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.

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Post-Election Politics: Where Next for Britain?

Following the Radical Left Assembly #2 last weekend, Nivi and Kerem caught up with Luke Cooper to discuss the implications of the Conservative Party majority for British politics. What does the election result tell us about the political composition of Britain? What is the significance of the Tory pledge for a referendum on the EU? And what future is there for a politics of the Left?

Struggling with Precarity: From More and Better Jobs to Less and Lesser Work

Once a French neologism, precarity is now a household name describing in equal measure the fate of low-wage, part-time holders of bullshit jobs, seasonal and migrant workers, creative entrepreneurs of the self, “graduates with no future,” foreclosed homeowners, debtors and increasingly even segments of the salaried bourgeoisie. At its most basic, a term for the economic uncertainty and existential angst associated with the dissolution of fixed employment, precarity also suggests the disintegration of stable societal bonds, occupational identities, social protections and a sense of entitlement and belonging characteristic of the old proletariat. In short, then, precarity is the experiential dimension of the crisis of the society of work dating back to the 70s and 80s.

Diego Rivera Detroit Industry Mural 1923

Increasingly advanced production methods, introduced since the 70s to tame shop-floor insubordination as well as reap the untapped potentials of global competition, have caused a decline in growth rates, which no amount of privatization, financialization and austerity measures has been able to make up for since. Andrew Kliman and others have argued that it is this real crisis in capitalist productivity that lies at the heart of the current slump, and not simply unrestrained financial gluttony, as the more short-termist analysis offer. As capitalist production develops, machines replace people and the rate of profitability, which is given by the human labor theory of value, drops, causing sluggish investment and slow growth. This is essentially Marx’s theory of economy crisis, aka the tendency of the profit rate to fall, but also a story we should know by now from Autonomist accounts about the transition from Fordism to post-Fordism (Hardt and Negri) or from profit extraction to rent-becoming-profit (Christian Marazzi), and from David Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession.

If we shift the scale of our focus from capital to labor, though, we see that the crisis of capitalist productivity is, in fact, a crisis of work or a crisis of a society built around work as the only legitimate point of access for income, status and citizenship rights. Again, Marx is instructive here: “Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.” Socially necessary labor is reduced to a minimum (through things like automation, outsourcing, and financialization) at the same time that human participation in paid work continues to remain our only measure and source of wealth. Work doesn’t disappear as a result. It becomes fragmented, devalued, and wasteful, ceasing to provide a social identity or a collective language of experience.

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Precarity is a word for our time. It describes the slow disintegration of the historic bond between capitalism, democracy and the welfare state. But it also entails a rallying cry to reverse this situation. Continue reading