Citizens Of Nowhere

In her speech to the 2016 Conservative Party conference, Theresa May threw down a gauntlet:

…if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word ‘citizenship’ means.

For anyone wondering who or what met the cut, May was helpfully expansive, populating this rather arcane placeholder with the figures of the boss who earns a fortune but doesn’t look after his staff, the international company that eludes the snares of tax law, the ‘household name’ that refuses cooperation with anti-terrorist authorities, and the director who takes out massive dividends while knowing that the company pension is about to go bust. Basically, fat cats with the odd public intellectual thrown in. May contrasted the spectre of the rootless cosmopolitan with the ‘spirit of citizenship’, which, in her view, entailed ‘respect [for] the bonds and obligations that make our society work’,theresa-may ‘commitment to the men and women who live around you’, ‘recognizing the social contract that says you train up local young people before you take on cheap labour from overseas.’ And perhaps astonishingly, for a Conservative Prime Minister, May promised to deploy the full wherewithal of the state to revitalize that elusive social contract by protecting workers’ rights and cracking down on tax evasion to build ‘an economy that works for everyone’. Picture the Brexit debate as a 2X2 matrix with ideological positions mapped along an x-axis, and Remain/Leave options mapped along a y-axis to yield four possibilities: Right Leave (Brexit), Left Leave (Lexit), Right Remain (things are great) and Left Remain (things are grim, but the alternative is worse). Having been a quiet Right Remainer in the run-up to the referendum, May has now become the Brexit Prime Minister while posing, in parts of this speech, as a Lexiter (Lexiteer?).

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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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The EU Referendum: A Disorders Forum

In exactly one month, Britain will hold a referendum on its membership of the European Union, its first since 1975. So far, the debate on ‘Brexit’ has been risible, reflecting both the narrowness and myopia of contemporary politics, and the fact that the debate is being ‘led’ on both sides by conservatives lacking any positive vision of the future. Project Fear reigns supreme. Will your shopping be £4.32 more expensive or £3.16 cheaper if we leave? Will leaving the EU make it more or less likely that your granny will be killed by a criminal immigrant? Will leaving the EU send Britain’s ‘booming’ (!) economy into recession, or plunge Europe back into war and chaos?

This is particularly lamentable because the referendum is the most significant political decision that most British citizens will face in their lifetimes. Given the EU’s enormous influence, the referendum’s consequences will vastly outweigh that of any recent general election.

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 This Disorder of Things forum tries to raise the tone, offering a detailed discussion of the pros and cons of Brexit and ‘Bremain’. Importantly, on the ‘Brexit’ side, you will not find the usual patriotic bluster of spitfire nationalism, but rather a progressive case for leaving the EU. Indeed, all of our contributors engage with the truly significant political principles at stake: democracy, sovereignty, accountability, peace, security, and freedom.

Our posts will be published daily over the coming week. Links will be added when the posts go live.

Chris Bickerton kicks off the forum by arguing that today’s EU is not a powerful, supranational body but a network of states that have been transformed from ‘nation states’, deriving their authority domestically, into ‘member states’, deriving their authority from transnational, inter-elite relationships. He argues for Brexit to intensify Britain’s ‘crisis of authority’, forcing a change of political direction.

Building on Chris’s work, my own two cents follow. I suggest analysing the EU through the lens of the politics of scale and state transformation. The EU, I suggest, emerged through the rescaling of governance to inter-elite networks insulated – by design – from popular control. Restoring that control has to involve leaving the EU and revitalising national democracy in an internationalist direction.

Next, Toni Haastrup tackles the Brexiteers from a postcolonial perspective. Taking aim at the spitfire nationalism of the Brexit campaign, she argues their suggestion that UK power and influence would be revivsed by Brexit is based on wilful ignorance and delusions of imperial grandeur.

Next, Ana Juncos and Gilberto Algar-Faria argue that the UK’s security interests are best served by staying inside the EU. Brexit would only weaken the EU’s capacity to deal with the very problems that Britain is trying to escape, like irregular migration and the instability created by the Eurozone crisis.

This view is disputed by Philip Cunliffe. He offers a trenchant critique of the claim that the EU has created peace in Europe and weakening the EU will revive conflict. Nationalism and war have been elite-manufactured problems, he maintains, not the result of popular will. ‘Vote remain or return to war’ is simply blackmail from an elite that, even today, just loves warmongering.

Finally, Catherine Goetze responds to the pro-Brexit posts by warning of the dangers of restoring national democracy through a campaign led by right-wing forces. Drawing on historical parallels, she warns that Brexit might strengthen nationalism across Europe, with very negative consequences.