Europe and the delusions of leftwing nationalism
David Cameron's veto is a dangerous blunder, argues James Turley - so why does the left reproduce Tory stupidity on the EU?
The abiding reaction among the more serious elements of the British bourgeoisie to David Cameron’s use of the veto to scupper an emergency European Union treaty is, quite frankly, one of baffled incomprehension. Even against the background of the Tories’ inbuilt Euroscepticism, and Cameron’s realignment of the party with the far-right cranks of the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists in the European parliament, there is much head-scratching to be seen - what on earth was the PM thinking?
Ed Miliband did not waste any time sticking the knife in, naturally, but perhaps more significant is the very visible strain in the coalition. Having tried, in the most laughably craven fashion, to put a brave face on things, Nick Clegg and Vince Cable ultimately had to lambast the prime minister for his frankly bizarre conduct. The Liberal Democrats, of course, are traditionally staunchly pro-Europe; their leaders have come, belatedly, to the conclusion that there is no way they can sell Cameron’s apparent posturing stupidity to an increasingly disaffected rank and file.
All of this was obviously of no concern to David Cameron, which in itself is a snapshot of the power relations in the government. On the other hand, it is certainly true that pressure from the right of his party is mounting on the issue. It is not at the pitch that tore the Major government apart, but the breakneck speed of economic developments on the continent, almost all of them representing bad news, is apt to increase Tory twitchiness on the issue.
One depressing side effect of this whole mess has been to show up, yet again, the sheer scale of confusion that exists on the left in this country (and, for that matter, elsewhere in Europe) on the matter of the EU. Ever flying the flag for petty nationalism, the Morning Star reported quite uncritically Bob Crow’s elation that more and more Britons favour withdrawal from the EU. Elsewhere, an editorial argues that the EU has been anti-democratic and anti-working class from the beginning, and applauds the foresight of an earlier generation of Labour politicians in rejecting membership of the Common Market in the 1950s.
This summit, the comrades argue, existed solely to impose even greater fiscal restraint on national governments - an argument taken up by Labour left Owen Jones in The Guardian: “At a stroke, [the agreement] effectively abolishes social democratic governments in the euro zone,” he worries. The Marxist economist, Costas Lapavitsas, meanwhile continues to argue for an orderly Greek exit from the euro zone - most recently at a debate on December 9 at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Lapavitsas at least had the honesty to acknowledge that a Greek exit would trigger a foreign exchange crisis and thus enormous disruption to food and fuel imports - in time, however, this would be overcome.
Even Alex Callinicos of the Socialist Workers Party, despite his group’s admirable refusal to succumb to the left-Labourite nationalism of the Bennites during the original debate over Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community in the 1970s - could be found at the Coalition of Resistance’s Europe Against Austerity event calling for beleaguered nations to exit from the euro.
The latest issue of the SWP’s paper is a little ambiguous on whether the organisation is for a British withdrawal from the EU itself: “Socialist Worker is against Britain being part of a bosses’ Europe and is against the latest treaty. But not for the same reasons as the Tories.
“The EU is a neoliberal bosses’ club which aims to protect profits by attacking workers and public services. The Lisbon treaty enshrined this vision of a neoliberal Europe. It centralised a host of powers within the European council and European commission.
“But withdrawing from the EU wouldn’t guarantee workers’ rights - the Tories remain committed to attacking us.”
This commentary appears in a piece headed ‘The new euro deal - your questions answered’ as a response to the question, “Wouldn’t things be better for workers if Britain pulled out of the EU?” So was that a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ then?
It is, of course, correct to say that the EU is a “bosses’ club”, designed to impose the will of the market on recalcitrant populations without regard to anything resembling democracy. However, in the shift from the premise to the operative (in the SWP’s case, implied) political conclusion - EU withdrawal - there is an ideological sleight of hand: the EU goes from being an institutional mechanism of capitalist control to the mechanism; it becomes, in other words, a fetish for global capitalism. This fetishised view of the EU leads these various left - even Marxist - forces down the petty bourgeois blind alley of left nationalism.
This is a general point; but it is peculiarly obvious in the case of Britain. It is worth looking at the dynamics of last week’s EU tragicomedy, and the British state’s clownish role within it.
The British case
Let us return to the opening question: that is, just what the hell is David Cameron up to?
The initially obvious matter is the increasing intensity of grumbles from the more reactionary of his backbenchers. Within the factional life of the Tory Party, it makes sense for Cameron - already under fire for supposedly offering too many concessions to the Liberal Democrats, though Nick Clegg would no doubt beg to differ - to throw the right wing a bone now and again, and the latter have been overjoyed to see Cameron’s ‘bulldog spirit’ on display.
This, surely, is not a sufficient explanation for a decision whose net effect, despite all the guff about Churchill and Dunkirk, will be to exclude - formally or otherwise - the British government from political processes whose outcome could spell economic disaster for this country. The Tory right may howl and groan at the erosion of British sovereignty, but Cameron has more than enough tricks up his sleeve to deal with them.
We also have to consider Britain’s relationship to the United States. Ever since British entry into the European Economic Community as it was then, the US has made good use of the ‘special relationship’ to ensure that European unity proceeds at as cumbersome a pace as possible. Successive British governments, Tory and Labour alike, have been more than willing accomplices; it is the US and its agents in Europe that pushed for rapid expansion in the last 10 years, calculating - correctly - that it would act as a constitutional block on closer, deeper integration of the EU’s member-states.
America’s interest in all this is quite clear - while it remains very much the global military and economic hegemon state, its power is in long-term decline, and a hypothetical United States of Europe would represent a potential rival. As for Britain, it gets all the benefits of being the 51st state - the UK, and especially London, is not only the pre-eminent tax haven, but also the lynchpin of the whole system of tax havens. The majority of transactions that supposedly take place in Jersey, the Caymans and so on in fact take place in the City. The reward is a healthy slice of imperialist superprofits, which allow Britain a more muscular role on the world stage, half a century after the empire coughed its last, than it strictly speaking deserves.
Visible between the lines of this whole farrago is the Atlanticist strategy under immense pressure from events. It is ultimately of peripheral significance, but nonetheless appropriate, that Cameron should have made his stand on some pretty trifling regulations, which may or may not have mildly hindered transactions in the City. Fundamentally at issue here is American power.
That is not to say that the answer to the perennial million-dollar question - quo bene? - is America. On the contrary, this seems to be a last desperate throw of the dice on the part of the Atlanticist establishment to obstruct closer European unity when the choice is quite boldly posed from the perspective of the major European powers - either closer union or disintegration; the slender hope of stabilisation versus the certainty of economic ruin. The point of no return is several miles behind us. No wonder Sarkozy told Cameron where to stick his veto. This looks rather like bungled Atlanticism - but the US and UK are running out of options.
The nub of the matter is this: the EU is, indeed, a bosses’ club; but it is no more or less so than the British state. Indeed, the net effect of British membership has been to pull the EU even further to the right - the endless niggling moans from Tories and more idiotic capitalists about the mountains of red tape and so forth refer to the fact that the EU as an institution - Viking, Laval and the rest aside - is actually more generous on the question of working conditions than Britain.
The more fundamental point follows from here: this is not true because we Brits (or, pace Scottish left nationalists, the English) are basically more conservative than those hot-headed continentals, but because Britain, and indeed every country in the world, is involved in a complex network of determinate relationships with other states and with global capital, be they economic or otherwise. Withdrawal from the EU is not a baby-step towards national self-determination, still less (god help us) some version of socialism on one island.
As for countries such as Greece, the picture is even more grim. Suppose the Greek people follow Alex Callinicos’s advice and withdraw from the euro: will they no longer be at the mercy of speculators and other enforcers of the world market? The question answers itself - it is an opportunist idiocy. The integration of capitalism on an international scale is not something we can wish away - it is a bald-faced objective fact, and it has been a tendency busily at work in capitalism since its first stirrings in the womb of feudal absolutism. Comrade Callinicos, who has written a substantial book on such matters, really should know better.
This tendency entails, to be sure, horrific suffering, with many millions dying of malnutrition and preventable diseases every year because there is no percentage in their survival - even the citizens of Greece and Ireland do not know the half of it. Nonetheless, it is objectively progressive, eroding the national prisons in which the different sections of the working class are held, and indeed making possible a workable, international socialism. One of the reasons capitalism needs to be overcome, in fact, is because it can only go so far along this road of globalisation.
The EU is not merely an expression of the internationalisation of capital, but also of the concomitant internationalisation of politics. It may, indeed, be irrational in the extreme and run by corrupt bureaucrats in the interests of its strongest members - but, for all that, it is a negative anticipation of the necessity of democratic, rational political authority that transcends national barriers. The soft-left and ‘social-liberal’ prettification of the EU as a potential ‘progressive’ counterweight to the blundering American colossus is wishful thinking, of course; but our job is to fight to transcend it, not retreat into petty nationalist stupidity.
Lenin, in a different connection, made a point that is highly pertinent here: “The bourgeoisie makes it its business to promote trusts, drive women and children into the factories, subject them to corruption and suffering, condemn them to extreme poverty. We do not ‘demand’ such development, we do not ‘support’ it. We fight it. But how do we fight? We explain that trusts and the employment of women in industry are progressive. We do not want a return to the handicraft system, pre-monopoly capitalism, domestic drudgery for women. Forward through the trusts, etc, and beyond them to socialism!”
In this, Lenin was simply being a good Marxist - for Marx and Engels, and all those who deserve their mantle, socialism is the future of capitalism, not some mangled mythologisation of its prehistory. For Marxists today, the key task is to use this convulsive crisis engulfing the EU to argue for Europe-wide working class organisation, and ultimately Europe-wide revolution.
1. Morning Star December 12.
2. The Guardian December 13.
3. See P Manson, ‘Besancenot: go beyond outdated national borders’ Weekly Worker October 6.
4. Socialist Worker December 17.
5. A Callinicos Imperialism and global political economy Cambridge 2009.
6. VI Lenin The military programme of the proletarian revolution: www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/miliprog/ii.htm.