It is Christmas Eve, and both in the world of personal communication and in the media the last ten days have been a curious mish-mash. Messages of hope and goodwill vie for our attention with post-mortems on the UK general election (including virulent attacks on potential Labour leadership candidates), evidence of acute climate crisis, huge popular protests in Iran, India and Latin America and, rumbling in the background, half-apprehended accounts of the latest developments in trade policy featuring China, the USA and the now increasingly sidelined World Trade Organisation. Meanwhile the British people are at last coming to terms with the reality that the UK really is going to leave the EU, something about which so many have been in denial for the last three and a half years (to the day!) continuing to hope that some sort of educated rational Deus ex Machina is going to step in, wave a magic wand, bring everyone to their senses and leave us in Europe after all.
So, under the tired tinsel, there is mourning, there is blaming, and there is fear. And to the extent that people are thinking ahead they are mostly thinking about the immediate future. How will we cope with five more years of Tory austerity? What lies in store for ethnic minorities in the UK? What should be the future of the Labour Party? What kind of exit deal will Boris Johnson be able to negotiate with Europe? Or, in the slightly longer term, might Scotland become independent and might we see a united Ireland? (Pity the poor Welsh, divided between aspirations of independent nationhood on the one hand and, on the other, a connection to England that is reinforced by the still strong impacts on Wales of British deindustrialistion and the resulting commonality of experience with English workers who have had similar experiences, as well as by its role as a retirement home for English Tories).
But where are we headed in the longer term? Most of the visions on offer represent fairly extreme political pipedreams, ranging from the Brexiteer fantasy of a new golden age of British imperialism in which the glories of empire are somehow reincarnated without any economic basis to visions of socialism in one country (about which I wrote here in a blog post written a couple of weeks before the 2016 referendum). In the reality of a globalised economy (albeit one whose governance is increasingly fractured and contradictory) it becomes necessary to start envisaging what alternatives might be available.
If we rule out, for the purposes of argument, cataclysmic wars and/or successful revolutionary uprisings, we are left with the prospect of an economic (and hence political) landscape shaped by agreements between trade areas, agreements that may be arrived at by means of convoluted negotiations and enforced by supranational bureaucracies, or, as seems to be a growing trend, imposed by the foot stamping of autocratic presidents. The EU is only one of these trade areas. With varying degrees of integration and success, most of the larger national economies around the world rely on their links to NAFTA, Mercosur, ASEAN or the African Free Trade Agreement. Without such protection, they have little choice but to be strong-armed by more powerful nations into bilateral agreements that are to their detriment.
And where will the UK sit in this landscape after Brexit? It seems likely that Boris Johnson will not favour the ‘Norway’ option, promoted by the Labour Party, in which the UK remains a member of EFTA and enjoys some of the protections of the EU. That level playing field involves conceding too much in the way of workers’ rights, minimum safety standards and human rights more generally to appeal to the now triumphant Tories. But it is also clear that, whatever the protestations to the contrary, the UK, acting alone, will be unable to stand up to the USA or China on anything like an equal basis in bilateral negotiations. The World Trade Organisation, meanwhile, is increasingly ineffectual, currently paralysed by Trump’s blocking of the appointment of two judges without whom no international trade dispute can be resolved. So where does that leave us?
About a week ago after half-listening during the night to various radio programmes which included discussions of world trade intermixed with discussions about Brexit, I woke to a sharp conviction that where the UK is now headed is NAFTA. We are, after all, already situated in the North Atlantic and have strong cultural connections both with the USA and with Canada. And the general direction of travel of the UK Conservative Party is towards ever closer ties with the USA – but in a relationship in which the UK will inevitably be the lesser and more vulnerable partner. As Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin point out so brlliantly in their Making of Global Capitalism this kind of reverse imperialism by the US state in partnership with global capitalism has been long in the making. And the ever closer incorporation of the UK into this American nexus seems like by far the most logical next step.
One of the choices facing the British people in the 2016 referendums and the last two general elections was between differing solidarities: with European ‘foreigners’ or with the English-speakers of North America with their shared patterns of cultural consumption. Workers’ rights or Disneyland? Welfare state or free market? Uncontaminated food or cheap food? Good health care or low taxes?
This is not the place to rehearse all the many factors that led to the choice they made (disillusion with neoliberal policies, racism, the biased media, Tory lies) but it is abundantly evident that the British working class have, by a majority, rejected the option of deepening their solidarity with the working classes of other European countries. Does this mean that, in the future, they will be able, more successfully, to develop ties with those of the USA, Canada and, let us not forget, Mexico? And, if so, how can these solidarities be developed? And, more specifically, can this be achieved without jettisoning what remains of the pre-existing European solidarities? These are big questions.
With that unseasonal thought, let me wish you a Merry Christmas.