Recently, I was fortunate enough to engage in a brief, interesting discussion online about the EU referendum – rare enough at any time on social media, let alone at a time of such poison in the national political atmosphere. So, before I head off to litter-pick in wellies at Glastonbury, I thought I would take the opportunity to briefly lay out four of the points that were made and my responses to them in more detail. (I would have liked to have gone into greater detail but this will have to do as I have a bag to pack.) Everyone is sick to death of referendum think-pieces – here is mine!
Disclaimer: I am on the Left of the Labour Party, and support much of what the Another Europe is Possible (“radical in”) campaign has argued for.
“Remain’s argument from authority is a logical fallacy”
According to a YouGov survey last week, two-thirds of Leave supporters say it is wrong to rely too much on experts. It came as no surprise. Out leafleting in Stourbridge town centre recently, I was told that not one economist predicted the financial crisis of 2007-08 – “why should we listen to their warnings?” Of course this isn’t true – Ann Pettifor and Steve Keen, to name just two, predicted a crisis. The point is that the political establishment didn’t listen to them because their ideas clashed with the prevailing economic orthodoxy of the early 2000s – deregulation, privatisation and so on. So, instead, they listened to establishment economic voices that were more amenable to their politics.
Somewhere along the line, understandable anger at what Tariq Ali calls the “extreme centre” became confused and conflated with anger at experts in general. The problem is, the experts are not a homogenous bunch – economists at the IMF have only just admitted they got austerity wrong having imposed it across the world, while some left-wing economists and thinkers have been writing critically about the neoliberal project for four decades. During this debate, however, all experts have been tarnished together in a populist upsurge.
On to “remain’s argument from authority is a logical fallacy” – so, just because an authority figure says something doesn’t mean it is true, because authority figures have got it wrong before. The point needs to be made that when you have such overwhelming authority on one side of a debate – including some unusual bedfellows who seldom agree – there is a reason for that.
It is also worth asking – what fills the vacuum left by reason and expertise when this idea is advanced? Dog-whistle politics, hysteria and misinformation – exactly what we have seen from the Leave camp. Indeed, one of the ways the Leave camp has most resembled the populism of Donald Trump in the US is its anti-expert, pro-“silent majority”, pro-“common sense” appeal. At their worst, UKIP and the Tory Right have patently race-baited in the absence of reasoned discussion.
“Voting leave would be an act of solidarity with the Greek people”
This argument, on first consideration, perhaps seems to be one of the better arguments that the more internationally engaged Brexiters have made during the referendum campaign. It is certainly true that the Greek people have been shafted by the troika, and by European instruments directed in the interests of the German state and banks. However, consider the arrogance behind the statement given that actually, despite everything, polls show that the Greek people strongly wish to remain within the European Union. The only exit ever on the cards for the Greek people last year was from the Eurozone, as advocated by former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis.
The EU acted shamefully over Greece, and allowed the capture of its decision making process by a powerful member state acting against a much weaker periphery state. But how would a British exit of the EU change all of this? If anything, if one wishes the UK to wield positive influence in the future, we wouldn’t be able to do so outside of the EU – Germany would be left in an even greater position of dominance with the exit of the second biggest economy in the union, and it could be argued that the EU’s core-periphery imbalance would increase as a result.
The third part of the troika is the IMF, of which we would still be signed up to. (Where is our referendum on that!?) The IMF has dished out Greek-type ultimatums to nations many times before, particularly in the Global South. Would any of that change if we left the EU? The reality is, as Varoufakis argues, that the EU operates as capitalist bodies do in a capitalist world. Leaving wouldn’t change that. Change can only come through uniting and struggling with progressive actors across borders.
N.B. the New Statesman writer Alex Andreou has even come up with a term for Brexiters who tell pro-EU, anti-troika Greeks that their vote is in solidarity with the Greek people: “Brexplaining”!
“The EU is unreformable”
Brexiters seem to be making two arguments that are not compatible– (a) the EU is unreformable, and (b) the EU is unrecognisable from the EEC that we voted for in 1975. Well, which one is it? Has it and can it change, or hasn’t it and isn’t it able to?
From the perspective of the Left, wishing for progressive reform of the EU, it certainly is a slog. The EU is a big, bureaucratic organisation that was formed to serve the interests of European capital. However, unlike the IMF, the WTO, et al, it has a social component, and one that – with the multitude of political and economic crises that have arisen – will increasingly come into conflict with its market element. This provides a real opportunity for reform along progressive lines, and the development of pan-European Left movements like DiEM25, in addition to the success of radical parties such as Podemos in Spain, are encouraging. We need to engage along those lines.
“The European Union causes nationalism”
Firstly, it is worth remembering that the EU has contributed to the denationalising of a continent that has been torn apart by nationalism on more than one occasion. Since WWII, conflicts in Europe have only taken place outside of the EU. Of course there are other reasons for this too, but the EU has played a big role in binding the interests of nation states and increasing co-operation. It has also fostered a sense – albeit sometimes a messy sense – of European demos.
The more recent rise of nationalism, identity, reaction and so on are global phenomena, primarily related to the inadequacies of the post-crisis economic settlement. How did we get here? A centrist convergence around neoliberal economic ideas began in the nineteen-eighties and gathered pace from the end of the Cold War up until the crash. During this period, we saw new nationalist forces emerge in Europe (and around the world) that challenged the centre from the right, capitalising on the failures of prevailing orthodoxies – UKIP in the UK for example, Jobbik in Hungary, et al. By the time of the economic crisis, many of these parties had modest but solid bases – the crisis then provided fertile ground for them to surge, exploiting tensions and grievances. History tells us that the centre cannot defeat such surges – only a strong alternative can. The collapse or stagnation of traditional social democratic parties around Europe (“Pasokification”) shows this. The EU requires a Left that is internationalist in outlook, and one that fully utilises the tools that a Europe-wide material and political base has created.
The EU can take its share of the blame. It has advanced some of the regressive economic ideas that have taken hold across the world since the nineteen-seventies. In addition, although the European Parliament is certainly not simply the debating chamber that it once was and often does essential work on the environment and other issues, as DiEM25 argue, much can be done to democratise the EU and its institutions. It is of vital importance that people feel the EU works in their interests. However, to blame the EU for the far-right is to massively simplify what is part of a global socioeconomic trend.
Another key point: if we leave the EU, will nationalism just go away? Or will it embolden the most reactionary actors who are calling for Brexit? Marine Le Pen, who is a year away from contesting a Presidential election in France, would be elated at the prospect of the EU’s unravelling. Here in the UK, if we leave the EU, it will be on the back of a rising tide of xenophobia. The forces that have encouraged it and capitalised on it will also be emboldened in a post-Brexit UK, particularly the anti-EU Tory Right.
DiEM25’s manifesto correctly identifies that we have two options – either retreat into the cocoon of nation states and insular nationalism, or attempt to revitalise the EU along democratic, participatory lines. As previously stated, that will be difficult – but it is essential work. Regardless of what you think the EU’s role has been in the re-emergence of nationalism, and even if you disagree with my brief analysis above, capitulating to the demands of the xenophobic Right would certainly be the worst move possible, and would undermine efforts to challenge it here and across the continent.
— Daniel Round, 22nd June 2016.