Tories), but many moved to Labour. And think only of events in the last month. More generally, if anti-migrant, anti-Islamic racism was genuinely sweeping all before it, the dominant narrative in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London would not have been solidarity, unity and the excellence of our public services. If politics had moved so decisively to the right, then support for the Labour Party during the General Election campaign would not have risen as relentlessly as it did – including in areas that voted for Leave – to the point where Corbyn is now seriously considered as a potential Prime Minister after having stood on Labour’s most-left wing manifesto for over 30 years. The UK is subject to multiple crises, but the imminent threat of fascism is not one of them.
The problem facing the Tories can be quite simply stated: they are the main party of the British ruling class, yet, because of decision taken for internal party reasons – to see off the threat from UKIP and to resolve their divisions over the EU – they are now responsible for implementing a policy which is opposed by the vast majority of that class. It is unsurprising therefore that the situation has produced dissonances. The class struggle is not a zero-sum game in which the weakness of one side automatically translates into the strength of the other. If the left is divided and the working class is organisationally weak, as they are, then this is obviously to the advantage of the ruling class; but neither of these conditions means that all their other ideological, geopolitical or economic problems have simply vanished. We need to start from this, and not conjure up an invincible enemy which exists in our imagination – that is simply to repeat the errors of the left during the 1980s, when Thatcher and her governments were assumed to have an underlying level of popular support they did not in fact possess.
Brexit is going to happen, in one form or another. Rather than waste time lamenting this, or even worse, trying to reverse it, the left needs to arrive at some common understanding about what needs to be done. One of the reasons for supporting a Leave position was because any nation-state with established bourgeois democratic structures is more democratic than the EU – even the UK: most obviously, because we can actually elect a government. As I’ve suggested, one of the reasons for the left love-in with the EU was the belief that no left government was going to be possible in the foreseeable future and so we had to rely on Brussels to save us. But once the assumption of inevitable defeat is dropped, the picture looks rather different. Following 8th June the political situation remains highly unstable and will become increasingly so as the realities of Brexit become apparent, so that another General Election is unlikely to be five years away. In these circumstances, the task of the radical left (which now includes some members of the SNP and the Greens, as well as in the Labour Party) is not to draw up proposals for (e.g.) what trade deals the UK government should be signing, since the left is unlikely to be in a position to influence the precise terms of any Brexit deal. Instead, we should identify what social outcomes we want, regardless of whether or not they are currently enshrined in EU law. The starting point has to be that we – in other words the current and future members of the British working class – are not going to pay for the disaster which is about to unfold for British capital. If sections of the left think that the labour and social movements are too weak to do this, then by all means let them continue to luxuriate in their despair in the salons of Grand Hotel Abyss: I think that that we have at least to start from the possibility that resistance is possible and will find support.
Take, for example, the free movement of people. Presumably people on both sides of the debate agree that a central goal of the left is to defend the rights of present and future migrants to the UK, without making any concessions to ‘genuine concerns’ which simply concede ground to racism. In the EU, “free movement” is not primarily about holiday makers avoiding the inconvenience of presenting their passport at airports and border crossings, it is about the freedom of labour to move for the benefit of the system, which is why it is enshrined as one of the “four freedoms” along with that for capital, goods and services. But this is not our starting point. We want to open our borders to people as people, including refugees and asylum seekers, and not on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis of what they might contribute to the British economy.
It is also important where these arguments have to be made. It became apparent during the EU referendum, that there were large areas in the UK where left-wing arguments had simply never been put for years and into that vacant space have rushed right-wing populist arguments. (During the EU referendum campaign I took part in seven debates or panel discussions and, at the end of all of them, people came up and said that they simply had never heard a left-wing argument for leaving the EU before.) Yet if the Corbyn campaign demonstrates anything, it is that that there is an audience for what are unambiguously left-wing arguments, since many of the people who are now saying they will vote for Labour will previously have voted Leave for the ‘wrong’ reasons. In this respect the left has to get out the areas where it is already strong and go to where it is currently weak. The experience of the final stages of Scottish independence referendum, when Yes supporters carried the campaign to peripheral housing estates and small towns where political life had been moribund for decades, may hold some lessons about how this could be done, but whatever the model – it has to be done.
This brings me to the Scottish situation. Following the Brexit vote the the SNP argued for a second independence referendum on the basis that the majority of Scots voted for Remain. The fact that many people in Scotland have illusions in the European Union is a major problem but the 38% vote for Leave in Scotland underestimates the extent of anti-EU feeling, as there was a major drop in voter participation in the very poorest and worst-housed working-class areas, like Glasgow East – the very type of area which tended to vote Leave in England. The actual balance of opinion is therefore probably closer than the result suggested, but regardless, it is the duty of socialists to argue from principle, rather than for what gives momentary support to one of our causes. One of the key issues facing the radical left in Scotland is therefore to argue, against the leaderships of the SNP (and the Scottish Greens), that the question of Scottish independence from the UK and Scottish membership of the EU are entirely separate questions and require separate referendums, in which we should respectively argue for Yes in the first and No in the second. The question of Scottish EU membership is absolutely decisive, because it will not be about race and migration; in other words, the ‘lesser evil’ case will no longer be relevant, to the extent that it ever was, and we will have to deal instead with the realities of the EU itself.If you like this article, please subscribe or donate.