In a recent contribution to LSE Brexit, Peter J Verovsek criticised left-wing supporters of Brexit, claiming that they were backing a ‘statist, nationalist initiative’ that could only benefit the right. Peter Ramsay (LSE) replies, arguing that it is left-wing Remainers who are stuck in the past and that a fetishism of the supranational and the cosmopolitan is the real problem for the left.
Peter Verovsek reminds us that ‘since Marx, the left has been a self-consciously international movement that seeks to transcend both the nation and the state.’ He insists, therefore, that Brexit can be no good for the left because it is an attempt to revive the nation. And Lexit is no better, he claims, because it is an attempt to revive the state.
Let’s start with Brexit – because if you are genuinely interested in transcending either nation or state, you have to start with Brexit.
It is leaving the EU that challenges and disrupts the British state in its contemporary form. Remaining in the EU means not challenging or disrupting the smooth operation of the actually existing political form of capitalist rule in Britain today. The EU is not a foreign superstate that rules over Britain. The EU is a political form through which the British government collaborates with other European governments in order to govern Britain. The other EU member states do the same for their own populations and territories. They collaborate with each other by constitutionalising various restrictions on economic policy, and by making law in intergovernmental forums.
This intergovernmental process means that European governments are more accountable to each other than they are to their domestic legislatures. The capitalist nation states of Europe have been transformed by EU membership into capitalist member states. Brexit represents a serious blow to this form of remote and unaccountable government, the one by which we are actually ruled. This blow is experienced as such by the British state’s political, bureaucratic and academic cadres who have as a result been relentlessly negative about the vote to Leave, and the prospect of implementing it. And it is why the support of so much of the left for Remain is profoundly conservative.
So if you wish to get beyond the state then Brexit is a first step. But even if that is right, surely we are still left with the problem that, as Verovsek puts it, the ‘nation-based character of Brexit betrays the internationalist principles that have grounded the left’? Though Verovsek does not make the claim explicitly, he implies that only Remaining in the EU is consistent with internationalist principles. But this is to mistake the EU’s inter-governmental politics and its cosmopolitan market freedoms for genuine internationalism.
The mere fact that some institutions are supranational does not mean that they are internationalist. Nor does the fact that these supranational institutions impose free movement of capital and labour on the nations that obey their rules. Internationalism is the creation of solidarity between the peoples of different nations. The EU has systematically undermined that solidarity within its own borders, pursuing policies that have created a northern core and a southern periphery with disastrous consequences for the states in the periphery. Its approach to the migration of Africans and Asians across its borders is about as far from internationalism as you could get. This is not an accident.
Verovsek is keen to invoke Karl Marx’s authority, mentioning him three times. But, for Marx, overcoming the limitations of the nation and of the state was a democratic project that required the political activity of the producers, the majority of the population. Transcending the state is a question of democracy, a question of the state being first transformed into an instrument of the majority of society. This remains first and foremost a political struggle over control of the nation state. The development of the EU, the widening and deepening of the scope of its intergovernmental law-making, and of its technocratic political approach, has occurred precisely as the left’s influence over the national political economy of its member states has declined. The EU’s rise and the old left’s defeat are two sides of the same coin of de-democratisation. The EU was, and remains, the organised effort of Europe’s ruling classes to evade political accountability to electorates. Its democratic deficit is structural.
Once the nature of the EU is grasped it is apparent that the chief obstacle to the development of a genuine internationalism – of political solidarity between the peoples of different nations – is not the moribund British nation state, but the counterfeit of internationalism that is liberal supranationalism, and its chief institution, the EU. Brexit is not the end of the left’s aims, but the beginning. For real international solidarity to have a chance in Europe we need democratic movements for Grexit, Fraxit, Deutschxit and all the rest.
But again, even if this is correct, surely a return to the British nation state is still no gain for an internationalist left. As Verovsek points out, supporting Brexit brings the left ‘into a political coalition with free market Tories, the anti-immigrant UKIP, and the Murdoch press, all of whom threaten to coopt the leftist project with their neo-colonial vision of a ‘Global Britain’. And, Verovsek claims, nationalism is the real source of Brexit: ‘Given Brexit’s entanglement with English nationalism and its scapegoating of foreigners, it hardly seems an appropriate vehicle for the left.’ All this is apparently obvious, providing that, like Verovsek, you don’t bother to reflect on the incoherence of the right’s politics that he has described.
As elite Remainers do not tire of pointing out, a neocolonial Global Britain is a non-starter because Leaving the EU can only diminish Britain’s political influence in the world. This is exactly why true internationalists will embrace Brexit. Any true internationalist should celebrate the diminution of Britain’s baleful influence in world politics – its endless war-making around the globe and its hypocritical assertion of the moral superiority of its political institutions. The Empire is long gone and good riddance. No Tory fantasy about Brexit will bring it back.
The old Tory Eurosceptic right is disoriented by the disappearance of the world in which it belongs. In its confusion, it finds itself doing the work of the left by disrupting the careful efforts of the ruling class, work that most of the left refuses to do. What is truly depressing is just how many leftists are committed to the project of maintaining Britain’s interfering global role through participation in supranational capitalist organisations.
If neo-colonial Global Britain is unrealistic, it is also at odds with UKIP-style populism, which again is only awkwardly related to English nationalism. Critically the well-attested rise of English national feeling is an expression of the weakening of British national identity. Where the far right of the 1970s adopted the Empire’s Union Jack as its symbol, today’s far right has increasingly adopted the St George’s cross. The changed symbolism is significant. Far from English nationalism presaging a return to an assertive imperial Britain, it is further evidence of the fragmenting and decline of the old national loyalties.
That left wingers should mistake these morbid symptoms as signs of the right’s strength only indicates the left’s own overwhelming sense of weakness, and its isolation from the mass of the population.
There is of course an element of self-fulfilling prophecy in the left relying on its condemnation of English nationalism to back the political status quo. Nothing is more likely to fuel the rise of the populist right. As the left abandons the political nation and retreats further into the embrace of the supranational bureaucratic networks of the British state, it will further alienate itself from the millions of ordinary people who correctly believe that the British political class and the British state bureaucracy do not have their interests at heart. Those millions are left with nowhere else to turn than the populist right. Social democratic parties across Europe are currently experiencing the disastrous effects of such an approach. Myopia is too kind a word for this.
Which leaves us with the last ditch of the left Remainer: reforming the EU. Verovsek agrees that the EU is no ‘social democratic paradise’. He too is opposed to ‘European directives requiring competition in the provision of public services, court decisions that imperil international collective bargaining, as well as its suppression of Greek democracy.’ But he urges that ‘Instead of counterproductively supporting Brexit, the British left should push for change within the EU where it can make a real difference at the global, systemic level.’
If the British right is living on fantasy island, then much of the European left seems to inhabit a fantasy continent. The left is being wiped out across Europe. Although European leftists are unable to convince their own electorates at home, they pretend they can reform Europe as a whole.
I do not doubt the sincerity of Verovsek’s sympathy for the Greek people, but his unwillingness to absorb the very clear lessons of the Greek experience is a symptom of the left’s broader intellectual senescence. In 2015, it was obvious to the EU that the Greek people were not willing to Leave either the Union or the Eurozone. As a result, the EU was able to impose an economic catastrophe on the Greek people to make sure that the big banks did not have to bear any of the cost of their reckless lending. As Costas Lapavitsas has pointed out, Greece teaches us that even if you believe that the EU is fundamentally reformable (which for the reasons given above, I don’t), there is no chance of reforming it unless nation states are willing to walk away . Brexit is anything but counterproductive for the left.
Verovsek also criticises the specific position of Lexiteers, who argue that a programme of nationalisation and state intervention in the economy is prevented by membership of the EU. He points out that other EU states maintain natioanalised public transport and free university tuition. It is true that the operation of EU rules and regulations leaves more room for manoeuvre than British governments have availed themselves of. But Lexiteers do not mean a little bit of nationalisation here or there. They favour wholesale state intervention in the economy, and the EU’s neoliberal constitutional order would be a constant source of legal challenges to any truly radical socialist government of the old school, fulfilling the hopes of neoliberal thinkers for capitalist international cooperation.
Verovsek is also doubtful about the desirability of the state socialist industrial policies of the twentieth century. As it happens I share those doubts. But even though I am not convinced of particular Lexit proposals, I am at one with Lexiteers in seeking to end constitutional restraints on intervention in the economy by democratic governments. That ought to be a basic commitment of any democrat. If the people cannot control the economy they cannot control their collective life. And to exercise democratic control over the economy requires bringing the EU to an end.
Verovsek warns the left that it should be fighting the ‘fetishism of the nation-state’. But look across the ruling elites and you will find almost no enthusiasm for the nation state: not in academia, nor among the experts, bureaucrats and politicians that academia has trained. What you will find is an all but ubiquitous fetishism of the supranational. Supranational cosmopolitanism is chief among the ruling ideas of our age, the ideas of our ruling class. Anyone who is serious about political change, about reviving the democratic internationalism of the left, will find hope for it not in elite supranational networks but in the insurgent rebellious nations.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE.
Peter Ramsay is Professor of Law at the London School of Economics.
 Costas Lapavitsas ‘The Left Case Against the EU’ paper presented to Europe After Brexit conference SOAS, 22 September 2018
 See Wolfgang Streeck. Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism (Verso 2013) Chapter 3
What a great piece of thinking.
Well thought out, worthy of reading twice as I did.
As I see it, the short term pain will be worth the long term benefit.
I thought that all that LSE were about was supporting remainers and a disruptive approach.
This supports neither side, but is a faboulous way forward.
I think Peter Ramsay makes some important points against Verovsek, e.g. regarding the fact that there is no realistic perspective for real democratic reforms in the EU. However, I find it disturbing that some parts of the left now seem to share a particular narrative with the far-right, which pictures what they call, in a derogatory tone, ‘cosmopolitanism’ as an ideology of ruling elites that serves their interests rather than those of ordinary people: “Supranational cosmopolitanism is chief among the ruling ideas of our age, the ideas of our ruling class. Anyone who is serious about political change, about reviving the democratic internationalism of the left, will find hope for it not in elite supranational networks but in the insurgent rebellious nations.” This is almost indistinguishable from the tone of Alexander Gauland, party chairman of the Alternative for Germany, in his recent essay in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (“Warum muss es Populismus sein?”) – where he praises, by the way, Sahra Wagenknecht from Die Linke, at the other end of the political spectrum, for having understood that it is time that ‘the people’ rebel against the cosmopolitan elites who are out of touch with reality.
I agree that it is a problem that the criticism of liberal cosmopolitan supranationalism is dominated by the nationalist right. Nevertheless free market, cosmopolitan supranationalism is a very real phenomenon; it is a key component of contemporary capitalist rule. And across Europe the people are acutely aware of it. My point is that the left can seize back the initiative from the right only by developing a true internationalism in direct contrast to liberal supranationalism. This is no easy task and particularly urgent because, as you imply, there is a danger of the European left simply conceding on nationalism in an attempt to avoid electoral annihilation. But the greater danger is that the left continues to identify with the fakery that is the EU. On this path, the left is destined to be reduced to the militant wing of a new technocratic authoritarianism, and the masses will have nowhere else to turn but the right.
As political theory I can’t fault the article. Indeed, as a hitherto Eurosceptic I think it’s a timely and thorough analysis of the many challenges EU membership presents. The problem, however, I think is or will be an historical one, or rather one of ‘events’. If the current Labour leadership stood up and explained its position on Brexit in this way it might indeed curry favour, or at least understanding, from Remainers desperate for leadership, clarity and … well, hope.
Unfortunately, the situation is quite different: Britain faces the imminent prospect of being severely economically impoverished and both politically and geographically divided by elements of a Tory Party hell bent on conducting a major regressive coup. With a perfect storm of near total media domination, upcoming boundary changes and ID-based voter suppression any emergent post-Brexit, post-UK England is highly likely to be the very opposite of a reborn socialist project.
Yet with the Tory Party almost fatally divided one would imagine this to be a near perfect moment for the Labour Party to deal the killing blow with a clear, fresh position, but at this most decisive moment there is … silence. Utter silence. They meekly fail to oppose Brexit whilst not making any case whatsoever for Lexit. Terrified of the inherent racism within Brexit they refuse to explain the problems of globalisation and corporatism; quietly acquiescing to the former and refusing to directly challenge their own membership on the latter. Perhaps, just perhaps, they might read this article and actually stand up and be counted before events take care of themselves.
Great article, but unless Labour get a grip Brexit will be, as they say, Brexit: really bad news for the Left.
Peter Ramsey sees the world as black and white. The EU is a tool of the “cosmopolitan supranationalists” only. Insurgent rebellious nations are the new rebels against the Evil Empire. And we should support Brexit not because it will lead to greater freedom or prosperity, but because anarchy in Britain is retribution for colonial wrongs and will stop “hypocritical assertion of the moral superiority of its political institutions”.
What a sad bitter view of the world where everything has to be first burned down before we can build anew. Nothing can be changed through peaceful co-operative organizing.
Even the UKIP has a more hopeful reason for its existence.
Your version of my article is so wrong, it is worth replying to.
I do not see the world in black and white. You are imposing the black-and-white worldview on to me. I explicitly argued that the EU is not an ‘Evil Empire’ but a way in which the political and bureaucratic elites of each member state collaborate to rule over their own countries. When the nations rebel against the EU, they are rebelling against the way they are governed by their own ruling class, not some foreign empire.
I say nothing about ‘anarchy in Britain’, and do not propose it. Nor do I want to burn anything down. On the contrary, my own immediate concern is with the failing political authority of the British state, as it continuously weakens its relationship with the people it governs. There is very great danger in this as the state substitutes a ‘liberal’ technocratic authoritarianism for its lost democratic political authority. We can only challenge the dystopian technocratic drift of the current British state by revitalising democracy. And that means Brexit.
So my argument is very much that Brexit is vital for our freedom in the future. I also think that a democratic, self-governing nation that is respectful of others’ rights to self-government is the sort of nation that can properly harness the spirit and resourcefulness of its people to the common wealth. Britain has in Brexit the opportunity to swap its power to interfere in the lives of other peoples for a power to inspire them. That might really begin to make up for the sins of the past.
I agree with Denis. Peter Ramsey has put into words whatI’m sure many of us feel. A great piece of thinking.
But apart from the fact that peters piece is so well thought out.
Anarchy is what will happen in the U.K. if the revoke were to happen.
I here the remain camp saying that “we know more now than we did in 2016”
Much more importantly is trust in our electoral system, yes I know this wasn’t an election, but it was a vote! My vote is precious no matter how small.
We are the envy of many third world countries for our democracy.
If reversed, many ( including me ) will never ever vote again, because it is obviously meaningless.
Imagin masses not bothering to vote, that would open the doors to minority extremists.
Imagin government elected by as little as 30% of the electorate.
Anarchy will reign.
If the U.K. electorate change their minds then we should re apply but not until after the wishes of the public have been carried out by our servants. ( MP’s)
By the time another vote comes around if at all, then and only then will we know more than we did on 2016.
Until then carry on!!
Such a blinkered approach to history is unworthy of the LSE, my alma mater. The idea that being a member of the EU means you can’t control your economy is untrue. To call the EU ‘fakery’ is pure Trumpism. For shame.
The EU is not just fakery it’s cruel to an extreme as well.
Greece can never ever ever repay the interest alone on its debts. Never mind the capital.
A country that has been on its knees since the banking crisis..
Begging on the streets, poverty like we have never seen in the UK.
Given that it can never repay, why is the debt left as it is?
Write it off!
It will never be paid anyway!!!!
EU ostrich in the sand!
But who controls that debt? the EU.
Controlling the countries economy????
Apart from U.K. all countries are in the Euro
When a recession or fiscal control is necessary in sny Euro country the commonly used tool is interest rates.
But the EU is the body that controls interest rates mainly dictated by the richer countries do as not to damage their economies.
i.e one cure for all ailments.
I don’t like the guy, but he is sorting the American economy. I don’t like mike Ashley, but he is successful!
You don’t have to like someone who gets the job done.
If we had been more firm with Europe and put a business person in charge and backed them, it would have all been sorted by now.
Instead we face mischievous remainiacs who dedicate themselves to undermining the vote demanding another vote (pretending its a vote about the deal) whilst meaning ignore the referendum and just stay.
The adverse consequences of that are bigger than any financial impact.
And will be truly disasterous.
What is soooooo bad about WTO anyway?
What is soooo bad about not paying 40 billions into a divorce bill?
What is sooo bad about taking control over our borders?
What is so bad about demanding The right to say who leads Europe?
What is so bad that the U.K. cannot live without Europe?
What is so bad about wanting to free trade with the rest of the world?
“This intergovernmental process means that European governments are more accountable to each other than they are to their domestic legislatures.”
This is the kind of statement which if true would fundamentally undermine the concept of the EU, but of course it doesn’t as it’s patently not true and the fact that no evidence that it does is provided speaks volumes.
The fact is, every decision made by the EU collectively or otherwise can ultimately be reverse engineered to show a member state democratic mandate behind each of them. That this process is opaque and could be reformed does not budge the underlying truism of accountability to domestic legislatures fundamental to the EU.
@Daniel. This is an almost unbelievable mockery of accountability, electoral consent and democracy, but it shows exactly the way the EU works at times. The system is opaque and cannot, absolutely not, be reformed. That much is clear. The comment about reverse engineering, however, really takes the cake. No wonder democracy is in such a state. How can anyone think this is kosher? It’s totally absurd to claim that by this means people have had a say in what has been decided at EU level, or, indeed, at national level-a travesty!
I disagree with you
Italy is currently being taken over the coals for a budget dececit by Brussels and is said to be excessive and not in line with EU defecit rules.
The matter was listed on the agenda for the commission meeting last week.
What is that other than accountability to intergovernment?
The EU wants countries to sort their economies out, but place handcuffs on them before doing so.
Impressive piece by Peter Ramsey. It addresses, to a degree, the lobsidedness of the contributions under the aegis of the LSE on Brexit. There are many issues to tease out, but likely events will wash over the interminable debate between competing interests and ideas that are at odds wone with the other or with the facts. Briefly, political development is usually a combination of factors rather than purely a political affair. People and peoples have many differences in many, if not all, respects. Many differences of strongly held opinions, even diehard convictions, are due to the differing stages of emotional-psychological, socio-economic-cultural and philosophical development in individuals and groups of people, rather than outright opposing personal interests. The real differences at basis, even below deep clashing of incompatible personal conviction, is the genetically hardwired and epigenetically re-enforced struggle for survival innate in the human animal. It cannot be otherwise. The type of person who will not fight for survival wiil by and by de-select itself out of the human race. This, unfortunately, is something genuine Left-leaning people still need to understand.
Politics is war by any and all means, forever changing in configuration and coagulation. Most of the terminology used in political commentary is loaded. The use of Right and far Right for people whose political sentiments are essentially in the Centre and pro-democracy is one of these mainstream media sleights of hand. The subtle and not subtle indoctrination, which never stops, and is usually hidden in a narrative, is relentless, overpowering and brutal in its effects. Many people react by taking a strongly opposing view, so as to not wilt in the face of such informational brainwashing barrage.
The Left in the West needs to grow up, but they will not be told. Moreover, the Establishment in the West is doing its level best to keep people who are not with them, at their respective level, in the dark, confused, misled, etc.
Then, the term cosmopolitan internationalist or supranationalist for members of a transnational tribe which acts as a host of predators upon nation-states is also misleading. The socalled progressives/transnationalists are not cosmopolitan. They are a clique of opportunists combined in a tribe of pirates praying upon the productive law abiding citizens of the world as members of human society.