A Socialist In Canada, June 23, 2016
Voters in the United Kingdom are voting on June 23 whether to ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ in the European Union. As the votes of the ‘Brexit’ referendum are being counted, enclosed are two contributions to the discussion surrounding the vote. Both contributions argue that the working class in Britain has no stake in the fate of the institutions of the imperialist European Union.
The United Kingdom maintains its own currency; this is not up for a vote.
The left and the EU: Why cling to this reactionary institution?
By Joseph Richardson, CounterPunch, June 22, 2016
(Further below is ‘Political fundamentals and the UK Brexit referendum’, by Tony Norfield, published on his blog Economics of Imperialism, June 16, 2016)
Why is it that many people who consider themselves left-wing have such difficulty grasping that the EU is a deeply reactionary institution? The mere fact that those running the EU present it as an internationalist venture dedicated to the creation of a world free of nationalist enmities does not make it so. If we want to examine the EU in its proper light, then we should ignore the high-flown rhetoric in which its supporters indulge, and consider its actual record. And what is the record of the EU, once we penetrate the obfuscatory rhetoric about ‘internationalism’ that surrounds EU policy? Without a doubt, that record is one that should cause those on the left now defending it acute embarrassment, as it starkly contradicts the ideals that the left has always claimed to uphold.
Across the Continent, the unelected officials who have usurped the power of national governments and asserted their right to determine the fates of countless millions, through their adherence to the damaging creed of neoliberalism, have wrought suffering on an unimaginable scale, casting millions into poverty and removing the last vestige of dignity people cling to in an economy that has fallen prey to the voracious claims of big business. They have foisted austerity on unwilling populations, creating a cycle of endless unemployment and ever increasing woe, compelling ordinary workers struggling to eke out an existence in the wake of the most painful recession in living memory to shoulder the burden of repaying a debt which was originally incurred as a result of the criminal behaviour of Europe’s financiers. With brazen contempt for the views of the peoples of Europe they claim to serve, they have connived to topple left-wing governments and deny the citizens of the countries most affected by austerity their one remaining means – their inalienable right to elect a government subservient to their will – of resisting the vicious policies that have reduced them to their present abject state.
It is worth detailing the ways in which the actual practice of the EU diverges sharply from the propagandistic image endorsed by elements of the left.
The Crushing of Greece
One word should be engraved on the minds of those who, despite all the evidence to the contrary, persist in believing that the EU is an inherently progressive body: ‘GREECE.’ What the EU did to Greece should have dispelled forever the fanciful idea that such an institution has as its fundamental aim the material welfare of ordinary Europeans. But such is the power of the delusional thinking which holds sway amongst the ‘liberal’ apologists for ‘internationalism’ that nothing it seems, not even the destruction of an entire country, the decimation of its industries, and the despoliation of its people, can shake their belief in the manifest virtues of the EU.
After five years in which Greece was forced to undergo the most far-reaching programme of austerity ever implemented by any European government, selling off its public infrastructure and slashing spending on social services to please its creditors, even the economists at whose insistence this policy had been carried out were grudgingly admitting that it had been an unmitigated disaster. By 2015 Greece had seen its economy contract by 27% as a result of the government’s futile efforts to meet the continually mounting debt repayments demanded of it by the troika. As GDP fell and Greece’s ability to repay the debt was further reduced, rather than provide relief the ECB chose to extend fresh loans to the Greek government to enable it to service the interest on its existing liabilities, thereby adding to its overall level of debt and enmeshing the country in an interminable process of austerity from which it could never hope to extricate itself. The needless suffering caused by the single-minded pursuit of austerity had resulted in scenes of poverty and despair more appropriate to the 1930s than 21st century Europe. Entire families were starving on the streets, deprived of even the bare minimum they required to survive; thousands of people, reduced to absolute despair by the unrelenting attacks on their living standards, had committed suicide. The IMF, in an extraordinary departure from its long-standing commitment to free market dogma, published a report bluntly stating what had become apparent to all well-informed experts on the matter, which was that Greece would never be able to rid itself of the debt, not unless it was significantly reduced and a 30-year moratorium on repayments was imposed.
What was the response of the managers of the eurozone to the tragedy unfolding before their very eyes, to the unbearable spectacles of suffering for which they, as the economic masters of Greece, bore responsibility? The response was callous indifference. When in desperation the Greek people elected the far-left party Syriza to power, on a platform of ending austerity and negotiating a debt restructuring, the EU steadfastly refused to treat with such a government on terms of equality and outright rejected the democratic mandate with which it had been recently invested at the polls, insisting that, regardless of the outcome of elections, Greece had no right to seek a change in rules which had been autocratically decided upon by the bureaucratic elites in Brussels. There would be no substantive negotiations leading to an end to austerity; there would be no concessions to the democratically expressed will of the population. When Syriza attempted to resist the diktats of Brussels, calling a referendum on its negotiating stance, which it won resoundingly, the EU bullied and cajoled little Greece, threatening to punish the refractory population of this wayward country, which had dared to question the entire basis on which the eurozone was run, by cutting off the money supply and rendering even more people destitute if Syriza should refuse to acquiesce in the harsh financial terms of the proposed deal, which mandated yet more spending cuts to service a debt that everyone knew to be unsustainable. Under extreme duress Syriza surrendered to these demands and the worsening cycle of unemployment and declining wages, in which Greece has been trapped for at least the last 6 years, was resumed, inflicting a historic defeat on the people of Greece who had misguidedly believed that, by exercising their democratic rights, they could decide the future of their own country.
Greece illustrates the failings of an economic policy that is being implemented over the objections of the great majority of Europe’s citizens. Indeed, in its unwavering support for neoliberalism the EU represents nothing less than an attempt to perpetuate an economic model which advantages European businesses, whilst eroding the living standards of most Europeans. Particularly in the countries of the eurozone, democracy has been eviscerated by the adamant insistence of the EU on more cuts to government spending. The Growth and Stability Pact effectively prevents large-scale public spending on vital social services to alleviate the effects of a recession, limiting deficits to 3% of GDP. As part of this neoliberal model, national governments are also required each year to submit their budgets to the Commission for its approval, which has increasingly demanded that the rights of workers take second place to paying off the debts accumulated by the financial sector. Whilst the desperate scenes in Greece are an extreme case, high unemployment and chronic poverty have become fixed features of the eurozone, with the number of jobless in Spain, for example, amounting to over 20% of the workforce. Moreover, employers have been given the freedom to disregard the rights of their employees in a bid to raise productivity, sparking a series of labour revolts by workers driven to the edge of despair. In France, to cite the most recent instance, the much hated El-Khomri law, which seeks to increase the working week to 46 hours and is currently being contested by striking unions, was originally based on the recommendations of the Commission.
Thus, it is transparent that the hardships experienced by workers across Europe are an inescapable product of the economic policies enforced by the EU.
The myth of a pacifist EU
It is difficult to fathom how anyone save the wilfully blind could continue to view the EU as a progressive force in light of the destruction it visited upon Greece. But to understand the mindset that leads otherwise enlightened people to extol the benefits of an institution which is the cause of so much distress throughout Europe it is necessary for the moment to ignore facts. Faith in the EU is not grounded in any rational analysis of reality, but rests on a series of founding myths the truth of which its defenders have never paused to consider. They are regarded as unquestionably true and are never scrutinised, much as devout Christians in centuries past would never have thought to examine the articles of faith on which their belief in God was based.
The myth from which the EU derives much of its strength is that of an organisation which has overcome the bitter divisions of the past to fashion a new identity for the once warlike people of Europe. The narrative goes something like this: for millennia Europe was plagued by nationalist rivalries which produced wars of unparalleled violence. In the twentieth century, as a result of these rivalries the entire world was plunged into two conflicts which witnessed bloodletting on a scale never seen before, and following the second and most devastating of these wars, a band of far-seeing European statesmen resolved that never again would the nations of Europe battle against one another and be a cause of such misery to the rest of the planet. In a spirit of high-minded idealism they took the first steps toward the establishment of a supranational body which would bring countries together in harmony and peace, consigning to history the internecine feuding and jingoistic war-mongering that had rent the political fabric of Europe apart. Henceforth, the people of this war-torn continent, divided though they might be by borders, were to consider themselves Europeans in the truest sense, part of an organic union that would only grow in strength with the passage of the years.
To any serious student of history this account of the EU’s origins must appear as a gross distortion of the facts. But such is the comforting myth that underpins the faith many people, who should know better, exhibit in relation to an organisation they credit with having maintained the peace in Europe and prevented another plunge into barbarism for more than half a century. This romanticised view of history explains why in 2012 the Nobel Committee was able to award the Peace Prize to the EU, and also why in a poll conducted on the same occasion it was found that 75% of Europeans agreed with the Nobel Committee that ‘peace and democracy were the most important achievements of the EU’. The people who believe this are prepared to forgive the EU anything, because its failings in their eyes are as nothing when set against its tremendous success in averting another world war.
The reason this myth should cause offence to campaigners for peace everywhere is that it is based on a version of events which is utterly contradicted by the known facts about how the EU came into being. That there has not been another conflict to compare with WW2 in the seventy years following its end owes not to the moral vision of the politicians who presided over the birth of the EEC, the precursor to the EU, but is purely a result of shifting power dynamics. By 1945 the great powers of Europe had been so reduced in strength by the most savage war in human history that they soon realised they would never be able to recover their former status as global hegemons in a world the US had come to dominate. Indeed, such was the overwhelming preponderance of power enjoyed by the US, the only state to emerge from the war with its standing massively enhanced, that the idea of opposing its designs for Europe was swiftly set aside, and to retain what small measure of influence they could hope to wield in this unipolar world the formerly great powers agreed to be integrated into a military and economic alliance headed by the US. The creation of pan-European institutions that would foster the growth of a single European market, which would trade freely with US corporations, was made a condition of Marshall Aid by the American architects of the new economic order, who greeted every significant move in the direction of greater European unity with satisfaction. In the military sphere, membership of NATO, the armed alliance of states that the US established to further its imperialist interests, required Western European countries to devote a significant part of their budgets to military expenditure and maintain an armed truce with the Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites, effectively dividing the Continent into two hostile camps, constantly teetering on the edge of nuclear war, for much of the latter half of the twentieth century.
The roots of the EU are therefore to be sought not in the sentimental desire for peace felt by leading statesmen in the wake of war, though this was undoubtedly a desire expressed by masses of ordinary people, but in the essential fact of the post-1945 world that the US displaced Europe as the centre of global power and influence. Power politics not pacifism explains why there has not been another war between the major European states. Anyone who doubts the truth of this need only consider the foreign policy of Europe during the period when the basis for the EU was being laid. For most of the inhabitants of the third world these years were not ones distinguished by peace but by a series of brutal wars to free themselves from the yoke of imperialism. The founding members of the EEC, at the same time they were joining together in a spirit of ‘harmony’ and ‘peace’, unleashed a torrent of blood in their colonial possessions, obstinately clinging to the remnants of empire and crushing demands for liberty with shocking violence. In Algeria the French prosecuted a terrorist campaign against the population that resulted in 1.5 million deaths, the effects of which are still felt acutely by France’s Muslims, treated as second class citizens by the Republic, and are a source of deeply-felt divisions even now. In Vietnam, with funding from the US, the French also sought to retain control over their colony and defeat the Vietminh, eventually handing over to the Americans when they could no longer sustain the cost of such a military campaign. In the Congo, Belgium initially met demands for independence with violence and continued to interfere in the politics of the region following independence, playing a role in the assassination of the elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. In Kenya, the British, who were to join the EEC in 1973, waged a brutal war against the native Kikuyu throughout the 1950s in order to uphold the rule of the white settler elite, interning many Africans in concentration camps where they were subjected to torture.
The danger of peddling a false narrative of the growth of European unity in which base geopolitical considerations do not figure is the immunity granted the EU against criticism for its actions in the present. Far from waning, the attachment of European states to militarism remains as strong as ever, and has continued to find an outlet during the 21st century in a number of wars of aggression across the Middle-East and Africa, which differ little from the hey-day of 19th century imperialism, when great powers bestrode the world looting defenceless countries with utter abandon. There is, however, one significant difference between these past exploits and European imperialism in its modern guise. In recent years the EU has arrogated to itself an increasing array of powers in the field of foreign policy, establishing the office of High Representative for Foreign Affairs with a view to eventually dictating the relations of European nations with the outside world. Given fully 22 of the 28 member states that comprise the EU are members of NATO, it is unsurprising that the policy followed by this fledgling branch of the Commission is little more than an extension of the goals that Europe’s political leaders have long held in common with the US.
Through vesting power, however, in an unaccountable body of bureaucrats who cannot be voted from office, unlike elected politicians in member states, the EU seeks to make it all but impossible for the citizens of Europe to alter the foreign policy trajectories of their respective governments, and draw back from the reckless path of unabashed war-mongering upon which we are embarked. A case in point, and one that the former MP George Galloway cited in a recent speech, is Syria. Although most of the people who argued for Britain to intervene against ISIS towards the end of last year have effaced it from their memory, barely three years ago Cameron’s government, supported by much of the media class, favoured military intervention on the opposite side of the Syrian civil war, calling for air strikes against the Syrian army and support for those jihadist elements which subsequently morphed into ISIS. Thankfully, to the dismay of Cameron, this move was narrowly voted down in the Commons, but had this question fallen within the purview of the EU’s High Representative, it is unlikely that Britain’s Parliament would have even been permitted a vote on the matter.
The crowning achievement of the EU in the arena of foreign affairs has undoubtedly been its contribution to resurrecting the Cold War, fomenting a civil war in the Ukraine that still rages along the historically fraught border region that stretches between the EU and Russia. Few people in the West know of the EU’s role in igniting this conflict, or of the policy, drafted by the Commission, and relentlessly pursued during the last twenty years, of expanding the influence of the EU into Eastern Europe so as to isolate Russia behind a ring of hostile states. The degree of ignorance that the media has fostered regarding the crisis in Ukraine has reached the point that the supporters of remain even cite, with positive pride, the aggressive posturing of the EU during the recent crisis as a reason to vote against Brexit, contending that only as part of a larger entity can we stand up to the Russian bear, which is engaged in an attempt to subjugate its neighbours and reconstitute the Soviet Empire. If anything, the reverse is true, and the perilous brinksmanship of the EU with respect to Russia, its unceasing efforts to provoke an escalation in tensions between the two, should be considered grounds enough to vote leave.
For in reality Ukraine is merely the latest in a long line of countries which the EU has sought to annex to a Western alliance controlled by the US, with EU membership proceeding hand in hand with membership of NATO. This military organisation, formed in 1949 with the supposed aim of defending Western Europe against the USSR, has since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than doubled in size, with many of the new additions former Communist countries situated on Russia’s periphery, revealing its true character as an alliance that exists to extend the global reach of the US. The EU, by incorporating these countries into a political union closely linked to NATO, and in some cases laying the ground-work for their eventual accession to NATO through the Eastern Partnerships, a proto-form of EU membership, has in many ways acted to reinforce the bonds linking the various members of this alliance.
In the case of Ukraine, the action that set in motion the chain of events leading to civil war was the offer by the EU of an Association Agreement. This has frequently been depicted as a generous arrangement under which Ukraine would have benefited from most of the advantages enjoyed by EU member states, without, however, formally becoming a member. In actual fact the agreement would have required Ukraine to sever economic relations with Russia, a country to which it was intimately bound by a shared history, and was linked to a package of swingeing austerity measures that would have resulted in the ruination of Ukraine’s economy. Moreover, despite the outraged denials of its framers, the deal also mandated military cooperation between the EU and Ukraine and was clearly intended as a prelude to NATO membership. Given the fact that approximately half of Ukrainians, mainly living in the East of the country, were opposed to NATO and favoured better relations with Russia, it was hardly likely that the Ukrainian President, Victor Yanukovych, who by all accounts had pro-EU leanings, would ever have been able to implement the terms of such a deal without splitting the country in two. When at the end of 2013 he therefore rejected the Agreement, prompting protests in Kiev’s Maidan Square, in which Ukraine’s fascist parties, which are driven by a racist hatred of the country’s ethnic Russian population, played a prominent part, both the EU and the US chose to back the protesters agitating for his removal. After Yanukovch was overthrown in a putsch in February 2014, spearheaded by those same fascist elements within the opposition, instead of spurning the interim government that was installed following his ouster the EU immediately proceeded to signal their approval by securing its assent to the Association Agreement that Yanukovych had originally refused to sign. When Eastern Ukrainians rose in revolt against the putschist government, which had removed the democratically elected President from office and concluded an Association Agreement in spite of their objections, the EU disingenuously attributed Ukraine’s descent into civil war to Russian interference.
The defenders of the EU refuse to acknowledge its contribution to the turmoil that has engulfed Ukraine, or its part in bringing about a new cold war, even arguing that Russia’s opposition to the European project stems from a distaste for democracy and human rights, rather than simple geopolitics. Some, indulgently, recognise that Russia is genuinely fearful about the threat to its position from the extension of NATO eastwards, but claim that these fears derive from a 19th century habit of mind whereby the world is divided up into spheres of interest between competing powers, which vie with each other for global domination. Unfortunately, they argue, the EU is hampered in its relations with Russia by the failure of Europe’s leaders to grasp that they are a 21st century power dealing with a country that has still not freed itself from old modes of thinking about international affairs. But the chronology of the crisis is clear, as is the role the EU played in prompting it, and few who have studied the matter would deny that the actions of the EU with respect to Ukraine appear in the grand tradition of imperialist politics.
The question confronting Britain
The question of whether to remain or leave will likely not be decided on the basis of what is being done on the Continent in the name of ‘internationalism’. But a broader perspective is needed to refute the contorted arguments of many liberals who all too often give too much credence to the rhetoric of the European project, whilst paying little heed to its record. The current debate in Britain suffers from the entrenched tendency of the mainstream left to identify support for remain with opposition to petty-minded nationalism, and to chide Brexiters for being too insular and self-interested to appreciate the sense of high moral purpose that drives the EU. The briefest look, however, at the destructive polices that have been imposed on the countries of the eurozone, and the chaos that has ensued from imperialist meddling in foreign affairs, is enough to counter the baseless assertion, constantly repeated by those in the remain camp, that in opposing Brexit people will be voting for a worthy attempt to replace nationalist discords with a shared identity based on a commitment to democracy and human rights. The EU is not internationalist in any sense that a genuine member of the left would support. It exists to advance the interests of the business class as against workers, and in its zeal to enrich corporations at the expense of ordinary people it has succeeded in creating such disaffection with the political establishment that fascism, the very phenomenon the EU was in theory designed to prevent, has once more become a formidable force in countries languishing in the grip of high unemployment and low wages.
There are both altruistic and more self-interested considerations that should be factored into any decision on how to vote in the upcoming referendum. Both kinds of analysis, however, dictate a vote for Brexit. The supporters of remain commonly react to the argument that Britain has much to gain from leaving by speaking vaguely of showing solidarity with the many millions of people in the eurozone to whom that option is not available. They seem not to understand that by voting to remain, far from showing solidarity with the rest of Europe, Britain would be electing to prolong the life of an institution which is conducting a bizarre neoliberal experiment in how far it can push Europeans before they lose all hope. There is a moral case for leaving, based on the fact that Brexit would probably result in the dissolution of the EU and ease the suffering of nations currently held captive by neoliberal economics. The evidence for this is compelling. It is doubtful, for example, that the EU could long survive the withdrawal of one of its principal sources of funding. Far more worrisome from the point of view of those running Europe than the financial repercussions of Brexit, however, would be the example that it would set for the stricken populations of the Continent, especially in the southern countries, who have been led to believe that escape from the economic straitjacket of the eurozone is impossible. Presented with the spectacle of a people freely choosing to exit the EU, it is conceivable that workers suffering the consequences of EU-enforced austerity in countries like Spain and Italy would place pressure on their representatives to grant a referendum.
There is also an argument for leaving based on the benefits that Britain is currently well-placed to reap from such a move. The landslide election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party last year has indicated the widespread support that exists for a socialist alternative to the centre-ground politics which has held sway in Britain for the last thirty years, showing that the Blairites, who were roundly defeated in the election, were wrong to dismiss socialism as a spent force and place their faith in the free market. Consequently, a reforming Labour government may well assume the reins of government in the very near future. If it takes power in the context of a vote to remain, however, such a government would face real obstacles to implementing its programme in the form of the capitalist safeguards against reform that the EU has established. It would not be able to nationalise the railways, despite the overwhelming support of the public, because the EU has made public ownership of the railways illegal. A Labour government would find it difficult to increase expenditure on the NHS and other much needed public services because of the strict economies that the EU pressures member states to adopt by limiting the budget deficit to 3% of GDP. Furthermore, a social-democratic government of the kind that Corbyn could potentially head, with its commitment to decoupling the economy from its damaging dependence on financial services, would soon discover that competition rules forbid us from subsidising our manufacturing sector or even protecting our steel industry from Chinese dumping through raising tariffs on imports. In short, any government that seeks to overturn the neoliberal consensus will find that, within the confines of the EU, even limited reforms toward that end are a practical impossibility, liable to be struck down by the European Court of Justice as incompatible with EU law at any time.
It is regrettable that, instead of focussing on the impediments Labour would face in the event of a vote to remain, the mainstream left has chosen to fix its attention on the perceived boost that Brexit would give the current Conservative government. A myth has gained ground amongst large sections of the left that the rights which British workers have come to take for granted, such as maternity leave and paid holidays, were gifted to Britain by the EU, and that Brexit would free the Conservatives to intensify their assault on the working class, uninhibited by a social Europe which at present exercises a restraining influence over neoliberal governments. Even supposing that the remain camp is right in assuming that the Conservatives will hold onto power until the next general election in four years time, a questionable assumption in light of the fact the Conservatives are deeply split over the referendum, it is simply false to claim that we owe whatever rights we enjoy to the EU, As others have documented, most of the rights that are invoked by the mainstream left as a reason to vote remain were already in place when we joined the EEC in 1973, and they owe not to a beneficent bureaucracy of Eurocrats but to Britain’s working classes, who won these rights over the course of many years and after a series of hard-fought struggles with the capitalist class. Likewise, the retention of these rights will depend not on the good-will of a remote bureaucracy, which is actively undermining those same rights elsewhere, but on the determination of workers to band together in defence of their standard of living.
Unfortunately, many of the left apologists for the EU have been aided in their efforts to paint their opponents as backward nationalists by the fact that the Brexit campaign is largely dominated by the right. Almost all of the political figures who favour Brexit that the British public are regularly exposed to on TV are drawn from the far right of the Conservative Party, such as the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson and the current justice minister Michael Gove. (The noteworthy exception is Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP – a right-wing party formed for the sole purpose of taking Britain out of the EU.) At times the debate has resembled, and has often been reported as, an internal squabble between factions of the Conservative Party over the direction Britain should take as well as, on a more personal level, a battle between Prime Minister David Cameron, the leader of the remain group, and Boris Johnson, who is widely believed to be the most likely successor of Cameron in the event of Brexit. The left-wing case for leaving, which has been eloquently articulated by a number of prominent intellectuals and activists, has been given relatively little attention by the media, with the result that many voters have been kept in ignorance of the existence of such arguments, and various Blairite MPs on the right of the Labour Party have been able to assert that they alone represent what the left’s position should be in the debate over Britain’s attitude to the EU.
Paradoxically, however, the near monopoly of the right over the Brexit campaign is not proof that opposition to the EU is intrinsically right-wing, but testifies instead to the weakness of a left which has been steadily stripped of its commitment to economic justice. Thirty years ago the most forceful advocates of Brexit were to be found among the members of the Labour Party, not on the right, and calls for Britain to withdraw from the EU, or the EEC as it was then called, were considered a standard feature of Labour’s policy platforms. The great left-wing MP Tony Benn campaigned in the 1975 referendum for Labour to leave the EEC on the grounds that such an arrangement was contrary to the basic democratic principle that people should be allowed to vote on the policies affecting them. Events since 1975 have only proved the truth of Benn’s original argument, made all those years ago, that these undemocratic tendencies were destined to grow with time, posing a grave risk to our ability to decide the most basic of policy issues. Moreover, unlike the MPs campaigning for remain today, politicians like Benn understood that the lack of democracy at the heart of the EU was not an oversight on the part of its founders, but an essential component of a project which sought to supplant national governments with a supranational authority divorced from the concerns of ordinary people. So long as power was vested in national assemblies, these institutions, however imperfect, were at least answerable to their voters, but once power over economic policy was ceded to bureaucrats then the business elites which effectively governed Europe were easily able to overcome popular resistance to their policies by dispensing with the need for elections.
Unfortunately, this basic point has been forgotten by the members of the Labour Party now campaigning to remain. Thus, the left-wing opponents of Brexit frequently give the impression that they regard the EU’s democratic deficit as a minor flaw, something that could easily be rectified if only Britain stays within the EU and works with other countries to reform it. Not a few even deny that the EU is undemocratic, reasoning that because the Council of Ministers, which concludes the treaties which form the basis for the EU, is composed of elected government figures from the member states this amounts to an indirect form of democratic accountability. These supporters of remain seem oblivious to the fact that the whole purpose of enshrining in various treaties the neoliberal principles on which the EU rests, treaties which once concluded cannot be repealed except through the agreement of all 28 member states, is to ensure that such weighty questions are forever removed from the sphere of democratic debate. The electorate of a particular country can vote their government out, but they cannot revoke the set of laws that this government agreed to, nor exercise any control over the unappointed Commission which is granted broad discretion to implement these laws.
The referendum is perhaps the one chance that this generation will ever have to vote on our membership of an institution which now wields an inordinate amount of power. It is the only opportunity we will be given to affirm our democratic right to rule on the fundamental questions with which we are confronted, and at the same time administer a blow to the undemocratic vision of a corporate Europe, rooted in neoliberal economics and a disdain for workers, that has crushed underfoot the aspirations of so many Europeans who were never even offered the choice of agreeing to such a project. A vote to leave will not usher in an age of socialist egalitarianism, but it is nonetheless, as socialists agitating for Brexit have observed, a necessary steppingstone without which the fairer society we are striving to achieve will be rendered a more distant prospect.
Members of the mainstream left who are campaigning to remain have only been able to maintain their enthusiasm for the EU by averting their eyes from its shameful record, adhering instead to an exalted image of a progressive body which has never existed outside of their imaginations. Ordinary voters must spurn such consoling myths, and recognise the EU for what it is: a deeply reactionary institution that is holding back progress throughout Europe.
Also by Joseph Richardson:
Russia, the West and World War II, by Joseph Richardson, CounterPunch, May 17, 2013
When I lived in Moscow, occasionally Russians would fix me with a stern gaze and gravely pose the question ‘who won the war?’ Circumspectly, I would answer that Russia had without doubt borne the principal burden of vanquishing Nazi Germany. The question, however, was always imbued with an accusatory air, as though my response was expected to incriminate me in a conspiracy to conceal the true scale of Russia’s wartime exertions. This aggrieved tone can be jarring to a foreigner, leaving the impression that Russians are exercised to an unhealthy degree by thoughts of past military glory…
Political fundamentals and the UK Brexit referendum
By Tony Norfield, published on his blog Economics of Imperialism, June 16, 2016
What explains the desperation of British capitalism and Conservative Party in the lead up to the Brexit referendum on 23 June? Opinion polls have shifted in favour of a ‘Leave’ vote and while the accuracy of the polls is always in doubt, a shift towards Leave seems evident from widespread vox pop views in the media, in the panic of the Remain camp, and in the financial market setbacks for sterling’s exchange rate.
Equity markets have also been hit, and not just in the UK. As a sign of desperation, the ‘Remain’ camp has even called upon the Labour Party’s lumbering has-been Gordon Brown to add his weight to what looks like a failing balance. Her Majesty has so far been allowed to stay above the dispute, just about. One can imagine that if the polls get any worse for ‘Remain’, then Downing Street could try to prompt a Royal appeal to her loyal subjects to do the right thing. Where has this revolt of popular sentiment come from?
My previous coverage of the Brexit referendum has focused on the situation facing the British ruling class in a world where its economic and political interests are clearly bound up with Europe but where there has been a minority view that an alternative is possible ‘outside’, especially in a context of European economic crisis. But the significant support for ‘Leave’ shows that this has underestimated a key point. What might otherwise be considered simply as popular disgruntlement with political elites – ‘vote Leave to teach them a lesson’ – is better explained as a widespread view that these elites have broken their pact with the people. The ‘Leave’ support, however disruptive it might be to existing power structures, is based on an appeal to the British state to restore the status quo ante. To understand this point, it needs to be put in context, one that will also confirm that this is not a debate in which one can take sides.
The world system of power
No country’s politics, still less its economics, can be understood outside its relationships with the rest of the world. Since at least the early 19th century, the world economy has increasingly shaped the position of all countries within it. The world system as we have known it in recent decades has been based upon three elements: American dominance and supervision of capitalism, the European Union project, and the relationship between America and Britain. These elements may have come under some threat, for example with the growth of China and the crisis in Europe, but this pattern of world power remains intact.
The dominant European states wish that Britain would be more European and that it would do more to curb the xenophobic, anti-European drift of British popular culture. But Britain’s relationship with the U.S. is in their interests, because Britain’s mediating, intermediary role helps keeps the whole structure of Western dominance intact, with America at its apex and Europe benefiting from it. The Europeans are worried about an increasingly unstable world that sees the rise of China, a more assertive Russia, all sorts of threats around the Mediterranean and in the Middle East and Africa. They are concerned that a Brexit vote would begin to unravel their security network, or at least begin to call into question who is allied with whom, and how committed they are to a joint project.
The dominant European imperialist states could easily accommodate Britain’s refusal to join the euro zone, a central plank of European policy. Britain’s role with respect to the European Union is not so much the product ofdeeply ingrained cultural attitudes (although these do exist); it is more an expression of its important role within the pattern of power and the dynamics of its mediating role on the world stage. This role allows, and calls for, the British state to operate at the same time both outside and within the continental European political and economic set up. For example, the British-based financial system is a worldwide one, brokering the U.S. dollar, and the political and economic interests of Britain do not support its membership of the euro zone. But the British state also needs to have a say in the development of European policy to sustain its position and the workings of the world financial system that it has helped to create and from which it benefits. The U.S. also wants Britain in Europe because it is vital to U.S.-European relationships. Every time Britain has shown itself truculent over European membership, and especially now, the U.S. has reminded it, in a firm but friendly way, that it would prefer no change.
A new series of bilateral arrangements between Britain and other countries, as envisaged by the Brexit camp, cannot replace this system. The point is not only why on earth it would make sense for Britain, one of the major world powers, to tear up longstanding agreements that it has helped to produce and try to start again. It is also that a country stepping outside an established system of power would not have much leverage to devise another one. The pro-Brexit calculation can only convince those who ignore, or do not understand, the structure of Western dominance and Britain’s vital role within it. Britain’s business media has reminded the ‘Leave’ advocates both that Britain alone is a small share of the EU market and that exiting the EU would put at risk all the other relationships that give British imperialism status in the world, from permanent membership of the UN Security Council downwards.
The working class Brexit vote
Nevertheless, British opinion polls show that Brexit looms. A broad section of the population, especially the working class, is now liable to go against the establishment consensus and vote ‘Leave’ as a way to complain, especially when it sees its troubles as resulting from global economic trends that the establishment has embraced. The focus of complaint is immigration. While the claimed economic benefits of the UK staying in the EU have been the main argument for ‘Remain’, this has been submerged by immigration as the dominant anti-EU point in the referendum debate. Many Brits, perhaps most, including those who themselves or whose families may have been relatively recent immigrants, support tighter immigration controls, as was already clear in the 2015 UK General Election.
Immigration plays such a role because it touches on a key point in British working class consciousness, one that reflects its material interests: a loyal commitment to the British state. This longstanding commitment has given the working class social protection as part of a deal not to cause too much trouble, a kind of ‘social contract’. Now, the immigration question helps to identify the national, British-based working class as the legitimate recipient of state assistanceversus the immigrants (or even refugees) from other countries. In this pro-imperial outlook, the issue of inadequate housing, jobs and services delivered by capitalism becomes a moan about the supply of housing, jobs and services taken by migrants. In previous decades, the moan was about blacks and Asians; now it is more about white (East) Europeans.
This is not to say that such a view is held by all working class people, but the fact that it is so widely held should not really shock those who have read any history. For more than a century, despite occasional trade union militancy, the British working class has supported British imperialism and its war efforts. From the First World War, even earlier, the British state had made concessions to workers with welfare measures, ones that were developed further in the late 1930s and into the Second World War, when more ‘sacrifices for the nation’ had to be made. Introducing future plans for comprehensive welfare spending in March 1943, the arch-imperialist and violent opponent of the 1926 General Strike, Winston Churchill, declared himself in favour of ‘national compulsory insurance for all classes, for all purposes, from the cradle to the grave’ as part of his attempt to secure a solid national consensus of all classes.
It may surprise readers familiar with the story that the 1945 Labour Government invented the National Health Service, and broke the mould with state ownership of national assets, that Churchill also said in the same speech that ‘we must establish on broad and solid foundations a national health service’ and that there was ‘a broadening field for State ownership and enterprise, especially in relation to monopolies of all kind’. To underpin his endorsement of a national consensus, Churchill praised the Labour Party’s coalition government Minister for Labour and National Service, Ernest Bevin, for ‘the practical absence of strikes in this war compared to what happened in the last [ie in World War One]’. The rationale for Churchill’s support of welfare spending for the working class was that for Britain ‘to keep its high place in the leadership of the world and to survive as a great power that can hold its own against external pressure, our people must be encouraged by every means to have larger families’. Supporting more education spending, he added that the ‘future of the world is left to highly educated races who alone can handle the scientific apparatus necessary for pre-eminence in peace or survival in war’.
Other articles on this blog have shown how, in the post-1945 period, Labour Governments continued in this pro-imperialist outlook, using exploitation of the colonies to help fund their national welfare spending to benefit the domestic working class.  But this perspective is not of only historical interest; in the same way that imperialism – a system of privilege and domination in the world economy – is not confined to the colonial period.
The Brexit debate shows that the British working class wants not so much a better deal within the existing system, but a return to the previous post-war consensus. This perspective is not only far from being any challenge to capitalism; it supports Britain’s privileged position within the world system of power from which the working class had benefited. Brexit has risen in popularity because the domestic working class has faced the problem that British capitalists have benefited greatly from their increased links to the world economy, including an influx of cheap workers, less so from the more ‘home grown’ operations, so British workers have felt neglected. That is why Wetherspoons, a UK and Irish pub chain, very dependent upon local business links, is one of the few large UK companies to be pro-Brexit.
From the perspective of the British working class, the call for Brexit is a call upon the British state to keep to its previous compact with the workers for what can be presented as a fair, national deal. (Incidentally, the British left has the same approach to economic and political problems) Widespread complaints such as this may work to some extent, shifting the balance of the government’s policy tactics. For example, the collapse of Tata Steel Europe’s UK operations in the lead up to this troublesome EU referendum led to some government measures to delay the inevitable. However, the game is up. Whether Britain leaves the EU or not, capitalist companies will not turn their back on the world market and the relevant calculations. Neither will the UK government pretend in its policies that there is no capitalist crisis to deal with.
Above all, the British working class cannot explain to itself why the British ruling class has broken its previous agreement to deliver national welfare, and why it has turned its back on its natural supporters in favour of seeking better profits in international market dealings. That is why its anger is real and solid, although its political economy remains crap because it cannot understand why what used to work before does not work now. Simply belonging to a rich, imperialist country does not mean that you necessarily get a decent share of the rich pickings.
Awkward moments for UK policy
Now take a step back and ask yourself why the Conservative Party, the unabashed defender of big capital and the super-rich, has got itself into this mess, which now witnesses senior ministers attacking the Prime Minister’s stance for ‘Remain’. The simplistic view is that there were Conservative Party divisions that had to be resolved by Cameron calling a vote on EU membership, or that Conservative votes were being threatened by the rise of UKIP. But, while true, this story hides a more telling, political problem suggested by what has already been explained.
If a political party is openly ruthless in enforcing capitalist market discipline on everyone, unfortunately for the ruling class that is no way to win the necessary popular support to get elected. Instead, a broad base of loyalists has to be built, one of the annoying features of universal suffrage. The need to have a broad base of support is the reason we still find many ‘one nation’ Tories, why successive Conservative governments did not reverse the post-1945 welfare state reforms and why Prime Minister Cameron still claims to defend the National Health Service. But this creates political difficulties when popular opinion in the UK turns against what is evidently the best policy for British imperialism, ie staying in the EU.
U.S. President Obama, a wide range of other U.S. and European politicians, together with the IMF, OECD, etc, etc, have declared that they favour the status quo, as do the majority of British corporations and the leaderships of the main UK political parties. The logic here is that the existing pattern of world power relationships would be upset, unpredictably and possibly dangerously, if any major country tried to strike out on its own.
At risk is the EU itself, which could well see other countries heading for the exit, undermining an economic and political project that has been decades in the making. Neither is this a good environment for other agencies of imperial rule that have been in place since the late 1940s, the UN and NATO. These could be faced with new questions on who is a key member and why, or who has voting rights on the UN Security Council.
A referendum dispute between loyalism and imperialism
At first sight, a vote for Brexit might look to be the more progressive option, because it would help undermine the established structures of power in the world. Many UK voters disagree, noting that it would also give credence to a set of policies that would be driven by reactionary pundits and politicians. The problem with these views is that they do not understand how the debate is between a pro-imperialist populace and British imperialism. That is why the debate lacks any content and there are few substantial differences between the respective positions.
The ‘Leave’ side is not against developments in world capitalism. The bulk of its votes will come from a working class that has sided with imperialism and would like the British state to return the favour, backing up its privileges against others in the world economy, as in the good old days. The ‘Remain’ side, too, argues for no change to world capitalism and will attract those who fear an upset to their current economic circumstances. The former expresses complaints against the status quo, wanting an exit in which they think changes could be implemented within the imperial system; the latter thinks the status quo is acceptable, although it might be amended somewhat within the imperial system.
How can complaints about capitalist market discipline be resolved in a crisis-ridden world economy, if the complainers want to keep the system that enforces that discipline, and especially the imperial privileges that accrue to one of the leading powers? If the complainers understood this problem, then progressive politics would be in with a chance. However, that is not the case in the UK, or in a number of other rich countries where the working class is loyal to its powerful state. Instead, the political logic is for pro-imperialist policies to win the day.
If you want to oppose the depredations of capitalism and imperialism, then please do so, but this is not what the Brexit debate is about. Above all, remember the classic revolutionary phrase: ‘The enemy is at home’.
 To emphasise this point, note that Sir William Beveridge, the main early planner of the UK welfare state – not the UK unions or the Labour Party, or pressure from them – was a collaborator of Churchill’s and supported by him, even though Churchill had doubts on committing to spending when it was not clear it could be afforded. The most that could be said for the 1945-51 Labour Government is that it implemented a more generous welfare system than had been envisaged by Beveridge, although that was paid for by loans from the U.S. and by exploiting the colonies! A transcript of Churchill’s BBC broadcast in March 1943 is available at http://www.ibiblio.org/pha/policy/1943/1943-03-21a.html.
Tony’s Norfield’s book on contemporary imperialism and the finance sector, ‘The City: London and the Global Power of Finance’ (Verso, 2016), has just been shortlisted for the Deutscher Memorial Prize.