Can Europe Make It?

The radical left case for leaving the EU

Our support of Leave wishes to urgently engage with an unconditional polemic against an increasingly centralized EU, an inherently authoritarian political and economic structure which is beyond rectification from within.

Sofia Zisi Michael Theodosiadis
14 June 2016
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George Osborne campaigning for Remain in Belfast. Niall Carson/PAimages. All rights reserved.As the 23rd of June is fast approaching, the dilemma of the EU referendum in Britain revolves around the concept of European integration versus national sovereignty, with both camps being inadequately convincing.

When the change of political paradigm one envisages is a version of civic republicanism which aspires to direct democracy, both nationalism and Europeanism/globalization prove to be feeble answers to the impasses of contemporary political and economic neoliberalism.

Our points of criticism in regards to the available options are discussed below.

Leave: a lost direction

Although this is where our preference lies, we need to acknowledge that the major fault of Leave is the fact that it has been taken over by nationalist elitism. The main stake among the supporters of Leave is not an independence that would create a political space for citizens to think, act and formulate their own ideas about the society they want to live in.

In fact, pro-Leave public opinion in Britain adopts the arguments of the governing and ruling groups, who want to maintain the myth and political reality of Britain as a great center of power. Thus, competition in industry and world-wide economic domination are integral parts of the Leave argument, an obnoxious jingoistic attitude which has nothing to do with the reasons the authors of this article support independence (of any country or body politic) from the EU.

Some influential British figures (like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage) are articulating a discourse based on the alliance between the mob and the capital (to use the concept elaborated by Hannah Arendt by which she described the reasons for the expansion of the Pan-movements); a concord between what the depoliticized masses desire (the illusion of national greatness, even at the expense of their own welfare) and the policies promoted by the oligarchs (the maximization of the exploitative capacities of what is left of British "greatness"). 

The empty signifier "take back control", which constitutes the main slogan of the Leave camp, does not address another important question: who takes control and how do they make use of it?

There is a tacit agreement that the government will take this control and will somehow provide (or not provide) for the population. This is a far cry from the precise answers that are necessary to the question of the control of political power.

The basic categorization of the political systems introduced by Aristotle (Monarchy - power of the one, Oligarchy - power of the few, Democracy - power of the demos) is not taken at face value by modern political thought and theory; consequently, there is a generalized and profound lack of discussion regarding the distribution of power in society.

The result of this is a gross misuse of fundamental political concepts such as autonomy and democracy: everyone thinks we are living in a democracy (albeit in an incomplete form), and (almost) no one is willing to associate it with anything more than universal suffrage and a few more liberal rights.

Hence, an utterly false conception is built around the Leave campaign, claiming that independence from the EU will automatically strengthen democracy, while it is more than evident that power will continue being unequally distributed across the population of Britain if the masses insist on political apathy. 

Remain: illusions and reality

The Remain camp mostly consists of supporters of the Labour Party, the Greens, and the centrist blocks. These forces claim that a withdrawal from the EU will possibly strengthen the Tories and will render the National Healthcare System (NHS), the universities and the welfare state vulnerable to their austerity policies.

On the one hand, this argument lacks historical validity since it ignores that the welfare state in Britain was not built thanks to the country's membership in the EU. In fact, the NHS and the welfare state are products of constant popular struggles for social and economic equality.

On the other hand, when many supporters of the Left (more precisely of the Labour Party and the DiEM25 movement) employ the survival of the NHS as a Remain argument, they are exhibiting a great deal of elitism, since they indirectly advocate that the people of Britain are incapable of building a fair society beyond austerity without some protection from such a supranational superstructure as the EU, which they simultaneously recognize as democratically deficient.

Furthermore, as Mary Kaldor stressed in the DiEM conference in London, the British deep state and the imperialist imaginary (which is diffused within the Leave campaign, precisely because the Left has completely abandoned euroscepticism, which led to the exploitation of empty signifiers such as "national independence" by the aggressive domestic right) will make Britain "a very nasty authoritarian neoliberal country" in case of a Brexit.

Such demeaning statements reveal the elitist and demophobic attitude of the liberal left, which considers the ordinary citizens of Britain unworthy to build a democratic country and reject the authoritarianism of Westminster without the guidance of father figure superstructures and politically correct politicians. 

At the same time, the main concern of the British Left is the maintenance of the freedom of movement, according to which foreign nationals have the right to live and work in the country without restrictions. Their reluctance to sacrifice some privileges the EU has given to European citizens, makes them adopt a symmetrical approach, by supporting the freedom of movement of labour, while at the same time they profess to oppose austerity.

Although austerity in Britain has not been imposed by the EU per se, they refuse to acknowledge that Britain within the EU will face enormous challenges in case the country attempts to implement a different fiscal policy. Furthermore, the austerity policies applied by the EU in the European South, particularly in Greece, Cyprus and Spain - policies characterized as neocolonial - are much more brutal than the ones imposed by the Tories, as Yanis Varoufakis (the founder of the DiEM 25) has said.

Hence, reluctance to break with the EU, and the adherence of the freedom of movement as a sine qua non of cosmopolitanism and instrumental anti-nationalism, is in fact a defence of neocolonialism, and masks the jingoistic tendencies of the German and the Benelux oligarchs. 

Additionally, the Labour Party together with the social democratic centre-left blocks are conceived that a superstructure such as the EU is the appropriate means in order to rid Europe of cleavages and ethnic hatred, resorting even to indiscriminately naming and shaming their opponents as "racist", once they start arguing in favour of the dissolution of the EU.

The exaggerated labeling of all eurosceptic voices as "xenophobic" masks the outright racist stance of the EU against Greece, Cyprus and Portugal, a racism fueled by social Darwinism and reflected in the propaganda about the "lazy and bankrupt Greeks/southerners".

In fact, anti-Hellenism and social Darwinism have been bridged by the instrumentality of the euro-austerity, building a discourse that echoes the nineteenth century colonialist European imaginary, which relied on 'scientific' race-thinking, the official discourse of the European bourgeoisie, aiming to justify imperialism. 

Neutrality and the price of European integration

At first sight what is common in both campaigns is that the utilitarian aspect of the arguments prevails, and this becomes obvious by the Referendum leaflets that have been circulating in the last few weeks.

Both Remain and Leave use vague keywords and signifiers which resonate deeply in the ideological make-up of a large part of the British population: terrorism, immigration, economic policy. Both camps attempt to stress their capacity to better control these issues if their own policies are implemented.

Most of the British are convinced that what they need to do to maintain "our prosperity" is make "our industry" more competitive, be in charge of "our resources" and have "our own government" decide about the laws and regulations. However, no debate exists on the identity of this "our". Who is included in this collectivity that the "our" is supposed to signify? Do the British "industry", "prosperity", "resources" and "government" really belong to the community of the voters?

The lack of self-examination on this issue by those who subscribe to this rhetoric is not surprising, considering the poverty of contemporary political thought in Britain and worldwide. What is particular about the British case is, as mentioned above, the emphasis on utilitarian or technocratic demands, and the complete absence of anthropological and cultural concerns.

The British are not asking themselves what kind of society they want to live in, and whether there is a need for changes in the prevailing social and cultural institutions, in the existing anthropological types, and in the of ways of living (and not of lifestyle). If this kind of inquiry seems out of reach for the majority of the population, it is absent even in a seminal form which would allow small nuclei of public discussion to exist and survive, a process which we saw happening during the Scottish and Greek referendums (despite obvious problems in the conduct of those referendums).

Nonetheless, we have to stress that abstention is not an option. The neutrality adopted by certain socialists who maintain that "there is no difference between a capitalist UK being in or out of a capitalist EU" enhances escapism, and refuses to engage with the current political reality.

This 'false-dilemma' argument promoted by many anarchist and Marxist sects conceals a reluctance to confront the hot issues here and now, and a type of idolatrous fascination with ideological puritanism (we want pure socialism or nothing), or an existential adherence to certain liberal/left-wing lifestyle tenets, such as cosmopolitanism, instrumental anti-nationalism, utopian solidarity, and Marxist revolutionary anti-capitalism.

Although we would consider as ideal a social and political transformation towards civic republicanism, direct democracy and civic humanism, against sterile nationalism or autocratic Europeanism, at the same time we have to accept that such a narrative is nowhere to be found. Neither is a socialist discourse emerging anywhere in Europe, so that there can be a 'third way' by June 23.

The left-leaning approach (endorsed by the DiEM25 movement and other left of center proponents), which suggests that even a left-wing EU withdrawal will strengthen nationalism and a possibly fascism (according to the Syriza Finance Minister Euclid Tsakalotos), and which promotes the building of alliances with left-wing forces across Europe in order to challenge, reform and replace the EU superstructure, has been already tested in Greece, leading to a total catastrophe.

At the same time, (as we have stressed elsewhere) the EU is a direct consequence of the capitalist development itself. To be more precise, capital in order to expand needs to transgress borders and geopolitical constraints, leading to the concentration of powers into a transnational ultra-centralized superstructure.

Thus the (albeit unsatisfactory) body politic of the nation state is marginalized, while civic nationalism (that is, the common world which used to provide a certain meaning) gradually declines. The new emerging identity is one that is appropriate to the newly created superstructure, addressing the populations not as French, Germans, Italians etc, but as European citizens.

Nonetheless, the European identity is a vague signifier, since it is premised on the fusion of twenty-eight different nations, with disparate customs, history, languages (and internal subdivisions which further amplify variations), a hodgepodge of multiple features that could hardly constitute a precise attachment.

Hence, the determination of what European culture/identity is, becomes an impossible task, as opposed to the less complex imaginary meanings of single nation-states. What the liberal left has utterly failed to acknowledge is that the deconstruction of civic nationalism was not about bringing harmony and trans-European solidarity.

As Hannah Arendt elaborated in the Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), the weakening of European nation-states during the inter-war period resulted in the traumatic collapse of civic institutions. At the same time, substitute nationalisms emerged - racist, supra-national, tribal, deeply anti-Semitic, aggressive and highly authoritarian - led to the rise of totalitarian regimes, to the outbreak of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

In our age, European integration (as aforementioned), has not only failed to create solidarity bonds among the European people (according to the liberal or post-90s left-wing vision), but has further led to the intensification of cleavages, whilst the outbreak of the financial crisis and the inability of the highly centralized European institutions to tackle the catastrophic hyperinflation of debt and prevent the expected onslaught of poverty, gives the final blow.

The end of civic (or else state) nationalism fostered the emergence of new nationalisms (as substitute forms of attachment) accompanied by rampant Islamophobia, anti-Hellenism, xenophobia and ethnic (white) nationalism (particularly in Eastern Europe).

Additionally, the decline of the nation-state, in view of European integration and globalization has not liberated man from a centralized authoritarian apparatus. It has destroyed the body politic, inasmuch as the right 'to have rights' is gradually fading away, since power is removed from the nation to supranational technocratic institutions. 

Concluding remarks 

Our support of Leave wishes to urgently engage with an unconditional polemic against an increasingly centralized EU, an inherently authoritarian political and economic structure which is beyond rectification from within. At the same time, the Leave we advocate is clearly not in alliance or concord with nationalism of all kinds.

However, our strong objections to the three available options (Leave, Remain, and Abstention), do not allow us to refrain from taking an active stance on this matter: momentum must be gained against global power politics and in favour of the transference of decision-making power to the people.

Even if we consider that this people, at this time and place, is not fully capable of living up to its responsibility towards political, social and cultural emancipation, even if its motives do no coincide with our idea of democratic, humanist politics, we still maintain that it is most appropriate that they carry the weight and face the consequences of their political choices.

In case Brexit wins, will Britain end up a nasty authoritarian state, or will it shift towards socialism (which the EU abhors)? This lies entirely in the hands of the British people. 

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