Reforming the unreformable?
The left, the crisis and the EU
by Martin Hall
When Mark Fisher wrote in 2009 that there was ‘a widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it’, he could not have had in mind the long march through the EU’s institutions favoured by DiEM25, and to a lesser extent, Another Europe is Possible (AEIP), the pressure group set up to argue for a left remain position in the UK Brexit referendum of 2016.
Nevertheless, the extent to which the dream of reforming the EU from within functions as a form of defeatism, rooted in a capitalist realism that beset sections of the left in the wake of the end of the Cold War, is instructive. Furthermore, the positions taken by both groups must be seen from within the context of the current manifestation of the crisis, set in train by the collapse of the US subprime mortgage market and the consequent crisis of international banking in 2008 and the hollowing out of the political centre that has been its delayed effect during these last few years.
The rise of parties of the right throughout Europe and the world, allied to the rise (and failure, in some cases) of parties of the left, suggests that the grand narratives thought buried under capitalist realism at the end of history are actually alive and well. With this in mind, let us initially consider the efficacy of the ‘remain and reform’ position espoused by both groups, paying particular attention to its limitations.
Remain and reform: Variations on a theme
DiEM25’s 2015 manifesto correctly identifies the problems with the institution: a democratic deficit; a common currency that divides, not unifies; enforced austerity in the name of competition; bureaucracy and a culture of lobbyism; technocracy and the Troika; increasing authoritarianism, and so on. However, despite clearly implying that these problems are structural and therefore that any strategy of systemic transformation would require clear tactics, the remainder of the document contains nothing more than a series of demands, with no clear idea of how they are to be actualised.
AEIP, on the other hand, while supported by DiEM25, is a less ambitious project, and not simply because it was conceived with a specific goal in mind: to keep the UK in the EU. Its website and campaigns do not place the same level of demand upon the EU to reform, instead leaving that to one side for an unspecified time in the future. It is perhaps more of a popular front than DiEM25. That being said, there are similarities in their published pieces.
For example, Niccolò Milanese, in a discussion of the EU’s neoliberal form in AEIP’s pamphlet, The Left Against Brexit, suggests that ‘while the overall trajectory is clear, it would be a huge exaggeration to suppose that the EU is intrinsically neoliberal, or that leftist forces and ideas have had no influence in it at all.’ He then proceeds to make the case that this leftist influence can be felt in the veneer of rights existing in the institution, despite many of them having much earlier origins in trade union struggle. Little is said regarding how the EU can actually be reformed; specifically, how this would be possible in the only state-like entity in the world that has free market capitalism enshrined at treaty level and in which the direction of travel from Delors’ social Europe to neoliberalism is clear. Instead, criticisms of Lexit positions are proffered, as they are with DiEM25, amounting to little more than uncontextualised re-readings of old arguments concerning the difficulty of socialism in one country.
However, the Lexit argument as evinced in the UK and elsewhere is not for socialism in one country. It is, in the first instance, for what can be achieved by a radical reforming government from outside of the EU; specifically, free from capital’s freedom of establishment, and the extent to which this can function as an example to the left across the continent. Costas Lapavitsas recently referred to how a Corbyn-led government in a post-Brexit UK ‘could signal the emergence of a radical internationalism that would draw on domestic strength and reject the dysfunctional and hegemonic structures of the EU’. This may lead to a new union of nations totally distinct from the EU. What it will not lead to, though, is an organisation that is in any way comparable to the one currently existing.
Regardless of the origins of the referendum in Tory divisions on Europe, the Lexit argument is necessary, as history does not always occur in the order in which people would like it to; so the 2016 referendum had to be grasped as an opportunity. Of course, the right wing arguments for leave were hegemonic during the referendum, which in their majority form simply presented two battling wings of capitalism: one global and supranational; and one national, harking back to Britain’s imperial past. Arguments made by AEIP that Brexit is a hard right Tory project tout court are not predicated upon the balance of forces, though, but upon seeking to disavow the left base for leaving.
Why is this the case, then? All the left want a socialist Europe and a socialist world. Why are the tactics designed to achieve this so contradictory? In the dialectic of theory and practice that is intrinsic to socialist activity, it seems to be the case that something is missing. I want to suggest that this is faith in a transformative socialist paradigm and that this can be understood as an effect of Fisher’s concept, which has led to a position where the concrete situation is being misunderstood. Before considering this further, let us look at this situation, and why wholesale reform of the EU is unachievable.
Contours of a hegemonic order
The EU is still in legislative and organisational terms a confederation of nation states, and would require a majority of countries to move leftwards in order to create a left bloc to amend or overturn the treaties. Conceptually, the belief that this is possible assumes a neutrality in the EU’s structure that is simply not there. This is particularly the case within the Eurozone, with its swingeing fiscal discipline, favouring of monetary factors, reliance on fiat money and architectural flaws that benefit the export economy of one state: Germany. Attempts to break with EU fiscal discipline, particularly in countries with governments from outside of the neoliberal centre, are met with the strongest opposition.
Of course, there are the well-known barriers to state aid and nationalisation, which are inextricably linked to the democratic deficit at the heart of the project. A quick internet search will provide the reader with plenty of quotes from senior EU figures regarding the disparity between the will of the demos and the aims of the institution.
This has all taken place in the context of the hollowing out of representation that occurred in the neoliberal era of late capitalism, where until recently voters were simply given a choice between nominally right and left versions of the same economic model: as the Hayekian economic policy pushed so strongly by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in the UK and by similar parties elsewhere became hegemonic, it was followed by a similar process regarding the social liberalism pushed by Clintonite parties, itself accepted by the centre right throughout the continent. This is the model that has been disrupted so markedly by the crisis, even if it took a little longer than might have been expected.
This brings us back to capitalist realism and its relationship to faith in the EU as a potential instrument for social democracy and even, in the case of DiEM25, socialism. While the paragraph above can only provide a glimpse into the institution’s workings, it does strongly suggest that the dream of left reform is for the birds.
A left departure from capitalist realism
The reason why capitalist realism should no longer, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, be the cultural logic of our time, is that the model set in train by Richard Nixon’s unpegging of the US dollar from gold in 1971, the subsequent breaking up of the Bretton Woods system and following that, the Yom Kippur War and the oil crisis brought about by the embargo of October 1973, is so clearly in crisis. These events began a fight back by capital against labour in an attempt to reverse the relative gains made by the working class in Western democracies to varying degrees throughout the century.
However, since the crisis of 2008 governments of the centre which propose a neoliberal business as usual are becoming few and far between. There is no doubt that the right is currently gaining more quickly than the left from the situation, with various Bonapartist figures in and out of Europe taking power and presenting themselves as anti-establishment and insurgent. The question then becomes how the left responds to this new threat.
Reform of institutions, at a time when forces of the right are arguing for ruptures, will not cut it. Instead, left parties and movements must disentangle themselves from the suffocating effect of capitalist realism via programmes that engage fully with the needs of the people, and do not tell them that there is no alternative to their imposed penury. If they do not, then other forces that wear the clothes of anti-capitalism will continue to rise, aided and abetted by capitalism’s anti-leftism, which is always stronger than its anti-fascism.
About the author: Martin Hall is a writer and activist. He is a member of Counterfire, Stop the War Coalition and University and College Union.