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In a July 14 opinion piece for the Guardian, Owen Jones makes the case for left-wing euroscepticism; for the left to reclaim the narrative of exiting the European Union. Mr. Jones formulates his arguments along the lines of British politics, while echoing what many other leftists across the Union have already thought about, present author included.
In this article, I address the broader challenges facing European leftism, to suggest that EU-exit is not the ideal state of affairs that follows from the cosmopolitan principles of trans-border solidarity, cooperation, and unity. This is not a direct commentary on Mr. Jones’ work; his is just a point of reference, an indication of the ideas many other thinkers have been wrestling with.
In the following sections, I propound arguments against left-wing euroscepticism covering the following: (1) the siren song of nationalism, (2) the fatalistic fallacy of “no alternatives” in a common European future, and (3) withdrawal does not lead to reform.
The siren song of nationalism
For the left, politics occurs in two magnitudes: the place and the space.
- The former is the immediate social milieu, our community, region, the nation state. It is where we conduct our everyday struggle for social justice, to eliminate poverty, dismantle structural violence, and make sure that no fellow human is left behind.
- The latter is the whole world, the over-encompassing sphere of places, where other human beings face the same or similar problems as we are. We understand their struggle as equal to our own and, most importantly, we know that our very efforts to abolish the control of human by human will not be fully realised if strictly confined to locality.
In a more practical sense, the European left has to consider Europe as its space. This is but an intermediate arrangement towards a global objective, whereby “Europe” is not so much a physical expanse with clearly delineated borders as it is the aspect of space within reach of our common political will.
As opposed to such world-view stands nationalism. In a positive sense, this is the ideology arguing for a parochial understanding of the world. Every nation is a unit standing in actual or potential opposition to other nations. Whatever conflicts in history are between nations qua units.
Couched in those terms, the normative claim is that at best, whatever sense of social justice can be achieved within the confines of the nation-state and, if necessary, run against the good of other peoples. To that end and in the name of the national well-being, migrants are to be mistreated, other religions or traditions be marginalised, expansionary wars be conducted, and so on.
In forming an effective stance against the very idea of a united Europe, the left will be abandoning its normative propositions concerning the space, in favour of an actual policy of peripheral parochialism. It will inadvertently be internalising the nationalistic rhetoric and, limited by own stated ideals, will only succeed to pave the way for those on the far-right.
The left must not heed the siren song of nationalistic opportunism. Doing so would amount to an intellectual defeat, akin to the one already conceded by a large number of Europe’s social democrats against the triptych of inter-governmentalism, neoliberalism, and technocracy, as manifested in the Economic and Monetary Union (the Euro). Alas, the material implications of a drift to nationalism will be far more pernicious, for Europe will be pressured to return to the kind of politics of fear, hatred, and intolerance that prevailed prior to the initiation of the European integration process.
The fatalistic fallacy
It is one thing to be highly critical of the EU/EMU for what they actually are. It is another to equate their actuality to their potentiality, i.e. to assume that they will always and necessarily be that way. As I argued at length in my previous essay concerning the perceived inevitability of austerity, the challenges we face are circumstantial. They are contingent on the balance of power within our societies, and across our localities.
Take the typical narrative against Germany as an example. Though resting on kernels of truth, it essentially commits the error of treating the Germans as a monolithic whole, a “unit” in line with the afore-outlined nationalistic mindset. The fact is that within that country, as with every other one, there are people whose demands for social justice are suppressed by the establishment. Their interests are the same as ours. Failing to recognise that implies the following:
- to fall into the trap of “us versus them”, fuel the squabbles between peoples while international capital proceeds unencumbered;
- to effectively undermine the very principles of trans-border politics, solidarity, cooperation;
- to convert a difference in outlook into an inherent incompatibility, i.e. to internalise the fatalistic argument of “no alternatives”.
Instead of entertaining such chimeras as a uniform bugaboo called “Germany”, the left needs to emphasise the flawed design of structures and systems, the very parameters that condition the behaviour of situational agents and patients. What we need is a qualitative shift. A critique of, say, the Euro as is, entails a reform agenda for what it ought to be; and such agenda has to be compatible with leftist principles.
At any rate, if indeed there are no alternatives, then leftism becomes but an empty shell, some pastime activity that will never deliver any tangible results. Should that be the case, we ought to have the honesty and decency to admit our uselessness. But, I digress, for I am of the opinion that there indeed are alternatives, that the EU can be reformed, that the single currency can be run democratically and be socially sustainable. What is needed is the necessary programmatic and pragmatic campaign to realise such goals, for they will clearly not be attained spontaneously.
Withdrawal is not reform
Let us examine the argument that the left needs to withdraw from the Union for it cannot pursue a leftist agenda within it. Following that line of reasoning, some group of leftists in a specific part of a given country must also withdraw from that country if the powers that be happen to constrain any leftist alternative.
Understandably, we reach the point where instead of fighting to capture and reform the various power structures, we remain in a condition of powerlessness where our only available course of action is, paradoxically, one of inaction, of altogether withdrawing from politics.
There is nothing wrong with choosing to remain on the sidelines. What is a mistake though—indeed what is unacceptable—is to exalt such attitude to the status of a political end, one that is desirable or, given the aforementioned fatalistic fallacy, inevitable.
Take a look at any of the major problems. In the economy the influence of corporate interests is excessive. We leave politics, the field is open for them to do whatever they want. At the social level, we have such issues as patriarchy and marginalisation. We withdraw, leaving chauvinists and xenophobes implement their oppressive policies. In education, we witness the preponderant influence of capitalist expectations. We step aside only to suddenly realise that the humanities become sacrifices to the altars of scientism, under the impression of being impractical.
The point is that the argument for withdrawal cannot be one of double standards. It cannot apply “just” to the EU, for if the factors that necessitate it indeed are in operation, then it will most certainly hold true at every level. We do then come to realise a couple of things:
- the political order is framed in a certain way, yet everything within it is mind-dependent and, hence, can be shaped differently, provided we work towards that end;
- the perfect must be the guide of the good, not its enemy, so that we do not give up whatever modicum of goodness we have due to the absence of absolute goodness.
Critique implies struggle
The regular reader of my blog is aware of two facts: (1) I am critical of the existing order, especially Europe’s Economic and Monetary Union, and (2) I see in European federalism an optimal—though, admittedly, hard to achieve—way to overcome and to resolve existing tensions.
To many it seems paradoxical to be a leftist and a federalist. For one, leftism is increasingly being conflated with peripheral parochialism. Whereas, “federalism” is depicted as some Eurocrat’s power fantasy.
Though I will not reproduce the arguments on topics I have already examined at depth and at compass over a series of recent articles, I will counter that [my understanding of] leftism is:
- a view of the world that envisions the cooperation and coexistence of peoples, so that, essentially, it is the opposite of nationalism;
- federalism is, to me, distinct from the “more Europe” falsity; it is the idea of creating a European Democracy, reconciling the emergent contradiction of Europe’s inter-governmentalism by means of applying republican principles at the EU/EMU level.
Based on all the aforementioned, I think of left-wing euroscepticism as a tactical and intellectual error. Let us question the existing order’s capacity to deliver the kind of results we want and need; and let our critique be the overt sign of a deep-seated commitment to a struggle that aims for its reform.
An agenda featuring parochialism, fatalism, and withdrawal will only guarantee the left’s longer-term irrelevance.