Posts Tagged ‘socialism’

Remain, revolt, reform: the EU needs policies that tame capitalism and a politics conducive to socialism

The fight for Europe cannot just be a fight against how certain things are done, but also a fight for how they should be done, writes Lea Ypi. This requires changing power relations and power structures, both within states and between them.

The one conclusion on which many seemed to agree after the European elections was that: ‘it’s complicated‘. The far right did what it promised, it increased its vote share, but not to the extent one feared. The left lost ground, except for a few places.

That the scale of the defeat was not quite as spectacular as expected is no reason to be optimistic. It may be more revealing of how much we have normalised the discourse of the right – for example, being told that migrants in need should be left to drown. The centre left is mostly in retreat, and the advances of solidly pro-European parties like the Greens in Germany or like the anti-austerity socialists of Portugal and Spain may be too ephemeral to give us reason to cheer. In the United Kingdom, Labour is at a cross-road: urged to embrace the cause of ‘remain and reform’ or condemn itself to irrelevance for many years to come.

This is a crucial time for the development of an alternative vision of Europe. The old coalitions in the European parliament are broken, and unless the progressive left comes up with a genuinely transformative agenda, that vision will be shaped by the far right. What Europe will be in the future depends on what we say and do about it now. Yet ‘remain and reform’ may be too vague to persuade those who voted for Brexit for a reason in 2016, and arguably voted for the Brexit Party for the same reason in 2019. These reasons are not reducible to a new cosmopolitan versus communitarian cleavage: there is probably more solidarity amongst cleaners of different nationalities than there is amongst bankers. Nor is it about class versus culture. The composition of the working class has changed in recent years but to say that the working classes are now all in places like Wigan just shows you never took the bus to Harlesden. It is also to maintain, implicitly, that the poor can only be ignorant and racist, or that cosmopolitanism makes you outward looking and altruistic. Both claims are plainly false.

Remain versus Leave is not a political cleavage that the progressive left can do anything with: this may explain the dilemma of the Labour Party. But what Brexit offers, and what unites that offer to the project of the nativist right all across Europe is the promise of political agency, the promise of being empowered after decades of political and economic disenfranchisement. One can only be empowered if one knows where power lies. In a world of nation-states, power is coupled with the idea of popular sovereignty. Taking back control means a return to popular sovereignty, to the site where power struggles can be fought and, with sufficiently strong political movements, won. What makes Brexit and the nativist idea of Europe attractive from a left-wing perspective is the promise of restoring sovereignty to the nation-state, thereby also turning it to a site in which even vulnerable people can exercise democratic control, for example by voting against what the establishment is perceived to want.

There are shortcomings to these propositions. One is that we still have not been told what to do about capitalism. But the trouble with the pro-European, critical left is that it abounds in diagnosis and lacks in prescription. A credible progressive movement for remain and reform needs to articulate what ‘reform’ would look like, starting with the obstacles to it in the current structure of the EU. It would also need to indicate a feasible path for how to get from here to there.

This is where it gets properly tricky. ‘Remain and reform’ or the manifesto for Social Europe have been the rallying call of European social democrats for a few years now. There are structural reasons why they have failed, not all reducible to the centre left embrace of capitalism with a human face.

In the nation-state, popular sovereignty may be an ideal but at least we know where power lies. The combination of its executive, judicial, and administrative structures gives us a target and a structure for the fight. In the case of the European Union we have no clue what popular sovereignty consists of, not even in its ideal form.

Plato says in the Republic that democracy is like a constitutional bazaar. People in it have so much freedom that they can choose any other form of rule as the foundation of the state: rule by the people (democracy), rule by the rich (oligarchy), rule by the best (aristocracy) and, when democracy deteriorates, rule by tyrants.

The European Union may not be democratic in the sense in which it aspires to be, indeed the topic of its ‘democratic deficit’ has concerned eurocrats in theory before it began to concern the wider public in practice. Yet the EU comes close to Plato’s definition of a democracy when one looks at its institutional configuration. If you focus on the European Parliament, you have something akin to rule by the people. If you focus on the powers of the European Central Bank you have something resembling rule by the rich. If you focus on the powers of the Commission and of the European Court of Justice you get rule by the best (or in this case, the experts). And if you focus on the powers of the Council you have a cocktail of all of these.

This combination of elements makes the progressive agenda for reforming the EU a particularly challenging one. In the case of the nation-state, the fact that there is sovereignty (at least nominally) makes it possible to locate the site of political power and challenge any particular balance of power relations through the usual democratic channels of political will-formation (elections, the authorisation of representatives, referenda, protests, boycotts, strikes). In the case of the EU, by the very nature of its institutions, none of this is sufficiently entrenched. The only credible way forward is to elaborate progressive policies: a green new deal for Europe, a common European migration policy, a progressive taxation scheme, and so on. But policies without politics, is still politics focused on outcomes at the expense of processes. Agency is still marginalised in favour of structure. Democracy in theory is still likely to lead to tyranny in practice.

This is why it is not enough for the left to have policy ideas if it lacks a movement that fights for those ideas, a collective agent that can own these ideas and a mechanism of democratic will-formation that can be expressive of that agency. It is also why particular proposals for reform will not be enough unless there is an overall European movement that shapes the day-to-day struggles of those who are failed by capitalism (in both its cosmopolitan and nationalistic versions) and that articulates the conflicts they experience within a transformative, left-wing, vision of Europe.

The fight for Europe cannot just be a fight against how certain things are done, but also a fight for how they should be done, not just for policies taming capitalism but for a politics conducive to socialism. Yet fighting for socialism in Europe requires changing both power relations and power structures, both at the level of nation-states and between them. Europe is up for grabs. But given the shape of its institutions, what begins as a mission to ‘remain and reform’ may well end up as ‘remain and revolution’. This is a heroic task. No wonder the left is not ready for it.


Note: a version of the above also appeared in the New Statesman.

About the Author

Lea Ypi (@lea_ypi) is Professor of Political Theory at the London School of Economics and Political Science and co-author of The Meaning of Partisanship.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image: Pixabay.

Class and nation: Labour has consistently failed to offer an alternative to conservative notions of Britishness

The Labour Party has at times been a force for radical change, but has failed to formulate a vision of Britain and Britishness, which could challenge conservative notions of nation and patriotism, writes Eric Shaw.

The profound and dislocating impact of Brexit on the party system has been demonstrated in the starkest way by the recent elections for the European parliament. Not only is the issue obviously in itself of the utmost importance but it has operated as the lightning rod of many pent-up resentments and frustrations: over mass migration, growing ethnic diversity, wage stagnation, housing shortages, straightened public services, and over what it seen as an unresponsive political system. This anger and these grievances have been refracted through a new politics of identity, place, and nationhood, as exemplified in the clamour for Britain to free itself from European shackles and to ‘take back control’.

The politics of identity, place, and nationhood has had a long history. Since the time of Disraeli, the Tories have instinctively understood the mobilising potential of national sentiment and patriotic fervour and forged the notion of the ‘Conservative nation.’ Labour, in contrast, has lagged behind. As Gerry Hassan and myself seek to show in The People’s Flag and the Union Jack, the party’s attitude has been one of uncertainty, ambivalence, and unease. Except for a brief interlude in the 1940s, it failed to formulate an alternative vision of Britain and Britishness which could challenge ‘the Conservative nation’.

This failure has recently become politically much more costly. For a variety of reasons – disputes over immigration, multiculturalism, devolution, European integration – issues of national identity have increasingly pervaded mass political discourse. Long simmering they erupted with the Brexit referendum and its aftermath.

The most obvious impact is to accelerate the corrosion of traditional modes of partisan alignment. Class divisions and left-right distinctions are losing their capacity to structure party preferences in favour of an alternative pattern of societal cleavage, one that revolves around the clash between social liberalism and social conservativism. Social liberals tend to be open-minded, tolerant of immigration and ethnic diversity, and internationally oriented; social conservatives have more authoritarian inclinations, are unhappy with multiculturalism and mass migration, and are nationalistic in outlook.

Reinforcing the social liberal/social divide is another, more novel, one: between people (in England) who define themselves as predominantly British and those who see themselves as principally English.

Until recently Britishness and Englishness tended to be interchangeable terms, both in usage and meaning. This is ceasing to be so. British identifiers tend to be social liberals and favour a civic conception of nationhood, whilst English identifiers are more likely to be social conservatives with a more ethnic conception of nationhood. The two categories also exhibit different sociological traits. The former are younger, more highly educated, and professionally employed; the latter are older, less well-educated, and more likely to employed in clerical and manual jobs. What renders this divide of even greater political significance is that it also corresponds with the Remainer (British) and Leaver (English) fracture.

The growing prominence of the politics of national identity is a phenomenon which Labour, has found difficult to assimilate. The only senior Labour leader so far who has grasped its importance was Gordon Brown. Worried by the intensifying strains on national cohesion by anti-immigrant and xenophobic feelings (and by the rise of Scottish nationalism) he called for a bold ‘progressive Britishness’, which could tap into the country’s outward-looking, enlightened, and liberal traditions. This civic form of Britishness, he declared, could unite the country through a shared vision and values in which the Union Jack would become ‘a flag for all Britain – symbolising inclusion, tolerance and unity’. He warned that if Labour failed to rise to the challenge, a wave of right-wing ethnic nationalism would be unleashed.

But Brown’s progressive Britishness was couched in a rather abstract style, offended some within the party who found any references to patriotism as alienating, and evoked little interest or enthusiasm in the public at large. The timing, also, was unfortunate since his Britishness project was soon totally swamped by the 2008 financial crisis.

Concerned by intensifying anti-immigrant sentiment and mounting support for UKIP, Ed Miliband sought to defuse the danger for Labour by unveiling in 2012 ‘One Nation Labour.’ This was designed to affirm the party’s patriotism, burnish its credentials as a party for all whilst appropriating ground which was seen as conventionally Conservative. But many of Labour’s leaders regarded ‘One Nation Labour’ as little more than a useful slogan, a deft political stratagem, and a headline-grabber, signifying little else. Miliband’s more ambitious agenda was thwarted and ‘One Nation Labour’ soon sank without a trace.

Labour’s ambiguous relationship with Britishness lay unresolved. The new Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, came from a strand of the party (the radical left) which treated all forms of patriotism (except in the third world and Ireland) with distaste and disapproval. He soon showed his indifference to the liturgies and trappings of Britishness by his much-publicised refusal to sing ‘God Save the Queen’ at a remembrance ceremony.

But issues of national identity could not be ducked for. In the aftermath of the 2016 referendum, the party’s electorate was deeply divided between social liberal, British-identifying Remainers, and socially conservative and English-identifying Leavers. Alignments within the party were more complex. A solid majority of both the PLP and the membership (including supporters of the pro-Corbyn ginger group, Momentum) are Remainers and proponents of a second referendum whilst a sizeable minority of centre-right MPs strenuously resist both, primarily for electoral reasons. Corbyn himself and his most senior advisers (such as Seumas Milne) occupy a third position: Brexiteers who oppose the EU for ideological reasons as a capitalist club, membership of which would inhibit radical policies. Their dream appears to be ‘socialism in one country.’

In such circumstances, maintaining party unity would be a formidable task for any leader even one with more political acumen than Corbyn. But his inept political judgments are also the result of his (and his inner circle’s) inability to come to terms with the new politics of identity, place, and culture. The prism through which they apprehend political life is a heavily materialistic one. How people think and behave politically is a product of the objective conditions of class struggle, exploitation, and material deprivation. Little interest is shown in the world of subjective experiences and values. Thus, anti-immigrant sentiment is seen solely as the result of economic factors such as unemployment, low wages stagnation, and expenditure cuts. Issues such as the impact of immigration on neighbourhood cohesion and traditions are ignored.

This adherence to an outdated class model helps explain why Corbyn is cut adrift from the popular mood, especially in the Northern working class. Viewing himself as a lifelong workers’ champion he seems unaware that for many of those he claims to represent he appears as the epitome of the ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ at its most patronising, indifferent, and remote.

The emergence of a strident and often intolerant nationalism is having a deeply destabilising effect on the left’s electorate throughout Europe. It is by no means obvious how it can best be combated but the starting point is to recognise the scale of the problem. This the Corbyn leadership has yet to do.


About the Author

Eric Shaw is an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Stirling.




All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).


Powered by WordPress | Designed by: index backlink | Thanks to insanity workout, car insurance and cyber security