So what sort of state do you want to be in?

My small intervention a couple of days ago into the debate about the UK referendum on EU membership provoked more reaction than I expected. If it had a central message, I suppose my blog post was addressed to thoughtful people on the left in the UK who are inclined to vote ‘no’ and it was a plea to see the EU not as an autonomous entity instigating a neoliberal assault on working people but as part of a broader terrain on which contests between different stakeholders are played out. In other words, I was saying: Please do not confuse the field with the farmer.

Even though I wrote about the anger against neoliberalism that is so evident in Britain, I was still astonished at the emotional charge behind some of the responses to this, from people who are normally quite restrained: ‘Yes but look at how HORRIBLE they were to Greece. How can you possibly expect me to vote for them?’. So this short post is addressed more explicitly to Brexiters who see themselves as on the left, not in a spirit of trying to prove you wrong (who am I to be sure I am right?) but in a genuine spirit of wanting to find out what alternative future you see after a no vote on June 23rd for England/Britain/the UK. In writing that sentence I realised that it is not easy even to define the geographical and political unit whose future is at stake in this question. The ‘United Kingdom’ as we now know it would be unlikely to survive such a decision for very long, so should the question refer separately to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland or some combination of these? Or should we be referring to all the British Isles (including perhaps even Ireland?) or just to the biggest island? (in which case what happens to places like the Isle of Man. or Jersey?). In the end, I ducked it, but it is nevertheless part of the problem.

I suspect that many left Brexiters may have some romantic attachment to the idea of the nation state as some natural unit of government which, once seized, whether through the ballot box or by revolution, can make possible an alternative political system, perhaps a kind of socialism in one country in which citizens can gain more control over their lives and create a more equitable society. This has a huge common-sense logical appeal. You identify where the power is (whether this is military power, the power to extract taxes, the power to make laws or whatever) and then you seize control. And bingo you have a people’s government. For many that source of power has for centuries seemed to be the nation state and, if you happen to be a full citizen of that state this is not so problematic (though you might hear a different story from some residents of, say, Wales, Bosnia, Catalunya or Lapland as well as more far-flung parts of the colonised world).

It certainly makes a difference what kind of a national government you have and it is of course an absolutely legitimate goal to try to get a government that fits your political ideals, so let’s stick with this model for the time being. My two linked questions remain: What kind of England/Britain/United Kingdom do you want? And how do you think voting no will help you get it?

Do you want to be like Norway?

Nordic social democracy is often held up as an aspirational model by the left.Compared with the rest of the world, it has certainly delivered high standards of living, relatively low levels of inequality and enviable lifestyles. But the neoliberal era has thrown up growing contradictions for their governments. How can strong welfare states in countries with small populations survive in a context of open borders? Decent egalitarian humanitarian values are under growing pressure: on one side from xenophobic populist groups; on another from global corporate lobbies wanting them to open up their markets (including privatising their public services). It is becoming harder to integrate immigrants, and gaps are widening between rich and poor. And of course, whether in or out, each of these states has had to negotiate its relationship with the EU (ironically enough using the English language as its vehicle for doing so).

But even leaving these quibbles aside, what evidence is there that the political will exists in England/Britain/the UK to follow this path, which has has been an aspiration for some sections of the Labour Party for at least 60 years? What political forces will take us there? And how?

Do you want to be like Cuba?

Alternative models for socialism in one country come from parts of the developing world that successfully resisted US imperialism, such as Vietnam and Cuba. Anybody who has visited these countries knows that they have delivered incalculable benefits to the majority of their populations measured in terms of things like health care, education and artistic attainment. It is hard not to admire their pluck, and hold them up as a model of what can be achieved when profit-seeking is not the dominant driver of progress. Some might even forgive their repression of political and intellectual freedom as a necessity forced on them by the unrelenting hostility of the capitalist world. But in the era of neoliberal globalisation they are only able to survive by making ever-larger compromises with global capitalism.

Perhaps you think that in a much richer, much larger economy like that of England/Britain/the UK such a model may be sustainable. But how will we get there? Do tell.

Do you want world revolution?

‘Workers of the world unite’ is a prescription often offered as the basis for an alliance that can topple global capitalism and bring about a more equitable system that transcends national borders. If this is what you want, how will leaving the EU help us move towards this goal? What mechanisms for building up international solidarity will be available to a country (or group of countries) that is separate from the EU that are not already available (and probably more freely so) in a country that is linked to others across Europe through a variety of institutions, bureaucratic though these may be. It is clear that if this is your goal then you will want to think beyond Europe. But surely Europe will remain part of the broader world you wish to engage with. How do you propose that these broader connections will be made?

Just asking.

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7 Responses to So what sort of state do you want to be in?

  1. Phil Steele says:

    A thoughtful, clear and composed article, many thanks. I was pleased that you referenced the different and devolved polities within the UK – I would like a Europe of the Regions to become a reality. I fail to see how isolated nation states can adequately challenge globalised capitalism. The current neoliberal economics of the EU is appalling, but at least the EU offers an international structure which will be necessary to achieve change though a broader progressive alliance. My fear is that an understandably disenchanted electorate will blame the EU for non-related problems and throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  2. greardon says:

    Thank you for these articles, Ursula. I hope they get widely read. Too few commentators are setting it out as plainly and to the point.

  3. Stewart Anderson says:

    Thanks, Ursula. I much appreciate the information, clarity and logic. I’m not so convinced of the conclusion you reach, in particular, because I question the openness of the EU to reform. Without entering into detail, I wonder, with a heavy heart, whether it is the surgeon’s situation in concluding that a joint has become so dysfunctional that it has to be broken and reset.

  4. Dave King says:

    I seem to be one of the Lexiters that you’re addressing this to, and I think if anything, your comments have strengthened my view, by making me think about what I really think. Which is, I guess why you bother to write.

    What you call a lightning conductor for anti-neoliberal feeling, is, I think Just as much about anti-technocracy. It’s easy to ridicule the moral panics about EU regulations about how straight a banana must be, but I think ordinary people have a good sense of how power works through supposedly technical matters, such as standardisation, and trade regulations. The EU is the quintessential technocracy, a set of highly undemocratic institutions through which people power is very hard pressed to act. ‘Europe’ is simply not a valid polity, it has no common culture and language for political discourse, and it is simply too big. The Brexit campaign is actually right in pointing to the remoteness from ordinary people and the undemocratic nature of EU decision-making. It’s because it’s so big, and because of the fundamental setup of its institutions that technocracy trumps democracy at the EU level.

    Saying this does not mean that one has to succumb to nostalgia for the third quarter of the 20th century, or to believe that bringing decision-making back to Westminster will enable us to create socialism in one country. But we need some kind of battlefield upon which we stand a chance of winning at least some victories in the struggles ahead. Pervading the remain campaign has been a hope that we can retain some semblance of the normal lifestyles of the past 30 years, including some of the social rights that the EU has established. This is understandable, but the plain fact is that technocratic industrial capitalism is collapsing, having almost destroyed the material, ecological basis of its existence, and, through its technology, its own economic basis. The resurgence of populism of the left and right, are an obvious sign of that collapse. Those lifestyles are history, get used to it. What lies ahead is a fairly stark choice between survival through community solidarity and stewardship of the local commons, or a variety of dystopias: ecoocialism or barbarism.

    While I’ve got great emotional sympathy for your appeal to internationalism, my head asks: ‘what has internationalism ever done for us?’ Really, concretely? it seems to me that you can only build internationalism when you’ve got your own strong local base, and that needs to be rebuilt in Britain. We might as well get on with it.

    • I agree about the need for a local base, but don’t see how EU membership prevents one building it. Surely the lesson of history is that it is necessary to organise both locally and internationally. This means finding ways to link up with all the other people also organising locally around the world. EU membership does not of course necessarily encourage this – but neither does it prevent it, and it does offer some mechanisms for making international links. I find it ironic that hopes are now being pinned on the UK national state as the arena in which neoliberalism can best be fought given that it was the UK government that, more than any other actor, was the main instrument for transforming the EU into the predominantly neoliberal organisation that it now is, going back at least to the way the privatisation agenda was pushed through during the Thatcher period (starting with the ‘libneralisation’ of telecoms and moving on to other utilities and public services). Among socialists across the rest of Europe, the UK is seen, along with the USA, as the prime architect of neoliberal hegemony in Europe, as elsewhere across the globe – hence the use of of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as a synonym for neoliberal by many, especially on the French left. Walking away from the party, having smashed the place up, is not a good way to build solidarity with those who are left.

      • Stewart Anderson says:

        Of course localism and internationalism are both necessary; an Hegelian relationship can be seen between the two. With its flouting of subsidiarity, trade tariffs and often excessive regulation (take the CPC for well qualified experienced HGV drivers) and many other defects, I think the EU is often an obstacle to estimable local concerns. In being so, it has fostered such widespread and dangerous right-wing extremism across the Community.

        The nation stated as an arena, though, like everything complex, with its numerous limitations and dangers, particularly in an era of fast-moving global and planetary threats and opportunities, has proved durable and popular. That it should have been an arena producing at times right-wing, at times left-wing governments, is not an essential argument for its disenfranchisement.

        I had hoped – and still am – for a balanced argument from an academic knowledgeable in relevant fields, whom I like and whose acumen I respect. But “walking away from the party, having smashed the place up” seems more like the language of the tabloids and the ultra football fans.

        Ursula, I turned to you because you had told my partner you hoped she could persuade me away from my conflicted inclination to vote to Leave. I was hoping for a well-founded, balanced view of the kind propagandistic public figures on both sides have failed to provide.

      • Stewart Anderson says:

        THis morning’s 5am news previews Osborne’s proposed post-Brexit Budget 2b announced today. At last both sides presenting some post-Referendum “vision”! It perhaps makes any incipient discussion between us two redundant. It wd not get through Parliament and the Tories wd split over it. Labour shd therefore clearly urge Brexit immediately!

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