Lexit: The biggest unicorn of them all

Lexiters who portray the EU as mostly underpinned by Hayekian neoliberalism have got it wrong, writes Paul Walsh.

Paul Walsh
18 January 2019

Image: NikkiJW/Flickr, CC 2.0

Grace Blakeley writing in the New Statesman fires her guns at the EU, the bogeyman of Britain’s right and left for a generation, and calls for Lexit as the radical left policy of choice.

But is the picture she gives an accurate view of the EU as it was, is, or can be? And is the Lexit she presents even possible?

Of course, she’s right to point out the crimes of neoliberal mafia don Friedrich Hayek Corleone, as well as his ideas. As far back as 1939 Hayek wrote that a future “interstate federation” could remove the “impediments” relating to the movement of people, goods, and capital between states, and serve the goal of making peace.

But it would be a mistake to say that Godfather Hayek’s red-blooded neoliberalism has ever been implemented by the EU, as there are simply too many variables, or governments, to contend with. Think of the dirigiste tendencies of the French or the social-welfare commitments of the Scandinavians. A neoliberal utopia has simply never arrived.

And Hayek, never afraid of sitting on the fence, was ambiguous about supranational federations himself. In his 1944 book The Road to Serfdom he claimed it would be difficult to “preserve democracy” if power and decision-making were to “rest with an organisation far too big for the common man to survey or comprehend”, a critique Brexiters and Lexiters have taken to heart.

Far from being the “intellectual godfather” who “heavily influenced the creation of what became the European single market” as Blakeley claims, the EU’s early history was steered not by the ideas of Hayek but its “father” Jean Monnet, for whom "common action" on common problems was simply a way to peace through integration, as opposed to disintegration through war.

Monnet saw the proto-EU as a way for governments to pool sovereignty in limited ways, in specific sectors. This would then, it was believed, generate 'spillover' effects such as increased loyalty by elites. The Monnet-inspired Schuman Declaration of 1950, which first proposed the pooling of coal and steel production, was clear: “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.” Integration would lead national governments to lay down their arms in return for economic security. The national Barzinis and Corleones would finally be at peace.

This specific form of integration has often drawn criticism from neoliberals rather than agreement. As noted in Quinn Slobodian’s book Globalists: The End of Empire and the Birth of Neoliberalism, German neoliberal Wilhelm Röpke condemned the EEC as a protectionist bloc shielded from global competition. What he and other “universalist” thinkers wanted was a global system "encased by universal norms and upheld by inter-state cooperation". For them, Europe was a mere stopping place to a grid of rules guaranteeing the free flow of capital. Aspects of the EEC machine, such as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) were anti-competitive heresy to their ears.

In contrast, ‘unreformable’ is the critique thrown at the EU by the left. But this doesn’t explain how Nigel Farage and other Brexiteers leveraged EU institutions to gain power and hoover up EU cash; it doesn’t explain why the far-right sees the European Parliament as a beach-head for reconstituting nationalist mafias – while getting paid for doing it. And it doesn’t explain why staunch EU critic Yanis Varoufakis is running for the EU parliament this year on a platform of radical change.

So yes, a critique of the EU has its place; the days of ‘More Europe’ to answer every problem are surely gone. But if Lexiters had adopted the same fatalism about the Labour Party that they clearly hold for the EU – then how would Jeremy Corbyn, Momentum and the radical left revival ever have happened? And how does the Lexit–Brexit offer of ‘More Nation’ give us anything more?

Laying Europe aside, the other issue is what Blakeley calls the “confrontation” between “capital and labour”; something inevitable under a transition to socialism. And she’s right about this. The day will come when the left will need to say what it intends to do, and do what it intends to do, to fight the most rapacious form of capitalism the world has known.

But taking the fight to capital involves an organised working class—not a battered working class. Take a walk around towns in the Midlands and the North and you’ll see the result of decades of neglect: hollowed out towns and lives which no amount of magical thinking can fix.

Brexit offered the public three wishes: you can take back control of your money, your borders, and your laws. Lexit does much the same with a socialist twist. Offering little more than dreams, both sides fail to realise that in an interconnected world, you can’t take back control without giving something up.

Without a proper account of the EU’s complexity and origins, the Lexiter position tends to fall into a self-made abyss of misunderstanding. And without having the class power to back up its position, a Lexit – just like Brexit – may condemn the UK to perpetual autarky and possible disintegration.

That’s why from all the unicorns available, the Lexit unicorn may be the biggest of them all.

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