Neither National nor International: Notes against Europe - Ben Lear

Ben Lear argues that we must avoid both defending the European project and slipping into nationalism. Anti-capitalist politics can't be reduced to a defence of a geographical territory or reformist politics such as the Tobin tax. Originally published in September 2010.

This article seeks to critically discuss our movement’s relationship with the European Union in its entirety. Many on the Left of capital, whilst critical of Fortress Europe and its lack of political accountability, are generally positive about the EU and see it as playing a progressive role in national, continental and global politics. This article will focus on those who are supportive of the EU project as this position accounts for large amounts of those on the reformist Left. This does not mean that parts of the Left are not critical of the EU in its perceived entirety as well as its specific manifestations, such as migration control. The NO2EU campaign, backed by the RMT union, which offered “left-led opposition to the Euro super state” during the last European Parliament elections, is one example of left wing anti-EU politics. However, the similarities between this form of anti-EU politics and the anti-EUism of right wing parties such as the BNP and UKIP are alarming. Indeed the commonalities between far right and left wing positions demonstrate the need for an explicitly anti-national as well as anti-capitalist position.

The Strange Bedfellows of a New Europa

Europe as an idea and a scale of political organisation is not a natural phenomenon. Its perceived borders and characteristics have been produced, and contested, through the actions and ideas of many, often disparate, groups, individuals and organisational actors over a long period of time. The political community of the EU is being continually produced and reaffirmed by a host of physical and political processes. In the same way that the British or Spanish states did not exist as we know them today before a deliberate project was launched to build them, (replete with national dishes, outfits and anthems), this is the same with Europe. The political ideas which shape the direction the EU takes are being produced simultaneously alongside its policies. As anti-authoritarians we must begin to unpack the host of arguments for and against the EU, from both the left and the right of the political spectrum, before we can begin to take meaningful action against it. Whilst the No Border network and those organising around the EU Stockholm Programme’s plans for increased integration of EU security architecture are notable exceptions, many on the radical Left have not yet begun to develop an understanding of the new political terrain that European integration reveals. This is particularly true for many of us here in Britain. Indeed NO2EU may be one of the only attempts at formulating a coherent EU position from any actor that can be deemed vaguely on the Left. For many of us involved in anti-capitalist movements here in the UK, the EU just isn’t an issue at the moment.

Many commentators on both the Left and Right of the political spectrum see Europe as a counter-balance to rampant global capitalism and undemocratic elements. In these arguments Europe is seen as embodying the legacy of the Enlightenment and a blueprint for other societies to follow. Democracy, peace and systems of state welfare are frequently mentioned. Indeed, in the wake of the Iraq war “old Europe” was seen as a potential counter-balance to American militarism, whilst at the start of the financial crisis the social welfare model of capitalism prevalent in some parts of Europe was held up as a better model than the “casino capitalism” of other states, America in particular.

Famous leftwing academic Antonio Negri came out in support of the recent EU constitution, arguing that it provided a counter-balance to American-led globalisation:

The (European) constitution is a means of fighting Empire, this new globalised capitalist society. Europe has the chance of being a barrier against the “pensée unique” of economic unilateralism: capitalist, conservative, reactionary. But Europe can also construct a counter-power against American unilateralism, its imperial domination, its crusade in Iraq to dominate petrol. The United States has understood this well, and has, since the 1950s, fought like a madman against European construction.

Indeed support for the supposedly benevolent, enlightened EU is common among many who would place themselves within the Left. Europe is seen as an example of an alternative, socially responsible form of capitalism at odds with the predatory capitalism of the US. As Rob Augman argued in the first issue of Shift Magazine there are similarities between certain alter-globalist positions and those emerging from the far right. In the vision of a benevolent Europe of peoples these similarities are once again apparent.

Many that support the EU project utilize other aspects of what is selectively chosen as the European heritage. Over the past decades we have witnessed the far right move away from positions focused on racial identity to more cultural forms of exclusionism. Philosophers such as Alain de Benoist, the “terza posizione” (third position) of Roberto Fiore and political groups such as the British National Party are prominent examples of this move away from racial exclusion to ultra-nationalist populism based upon ideas of culture. Every cultural group needs an “Other” with which to compare itself, against which to define the boundaries of itself. In Europe in the past decade we have seen the rise of a strong populist movement against Islam. Throughout the EU Islam is being portrayed as this Other, as something alien and incompatible with what are increasingly being seen as the characteristics of Europe; namely democracy, secularism and human rights. Across Europe the far right, who in the main have moved away from explicitly racist positions are now beginning to develop strong anti-Islam positions exemplified by Geert Wilders in Holland and the English Defence League. These positions, which variously criticise Islam or its militant Islamist interpretation, focus on some of the anti-democratic and oppressive features of specific forms of Islam and argue they are incompatible with European ideals. The veil in particular has become a key area of struggle with France’s national assembly voting to ban it, parts of Northern Italy banning it and several other countries such as Belgium discussing a ban. In defining what is anti-European, a European identity is being formed.

This is a form of exclusionism not explicitly based on racial prejudice but on the perceived failure of Islam to adhere to what are seen to be European characteristics. Rather than being a characteristic of the far right this hostility towards Islam is becoming a part of the political centreground. As well as being seen as the site of a more “humane” form of capitalism, Europe is also seen as the beacon of freedom and democracy. This has led many within the right to portray Europe as being in conflict with “Islamo-fascism”. This discourse is making its way into mainstream public debates. The European project is an inherently exclusive one, it is interesting that support for this project comes from both the moderate left and right of the political spectrum.

Whilst many support the EU project, there are also those that do not. As already discussed with regards to the NO2EU campaign these movements recognize that even by current standards the EU is an undemocratic institution. However, in their attempts to tap into the financial crisis by appealing to populist anti-banker sentiment, these very same movements often argue that Europe is run by and for the bankers. This is a worrying regression to conspiracy theories in which mysterious bankers pull the political strings in order to ensure maximum profits. Indeed those on the Left arguing for a Europe of peoples rather than bankers and the necessity of a European Populism share an interesting discursive similarity with many on the far right who also see Europe as under threat from rampant speculative capital. Meanwhile, those not calling for the revision and democratisation of Europe, such as British anti-EU parties such as the BNP and UKIP, seek a return to national politics, a regime that has been more systemically discredited by the Left. The new political battleground appears to be distinctly European.

Neither National, Nor International

Whether pro or anti-EU the positions we have looked at so far share the same shortcomings: false perspectives on capitalism and therefore false solutions which will be unsuccessful at best or exclusionary and oppressive at worst. Both of these positions base their economic analysis on the premise of an outside or foreign predatory capital, often financial in nature, and propose an internal, tangible economy as a solution. This distinction between fictitious, rampant finance and tangible, honest work is inaccurate and dangerous. Capital, when expressed as money and circulated within the financial system, is but one moment of the capital-labour relation. To distinguish between the financial and the productive economy, i.e. the production of things and services, fails to recognize the totality of the system. Whilst finance capital may be the purest expression of value production, it is the production and consumption of commodities in the “real” economy which produces the capital which flows through the finance system. This distinction serves to insulate the capital relationship from criticism and divert it towards calls for a Tobin tax or the nationalisation of the banks instead. Capitalism isn’t a conspiracy run by a cabal of fat cat bankers nor is it the imperialist project of the USA. Those that see it as such have a foreshortened critique of capitalism. Our critique can not be about the “excesses” but the totality. The true secret of society, the real power that drives it, is not that of a secret elite ruling in the shadows, but rather the social relationships that we enter into every day. We make capitalism. To exit capitalism does not entail outing the bankers/Bilderbergers/lizards but in developing ways in which humans can live outside of the value relation. Attempts at curbing the power of finance capital are reformist at best.

Support for the EU is not and can not be considered an anti-capitalist position. It is important to recognize that the social welfare model that EU supporters applaud was the outcome of the struggles of workers movements and was a solution to falling rates of profit. Indeed, it looks likely that solutions to the current financial crisis will involve cuts and state led austerity rather than the production deals of the sixties and seventies. Globally, the next decade looks likely to see the costs of this recent crisis socialised in order to guarantee a stable environment for future rounds of growth. Europe, with its history of state intervention and socialised welfare, appears in a strong position to force through the seemingly necessary cuts. During the Greek uprisings “we are an image of the future” was a common slogan daubed on walls and across banners, unfortunately this statement has been proven correct in an unintended way. The austerity drives being implemented in Greece in order to satisfy bail out conditions is likely to become a common feature throughout Europe. In Slavoj Zizeks book “First as Tragedy, then as Farce” he suggests that, in the context of the collapse of the neo-liberal project, future political conflict will be between socialism, or socialised capitalism, and communism. We cannot support the “enlightened” capitalism of Europe; it must be rejected as fiercely as the neo-liberal project. As the EU becomes the scale at which capital becomes organised, so our resistance must be upscaled.

The supporters of Europe vary in their reasoning and rationale, whether seeing it as a bulwark against ‘Islamo-fascism’ or a defence against predatory financial capitalism, their arguments rest on shaky ground. The EU is a political structure that is emerging to help manage both capital and populations. As austerity measures are pushed through the necessity of an integrated security apparatus will become more evident. The Stockholm Programme is the latest EU wide attempt at integrating the currently national security systems of its member states. This will inter-lock with the EU’s integrated migration management system. The up-scaling of specific state functions is a necessary response to the demands of contemporary capitalism.

Neither here nor there

As anti-capitalists therefore, we must resist the EU. The EU is not and can never be an anti-capitalist structure. This rejection can not fall into a foreshortened critique of finance capital or slip into the chauvinism of nationalists. We must embody a third position which is neither national nor inter-national. Our critique is not geographical, about where the borders of our political community should lie, nor is it technical, about the forms in which the domination of capital over life will take place.

In “At the Borders of Europe” Etienne Balibar suggests that “Europe is for us first of all the name of an unresolved political problem”. Whilst for Balibar these questions are geographical and entwined with the politics of citizenship for any movement which seeks to supersede capital we must produce a new answer. Europe, perhaps, is the reformulation of an old problem. That problem is capital. We must be wary about getting sidetracked into discussing the management of capital. Our solution will not be geographical, or technical, but a political one in which we collectively search for an exit from the capital relation. The future battleground for Europe will not be on its militarised borders, nor will its opponents be “foreign” capital. Europe’s real antagonists must be us and the movements which we form.

"Ben Lear is an editor of Shift Magazine."