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Austerity, racism and the EU referendum in Britain

 

 

Nigel Farage, leader of the far-right UK Independence Party (UKIP), has been among the key figures advocating a vote to exit the EU.

 

By Tony Mckenna

 

June 13, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The EU debate is perhaps one of the more difficult to make sense of. For you are bombarded with a vast amount of articles, from every colour on the political spectrum. How does one go about making an informed decision? It’s said you can tell a lot about a person by who their friends are. When translated into political thought the axiom has a simplistic but not unuseful purpose: take the time to look at the groups and social forces that are gathering around a particular position. These might give you some hint as to which political interests the position truly serves and hint at its real essence. However, in the case of the EU referendum – the vote that is to be held later this year in Britain on whether we should remain or leave the European Union – there is a remarkably odd admixture of people who have aligned themselves with both sides. So, for instance, the grinning, demagogic crackpot Nigel Farage has shared a platform with the left-wing firebrand George Galloway, both advocating a British withdrawal from the EU. At the same time David Cameron and his excellent anti-austerity nemesis, the leader of the Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn, find themselves in the unusual position of seeing eye-to-eye on the issue and campaigning to keep Britain in.

 

David Cameron’s political position is comprehensible. Along with the main state institutions, a majority of the larger capitalist corporations and their think tanks who are also lobbying to remain affiliated, Cameron understands that the European Union has, historically, been an effective means by which capital reproduction has been managed on a European wide scale. Emerging out of the Steel and Coal Community (1952) by way of the Treaty of Rome (1957), the EEU (as it was then) was a project which hoped to create a more federal Europe, specifically by fusing the economic interests of Germany and France, and thus offsetting a tendency toward the type of rival bloc building and geopolitical antagonisms which had led to World War II. Indeed one of the arguments that those who are pro-EU, and for Britain’s continued membership of it, often employ is that the EU has secured a level of European harmony and integration during the post war period, relative to what had come before. The assessment seems plausible, though it must be read in the context of the fact that the processes of empire building in the latter part of the twentieth century had largely shifted terrains; the bi-polar tensions which defined that epoch shifted from the European plain to the transatlantic build-up of arms which categorised the Cold War between the USSR and the US.

 

Indeed, the impetus behind the Treaty of Rome was very much US driven, sponsored by US imperialism in order to create the kind of unified market which on the basis of a US federal-style model would provide a stable economic region for an influx of US goods and exports. The notion that, as some leftists would have it, the European Union can provide a powerful bulwark to US power seems to be chimerical – not only because the US was so heavily involved in its construction, but also because the Union itself is a somewhat toothless entity, lacking a standing army or any real military fortification by which its policies can be enforced; choosing rather to rely on the most powerful of its client states – and also, notably, the United States itself. Rather than act as a counterweight to US power, the EU seems to have instead complimented it, and this was most clearly evinced in the fracas which ensued in Ukraine recently, when Brussels helped pressure president Victor Yanukovych into ratifying a rather one-sided agreement with the EU relating to its Eastern Partnership policy, and Putin’s Russia reacted with anger, making violent incursions into the territory, occupying Crimea. In the event, the president was forced to reverse his decision. At the same time, the fault lines of public opinion in Ukraine itself, torn between east and west, increasingly fissured and fractured, setting the basis for civil turmoil. In the light of this type of incident, the EU seems to be acting according to a clearly imperial remit, favouring Western European and US hegemony over and against the power to the east, a distant echo of the Cold War itself - with Putin himself reacting in kind albeit at the head of a much weaker Russian power.

 

One of the strongest points, from a left perspective, against the EU stems from its subordination to the United States and its perceived eagerness to sign up to the labyrinthine clauses of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), an agreement which is being conducted very much under the public radar and promises to create a single market uniting US and the EU on the basis of the power of large capital; one where corporations would be given the right to sue individual governments for state policies which work against their profit margins. Given the secretive, almost Byzantine-like complexity of the decision-making process at the heart of the EU bureaucracy, the image of a group of unelected plutocrats who are operating very much in the interests of international finance is one which is hard to repeal - especially given the experience of Greece in 2015, when the democratic mandate a government was handed by its population was overturned in favour of the prerogatives of various EU bodies.

 

In actual fact however, the EU’s commitment to neoliberalism is significantly more seasoned. In the early ’80s, the French government, under Mitterrand, had endeavoured to enact a Keynesian policy that was quite at odds with the rapacious, free marketeering that categorised the economic mood of the epoch more broadly. Mitterrand introduced increased nationalisation and the devaluation of the franc as a means to boost exports and reduce state debts. However the Union’s monetary wing – the EMS – was practising a far more stringent policy in terms of international currency, allowing the rates between members to fluctuate only within narrow and controlled limits. The policy of the EMS became the lever by which France was compelled to reverse devaluation, and therefore squander the impetus behind the export boom that was to provide a palliative to the stagnation of real wages in the domestic economy. In such a context, Mitterrand was forced to perform a U-turn that saw him gravitate toward the neoliberal solution, perhaps the only option left within the remit of parliamentary politics. Mitterrand’s capitulation to free market economics was part and parcel of a broader retreat, of course; one which saw the miners and the unions crushed in Britain at around the same period, but also the decimation of industry on a European-wide scale – a decimation that saw government subsidies slashed and the devolution of economic policy onto local and often private interests – alongside the almost unfettered growth of the financial sector and speculative endeavours. The EMS, then, and the Union more broadly, provided an effective organisational force that contributed to the recalibration of Western European capitalism in accordance with a more neoliberal paradigm.

 

But without a doubt, the Union’s most notorious act in its position in the vanguard of European neoliberalism was its noxious role in the Greek debacle of 2015. The Syriza government of Greece had swept to power on an anti-austerity agenda, promising to repeal the bulk of the international debt. The combined pressure of the European Central Bank, the IMF and the European Commission – including the threat of economic sanctions they brought to bear - was such that the “radical” left government soon felt compelled to change its position, signing up to an agreement in which it promised to “refrain from any rollback of measures and unilateral changes to the policies and structural reforms”, the “troika” had floated. This, despite the fact that the vast majority of the Greek people had voted by way of a single issue referendum to reject the “bailout”, and despite the fact that Syriza’s mandate only existed on the back of a radical mass movement which was fervently anti-austerity. This was a desperate blow to the prospects of a cohesive, anti-capitalist, anti-austerity wave of resistance on a European wide level.

 

Why had Greece been allowed to achieve such an economic flashpoint in the first place? The common explanation, generated by many of the organs and think tanks favourable to the EU and sympathetic to the impositions it sought to impose on Greece usually ran along the lines that Greek workers were less productive – or to parse the same point in more explicit moral terms were lazier than their German counterparts, for instance. The Greek worker’s right to retire at 63 – as it stood then – was seen to be a corollary of the fact that the German worker had to slog on until 67. The attempt to show that Greek workers are less productive than German workers, or any other group for that matter, has been refuted – in terms of hours worked – by OECD statistics which showed how in 2008, for example, the Greek workforce notched up an extra 48 per cent of working hours than the Germans.[1] In actual fact, the descent of the Greek economy into the most desperate economic crisis and the ability of the central, longstanding and major EU powers to better weather the storm, was about the fact that many of the newer and peripheral countries in the EU entered the Eurozone and were at once burdened with high exchange rates. In combination with this, the squeeze on workers’ wages in Germany, a slashing of unemployment benefits, and the increased relocation of German industrial capital to Eastern Europe all set the basis for the advantage of German exporters. In the same vein, argues economist Michael Pettis, the severity of the crisis in the peripheral countries has been exacerbated in particular by German and French finance capital which “were offering nearly unlimited amounts of extremely cheap credit to all takers in Spain”.

 

It seems in light of the examples of Spain and Greece, and indeed the periphery countries more broadly, that the left demand for a Brexit is well justified. But what perhaps this type of demand overlooks, is the specifics of the UK’s particular relationship to the EU. The UK is not a periphery country in the way in which Greece is. In my view it made perfect and complete sense for Greece to exit the EU in 2015, once the creditors refused to take part in anything resembling compromise – even if the Greek economy had to revert to the drachma, and all the economic privations that would have entailed as a consequence. But Britain is not in this kind of relationship to the EU. Austerity is being forced upon us by a pro-austerity government – not, as in the Greek case, an anti-austerity government compelled to change course as a result of EU pressure. Britain has a significantly more powerful and resilient economy, and it is difficult to see it being subsumed under the type of exploitation that has undergirded the Greek case – i.e. the mode by which the periphery is exploited by the centre. If Britain is withdrawn from the EU, the very power that is carrying through austerity – i.e. the British Tory government – will be strengthened rather than weakened in such a scenario. So that, in my view, is the first chink, in the left case for the Brexit, and it is not insignificant.

 

The second, and far weightier, is the question of immigration. According to the Research Agency Ipsos MORI, in a study enacted in 2013, immigration is unpopular with approximately two thirds of the UK population, with over 50% of those polled favouring the option of reducing it “a lot”. These concerns, relates the same institution, have become particularly prominent in the period following 2000. Indeed one might speculate that the post-September 11 climate – with its heightened sense of islamophobia and the fear and angst which surrounds certain cultural emblems like the Burka and certain cultural practises like the consumption of Halal food – is very much linked to the increased fears surrounding immigration. The burka is particularly instructive with regard to this, because it succeeds in covering the face, and this very easily dove tails with the inherently racist sensibility that there is a mysterious swarm of people who can all be subsumed under the single appellation of “Muslim” and who are embroiled in a set of cultural practises and values which is both uniform and opaque. The “Muslims”, therefore, are articulated as a culturally distinct group that is visibly separate from a “British” core, but who at the same time seek to live among “us”, so they shield some of their more unsavoury practises from the limelight in much the same way the veil obscures the emotions of the face. Over time, they smuggle into the host culture a set of alien practises which eventually come to undermine it – and that is why we get the constant drivel about cities like Birmingham becoming “Muslim-only zones”, little bastions of fanaticism which have managed to worm their way under the skin and surface of the indigenous and healthier (and superior) culture.

 

The Ipsos MORI polls suggest a strong link between anxieties that surround “race relations” and anxieties that surround “immigration” and “immigrants” – and this supports the way in which fear about the “other” is articulated in a period that has seen the rise of a vast displacement of refugees especially from countries with large Muslim populations. But more profoundly, the link between “race” and “immigration” is in large part a by-product of the way in which the stratagems of Western imperial power have been reconfigured in the twenty-first century – specifically the series of invasions and incursions which have been manifested in the Middle East. One of the most potent ideological cloaks for the naked pursuit of economic and territorial interests has been the notion of “Western values” in opposition to the primitive religious barbarisms of the Near East; the means by which conquest and slaughter are justified on the basis of a secular liberalism and the so-called expansion of “democracy”. These are, to be sure, updated, recycled versions of Kipling’s old school white man’s burden line – no longer is the suppression of the natives to be guaranteed by the crude pseudo-science of race craft; instead the emphasis on an ideology of superior “race” is shifted to that of a superior culture.

 

These kinds of themes tend to resonate in Britain because of its specific historical trajectory. When Kipling wrote his famous poem it was ostensibly addressed to US imperialism, but it was very much a product of British imperial aspirations and the philosophy of empire especially as espoused in India. With the end of empire, the sense of dislocation and disorientation which comes from living through a period of inexorable historical decline in some ways helped strengthen imperial identity rather than weaken it; many people clung more desperately and more trenchantly to the belief that Britain had some special historical role even as its actual influence in world affairs was increasingly marginalised. This couldn’t very well translate into a sense of military or economic superiority because in these fields Britain had been long since eclipsed but it did work its way into a belief in the possession of a unique, separate, timeless and almost hermetically sealed culture – usually a “Christian” one whatever that is taken to imply – one which was now under threat from the driving, penetrating influx of foreigners who do not adhere to “our” values.

 

The people who espouse these type of xenophobic views, generally speaking, are not to be placated through reasonable and rational arguments. It is of little use, most of the time, to point out that “British” culture has been fertilized with ongoing and profound waves of immigration from the Beaker people in the late third millennium BC who brought with them bronze age technology, to the Germanic tribes who arrived in the aftermath of the Roman collapse and who added and enriched the linguistic fabric of the epoch so that it could eventually be woven into old English. Neither is it of any great consequence to them when you point out the studies that show how immigrants to Britain – from those countries like Poland, Hungary and Lithuania which joined the EU in 2004 – actually paid out “64 per cent more in taxes to the UK than they received in benefits” in the subsequent period leading up to 2011.[2] And there is relatively little gain in saying that the toxic, atavistic fears which surround immigration are nothing new, as they were exhibited in much the same way after World War II and the migrations of black populations which were so necessary to reinvigorate British industry, or the mass migrations of Asians particularly in the 1970s which provided such incentive to trade and tailoring, commerce and cuisine. There is little point in raising these facts precisely because you are responding to the type of fears and unconscious anxieties that have a cultural resonance which harkens back to the loss of empire and the decline of an epoch, and are therefore precisely calibrated responses – a culturally orientated amour-propre which is designed to relieve worry in times of great flux and economic hardship, and to provide a fantasised bedrock, an eternal and unchanging edifice, which must be clung to at all costs, much in the way a small child clings to their special blanket.

 

In reality there has only ever been one profound and long lasting cure for racism and xenophobia on a broader scale, and that is heightened immigration. When one is working with people from other countries, when one’s children goes to school with children of many different ethnic identities, then the ossified forms of racial and xenophobic ideology are shattered in practise for they cannot be sustained in the face of living realities, of seeing those children play together, or having a laugh with a mate at work who also happens to be from Africa. As Bobby Duffy, the director for Public Affairs of the polling agency IPSOS MORI, points out – it has “long been recognised in studies of attitudes to immigration that the areas with the lowest immigrant numbers are often those that express the greatest concern about immigration.”[3] Or to say the same thing, it is those who in actual fact have very little contact with immigrations and very little experience of the effects of immigration who are able to so effectively conjure up the fantastical deprivations that have been visited on their lives by the spectre of the foreign infiltrator. That this rather sinister archetype is the product of fevered, overworked minds is apparent from the level of vulgar contradiction that it manifests.

 

In Britain, it is the United Kingdom Independence Party or UKIP who have most relentlessly purveyed this kind of ideological product, but when you stop to consider what is actually being sold here, you are immediately confronted by the fact that you are being offered a dud. On the one hand, UKIP tells us these immigrant workers are prepared to undercut British workers by stealing their jobs at little pay, but at the same time we are assured that the same element is feckless and lazy, and quite prepared to retreat into a life of parasitism courtesy of the British state. As one commentator so acutely phrased it, UKIP’s fantasy immigrant is none other than “Schrodinger’s immigrant” – i.e. a person who is at the same time absolutely hard working and absolutely lazy.

 

I have already hoped to illustrate that there is a strong and cogent left position for exiting the EU. However, the UKIP constituent and their social basis in some sections of large capital – and more importantly small business owners, fringe section of the working classes, and precarious elements who flit between a series of temporary jobs on zero hours contracts and are without the means to become unionised – find the UKIP narrative persuading, especially in periods of economic downturn or decline. In such a context, their deprivations no longer appear to them as individual miseries but instead achieve a more universal tenor; their own misfortune is part and parcel of a broader and more tragic trajectory – the decline and demise of a whole epoch. An empire where once the centre held, an empire in which hardworking, industrious white Christian culture formed the core, is more and more subject to the processes of entropy and decay until what is left at the centre is little more than a rump, a lingering silent minority, strangers in their own heartlands; a precious, perishing culture evaporated before the indifference of metropolitan elites and the never-ending influx of foreign elements they facilitate. Holding to such a view offers both comfort and catharsis: it allows the deprivations and desperation of the individual economic existence set adrift in modernity, to be reformulated in the context of a world historic fantasy by which an imaginary past, usually constructed along the lines of some supposed pure, unchanging category (“white” “Christian” “culture”) is seen to be mortally threatened by the postulation of some equally imaginary future and the shadow of the swarthy, faceless immigrant which steps out from it.

 

It was never immigration that created loss of jobs and reduced pay, though. It was an economic crisis which saw the largest sum of money in history transferred from the poorest to the wealthy in terms of a series of international bailouts which were designed to bolster the vulture companies and institutions of international finance. It was the policies of hack and slash which governments across the world applied to social services and labour rights in its aftermath. Immigrants might be willing to work for less, but the real issue here is about the lack of a decent minimum wage, a wage which parties like UKIP are adamantly against – while at the same time the same party advocates for forced unpaid work for housing and council tax benefit claimants, and the slashing of incapacity benefits. UKIP are compelled to raise a fantasised, gushingly sentimental, inevitably patronizing vision of a “white working class” in the very moments when they are actively engaged in savaging the real thing - of whatever complexion - in reality. And so immigration becomes more than a merely logistical question which can be answered by recourse to the actual facts, the empirical data which measures the real term economic effects of immigration and show it to be, by far and away, beneficial overall. Instead the immigration issue becomes a means – not only by which those elements, especially in the lower middle classes – are able to weave the pressures of economic disintegration into some kind of spiteful morality fable in which petty rancour is furnished by a sheen of historic tragedy – but it also becomes the practical mechanism by which the economic crisis and its causes in the activities of the ruling classes and the unfettered expansion of finance capital is displaced onto the victims of those processes, the workers across the board, and those displaced and economically vulnerable peoples who seek their salvation in other places.

 

This then returns us to the question of the British referendum. If a “Brexit” is achieved, the UKIP element at home will be immeasurably strengthened, and the sense of xenophobia, of national chauvinism will become all the more claustrophobic. More importantly, however, the solidarity among oppressed groups in their struggle to challenge the existing order and the austerity politique it promotes – such a struggle will be inevitably weakened at the points of contact between all the various social elements which are immiserated by the thrust of neoliberalism, and which have the potential to grow into a powerful and cohesive movement against it. For the reactionary elements in those groups will be bolstered in the claim that it is the poor outsider, rather than the rich banker, who is truly responsible for economic deprivation Most importantly of all, the streams of immigration which find their way into the UK; which provide the means by which the spectre of the sinister outsider is exercised at the level of practical existence by the real awareness that the lives of the people who arrive in this country to live and work hold a parity with our own; such an inflow will be massively curtailed, and the free movement of labour which helps forge working class solidarity on an international basis will be inevitably restricted. What will pertain in the aftermath will be the so-called democratically elected government of the Conservative Party, a government which crawled to power on an exhausted and apathetic mandate (around 24% of the vote) with a newly rejuvenated and increased set of powers.

 

More specifically, it will be the extreme right and rabidly anti-immigrant wing of the party that will be galvanized and very much come to the fore – if not by making a bid for direct leadership. The pro-austerity and anti-union policies of the party in its current form will be married with the isolationist, little Englander, vituperative politics of a rabid fringe which is already seething with hatred, and which, in quite lunatic fashion, sees itself as the means of national salvation in and through the return to an addled, senile vision of some imaginary past of shires and crumpets and cricket games unmarred by foreign faces. This group are with us all the time, of course, and they are rightly subject to satire and lampoon, but they are more than just figures of farce. Talking to people on working or student visas who live and work in this country, one is struck by the tone of trepidation which has crept into their voices, the foreboding which surrounds their own circumstances and the way the people around them see them, and the simple fear which comes from not knowing whether you are to be suddenly uprooted in the immanent future. These are the people who are attuned to the cultural mood precisely because they are newly-arrived outsiders and can see events from the outside as they develop; such people provide us with a useful social barometer, which picks up on the changes in the air, and even though it is clear that the EU is an organisation which channels and structures neoliberal policies – the removal of Britain from it, at this point, will indicate a shift in the political climate which is ominous indeed.

 

Notes

 

[1] Tony Mckenna, “The Greek Paradox”, The Huffington Post, 16th February, 2012 http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/tony-mckenna/the-greek-paradox_b_1276360.html

 

[2] Helen Warrell, “EU migrants pay £20bn more in taxes than they receive”, The Financial Times November 5, 2014 http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/c49043a8-6447-11e4-b219-00144feabdc0.html#axzz4A8Yxgaix

 

[3] Mehdi Hassan, “Five questions for anyone who says ‘it's not racist to talk about immigration’”, November 13, 2014 http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/11/five-questions-anyone-who-says-its-not-racist-talk-about-immigration

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