For several weeks I have been trying not to join the debate about whether the UK should remain in the EU. I had an accident in March, in which I smashed up my right shoulder, depriving me of the use of that arm and hand, and reducing my productivity quite considerably so wanted to put my limited writing capacity to other uses.
My relationship with current affairs during this period has been somewhat oblique: BBC Radio 4 coming in and out of focus through the painkiller fog; conversation with taxi-drivers, chiropodists, hairdressers, physiotherapists and other people who have so kindly helped me manage my bodily needs; occasional dips into Facebook and Twitter. But almost no conferences, dinners with friends or the other sorts of occasions where opinions are usually calibrated and decisions swayed.
I expected that there would be a lively public debate in which anything I might think would be said articulately by others, better-informed than me, probably many times over. And it is quite possible that this is actually happening in spaces I am not frequenting. Which would make this short blog quite redundant. But what I am hearing from the fractured messages that reach me is that the content of the debate is so ill-informed, the spirit in which it is expressed by politicians so deceitful and malicious, the reaction from the public so angry and flummoxed that I feel impelled to set down a few thoughts in the hope that they just might help a few other people make some sense of what’s going on. If it seems to you to be so blindingly obvious as not to need saying, then all I can say is sorry, blame it on the cocodomol.
The first puzzle that presents itself is the appeal of Brexit. There seem to be many people who genuinely believe that a decision to leave the EU would take us back to a Britain with coherent communities, shared values and ‘sovereignty’: a reimagined orderly version of the third quarter of the 20th Century characterised (with details depending on your political persuasion) by proper jobs, a functioning Beveridgean Welfare State, being able to leave your door unlocked at night, hearing only English spoken on buses, trade unions getting together with the CBI for cosy talks at 10 Downing Street over beer and sandwiches, a Commonwealth grateful for independence, immigrants and women knowing their place, the Beatles playing on the radio and Morecambe and Wise on the telly. In this nostalgically reconstructed world you knew where you were: fuel bills were paid to the local electricity and gas boards, telephones were installed by British Telecom and you did not have to do confusing research to organise a pension or an insurance policy or remember a pin number to access what was yours. Life was safe and predictable; you felt respected; you had dignity.
Wanting a return to such a condition should not, in my view, be simply written off as racism, jingoism or little Englandism (though it may contain elements of all of these) but rather regarded as a genuine expression of anguish at the devastation that has been brought to people’s lives in the last four decades by the neoliberal world order: a howl of rage at what has been lost.
It is, of course, delusional to imagine that leaving the EU could bring it back. Regardless of the outcome of the vote, we will wake up on June 24th to a world where Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Uber still hold sway, where jobs are still fragmented into discrete tasks, cultures trivialised and commercialised, and populations, increasingly regarded as consumers rather than citizens, atomised and set competitively against each other in global markets.
Britain’s membership of the EEC, and later the EU, more or less coincided with the global spread of neoliberalism. And European institutions, like national governments around the world, can be regarded as complicit in it. But this complicity should not be confused with causality. Yes, there has been a burgeoning of standardisation and regulation. And yes there has been a more or less continuous process of institutional restructuring, with bewildering acronyms replacing each other at a pace dictated, it seems, by the need to ensure that no organisational innovation stays in place long enough for anyone actually to be held accountable for it. But these are part of the very mechanisms by which neoliberal policies are enacted, with complex mutual dependencies, tensions and interactions between global corporations, national governments, supra-national bodies, consultancies and lobbies. These are visible not just in the intersecting cogs of the various bureaucracies but by actual movements of individuals between these spheres (e.g.former ministers sitting on corporate boards and former CEOs advising governments).
Brussels represents a particularly dense node in this ecosystem but – like national governments – is better viewed as a site of negotiation and conflict between different economic and political actors than an autonomously functioning source of power. In other words, the EU is not itself to blame for globalisation, though it has played a role in the mutual shaping of global capitalism and individual human subjects.
Let’s take regulation – a feature of European governance that is much fetishised in the debates. It seems to me that this can usefully be divided into two, albeit overlapping, categories. The first of these relates to the standardisation that is a necessary underpinning of world trade, but also of global divisions of labour. The second relates to politically-negotiated rules that represent compromises arrived at in democratic systems to protect citizens’ rights and lay down agreed procedures that are deemed to be fair.
To start with the first, it is clear that the smooth operation of global trade relies crucially on interchangeability. Ensuring that shipping containers are all the same size makes it possible for goods to move frictionlessly from factory to ship to warehouse anywhere across the world. Lightbulbs made in China have to fit sockets in Norway. An IT qualification gained in Bangalore should be recognisable to a customer in Toronto. However most such standards are not set by the European Commission but by bodies like the Geneva-based International Standards Organisation (ISO) which as its website proudly announces ‘has published more than 21000 International Standards and related documents, covering almost every industry, from technology, to food safety, to agriculture and healthcare’. The ISO was actually founded, in 1946, in London so, although it was by definition international from the beginning, if it can be blamed on anyone that would actually be us Brits – certainly not the Eurocrats.
Standards are also laid down by the World Trade Organization and in a range of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements, which could be seen as embodying the aggressive hard cutting edge of neoliberalism: instruments by which the imperatives of international trade are forced through politically. The EU certainly plays its part in the negotiation of these agreements but it is quite wrong to see it as the prime instigator. It is not so much a single monolithic entity as a terrain of struggle.
The crucial problem here, as I see it, relates to the increasingly unbridled power of multinational corporations vis a vis national states. A hundred years ago it was possible, at least for large colonial powers and major states like the USA, to exercise some discipline over companies that operated within their shores, for instance by making them pay tax, and by breaking up monopolies. Now, under conditions of globalisation, no one state has this power. This leaves something of a vacuum at the supranational level, a vacuum into which the EU’s bodies have to some extent been drawn. However the balance of political forces is such that it has rather little real authority. Its protracted actions to constrain the monopolistic powers of Microsoft and Google have had only very limited impact. Attempts to tax financial transactions have been headed off. Nevertheless, the EU has arguably achieved more than any single Member State acting on its own, for instance in bringing pressure to bear on the mobile phone companies to reduce roaming charges.
The second category of regulation is often confused – perhaps disingenuously – in public discourse with the first. Outrage at the interfering meddling, as it is portrayed, of Brussels in defining the straightness of cucumbers, what is, or is not ‘jam’, or the imposition of metric measures can be redirected seamlessly to outrage at Directives covering things like health and safety rules, the 40-hour week or the rights of temporary agency workers. The two types of regulation have, however, developed in very different ways, building on different traditions and reflecting the interests of different stakeholders. The concept of ‘social dialogue’ can be traced back to the the original Treaty of Rome, which established the European Community in January, 1958. It has evolved since then in a number of ways but, at least from the British perspective, can be seen as shifting to an international level a range of regulations that were already agreed nationally during the 1970s (when the Health and Safety at Work Act, Race Relations Act, Equal Pay Act, Sex Discrimination Act and Employment Protection Act were enacted). Their European equivalents were hard fought for, by Social Democratic Parties in the European Parliament and, where they were in power nationally, in the European Council where the national governments meet, and by the trade unions. [It should be noted, by the way, that many of these European Directives are currently under threat with the proposal of a diluted ‘Social Pillar’ that will replace firm regulations with feebler recommendations or good practice models, and require ‘evidence’ to justify new regulations.]
These European Directives are, in other words, an enshrining of basic rights, already present in most countries, in a form that is designed to create a floor below which levels cannot fall in a context of international competition which would otherwise lead to a race to the bottom.
The debates about these Directives are particularly mealy-mouthed. Conservatives who are leading the ‘remain’ campaign, like Cameron and Osborne, clearly have no commitment to them and have in the past been linked to attempts to opt out of them, create loopholes or get them watered down. But even this hypocrisy is trumped by the pretense by the Brexit conservatives that they are on the side of workers and the vulnerable.
Can anyone seriously believe that Iain Duncan Smith, who has spent the last few years inflicting the Atos reign of terror on the sick and disabled, has the best interests of the NHS at heart? Or that Michael Gove, or Boris Johnson, or Nigel Farage will stand up for workers’ rights? Apparently yes.
The pain and anger that neoliberalism has unleashed in the working class has gathered energy like a thunderstorm. And the European Union has become the lightning rod. What a pity this energy cannot be directed against the real architects of disempowerment, which operate at a global level.
Whatever our distaste of the fellow-travellers, on either side of the debate, it seems to me essential that as much attention as possible is focused on this effort of redirection. However neoliberal European institutions may be, they are no more so than most national ones. And if there is to be any hope of curbing international capitalism this has to involve not just local action but joining forces with others internationally. Sentimentalising a lost past will not get us anywhere, but maybe, just maybe, that past has lessons we can learn from.