Britain, Europe, WHO RRRRR U?


Caterpillar: WHO RRRRRR U?

Alice: I….I….I hardly know, sir.

I suppose I was always something of a reluctant European. Don’t get me wrong- Berlin, Paris, the South of France, Barcelona, Florence, Rome, Vilnius, Amsterdam, Goethe, Lampedusa, Dumas, Kafka, Sophocles, Puccini, Picasso, Kirchner, Moodysson, Sartre, Voltaire, Rousseau, Baresi, Gullit, Klinsmann, Jota, Vibe…. So many European places, people, and things have played integral roles in making me who I am. Far from being a “Little Englander”, there is so much from Europe that Britain could learn from (or simply steal!): from a stress on quality of life, a patience with theory, a reverence for the arts, and the ability to dream without the snide mockery that dreaming is useless, to a Winter break in football, more of a stress on public space, and separate cultural and financial capital cities. People who try and claim a kind of uber-Britishness in singing songs like “Two World Wars and One World Cup” at England games, or Farage with his casual dismissal of anything European, make me cringe. People who try and assert British superiority to our neighbours using the worst of British culture tend to push me in exactly the opposite direction they hope. A very British reaction against excessive narrowmindeness and pomposity.

I used to be a kind of default European for vaguely nationalist reasons: wouldn’t it be good if Britain could actively help run Europe and use it as a megaphone on a geopolitical stage dominated by large political units like the United States, Russia, and China? But I found most European politics (at the EU level) pretty obscure, dull, and hard to figure out. I went to one seminar in Paris where voracious pro-Europeans suggested that everyone should speak Esperanto (which would at least have had the far from baleful result of rendering me mute) but the project for a federal Europe tended to be the province of only vaguely political, mildly dull European youths without a definite political project or ultimate model in mind. Far from being a hotbed of Habermasian schemers intent on erasing all national differences in a kind of kitsch European MTV, youth hosteling, free love dystopia of capri shorts, sandals, and everyone holding hands while singing Eurovision songs, most of the continental pro-Europeans that I met were more of a kind of rootless, gormless, “can’t we all get along?” types who liked meeting people from other countries and figured that most nationalism was dumb (while all still being quite proud of their own nation’s peculiarities and particularities). Dating Estonian girls? Reeling in that hunky Danish fellow? That seemed more the point of European seminars for most participants. Actual politics? Not so much.

All this seemed harmless enough. People obsessing about Europe either for or against slightly baffled me. However, as I have gotten older, I have started to see the debate as part of a larger whole. The stasis of the previous European status quo has been thrown off its equilibrium and the issues that Europe poses have come into sharper relief.

The private debt binge of the 90s and 2000s hid a lot of troubling indicators. The cosy consensus of the Blair years hid roiling social changes beneath the surface. And as I have got older, learned more about how the world works, and thought more rigorously about the kind of country and community I want to live in, I have got more concerned about Britain’s direction of travel. There needs to be some pretty radical change to arrest the decline, and Europe plays a role in thinking about how best to do that.

I have become much more concerned about how social capital and civil society has been eroded in Britain. I’ve become worried about how capitalism has served to homogenise communities, high streets, while depleting previous vibrant towns and replacing them with people scratching out financially tenuous lives in London. The rise and rise of finance (well beyond what most academics conceive of as socially useful and increasingly rent-extracting on the rest of the economy), the decline in manufacturing, economics based on asset bubbles and a reverence for a kind of Econ101 that was never fit for purpose to begin with. Politics obsessed with the short-term price of everything and ignorant of the long-term value of anything. Finance, arms sales, call centres, Greggs, with public sector employment mopping up whoever is left. Any alternative to the status quo run aground on character assassination in the British press and derided as “too radical” by the bien pensant Westminster bubble bobbleheads. The Tories now seem to make a virtue of managing decline “moderately”. The press and the Westminster village seem to have closed the Overton Window around them and now discuss how silly or hilarious the coming Boris Johnson premiership will prove. While Nero fiddles, Rome burns. Bad political celebrity tittle-tattle seems to have replaced ideology.

I’ve written about 2008 and how we need to be more broad-minded about how we think about economics. This seems to be happening in some parts and it should be supported (the major reason why I joined the Labour Party was McDonnell’s willingness to think big on matters of economics). But we need to equally think big about politics. Participation in the democratic process was slowly unravelling well before 2008. Democracy was in crisis but no one seemed to care; Economics is in crisis and people seem content to muddle through; but where these two issues meet has the highest propensity for catastrophe. We still seem to be living in a world of Fukuyama that we have reached the apex of political achievement, rather than take on board Marx’s insight that capitalism’s ability to generate unsettling change (“all that is solid melts into the air”) has to be met with political change. Here Trump meets UKIP as people rebuke the political institutions that seem uninterested at grabbing the economic problem squarely by the neck but instead wait for someone else to deal with it. Anyone.

As the private debt bubble has receded, and no one acknowledges the need to deal with the overhang, we’re left with the blunt fact that wages have been stagnant for decades, Britain doesn’t make much anymore, and rising house prices, services under strain, and rapidly changing communities, have helped push a large number of people towards far-right politics. Expenses scandals, election fraud, donors buying their way into the House of Lords, a cosy ideological consensus, personal attacks and Westminster playground idiocy, a gap between what Westminster does and what people know about it (hastened by the decline of newspapers and the rise in social media), means that people are turning away from traditional politics and the faith that they can do anything about what ails us.

In my youth, I used to be a big fan of John Stuart Mill and thought Rousseau was a lunatic (A-level politics was pretty good!), but as I have got older I have come to the conclusion that Rousseau was unfairly maligned. Or at least the youthful (and quite defendable) premise that people should be left alone and diversity is a good thing misses other dimensions. Rousseau’s vision of freedom as “peasants under trees, writing laws” describes a radical idea of democracy that seems further away than ever from where we are, as supranational bodies like the ECB, WTO, IMF, Eurogroup etc hold so much sway over our lives. As the Swiss political theorist put it: “the further the political bond is stretched, the weaker it becomes”. Rousseau emphasised the need for a civic religion, participation, the need to put “the general will” above a conception of freedom as the selfish pursuit of individual materialism, and the importance of broad equality so that the common good is identifiable and that a sense of linked fate pervades political discussions. Instead, Britain is riven by class, race and religious distrust; Britain is strikingly unequal materially and different classes live starkly different lives; patriotism extends to gestures towards togetherness during the Olympics but doesn’t extend to a link to civic engagement, voting, serving one’s community, making the constitution live up to our democratic values; and people vote without feeling like they are truly participating (“Britain is free once every five years”) and don’t feel like their vote makes any difference to their experience of interacting with the results of governance in their communities. People want to have a sense of community, of belonging to a place and culture, and institutions that both are the result of a culture and also help define it. Elites who have more in common with their counterparts across borders than with working people within their own countries forget this at their peril. Does anyone think that popular participation, political knowledge, civic belonging and tempered and enlightening political debate is likely to happen if we simply leave things as they are? If you are not concerned at all, can you really be thought of as a  democrat? Or as a British patriot?

And the causes of these twin crises of politics and economics are interlinked and need to be dealt with with both in mind.  The increased commodification of more and more of our economy has seen a rise in monopolies exerting political power. Local cultures are replaced with identikit high streets which resemble each other. Capital concentrates in the capital and network effects makes London a plughole as companies, people, and money are drawn into the capital, leaving behind the rest of the country. Multinational companies evade taxation. Taxation falls increasingly on income taxes but not on people who grew wealthy on the back of economic rents. Government plans to commodify education and health provision puts more of our common space under market discipline and logic. Financialization, tax havens, and global supply chains put more and more of the economic decisions which affect our lives outside of political control.

Sure, that means that larger institutional arrangements might be necessary to deal with these facts of life, but the other answer is to deliberately reengineer these facts to be manipulated much closer to where people feel like they belong. A New Bretton Woods, trade that values inequality as well as efficiency, deliberately slowing the pace of demographic change to allow communities to catch up, more employee ownership, wealth taxes, shorter working hours to allow for more community-building and social capital, time banks, valuing common cultural endeavours like the BBC, community art projects, working with youth projects, church groups, community groups and empowering people who come together to make real change, having an economic policy that focuses on making markets and not simply falling victim to their fickleness, deliberately investing more in the North of England and areas outside London….

To do all this one needs sovereignty. But sovereignty isn’t enough. You also need power. Europe will change rapidly in the next few years. The design flaws of the euro still have holed the project as it was below the waterline. People are right to fear Brexit will lead to a neoliberal lab test which could make all of our problems worse. The German response to the Greek crisis revealed a preference for rule by a (wrong) technocracy rather than democracy. And a response to the domestic claims of creditors rather than foreign debtors when partly this was a result of a core-periphery economic set-up that made such relationships a natural result of a permanent surplus German and deficit Southern Europe. A Britain unmoored from the rest of Europe risks being subject to the whims of bigger economics like the US, China, India, and whatever Europe becomes. Sovereignty doesn’t mean a great deal when you are a small boat subject to the large waves created by large ocean liners around you. Britain could become Iceland- a country that I like a great deal and has a lot to recommend it- but it would give up a great deal of the influence that Britain has enjoyed since it birthed the industrial revolution.

The alternative is a Europe to grow in one of two ways: a confederacy which exists to provide an intergovernmental talking shop for dry, technical subject matters about the odd common market query but while its powers are firmly limited to allow for Britain to undertake a radical restructuring of its economic and political institutions (this would probably also mean the breaking up of the euro with its attendant risks). Or a Europe which admits that it is in the business of creating a common European demos (probably underpinned by the use of English as an official language) and the rethinking of European institutions to be subject to  democratic oversight without devolving into an oligarchic technocracy while British citizens’ power are dramatically diminished (like the Greeks are now). Europe could still not be run from Brussels; it would still need to pass the test that a mum in Wolverhampton or a pensioner in Sunderland would need to feel like they have political efficacy over their lives. That their vote for political alternatives sees an observable result in how they live their lives.

This isn’t how the European debate has been laid out. “You’ll be poor!” versus “Foreigners! Foreigners everywhere!” has constituted the Brexit debate. And this isn’t just a case of short direct mail pieces or facebook ads, but the “educated” Brexit debate hasn’t progressed much beyond this. How should a small political unit like Great Britain, subject to intense economic and political strains, seek to wrestle control over its destiny in a globalized world where the world in 10, 20, and 50 years time will look very different to now. How do we reconcile the need for scale versus the need for belonging and political efficacy? WHO RRR UUU?

Tell me how to vote in the comment section, if you so choose. Can Britain have power as well as sovereignty outside the EU? Could Britain negotiate a kind of Japanese or Korean deal with high enough tariffs to foreign companies while having a state-led export model and foster great British firms like a Samsung or a Toyota that would provide strong wage growth for everyone? Or would Britain be run over? If Britain elects to stay in the EU, can the latter adapt into either a minimally evasive model with high enough tariffs to Chinese wage competition and forge a new Bretton Woods to provide protection against financial speculation? Or can Europe forge a common demos with enough room for an economics focused on working people and not just a hollowed out technocracy which views democracy as a hindrance and economic and political question as simply technical questions to be solved? Answers on a postcard please…..


The below email was something I sent in response to a friend who argued that the EU was solely an intergovernmental organization tasked only with the most meagre of democratically-endorsed tasks about overcoming technical boundaries to a common market. It inspired the above, rambling post.

“Well the Eurogroup was just made up on the spot. The thing is that Europe is going to change. We don’t know what to yet, but the current arrangements are unsustainable. The eurozone needs to have a proper central fiscal body and a central bank with more power. There needs to be large fiscal transfers between states rather than grinding wages down through austerity, and there needs to be mutualized debt. These kind of institutions can’t be supranational with ministers meeting and deciding things in meetings that no one knows about. The democratic deficit is pretty darn bad now and would be even worse under those circumstances. Or the euro needs to break apart. The question which no one is asking is:

* What is Britain’s role in all this. If they go for the Federal option, can Britain have no obligations in that scenario? Presumably we would never join?

* Will Europe accept democracy? And will Germany accept the role of a kind of New York in a Federal set-up where they constantly send money to Alabama but have a sense of democratic solidarity? Would need a Europe-wide movement along the lines Vanis has proposed which all of Britain has largely ignored.

* What happens if Europe/Germany does not accept democracy?……

* Can we have an industrial policy under the current set-up? What about under the next one?

* Can there be bigger central transfers to ease the burden on migration as a kind of “integration fund”?

* There is a larger political economy of immigration where free marketeers simply look at pretty basic economic models. The fact is that Britain is a rich country but the two most obvious signs of immigration into Britain for many people is depressed wages at the bottom and higher house prices at the top (as well as more people and rapidly changing local communities). Now, if working class Brits could retrain quickly, be supported as they rise up the value chain, see lower prices while not noticing strains on public services, higher house prices etc then I think immigration would be a lot more popular. But for those who favour immigration in Britain, the progressive wing of UK politics has to take the concerns of working people seriously. It’s not enough to simply denounce them all as racists (although racists have used the issue for their own ends). That means coming up with solutions, safeguards, and political responses to economic dislocations. Liberals long read Polanyi who talked about the “double movement” where rapid economic change demanded commensurate political protections- why do we not take this lesson when it comes from working-class white Brits? The free movement of labour is just as revolutionary as the rapid freeing in capital and people being thrown off of land.

* How do we close the democratic deficit  in the EU anyway? We have enough problems with political engagement in the UK. Where are the proposals for reform?

* The longer-term issues of creating a European demos and the problem of language has been a classic of political theory for a while. Can an imagined community with a multiplicity of different languages long endure (cf Gellner)? Or are exogenous shocks likely to cleave it apart (cf the Freedom party winning elections)? Or does secular stagnation and a flatlining economy for working people mean that all institutions will eventually be swept away out of disgust at economic conditions?

I think calling it a multinational forum where occasionally people standardize product guidelines for freer trade is a little disingenuous. It’s much more than that. Which could be exciting- with the right model and commitment- or terrible- with the wrong one or half a commitment. The worst thing: no one wants to talk about the medium- to long-run. It’s all “good for jobs” vs. “oooh, foreigners”. I am not sure the “Remain” campaign is the one Jean Monet would have run….”


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