Cartoon by Carlos Latuff: @LatuffCartoons
By Jim Slaven
The Brexit referendum has been followed by a period of frenzied speculation over the negotiations coupled with a strange hiatus in politics as everyone awaits the outcome. In Ireland people wait to see if the final deal will speed up the process of reunification. In Scotland the SNP wait on the final Brexit deal to tie it to a second independence referendum. The Tories wait to elect a leader. And Labour just waits. While it may be understandable for political parties to focus on their own self interest there are other- more political- considerations which provide both the context and the driver for Brexit and its consequences.
For about 250 years, up until the middle of the twentieth century, Europe was the centre of political and economic development. European thinking and European nations dominated. Let us say at the outset that we say this not in a celebratory way. In fact, cards on the table, we recognise the detrimental role European imperial nations played over that period and the negative consequences of imperialism, colonialism and exploitation can still be felt in many nations today. But it remains a historical fact that Europe was at the centre of international development, but it is no longer, it is now firmly on the periphery.
In geopolitical terms the United States and China now dominate and even if we included significant players like Iran and Russia, the peripheral role of European nations is reinforced. Brexit is another contributory factor in the ongoing crisis of European power both collectively and within individual nations. Right across the continent the ‘ancien régimes’ are under threat as people recognise that transferring power at elections from one established party to another, from centre left to centre right or vice versa, makes no difference. Of course, these parties may have different policies and may make small changes at the level of details. However, they all operate within parameters laid down by global Capital.
While the UK state deals with Brexit (and the ongoing threat from Scottish and Irish nationalism), in France an empty suit like Macron was required to simultaneously pander to and stave off the threat of the Front National. In Spain, the Basque Country and Catalonia’s demand for independence has thrown the Spanish state into constitutional flux resulting in a repressive reflex. In Italy, the Northern League could be cast as power-brokers after the forthcoming election (and let us point out this is after the EU installed a technocratic – that is to say unelected! – government on the people of Italy). And in Germany, Merkel’s power ebbs away after a disappointing election result and her failure to form a government. Just last week her would-be coalition partners, the centre left SDP, were polling at 17% – a historic low- and just 4% above the far right AfD. This trend is mirrored in almost every other European state.
While the rise of the far right is overdetermined (like Brexit and Trump) one of the most common explanations is the rise of immigration, or more accurately, the claim that the rise in immigration has resulted in a hostility to immigrants and support for the far right. I will return to the indigenous response to the arrival of immigrants in a moment, but first we need to ask ourselves where are these people coming from and why are they coming to Europe? The answer lies in a new form of imperialism.
If we take Africa as an example, historically the imperialist model involved states occupying weaker states and plundering their resources until a movement of national liberation emerged. At this point the imperial state would hang on as long as possible before attempting to find a friendly (to the imperial state) dictator who they could cut a deal with to allow the plunder to continue as seamlessly as possible. Today, the new form of imperialism no longer physically occupies the weaker nation and they have also dispensed with the need for puppet regimes. If we look at Libya, the country has been broken up into several parts controlled by various armed gangs. These militias function to suppress the population and provide security for international corporations to continue the plunder of resources. Crucially these nations are stripped of state power, thereby rendering the state unable to respond as a state. Never again will Libya have a dictator with the internal or external power of Gaddafi. Why? Because dictators can change sides in ‘the great game’.
We could just as easily have mentioned Sudan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria (specifically the Kurdish ‘protectorate’ is a good example here – and Turkey’s recent actions in this ‘protectorate’ reinforce the point) to make the same point. States effectively broken up and stripped of state power. The resultant areas or zones are controlled by armed groups, religious maniacs and most probably bombed from drones sent by the same Western states that created the mayhem in the first place. And then we wonder why the inhabitants of these areas decide to flee and head for Europe?
It is the actions of Western states creating these immigration flows. Those of us in these states have a moral and political responsibility to link the issue of immigration to the actions of our governments. This point is often overlooked by those who treat immigrants as some sort of charity issue. Or even worse use the plight of immigrants and refugees to feel better about themselves and shout down the working class who, through reason not racism, demand a debate on the issue.
Which brings us back to Europe. As well as the crisis of within the established political parties outlined above, the working class across Europe are struggling under the pressure of the EU’s neoliberal economic policies. The global financial crisis of 2008 was compounded by a further crisis in the Eurozone in 2010. The undemocratic nature of the EU and its structural inflexibility, both exemplified by their humiliation of Greece and then their failure to expel Greece for fear of contagion, have created a huge gulf between the EU elites and the working class. Brexit will only exacerbate the problems facing the EU.
In the absence of any credible alternative – and with much of the EU focusing on internal matters – it is Macron’s vision of minimal reform which is gaining most traction. Essentially this amounts to a strengthening of the core, or put differently, the formal acceptance of a multi-speed Europe. Stronger nations will pull more resources while those already on the periphery (mainly in the south and east) will be pushed further to the margins. This will do nothing to combat the inequality which is destroying the EU project from within.
The new European economic and political architecture which is being built around us is likely to leave the UK outside of the EU but effectively inside via arrangement on finance, security, etc. That means Greece and other nations on Europe’s periphery will be inside the EU but effectively outside of the decision-making apparatus. The recent calls by Farage and other Brexiteers for a second referendum should be seen in this context. The dawning realisation that their vision of Empire 2.0 is a nonsense and the actual outcome of the negotiations with the EU will leave the UK no more independent than they were before. Hence right wing Brexiteers would rather refight the battle they already won rather than face the consequences of their pyrrhic victory.
Rather than leading to a leftward turn (far less a revolutionary situation as some more optimistic souls have claimed) this crisis of capitalism and collapse of support for elite institutions has led to a rise in nationalism and chauvinism. It is the radical right across Europe that is on the march. And the future of the EU is one of the key battlegrounds. The apparent impossibility of Greece leaving the EU coupled with the increasing realisation that it is impossible for the UK to leave without inflicting serious damage to itself in the process has only underlined the need for systemic change. Yet, many find themselves defending EU institutions rather than arguing for a new, bottom up movement founded on solidarity and internationalism.
We need to reinvent politics by once more making relevant the politics of emancipation. That is to say, rejecting the EU is not rejecting Europe. We must, in Etienne Balibar’s words, create ‘a Europe that still needs to be built’. The process of disaggregation taking place against the backdrop of new imperialism and the crisis in global Capital – almost certainly involving another crash…. Despite Gordon Brown having abolished boom and bust! – needs to be thought through from a working class perspective. Does this process make it easier or more difficult for workers to come together and build solidarity within nations and across borders?
The starting point must be our commitment to the principle of self-determination (although who is defining the ‘self’ in this context is a moot point) and perhaps even clinging to a belief that the breaking up of old imperial nations would create ruptures out of which new beginnings could flow. Whether Zygmunt Bauman is right to say, “Sovereignty nowadays is, so to speak, underdefined and contentious, porous and poorly defensible, unanchored and free-floating”, we must be mindful that (as Brexiteers are finding out) voting to leave the EU will not ‘bring back control’ in anything other than a superficial manner. Therefore, we must recognise that for genuine sovereignty and independence we must end exploitation and the imbalance of power at the heart of our politics and economic system.
We also need to rethink strategies around resistance. Of course, it is right to defend certain institutions, like the NHS, from savage cuts to services delivered in our communities. But we must acknowledge the limits of these campaigns. Those of us seeking the maximum change in society must re-legitimise that hypothesis. We have seen across Europe that when social democratic parties are elected these processes continue with only cosmetic changes. Indeed, we must go further, even when a left wing party like Syriza was elected in Greece, backed by a strong mass movement, the process continues. We must once again make the case for politics outside the state. That means having an analysis of the state and state power which is fit for our times.
The twentieth century showed that economic and political crisis of the sort described above suit fascists more than they do those of us struggling for the politics of emancipation. Across Europe the battle lines are drawn between populist nationalism (and potentially, fascism) and the EU. How are we to react? In truth, it is not at all clear what means are to be deployed. What is clear is that we must begin the process of legitimising the problem. New movements must emerge capable of rejecting capitalism and fascism internationally. A new progressive, working class movement capable of delivering what James Connolly described as ‘a free federation of free nations’.
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Jim Slaven tweets @JimSlaven