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Beyond Resistance

15 Feb

This week, TCM author Alex Gourevitch has an article at Jacobin on the limits of resistance and the tendency of the Left to substitute a short-term politics of fear and outrage for a long-term politics of freedom. This leaves the Left without an independent set of ideas or organization to which it might win people, and leaves it in the uncomfortable position of tacitly serving as the shock troops for the Democratic Party.

Readers of this blog can read the article here: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/02/trump-gop-democrats-protests-marches-social-movement/

Whose Strike?

3 Feb

Following the massive Women’s March and the surprising partial success of protests against Trump’s immigration ban, many feel that the logical step is to escalate. Seize the momentum, put more pressure on the administration, disrupt and paralyze as much as possible. I feel it myself. There are ways in which there is more possibility in the air than there has been in a long time, and Trump has wasted little time going about his authoritarian business.

That, no doubt, is the reason why the idea of calling for a general strike – a general national strike – has caught the imagination over the past few days. After Francine Prose put the idea out in the Guardian, it spread rapidly throughout social media, and split into multiple proposals and counter-proposals.

Some, including Prose herself, see themselves carrying on in a venerable tradition of mass social disruption. But, as much as these proposals look like a natural response to the moment, they are severely disconnected from reality. Calling for a general strike now bears no relation to what mass strikes have meant in the past. The flight from reality shows up in activists’ blasé attitude to history and their very distant relationship to the working class.

The United States has the most violent labor history of any major industrial country. General and other large-scale strikes in the US have nearly always been met with major repression, from police, National Guard, even federal troops. For instance, the general strike in San Francisco of 1934, which developed out of a longshoremen’s strike, led to running battles with the police and a number of deaths.

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Running battles on San Francisco’s Embarcadero 

National Guardsmen set up machine gun nests and tanks for strike suppression

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The massive strikes in the period of 1919-1922, involving more than 1 million workers in industries like railroads, steel and mining, were met with enormous violence. One of the most famous is the coal mining wars, which culminated in the Battle for Blair Mountain. It pitted armed and organized miners against a private militia, federal troops, bombing runs by employer-hired aircraft, and some of the first post-war uses of military planes. Hundreds of miners died in the battles.

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Rifles collected from defeated miners

During the Ludlow Massacre, National Guardsmen mounted a machine gun on a train, and mowed down strikers and their families living in tents.

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Machine gun nest at Ludlow 

During the massive Pullman Strike of 1894, during which Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs was arrested, hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike, and the Attorney General carpeted every state from Illinois to California with injunctions and martial law. Federal troops aided local police and private guards to suppress the strike.

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Federal troops guarding a train during Pullman  

We can tell similar stories for the suppression of the Great Strike of 1877, which included a general strike in St. Louis; for the strike wave of 1886; for the Lawrence strike of 1912; for the Little Steel Strike, Harland County strikes, the Auto-Lite Strike, the Minneapolis strike, and the textile strikes of the 1930s; and so on and so forth.

This isn’t just distant history.

On March 10, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed “Local 1199,”* a radical local of drugstore and hospital workers, and spoke about the need for organizing the unorganized and for a trans-racial class alliance against exploitation and imperialism. Turning his attention to African-American sanitation workers striking in Memphis, Tennessee, he said, “You may have to escalate the struggle a bit….just have a general work stoppage in the city of Memphis.” Less than a month after calling for a citywide general strike, King was assassinated in that very city.

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National Guardsmen at the Memphis Strike

The Phelps-Dodge strike of 1983 pitted local miners against riot police.

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Tear gas and cops at Phelps-Dodge

During the Hormel Strike of 1984-5 in Austin, MN the National Guard helped local police forces suspend civil liberties, impose deeply oppressive labor law, and undermine the strike.

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The National Guard helping break the Hormel Strike

The 1990 Justice for Janitors campaign was not exactly peaceful.

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The more seriously disruptive the strikes, the more dangerous they are. It is no doubt true that the American state has reduced its readiness to violently repress workers. But even that is as much a function of the decline in worker militancy itself as it is a more tolerant view of major strikes.

Even when not violent or repressed, strikes are serious business. They are often lost, and if strikers aren’t injured they can lose their jobs, friends, and even families. The law is pitted heavily against workers – they can be replaced, they lose free speech rights when at work, even the whiff of strike activity allows employers to shut down the entire factory, and legal protections of workers are poorly enforced. The police and the rest of the security apparatus are usually happy to enforce that law, and there is often no way for workers to carry out a proper strike without breaking those laws. To the degree we have forgotten this, it is because worker militancy has declined, strike rates are way down, and union memberships have dwindled into the low single-digits.

In the past, workers stayed out on those strikes, even fighting the state, in part because of dense, historically developed, cultures of solidarity; established traditions of militancy; organized, if not always recognized, unions; and long connections with left-wing organizers. These days, the appetite for fighting the state is next to nil, there is no tested public sympathy for labor actions, and there are no clear organizations standing ready to lead.

If you’re going to ask people not just to risk losing their jobs but potentially face the armed apparatus of the state, there had better be preparation, leadership, and some evident readiness for mass labor actions.

Not to mention, there had better be a recognizable goal. But what is the point of the proposed general strike? To say down with Trump? What, so we can have Pence?

Or is the point just a generalized ‘No’? A massive expression of discontent? None of the significant costs of a general strike are worth it if it’s just a grand gesture of refusal.

On one version, the point of the strike is to affirm a grab-bag of demands: no to the immigration ban, yes to universal health care, no to pipelines, no to global gag rule and, inexplicably, a final demand that Trump reveal his tax returns. These demands show no evidence of thinking about what the immediate interests of workers might actually be – no mention of proposed national right-to-work legislation, $15 minimum wage demands, or even Trump’s terrible Labor Secretary pick. Trump’s nationalist and deeply inegalitarian economic ‘plan’ at least acknowledges the need to address bad employment prospects and stagnant wages.

It would be reasonable for workers to dismiss the call for a general strike. It looks like they are being asked to be actors in someone else’s drama, by people who just cottoned on to the fact that things are shitty out there.

Moreover, even moderately effective general strikes don’t emerge, willy-nilly, like miraculous interventions into national life. They are intensifications and radicalizations of already existing patterns of resistance by the working class. This demand for a general strike looks less like that intensification and more like an attempt to leapfrog all the hard, long-term political work that goes before.

At least some of those arguing for the general strike seem to sense that there is an element of bad faith here. For instance, Francine Prose added the qualification, which I have seen repeated in a number of places, that only those “who can do so without being fired” should go on strike. This must be the first time someone called for a general strike but exempted most of the working class.

Believe me, I’d love to see a real general strike, a serious attempt at restructuring society, not just lopping the head off the Republican hydra. But there is no royal road to revolution, or even to a true mass movement for social change.

Alex Gourevitch

* The original post said “SEIU Local 1199,” but Local 1199 only joined SEIU many years after MLK addressed them.

 

Don’t Vote Strategically

8 Nov

This has easily been the most substance free election in recent American history. It is also one that has generated a huge amount of emotion. Precisely because the central theme of the election has been personality and temperament, not policy and ideology, everyone has taken the election personally. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the daily inquisitions that pass as attempts to convince individuals to vote. Anyone who refuses to vote, or plans to vote for a third party candidate, is attacked as an irresponsible fantasist who cares more about the beauty of his soul than the hard political realities of this election. The vote shouldn’t be expressive, it should be practical, they say. When those on the Left argue that Lesser Evilism only means that the Left, such as it is, will be taken for granted or safely ignored, a standard liberal response is that those Lefties will be responsible for Trump winning. Actually, the standard response is considerably more abusive and moralistic. But whether delivered in a hostile or friendly tone, the essence of the case for Hillary has simply been that: each individual must vote strategically, rather than for what he or she believes in, because otherwise that person is responsible for Trump. But that is not only wrong it’s a fantasy, and an undemocratic fantasy at that.

In an era of Vox-style data-driven journalism, in which social policy is tortured by the nudge and tweaks of the latest social science, it is notable that liberals leave the same style of thinking at home when it comes to voting. After all, it is political scientists who have been telling us for decades that individuals make no causal difference to the outcome of large-scale collective actions like national elections. These are the same experts that liberal technocrats want us to defer to for the two and four years between major elections, but whose most long-standing social scientific thesis is suddenly irrelevant during these elections. But it is during elections that they really have a point. After all, it is true that no individual’s vote is decisive in an election. Run the probabilities however you like, but you, individual voter, have a better chance of winning the lottery everyday for months than you do of determining the outcome of the election. That’s just as true in a swing state as it is in a safe state. Even in Florida, North Carolina or Nevada, the chance is effectively zero that one of the candidates will win by one vote.

This is not a counsel of despair. This is, for one, how it should be in a democracy. Everybody counts equally, so nobody should have that kind of control over outcomes. Nobody’s individual will should so heroically determine our collective fate; it is pathological to think otherwise. But more than that, this should be a liberating thought. You or I do not carry the fate of the republic on our shoulders. We do not determine the fate of the election in that way. There is no good reason to harangue someone for being irresponsible when he or she votes on principle rather than pragmatically.

So one of the deepest ironies of this election has been that the people – especially liberal commentators – who claim to be reasoning in the most hard-headed, reality-facing, pragmatic way are, in fact, the ones in the grip of an illusion. I suspect that, for some, this is not so much an illusion as it is bad faith. They personally don’t actually believe that Hillary is Lesser Evil. Instead, they believe she is the good option, close to the best that America can do. They deploy the Lesser Evil argument to try and convince those to their left who think she is a neoliberal warmonger who will only entrench the racial and class divisions of this society. But many Lesser Evilists really do think it is the ‘Responsible Thing To Do.’ That they must think about their vote as if it were decisive. Not only is that a deep distortion of the reality of the situation, it is its own form of expressive voting dressed up as pragmatic thinking. Their vote becomes a signaling device for what it means to be a serious person and, by the same token, serves as moral permission to rant at others.

The problem here is not just that the Lesser Evilists peddle an illusion, it is that this illusion serves deeply undemocratic ends. The other side of blaming individual voters for outcomes is relieving candidates of the responsibility for making their case to those citizens. The political role of the strategic voting argument is to paper over the weakness of democratic representation in this country. While that is a long-standing trend in the United States and, as we have discussed on this blog, in other countries, this particular election has brought to the fore just how limited the attempt to organize and represent interests is. Trump is a vile demagogue who shows little interest in the art of governing, while Clinton has made her campaign almost entirely about the clash of personalities rather than their ideas. It is always at the moments when dissenters criticize Clinton’s views or record that the Lesser Evil argument gets trotted out. Yes yes, we are told, she might be nowhere near the kind of progressive candidate we would like, but if you don’t vote for her you are responsible for putting Him in office. Never mind that the positive case for her is weak, the argument goes, we can’t afford to think about that.

So the strategic voting argument does more than ignore the fact that individual voters are not responsible for the outcome. It also reverses the relationship of political responsibility. It holds individuals responsible for outcomes, while alleviating candidates of responsibility for proving themselves. But, in a democracy, it is the candidates who are responsible for making their case to the people, not the other way around. Citizens are responsible for deciding on their own principles and holding representatives to them. But the more disconnected representatives are from the public, the more they try to conceal that fact by turning the tables and holding voters responsible for outcomes that voters cannot personally control. On top of which, by lowering the standards to which they are held to (“at least she’s not the other guy”), the election is turned into something like a blanket grant of authority. That bar is so low it is achieved simply by winning the election, which makes it all the harder to hold the winner to account during the period of actual governing. They shouldn’t be allowed to get away with that. If they haven’t made their case, we have no responsibility to vote for them.

Alex Gourevitch

Hard v soft: misrepresenting Brexit

19 Oct

Over the last few months the debate over Brexit has begun to change shape, and with it, a slow reshuffling of political alignments has taken place. Concerned about the crude xenophobic and nativist policies that were floated at the Tory party conference in September, both liberal Leavers and Remainers have been looking to forge alliances in order to help ensure they can fight for an open economy and a cosmopolitan society in the aftermath of Brexit. Since the ‘flash crash’ of pound sterling, the debate over whether Brexit will be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ has come to the fore, even as the pound’s declining value has been taken as vindication of Remainers’ predictions over the economic damage that would result from a Leave vote. In the wake of such a major economic and political shock, it is important that we not restrict ourselves to the misleading binary option of ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit. Here, much depends on how the European Union (EU) is understood.

First, with regards to freedom of movement, the distinction between hard and soft Brexit is misleading in so far as it associates freedom of movement with the single market. On TCM we have consistently argued for open borders and against the EU for its punitive and murderous external border controls. The EU’s freedom of movement has been anything but soft on those many Africans and Asians seeking to escape dictatorship, poverty and war. ‘Soft’ Brexit should not therefore be associated with free movement of peoples or indeed an open economy. Conversely, there is no reason in principle that a decisive and thorough-going break with the EU could not be compatible with open borders either: open to EU citizens and to everyone else, too.

Second, the assumption that things will be economically ‘softer’ by remaining tightly bound to the EU and the single market is based on the untenable assumptions of ceteris paribus – of everything else being held constant, as if the Eurozone economy can be kept on life-support forever. The fragmentation of the Eurozone cannot be indefinitely postponed. Brexit has become a convenient scapegoat for the ills afflicting the Western world, but any honest Remainer must know that the challenges to the EU project run much deeper, reverberating from structural contradictions at the core of the project. The hand-wringing over the crash in sterling is premised on the UK as a gateway to European markets and the Eurozone, drawing in investments that resulted in the overvalued pound, which in turn helped to disguise underlying problems of the UK economy, such as its stagnant productivity. However much Remainers may gloat over the flash crash, the question remains: how is an overvalued currency an argument for soft Brexit, or for Remain?

The British electorate have not voted to leave the EU in the midst of a booming global economy, or to delink from an EU in its prime. The Eurozone is a disaster zone; those accusing Leave voters of ‘arson’ should look to those who ruined the Greek, Spanish and Portuguese economies. The EU is structurally malformed, lop-sided and riddled with contradictions. A vote for Remain was ultimately a bet on the long-term viability of the EU – and that is a proposition more delusional than even those Anglosphere nostalgics who become misty-eyed by the thought of trading with Australia. Whatever the medium- to long-term results of the devaluation in pound sterling, it needs to be said and said again that issues of democracy, sovereignty and self-determination cannot be reduced to an exercise in public accounting and currency fluctuations.

This takes us to the third and final point – the fact that the hard / soft dichotomy obscures the crucial political distinction. Remainers gloating over the financial markets’ curbing of British sovereignty miss the point. Sovereignty concerns the nature and location of political authority more than it concerns national power and prestige. The UK’s membership of the EU is a wholly different type of issue to its relationship with the single market. As we have argued on TCM, the EU evades popular sovereignty more than it restricts national sovereignty. The EU is not merely an association of nation-states that agree to restrict each other’s external choices for their mutual benefit. It is better understood as the institutional outgrowth of internal changes in each of its constituent states: this is the shift from nation-states to member-states. This transformation has seen the curbing of legislative oversight and the systematic exclusion of the public from political decision-making through cross-border elite cooperation. Popular sovereignty has been evaded for the administrative convenience of bureaucrats and executives.

Once this is understood, the debate over ‘hard’ versus ‘soft’ Brexit can be seen in a different light. If ‘soft Brexit’ entails accepting certain EU regulatory structures in order to retain access to the single market, then an external restriction on the country’s trading choices may be acceptable if – and only if – it is seen as economically beneficial by the electorate and their representatives. The issue is who gets to decide. The British as a sovereign people can democratically decide to recognise the limits of their power and make a choice to abide by rules made by others in order to trade successfully. This is a question of contingent costs and benefits – quite different from membership of the EU, which degraded the internal sovereignty of the British state in so far as it enabled the government to evade political accountability for law-making.

For decades, the British public and parliaments have not been consulted on the question of whether the costs of EU regulation are outweighed by the benefits. The Brexit vote appropriately restores their right to decide. If Brexit requires the British public rationally to adapt to a lesser place in the world, so much the better: the EU facilitated delusions of British global power and reach. What is most important, then, is that the legal and political supremacy of state institutions has been reaffirmed – and with it the possibility for greater democratic accountability and political responsiveness.

The stagnation of the global economy, the growth of geopolitical rivalries, the populist assault on elitist political systems around the world: all these indicate that a cycle of global order is crumbling away, and with it an era of technocratic liberalism incarnated in the European Union more than any other political system. Whether we welcome or mourn these changes, we need to recognise that neither US hegemony nor the Brussels’ bureaucracy could last forever; to deny this is simply to deny change itself.

Philip Cunliffe and Peter Ramsay

Invoke Article 50 Now: Depoliticising Brexit

1 Sep

Two months after the referendum, there seems to be little progress towards enacting the majority verdict that the UK should leave the EU. Indeed, some Remainers, like Labour leadership contender Owen Smith, are openly arguing that parliament should block Brexit or call another referendum. Suspicious Leave supporters see elites and technocrats conspiring to overturn the result, and are therefore demanding ‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’. A demonstration is planned for 5 September, when Parliament will debate a massive petition demanding a re-run of the referendum.

At TCM, we have supported leaving the EU but some of us have also rejected the insistence on immediately invoking Article 50. This has drawn criticism from some Leave supporters, including one of our own contributors. Here we seek to clarify further why the focus on Article 50 is mistaken.

‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’ is a simple, clear demand with apparent democratic content: the people mandated their representatives to leave the EU and doing so requires invoking Article 50 (unless Britain leaves unilaterally, breaking its international treaty obligations).

However, it’s also a demand that evades the key problem facing anyone wanting to ensure that the democratic moment of the referendum is meaningfully realised. The primary obstacle to this is not the machinations of disgruntled Remainer academics, lawyers and New Labour MPs. It is the Leave campaign’s lack of political clarity and the disarray of the Tory ministers tasked with implementing Brexit.. The anti-democratic Remainers will only get their chance if those responsible for Brexit drop the ball.

Despite being a Remainer, Teresa May cannot block Brexit because that would reopen the Conservative Party’s long-running civil war over Europe and defy the popular mandate to leave the EU, which was supported by 60% of Tory voters. This would end her career, and that’s why she insists that ‘Brexit means Brexit’. However, as we have argued, what Brexit means in practice is unclear, because the Leave campaign failed miserably to articulate a clear post-EU vision for Britain. Two months later, the Cabinet’s ‘Three Brexiteers’ (Boris Johnson, David Davis and Liam Fox) have barely managed to meet, let alone begin to rectify this. Instead they have indulged in pathetic squabbling over who gets how many civil servants.

This is not simply a narrow question of the Eurosceptics’ dubious competence or personal commitments. It reflects a deeper political problem. Tory Euroscepticism rejects European forms of government – with much inaccurate frothing about ‘Brussels’ supranationalism’ – in the name of Westminster traditions and parliamentary sovereignty. Since they have rarely given much thought to what sovereignty would actually be used for, beyond vague blather about free markets, they have little sense of what to do next. Moreover, the Leave vote expressed a much wider disenchantment with politics, including Westminster and, arguably, the free-marketeering that has left many Leave voters behind. Tory Eurosceptics’ prevarication reflects the inadequacy of their own substantive vision, and perhaps also a recognition that the limited ‘restoration’ they desire cannot begin to satisfy the disgruntled masses.

If Article 50 were invoked quickly, this might all be covered up. Sheltered by secret EU negotiations, politicians and civil servants could do a dirty deal with EU officials. In the absence of any alternative vision, this would most likely maintain most existing rules and regulations: ‘Brexit in name only’. This outcome would satisfy no-one.

The delay in invoking Article 50, then, is a necessary part of the democratic process. It may be unimpressive, but that reflects the state of Britain’s democracy. Parliament asked the electorate for instructions, and it got them: leave the EU. But since no-one put to the electorate any clear plans as to what that would involve, our elected representatives must now work out what Brexit will mean in practice.

This is hard because of the deeper crisis of representative politics. At TCM we have argued that the EU is a product of the decline of political representation within European states. As European governments’ political relationships with their constituents weakened, they looked to each other for the authority that they can no longer find at home. That decline of national, representative politics is reflected in both the political disenchantment of Leave voters, and the post-referendum disarray and dissolution of Britain’s entire political class – not merely the Eurosceptics. Nobody now seems to be sure how to pick up the extraordinary popular mandate created by the referendum and to politicize it by developing specific proposals on immigration, citizenship, trade, security and so on. That includes those who merely call for Article 50 to be invoked, without offering anything more.

It might be different if the slogan ‘Invoke Article 50’ were accompanied by ‘and stay in the single market’, or ‘and negotiate a trade deal that includes (or excludes) free movement of people’ – or whatever. Such concrete political positions might resolve the impasse, and might help to revive democratic politics by offering the British and the wider European public some political direction. But demanding that Article 50 be invoked without offering that direction simply leaves the task to others.

The question of the free movement of people, for example, is not some boring technical detail that can be sorted out by experts. It is a highly charged political issue, central to both the referendum campaign and wider European politics. It will be a key aspect of Brexit negotiations. ‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’ says nothing about what Britain’s approach should be; it merely evades the question – and every other issue of substance.

It is for this reason that ‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’ is a populist demand. It rhetorically invokes the people’s will and demands that the political class act upon it. But by failing to offer substantive direction, the decrepit, technocratic political class is left free to determine what actually happens in practice. The demand appears radically democratic in form but, by avoiding difficult and unresolved questions, it is depoliticizing in content.

No doubt, formulating concrete proposals is hard. Over the past 30 years, as domestic political contestation has been hollowed out across Europe, we have lost the habit of generating transformational political programmes. Called upon now to do so, our political class trembles at the threshold. Pushing them through the door by invoking Article 50 would not suddenly resolve their lack of concrete ideas. It would merely encourage them to grope for the easiest option of ‘Brexit in name only’. It is more important, then, to articulate concrete demands and insist that our representatives act on these. To their credit, some groups have been trying to do this. The Leave Alliance has formulated an incredibly detailed plan for ‘Flexcit’, while the campaign group 38 Degrees has crowd-sourced a concrete set of demands to shape the Brexit negotiations. Whatever their limitations, they are at least engaged in the hard task of working out what, substantively, should come next. Article 50 campaigners are not. Their slogan is a bold sounding but essentially risk-free demand. When Article 50 is invoked, which will most likely happen, given the government’s political stance, these campaigners can claim a victory and move on. If the Brexiteers screw it up and Article 50 is never invoked, they can say, ‘we told you so’. It’s a cheap way of making some friends among those sympathetic to democracy, but it diverts attention from the true obstacles to reviving democracy.

Peter Ramsay, Philip Cunliffe, Nicholas Frayn and Lee Jones

 

 

Article 50 is a trap… democracy needs open political negotiations

21 Jul

In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, there was a vocal anti-democratic backlash, with stunned Remainers openly discussing how to overturn the referendum and thwart the majority’s will. We insisted then on TCM that popular sovereignty must be respected and, to prevent any elite backsliding, recommended invoking Article 50 promptly. A campaign has also emerged demanding ‘Invoke Article 50 Now!’.

But as the dust settles, a different picture is emerging. In current circumstances calling for the immediate triggering of Article 50 is a mistake. It ignores the origins and purposes of this legal instrument and it risks undermining representative democracy in favour of a dangerous combination of populism and technocracy.

It is true that some academic Remainers are still scheming to frustrate the result, and lawyers are taking the government to court in an effort to create new political obstacles to triggering Article 50. The Scottish National Party is also still threatening to ‘veto’ Brexit.  However, most British politicians appear to realise that ignoring the referendum is not an option. We now have a prime minister who pledges that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, and a Eurosceptic team of ministers overseeing the Brexit process. Invoking Article 50 is being delayed not to resist Brexit, but to buy time to formulate a negotiating strategy, including one that appeases the Scots. The looming question is not whether Brexit means Brexit, but what Brexit actually means: what sort of settlement will the UK pursue and get?  Invoking Article 50 quickly can only reduce the influence of the British electorate over the answer to that question.

Article 50 of the EU’s treaties was not written with the interests of an exiting member state in mind. Quite the contrary. The authors of the Lisbon Treaty, including the die-hard British federalist, Andrew Duff (ex-Liberal Democrat MEP), were very clear that the article would make exit as difficult and as unpleasant as possible for any member state who – god forbid – should exercise its democratic right to leave the EU. It is no wonder that those calling for the triggering of article 50 as soon as possible often find themselves in bed with the likes of Martin Schultz, President of the European Parliament, and Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission.

The effect of triggering article 50 is very clear. Negotiations are taken away from the open space of national and European political debate, which is where Brexit and the future of the UK/EU relationship currently sits, and relocated behind the firmly closed doors of the European Council and the European Commission. On the EU side, Donald Tusk (President of the European Council) and Frans Timmermans (Vice-President of the European Commission) are the two likely figures who will head up the negotiations for the EU. On the UK side, a team of ‘Brexperts’ will be put together under the steer of someone like David Davis. The result will be much like David Cameron’s negotiations with the European Council and the European Commission at the end of last year: entirely secret, with the renegotiation package finally pulled out of the hat and presented as a fait accompli to a rightly sceptical British public.

Without any doubt, article 50 transforms negotiations between elected representatives, that are ad hoc and outside of the EU’s legal framework, into a series of private discussions between nominated experts on the specific terms of the UK’s relationship with the EU as a  future non-member state. This is not a coincidence, this was the intention of the article and this is how the EU has always functioned.

The UK government would be wrong to use the uncertainty of being outside of the article 50 framework to ride back on the result of the referendum and any sign of it doing so should be very firmly resisted.

But it is equally wrong to seek to push the UK government into the legal and technocratic straightjacket of article 50. Defending representative democracy means holding our current representatives to account and demanding that we as citizens can follow as closely as possible the discussions being currently held between May, Merkel, Hollande and others. This should not only be the right of UK citizens but of all the citizens of the other 27 EU member states. These are discussions about the UK’s new relationship with the EU, conducted by elected politicians accountable to their domestic publics. Until there is a clear sense of what both sides want as a post-Brexit deal for the EU and the rest of the EU, negotiations should remain like this: as open and directly political as possible.

Calling to trigger article 50 now is to squeeze out representative democracy. What is left is a populist celebration of the ‘people’ that calls for the beginning of a technocratic negotiation process that transforms politics into legal wrangling in the long standing tradition of the EU.

Chris Bickerton

Lee Jones

Peter Ramsay

Should the People Rule? An Exchange

19 Jul

In a guest post TCM reader Chris Gilligan makes a number of criticisms of our responses to the Brexit vote from a Marxist perspective. Following Chris’s post we have added a reply in which we clarify our critique of the politics of Brexit and anti-Brexit.

Popular sovereignty undermines tyranny AND internationalism

The vote for the United Kingdom (UK) to leave the European Union (EU) has shaken up UK politics. It is an important moment in UK politics, and beyond. People around the world are watching with interest. The vote shows that, when an opportunity is provided, ordinary working people are able to challenge the status quo. This has been both one of the strengths and one of the weaknesses of the Referendum. It is a strength because it demonstrates to people who want progressive social change that the working-class is not a spent force. It is a weakness because this exercise of the will of the people was not created by the working-class. The Referendum happened as a result of internal divisions within the Conservative Party, and was precipitated by the rise of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

The strong Leave vote in marginalised working-class areas of England and Wales demonstrate that the Labour Party is a spent force, a fact that had already been revealed by the collapse of the Labour Party in its traditional heartlands in Scotland. Unlike in Scotland, however, there is no political party that looks like drawing in disaffected Labour voters in any sizeable numbers. Labour may be able to hold on by its finger-tips under a Corbyn leadership, but this will be due to a lack of alternatives, rather than due to popular support for Corbyn. In Scotland there are already signs that working-class voters are beginning to mistrust the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP). In Scotland the disaffection from the SNP may set in faster than it did with Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain (the Leave vote, however, may help to resuscitate the laughable idea that the SNP are an opposition to the establishment).

The Leave vote demonstrates the gulf between the ruling-class and the working-class. This gulf is perhaps nowhere better demonstrated than in the claims, made by disgruntled supporters of the official Remain campaign, that working-class Leave voters are racist and xenophobic. This contempt for the white working-class, the assumption that they are  narrow-minded bigots, is shared by the leaders of both the official Leave and official Remain campaigns. Both sides think that the working-class are driven by base instincts. The official Leave campaign cynically sought to harness anti-immigration sentiment to gain support for Brexit. When the Remain campaign lost, its leaders and cheerleaders assumed that Leave won because of a successful appeal to working-class xenophobia. Neither side listened to, or tried to understand, what is behind the concerns that working-class people are articulating.

The majority of Remain voters were also working-class people, many of them with friends and family who voted Leave. The gulf between the ruling-class and the working-class is not solely felt and expressed by Leave voters. It is also evident amongst working-class Remain voters. In Scotland there was a significant Remain vote in those working-class areas where the Labour Party vote collapsed. This was not because of faith in the SNP, or the EU, but because of suspicion of what was viewed as the pro-market right-wing leadership of the Leave vote. This concern about the motivations of the likes of Nigel Farage (UKIP), Boris Johnston (Cons) and Michael Gove (Cons), was shared by many working-class Remain voters in England and Wales.

The nature of the Referendum, a vote to Remain or Leave the EU, obscured rather than revealed the extent of working-class political disaffection. Presenting the post vote issue as one of ‘which side are you on now, democracy [Leave] or slide to tyranny [Remain]’ involves drawing the battle lines in the wrong place. The key issue at stake is not ‘whether popular sovereignty and democracy still have any meaning in Britain’. The turnout and the result in the Referendum clearly shows that both are meaningful to working-class people. The key issue is how to develop, and give organisational expression to, independent working-class politics. It is true, as Ramsay and Jones incisively point out, that there are various attempts to undermine the outcome of the Referendum. It is also, however, the case that the final outcome will be a fudge, no matter when Article 50 is invoked. The failure to invoke Article 50, and the resignation of Cameron are symptomatic of the exhaustion of the political class, they are not it’s causes.

Working-class Leave voters will be frustrated with the final outcome of the Referendum, whatever shape this takes, because the underlying issue is not whether the UK is in the EU or not. The underlying issue, and the positive appeal of the Leave campaign, was the desire to ‘take back control’. The working-class, however, will not be able to take control unless they do it for themselves.

Invigorating popular sovereignty would be preferable to the ‘gradual decay towards real tyranny’. A democratic UK, governed through popular sovereignty, would be a step forward from our current technocratic system of governance. The road to popular sovereignty, however, leads to a cul-de-sac for the working-class. Popular sovereignty is a liberal concept, not a Marxist one. Popular sovereignty must necessarily be exercised within a national shell. Popular sovereignty involves constituting a political community that draws an ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction in national terms, not in class terms. I agree, as Chris Bickerton, Phillip Cunliffe, Alex Gourevitch, Lee Jones and Peter Ramsay put it, that a ‘real internationalist project is possible but that means breaking with both the EU and the comforting certainties of the past’.One clear way of helping to develop a real internationalist project is to make the demand for open borders now. I agree with Peter Ramsay that this is a difficult argument to make and win, but as he also points out ‘it is the only real basis upon which the ordinary citizens of Europe could make common cause with the rest of humanity and begin to take control of our societies from our corrupt and exhausted elites’.

Popular sovereignty is also a barrier to independent working-class politics because it does not directly confront the issue of economics. Prioritising popular sovereignty involves either perpetuating the separation of politics and economics and focusing on politics alone, or it suggests that economics is a matter that can be tackled through policy changes in parliament. Popular sovereignty will not bring working-class control because capitalism as a social system is based on the extraction of unpaid labour at the point of production. Working-class control is inseparable from the struggle against alienated labour. Working-class control must involve control of the means by which society materially reproduces itself, not just control of the levers of political power. Ultimately contemporary politics is confused and confusing because it rests on an irrational social system. As long as we allow forces outside of human control – the market – to govern society, we can never be self-governing.

Most working-class people recognise that capitalism is not working for them. They do, and will continue to, struggle against their bosses in myriad forms. They do so, however, without necessarily understanding how capitalism operates at a systemic level or what is required to overcome it. This does not mean that the working-class need to have their consciousness raised. They understand, better than any intellectual, how capitalism operates at an everyday level. They recognise, better than any paternalist do-gooder, the brutality and irrationality of capitalism as a social system. The structural location of the working-class, as wage-labourers, means that the working-class are instinctively anti-capitalist. The working-class are not defeated. The working-class are, as a class, lacking in political clarity. It is not just the working-class who suffer from this problem. It is endemic across the globe. This lack of clarity is evident in the EU Referendum, in the responses to austerity, in the rise of Jihadist terrorism, and in the anti-terrorist response.

Political clarity, however, is not a purely intellectual problem. It is not just a matter for theorists, it is also a practical matter. It is an issue of political practice. We are at a new conjuncture. We are living through the decay of the old political system of state-welfarist parliamentary democracy in Europe and the rest of the Western world. The new politics is in the process of becoming. These circumstances provide a crucially important opportunity to develop an independent working-class outlook – free from the influence of the state regulated capitalist politics of Labourism and Stalinism. We do not need to start from scratch, or to take a stages approach of recreating liberal democracy first and then developing working-class politics.

We need to ask how the working-class desire to take control can be realised, and we need to ask what role the Left played in frustrating that desire in the past. We need to ask searching questions of our own tradition, not just critique the Labour and Stalinist Left. We should not abandon Marx in favour of pre-Hegelian Enlightenment thought. We should take the highest development of working-class politics as our starting point.

Chris Gilligan

 

With Sober Senses…A Reply to Chris Gilligan

We agree with Chris Gilligan that the real question revealed by the referendum is less the EU itself and more the wider question of how people get some control over the system they find themselves in. As we have consistently argued, the EU is just one manifestation of the decline of representative politics and the exclusion of the mass of working people from political life.

Where we disagree is on the specific questions of the significance of popular sovereignty and of class politics. Let’s start with popular sovereignty.

The EU is a political mechanism through which governments derive authority from their relationships with other European governments rather than through their relations with their own citizens at home. Although the EU itself didn’t figure much in the referendum campaign, the majority of the electorate nevertheless got it right when they expressed their objections to losing influence in Britain by voting to Leave the EU. Popular sovereignty was therefore at the heart of the referendum. By leaving the EU the political class will lose an alternative source of authority to the people, an external source of authority that allowed it to function despite its attenuated relationship with British citizens. This in itself is not going to turn Britain into democratic paradise. It is, however, a significant gain for the idea that the state’s authority is ultimately grounded in the consent of the people.

For Gilligan, our emphasis on popular sovereignty is mistaken for two reasons. First, ‘The road to popular sovereignty…leads to a cul-de-sac for the working-class’ because ‘popular sovereignty must necessarily be exercised within a national shell. Popular sovereignty involves constituting a political community that draws an ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction in national terms, not in class terms.’

Here, Gilligan mistakes a contingent, historical relationship between popular sovereignty and nationalism for a necessary and logical relation between the two. Popular sovereignty often has been associated with national distinctions in the past, since it was the imagined historical continuity of ‘the nation’ that gave some political substance to the idea of ‘the people’. But the idea of the people does not necessarily constitute a political community in national terms. There is no necessary connection between the people and national identity.

Logically, the ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction in the idea of popular sovereignty is a distinction between the state and the collectivity of individuals that the state rules over, and from which the state derives its authority. The communities ruled by modern states have, in the past, been imagined as national communities. But we can reimagine ‘the people’ differently if we wish: not as a unified community inherited from a parochial, ancestral past but as a disputatious political gathering of human individuals authorizing a state that reaches out to a universal human future. Reimagining the people in this way is a key challenge that is thrown up by contemporary politics in general, and the politics of Brexit in particular, because we agree with Gilligan that freedom of movement is essential if working people are ever truly to gain control over the societies in which they live.

Gilligan’s second reason for discounting popular sovereignty is because ‘Prioritising popular sovereignty involves either perpetuating the separation of politics and economics and focusing on politics alone, or it suggests that economics is a matter that can be tackled through policy changes in parliament.’ In the final analysis, so the argument goes, the liberation of working people is liberation from wage slavery, the separation of politics and economics is, therefore, a barrier rather than a way forward.

There are a number of problems with this analysis.

“First it’s not clear why popular sovereignty necessarily involves a separation of politics and economics. On the contrary, as one Scottish trade unionist famously put it: ‘Government by the people for the people becomes meaningless unless it includes major economic decision-making by the people for the people.’ Or, as an American socialist once put it, ‘there is to be a people in industry, as in government.’ Their point is that once the principle of popular sovereignty is introduced it becomes hard to justify arbitrary rule wherever it is found – in the state, the workplace, or the family. Once it is accepted that the authority of the state derives from the people, why not the authority exercised in productive activity too? The logical tendency of the principle of popular sovereignty is to overrun the boundaries of political relations narrowly conceived. When arguing that popular sovereignty necessarily separates politics and economics and applies to politics only, Gilligan concedes too much. He implicitly accepts the twentieth century efforts to dilute the meaning of democracy and to create limits to the natural tendency of the demand for self-government.”

Second, it does not follow that major economic decision-making by the people for the people could only be done by a parliament like Britain’s. At TCM we have not sought to defend the British constitution or the Westminster model of government. We have sought to defend the principle that the state’s authority should proceed from the people, via the general form of representative democracy. That is the principle that was undermined by the EU and by Remainer attempts to frustrate the referendum decision. Despite the British constitution’s many defects, it is superior to the EU in this respect. However, that does not imply that we are proposing what Gilligan calls a ‘staged approach of recreating liberal democracy first and then developing working-class politics’. The principles of popular sovereignty and democracy are not logically dependent on some connection to liberalism any more than they are to the nation.

Third, it is Gilligan’s own analysis that risks the separation of politics and economics. The question that was posed by the referendum was not whether or how to abolish wage slavery but whether the authority of the state should derive from the people. To insist that this latter question does not matter because in itself it does not address the problems of wage slavery and alienated labour is to separate politics and economics in a way that privileges the economic problem at the expense of the political. It is precisely because the abolition of wage slavery is necessarily a political process that the question of the authority of the state cannot be dismissed as a merely liberal concern. Gilligan insists that ‘Popular sovereignty will not bring working-class control because capitalism as a social system is based on the extraction of unpaid labour at the point of production.’ He is right that, in itself, popular sovereignty does not automatically put the workers in control of the economy or abolish wage labour. But without the political authority of the people being brought to bear, these goals can never be achieved.

Gilligan’s Marxism therefore evades the central questions that are posed by the referendum, even for those who would achieve Marxist ends. Gilligan does this in the name of class politics. He rightly notices that many working class voters quite deliberately took their opportunity in the referendum to deliver a powerful rebuke to the political class. However, he reads far too much into that spontaneous protest. He claims that it shows that ‘The working-class are not defeated.’ In reality, at best, the referendum shows that, given an opportunity created by divisions on the right to deliver a protest, working class voters have not entirely given up on politics. That is not enough to establish that the working class is back as a political force that is self-conscious of its own distinct interests as a class. If anything, the post-referendum leadership struggles within the two leading parties are proof of just how unthreatening the working class really is. The parties’ turn inwards created a serious political vacuum for a few weeks. Any halfway decent organization of the working class could have seized on this moment. But not even a spectre haunted the proceedings. Instead, the parties had the luxury of cannibalizing themselves in the absence of a real social threat to their rule.

For more than a quarter of a century the European working class has had almost no impact or influence on political life, as a class. The hollowed out remnants of its unions and political parties remain. But they long since ceased to represent the political interests of workers as a social class. Indeed, it is this political reality that underlies the nature of the European Union and the political problem that it seeks to manage. The final political defeats of the labour movements of Western Europe led to the rapid decline of representative politics as such. Left wing parties lost members and with the decline of the left, the political mobilization of traditional conservatives also lost its rationale. Ordinary citizens retreated into private life; politics retreated into the state. It is precisely this decline that led European politicians to seek an alternative source of authority in the EU institutions. The politics of the EU and of Brexit are themselves an expression of the political absence of the working class. The protest vote against the effects of this absence, and the disaffection it reveals, does not change that.

If we are to address the problems created by industrial decline, alienation and wage slavery, then we will first have to face the world as it is, with sober senses. The political crisis engendered by the Leave vote does not indicate the return of the working class as a political force. But it does dramatically expose the void in democratic politics. If many citizens despair of party politics they have nevertheless not retreated entirely into political apathy. Their rejection of the ‘post-democratic’ style of contemporary government opens up an opportunity to clarify and argue for a democratic, internationalist perspective through which the mass of ordinary citizens could begin to take control of public life. At TCM we have tried to distinguish such a democratic internationalist perspective from more well established and influential currents: in particular from the liberal left’s attachment to the thin technocratic cosmopolitanism of market integration, but also here from the Marxist left’s nostalgia for the language of class struggle, a language that, for the present at least, has no referent. This ambition may not sound like much. But no movement that is capable of addressing the current political impasse will emerge unless we can develop a perspective that can conceive of collective self-government arising from the political conditions of the present.

 

Peter Ramsay

Alex Gourevitch

 

 

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