Varieties of xenophobia

An ugly wave of racism has been unleashed in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, and, given the explicit appeal to anti-immigration sentiment used by the UKIP and Tory elements in the ‘out’ campaign, it is easy to explain the outcome of the vote as a simple expression of xenophobia.
Yet the left Brexit (Lexit) campaigners are adamant that this is not the case and their arguments are backed up by some evidence. This documentary, for instance, shows sincere, thoughtful, class-conscious working-class people (in this case, veterans of campaigns against pit closures in a Yorkshire village) repeatedly and convincingly insisting that they are not racist, by which they mean that they are not hostile to immigrants. On the contrary, their hostility is directed squarely at ‘Europe’ and the neoliberal politicians in the UK (including the Blairites) they see as in league with it.

What has struck me throughout this debate has been the extent to which Lexit supporters, like others across the British political spectrum, insist on seeing ‘Europe’ not as a terrain in which different players (including the UK government) advance and negotiate different positions – part of the same broad political field in which other decisions are made, whether at local, regional or national levels – but as some alien, autonomous body, impervious to pressure from below, which imposes its diktats from afar.

In puzzling about why this should be the case, it occurs to me that this may be partly the result of a very different kind of xenophobia. Not the racism directed at refugees and immigrants who are seen as undercutting native workers in the labour markets, or claiming shares of increasingly scarce public resources, but another, peculiarly British, kind of xenophobia directed at what might be called the European officer class.

Popular perceptions of Eurocrats bear many striking resemblances to portrayals of German officers in films and television programmes from the mid-20th century that are still shown today: cold, clever, bullying, unfeeling, sticklers for the rules and possessing a power that cannot be challenged directly but must be subverted by courage, ingenuity and humour.

Dad’s Army, the sit-com set in World War Two is still shown on BBC2 most Saturdays (the last episode was shown on June 18th, five days before the referendum). I imagine there are few British people who do not know by heart its theme song ‘Who do you think you’re kidding Mr Hitler, if you think Old England’s done?’ and, in their heads, echo Bud Flanagan singing ‘We are the boys who will stop your little game. We are the boys who will make you think again’. And any channel-hopper looking for an alternative to sport on television on a rainy weekend afternoon is liable to come across yet another repeat of The Great Escape, Mrs Miniver, The Dam Busters or another of the countless films set during the war, which formed the perceptions of ‘Europe’ most obviously for those who grew up in the 1940s, 50s and 60s (and who, perhaps not coincidentally, were most likely to vote ‘no’) but must also have penetrated the consciousness of younger generations.

dads army titles

Opening title sequence of Dad’s Army, still regularly shown by the BBC

‘Allo, ‘Allo, with its crude stereotypes not just of Germans but also of French and Italian people, is not shown so regularly on the main channels these days, but there must be few people over the age of 30 who are not intimately familiar with it and its cast of characters. Its portrayal of the Italian Captain Bertorelli buttresses that of southern Europeans in other programmes (like the Spanish waiter Manuel in Fawlty Towers) to confirm a notion of incompetence and incomprehension that might (I am guessing here) not just characterise the British stereotype of Mediterranean people but also resemble some German ones too – for instance the idea of Greeks (who statistics show to be the hardest working people in Europe) as lazy, profligate and corrupt. In the UK referendum debates Greece was much discussed, as a victim, with some elision between the idea of a bullying Germany and a bullying ‘Europe’. This can be read in part as solidarity with fellow victims of austerity against neoliberal aggression. But it also has parallels with earlier popular British reactions to what was seen as German aggression, such as the widespread sympathy for ‘poor little Belgium’ when it was invaded in 1914.

Put together, this confusing jumble of stereotypes creates an idea of Europeans that is simultaneously sinister and comical: to be taken very seriously as a threat to independence and democracy; but not to be taken seriously at all as fellow members of a forum in which intelligent debates can be held and decisions made. Underlying this is an unspoken assumption of British moral and intellectual superiority.

This is an attitude I have come across again and again since I started working on European research projects in the 1980s. Though grateful for the money, and for the chance to meet in beautiful and historic locations, many British academics I came across showed a sneering condescension to their European colleagues. In several fields it was assumed that non-British ideas would not be new (obviously anything original and worth saying had already been published in English-language journals) and that only the UK partner had the overview. The view was often expressed that any old thing would do for a European report. It was something that one was contractually obliged to deliver but not worth wasting original thought on. Some thought that their main role was to put others’ work into good English, writing superficially and journalistically, correcting linguistic errors, highlighting empirical results and avoiding theorising (the notion of big theory as somehow unBritish still has a strong hold in some quarters).

Things have changed quite a lot in recent years, I am happy to report, but a lot of this is due not so much to new and enlightened thinking among native-born academics but to the way in which younger generations of scholars across the rest of Europe now write and speak English so fluently, and are so well-read in the English-language literature, that they can no longer be patronised. It is perhaps in no small part due to this development that few academics figured in the Lexit camp; most now have first-hand experience of collaborating with colleagues from other countries in ways that have generated mutual respect and, at least in the social sciences, an understanding of the need for solidarities.

In other occupations  people have less direct contact with continental counterparts in their daily working lives and their views are more likely to be shaped by experiences on foreign holidays, where their encounters are with people whose jobs are to serve them, or with officials.

It is particularly ironic that we may be seeing the triumph of a brand of xenophobia that sees European politicians as a combination of dangerous totalitarians and ridiculous buffoons at this particular moment. Because what we are faced with in the UK right now is the prospect of a government run by precisely such dangerous totalitarians and ridiculous buffoons. In a reversal of the adage that says tragedy comes first, repeated as farce, might we now see Chaplin’s farcical Great Dictator about to become a tragic reality?



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A manifesto for hope

People have been saying to me that it’s all very well to lament the disenchantment of many of the traditional working class with neoliberal globalisation but what’s the alternative? What sorts of demands would give them enough hope to vote for anything positive?

Yesterday morning I started to make a list of things I would put into a manifesto for hope. I imagined then that it might be possible for the Labour Party to seize the moment, demand a quick general election and put some such manifesto to the public, with support for at least some of its ingredients from the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. Then I had to catch a train to Brussels and it got put on hold. In the meanwhile, the neoliberals in the Labour Party – who still seem to hold on to some deluded dream that there is space in the political spectrum for a ‘third way’ provided its proponents dress in smart suits and don’t upset the City of London – launched the latest stage of their vindictive and self-destructive attack on Corbyn. So this now looks even more like a pipe dream. But I am going to share it with you anyway: not as a blueprint, of course, but as a way of floating some ideas that others might share of a political approach that might obtain broad support and relaunch the UK (or some of its component parts) as a new kind of welfare state. Ideas to which others can add.

It is only a start, not very well worked out and not necessarily even in a very logical order, but, for what it’s worth, here it is, including some suggestions for how these things could be paid for.

The demands

  • Proportional representation – to give everyone a sense that their voice is heard (including UKIP supporters!) and ensure that the neoliberal wing of the Labour Party can never again keep moving to the right unchecked in the belief that dissenting voices to their left have nowhere else to go.
  • A raised minimum wage, including explicit formulae for converting piece-rates into hourly rates – not just to avoid organised workers being undercut by those more desperate in the labour market, but also to reduce reliance on tax credits and avoid situations where the taxpayer is subsidising employers who pay below-subsistence wages.
  • Introduce a universal basic income. This report has shown that it would be affordable within current government budgetary limitations. I would personally prefer a more generous version, in which all age groups get the same level. However it would have to be linked to the raised minimum wage just mentioned to avoid the problem of subsidising employers.
  • Major investment in housing, including self-build schemes, with the involvement of local communities in helping to decide where, how, and for whom this housing should be supplied.
  • More spending on schools, with a special focus on building new nursery and primary schools wherever they are needed. And curriculum reform to  reduce testing and return to more child-centred forms of education.
  • Abolish student fees. Graduates who get good jobs as a result of their studies can pay the public back in the form of income tax. Investigate the feasibility of requiring students to put in some ‘national service’ helping on community projects as a further way of thanking the public for investing in their further education. (Students won’t need grants because they will get a universal basic income).
  • More spending on the NHS and an integration of health and social services, including hospice services. This should also include investment in training of nurses and care workers, upgrading the latter and returning them to public employment. The proportion of GDP spent on health and social services should be increased in line with international good practice.
  • Investment in renewable energy.
  • Investment in creative industries.
  • Grants to local authorities, NGOs and worker co-operatives to set up local online employment platforms providing local services to local communities in ways that ensure that workers have decent working conditions and revenues remain in the local economy.

How can these things be paid for

  • Welfare reform will result in substantial savings on contracts to companies currently paid to police benefit claimants.
  • Increases in minimum wages and job creation will result in higher revenues from income tax.
  • Increase corporation tax for larger companies and crack down on corporate tax evasion.
  • Collaborate with other governments internationally to close down tax havens.
  • Carbon taxes.
  • Tax on empty properties and land hoarding.



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The unmaking of the English working class

The English working class, whose origins were so memorably chronicled by E.P Thompson in 1963, is the oldest in the world, forged in tandem with the landscape of the first industrial revolution with its mills and mines and steelworks and grimy brick streets of back-to-back houses. Although many of its features were unique to particular times and places, its forms of organisation, so carefully documented by Marx and Engels, in many ways provided models for other labour movements around the world.

It is this same working class, now many generations away from the rural folk who formed its origins, which, in its despair and anger and anomie, voted two days ago for Brexit.  Is this how it ends? Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of the phase of capitalism associated with the British Empire, not in a glorious revolution but in a hopeless spasm of self-destruction, on the very sites where it was first created?

I  have never had time to do systematic research on this and what follows is grossly over-generalised,  but sometimes I think that it is only possible to imagine an alternative way of living if you have some first-hand experience of it. The first generation of industrial workers comes from the countryside, typically from subsistence agriculture. Young people, without children, whose elders are taken care of in the village have only to earn enough to provide their own food and lodging. The literature abounds with descriptions of how simultaneous liberating and frightening this can be (18th century English mill girls and 21st century Sri Lankan clothing workers, seen as too rebellious to be marriageable; new migrants straight off the ship in early 20th century New York). This first generation works hard and obediently, wanting its children to learn the language and assimilate and do better than themselves. It is the second generation, at home in the city, that starts to organise, to feel entitled, to refuse to kow-tow unquestioningly to the boss. Between worlds, having heard from parents and grandparents stories, perhaps romanticised in nostalgic memory, of how life used to be in the village, with its clean air and seasonal rhythms, these workers know that there are alternatives to the machine-paced life of the factory. Accounts of worker militancy, whether in St Lawrence in 1912, Coventry in the 1960s, Sao Paolo in the 1970s or the Pearl River Delta in the 2010s, always seem to involve workers who are no more than a couple of generations from the land and know that other ways of living are possible. And being able to imagine this alternative future gives focus to the struggle and motivation to seek change.

But when even your great, great, great, great grandparents worked in industry, what kind of alternative can you imagine? It seems likely that your aspirations turn simply to a better version of what you already know, made comfortable by the shared cultures and solidarities of your class: the same dull daily routine, but with more security, more consumer goods, nicer holidays; in short the life that was achieved by many (though never all) in developed Western economies in the third quarter of the 20th century. Such aspirations may well still seem achievable in many parts of the world. Look at the growth of the new middle classes in India, China and Brazil. And, to judge by their promises, many politicians still believe in them in Europe. But if there is anything to be learned from the last couple of weeks it is that these hopes have died in industrial Britain, replaced by a kind of nihilistic rage against those very politicians and all they seem to stand for.

The question that confronts us engaged intellectuals now, in the aftermath of that vote, is how it might be possible to contribute to the development of alternative positive visions that are credible enough, and rooted well enough in their own hopes and dreams to lift these cheated people out of their depression and give them something worth fighting for. If I am right in thinking that alternatives cannot be imagined out of thin air but must relate in some way to actual experience then this is a huge challenge. I rack my brains. Perhaps, I think, we should start with the children: give them love and stories and music and first-hand contact with nature and with interesting people who have lived alternative lives (all the things that Michael Gove has been driving out of the once-great British primary school system). But that seems like a very wishy-washy hippy fantasy in these grim times. And patronising. And it would take ages.

What is the alternative? To watch and document, in all its horror, the final unravelling of the English working class: a tragedy directed by clowns with lemmings as actors?

Or to find some way to act now, quickly. Whatever we do, it has to be done with open ears. The cry of pain that, I still believe, that ‘out’ vote represented, has to be recognised for what it is, and, with all humility, we have to listen to those who have uttered it, understand what they are telling us and try, jointly, to envisage some collective future alternative.

(In writing this blog post I discovered that WordPress has redesigned itself in such a way that early drafts are no longer automatically saved separately. One clumsy press on the mouse – which i am still having to operate with my left hand – wiped out all of the first version except the sentence in the ‘excerpt’ and this is a hasty reconstruction: shorter; perhaps less purple in its prose; probably more trite. Who knows?)


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The hardest nettle to grasp

It is still early in the morning as I write this and some people will not have heard the news yet, while others who have been up all night still haven’t even had breakfast, but already the finger-pointing has started.

And there are, of course, many easy culprits to blame for the devastating outcome of yesterday’s referendum vote on Britain’s EU membership.

Most obviously there is David Cameron. A taxi driver of Pakistani origin I spoke to yesterday (who insisted – perhaps like many others –  on seeing the referendum as a choice between Cameron and Boris Johnson) kept repeating, ‘Why? Why did he have to do this? There was no need. Politicians are always breaking manifesto promises’. And it is a common view that this most shallow man was prepared to risk Britain’s future simply as a lazy way of dealing with the Tory Party’s right wing to bring about some semblance of unity and marginalise UKIP in the run-up to the last general election (which, it is widely thought, he wasn’t even expecting the Tories to win). It is also widely believed that Boris Johnson was playing an even more cynical game: wanting Cameron’s job as Tory leader and gambling that the majority of Tories would vote to leave the EU (leaving him as the most popular potential successor) but that Britain would be held back from the brink by Labour, Lib-Dem, Green, SNP and Plaid Cymru voters. This would leave him as Conservative leader without any real challenge to the technocratic neoliberal global regime with which he still identifies.

Alternatively we can blame the populist right, whipping up xenophobic hatred (in alliance with the toxic popular press) to take advantage of the gullibility and disillusion of the working class victims of neoliberal globalisation to redirect their anger at refugees and immigrants.

Or – and this is a heavy weight for its recipients to bear – we can blame the Blairite centre left for identifying its interests with that same technocratic neoliberal globalisation project, contributing directly to that disillusion and anger and leaving traditional Labour supporters with nowhere else to go, with compromises that continued under Miliband’s leadership (Remember those ‘controls on immigration’ mugs produced as part of Labour’s campaign in the last general election – a campaign that also failed to challenge austerity?).

This anger undoubtedly led to the huge wave of support for Corbyn in last year’s Labour leadership campaign. But his leadership is not immune from blame either, albeit from several different contradictory directions. I woke this morning to the sound of Kate Hoey on Radio 4 blaming him for not taking the lead in a Labour Brexit campaign. Others think he did not campaign strongly enough for staying in the EU.

It seems to me that, whoever is blamed, the predicament that we are now in results from a fundamental contradiction in the nature of capitalism that social democratic parties and the trade unions have shied away from addressing directly over many decades,  whose full horrors are only emerging now,  in what might be regarded as the full maturity of globalisation.

This contradiction relates to what Marxists call the ‘reserve army of labour’ and how it is deployed under capitalism. I will be brief now (breakfast calls) but in essence the problem is this: the only way that workers can exert any control over their circumstances against a capitalist employer determined to extract as much profit as possible from their labour is to organise: to protect their safety; to be able to say ‘enough is enough’; to earn enough to survive. And the only way this organisation can lead to results is by ensuring some solidarity: if everybody agrees not to work more than a certain number of hours, or not to accept wages below a certain level, then the employer can be obliged to abide by these terms. From such beginnings trade unions grew. For employers, the easiest strategy to circumvent these requirements – especially important during periods when their profits are squeezed – is to bring in different workers who will accept poorer conditions and lower wages.

When Marx and Engels were writing, these workers were, by and large, drawn from an indigenous pool of unemployed people desperate for any means of earning a livelihood – the ‘reserve army’. Historically this reserve army has always extended beyond national borders. The canals and railways that provided the infrastructure for the expansion of British capitalism were largely built by Irish navvies; the South Wales steel industry in the 19th century drew in workers from as far afield as Spain, and of course the British Empire was built on slave and plantation and ‘coolie’ labour across the world. The reserve army also extended into the household, drawing in the labour of women and children, paid below the level of an adult male, so that the entire family had to work to survive.

The logic of the way this reserve army is deployed pits worker against worker. It is objectively in the interests of organised groups of workers to keep out any outsiders who will work for less, or, if they are admitted, to ensure that they are only admitted on terms that do not allow them to undercut the existing workforce. And this same logic, of course, disadvantages those whose starting position is as outsiders, whether because of gender, ethnicity or some other factor.

Nevertheless, in historical periods when the nation state was dominant, and most capitalists nationally based, it was possible for socialists to overcome this contradiction. The means for doing so was to go beyond making demands for particular groups of workers, represented by particular trade unions, to making general demands for the working class as a whole. In the 20th century this took the form of developing national welfare states: creating universal health and education services and social protection systems that would mean that the unemployed were never so destitute and desperate that they would take any work that was going, to the detriment of organised labour.

In our current era of neoliberal globalisation it is this pattern that has unravelled. Since the end of the cold war, employers have been able to access a reserve army that extends across the world, an army that can be accessed in multiple ways. They can do it by exporting the jobs to parts of the world with cheap labour, or by bringing in the cheap labour to the sites where the jobs have been traditionally carried out. The losers from this process are the native working class.

And this referendum vote can be seen as the revolt of these losers. The tragedy is that although they know what they are against they do not seem to have any clear vision of what alternative they want or how it will be achieved. The danger is that someone will reinvent National Socialism as a ‘solution’.

To categorise them as racist is to miss the point. But solutions can, nevertheless, not be found until racism has been tackled.

This is the painful nettle that Labour has to grasp. Urgently!

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6 Reasons for Brexit

Sorry, but I can’t let this one go. Despite quite a bit of helpful feedback from readers I still find myself both alarmed at the prospect of Brexit and puzzled by the motives of those who want to vote to leave the EU. I do not wish to impugn these motives. I am sure that they have good reasons. Nor do I want to sound patronising. Nevertheless I am convinced that the consequences of Brexit would be awful, even if in unintended ways, so here is another attempt to understand what these motives might be and even address some of them. Apologies if I seem to be repeating myself.

  1. I hate Cameron and Osborne

It is absolutely understandable that you might be appalled by what the Cameron-led Government has done to the poor and vulnerable, and disgusted by its hyprocrisy and opportunism. You may not believe a word they say and you may love the thought of teaching them a lesson. But have you thought this one through? How will we be better off under a Boris Johnson/Iain Duncan Smith/Michael Gove-led government? Equally mendacious, even more xenophobic, with an equally nasty history of picking on the poor and vulnerable and destroying public services – and the possibility that they will remain in power until 2020?

    2. I don’t want to be ruled by faceless bureaucrats I didn’t elect

True, the European Commission’s civil servants are not elected; they are appointed, just like British civil servants. But they take their orders from people who are: on the one hand from the European Parliament and on the other from the national governments of the 28 Member States (including the UK). National governments also get to nominate the Commissioners (the equivalent of ministers at a national level) who tell the civil servants what to do. It is true that the European parliament has rather little power, but that is precisely because of the ‘national sovereignty’ that so many Brexit supporters say they want – generally speaking it is the Council of Europe (where the elected heads of government meet) that has the final word. Although it is not in the Eurozone the UK government actually has quite a strong voice there. It was Thatcher, more than anyone, who pushed through the neoliberal agenda in Brussels, seeing off the social-democratic Keynesianism of Jacques Delors which breathed its last gasp in the early 1990s.

   3. I am scared of mass immigration

No easy answers here. There are probably more people on the move around the globe now than at any other period in history – fleeing from war, destitution, persecution and the effects of climate change. For historical reasons, including those connected with Britain’s imperial past and, more recently, its warmongering in the Middle East, the UK is both a more attractive destination for migrants and bears more responsibility for their situation than many other European countries. It is, however allowing in fewer people from outside Europe. As for immigration from the rest of the EU, the numbers are not so different from those emigrating from the UK to the rest of Europe, whether this is for work, for retirement or to take advantage of lower property prices and cheap services. Our popular press has been whipping up scare stories about immigration for decades and it is not surprising that fears have taken root, and been exploited by racists. However it is striking that these fears are greatest in precisely those areas where there is least immigration. People who actually live in multicultural areas are, on the whole, accepting of their new neighbours. Immigration is often blamed for lack of housing, overcrowding of schools and hospitals and low wages but all these things are actually the result of government policies (many of them implemented by leading Tory Brexit supporters). They are not inevitable and could be changed by an act of political will (to spend more on housing, health and education and raise the minimum wage).

   4.  I hate red tape

We live in a world where everything seems to be standardised and regulated. Some of these standards are supposed to protect consumers; others just seem to be for the convenience of companies. We have all got used to looking at the labels to see what additives there are in our food, and filling in forms as a prelude to just about anything. It can be immensely irritating to be told that a call centre can’t talk to you without the right authorisation ‘for data protection reasons’ or that you can’t rent out your spare room without a gas safety certificate or take your dog abroad without a microchip. Encouraged by the mass media, we lay a lot of the blame for these regulations on Brussels. But actually many of them do not come from there at all – they come from bodies like the International Standards Organisation or the World Trade Organisation or international business associations. It might surprise some people to learn that the USA (‘Land of the Free’) is regarded by many as the most over-regulated country in the world, with regulations at local, state and federal level adding extra clauses to each other at an alarming rate. The US Federal Register is over 80,000 pages long*. Anybody who has taken a look at the user agreement for a an Apple or Microsoft product will know how much finicky detail is imposed by global corporations. Could it be that it is the functioning of modern capitalism – not the EU itself – which is tying us up in regulations?

   5. The EU is lost to neoliberalism. I want a people’s state

Greece is the most striking example, here, of the way in which democratically elected governments in the Eurozone have been over-ridden and forced to adopt austerity policies that their citizens did not vote for. This is an outrage. And the European Commission is clearly at fault. But, at the risk of seeming nit-picky, I do think it is worth pointing out here that the European Commission was only one of the three parties in the Troika which imposed these horrible and humiliating terms on Greece (and, to a lesser extent, on Italy, Portugal and Ireland). The other two were the International Monetary Fund (which has a global scope and nothing specifically to do with Europe) and the European Central Bank, which covers the Eurozone (which the UK is not in). The most important point here is that the bodies calling the shots are the banks. We could therefore say that (as I already stated in this blog post last week) while the EC is certainly complicit in neoliberalism and in this case helped to do the dirty work for global capitalism, it is not the prime mover. We live in a world where there are many bodies that can over-ride national governments or hold them to ransom, including the World Trade Organisation, World Bank etc. The European Union is one of the intervening layers between them and national governments but getting rid of this intervening layer will not make them go away. Indeed, it might just make it harder to negotiate with them. Those with long memories might remember how the UK’s Labour Government was humiliated in 1976 by the International Monetary Fund, which insisted on deep cuts in public expenditure in exchange for a loan. The EU had nothing to do with this. And it could happen again, regardless of whether we are out of the EU, as it does to many other governments around the world.

   6. I am a socialist. I think the Labour Movement can be most effective nationally

Since the last general election there has been a welcome resurgence of socialism in Britain, especially among the young, visible not just in the support for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the Labour Party but also in leftward leanings among the Greens and Scottish and Welsh Nationalists. Trade union membership is also holding up well though, at six and a half million members in 2015, it is only half the 13 million reached at its peak in 1979 (though, as France has shown, there is not necessarily a direct relationship between numbers of members and levels of militancy). Labour is very much a force to be reckoned with, still, in the UK.  But it is important not to forget its history. The British trade union movement suffered a historic defeat in the 1980s at the hands of the Thatcher Government, at a time when it was larger, better organised and more class-conscious than it is now. Many of the gains it had made in the 1970s (in terms of legal rights) only survived because they were transferred to and embedded in European Directives. The UK now has some of the most anti-trade union legislation in Europe, as well as a trade union movement that, compared with its heyday, is fragmented, depleted and exhausted. Do you really think it could win now, unaided, what it could not defend in the 1980s, under a Brexit Government which would be the most right-wing in British history?  Look across the Channel to the French demonstrations over the labour reform bill going on right now. Wouldn’t it be better to be acting in solidarity with those French workers than in isolation? Or, for that matter, with the supporters of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain? How does voting no help such solidarity? And, if we are out of Europe and operating alone, what is the road map to a socialist government?




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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.

Posted in Britain, Labour in the 21st century, political reflection, Politics, The world, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

A lightning conductor for anti-neoliberalism

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.

Posted in Labour in the 21st century, political reflection, Political theory, Politics, The world, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Expats, migrants and the global division of labour

Earlier this week, while waiting for the dinner to finish cooking, I turned on the television and caught a programme that seemed to say so much about the international division of labour in the world today that I felt I had to write something about it. Inspired by the success of the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the programme makers had taken a group of British B list celebrities to an up-market former private mansion (‘The Real Marigold Hotel’) in Rajasthan with the ostensible aim of helping them decide whether they would like to retire to India.

Shown on a day when it was being reported that asylum-seekers entering some European countries were having their jewellery confiscated while those being refused entry to Britain were being tear-gassed in Calais, the contrast was vivid. These British migrants were waved easily across the border, with nobody questioning their right to enter the former colony and help themselves to the benefits of living there. And of course allowed to travel by air – no rubber dinghies on choppy waters for them.

This comes at a time when the baby-boomers in the UK are entering retirement, boosting the elderly population, while social care budgets are being savaged. The question of how to survive in old age has come into sharp focus for a generation brought up to believe they’d never had it so good. In an era of globalisation, if politically-imposed constraints on immigration make it increasingly difficult to bring the world’s poor to Britain to care for them in their old age, why not export the elderly to their home countries instead, where they can be looked after in a state where somebody else picks up the cost of bringing up the next generation?

India has long been swelling the ranks of the global servant class: its call centre workers patiently taking abuse from irate English-speaking customers of global corporations, its hotel workers providing tourists with luxuries they could never afford at home, its ex-pats providing nursing, child-care and cleaning services as well as a myriad technical and professional services across the world. But, as this programme clunkily underlined, it also has a special place in the baby boomer imagination as a site of spirituality and exoticism, romantically counterposed to the consumerism and materiality of the West.

In the part of the programme I watched, this was voiced most explicitly by the dancer Wayne Sleep who said that, after a brush with cancer, he ‘wanted to get in touch with his spiritual side’. The group was taken to a temple and introduced to a guru, traipsed round various beautiful and exotic locations and and taken to meet, first a poor but upwardly mobile man from a Dalit caste and then a Maharaja who had cashed in on the family history by turning the family palace into a luxury hotel. They were then encouraged to mouth platitudes about the extreme contrasts between rich and poor and how different this was from the egalitarian society they were used to back home in Britain. No mention, of course, of how that imagined equality, which had some basis in reality in the post-war period when they were young, has now given way to growing social polarisation back home in Blighty too (and may in fact be diminishing in India with its growing middle class – though India too has a large share of the world’s billionaires).

Thus was denial piled on denial. Airbrushed out of the story was not only the appalling contrast between the free movement of capital, services and rich tourists across national borders on the one hand and, on the other, the savage constraints placed on the free movement of workers and refugees, but also the dramatic growth in inequality within the developed world. And no mention of the destruction of the welfare state and how that might form their choices about seeking alternative places to be cared for in their declining years.

I did not watch to the end of the episode and will miss future instalments because I will be travelling pretty continuously for the next few weeks, and I am not sure anyway that I could contain my anger long enough to see the series right through, but if any readers of this blog have enough self control and semiotic curiosity to do so, I would be interested to learn how it turns out.


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Ellen Meiksins Wood – her importance to me

I was extraordinarily saddened to hear last night of the death of Ellen Meiksins Wood and it took me a while to work out why. After all, I hardly knew her. We met a couple of times and I can recall in some detail only one conversation with her (in a taxi in New York). And I haven’t read nearly enough of her writing – though enough to recognise her brilliance, acuity and principle.

It is so often in retrospect that one realises someone’s importance – too late to tell them about it. There is a Welsh song about a harpist in the Vale of Llangollen who dies a lonely death ‘without a morsel to eat or a drop of water’ but then, when the news of his death gets out, his mourners  bring enough food and drink to the funeral feast to have kept him alive. Ellen was not lacking in love and appreciation, I am happy to know, but I still wish I’d sent her a fan letter.

Why was she so important to me? First, and most obviously she was a shining, original political economist, combining an over-arching grasp of the theoretical landscape with the intellectual confidence to address the big questions directly, without feeling she had to tiptoe along in the footsteps of everybody else since Marx who had inquired into them, nodding politely or scowling, as appropriate, at each of them before venturing her own conclusions. (Which is not to say she was not well-read or scholarly).  Second, she was a woman. During a period when more and more women were entering academic life, it was still extraordinarily rare in the field of political economy for a woman to be recognised and respected as a towering intellect with a grasp of the whole – and NOT just someone who writes about gender. In fact it is hard to think of anyone since Rosa Luxembourg who achieved this status on the academic left. The third remarkable thing about her that was personally important for me was her milieu.

The two aspects of this that I had first-hand contact with were the School of Political Science at York University in Toronto, where she inspired several generations of students and Monthly Review, which she edited for a while. I am wondering now how much of a coincidence it was that these were the two places where I first gained some recognition as serious political economist.

During a period when most critical theory was drowned in the tsunami of post-modernism that swept through universities more or less in parallel with the tsunami of neoliberalism that swept through the world economy from the 1980s on, they kept alive a tradition of serious, thoughtful, grounded, historical materialist theory that was open and unsectarian, and carried out not for the sake of academic plaudits but as part of a serious political project: to understand the world with the aim of helping change it without trying to preach to working people, dictate their strategies, chide them for their inadequacies or substitute for their leadership. This was achieved by multiple means, including Leo Panitch’s inspirational editorship of Socialist Register, and a stream of clever PhD students, generating a critical mass of Marxist scholarship that was large enough to renew itself – too many names to list here.

I felt welcomed and understood in these mileux as never before. For decades I had thought maybe I’m wrong, maybe nobody’s interested, maybe what I’m saying is just too obvious to be worth noting. And suddenly I felt recognised. Wow! somebody actually got it! Maybe it really is worth persevering with some writing. Maybe I do have something to contribute.

But as I reflect on it now, I wonder to what extent this recognition was only possible because of Ellen. Nobody who knew her work could possibly have put her in the box marked ‘women’s issues’. So, perhaps even without being conscious of it, her colleagues must have just taken it for granted that women can be political economists too. And I was the beneficiary of that.

So thanks, Ellen. May your work be long remembered and celebrated. May others follow where you led. May your insights be understood. And may your politics be vindicated some day in a better world.



Posted in Autobiography, In memoriam, personal memoir, political reflection | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Happy holidays

xmas 2015 j

Hope 2016 will be a corker!

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