The confusion of the left on the question of the European Union was shown by an event at my alma mater, the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University, on 16 February. It also revealed a more general absence of critical faculties among many of those who do not like the way the world works today. Tariq Ali was promoting his latest book, The Extreme centre: A Warning. He made the standard complaints about the lack of any political alternative to ‘neoliberal’ politics in most major countries, and he also tied this theme into the question of the vote on Britain’s membership of the EU (now set to be on 23 June 2016). I have not read his book, but based upon what he said in his presentation, I would make the following comments, ones that also set out how to understand the forthcoming UK vote on EU membership.
Firstly, as an old hand at these events, it was surprising that Tariq Ali did not reflect upon the lack of any widespread opposition to what he calls the ‘neoliberal extreme centre’. He did hope that the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the lofty pinnacle of the British Labour Party leadership showed that the Labour Party was not actually dead, and he also cast a positive gloss on the popularity of the Scottish National Party as a sign of some popular opposition. My problem with this searching in the dustbin for a gem is that it does not understand that much UK public opinion is welfare-nationalist at best – ‘save our NHS’ – or that any materialist analysis would have to draw the conclusion that this opinion is because the mass of people see that this is where their immediate economic interests lie. A prime piece of evidence for my perspective is that half the British public voted for the Conservatives or UKIP in the 2015 general election, while the Labour Party had ‘controls on immigration’ as one of the policy demands carved into the infamous stone monolith of Ed Miliband, the former Labour leader. Instead, Tariq Ali gave credence to the implausible notion that the British media are responsible for right wing opinions.
Secondly, Tariq Ali made a telling point, almost as a confession. He had formerly been in favour of Britain’s membership of the EU, but now he had grave doubts. There seemed to be two connected reasons: what ‘EU policy’ had done to Greece, Spain and other countries was unacceptable, and the EU-driven policy was a machine for implementing the wider policies of financial capital, not those of the mass of people. Just consider what this position amounts to. It identifies a policy driven by the EU as the problem, not recognising that it results from capitalists in each country trying to restore their viability in the global market, still more that it is one that the richer countries are imposing on the poorer in order to get some of their money – bank loans, etc – back. So, it becomes a policy decision that progressive forces could change, not one that is inevitable unless the market logic of capitalism is overturned. It is not a question of ‘the EU’ demanding nasty policies; these are the consequence of the crisis that these economies face. The ECB, EU Commission, etc, are the messengers, and the message is that your economies are uncompetitive in the world market!
Thirdly, the political confusion of Tariq Ali, and many others, on the question of the EU is based on accepting the alternatives such a vote gives the electorate. There will be a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer to leaving/staying in the European Union. But the terms of the debate are already set. Each side is based on what is best for Britain: whether to stay in a ‘reformed’ (on capitalist terms) EU, although the changes are minimal, and so keep the UK’s global bargaining power, or whether the UK should strike out on its own into what might be a more enticing, faster growing, wider world. The debate only reflects an anxiety of the British ruling class since at least 1945: what to do about a Europe in which the UK could only realistically play a manipulative, tactical role, when it is a minor country with much wider global interests. I have covered these issues previously on this blog (see, for example, here). There is no basis upon which the Stay or Leave vote could be construed as being in favour of something else, anti-capitalist, given the lack of any progressive alternative in the UK. For this reason, I will not be voting Yes/No on which is the best way to save British capitalism.
Tariq Ali’s confusion also goes further. In the SOAS meeting he noted that there was a political problem of many of Europe’s right wing parties – for example, the Front National in France – being in favour of welfare spending. ‘And so are we!’ Well, the unacknowledged problem comes down to the fact that western welfare spending is based upon the privileges that rich countries have in the world, something that his kind of analysis is reluctant to recognise. The attack on welfare spending today results from the chronic stagnation of most economies, ones that are just about buoyed up by huge levels of debt, but which debt also calls time on the previous status quo. Rather than recognise this, Tariq Ali bemoaned the attacks on the welfare state and the ‘breach of the consensus’ that had previously been achieved. So much for the analysis of an anti-capitalist who sees unfavourable policies as a result of decisions that could be changed within capitalism. I heard nothing from him to suggest that what he called ‘neoliberal’ policies could not be changed by a more enlightened policy under capitalism.
The rich country welfare system represents part of a deal/consensus that is now being broken by many governments. Policies that are called ‘austerity’ have not been implemented much in the richer countries, though they will be in the next couple of years. However, the political reaction, especially in northern Europe, is often to bolster reactionary nationalists that want to restore the status quo ante against the ‘hordes’ of migrants and other unwelcome drains on the national wealth and welfare that rightfully ‘belongs’ to the ‘legitimate’ recipients. This is the basis of a reactionary trend in European politics today. While this is exacerbated by the flows of migrants into Europe from the destruction of the Middle East and North Africa, such events only harden the views of those in Europe (and the US) whose states have done so much to cause the damage. It is heartening to see the humanity of many people in Europe helping refugees, especially in Germany. But the problem remains that the overwhelming majority of the population in European countries takes a different view of the world and their economic interests in it.
Tony Norfield, 20 February 2016