The EU Has Migrant Blood on its Hands

1 Mar

Perhaps the most ludicrous claim made in defence of the European Union is that it is a bastion of cosmopolitanism and anti-racism, while all those opposed to the EU – like Brexit voters – are xenophobes and racists. The EU’s bloody borders give the lie to this cherished myth.

The EU’s cosmopolitanism rests on its supposed provision of “open borders”. But, like the classic national welfare state, this perk is selective: its existence rests on the exclusion of “outsiders”. Notwithstanding temporary “brakes”, EU citizens can move and work freely in EU countries. But EU “cosmopolitanism” is strictly for European citizens, not for people from Africa or Asia. Non-EU citizens face a wall of steel in trying to migrate into Europe.

This “Fortress Europe” approach is nothing new. Before the Arab Spring, the EU had cozied up to numerous North African dictators under its “neighbourhood” programme, bolstering their states’ capacities to interdict Arab and sub-Saharan African migrants headed through their territories for Europe. Libya’s Gadhafi regime was a leading EU partner. Italy pledged to pay the regime €5bn in 2008 to deal with “asylum seekers”, and in 2010 the European Commission gave Gadhafi €50m. In exchange, Libya organised joint naval patrols with Italy, accepted thousands of migrants intercepted by Italy, outlawed irregular migration, suppressed smuggling networks, and built a massive carceral system to intercept and deport migrants. The system was regularly denounced by Amnesty International and others, who noted that ‘rape, violence and torture were common’ in Libyan detention centres.

This was part of the gradual rescaling of European governance beyond the nation-state and even beyond the European region. Like other xenophobic Western polities – such as Australia and the United States – the EU essentially shifted its border management functions offshore. In Europe’s case, it has outsourced enforcement to vicious regimes that had not even ratified the United Nations Convention on Refugees.

This system was plunged into chaos following the Arab Spring, and this – coupled with disastrous Western intervention in Libya, the Middle East and Afghanistan – has led to what Europeans now call the “migrant crisis”.

Since then, however, EU officials have been painstakingly rebuilding this cordon sanitaire. In March 2016, the EU struck a deal with the increasingly despotic Turkish government whereby irregular migrants in or en route to Greece would be deported to Turkey for “processing” – in exchange, of course, for various economic concessions. This deal is explicitly aimed at ensuring zero new arrivals in the EU – a policy goal that Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders could have set. Unsurprisingly, just 8 percent of EU commitments for the resettlement of refugees have been met. EU officials have also been quietly rebuilding ties with North African governments and building their capacity to interdict migrants. Members of the European Parliament have noted the diversion of funds in the EU’s €2.5bn Africa Trust fund towards anti-migration projects.

This has been coupled with the deployment of hard military force. Barbed wire fences, abusive border guards and right-wing vigilantes have been deployed along the EU’s eastern land borders. In the Mediterranean, the EU has launched Operation Sophia, a naval force that tries to suppress irregular migration networks (“people traffickers”), as well as training Libyan forces in controlling migration. Perversely, for an operation designed to deter migrants from even trying to reach Europe, Sophia is named for a baby born to Somalian migrants rescued at sea in 2015, reflecting the thin humanitarian cloak draped over this naked use of force. The mask slipped this week as the EU’s borders chief openly attacked NGOs for rescuing migrants at sea and failing to cooperate with EU security forces.

Unsurprisingly, the atrocious conditions found in Libyan and other prisons before 2011 are now recurring across North Africa. In Sudan, which was allocated €100m in migration-related EU aid in April 2016, dozens of Ethiopian and Eritrean refugees have been lashed, fined and deported. In Libya, government- and militia-run detention centres for migrants have been described by UNICEF as “living hellholes” where women and children are “beaten, raped and starved”, while border forces routinely abuse and extort migrants. Abuse is also reportedly widespread in Europe’s own migrant camps in Germany, Italy, Greece and elsewhere.

And what is the “cosmopolitan” EU’s response to such reports? The president of the European parliament, and Austria’s foreign minister, called for mass camps to be established in North Africa to intern migrants. Germany’s foreign minister rejected the proposal – but only because the (NATO-induced) chaos in Libya makes it “unrealistic”.

United Nations experts state that inhuman conditions in Libya are driving more migrants to attempt the risky sea crossing to Europe. The International Organisation for Migration states that migrant deaths on the Libya-Italy crossing from January to February this year are up 300 percent on 2016, to 326. At least 5,082 died crossing the Mediterranean last year.

Nonetheless, the EU’s brutal policies seem to be bearing fruit. Irregular migrant arrivals in the EU have fallen from 1.05m in 2015, to 387,739 in 2016, and arrivals in early 2017 are also dramatically lower than for the same period last year: 13,924 versus 105,427. These are the sort of figures the “cosmopolitan” EU touts as a “success”.

Inhuman attitudes towards refugees and economic migrants did not begin with, and were not caused by, Britain’s EU referendum. They are rife across Europe, following decades of economic decline and mainstream politicians of every stripe pandering to racist and anti-immigration sentiment, instead of confronting it. These attitudes are now at the heart of the EU’s migration policy. The human cost should shock the conscience of any cosmopolitan.

Restoring representative democracy at the national level, as TCM advocates, will not solve these problems overnight, but it will create an opportunity to do so. Making national political elites accountable to their own electorates again would make it far harder for them to outsource control over migration policy to remote supranational agencies, which then subcontract vicious regimes outside Europe. Moreover, this outsourcing of migration control has led people in Europe to see immigration as something “done to them” by the EU, as if it were an external, supranational force, not simply the consequence of their own political elites’ retreat from democratic engagement. If immigration controls are restored to national parliaments, we can have honest national debates about the appropriate policy to pursue, and we would then own those policies and their consequences – we would have no one else to blame. None of that guarantees a progressive or humane policy; but, crucially, nor does remaining within the EU, whose record is dire. The case for an internationalist migration policy must be made, and won. It is only by winning popular consent that we can ever hope to begin relating to migrants as what they are – our fellow human beings.

Lee Jones

Future posts on TCM will take up this theme and explore how a restoration of national sovereignty can be combined with a progressive and internationalist agenda.

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.

sfgs-embarcadero

Running battles on San Francisco’s Embarcadero 

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

sfgs-machine-gunsfgs-tanks

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.

blair-mountain

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.

ludlow-machineguns

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.

pullman

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.

memphis-strike-1968memphis-strike-cops-beating

National Guardsmen at the Memphis Strike

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

phelps-dodge-1983

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.

1HORM22

The National Guard helping break the Hormel Strike

The 1990 Justice for Janitors campaign was not exactly peaceful.

justice-for-janitors

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.

 

Why Have People “Had Enough of Experts”?

2 Jan

One of the defining moments of the EU referendum campaign was Michael Gove’s remark – directed at all the professional economists predicting a Brexit vote would produce economic disaster – that “people in this country have had enough of experts”. This is now seen to have initiated a terrible era of “post-truth” politics. For the experts themselves – many of them, my fellow academics – this is deeply disturbing, signalling the inexorable rise of irrational, fact-free political debate. But what people have had enough of is not experts or expertise, per se; rather, it is the automatic, assumed authority that experts wield over non-experts.

The rise of “experts” to positions of authority in public life is intimately connected with the decline in popular political participation over the last few decades. Society has always needed technical experts to provide advice and implement policies, but increasingly “experts” have taken a central place in decision-making itself. A burgeoning array of issues have been removed from the domain of democratic contestation and handed over to unelected technical experts to decide. In many jurisdictions, legal changes have locked in this turn to “evidence-based policymaking”. The obvious example is the rise of independent central banks. Populated by professional economists, these now control monetary policy – once a matter of intense political contestation between forces favouring inflation control (typically, capital) and those favouring full employment at the expense of some inflation (typically, organised labour). More generally, the rise of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (“quangos”), judicialised bodies, and various commissions and inquiries since the 1980s marks the depoliticisation of many areas of public policy, and the growing authority of technocrats – people whose power derives not from their popular support but their technical expertise. These technocrats have also started coordinating their work across borders, forming transnational governance networks even more remote from popular democratic control. The European Union is only the most obvious example.

There has always been a strong class basis to this shift. Relocating decision-making from representative bodies to technocratic agencies reduces popular control over policymaking while endowing skilled professionals with unprecedented authority. As David Runciman recently argued, increasing evidence of political division between highly- and poorly-educated citizens reflects this divide, with the authority-wielding professions increasingly confined to an ever-narrowing social elite. The shared social background and values of technocrats and those they often seek to regulate – and the increasingly obvious “revolving door” between them – also helps bias governance outcomes in favour of the already wealthy and powerful, rather than serving the public interest. In short, there is nothing neutral about the political rise of experts, despite its frequent presentation as such. Part of the backlash against the attack on “experts” is this class seeking to defend its own power and authority. It also reflects a Remainer fantasy that if only the public were more educated, Remain would have won – as if more mind-numbing courses on the institutional structures on the European Union could somehow magically erase all of society’s social, political and economic contradictions and conflicts.

However, this reaction is overblown: it is not the case that ordinary people have lost all faith in experts, nor have they irrationally embraced “post-truth” politics. What they are revolting against is the automatic, assumed authority of experts. Due to the long decline of political contestation, many experts have become far too accustomed to being listened to with extreme deference; they expect their expertise to translate automatically into authority. It is this assumed authority that rankles with the non-expert: the presumption that, simply because someone has a PhD in a given area, no one else is permitted to voice an opinion. The expert does not even have to explain themselves: the mere invocation of their qualifications should apparently suffice to quell all dissent.

Examples of this abound, but one recent case is the widely-reported Twitter spat between UKIP funder Aaron Banks and historian Mary Beard over whether the Roman Empire was “destroyed by immigration”. Beard slapped him down: “you all need to do a bit more reading… Facts guys! … you guys don’t know Roman history… this might be a subject on which to listen to experts!” Banks defended his view, and was quickly vilified for trying to “mansplain” Rome to the noted female classicist. But his most notable comment was: “Where’s all your counter arguments & facts then?” Notably, Beard supplied none – she just dismissed him as ignorant and asserted her expertise. As the Huffington Post aptly summarised, his crime was failure to “defer to a respected historian’s perspective”.

15391213_1887871008101354_8615057677417117043_n

But why should anyone defer to experts? There are many reasons to think they should not. Most obviously, experts are very often wrong – sometimes disastrously so. Winston Churchill’s “personal technocrat”, Dr Frederick Lindemann, advised the British government that the 1943 Bengal famine was due to overpopulation, counselling against sending relief. Six to seven million Bengalis starved to death. In the 1960s and 1970s, educational psychologist Sir Cyril Burt told the government that black children were genetically less intelligent than whites, holding back the shift to non-selective schooling. In the 1990s, government scientist Dr Robert Lacey warned that, by 1997, a third of the British population would have contracted Creutzfeldt-Jacob disease from eating beef contaminated with “mad cow disease”. The much-touted rise of “evidence-based policymaking” in the 1990s – reflecting the growing depoliticisation of public life – produced swathes of “quack policy”, justifying burgeoning state interference in private decision-making in the name of “public health” or “happiness”. Policies on passive smoking, alcohol pricing, sugar taxation and so on have all been adopted following scientist-backed campaigning – despite the fact that the evidence base is often extremely weak and the policies have often failed. As an IEA review comments,  “evidence-based policymaking” has often been less about scientific rigour than a “mechanism for academic elites to impose their own values on society as a whole, showing contempt for the wishes of the public.”

This clearly extends to research around the EU referendum, where expert authorities have projected their value judgements as truth. The International Monetary Fund, the Treasury, and virtually every professional economist, made bleak predictions about the immediate economic impact of a Brexit vote, which have already been proven badly mistaken. Likewise, a study by Imran Awan of Birmingham City University and Irene Zempi of Nottingham Trent University, released by the charity Hope Not Hate, was found to have vastly exaggerated the positive reaction to the shooting of Labour MP Jo Cox during the referendum campaign. TCM has exposed similar exaggerations or distortions around Brexit by the Electoral Reform Society and #PostRefRacism, both of which had academic input. Other “research” is just openly spiteful, like the UEA academic who discovered a correlation between Leave voting and obesity (not-very-sub-text: Leave voters are stupid and fat).

Unsurprisingly, then, experts are not immune from value judgements that can powerfully shape their pronouncements. Moreover, even when they strive for objectivity, their knowledge is only ever partial. Especially in the humanities and social sciences, everything but the most basic facts is contested, because there are always many ways to interpret data. All real “experts” know this; indeed, many academics (especially those influenced by post-structuralism) have been preaching for decades that there is no such thing as objective truth – only a set of competing “truth-claims”. But many nonetheless splutter with outrage when a non-expert dares to challenge their particular truth-claim.

This is arguably the nub of the issue: the growing political inequality between the “experts” and the masses. Some clearly believe that experts do not even need to justify or explain their perspective to the less-educated; the gap between their credentials should short-circuit the need for any discussion. But in a democracy, citizens are equal. Credentials do not entitle one to a greater say or, as some now openly fantasise about, more heavily weighted votes; and nor should they. Ironically, many “experts” involved in educating students would agree that a good citizen needs to think critically, to not accept received wisdom unquestioningly, and to exercise discriminating judgement. A citizen who fails to do this is evading their responsibility, simply casting their vote on the say-so of authorities, rather than on the basis of their own reason. An expert who denies a fellow citizen the possibility of discussion and debate, and thus proper understanding of issues, therefore corrodes democracy itself.

What non-experts are rightly reasserting, then, after a long period of tightening technocracy, is their equality as political subjects. Experts still have a political role to play – but as citizens informing and participating in debate, not as automatic authorities to whom mere mortals should automatically defer.

Lee Jones

Europe and the Rise of the Plebiscitarian State

8 Dec

The defeat of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reforms have been widely taken as yet another referendum defeat for the European Union (EU), threatening to destabilise the Italian banking system, and through it, the Eurozone itself. One wag on Twitter observed it was time to ‘have a fucking referendum on whether to ban over-confident male prime ministers from holding referendums.’ Here we have a succinct and common view from the pro-EU left of referendums in today’s Europe. Referenda are seen as brash, bold, dicey endeavours, to be expected from immature, testosterone-fuelled male politicians that risk stoking populist insurrection and ballot box revolts, in pointed contrast to the cautious matriarchal management of say, Angela Merkel. Referenda are seen as the tool of irresponsible populists and demagogues: US president-elect Donald Trump courted ex-UKIP leader Nigel Farage and memorably promised a ‘Brexit-plus-plus-plus’ for his election victory, seeking to turn the US presidential elections into a referendum on the ‘Washington elite’.

Yet if referenda are the battering rams of the populist-barbarians-at-the-gates, they have become remarkably common features of the European political order over the last thirty-odd years. To name but a few, we have had the Dutch (2005, 2016), Irish (2001, 2002), French (2005), Scottish (2015), Greek (2015), Danish (1993, 2015), British (2011, 2016) and Hungarian (2016) referenda, with the possibility of more Dutch, French and Italian referenda to follow over the next few years. Why have the member states of the notoriously technocratic EU so frequently resorted to asking for direct popular mandates?

The growing frequency of referenda since the turn of the century reflects the EU’s deepening and broadening since the end of the Cold War. On the one hand, European integration processes have intensified the use of referendums in those states that require direct votes under the terms of national constitutions (France, Ireland, and Denmark). The establishment of monetary union also required referenda in Denmark (2000) and Sweden (2003). On the other hand, expansion eastwards and southwards also required direct popular votes in the candidate countries. Thus the EU enlargement of 2004 saw no less than nine referenda in the aspirant member states. European reliance on referenda was further extended by the EU when it notoriously demanded repeat referenda in Ireland (2001, 2002) until the desired outcome was secured with respect to the Treaty of Nice. Remainers in the UK, still hoping to thwart Brexit, are now demanding another referendum, this time on the terms of Brexit. In short, long before Farage, Cameron, Renzi or Orban became leading political figures, the referendum had been entrenched as an archetypal tool of European governance across the continent, all under the benign guidance of Brussels. Whatever criticisms we may we wish to offer of referenda as a tool of government – and there are many – such arguments need to be directed against the EU and its supporters at least as much as against any anti-EU populist seeking to undermine the foundations of the status quo.

To be sure, not all of these referenda directly concerned any given country’s relationship with the EU. The Scottish referendum for instance, concerned whether or not Scotland would remain part of the UK. Yet even here, the EU was woven through the fabric of Scottish politics and embedded in the choice Scottish voters had to make. The EU has accelerated the process of regionalisation and decentralisation seen in European states since the 1970s, thereby systematically reducing the political risks of independence. This development has been keenly exploited by the secessionist Scottish National Party (SNP), which packaged the prospect of self-determination in the protective layers offered by ‘independence … in Europe’. How likely an independent Scotland would be able to secure fast-track membership of the EU also doubtless figured in voter’s calculations as to the risks and benefits of breaking away from London.

Given all this, it seems safe to say that referenda have become a structural feature of the European political order, a characteristic of the transformation of Europe’s decayed nation-states into the member-states of the European Union. According to Chris Bickerton’s theory, the EU has blossomed in the detritus left by the decay of representative democracy at the national level. As the organic links connecting states and societies have crumbled away leaving a ‘void’ between governments and the governed, the member-states of the EU have had resort to other means in order to secure some measure of popular legitimacy. That the EU should be so reliant on a tool as characteristically authoritarian as the plebiscite should come as no surprise; the EU is after allthe form of government that has arisen as representative democracy has declined.

Referenda allow political elites to strip-mine popular legitimacy with tightly controlled questions that they devise themselves, while offering the voters limited options and avoiding the flux of ongoing contestation between and within political parties. As one-off political choices, referenda offer rich symbolic rewards: the EU could claim a popular mandate in the chain of referenda that heralded its expansion eastwards in 2004. This was despite the fact that the process of accession typically strengthened executives at the expensive of legislatures and required parliaments to swallow thousands of pages of community law – the notorious acquis – all at once, making a mockery of the very meaning of passing legislation.

The plebiscitarian state emerging in Europe represents the further decay of the EU member-state, and is the logical conclusion of the degradation of democracy. Nor should it come as any surprise that the populists have succeeded in turning the technocrats’ favoured instrument of popular legitimation against them: populism and technocracy feed off each other, consuming representative party politics. A Remainer alliance is now forming in Britain, rallying around the call for a second referendum. Led by the Liberal Democrats but extending to the SNP, rebel Tories and Labour MPs, they seek not to overturn Brexit but rather indirectly to thwart it. If they succeed, they will accomplish what the populists have not, which is to complete Britain’s transformation into a plebscitarian state: Britain will thus retain the plebiscitarian political structure of the typical member-state even as we formally break from the EU.

Philip Cunliffe

Too much of a good thing: arguments against a second referendum

6 Dec

The demand for a second referendum on the terms of Brexit seems to be gathering force. The recent by-election victory for the Liberal Democrats’ in the hitherto Tory safe seat of Richmond was widely seen as a mini-referendum on Brexit. Former Tory Prime Minister John Major has waded into the debate, with his claims that while the popular verdict on the EU should be respected, a second referendum is nonetheless justified. Even Simon Jenkins, one of the few major commentators that managed to retain his composure in the aftermath of the June referendum, has given qualified support to the idea of a second referendum. In light of the continued prevarication over Brexit, it is worth revisiting some of our broad arguments regarding referendums and representative democracy. The Brexit effect continues to reverberate through British politics: those who sneered at referendums as rabble-rousing now earnestly make the case for a second referendum – thereby risking institutionalising the referendum as a mode of governance in Brexit Britain.

It is not difficult to discern arguments for having a second referendum, not least the fact that the precedent has now been established. The terms on which Britain leaves the European Union (EU) are clearly important for the country – in terms of movement of peoples, border control, long-term trade opportunities and patterns of economic growth. If the question of membership of the EU merited consulting the public, why should the terms on which we leave the EU not merit a similar level of democratic legitimation and public engagement? It is also worth noting that debates on a second referendum cut across the ongoing tussle in the Supreme Court over managing Brexit, such as the timing and modalities of invoking Article 50. After all, regardless of when Prime Minister May triggers Article 50 and whether or not she does it with a parliamentary vote, she could still call a referendum on the outcome of negotiations with Brussels at the end of the two-year negotiating period that would follow the invocation of Article 50. In light of all this, it is worth recalling what the best arguments for holding the Brexit referendum were in the first place, and considering how they stack up against the arguments for a second referendum.

On TCM we have sought to make the political case for representative democracy – against the inter-twined threats of technocratic subversion on the one hand, and the phony politicisation of populism on the other. Despite the fact that referendums justly have a reputation as the tool of direct democracy and populist authoritarianism, and whatever David Cameron’s personal motivations for calling the referendum, I supported a referendum on Brexit. More than this, I reckoned it to be the single most important political question put before the British electorate over the last three decades. There were several reasons for holding this view.

First, approaching the referendum entailed reckoning with the parlous state of representative democracy in Britain itself. That is to say: declining rates of public engagement and political participation whether measured by compression of the ideological spectrum, declining interest in politics, collapsing membership of political parties and the long term decline in voting in general elections. With the structures of representative democracy having been so rotted through prior to the referendum, it is reasonable to supplement the process of political decision-making with direct public engagement.

Important as such factors are, these were nonetheless secondary considerations. More important was the fact that it was the nature of democracy itself that was at issue in the referendum. Should legislation be crafted and debated by elected representatives, or channelled via the executive’s prerogative over foreign policy into Brussels, to then be funnelled back to national capitals and then be rubber-stamped by national parliaments? This hollowing out of the democratic process that took place under the aegis of the EU was the strongest reason to ensure that the electorate was given a voice over membership of the Union itself. Irrespective of the outcome, the referendum energised democracy. With the Brexit vote, the possibility of restoring representative liberal democracy at the nation-state level exists. Whatever the outcome of Brexit, political elites have been put on notice by the referendum as to the fact that they can be held to account, even through the limited formal representative structures offered by the British state. Evading popular accountability has become more politically difficult since the referendum.

Yet there are also good reasons to be wary of repeat referendums. A direct national vote on the character of national democracy is a different kind of political decision than a direct national vote on the outcome of negotiations overseen by elected representatives: the latter clearly slides into plebiscitarianism. Instead of escalating plebiscitiarian rule, British political parties should take advantage of their post-Brexit boost in membership and public political engagement to rebuild democratic contestation at the national level. Doubtless opportunistic Remainers will rally behind the call for a second referendum of whatever complexion, in the hope of throwing anything they can in the way of Brexit. Yet Remainers’ criticisms of the political degradation resulting from Brexit risk becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for which they will be complicit: if plebiscitarianism is embedded in the functioning of the British state, then a democratic shot in the arm may end up becoming a debilitating drug.

Philip Cunliffe

Trumped: The Nadir of US Representative Democracy

17 Nov

The election of a manifestly incompetent, billionaire bigot as president of the USA has come as a shock to many people, as indeed it should. Unfortunately, too many have been quick to reach for a familiar and self-serving excuse: blame the electorate. In 2004, when George W Bush was re-elected, the Daily Mirror spoke for many in asking how 59,054,087 people could ‘be so dumb’. This time around, voters are not only being derided as ‘stupid’, but also misogynist – because they rejected a highly-qualified female candidate for a nasty, self-declared ‘pussy-grabber’ – and also racist – since voters backed Trump either because, or in total disregard of, his intensely racist and nativist campaign rhetoric and policy pledges. But, while sexists and racists doubtless supported Trump, this does not explain how he was able to win the election. Indeed, the ‘whitelash thesis’ only distracts attention from the actual cause of his victory: the rot at the heart of America’s democratic system in general and of the Democratic Party in particular.

In brief, the ‘whitelash’ thesis is that white, middle-class and especially male voters reacted against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, drawn to Trump’s racialized promise to ‘take their country back’. The thesis draws on facts like the following. 67% of white men backed Trump. His supporters prioritised the (racialized) issues of immigration and terrorism over the economy. Trump voters were not the poorest, earning under $50,000 per year (they voted mostly for Clinton); they are the middle-income workers (who in the US are generally referred to as ‘middle class’), who care more about affirmative action allowing minorities to steal jobs from whites than they care about trade offshoring jobs. So they voted Trump not out of real economic plight, but because they feel their white privilege slipping away to non-whites and, for men, to women. They felt that ‘eight years of one demographically symbolic president is enough’, blaming their economic grievances on a black president instead of Ronald Reagan, whose policies actually started the rot. And they voted ‘against an economy they believed was giving women a step up’. The most subtle versions of the thesis admit that not all voters may have been motivated by such concerns, but they nonetheless ‘gave force’ to these retrograde views by endorsing Trump.

No doubt this ugly portrait describes a certain hard-core minority of American voters. Nonetheless, there is no way that this thesis can account for Trump’s victory.

The simple reason is that there was no surge for Trump, even among the white working class; on the contrary, support for the Republicans fell – it just fell much more for the Democrats. In fact, the hallmark of the 2016 presidential election is the radical disengagement of vast numbers of citizens from the democratic process.

This is obvious merely from turnout data, which is being scrupulously analysed on Facebook by Kole Kilibarda. As he puts it: in 2012, the two major parties got about 125m of 130m votes cast, while 90m eligible voters did not vote; in 2016, they got 122.5m of 130m votes cast, while 100m eligible voters (higher due to population growth) abstained.

capture

White voters did not support Trump significantly more than Mitt Romney in 2012: there was only a 1% swing, to 58% for Trump/37% for Clinton. That is, disproportionate white support for Republican presidential candidates is a longstanding fact (going back to Lyndon Johnson’s repudiation of the ‘Dixiecrats’), and did not substantially change in 2016. Evidence from the five ‘rust belt’ states that fell unexpectedly to Trump shows that he only picked up about 300,000 white working class votes. This makes it hard to sustain the idea of a whitelash against Obama.

Indeed, overall, Trump not only got fewer votes than Clinton but also about 400,000 fewer than Romney. He was not a popular candidate whose ideas and rhetoric enthused most Americans. He won just 47.2% of the vote, or 21.6% of the eligible electorate. Many who did vote for Trump did not like him: 57% of whites thought him untrustworthy; a quarter said he was unqualified and lacked the right temperament; and only 42% of his supporters ‘strongly favoured’ him, while 61% of citizens had an unfavourable view of Trump. Many Trump voters also disagreed with key policy positions like deporting illegal immigrants. Trump did not boost his vote with his ‘whitelash’ trash-talk – he didn’t even hold up the Republican vote from 2012. At best, he managed to rally the traditional Republican base – and little more than that.

So the question is not so much why Trump won, but why Clinton lost to such a poor opponent. The fact is that while the Republican vote declined, the Democrat vote collapsed. It fell from 69.5m in 2008 and 65.9m in 2012 to just 61.3m, despite the electorate increasing by over 18m over this period. Turnout was especially bad in states that Clinton lost. Kilibarda’s analysis of the Rustbelt-5 shows that while Trump picked up 300,000 working-class votes, Clinton lost 1.5m as voters either went for third-parties (about 500,000) or abstained. As Kilibarda puts it: ‘Trump did not “flip” these states as much as the Democrats lost them.’ Problematically for the whitelash thesis, Clinton’s collapse was worst among minority voters: compared to Obama in 2012, she was down 8 points among African-Americans and Latinos, and 11 down among Asians. Accordingly, 8% of blacks, 29% of Latinos, 29% of Asians and 37% of ‘other’ minorities voted Republican. This was particularly devastating because demographic change was supposed to work against Trump, with the white share of the electorate declining from 72% to 70% from 2012-16.

So the truth is that white and minority voters abandoned the Democrats en masse; but white voters did not rush for Trump. Far from being the gullible fools of much liberal commentary, somehow believing that the oligarchic Trump was their saviour, they refused to vote for either party, backing third candidates or simply abstaining. Indeed, the 100m citizens who did not vote are the crucial force in this election, dwarfing the voters supporting either main party. Put simply, Trump could not even maintain Republican support levels from 2012, winning thanks only to 107,000 votes in just swing three states. If Clinton had been able to mobilise just 1% of the non-voting population in key states, Trump would have lost.

Her failure to do so cannot be understood independently of racism or sexism. It is true that local laws requiring voters to show photo ID tend to affect (or indeed target) minorities more than whites, which one study suggests depresses Democrat votes more than Republican ones. We will not know their true effect until turnout data is clearer. It is also true that Clinton was down 5 points with men, including Democratic men, while gaining only 1% among women on 2012, and her big collapse among black voters was with men, not women – providing stronger support for a sexism thesis than a racism one, particularly when we consider how many voters had backed Obama in 2008 and 2012. However, race also intersects here: as one commentator puts it, if white working class women had split 50/50 instead of 62/34 for Trump, Clinton would have won.

Nonetheless, invoking these factors as a primary explanation implicitly assumes that Clinton’s platform was good, especially relative to Trump’s, and so a lack of support can only be attributed to malign forces and motives. But actually, many people did not feel her platform was good. No more voters felt enthused by a Clinton presidency than a Trump one – just 4 in 10 for each. 44% of eligible voters viewed her unfavourably. Obama at least offered ‘hope’ and ‘change’, with big ideas on healthcare and the like – though his failure to deliver much arguably explains his waning support in 2012. But Clinton was a pale imitation. She is the quintessential establishment candidate; her sole claim to ‘change’ was to be America’s first woman president.

This may have put off some male voters, as stated above – but it clearly failed to enthuse women, too, given their tiny 1% swing towards Clinton. Some commentators have been quick to blame ‘internalised misogyny’ or female ‘sexism’, especially among whites. But perhaps – just perhaps! – women wanted a bit more and so refused, in Susan Sarandon’s words, to ‘vote with their vaginas’. They stand condemned because they refused to obey the diktat of neoliberal identity politics, preferring instead to vote on other issues.

The same goes for the so-called ‘middle class’ – not the poorest citizens, who are kept afloat by Democrat policies and vote accordingly, but middling workers who, despite working hard, are experiencing declining living standards and feel pessimistic about the future (a parallel here to Brexit). Certainly, some of their grievances may take a racialized form as they blame immigrants or minorities. But what alternative form did Clinton suggest that it take? Unlike Bernie Sanders, who promoted an explicitly class-based framework, it is impossible to say what Clinton offered these people, because she barely addressed their concerns. Clinton has been a leading figure in an increasingly technocratic political class that, since the 1980s, has largely ignored working people, abandoning them to the mercies of the free market, neoliberal trade deals, and stagnating real wages, while cosying up to Wall Street and billionaire donors. ‘Middle-class’ voters would be foolish to believe that Trump would do much differently, but nor can they reasonably have much faith that Clinton will depart from form. Her elitist disdain for Trump’s ‘basket of deplorables’ simply compounded her enormous distance from ordinary voters.

The 2016 US presidential election, then, is a sad story of the hollowing out of America’s representative democracy. The rot was halted temporarily by Obama’s promise of hope and change, but resumed quickly enough. The so-called ‘Grand Old Party’ could not generate a single serious candidate to rival a perma-tanned reality TV star, and even this wild populist could not maintain – let alone increase – Republican support. And the best the Democrat establishment could field was someone loathed by much of the electorate. A hundred million Americans felt so divorced from the political process, so unrepresented by either political party, that they could not bring themselves to vote for anyone. The result is a president that only a small minority of American voters actually wanted.

Of course, it may still be objected that it is all very well for white workers to abstain; thanks to their ‘white privilege’ they won’t bear the brunt of Trump’s nasty policies. While those pushing this line still struggle to explain (i.e. conveniently ignore) the millions of non-white voters supporting Trump, the more important response is this: in a democracy, a settlement that serves the interests of minorities cannot be created without simultaneously appealing to the interests of the majority. For this reason, fragmented identity politics won’t do. An inclusive socialist platform, capable of appealing to workers of all sexes and ethnicities, remains essential.

Lee Jones

%d bloggers like this: