Where is Boris going?
America is changing, so Britain’s relationship with America must change, Paul Demarty investigates.
As I write, the headlines are not awfully flattering, as far as Boris Johnson is concerned.His proposed deal with the Europeans, which he claims to have been planning to get agreed at the forthcoming European Council meeting, looks dead as a dodo. Parliament will not grant him an election if he does not give them an extension, which makes the good news - the generally favourable account of his chances in a general election given by the pollsters - less immediately relevant than the bad.
What dominates discussion is precisely the question of whether he can navigate his way through these choppy waters, get his Hottentot election and settle more comfortably into his seat. Perhaps; perhaps not. Not so much in the air, as Jennifer Arcuri’s incomprehensible valleyspeak is pored over for doubles entendres and Jean-Claude Juncker’s put-downs recited, is what the point of all this is. To satisfy Johnson’s floppy blonde ego, sure; but an opportunist like Johnson knows how to sniff the wind. What odour does he detect?
Perhaps we ought to look at the longer-standing Brexiteers for answers. The leftwing version from the 70s used to say, ‘Leave Europe - join the world!’ - ‘the world’ meaning some combination of the Stalinist countries and various left-nationalist regimes cropping up in the wreckage of the European colonies. The rightwing Brexiteers of our own age, however - the ones who followed the Iron Lady into rebellion after Maastricht - could utter the same slogan, but mean by that a renewal of our relationship with America. Liam Fox, Daniel Hannan and so forth are ever to be found involved in dubious transatlantic think-tanks, dreaming of the day that Europe is removed as an obstacle to US-UK alignment.
The future of that oh-so-special relationship must be placed in its context, which means - in the first instance - the context of American power, and secondly of Britain’s role in the American century.
America emerged as a serious global rival to Britain after the US Civil War - the slave power had the effect of holding the American economy in subjection, by favouring the primary production of raw materials - King Cotton - which fed the capital-intensive, sophisticated industries of Britain, and obstructing the formation of tariff barriers that would aid the development of Yankee heavy industry. It was 1861-65 that gave America a modern textile industry of its own (to make army uniforms), a true central bank and national currency (the greenback dollar), the first stretches of the great transcontinental railroads, a standing army, and so on. America now enjoyed unquestioned hegemony in its backyard - unlike, say, Germany, which also drastically modernised its economy and society in this period and emerged as a rival to Britain - and proceeded to industrialise rapidly.
German defeat in World War I knocked back that country’s ambitions to dominate Europe, though they re-emerged in psychotic form with the Hitler regime. But Britain also was sufficiently weakened, and exposed to imperial overstretch, that American aid was needed to win the next war. Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman exacted a steep price for that aid, and between the Marshall Plan, the Bretton Woods system and the treaty system (Nato and friends) set up to fight the cold war, Europe was remade to American specifications, and under American dominance.
For Marxists, the decline of capitalism as a social formation was already visible by the 1914-18 war. Capital was getting more and more integrated with the state. Statisation had been a feature of late-Antique and late medieval societies too: as the contradictions between the basic classes in society sharpen, there is the need for their greater management by coercive, extra-economic means. At the same time, the ability of the state to accomplish its tasks tends to decay - nowhere more obviously than in the international order. Concretely, the USA - in spite of military dominance unmatched in all human history - has always faced far more difficulty imposing its order on the world than the British empire did at the peak of its power.
Initially, it faced off against the rival Stalinist bloc, which posed a limit to its hegemony; but, when the ‘Soviet threat’ receded and then collapsed, so did the obvious justifications of the arrangements that united the west against the east, with America at the top of the tree. Its military adventures yield only chaos; yet this does not seem to affect the legitimacy of the hypertrophic military-industrial complex. A complex network of pork-barrel spending (making arms factories the lifeline to ever more towns deprived of other industries), cultural militarism (exemplified by mega-selling military shooter games and comic-book films) and deep-state lobbying combine to make it effectively impossible to cut down to size.
Barack Obama, the technocratic liberal, wanted to ‘rationalise’ it (surely one ongoing, never-ending war at one time was enough?), and was instead rationalised by it. As for Donald Trump, one of his campaign postures was isolationist and vaguely anti-war; the other was a macho demand for blood-revenge against America’s national enemies. The department of defence and state department ‘Blob’ - as Obama called them - has left him preoccupied enough about the latter to keep the procurement budgets ticking over, and keep the US in a war in Afghanistan that Trump himself has said is unwinnable and utterly pointless.
Trump’s election has propelled what were merely rumblings within the apparatus into an open crisis of global strategy. He, and his irate voters, compel an answer to the question: why do we pretend that our will represents the will of the ‘international community’, through Nato and the like? What do we get out of it, when we can take on anyone in any case? And also why do we promote free trade, when it allows rival powers to accumulate treasury bonds and erode our manufacturing base? These questions cannot be answered adequately with the sort of feel-good American messianism, with which the defenders of the old-model pax Americana have so far brought to the task; the divisions among the Poindexters of the state department must therefore be discussed openly. There is the possibility that we are witnessing a strategic shift, which would be another leg down in America’s decline.
Which brings us back to our own green and pleasant land. The Brexiteers’ Atlanticism was, until recently, entirely unrequited. That was because the orthodoxy of the Blob - of widespread American interventionism and intrusive global governance - was as yet unchallenged. In this connection, the role of Britain, so far as staying in good Yankee graces was concerned, was clearly defined. We were Uncle Sam’s mole in Europe, a tireless advocate for US strategic and financial interests, and indeed - via the quasi-offshore financial industry of the City - an indispensable instrument of the latter. Crucial to both was Britain’s membership of the European Union and its predecessors, hence the UK being essentially ordered to apply for membership 60 years ago. British sabotage could prevent a truly competitive global power emerging around the EU; British financiers could ensure that Wall Street, in the end, ran the global economy in that particular theatre. If Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election, Theresa May would have been reminded of all this in no uncertain terms.
The second act of Anglo-American society’s catastrophic 2016, however, put that in doubt. Trump is a Brexiteer. He cannot abide the insolence of the French, the Germans and their minions, as they further their own interests at American expense - quite literally, since America’s defence umbrella so generously covers their barely adequate militaries.
This all occasionally seems to add up to a strategic theory of a sort. The Trump doctrine, so far as such a thing is in evidence, consists in taking the hidden truth of the Blob’s delicate multilateralism and the ‘free trade’ rhetoric of globalisation - that is, systematic reinforcement of American domination - and indecently exposing it. Trade deals cannot be concluded without the open humiliation of America’s ‘partners’. In relation to the EU, it is time America looked to its own interests, instead of making itself a patsy for Berlin’s. Seen from this angle, the break-up of the EU is a solid option: it opens up the opportunity for a series of bilateral ‘negotiations’ in the Mafia style.
Instead of finding themselves guilty of gross insolence, then, the victorious Brexiteers turned out to be teachers’ pets, standing eagerly first in line for such treatment. Roman emperors used to demand that client kings show grovelling obeisance in public, even if relations were more cordial in private; there were standards to be maintained. No doubt so classically erudite a PM as Boris Johnson will find himself quite capable of assuming such a position.
The issue is not, in the end, one of freeing Britain from European bondage to serve America (never mind to carve her own path), but of guessing that continuing in our pre-existing role as American lickspittles requires a certain course correction, and of adjusting to the more onerous expectations of the new America, lying back and thinking of England. So far as ordinary Brexit voters - promised their £350 million for the NHS, and less contention for public services with asylum-seekers and Poles on the dole - the outlook is unsurprisingly grim. In a hard-Brexit scenario (or in the event of Trump succeeding in breaking apart the EU altogether), there will be the opportunity for tighter border controls, perhaps, but these may not in practice reduce competition for unskilled labour (under-the-table workers will be forced to accept lower wages). Meanwhile, the leftovers of the welfare state will be vivisected by American capital, and the last desultory remnants of British industry ushered gently into that good night.
It is possible that Johnson and his Tories might get the blame for such an outcome. It would, of course, be necessary to have someone capable of making the accusation stick. Jeremy Corbyn is the obvious candidate, but his pursuit of government at any cost has now allowed him to be pushed to the threshold of a de facto remain position. He wants a second referendum, though he claims that Labour would be neutral; we fear the distinction will be lost on some, as will his reputation for straight shooting. Johnson’s best chance of achieving the Thatcherite-Brexiteer dream is of turning the narrative into a Dolchstosslegende - it was going fine, but those bien-pensant liberal-socialist-student-London elite types ruined it for the rest of us.
The very real, and regrettable, division of the left neatly into remainer and Lexiteer camps entirely disarms us against such a nasty turn. The divisions themselves, of course, are a weakness. The Lexiteers are bewitched by a mortally wounded fantasy that a break with Europe can amount also to a break with the United States, in conditions where the Warsaw Pact is gone; thus they are irrelevant. The left remainers have merely been coopted by the forces of liberal technocratism, and so are easily included in an amalgam of metropolitan-elite types. There may be an important strategic shift going on in the ‘special relationship’, but the left - having fallen for David Cameron’s referendum trap - will play no part in the matter, save perhaps as blood sacrifice, without abandonment of these shibboleths.