The EU Referendum: Brexit, the Politics of Scale and State Transformation

This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.

The choice facing Britain in the EU referendum is best understood, I suggest, using two concepts that I’ve used a lot in my work with Shahar Hameiri recently: ‘the politics of scale’, and state transformation. In a nutshell: the EU emerged through the rescaling of governance to inter-elite networks insulated – by design – from popular control, which lock in anti-democratic and conservative policies. Restoring popular control has to involve leaving the EU and revitalising national democracy in a progressive, internationalist direction.

In political geography, a ‘scale’ is a defined socio-political space, which is usually located within one or more hierarchies of related spaces. Examples can include tiers of established governance – boroughs, cities, provinces, nations, and regions, for example. They could be defined ethnically or religiously – a parish, the ummah – or even environmentally – habitats, bio-regions or the global environment. What’s fundamentally at stake in the EU referendum is the primary scale at which British citizens should be governed: the national (Brexit) or the regional scale (Bremain). The scale of governance is contested because different scales involve different configurations of actors, resources, power relations and opportunity structures, privileging some interests and agendas over others.

In the post-war decades, the entire Western-led global economic and political order was designed to consolidate the nation-state as a ‘taken-for-granted’ scale and space of governance. Within Western states, a new Fordist-Keynesian bargain was struck between key social forces, brokered by corporatist states: capitalists bought social peace from labour in exchange for steady expansion in wages and living standards. The Bretton Woods settlement supported this by restricting international finance and regulating currencies, which helped states plan their economies. The postwar order thus upheld ‘the primacy of national economies, national welfare states, and national societies managed by national states concerned to unify national territories and reduce uneven development’, as Bob Jessop puts it. Even the early phase of European integration was designed to support national development, thereby securing ‘the European rescue of the nation-state’.

This consolidation of the national scale and its associated institutions afforded unprecedented access to policymaking for organised labour. Moderate trade unions were directly inserted into decision-making forums alongside government bureaucrats and business representatives. Ordinary people could also hold governments to account through democratic practices. In this peak era of state sovereignty, lines of responsibility and accountability were clear.

This all began to change in the 1970s. That decade’s crisis of capitalist profitability eroded the basis of the Fordist-Keynesian social compact, which shattered amidst renewed labour insurgency. The new right’s solution to the crisis was to smash organised labour, deregulate industry and finance, and restore capitalist hegemony on the basis of a neoliberal social order. Scale was a crucial element in this struggle. The quest for nationally-based development was essentially jettisoned in favour of what we now call ‘globalisation’: the transnationalisation of investment, production and consumption. Allowing investment to flow globally – to wherever had the most ‘competitive’ wages and operating environment – was a vital means to erode the power of organised labour.

This scalar resolution to the crisis clearly exposed the limitations of the Western left’s accommodation to capitalist states, which tied them into nationally-based forms of power. The European left has always been rhetorically internationalist but, in practice, it has been overwhelmingly organised through national political parties and unions. The onset of World War I illustrated that, notwithstanding elite concerns, nationalism and patriotism had effectively segmented the European left. While World War II and the rise of Soviet power granted the left unprecedented leverage after 1945, it exercised this nationally, through domestic legislation, national bargaining and state-based corporatist institutions. Essentially the left opted for ‘socialism in one country’ rather than socialist internationalism. This rendered the working classes continually susceptible to divisive, nationalist-patriotic appeals, such as during the Falklands/Malvinas War. Moreover, this reliance on national institutions left workers helpless when capital went global.

As the national scale lost its primacy in accumulation strategies, so its primacy in the realm of political governance also began to wane. Here, the concept of ‘state transformation’ becomes useful, foregrounding the fragmentation, decentralisation and internationalisation of statehood. Below the national scale, regions, provinces and cities became international actors, trying to lure foreign investors, businesses and tourists – a phenomenon now recognised as ‘paradiplomacy’ and the formation of transboundary ‘regions’. Above the national scale, transnational policy networks and regimes proliferated.

The EU’s ‘Ordinary Legislative Procedure’. Perfectly transparent.

As governance shifted into intergovernmental forums, or transgovernmental networks between independent regulators, access to decision-making narrowed sharply. In contrast to nationally-based, corporatist institutions, these new governance forums are limited to elite networks and those able to operate internationally to influence them. Some capitalists have become highly adept at operating transnationally. Labour, by contrast, remains predominantly national. It is often illegal to strike in solidarity with your own compatriots in another sector, let alone with foreigners. International forums may be open to representatives of big business, and certain Northern NGOs, but they are inaccessible by design to the vast majority of people and their representatives.

As Chris Bickerton clearly demonstrates, the European Union is the case par excellence here. The formation of the single market represented the rescaling of both economics and politics. The barriers between national economies were dissolved, rescaling economic accumulation to the regional level. German capital has been the biggest winner of this rescaling, swamping less-efficient regions with its exports and offshoring labour-intensive production to lower-wage EU economies. (By contrast, German labour unions have been forced to accept worse wages and conditions merely to avoid mass unemployment.)

The single market is also governed through rescaled institutions. Crucially, it is not the case, as many Eurosceptics suggest, that we are ruled by ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’ manning a ‘European superstate’, nor is the emergence of such a superstate remotely likely. The rescaling of governance does not need to involve a wholesale shift in sovereign authority from a national to a supranational entity. Much more often, it involves state transformation: the reconfiguration of state apparatuses such such that their various elements become part of transnational policy networks.

Bickerton shows how this works in Europe. Decisions about economic policy are now not taken by individual countries’ finance ministers, nor by a supranational body, but rather EU finance ministers collectively. Their ministries now constantly consult with each other and seek to harmonise policy across the Union – the so-called ‘coordination method of integration’. This process now exists across every conceivable field of governmental activity, from agriculture to sport and even foreign and security policy. The key transition in this rescaling of governance is not a simplistic loss of state power to a supranational body. It is rather the relocation of decision-making to a different scale and to different institutions, such as the Council of Europe and the Eurogroup, where a very different configuration of actors, resources, power and opportunities prevail. Power is not necessarily shifted out of state hands, but it is exercised in forums and by actors who are deliberately shielded from public scrutiny and popular accountability.

A European Council meeting. The meetings are held entirely in private and are not even minuted.

The benefit of this rescaling is that it has allowed many European elites to push through neoliberal policies that would have encountered tremendous – possibly fatal – resistance had this been attempted at the national scale. In fact, such resistance is precisely what encouraged many elites to take this step. For François Mitterand’s government in France, for example, the single market was a way to evade powerful French unions opposed to abandoning dirigisme. By relocating decision-making beyond the national scale, likeminded elites could formulate policies away from such opposition and ‘lock in’ their preferences.

Stephen Gill refers to this as ‘economic constitutionalism’: certain goals and rules are permanently enshrined in international law, making them difficult or impossible for domestic populations to challenge or change. This was not ‘done to’ Britain (or anyone else) by some mysterious, supranational EU elite; it was done by EU member-state managers on behalf of dominant social groups. In essence, the single market ‘locked in’ a monetarist and neoliberal ‘constitution’ for Europe, binding member-states to pursue business-friendly priorities of fiscal discipline and low inflation – rather than the goal of full employment typically favoured by organised labour. In the years that followed, large-scale business has cemented this bias by organising internationally to access rescaled governance apparatuses like the European Commission, essentially drafting a whole draft of EU regulations.

This rescaled form of governance has enormous effects on our everyday lives and shapes the outcome of practically every major event in Europe. The results have been most obvious during the Euro-crisis. It has been painfully obvious that no amount of domestic contestation in countries like Portugal, Spain, Italy or – most especially – Greece (the ‘PIGS’) makes the slightest difference to decision-making on crucial economic, social and political issues. The Euro-crisis has been governed throughout by elite networks: the ‘troika’ of the IMF, the European Central Bank, and the Eurozone finance ministers. As Bickerton argues, the latter’s function in particular has been to shield economic decision-making from popular forces and allow national ministers to present their decision to embrace austerity as one imposed from without. This was revealed when the other PIGS were the harshest cheerleaders for austerity in Greece: they feared letting Greece ‘off the hook’ would encourage their own domestic populations to demand a similar escape.

Greece voted ‘oxi’ (no) to EU austerity in July 2015. An even harsher programme of austerity than the one rejected was imposed shortly thereafter.

Thus, EU policy networks are essentially clubs of national elites working to marginalise and exclude parts of their own electorates from power over decision-making. The thin patina of democracy given to the EU via the European Parliament does not alter this reality: European laws are not drafted by the parliament but by the unelected Commission, and most EU decision-making bypasses legislation altogether.

This helps us to understand why, despite decades of Eurosceptic frothing, a European super-state has not and will not emerge. Most European elites are quite happy with a mode of governance that maximises their autonomy from their own electorates while minimising their popular accountability. This typically includes the British elite, which is why so few of them are pro-Brexit: the most recent manoeuvre is the claim that EU ‘state aid’ rules prohibit the nationalisation of Britain’s troubled steel industry (which has not stopped Italy). Patriotic bluster about an all-powerful EU bureaucracy or a looming super-state simply misunderstands the situation, and plays straight into the hands of Europhiles who can point to the ultimate supremacy of the Council of Ministers, which obviously comprises elected officials. The point is not that Europe is run by an unaccountable bureaucracy. Rather, it is run by a network of elected officials and their appointees via transnational institutions that insulate them from popular accountability and control.

In reality, there is nothing most European elites would dread more than the EU’s evolution into a truly federal superstate, with an elected president, government and parliament. If this occurred, representative democracy and clear lines of accountability would be restored. The secretive, private meetings that presently dominate would not be tolerated; EU ministers would have to account for their actions in parliament and face censure. Public access – however mediated – would be restored to the main institutions of public decision-making. Elites could not hide behind each other but would have to face the electorate squarely. The very idea terrifies most European elites, who harbour a deep contempt for their own populations, seeing large swathes of them as anti-cosmopolitan, uneducated, protectionist and illiberal.

Interestingly, even supposedly progressive elites share this view. Yanis Varoufakis, for example, continues to insist on continued EU membership for Greece and Britain because, he suggests, rescaling governance from the regional level back to the national level will boost right-wing parties and allow them to seize power. This is one reason why Syriza was ultimately unwilling to leave the EU.

Insofar as this fear has any foundation in reality, it is largely a result of the degradation of democracy and the decay of the left that EU integration has helped cement. The forces that presently support populist, anti-EU, anti-immigration parties like UKIP in Britain or Le Front Nationale in France are those social groups most disenfranchised by neoliberal economic constitutionalism and the rescaling of governance. Some generations ago, these groups supported left-nationalist parties. These parties were defeated – as part of the wider evisceration of the left that the EU’s formation helped produce – and most converted into ‘third way’ entities: pro-EU and neoliberal in orientation. Thereby deprived of political representation, it is hardly surprising that these social forces are being channelled by the right. The experience of Syriza and Podemos shows that it is possible to redirect these forces in a left-populist direction – though Syriza’s capitulation to EU diktat simply adds to the decades of betrayal.

In any case, it is this fear of returning to the national scale of governance – and, ultimately, a fear of the domestic electorate – that undergirds much opposition to Brexit, especially on the left. After a lifetime of opposition to the EU, even Jeremy Corbyn is campaigning (however half-heartedly) for Bremain. The supposedly ‘progressive’ argument for Bremain is precisely the ‘constitutionalism’ point: governance scaled at the EU level ‘locks in’ some policies that progressives support, which they fear would be eroded if national-scale governance was restored.

This is partly because of Britain’s particular historical development. By the time Britain joined the EU, Thatcher had already violently imposed a neoliberal revolution, so did not necessarily need the EU to bypass domestic opposition – though it certainly consolidated her gains and benefited British finance capital. Indeed, conversely, Britain had to accept some aspects of ‘social Europe’ – minor concessions to labour required to legitimise the project on the continent, where the left had not yet been utterly crushed. This peculiar trajectory is why the British right has always railed against EU policies as alien, lefty impositions, negotiating endless opt-outs and rebates, while the post-Thatcher, eviscerated left has tended to see the EU as a curb on right-wing extremism. On the continent, the EU’s essentially neoliberal character has always been more transparently obvious.

The contemporary left, then, opposes Brexit on the grounds that things like environmental protection, human rights and modest labour regulations depend on continued EU membership and would be destroyed if national representative democracy was restored. Looking at the current electoral balance – especially if the Scottish National Party responded to Brexit with a successful second independence referendum – it seems that voting to leave would hand power to the Tories in perpetuity, boosting the ‘xenophobes and the immigrant-bashing nationalists’. Unfettered by Europe, so the argument from groups like ‘Salvage’ goes, the Tories would gleefully trash every progressive policy. As Paul Mason pithily expressed it, the ‘principled leftwing case for Brexit’, despite being undeniable, should be ‘ignored’ because of ‘two words: Boris Johnson’.

This despondent analysis reflects the utterly bankrupt state of Britain’s so-called left. It can only mean that the left – including Corbyn – lacks any faith in its capacity to lead the British public towards a more progressive future. It does not believe that the majority of people support progressive policies, nor that it can persuade them to do so. The only way to ensure that ‘left-wing’ preferences can triumph is to rely on a fundamentally undemocratic institution to ‘lock them in’. (The same occurs domestically as ‘progressives’ rely on the entirely undemocratic House of Lords to uphold human rights and resist austerity measures.) In this sense, the Brexit debate tells us more about what Britons think of one another than what they think of the EU. And the dominant feelings are clearly fear and loathing.

The political sacrifice involved in this anti-democratic position are considerable. It essentially means settling for a Blairite agenda as the best that Britain can possibly manage. Many of Corbyn’s most basic policies would be struck down by the EU. The nationalisation of the railways or utilities, for example, would be barred by ‘state aid’ rules. So-called ‘people’s quantitative easing’ is illegal under EU law, which bars central banks from funding government spending. And EU court rulings have enshrined the permanent degradation of labour law. Even Corbyn’s modest policies – which would hardly herald a transition to socialism – are impossible within the EU’s ‘economic constitutionalism’. If you think Corbyn’s election as Labour leader is a good thing, it is absurd to then support a political structure that would systematically prevent him achieving his objectives. That Corbyn himself is doing this merely reflects his own inability to lead the parliamentary party on this issue, as with so many.

To be clear, there is nothing particularly special or sacred about the national scale of governance. Notwithstanding nationalist celebrations of it as a shared community of blood and soil, history shows that nations were always created after or as part of the process of nation-state formation, through the often violent homogenisation of subject populations. The national scale of governance was preceded by much smaller, more fragmented scales – the polymorphy of medieval Europe, the dominance of the urban scale in the great city-states, and so on. There is no reason to think of the national scale as the natural, final or even desirable scale at which anything should necessarily be governed. It is just one configuration of actors, resources, power and opportunity structures among many.

But the national scale does have some concrete advantages: it is far smaller than the regional scale, local actors have a greater sense of mutual identification, and the structures of representative democracy, however flawed, do exist. This is in strong distinction to the regional scale, which comprises 508 million individuals with far more diverse identities and affiliations, and entirely lacks any genuine pan-European parties and meaningful institutions of popular representation, with authority concentrated in unaccountable, elite policy networks.

The importance of this distinction is revealed when considering Yanis Varoufakis’s alternative to Brexit. He insists that Britain must stay and fight for a democratic EU. This is simply an extension of Syriza’s fantasy of a ‘good EU’, which led to its failure and Varoufakis’s resignation. The idea relies upon progressive forces taking power in all the leading EU member-states then forcing the EU to change its ways.

Yanis says: just say no. I mean, yes.

The contradiction is obvious. On the one hand, supposed leftists like Varoufakis disbelieve in their capacity to mobilise a few tens of millions of people in their own societies towards progressive ends (restoring democracy will only benefit neoliberal Tories or the far right). Yet, they somehow believe that it is possible to mobilise hundreds of millions of people across the entirety of Europe for exactly the same purpose. Incredibly, they further believe that it is possible to achieve this simultaneously, such that the national positions of EU member-states would converge.

In reality, as a simple practical matter, it is self-evidently easier to mobilise fewer rather than more people, and to act unilaterally rather than multilaterally. The task Varoufakis proposes – coordinated leftist victories across Europe – is surely even more fantastical than the idea that the left might succeed in just one national territory. His idea – and those like it – are nothing more than a flight from domestic politics – a reluctance to face up to the left’s persistent failure to win at the national level and the work needed to change that. Varoufakis is simply the latest in a long line of politicians like Jacques Delors and François Mitterand who, having failed miserably in domestic politics, look vainly to the continent for their salvation.

Brexit offers a clear, once in a generation opportunity to revitalise democracy and restore accountable government. Those who argue that this would simply hand power to Tories and nationalists betray a deeply pessimistic and anti-democratic sentiment. Rescaling governance back to the national level does not automatically result in right-wing victory, or policies one dislikes; it depends entirely on the political struggle that follows. There is no reason why rejecting the EU means rejecting Europe if we fight for an internationalist politics.

Those who want to avoid conservative outcomes must fight for an alternative. That means formulating policy platforms with wide appeal that reconnect with disaffected citizens. It means arguing for ideas and mobilising people to achieve one’s ends, rather than relying on undemocratic institutions to work against the people’s stated preferences. These are the basic functions of a political party. If the Labour Party cannot do these things, it deserves to lose. If it cannot reverse its decline from a popular force into an electoral machine for elite politics, it deserves to crumble into irrelevance so that something better can be born.

And what is the alternative? Voting Bremain, keeping the zombified Labour Party going as a third-way entity: not quite killed off, thanks to certain, rather meagre EU protections of some favoured policies, but structurally disabled from pursuing a more transformative agenda? Producing the latter may be very difficult at the national scale, but it is impossible at the transnational scale.

Ultimately, Brexit should be welcomed as a chance to shatter the instruments of transnational elite rule, destabilise the already crumbling British constitutional settlement, and reinvigorate politics. The status quo is not worth defending, and merely changing the rules of the game could – contrary to left-pessimism – change outcomes in a surprising way, as the SNP’s experience in Scotland shows. Certainly, a prolonged struggle would be required, both to prevent the triumph of Little Englanders, and to avoid a doomed, pseudo-leftist attempt to revive the already-failed strategy of ‘socialism in one country’. The scale of the challenge ahead is indeed vast, but the struggle is surely worth it.

41 thoughts on “The EU Referendum: Brexit, the Politics of Scale and State Transformation

  1. Pingback: The EU Referendum: A Disorders Forum | The Disorder Of Things

  2. Fantastic article. I still haven’t made my mind up yet but this has certainly me swung me pro-Brexit for a while. In particular the criticism of the Bremain left camp as being contemptuous of the ‘demos’ is certainly something that many lefties need to come to term with (me included).

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  3. Lee, thanks for this thoughtful post, and for organizing this timely symposium.I agree with you that the political is not always sufficiently foregrounded in new spatial studies (eg, esp. with regards to the role of the state. Within IR, in addition to various Marxist scholars, a similar point has been forcefully made by Yale Ferguson and Richard W Mansbach decades ago: forget states, focus on polities.

    In terms of the main substance–and this is a question by a very distant observer of British politics who happens to be subject to bouts of major left-pessimism–aren’t there too many ifs and buts here? Take leadership: Is there anyone other than Lord Owen (!) claiming to be making such a left-wing case for Brexit? Any major movements, media outlets etc? These are genuine questions. Paul Mason et al may have offered answers on these, but I’d prefer to hear your thoughts.

    Again, thanks for the symposium. very much looking forward to the rest.

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    • Hi Srdjan, thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you – there is little to no left leadership on Brexit. There are a few unions who see the EU for what it really is, who were involved in a No2EU campaign some years ago and now want Brexit, but in a progressive direction, rejecting collaboration with UKIP et al – see I think if Corbyn had followed his instincts and led a positive, “Lexit” (left-exit) campaign, he could have mobilised these groups and many more on the “Bennite” left, and perhaps won over many more voters who aren’t sure or only vote Bremain for negative reasons/ out of fear. Owen Jones laid out the possibilities in a piece for the Guardian last year, but even he has given up on his principles and is now promoting Bremain. So, as the post says, there is a colossal lack of leadership on the left. A real missed opportunity to shake up the political landscape.

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  4. Thanks for this thougtful and though-provoking post, Lee. I think that the issue you address of scalar politics is relevant not only to the EU, but more generally. That said, I’m not entirely convinced by your arguments regarding the politics of scale and would like to suggest some reasons why.
    The left seems to be stuck in a difficult situation in many countries around the world. International trade agreements and other mechanisms of global governance have priivleged capital over labor at the same time that neoliberalism and, more recently, the politics of austerity have become more entrenched. Pardoxically, it is right-wing forces that are taking advantage of this by employing a politics of racism and xenophobia as an outlet for working class anger and frustration. Putatively leftist political parties, having become in reality the parties of finance and corporate power, are stuck supporting a liberal cosmopolitanism at odds with what has been their historical base of political support, the working class. Given this situation, it would seem to make sense for the left to retake the ground of nationalist sentiment that has been ceded to right wing, reactionary forces, and reject cosmopolitan internationalism or globalism, focusing their efforts on struggles for emancipation at the national scale.
    I wonder, though, is scale really the most salient factor in contemporary social and political struggle? Lee, you recognize that there is no intrinsic politcal valence to scale–the UK underwent neoliberal transformation well before EU became a fully supranational form of governance. Consequently, your argument that it is easier to bring about progressive political change at the national level cuts both ways: it is also easier for right-wing, reactionary projects to win at the national level. We should also remember that the construction of national state spaces were in most cases driven by the forces of capital, but that this in turn provided a site for struggle by working class forces against capital. Presumably this is also the case at the international or transnational level, but you suggest this is not the case, that capital has an advantage in transnational scalar politics. But is this necessarily the case? One need not buy into the Hardt and Negri version of a global multitude to believe that the current conjuncture both makes possible and urgently necessary the scaling up of resistance to global capital. I assume you agree with this, but believe that is best achieved through struggles at the national scale.
    But isn’t there a risk on even ceding ground to the reactionary right regarding the importance of the national versus the international or global? Neoliberal capitalism functions in large part by destroying social solidarity. Right-wing politics of xenophobia and racism provide an affective outlet for the ersosion of social solidarity, but does so by diverting attention from its true source. It seems to me that even accepting the national vs. international/global is to play into this discourse and reproduces the idea that it’s an either/or situation. I agree that the fight for social equality and justice on a national scale is a precondition for fair and just international institutions. Many on the left imagined that the EU would make it easier to resist Anglo-American style neoliberalism. That this has not turned out to be the case seems to me to say less about the intrinsic politics of scale than the it does the institutional flaws in the EU itself and, more importantly, the balance of forces that have been resulting in deeper neoliberalism and austerity on a variety of scales and spaces.


    • Thanks for engaging so thoughtfully. Certainly, scale is not *the* most salient factor but I believe it is very often a crucial one. I think you are right that it may be easier for the right as well as the left to triumph at a national scale. In essence, European integration has always been about removing issues from political contestation in order to constrain both the far left and the far right and constitutionalise market democracy – the ECHR was about this, as Andrew Moravcsik’s article on this shows. I think without this, and without ruling elites’ commitment to their networked form of governance and neoliberal ideology, the global financial crisis would have already led to a much more nationalist, right-wing, beggar-thy-neighbour response than has been the case.

      So, the defence for the EU is precisely that, OK, it disables the left, but it also disables the right, and maybe that’s worth settling for. I see the argument, but think there are a few things wrong with it. First, as the post points out, this attitude can only reflect deep pessimism about the left’s capacity to lead people in a progressive direction. I also think it reflects contempt for the masses – the idea that they have been so hoodwinked by right-wing xenophobia that they can’t be led towards a different understanding of their situation.

      Second, it is far from obvious that the EU is actually containing right-wing/ nationalist/ populist forces; in fact, it seems to be fuelling their rise. Again as the post argues, the rise of these forces ultimately reflects the disengagement of political elites from their mass bases, which are suffering from the effects of neoliberal capitalism. The EU entrenches and exacerbates both the distance between elites and masses and neoliberal policies. It is not the cure; it is making the problem worse by making it *illegal* for elites to respond to popular demands. Understandably this makes populations vulnerable to anti-elite populism – not least because the populists have a point! You only have to look across Europe to see that the EU is not containing their rise – their support is growing in virtually every single member-state. Austria just missed out on a fascist president by 0.6% of the vote. In Greece, the rise of Golden Dawn has been directly fuelled by the EU. The same can be said of the Lega Nord in Italy. There is no way this tendency can be halted by retreating into the elite networks of European integration. It has to be fought by offering a more positive alternative – and that is impossible within EU strictures. That is a battle that has to be won at home.


      • Just to be clear, I’m not taking a strong position on the EU per se. And I agree that if it were only a matter of disabling the left as well as the far right, that would not be a sufficient argument in its favor (and as you point out, it’s not even really doing a good job as far as disabling the far right, perhaps even indirectly enabling it). I guess I’m more interested in the implications of your argument for transnational governance more broadly. Maybe you didn’t intend to make any broader point, but I got the sense that you did. And I guess I see the transnational and global scales as far more indeterminate politically, and without going full Hardt and Negri, tend to think that these are just as important scales for political action and mobilisation as the national one. In that regard, I don’t share your hostility towards someone like Varoufakis and actually tend to agree with him that rather than giving up on the EU, it’s worth trying to reshape it in a more democratic direction. I know, sounds unlikely. But the odds were just as bad if not worse on changing national states in a more democratic and socially just manner as well (and a task that obviously is never over, but requires repeated and ongoing struggle). Anyway, thanks for the reply and I really enjoy this forum. I look forward to reading the other posts!


  5. Hello again. I see what you mean. I suppose I am making a broader point here – based on my work with Shahar which was about transnational security governance. Different scales, and their associated institutions, always involve what Jessop calls different forms of ‘strategic selectivity’, that is, they are more open to certain forces, pursuing certain agendas and strategies, than they are to others. Nation-state-based corporatism vs the EU is one easy example but the point is a general one. For decades now, because of the shift of capital and state managers to transnational fora, left intellectuals have been going on about the need to produce a similar shift for the left. Hence things like the anti-globalization movement, the World Social Forum, and attempts to organise unions on a more transnational basis. But what has that come to? Nothing really. Now, is it a question of simply applying more effort, a Stakhanovite injunction to try harder, comrades? Or is there something about transnational forms of governance that makes it (deliberately?) difficult for counter-hegemonic forces to organise and influence at this scale? I’m suggesting the latter. I think two or three decades of history bear that out. Certainly in the EU itself, the institutions simply do not exist to allow counter-hegemonic forces to influence it, let alone push it in a more democratic direction. I have challenged people repeatedly on this point and not one can name a mechanism by which EU democratisation can be pursued. That, I suggest, is deliberate. Let’s stop flogging a dead horse and return to institutional forms that we know can still work for us, and rebuild from there.

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  6. An excellent, and timely, analysis of the issue of scale as it relates to the current organisarion of power in EU. It is a pity, however, that you forget scale when analysing – hence forging – leftist stances on EU democratisation. Varoufakis is perfectly aware that a country like Greece cannot, alone, resist global pressures and it’d be crunched in the war between US and Russia. This is true for all countries of Europe (with, maybe, the exception of Germany). The case of UK is different – it has been a vassal state of US for the last 50 years, see Tariq Ali. And you may be right in analysing Corbyn’s stance on Bremain.
    But, at the continental level, the democratisation of EU, then, is indeed a tough thing to do, but it is the only way to create relayionships of power capable to balance US (and China, and India) imperialism, particularly in the face of global warming and the few yeara remaining to act. This is the problem of Varoufakis, not his incapacity to shift Greece to radical politics – which he did!


    • I’m sorry, but I really don’t follow you. I don’t ignore scale when it comes to forging left strategies – I explicitly say that a left strategy of coordinating to achieve EU democratisation is completely implausible. If you have an ideas as to what that’s wrong, let me know. As for balancing the US and others, that is itself an imperialist dream. At the very least the construction of an EU ‘superpower’ engaged in power-balancing would terminate the myth that the EU upholds peace – see Phil’s post on Friday on this.


      • You say “to achieve EU democratisation is completely implausible”; I say that even if you re-democratise Greece or UK, they are too small polities to be able to resist the global trends without going further in the same direction as today. We may both be right or wrong, it’s a matter of judgement, I do not contest your stance in this.
        I contest when you say “leftists like Varoufakis disbelieve in their capacity to mobilise a few tens of millions of people in their own societies towards progressive ends”: for they already did so, in Greece, Spain, Portugal. They simply believe that it is useless doing so if Europe stays as it is. This may partially be true when analysing Corbyn’s politics, but is wrong when applying to all European leftists.
        All in all, I do believe that Brexit would be positive for Europe, for UK has always been the primary reason which halted the democratisation of the EU – the use of the referendum by Cameron to negotiate just some more money is a point in case, that he missed control of his own game, that’s another story.
        As for the “imperialist dream”, I am with Chantal Mouffe’s on the idea that it is through the emergence of agonistic regional powers that the empire can be overcome. How would be the world if the EU had never emerged? I think it’d be even more skewed toward US style neoliberalization – but again, it’s a matter of judgement.


      • Simone, thanks for your continued engagement. For some reason I can’t reply to your comment so I am having to reply to myself!
        1) On polities being too small – perhaps, though a) don’t forget “global forces” were unleashed by us – by our polities – and could be reined in if we wanted to (Bretton Woods shows that); b) who’s to say that, having smashed the EU, we would not build a true confederation of European peoples that is properly democratic? I might be up for an continental superstate as long as it was incredibly democratic.
        2) On leftists – Varoufakis et al marched their people up to the top of the hill and marched them back down again. They capitulated to EU diktat when the sensible thing was to break out of the Euro. See:
        3) On UK as a block to EU democratisation – nah. It may oppose elements of supranationalism, where other member-states might wish to go further (though as Ana and Gilberto’s post today points out, the UK may simply be more vocal than others sharing the same preference, who hide behind UK obstructionism). You’re confusing supranationalism and democratisation. For reasons identified in my post, EU leaders do not want much of either, though they definitely don’t want the latter.
        4) “it is through the emergence of agonistic regional powers that the empire can be overcome” – that seems absolutely crazy to me. Last time we had competing regional blocs, we called it the Cold War.


      • Lee, thak you for the discussion – I think there’s a limit on the number of replies, new comment though, but fast, I promise.

        1) What’s the difference of breaking up EU and building a new one from making it democratic? The “elites” are always there, it anyway takes changing political relationships in all (or most) the states…
        2) Are you confusing Varoufakis with Tsypras? Varoufakis quitted not to capitulate to the EU diktat and he is now working on the creation of a European left. Besides, Tsipras yesterday achieved what was untinkable a few months ago, debt reduction. Failure? I’d say complete victory of a moderate left.
        3) The UK has always cherry-picked from Europe, taking what was good for its economy (open market, immigration) and leaving what could be a damage (end of monetary policy). From the time of Thatcher down to Cameron. It is the living evidence that the bully is better off. That’s how it systematically impedes any democratization of the EU.
        4) Well, during the Cold War, there were no wars, since it’s over we are in constant war. And, it was during the Cold War that nation states could create things such as the welfare that we are losing now the Cold War is over. BUt, your decision, you can either have the Empire or regional agonism (call it Cold War or not): do you prefer the total rule of US and its vassal states?


  7. This is a classic example of ivory tower theory ignoring the context and balance of forces on the ground. This debate is not taking place in a vacuum. The vote is happening because the Tories are divided between 2 factions, one of which is even more racist and xenophobic than the other. They have set the terms of engagement, and have framed the question to be voted upon. A win for Brexit will massively empower UKIP and its allies both amongst the Tories and throughout Europe. In the short and medium term, that would set back development and resurgence of the Left in the UK for a decade or more.
    Lee Jones’ arrogant condemnation of “the utterly bankrupt state of Britain’s so-called left” begs the question of exactly what it should be replaced with, and how. What coherent alternative force exists to fight the “prolonged struggle [that] would be required, both to prevent the triumph of Little Englanders, and to avoid a doomed, pseudo-leftist attempt to revive the already-failed strategy of ‘socialism in one country’”? Or perhaps more to the point, how does Brexit offer “a clear, once in a generation opportunity to revitalise democracy and restore accountable government” when the results of a Brexit will empower precisely those social forces which oppose democracy and accountable government most?
    Labour has finally begun the long, difficult process of transforming itself back into a political party worthy of its name. “Something better” IS being born. As in any such process, success is not guaranteed. Can Jones point to a more viable alternative? There is no magic, quick fix solution to reversing the corrosive effects of Blair and Brown’s years in power, but we have a massively reinvigorated membership keen to try.
    Everyone arguing for remaining in the EU to radically reform it knows this will be a mega struggle, which would be immeasurably weakened by a Brexit. Like every other major advance, a radically reformed Europe will have to be fought for. The balance of power in Europe, as in the UK, is not static. We have everything to fight for, and far more to gain than to lose by remaining.


    • Lee, this is a great post, as is that of Chris. You know I agree with your broad analysis of the politics of scale and state transformation. It does not however lead me to the same conclusion.

      It is important to fully consider the short- and medium-term likely consequences of Brexit: Boris as PM, an exacerbation of the public services crisis brought about by recession, the empowerment of UKIP and worse. Many vulnerable people will suffer these things. Our NHS really needs free movement within the EU for its nurses. It is not general despondency to recognise that a plurality of the voters in southern England and the midlands think they have done quite well out of neoliberalism. These people – because of their capital and ‘sharp elbows’ – don’t need generally good public services and their minds are colonised by individualism with a superfice of patriotism bolted on. They are sufficient in number to give us awful governments for decades and they are unlikely to shift much. These are the people I am particularly despondent about!

      I also think that Leninist enthusiasm for the productive power of crisis that you and Chris seem to share is somewhat blithe. Historically, crises in Europe have often ended badly for religious and ethnic minorities and, in the current context, I don’t think we can be sure that the fragmentation of the EU would not lead to political violence at whatever scale.

      However, the main reason I disagree with you is with regard to the relationship between multi-scalar politics and the Left. I think that in a general sense multi-scalar politics are normal and not a post-1970s aberration. (Just as high levels of labour migration are historically and comparatively normal.) Neoliberalism has intensified this shift and empowered transnational elite networks of capital. The EU does the bidding of these groups but also responds to transnational leftist activism on issues like the environment. The UK has had trade union internationalism too which fully extends from the the pit to the Spanish republicans – look at Nye Bevan and Neil Kinnock emerging from the South Wales valleys. Perhaps it is this mutliscalar left which needs reviving? Kinnock advanced the arguments you make in the 1970s but then changed his mind given the change in context wrought by neoliberalism and the appreciation that social democracy ought to be directed at the political economy as it has been formed by labour AND capital. In this sense, it is an anachronism for the Left not to engage at the regional level as an intervening scale. All regions of the world have their regional organizations today and the Left in other regions looks on with envy at how a single market in Europe allowed the social chapter under Delors – this was a direct result of ‘detached’ Euro elites responding to mobilization by the European socialist parties in the 1980s of the kind Varoufakis is advocating today. The real aberration was probably the period from 1945-1970 when a strong developmental state under a mixed economy was actually able to control capital to a degree which was unprecedented in modern history. The Left , in my view, need to recognise that hope of a return to this period is delusional and that resistance will continue to be on the back foot to the powers of capital if its confine to any one scale, including the national.

      And here it is worth re-introducing a scale that both you and the transnational activists neglect: the communal – not local or glocal or translocal. Many extant forms of this are religiously-based – the catholic workers movement, Anabaptists, new monasticism – but there are also secular modes and many religious and non-religious on the Left have been advocating this for some time, from George Monbiot to Rowan Williams. The challenge is for such communes to create their own political realities while not disconnecting from national struggles for public services and regional struggles against capital that can take place through the EU. Resistance has to be multi-scalar, just as political-economy is inevitably so. An internationationalist anarcho-communism is required which will live up to Gandhi’s epithet: “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.”

      Sorry for the length of my reply!!!!


      • John, thanks a lot for your very thoughtful reply.

        “The EU does the bidding of these groups [capital] but also responds to transnational leftist activism on issues like the environment. The UK has had trade union internationalism too… Perhaps it is this mutliscalar left which needs reviving?”

        Well, it responds in a way consistent with big business interests, e.g. the European Emissions Trading System, which subsidises business and does nothing to tackle climate change. See Larry Lohmann’s work. As for trade union internationalism, I think you know that it has rarely been more than a gesture to the internationalism abandoned by the left over the course of two World Wars. When is the last time we saw coordinated strikes across multiple European countries? The truth is that there never was a “multiscalar left” after the early 20th century. Even if you dispute this, how can we “revive” that, when we don’t even have powerful left forces at the national scale to provide the labour, resources and energy required to mobilise transnationally? Surely reconstitution has to begin at home. The failure of initiatives like the anti-globalisation movement, the World Social Forum, etc, shows the futility of “scale-jumping” when you are weak domestically. We’ve been trying that for two decades, and for all of Hardt and Negri’s mubling about the multitude, we have nothing to show for it.

        “[the social chapter] was a direct result of ‘detached’ Euro elites responding to mobilization by the European socialist parties in the 1980s of the kind Varoufakis is advocating today”

        That’s historically inaccurate. The social chapter resulted from domestic compromises in key member-states, not from the left lobbying the EC. It was principally about the failure of Mitterand’s attempt at “Keynesianism in one country”; he realised he had to impose neoliberalism via European integration, and he developed the “social chapter” as an attempt to soften this and win consent for a new hegemonic order.

        ” The real aberration was probably the period from 1945-1970 when a strong developmental state under a mixed economy was actually able to control capital to a degree which was unprecedented in modern history. The Left , in my view, need to recognise that hope of a return to this period is delusional”

        I completely agree with you. As I said: me must “avoid a doomed, pseudo-leftist attempt to revive the already-failed strategy of ‘socialism in one country’.” But I still maintain that any attempt to build an alternative must start with restoring democracy and accountability. And, contrary to any focus on local communes, it is essential to do that at a national scale, because that is where the state is. Any attempt to avoid the question of state power is disastrous.

        Liked by 1 person

    • Linda, thanks for engaging.

      It seems to me you can’t have it both ways – you can’t rudely dismiss my argument that the left is bankrupt, and then point out that the right is making all the running on the referendum. You say: “They [the right] have set the terms of engagement, and have framed the question to be voted upon.” Whose fault is that? The left completely abdicated itself from any leadership on either side. How is that not bankrupt? Likewise, your argument that the right is the only social force standing to gain from Brexit – that can only signify the weakness of the left. Your comments are also contradictory: you insist that Brexit can only aid the right, based on what you see as the *present* balance of forces, yet later say “the balance of power… is not static. We have everything to fight for”. Of course, I said exactly that in the post. I don’t see any rebuttal of my analysis that it is easier to fight for left politics within a national democratic system than in an elitist transnationalised governance network. The evidence of Greece and elsewhere suggests that you can fight bloody hard, and suffer enormously, to push a leftist line within the attentuated democracies of member-states – but all your efforts will ultimately be squelched so long as you remain within the EU. Where is your answer to that?

      As for your claim that Labour is reviving, I don’t see much evidence of it – I just don’t think Corbyn has the chops for the sort of leftist populism what is required. And he missed a big opportunity to mobilise the public behind him by failing to stick with his principles and campaign for Brexit – the analysis by Owen Jones (now repudiated) last year was correct, I think, however cynical:


      • Lee, I am aware of EITS’ weaknesses but in the global context the EU has pushed hard for a global climate change agreement. This really is the issue of our time and the EU has been a positive force, to my knowledge and in relative terms to most state’s policies. The spread of renewables across Europe has also been aided by the EU. It has many failings but we should not be blind to some of the good that it has done. Do you think it has been unremittingly anti-progressive really?

        I agree that the collaboration between socialist parties with the EU has been limited but it did begin in 1957 and they almost created a Europe-wide party in the spirit of 68. Membership of this group was important in the UK context in persuading the Labour Party that, through the social chapter, the EU could be a force for good. I think you are underestimating the role that such transnational inter-party assemblies can play in Left elite consciousness. I have been reading a Bio of Kinnock – who very nearly became leader of that group – recently as I thought his experience is interesting when considering the stance of the British Left vis-a-vis the EU. That’s where that example of the social chapter is from. Mitterand sure, but even those like me who accept the EU remains largely intergovernmental, can see that Delors commission made a difference and that the Left was crucial at that time at a regional level.

        I deliberately did not cite transnational activism of the occupy kind, You may have noticed that national strikes aren’t that effective any more either. (Btw, isn’t it nice for the UCU strike giving us time to have this conversation [even if it has very little effect]?) The state is not just at the level of the national. That’s the point – to me at least. If it has become a basket of elite networks these stretch across many scales. Seeking a return to the nation-state is an anachronism. In the UK we don’t have a nation so much as a national crisis of identity and community. Yes, engagement should take place at the state level to revive and guarantee public goods. But politics (potentially) occurs elsewhere too and the regional level is unavoidable, in my view.


  8. John, no, I don’t claim everything the EU does is crap, although the limited progress made on global climate change means it is hardly a glowing example of EU achievement.

    Even if you are right that leftist parties produced the social chapter, the reality is those parties were much stronger then than now. They’d need massive revival before they could exercise anything like the same influence AND it would need to occur across multiple member states in a much larger EU. That is simply not very likely.

    Finally, I think the idea that the nation state is an anachronism is untrue. The British state is a major policy making entity whose spending accounts for over 50% of economic activity in many parts of the country. We almost saw Scotland become independent recently due to the appeal of independent statehood. And because states retain formal legal sovereignty they have an incredibly powerful role as “scale mangers”. I am all for organising at every scale possible – but I know where the majority of power still remains concentrated, and where political possibilities are more open. It is not the regional scale.


    • Lee, I agree with all of that. I don’t think nation-states are anachronistic, I think nationalism is because it fetishizes the nation-state. That is not to say it is not popular. Popularity and anachronism can go together – that is the definition of populism is it not? That’s the nature of the vast majority of the Leavers. Of course, its possible, as you have, to make other arguments to leave but the practical politics of it is Leave is dominated by ‘fruitcakes and loonies’. All practical politics is about compromise and relative judgments, and these people and their ideas make Cameron and Osborne look good.

      That’s why I favour a multi-scalar politics founded on the communal. At that lowest level the polis can be built with small groups of like-minded people who compensate for absences of public services by self-organising and the sharing of goods and time. Oftentimes these groups will be religious as it is hard to build such solidarity without such a binding identity and given the decline of class-based organization and trad unionism. I guess there are secular modes too (at least among academics)!

      Rebuilding the Left from either regional or national levels is doomed to failure. All the problems you see with Left organization in the EU are also present in Britain – as Scotland and the SNP demonstrate very clearly, and Corbyn’s Labour does too. You just cannot generate sufficient consensus at these scales to challenge the power of capital, tackle social problems and reduce inequality, All the problems with the EU structure and its service of capital are also present in the British state. Nation-states remain more powerful than the EU as an institution but they are generally servants of capital and the elite. Obviously, I like and use neoliberalism as a concept but its weakness is that it suggests this predicament is temporary when in fact it is almost a constant of modern nation-statehood.


  9. Having read the very interesting comments threads above, I want to apologise for the intemperate tone of my own comment late last night. I appreciate the work and thought that has gone into your very elegant analysis, Lee. But the nub of my argument stands. Clearly we need theory to guide us in our political work. But that theory needs to lead us somewhere. I do not dismiss your arguments out of hand; I share many of your concerns. The problem is that your arguments leave us with nowhere to turn, nothing practical to do other than to vote Brexit and hope that somehow a new fit-for-purpose Left will arise out of the ashes.
    Wasn’t that tried in the 1930s? It certainly has been experienced in Iran over the past 3 ½ decades. There, prior to the revolution, the Left was dominated by groups who argued that armed struggle was the only way to defeat the Shah’s brutal regime. In retrospect the majority of those who survived now agree that, amongst the many weaknesses of this approach, no attention was paid to what comes after the regime’s defeat. Instead of the Left building a new democratic Iran, Islamic theologians seized control… The disastrous outcomes of African liberation movements of the 1960s and 70s, too, have led activists there to conclude that in the struggle to overcome oppressive regimes, it is not enough to get rid of the old. It must be done in a way that simultaneously develops the vision, organisational structures and culture that are capable of building the new societies they strive for.
    The same is true in Europe. You have not answered my two key questions. Your ‘condemnation of “the utterly bankrupt state of Britain’s so-called left” begs the question of exactly what it should be replaced with, and how. What coherent alternative force exists to fight the “prolonged struggle [that] would be required, both to prevent the triumph of Little Englanders, and to avoid a doomed, pseudo-leftist attempt to revive the already-failed strategy of ‘socialism in one country’”? Or perhaps more to the point, how does Brexit offer “a clear, once in a generation opportunity to revitalise democracy and restore accountable government” when the results of a Brexit will empower precisely those social forces which oppose democracy and accountable government most?’ Where is the leftist leadership that can lead the revitalisation of democracy, etc after a ‘Brexit’? We aren’t talking about how the balance of political forces will develop over the next decade; we are talking about a referendum that will be decided within weeks. How does the predominance of UKIP and its like amongst the ‘Out’ camp lead to the opportunity for democratic revitalisation you speak of?
    Please, bring your theory down to ground level, where the struggle to overcome neo-liberal control is being fought. Surely, to paraphrase the great man, “the aim isn’t just to understand society but to change it!”
    A ‘fit-for-purpose’ Left is not going to emerge out of thin air. Corbyn’s leadership is flawed in many ways; he would be the very last person to claim he is some kind of saviour of the Left. But he has been the catalyst for a huge surge of new energy into a long stale movement. And the “fight for an alternative” is building. Corbyn and McDonnell’s policy proposals for steel, rail, an industrial strategy and national investment bank are precisely the kind of “policy platforms with wide appeal…” that we need. Yes, there is plenty of room for improvement. But given that no one (least of all themselves) expected these 2 men to be leading the party even a year ago, and the extraordinarily vicious, constant attacks they’ve faced from the entire spectrum of the mass media as well as their own PLP, they’ve made decent progress. (If you can’t see much evidence of revival within Labour perhaps you need to get closer to the action.) Yes, we still face a massive task in rebuilding a Labour Party (or any other Left alternative) capable of winning the struggle ahead. Moreover, it is a struggle that, to win, must be fought simultaneously at local, national and regional/transnational levels.
    It is precisely because we are only just beginning to get back on our feet that this is not the time for a Brexit. Will a Brexit be necessary in future? Your arguments may well be correct, but that will depend upon how the balance of forces across Europe develops. (If the EU Commission were so all powerful as you seem to think, Italian steel and French railways – to name but 2 examples – would be in different hands.) Like John Heathershaw, I believe that the short and medium term result of a Brexit now (with the Left unprepared and too weak to use it to our advantage) cannot help anyone but the far right. If your arguments are correct, let’s ‘Brexit’ at a time and under conditions of our own choosing.
    This discussion reminds me of a day back in the summer of 1980 when found myself amongst a small group in a hotel room in Tehran, listening to the late Fred Halliday dismiss the Iranian revolution as ‘essentially just another millennial movement”. He flew out later that day, no doubt to sit in judgement of some other movement. Never have I felt so bitter about the ease with which academics can dismiss the gargantuan, desperate struggles of millions with a few pithy statements and then retire to the tipple of their choice. (Much to his chagrin, alcohol was no longer available in Iranian hotels, even to foreign guests, so Halliday and his entourage had to wait until they were safely out of the country before they could indulge.)
    How I wish I had time to research many of the issues and historical references referred in these discussions (and couch my argument more elegantly)! But if the Left is to be rebuilt and achieve its goals, we need activists as well as analysts and theoreticians. We cannot succeed without either, and we all need to work together. For us on the ground to be successful, we need not just your theoretical analysis of where we may be going wrong but also your constructive, practical engagement on how to change it, given the situation we face rather than the one we would like to have had.


    • Linda, thanks for your reply. Of course I accept your apology for the ‘intemperate’ comment. To substance: I don’t buy the comparison to 1930s Europe or 1970s Iran. I completely agree that dissolving one regime without a regime-in-waiting leads to uncertainty and possibly outcomes one does not like. Egypt is the latest example of this. But surely Brexit is not the same as regime change. We are not talking about smashing the state, destroying the ruling class, or anything like that. I don’t think there is any reason to see a disaster just around the corner.

      Your point is that the left is weak, so only the right will benefit. To me, that is simply undialectical thinking. Even if it is true in the short term, it ignores the reactions to it. Imagine, if Brexit happens, Cameron falls and Boris Johnson becomes PM. Is that the end of the story? Boris rules the UK in perpetuity? Obviously not. The Tories will emerge from the EU referendum debate severely divided and weakened anyway – they are tearing each other to pieces every day. And if Labour is really reinvigorating in the way you describe, why could it not exploit these divisions? Why do you apparently think Labour is less likely to win in 2020 outside of the EU than inside it? You do not say *why* its revival rests on staying in the EU. You cite McDonnell’s industrial and other policies as examples of Labour’s revival – but these are precisely the sorts of policies that EU law rules out. Freed of such constraints, the Labour party could offer a genuinely social-democratic platform in 2020. I suspect that would be very popular indeed. Certainly it would help win back a lot of traditional Labour voters who are increasingly defecting to UKIP. In that sense I think there is a possibility of a direct connection between Brexit and left renewal. That possibility would have been much stronger had Corbyn led a “Lexit” campaign, which might have rallied and excited people in a way that the SNP managed in Scotland.

      Above all, though, where is the respect for democracy in a purely tactical argument like yours? If you are right, and the only beneficiaries of Brexit will be the Tories and UKIP, how will that come about? Because the people keep voting for them. In the end, isn’t that their right? And isn’t that right to be respected? Isn’t it the duty of the Left to win people over, not to rely on anti-democratic institutions to dilute the popular will? I agree action is important, not just theory. But I have been quite dismayed to see an utter lack of principle in every left case for Bremain I have read.


  10. Very interestingly put. Could have helped the argument to explicitly hammer home that the re-scaling has taken place at the particular scale (EU level) it has precisely because it is a scale at which a demos is intrinsically lacking and therefore at which elite safety and policy lock-in is guaranteed. But this would square rather awkwardly with the claim that the modern nation-state is not history’s last word when it comes to a shared sense of demos with common institutions. The EEC/EU was the particular scale chosen at the point in history that it was precisely because, at the time, these elites had common interests across the (western bit of the) continent as a result of the situation created by WW2. Yet, these common elite interests were accompanied by a more general convergence of interests in Europe beyond the elites, i.e. the germ of a European demos (less felt in the “triumphant” UK).

    The basic re-scaling logic put forwards here could be solved equally by either federalising or destroying the EU; hence the time spent patching up this awkward possibility by criticising Varoufakis etc. Yet, the wider forces which made possible the elite rescaling –specifically to the EU level at this particular point in history– equally contains the possibility for a re-scaling of democracy to this level too. That the first steps in this wider re-scaling process have been elite-led may seem ugly, but it is the typical historical pattern of state-building. This is not to say that the elites should be expected to shepherd the lagging process of democratic rescaling, indeed we must hope it happens despite them, since it’s not in their interests for this to happen, as the article argues. But just because it’s not in their interests for this not to happen doesn’t mean it’s impossible, which is what is implied. This again squares awkwardly with the idea that we can push for an EU break-up despite elite interests as an obstacle, while the elites are too great an obstacle to overcome in achieving EU democratisation.

    It seems that scaling up (rather than down), to an increasingly global level, with power concentrated higher and higher up (geographically), is the best way to get on the right side of history and to eventually allow that power to be taken over by whatever popular movement wills it, without having to rely on the simultaneous decisions of myriad countries (which, as the article itself claims is rather more difficult to achieve). Besides, how else would we get past the historical phase of the national demos? You need an upward-rescaling elite-led movement as we have had (which had to be laid out this way given the circumstances we live in), which lays the seeds of its own destruction through its own success, and then we have to hope democracy catches up rather than the whole thing coming crashing down (it seems common sense rather than mistrust/scorn for the great unwashed to suspect such a chaotic outcome might not end prettily). In short, Varoufakis’ position is a perfectly respectable one.


    • Daniel, thanks for engaging, but I am not sure I follow your comment very well. There is nothing to “patch up” in my argument as far as I can see. You are right that there is no ostensible reason why democracy cannot be established at a regional scale and only a national one (though Rousseau might disagree with you). Indeed, I explicitly say this: “the EU’s evolution into a truly federal superstate, with an elected president, government and parliament… [would restore] representative democracy and clear lines of accountability”. But I also explain why that is not going to happen: a) ruling elites do not *want* it to happen; the EU serves their purpose by insulating them from popular accountability; b) to fundamentally change the EU in this way would require massive popular mobilisation across the entire EU, which is implausible. I see no reason to think that it should “happen despite” elite preferences, nor is there anything in your comment that explains why my assessment of implausibility is wrong. You suggest there’s a contradiction in my post: “the idea we can push for an EU break-up despite elite interests as an obstacle, while the elites are too great an obstacle to overcome in achieving EU democratisation.” Again, there is no contradiction here. As my post explains, the national scale involves institutions and forces that can compel national elites to leave the EU, even if most of them are fervently opposed to it, as the current referendum in Britain shows. The same is certainly not true at the EU level. No one has ever been able to explain to me through what mechanisms, processes and institutions one could possibly federalise and democratise the EU. That is because they do not exist – they are absent by design. I’m afraid that vague waffle about elites sowing the seeds of their own destruction, and “hope that democracy catches up” with elite rescaling just will not wash.


      • Sorry I took a long time to notice this.

        Ruling elites not wanting a federal EU is an odd argument for breaking the whole thing up when those same elites equally oppose Brexit. In fact, elites have mobilised far more against potential Brexit than against any federal-leaning plans like the Constitutional Treaty or the Defence and Political Treaties of the 1950s. The elites themselves would in many cases (not so much in Britain) be perhaps more on board with moving towards a federal Europe than they would with breaking the EU up. So if elite preferences are your criteria now, a federal Europe could bizarrely be the more pragmatic option.

        Of course, elite preferences are largely irrelevant when the whole argument is of changing things one way or the other away from an elite-derived status quo. Presumably, you wouldn’t recommend just giving up when the elites don’t automatically gift you your preferences in any other area, only here, because it (superficially) adds weight to the more substantive argument you have waiting behind the scenes, of “plausibility”. The crux of this seems to be that there simply aren’t any possible mechanisms by which to seriously reform the EU and move the scale of governance democratically upwards, since such mechanisms are precisely “absent by design”. It’s the whole design we’re both discussing changing, so I’m not surprised that what we want in the design should be currently absent from it. If, for example, Article 50 of the TEU did not exist (i.e. if there were no explicit legal mechanism by which to leave the EU), I doubt you’d say the possibility of Brexit is absent by design, so let’s just leave it. We’re both precisely talking about changing the design…

        You could of course just transfer legislative initiative from the Commission to the EP. Easier said than done, of course (like any serious change), but it doesn’t take much imagination to see mechanisms by which things could be altered if you were committed to actually changing the democratic scale of governance rather than rationalising a belief that the national scale of government is indeed natural and eternal (contrary to what you claim to think). To me, the EP’s lack of legitimacy has a lot to do with its impotency in the first place. That’s what makes it currently seem implausible, not the natural, eternal value of “national” parliaments.

        Arguing that it’s simply impossible to plausibly move the scale of democratic governance away from anything other than what was historically passed down to us squares quite disingenuously with the lip service you paid to the idea of present national scales not being eternal or ideal. It becomes difficult to take comments that I very much agree with like this seriously: “To be clear, there is nothing particularly special or sacred about the national scale of governance… [H]istory shows that nations were always created after or as part of the process of nation-state formation… The national scale of governance was preceded by much smaller, more fragmented scales… There is no reason to think of the national scale as the natural, final or even desirable scale at which anything should necessarily be governed. It is just one configuration of actors, resources, power and opportunity structures among many”. Europe’s national governments are just one possible configuration among many, only these particular configurations that happened to be passed down to us by history are the only “plausible” ones…


  11. Pingback: The EU Referendum: Taking over democracy on the right side? The implicit nationalism of the left case for Brexit | The Disorder Of Things

  12. Very interesting article – thanks.
    I wrote a piece in March for a journal called Socialist Correspondent, which I’m pasting in here:

    The EU Referendum

    The referendum on British EU membership is being rushed through. Cameron hopes his deal on a range of British opt-outs – demagogic measures, including an ‘emergency brake’ on benefits for EU workers, limits on child benefits to the rate of workers’ home countries, and a halt to restrictions on the City – will ensure a vote to remain. The bulk of the establishment is behind him, though substantial sections – several media barons and British manufacturers – are not.

    The main winners in the debate have been the right and far right, backed by a xenophobic media campaign against immigration, trying to make this the central reason for leaving the EU or for reforming Britain’s relation to it.
    There is no coherent left campaign for exit. Apart from the small Labour Leave group, which began in disarray over which main Brexit campaign to endorse, other left Brexit groups are isolated or unhelpfully sharing platforms with rightwing Eurosceptics.
    Official Labour policy is for staying in. Corbyn has endorsed this position – one of many compromises he’s had to make – which makes campaigning to change Labour policy unwise at this stage, risking a split in the party’s left.
    On the other hand, clear arguments against the EU can help expose the narrow limits of capitalist democracy, hemmed in by the British state and by the EU. Not that a Brexit would usher in democracy – but it would weaken the enemy, depriving the ruling class of its EU reinforcement.
    The issue won’t end in June, as Cameron’s chauvinistic opt-out clauses will encourage other EU powers to make competitive exceptions for themselves. Cameron’s deal has exposed the fact that there is flexibility – not in the EU’s treatment of its poorer members, but when it comes to ensuring a key anti-working class player like Britain remains inside, to buttress the austerity drives underway in Germany, France and elsewhere.
    Despite the Little Englander arguments dominating the Brexit campaign, it is the EU as an institution which is intensifying racism and xenophobia as EU countries compete within it to drive down wages and benefits in a race to the bottom. The refugee crisis has shown how quickly the EU’s humane window-dressing is abandoned, with the UN Refugee Agency condemning as illegal the EU’s latest scheme to ship millions of refugees back to Turkey. The Schengen agreement on borderless Europe is de facto dead. Staying in the EU feeds the right, as EU membership imposes restrictions on solidarity as well as on state spending, both of which are weapons against xenophobia.

    The EU is anti-democratic
    Left arguments against the EU should include basic democratic ones: that the EU has an unelected European Commission and European Court of Justice, and a weak European parliament, which cannot initiate laws – the laws are made by the Council of Ministers, in secret, and can be imposed on nation states.
    As Tony Benn said: “In Europe, all the key positions are appointed. The way Europe has developed, the bankers and corporations dictate terms.” The European Central Bank’s governors are all appointed – they’re the heads of member nations’ central banks. The European Court of Justice consists of judges who are all appointed, and who have ruled against any checks on EU institutions and treaties, such as making them accountable to the European Convention on Human Rights.
    The EU has already ousted several elected governments, in effect, conducting legal coups – in Italy, where it imposed a technocrat as prime minister, as well as Portugal, where the president blocked the formation of a Eurosceptic left majority government.
    In Greece, the EU overrode the democratic process brazenly. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, called the Syriza election victory in January 2015 irrelevant, which in effect it was: “To suggest that everything is going to change because there’s a new government in Athens is to mistake dreams for reality… There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.”
    When referendums have produced inconvenient results – Denmark voted against the Maastricht Treaty in 1992; Ireland against the Nice Treaty in 2001; and Ireland (again) against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 – these were re-run until the ‘correct’ result was obtained.
    The EU constitution is the main anti-democratic straitjacket for ensuring capitalist rule. It imposes on all member states a neoliberal economic model of privatizing public provision and capitalist monopoly. Under the constitution, EU treaties are changeable only with a unanimous vote of all member states; a single country can veto treaty change. So unless leftwing governments were to gain office in all 28 European countries simultaneously, EU treaty change in a progressive direction is impossible. As the head of the British Chambers of Commerce said approvingly, the EU is “incapable of reform.”

    If amending the treaty is barred, trying to pass left-leaning EU laws within its terms is also virtually impossible. If a national government put forward a law allowing countries to nationalize public services, it would come up against the unelected EU Commission, which vets all proposed legislation put to the EU Council and parliament. Only unanimous action from the EU Council (consisting of all the different national ministers) could push the proposal forward – and, again, any single country has a veto.

    As for TTIP, the EU-US trade treaty that will, among other things, allow corporations to sue governments where national laws impede their profits, Britain would never be able to withdraw while remaining within the EU. It would take unanimous support from all member states, under Article 352, to allow Britain to leave. Even outside the EU, leaving the tightly binding TTIP could prove extremely difficult.

    The myth of Social Europe
    Social Europe is often depicted as a haven of social-democracy against vicious Anglo-Saxon capitalism. During Thatcher’s sustained attack on the working class, Social Europe – as drawn up by Jacques Delors in 1984 and sold to the TUC Congress in 1988 – appeared to offer softening measures. Thirty years on, however, it is clear that the EU has not delivered as promised.
    Social Europe has failed to safeguard the fundamental right to work. The EU, with its low growth, has 22.98 million unemployed workers, around 10%.
    Social Europe failed to prevent the European Court of Justice from ruling that member states may not legislate to raise migrant workers’ pay to local levels. Similarly, the Court has blocked unions from collective bargaining to defend local wage levels against ‘social dumping’. This is a gift to the anti-immigrant right in their campaign against cheap foreign labour.

    In Britain, Social Europe did not prevent Tony Blair from undermining workers’ protection through the introduction of ‘voluntary’ opt-out agreements with employers, building on Thatcher’s attacks on trade union rights.

    Social Europe has been exposed most clearly in the brutal treatment of Greece. Yet many here still argue that conditions would worsen in Britain without EU ‘protection’. This is despite the fact that zero-hours contracts have been legalised under flexible labour market rules and – as part of the EU’s blackmailing bailout conditions – collective bargaining has been outlawed in several peripheral EU countries.
    Even a relatively effective Social Europe regulation such as TUPE – allowing for the continuation of workers’ contracts when their employers change – was brought in for an anti-working class purpose, to smooth the way for the privatization of the public sector (and has since been eroded by European Court of Justice judgments), just as the Working Time Directive has established the 48-hour working week as a norm rather than a maximum.
    Many of Corbyn’s social-democratic policies would be held back by EU directives – Social Europe notwithstanding. Under Article 106, public monopolies are not allowed to hinder competition – a directive that has implications for the NHS. The EU blocks utilities from being nationalised wholesale, as directives require third parties to be given access to the national grid. Nationwide rail renationalisation would likewise be hampered because, despite Article 345 that permits nationalization, the European Court of Justice ignores it in practice. Corbyn would thus be restricted to partial rail nationalization, or be forced to argue that nationalization was in the national interest – which the Court could rule against.
    Social Europe helped dampen working class resistance to growing capitalist exploitation – leading up to the Single European Act of 1992, when EU neoliberalism became fully institutionalized. But a capitalist institution like the EU will not shield the working class. That’s down to class struggle.
    Indeed, progressive advance in Britain has been achieved above all by working class struggle: the right to form trade unions; the right to strike; health and safety at work; equal pay for women; a national minimum wage. Successive Labour governments reinforced these rights through legislation. These were not gifts handed down from the EU.

    Can the EU be democratised?
    Varoufakis’s Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM 2025) believes the EU can be reshaped as a social democratic entity.
    DiEM 2015 is calling for a constituent assembly to deliver a fully democratic Europe by 2025. The European parliament would become sovereign, replacing the current pooling of decision-making between the 28 national governments. DiEM 2015 claims that national governments would share power with the supranational parliament, though exactly how is not specified.

    In reality the EU parliament would act as the legislature to a single European government, taking all the big decisions at a remove from the people. National governments would have little power to overrule the higher body.

    DiEM 2025’s other demand is for transparency, with all trade talks conducted openly, all meetings of the secretive EU institutions streamed live. This is no solution to the problem of secretive ruling class decision-making, which takes place outside official forums.

    What levers are there to achieve a ‘democratised’ Europe? How would the left mobilise for it? Turnout for the 2009 elections to the European Parliament was just 43%. People need to be won to action where they feel it can have an actual effect; they simply don’t vote for something remote and meaningless.

    Corbyn’s rise shows that people are willing to act when they feel something can be achieved, that is, within the context of a national class struggle they understand. Internationalism is vital, but has to be worked for, not assumed – one has only to look at the lack of response of the European labour movements to the crushing of Greece to see how weak intra-EU working class solidarity currently is. What class struggle there is in Britain takes place predominantly between the working class and the ruling class here.

    Calling for the EU to be democratized – when unanimity is required for any such change – is reminiscent of Trotsky’s call to abandon Socialism in the USSR until all Europe simultaneously rose up. One could wait forever. Danny Nicol, Professor of Public Law at the University of Westminster, describes the DiEM 2025 proposal as relying on “spontaneous combustion”.

    In an EU composed of unequal member states, with German imperialism pre-eminent, it is the stronger powers which rule over the weaker ones, as Germany rules Greece. This neo-colonial relationship would in no way be alleviated by a European government imposing decisions on member states – the same situation as now but lent ‘democratic’ legitimacy.

    EU and the military
    The idea that the EU is a force for peace is a myth. Wars in Europe are on the rise and growing increasingly dangerous. First, there was the dismantling of Yugoslavia, hastened by the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia by Germany. Now, there’s the continuing war in the Ukraine, sparked by German ambitions to dominate Ukraine’s economy via the EU Association Agreement.

    It’s true that longstanding rivals France and Germany haven’t fought for over 70 years. But initially that was because both countries had to rebuild their economies after WW2 – under US tutelage. And because they had to confront the common enemy of Socialism. More recently, it’s because France has accepted its position subordinate to a united Germany.

    As the EU has grown, so has its military component, along with pressure for the establishment of a permanent EU military structure. The Ukraine conflict has shown how closely intertwined the EU is with Nato – notwithstanding divergences between Germany and the US over levels of bellicosity. Nato’s major expansion into eastern Europe includes troops and arms from several EU member states Most of the wars in the Middle East have been supported, or even led, by EU member states, alongside the US.

    As for Britain, membership of the EU binds it into the Lisbon Treaty, which means Britain can be called on to aid a fellow member state – for instance, siding with possible future EU member Turkey in a war against Russia.

    This doesn’t mean that leaving the EU would in itself undermine British militarism. Liam Fox, ex-defence secretary and a Eurosceptic, put it clearly: “The day after we were to leave the European Union, Britain still has a permanent seat on the [United Nations] Security Council, and we’re still in NATO. We’re still the world’s fifth biggest defence budget, we’ve still got a ‘special relationship’ with the US, we’re still in the G7, we’re still in the G20, we’re at the centre of the Commonwealth…”

    On the other hand, 13 leading British generals have called for Britain to stay in, for military reasons, on the grounds that: “The EU today is a tool through which Britain can get things done in the world… Britain’s role in the EU strengthens the security we enjoy as part of NATO… and allows us to project greater power internationally.”

    The head of the US army in Europe, Lt-Gen Ben Hodges has voiced a similar view, citing a resurgent Russia as a reason for Britain remaining in: “Anything that undermines the effectiveness of the alliance has an impact on us, and so if the EU begins to become unravelled there can’t help but be a knock-on effect for the alliance also.”

    Nicholas Soames and Peter Mandelson, likewise, argued jointly in the Daily Mail that the need to confront Putin was a key argument for Britain remaining within the EU.

    Germany, too, wants Britain to remain, in part to prevent the traditionally Nato-sceptic French from flexing their military muscles in Europe via the EU military entity they would seek to dominate.

    Remaining in the EU allows Britain to project itself more forcefully than it would otherwise be able to do – using its special relationship with the US to strengthen it in relation to rival powers in the EU, and using its EU membership to give it weight with the US. Britain’s seat at the top table of nations is secured, apart from its existing nuclear status, through its membership of the two alliances. Conversely, Brexit could create space to hold Britain’s military alliances up to question – both in terms of the damage they do domestically and to those on the receiving end.


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