In a recent article, 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 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.
Credit: Chris Dodds (CC BY-SA 2.0)
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.
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Note: This article first appeared at our sister site, LSE Brexit. It gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.
Peter Ramsay – 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
The post is full of the cliches and typical confusions of british socialists abour the EU. In spite of all efforts by successive british governments to turn the EU into a ‘neoliberal constitutional order’ it remains resiliently an ordoliberal one where citizens are placed ahead of corporations, and the latter are understood to be regulated into a ‘social market’ serving citizenship interests. I realize all these concepts are alien to british scholars trained only in Anglo-Saxon capitalism but their re-education is both urgent and paramount to overcome the present crisis.
Maurici – by what measure could you possibly suggest that the interests of the citizens of Greece have been put ahead of the corporations?
How do the outcomes of the Viking and Laval cases fit with your assertion? (For the ECJ, Corporations will always trump collective bargaining).
How were David Cameron’s gleefully accepted further opt-outs for the City of London going to affect this balance?
How are Macron’s current ‘reforms’ enhancing the interests of French citizens?
How are the deficit strictures of the Lisbon Treaty & the austerity obsessions of ther Fiscal Compacts compatible with a thriving ‘social market’?
How can FoM of Capital ever be reconciled with the interests of labour in an institution that fetishises ‘liquidity’ and ‘just in time’ processes?
Anglo-Saxon or not, these are the questions that concern me (an English Leave voter) – and they’re the ones that you should be considering too.
One argument I’ve not understood about Brexit – leaving the EU might mean that any left British government can avoid ‘legal challenges’ to its programme but surely it’ll face a raft of punitive measures by other means? Why are these preferable?
(I say ‘might’. Britain may be bound by another legal framework, but now as a third country low on goodwill and having signalled opposition to the project it now begs for cooperation from.
Either we being outside the tent and covered in piss doesn’t seem to be an improvement, however hard we believe in the neoliberalism of those within.
There’s a particularly weak subset of arguments for Brexit that basically revolve around the idea of the EU being an obstacle to “radical change”. In short, because EU membership requires some kind of commitment to long-term policy, anyone who supports “radical” policies is unlikely to find them compatible with these agreements.
So if you want the UK to scrap all tariffs, cut the state to a minimum, and become a tax haven then being in the EU isn’t compatible with that. This is exactly what the “Economists for Brexit” are basically doing – they aren’t arguing against the EU for any particular EU-related reason, just because it’s an obstacle to a “radical” idea that they happen to support (but almost nobody else does).
The supposed left-wing case for Brexit is similar. EU membership should be opposed because EU agreements are at odds with the kind of society these people support. Again, it doesn’t have much to do with the EU as a political system, but rather the case is simply about removing an obstacle to the kind of “radical” change they support.
And I’ve put the word “radical” in quotation marks throughout this comment because the ideas that are usually called “radical” by these groups aren’t radical at all. One side is calling for a kind of unworkable 19th century conception of absolute capitalism while the other thinks protectionism, state ownership and the ideas of the 1970s are a vision of radicalism (they say nothing genuinely progressive about issues like protecting the environment, climate change, globalisation and so on).
In sum, we have two groups pushing decidedly naive/bad ideas from the extreme right/left of the political spectrum and they only support Brexit because being in the EU would rule out their own pet projects. I’d rather say this is actually an argument in favour of EU membership because whatever British society might think, there is no popular support for either the “Economists for Brexit” or the “Lexit” visions for the country.
Kyle – you’ve made a lot of assertions there, but I cant’ see that many hold any water.
I’d be interested to see any examples of your climate-uninterested left-wingers for instance.
I’d also be interested to know if you thought MMT sufficiently ‘radical’ to warrant the term given your rather interesting constraints regarding what may justify it’s use.
The EU is most definitely an obstacle to anything very far away from the Lisbon Treaty by dint of the current electoral politics in each member-state, it’s diffuse power-structure, corporate-capture and direction of travel (have you read the recent Commission ‘Roadmap’?) – and there are a whole world of options outside that, that aren’t far-right, hard-left or whatever.
As for no appetite for anything ‘radical’ in the UK – where were you in 2017?
This is a fairly typical comment in this debate in the sense that it’s written as if anyone who criticises Lexit must therefore be attacking “the left” or “radical politics” in general. For instance, your response seems to be implying that I bizarrely think “the left” doesn’t care about the environment. One would think it’s blindingly obvious that I’m not arguing against “the left”, but rather against the niche argument put forward by those who support “Lexit”, who constitute a small minority of the left.
And the point is that the particular “radical left” ideology you see again and again from those pushing the Lexit agenda has nothing remotely practical to say about global problems like climate change. How do you solve climate change while turning your back on an international organisation that has led attempts to tackle that problem? How do you solve tax evasion (a key modern threat to welfare in the age of globalisation) with a solution rooted in national politics? How do you mitigate the impact globalisation has on sovereignty in the modern age if you shun international organisations like the EU, which function precisely to do that? And what’s the alternative? A post-Lexit UK leading the world in setting up its own international regime because the EU doesn’t match our ideologically pure conception of what international politics should look like? Sorry, that ship sailed in the 1950s.
You won’t find any answers from the usual suspects who argue for this. They put ideological purity above everything else (their belief in a particular outdated conception of what left-wing politics entails, where nationalisation, protectionism, high taxes and growth are the answers to every problem). People are entitled to argue for it and I’m entitled to call it what it is – something that is neither genuinely radical, sensible, practical, nor beneficial.
As for the last comment, at no point did I say there is a lack of appetite for radical politics in the UK. What I said is that the particular niche agendas being pushed by Lexit enthusiasts (and their equivalent on the right) have no popular support. The idea that the 2017 election in any way adds weight to your perspective is complete cobblers when 86% of Labour voters back a new referendum and 91% think Brexit will damage the economy (according to a poll last month).
Adran Kent displaying here all the ignorance and prejudice about the EU characteristic of english media, beginning with Greece about which he obviously knows absolutely nothing on the ground. Always remarkable that the greater defenders of grexit were in the ignorant and arrogant English eurosceptic press which were more than prepared to see a whole country go back to the stone age just to satisfy their dogmatic ideological zeal against the EU.
Viking, Lavant: ive read through them, remarkable how ready the lexiters are to disregard the rights of the immigrant workers involved in both cases. Thank God at least the ECJ stood for them
The one country that has steadfastly refused to implement any genuine socialdemocracy (all those optouts) giving lessons in progressive radicalism to the rest. The arrogance and hubris of it all.
Mauricio (apologies for misspelling your name in my previous post) – I’m not sure how to reply to your comments as you appear to be fuming about the arrogance and hubris of people whose politics (Leaving aside) I do not approve of at all.
I’d love to know how you could possibly conclude that the citizens of Greece have been placed ahead of the corporations when there has been 45%+ youth unemployment there for almost a decade now? What is it I’m missing ‘on the ground’ here? Tell me, what proportion of the ‘bailouts’ went to support the Greek citizens and how much went to the Northern banks?
Kyle – sorry for not being more clear in my reply – I thought it might be ‘blindingly obvious’ that referring to ‘your’ left-wingers was refering to the ones you were talking about in your comment. I’ll bemore clear this time – who are the Lexiter ‘usual suspects’ that you feel have no concerns regarding the environment – who are the ones putting forward the niche arguments and how was my comment typical of them?
Your statements about the environment presuppose that the efforts of the EU are currently sufficient (highly debatable) and would anyway somehow be weakened by the removal of the (almost always recalcetrant) UK anyway.
As for tax-evasion – the UK is in a unique position to do something globally significant regarding it, financialisation and corruption. The City of London, outside the protection of the ECJ and the tyranny of the FoM of Capital can finally be isolated and properly controlled by a single, progressive, UK Government. Don’t forget that the EU that was on offer in the referendum was one with significant (and apparently gleefully accepted) Cameron negotiated City opt-outs. If tiny Iceland can bring an as proportionately large financial sector to heel, then we most certainly can.
This is nothing to do with idiological purity – it’s all about the politics of scale – that is to say where can pressure for (yes radical) action best be organised and applied, and what routes are most likely to lead to the kind of outcome necessary to make the significant changes that are required in these dire times. It is at the nation-state level that this is most likely for the UK (or perhaps just England in a year or two if we’re lucky) and that us setting an example (one way or another) outside the EU is the most likely way the UK will ever produce significant change Europe-wide. Of course none of this is certain, but it is, to my mind, more likely than that of producing and steering a pan-European, progressive movement capable of overcoming the Commission, Council & thoroughly captured ECB in the next decade – the electoral landscape in too many states pretty much precludes this with too many having either no or just very weak progressive/left parties capable of significant action within one or two electoral cycles.
Check out the table of the left-right splits in the member-states in this article and you’ll see what we’re up against – it’s from 2016, but the landscape hasn’t changed to greatly since then (are these two authors any of your ‘usual suspects’ Kyle)? How well are the social democratic parties doing in this list Mauricio?
Essentially all you are offering is a slightly tweaked BAU, with a Commission committed to further austerity (see their ‘Roadmap’ for details) & and ECJ happy to take the side of capital over labour (and yes Mauricio, that’s what the Viking & Lavel cases have done). Good luck with that.
“Kyle – sorry for not being more clear in my reply – I thought it might be ‘blindingly obvious’ that referring to ‘your’ left-wingers was refering to the ones you were talking about in your comment. I’ll bemore clear this time – who are the Lexiter ‘usual suspects’ that you feel have no concerns regarding the environment – who are the ones putting forward the niche arguments and how was my comment typical of them?”
I said your comment was typical of people who push for Lexit because you conflated criticism of Lexit with criticism of “the left” and “radical politics”. I gave at least two clear examples of that, but most notably you interpreted my argument as being that “there is no appetite for anything ‘radical’ in the UK”, when I’d said nothing of the sort. You then attempted to use Labour’s result in 2017 as proof I was wrong, despite the fact something like 70-80% of Labour voters (as a best guess) are opposed to Brexit. If it needs stating again, Lexit is not supported by a majority of the left, nor by Labour voters.
This is a subject I discuss on a regular basis and this is indeed entirely typical of the kind of thing I hear. It’s indicative of precisely the kind of attitude I was critiquing in my first post – namely, a misguided belief that Lexit is the “radical” option and that those who don’t support it are therefore not “radical” or perhaps even “left-wing”. The word radical can mean many things, but pushing an agenda that’s stuck in the 1970s certainly doesn’t qualify in my book.
On the environment, you’ve made two pretty contentious statements and largely ignored my request for an alternative through which the UK can help solve climate change from outside the EU. We know from previous research that the US, China and the EU were the three global leaders in bringing the Paris agreement to fruition. The UK, contrary to your claim here, has played an important role in EU environmental policy. You’re implicitly claiming to be a Lexiteer that cares about climate change so perhaps you’d like to explain how we’re better capable of bringing about a global solution to the problem after turning our back on one of the three key players (arguably two key players post-Trump) with meaningful power to facilitate agreements? Out of interest, do you know what percentage of Green voters back Brexit?
Or, of course, we could drop the charade and call a spade a spade. You can dance on the head of a pin pretending that Lexit is being driven by a band of progressives that care passionately about issues like climate change if you like, but I’m under no obligation to be charitable to Lexiteers. We know, as anyone with any experience of arguing about this topic knows, that the core support for Lexit doesn’t come from new left progressives, but from the old left – those pushing an outdated agenda limply dressed up in the trappings of contemporary radical politics.
High unemployment in Greece and Spain is a structural problem that long predates the euro. Just look at the graphs. The worst youth unemployment figures were around 1993. It was the introduction of the euro that brought those down significantly, thus for a while masking (but not producing) the deep underlying disfunctionalities in the job market. No one seems to remember and the eurosceptic press has had a feast with it, but it really has nothing to do with the euro.
On the whole EU policies in those countries have had the beneficial impact to break down de facto dualities in job markets – of which you would really know little if not experiencing them on the ground.
Ive read Guinan and Hannah and I don’t think they understand how EU antitrust law works in breaking down established oligarchies (not least by unions) throughout continental Europe. Their outlook is remarkably insular.