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Neither Westminster Nor Brussels
Long before this referendum was called, Salvage made our position on the European Union crystal clear. In the perspectives of Salvage #2: Awaiting the Furies, we wrote ‘If the Greek crisis has reaffirmed the imperial character of power within the EU, the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ has shown its external face.’ Faced with the ‘migrant crisis’, we noted, our rulers debated ‘whether to have a Europe of razor-wire, or a Europe surrounded by razor-wire.’ It would appear they chose not to choose – while fences have been erected along the borders of Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria, Europe has also outsourced its border policing to Turkey, which is set to become an open detention centre for migrants and refugees refused by Europe.
To point out the brutality of the EU faced with dissenting populations – be that dissent be via the ballot box, as in Greece, or on foot across external and internal borders – was in the context of last Autumn uncontroversial. To claim anything other would have been perverse. That the ‘open’ borders within the EU, have always been – indeed, are definitionally – dependant on the maintenance of its external ones could not have been made more clear if Merkel herself had pointed it out. Except that she did. ‘We need to protect our external borders because we want to keep Schengen’, she explained in her weekly podcast in March. She added, ‘Failing to protect the EU’s borders would jeopardise free movement of people which is the basis for the bloc’s wealth.’
The basis for the bloc’s wealth. The EU is not, has never been, will never be, about the free movement of people on our terms. The EU’s ‘free movement’ is dependent on the violent exclusion of those outside.
Perry Anderson once grandly claimed that the European Union was ‘the last great world-historical achievement of the bourgeoisie, proof that its creative powers were not exhausted by the fratricide of two world wars’. Its destruction could, then, be the first great achievement of Britain’s petite bourgeoisie in the 21st Century.
That is, on the face of it, highly unlikely. The forces ranged behind the ‘Stay’ campaign, including a cross-party alliance of all the major political leaderships, and a cross-class alliance between the CBI and the TUC, massively outweigh in numbers and financing the motley, fractious alliances put together by the middle-class right. Throwing in a few aleatory leftists and trade unionists to the anti-EU mix – as the anti-EU right has done, and as the anti-EU Left still insists it wishes to do – is unlikely to alter the calculus.
Yet if one thing marks this conjuncture, it is the sheer unreliability of traditional political allegiances and machinery, amid the collapsing legitimacy of the established institutions of power. The depressing thing about this is that the Left will have little to do with the outcome either way – and little, in the short term, to gain.
Up to the dawn of the campaign, in fact, the Tory enragés had the initiative. If they don’t win the campaign for a ‘British exit’ (‘Brexit’) from the European Union, it won’t be for want of a near permanent popular ideological advantage. In a universe of even moderately rational debate, their pound-saving mania, self-pitying metric martyrdom, and lip-lathered conspiracy theories about the ‘EUSSR’ and its pinko obliteration of British common sense, should be enough to marginalise them. But in the real world in which we live, even if their exaggerated grip on the popular press, where the gripes and grievances of post-colonial nationalist resentment are nourished daily, didn’t give them a constant edge, the Left has made life far too easy for them. The EU-sceptical right have been undermined far more efficiently by their own incompetent infighting than by any attacks from their enemies.
The recent parliamentary debate on the subject is telling. Prime Minister Cameron had come out, to no one’s surprise, for continued British membership of the European Union. In preparation for this step, mindful of the propagandistic advantage of his opponents to the right, Cameron had negotiated a deal with EU president Donald Tusk assigning a series of special rights to the British state, allowing it to cut benefits for migrant workers within the EU, sparing it fiscal responsibility for bail-outs in the eurozone, and excluding Britain from the clause demanding ‘ever closer union’ among states.
This menu of concessions, however, was nowhere near adequate for the europhobes in his cabinet, who duly announced that they would support an ‘Exit’ vote in the upcoming referendum scheduled for 23 June 2016. The list of senior cabinet rebels was as impressive as it was hideous: Michael Gove; Chris Grayling; Ian Duncan Smith; Priti Patel; and Theresa Villiers. If there is a hell, and they have dinner parties there, surely the guest list begins and ends with these. They were shortly joined by mayor of London Boris Johnson, a likely challenger for Cameron’s job and to that purpose, dixit former Tory MP Jerry Hayes, a ‘copper-bottomed, hypocritical little shit’.
The debate, then, ought to have been one of the worst days of Cameron’s life. With his government falling apart in the full glare of publicity, he was there to be torn apart like a croissant and consumed for a light breakfast. Not, of course, by Jeremy Corbyn, whose genteel teetotalling socialism rarely permits real aggression, but, as well as by the rebels on his own unrestrained right, by someone on the Labour side ruthless enough to make it hurt.
For someone whose debate performances have been notoriously weak, Cameron mastered his fissiparous front and back benches with appalling ease. And far from being savaged at what should have been a moment of weakness, he was assisted in this during and since by the majority of the parliamentary opposition, who lined up to express sympathy with Cameron about his recalcitrant rebels, and gently encourage him to make the ‘positive’ case for Europe.
Corbyn, whose natural position is social-democratic eurosceptic, has felt forced by the glower from his own back benches to accept a weak ‘Stay’ position, merely querying the most egregious terms of continued British membership of the EU. The few Labour eurosceptics are from the old Right of the party – stalwarts such as Graham Stringer and Kate Hoey – and their main contribution in parliament was to grumble incoherently and resentfully. They looked and sounded as though they had already lost.
And for good reason. If the ‘Out’ campaign does in fact win, and the British state is forced to engineer a painful, contested withdrawal from the EU, it won’t be under any pressure from any significant faction in Labour, the trade union movement, or anyone, anywhere on the Left.
How did it get to this pass? Admittedly, parliamentary debates are far from a true reflection of the real balance of forces or opinion in British society. But the sheer paucity of Left voices in this debate is astonishing – not least because there could and should be a real left opposition not merely to this or that European measure, but to the EU as an institution and its agenda.
Scant months ago, as Alan Kurdi’s body made the front pages of newspapers across Europe, the brutality of the EU and the lengths to which it was willing to go in order to maintain its internal logic was clear. But the concreteness of the EU appears to have fallen by the wayside in the confusion of the referendum debate among those on the left. Two main arguments appear to have emerged on the left in favour of remaining, which can broadly be referred to as ‘the EU as Lesser Evil’ and the ‘Ideal(ised) EU’. According to the former, though the EU is indeed an undemocratic supranational (now) neoliberal institution, given that the far-right have monopolised the ground against the EU, and that the argument is being conducted almost exclusively in terms of border control and migration, staying in the EU is the lesser evil, at least protecting migrants from the EU to continue to move freely between states, and those already in the UK to remain. According to the latter, while the EU is by no means perfect (and gosh wasn’t it awful what the Troika did to Greece?) the EU at least undermines nationalist tendencies, gives us a larger European community we can be part of, and supposing we can co-ordinate each nation’s left, we can change it from within, make it more progressive and permanently tear down the borders.
Both serve to illustrate the real contradictions of those still insisting on their optimism. Optimism, of course, in terms of the influence that any call made from such groups will have on the outcome of the referendum. Each starts from the assumption that what the left calls for now, having been absent from the debate until now, when the terms have already been set, will have a measurable impact on the actual outcome of the vote. In come the contradictions: it is a lesser evil, so say the first group, to vote to stay in the EU, given that we cannot garner support for opening Britain’s borders, or to support worker’s rights, without the EU. It is therefore our duty to call for, and to vote, for an ‘in’ vote. Ergo, we are strong enough to effect the outcome, but not strong enough to achieve any of the limited gains of EU membership without its help.
The second group, those aiming for an Ideal(ised) EU, take this a step further: we can neither stop nationalism on a nation-by-nation basis nor defend workers’ rights on our own, without the protections afforded from the EU. We are too weak. What we can do is take on the EU. We can reform an institution that is undeniably less democratic, shrouded in many more layers of impenetrable bureaucracy, than any of the nation states of which it is comprised (the UK included) and seize the institutions from our rulers. We are both too weak and too strong to leave the EU.
That – aside from George Galloway, who still claims to be on the left despite forming a coalition with Nigel Farage, posing for a photo that once seen can never be unseen – there is not a Left voice to be seen on the ‘Brexit’ side of the debate is in part because the majority of the social-democratic and trade-union left has evacuated any position critical of the European Union since at least the turn of the 1990s. In the case of trade unions, it was a logical culmination of the strategic ‘new realism’ germinated in that moment, in which unions sought peace with both employers and governments, and looked to legislative processes to defend their position. Having been thrashed by Thatcher, the labour movement took a longing look across the channel at the minimal social rights and protections built into the new machinery of economic and monetary union. In the context of New Labour, and its insistence on British opt-outs from basic workers’ rights, a pro-EU disposition, predicated on defending those EU-supported rights, could even be compatible with a mildly politically dissident stance.
This, of course, was predicated on accepting the wider political and economic framework favoured by the Union’s founders, on the basis of which those rights were, according to their shrewd political calculus, allowed. That framework was neoliberal to the core, and is now savage in its austerian phase.
A dim echo of this logic now unfolds in the amateur dramatics of social media, wherein ‘posh’ leftists who incline toward Brexit are belaboured for their supposed indifference to the fate of migrant workers. As if, by availing themselves of a moralising idiom, the ‘left Bremainers’ could elide the difficulties in their own position – as, indeed, many of them seem to believe they have done, not engaging with the realities of the organisation for membership of which they are – holding their noses, perhaps – advocating membership.
Social-democratic and radical left opposition to the EU, of course, is nothing new, as the eloquent skepticism of Tony Benn, among others, attested. Recently, reasons for that scepticism have become even more abundantly clear.
To all left radicals advocating Bremain, the question should be posed, is this a lesser-evil argument for remaining in in principle? Or is it more local and contingent, that exit may sometimes be advantageous or the lesser evil for the Left, but that Britain should remain in, now? And if so, for whom, and why?
If the former – that the EU, embedded perhaps with some emancipatory kernel of potential for a ‘people’s europe’, is a lesser evil – was Syriza correct to cave to the Troika, of which the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, was key, and ignore the historic Oxi vote of 5 July 2015, in which the Greek people overwhelmingly rejected the blackmail of the EU? Was the social depredation of the ‘Memorandum’ to which Greece, in the face of mass opposition, capitulated – the privatisation of the ports of Piraeus and Thessaloniki, and of regional airports, the youth unemployment rate of over 48 per cent, unchanged since the capitulation to the EU, the scrapping of price controls for medicine, the deregulation of the natural gas market, the cutting of pensions – a price worth paying?
And to those who – sincerely, no doubt – argue for Britain to remain in a gesture of solidarity to the Greek people who, given their nation’s status as ‘peripheral’, need our support in the EU, we ask: what were we able to do that we wouldn’t be able to do outside of the EU? What tiny concession were we able to effect? What material gain did the Greek people receive as the result of its allies on the ground being fellow members of the EU? Of course, there were Europe-wide demonstrations against the Troika. They could have impacted the outcome equally not-at-all if Britain wasn’t a member.
Conversely, if they accept that while by no means a cost- or difficulty-free course, it was a gamble worth taking for Greece to opt out, then their support for Bremain becomes particular: it is better now for the workers of Britain now to remain in the EU – and the membership on offer is that of Cameron’s ‘special rights’ such as cutting benefits to migrants and so on. Better for whom, how, and why?
What is at stake in this referendum is not, this is all to say, just the obsessions of the petty bourgeois, nationalist Right.
Though it is about them too. Of course small businesses resent EU regulations. Of course downwardly-mobile white provincials resent immigrants. Of course a cowboy-capitalist wing of business would rather see Britain orient itself toward a hyper-Atlanticist model of neoliberalism. In the dream kingdom of Ukip, Britain could have joined Nafta by now, or already signed up to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, were it not for those Brussels bureaucrats and their imitation rouble.
However, Europe’s banks, business lobbies and interlocking directorates have other concerns. They have assiduously developed a powerful, rules-based club for investors, in which organised labour has relatively little input and at best a subordinate position compared to, say, the European Business Roundtable. They have, over years of cumulative gains, circumscribed the powers of representative democracies inside an iron cage of neoliberal maxims – from Maastricht, to the Stability and Growth Pact, to the Constitutional Treaty. They have hoarded political power in the hands of unelected, business-minded elites, from the European Commission to the Central Bank, and they will defend it to the last drop of Greek blood.
The humanitarian crisis inflicted on Greece through several years of austerity, and the contemptuous treatment of its elected governments, should give the British Left a sense of the treatment it would receive if it ever approached political power – not an entirely abstract question given Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. When European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker advised that ‘there can be no democratic choice against the European treaties’, and when German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble averred, ‘elections change nothing. There are rules’, these were not incidental outbursts.
Juncker and Schäeuble were objectively right – elections changed nothing, and there could be no democratic choice against the treaties. The mere attempt by a Syriza-led government to challenge the Greek state’s obligations under those rules was punished with terms even more ruthless than those imposed on the previous centre-right administration. The European Union proved itself, at a vital moment in the development of a radical European left, to be an effective and brutal opponent of Greece’s democracy, its labour movement, and its Left.
The problem with the tendency to celebrate – even if critically – from the left the European case for, for example, Schengenian ‘free movement’, is in its faith that these laudable ‘principles’ are, in fact, principles. They are not. They are context-dependent strategies agreed on by capitalist states. To left Europhilia, the recent European turn to the brutal and armed closing of borders, the suspension of Schengen itself, can only be pathologies, inimical to some platonic European project. They are not. They are expressions of the logic of that project in a new context.
If the referendum was on free movement, there would be no question that the Left should full-throatedly support it. It is not. The referendum is on membership of the actually-existing European Union – the members of which are, for Europe’s own sake, debating Schengen’s suspension (much as the notorious American officer said of the town of Ben Tre that it had to be destroyed in order to save it); and the EU Commission of which (in a report conveniently leaked) has recently demanded stronger borders, slamming the Greek government for having ‘seriously neglected’ its own. Not only this, but the saving grace of the Left Bremain position – the entirely reasonably proposition that Leftists should not call for an electoral outcome that would threaten the status of millions of migrant workers – has been undermined by the ‘deal’ that Cameron has won. You can choose any policy you like, so long as it’s xenophobic. This is the Europe on which we are called to vote.
However. The poverty of left-Bremainism, of course, does not imply the relative richness of its pro-exit other.
The problem with the left-Brexit position is that, however pertinent its critique of the EU and radical its aspirations, it has no prospect of relevance at this stage, in this referendum. If there ever was a goal of developing a political platform in which a socialist argument against the European Union could even be heard, it has been left too late. The campaigns and their platforms have already been developed in the Left’s overwhelming absence. On neither side is the Left making any significant impression, unless one counts the boos incurred by the increasingly erratic George Galloway – who seems to have meant his call for a ‘Ukip of the Left’ literally – at the launch of the Farage-led ‘Grassroots Out’.
The debate already exists, and in Britain it is firmly structured by a fight between two wings of the Right, in which the Left has proved and is proving utterly unable to impart any radical or progressive content. This is, after all, not only a question of analysis, but of slogans, propaganda, agitation and social traction.
If it lines up now behind Brexit, given the massive and overwhelming centre of gravity of the debate, what it is supporting is the actually- existing-Brexit, which has been defined by the racist, nationalist right. In the case of a win for this Brexit, it is those forces that have won, and those forces that stand to gain.
This is not to say that a movement for left-Brexit could never be built – and there is an argument that that is a task that must, with immense care, begin. What is certain, however, is that at this moment, in the context of a public debate in which the running for exit is being made by the baying Europhobe right, there is no space for a radical position to be anything but utterly marginal. To join the campaign for this Brexit now would grant a life-long free pass to the Carnival of Reaction.
If Britain votes for exit, the universe will not know or care of the impeccable socialist reasoning behind the small proportion of radical Brexit votes. It will know that Farage, IDS, and the pro-borders hard right have got what they wanted.
If, by contrast, the Left raises its hands for Bremain, it is to Bremain in the actually-existing-EU – in which case the forces that stand to reign over us for the foreseeable future are the refined neoliberal thugs responsible for the crushing of the Greek No. Viewed with even a medium-term perspective, the EU is arguably a far more effective and structurally powerful opponent of the Left and its objectives than the Union Jack-diapered British hard right.
A key task for radicals attempting to set a course for emancipation – as the editors of Salvage have argued repeatedly – is to negotiate a path between the kind of honorable and necessary implacable antinomianism associated with ultraleft critics of capitalism, and the – also honourable, also necessary – commitment to surviving and ameliorating the capitalist quotidian – always with a view to overcoming it. To accelerate the contradictions and/but without surrendering to the nuance-free boosterism that sees in crisis opportunity only for radicalisation, and only on the side of freedom.
Our optics must be on the present and the potential futures. Our demands can never consider only the morning after they are successful, but ten years later.
To that extent, the pro-Brexit Left must acknowledge the reality that workers’ and migrants’ rights may indeed become immediately more precarious if the vote goes their way. Equally, however, that is not sufficient reason to support left Bremain if there is a reasonable argument that the EU will ultimately be a more profound brake on radical demands than, toxic as they are, the less mediated, and more immediately popular pressure-susceptible, mechanisms of the British state – and we claim that there is such an argument.
Any left pro-Brexiter who believes a Brexit vote is a triumph for them is deluding themselves: it will inaugurate a crowing reaction. Any radical Bremainer celebrating a future win is celebrating the success of Cameron’s strategy of Europe-wide neoliberalism in the service of British capital and the state.
So what can the Left do?
In the long run, perhaps, build a radical movement that does not look to its own state-in-Europe for paltry sticking-plaster measures to countervail the worst tendencies of the system that state-in-Europe and the Europe-of-which-it-is-in vigorously and enthusiastically construct. The terms of such a movement are convincingly, though in Salvage’s eyes prematurely, laid out by Neil Davidson in his piece ‘A Socialist Case for Leaving the EU’.
In the immediate term? Though we cannot vote for, let alone campaign for, the above, still less can we for a movement absolutely hegemonised by the hard right, and which will without doubt leave them, should it succeed, resurgent.
In the immediate term, then, we can do nothing but explain ourselves. Davidson’s concerns that abstentionism will mean invisibility and irrelevance for the left are not misplaced. Salvage’s concern is that invisibility and irrelevance are the only cards left on the table. Davidson decries that ‘if the radical left says nothing then we can be sure that the right wing positions will continue to dominate both the campaigns’. We sadly contend that whatever the radical left says at this point, the right will continue to dominate.
Were it not too late, were we able to convince ourselves it might be a position that could gain at least a modicum of ideological traction, Salvage would call and join a campaign for militant and hostile abstentionism, a disgust at the grounds of the choice on offer, a demand not only for a different solution but for a new question. We suspect it is too late. That the Left, yet again, with its usual stunning incompetence and historic inadequacy, has left it too late, failed in its duty.
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