The contribution of traditional social democracy to the consolidation of neoliberalism in Europe illustrates the difficulties of developing a nationalist left alternative in the contemporary capitalist state, argues Lea Ypi. Contemporary socialism requires new ways of organising and must be transnational. Using the British case, she explains why neither Remain nor Leave fully capture the demands of the left.
The left-wing case for exiting the European Union rests on a civic republican ideal of the nation. Its origins are in the revolutions of 1848 and a radical democratic project that is open and inclusive, that aspires to overcome divisions of gender, race, and class, and where domestic equality matters as much as international solidarity. For the civic republican ideal, nation is not a culturally homogenous unit but a daily plebiscite.
The opposite of civic republicanism is ethnic nationalism. We are all familiar with it: it is the nationalism of Viktor Orban and of Nigel Farage, of Marine Le Pen and Donald Trump. Ethnic nationalism has always done the dirty work of capitalism. Denying vulnerable minorities political representation while continuing to exploit them in the labour market is one well-known source of increasing profit. But socialism and civic republicanism have traditionally been considered not only compatible but mutually complementary. Can civic republicanism still fuel progressive politics? Is there a left-wing case for Brexit?
Skeptics argue that changing the EU is best done from within. Civic republicanism, they say, is in decline. In analysing the reasons, some talk about political apathy, loss of trust in representatives and hostility to elites. Others discuss the consolidation of financial capitalism and global economic failure. Others warn about the rise of the far right: while the poorest citizens continue to be victims of austerity budgets, they become more and more vulnerable to facile ethno-cultural rhetoric leading to more racism and xenophobia.
But those who advocate civic republicanism are understandably frustrated with these propositions. Suppose all this is true, they say. Suppose you want to change transnational institutions. How are you going to do that, if you can’t even sort out your own nation state? How are you going to advance ambitious proposals of state intervention in the economy given the disciplinary neoliberal legal constraints that the EU imposes on its members?
But the real problem for a left-wing Leave position goes well beyond ethnic nationalism. And well beyond neoliberalism. Neither of them just happened. The left contributed to both: in the case of the centre-left by accepting the cooptation in the capitalist state, in the case of the radical left, by making itself irrelevant to it. In the first case there was not enough critical distance. In the other, there was only that.
The social democratic left has been not only silently complicit but singlehandedly responsible for the demise of the welfare state and for the emergence of the post-Cold War global order. It was the SPD under Gerhard Schroeder that brought the Hartz reforms to Germany. It was the Labour party under Tony Blair that supported the Iraq war. What civic involvement can social democratic parties expect from ordinary people when they contributed to their immiseration through austerity packages over decades? What faith in international solidarity can one have when social-democratic governments supported dropping bombs on civilians in the name of humanitarian war? What tolerance of other cultures can one advocate when they failed to dismantle migrant detention camps in the name of tighter border control?
The radical left resisted all this. But it too was fragmented and electorally irrelevant, divided between Cold War nostalgics who seemed out of touch with the times, and young, educated, social movement types that seemed out of touch with ordinary lives. As representatives of the centre left wore business suits and moved into central bank buildings, those of the radical left kept the squares, the flags, and the slogans. But both lost ordinary working people.
Yet this is the Left as it currently stands. This is the challenge of the Labour party in Britain. However different the responsibilities of each side, distinguishing the mainstream from the radical projects will not undo their respective failures. Their fate is intertwined, the legacy can’t be undone.
The left nationalist project collapsed when realising socialism with peaceful means turned into a project of stabilising capitalism. This is not what the founding fathers of social democracy originally intended. As Eduard Bernstein put it, his famous statement “the movement is everything to me” was at no point intended to express “indifference to socialist principles”. His hope, the hope of nascent social democracy was that left nationalism would support “the peaceful abolition of class-government” through an ever-expanding process of civic education. Social democratic parties around Europe sought to transform the state by taking advantage of national mechanisms of democratic participation: national parties, national elections, national mobilisation, national strikes.
Current attempts to revive civic republicanism through projects of socialism (or social democracy) in one country are not dissimilar in spirit. But the unwillingness to learn from the history of traditional social democracy is striking. The radical left denounces the complicity of the centrist left in the consolidation of neoliberalism. But while the cooptation of socialism by the capitalist state cannot be denied, it would be naïve to ascribe the failures of traditional social democracy to the ill-will of individual leaders, parties and policy-makers. In 1871 Marx warned that the working class could not “simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes”. At the time of writing, this was mere conjecture, now it is an empirical fact.
The paralysis of traditional social democratic projects in the 20th century was not just a matter of failed volition, of opportunistic politicians and policy-makers unwilling to listen to their supporters though there was some of that too. The problem is related, on the one hand, to the incentive structure of liberal parliamentary democracy and on the other, to the influence of capital, corporations, the media, and international regulatory regimes on domestic politics. The institutions of liberal democracy required social democratic parties to serve two masters: speak for their supporters on the basis of shared principles in order to be elected but also face fierce opposition, and pressure to compromise those principles for the sake of national stability (including the stability of capital) once in government. Failing that, they were condemned to electoral irrelevance, the kind of marginalization from mainstream politics that the radical left has enjoyed up to this point.
These structural constraints on national social democracy have not gone away. The nationalist left needs to learn the lesson of this failure. It needs to rejoin its critique of the capitalist economy with its critique of the neoliberal state. Advocating widespread socio-economic reforms without a radical transformation of liberal political institutions is unlikely to work. But once we add to the critique of the economy the critique of the state, the project looks less like one of ambitious economic reform and more like one of political revolution. To succeed, it requires an extremely large base of popular support, a mass of citizens sufficiently politically mature to resist the appeal of the far right acting in collusion with neoliberalism. After years of xenophobia, austerity, cuts to education, dismantling of unions and the progressive erosion of political learning platforms, lasting support on the ground is likely to be very thin. Reviving civic republican sentiments begins to look as hopelessly idealistic as the kind of cosmopolitan aspirations that left nationalists criticize.
The left needs to turn resolutely to Europe. It needs to pluralise (and not reduce) the sites of political conflict. It needs to build a pan-European movement through transnational party lists, shared political manifestos, and common protest initiatives. It needs to mobilise migrant workers rather than alienate them even further. It needs to campaign, in a coordinated way, not for a liberal superstate with a common army but for a European socialist federation which renounces neo-imperial ambitions once and for all. It needs to advocate neither the abandonment nor the reform of the European Union but a review of the Lisbon treaty that dismantles neoliberalism and bureaucracy. It needs to campaign for non-territorial citizenship, European-wide public ownership, extensive popular control of the economy, a new digital common, direct democracy, a federal parliament with revocable public offices and a non-technocratic, accountable, administrative apparatus based on strong principles of subsidiarity.
This is neither “leave” nor “reform”: it is “transform”. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to how the project can become appealing to European citizens, given the current predicament. Matters of tactic and strategy will be different in different member states. This is why Remain and Leave mean very little without concrete ideas of how one can go from where we are to where we aspire to be. But these ideas need organizational structures and an international mass movement to be developed. Rushing to abandon the primitive forms of transnational coordination that the current European Union offers seems premature in the absence of realistic, alternative paths forward. Retreating to civic republican projects disconnected from the wider fight for transnational democracy will only strengthen capital, and the far right.
Socialism in the 20th century took a civic nationalist form. Socialism in the 21st century can only be transnational. This is a very demanding task. But it has one advantage. Unlike socialism and social democracy in one country, it has not already failed in the past.
Lea Ypi is Professor of Political Theory at the LSE. She is the author of Global Justice and Avantgarde Political Agency (Oxford University Press 2011) and (with Jonathan White) of The Meaning of Partisanship (Oxford University Press 2016).
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay/CC0 licence.
Firstly I must say how much I enjoyed your article although I must disagree with your conclusions.
Mr Butcher says it much more eloquently than I. The EU can not, easily, be reformed internally as elites do not surrender power willingly.
Economically we must leave as inside the EU the failures of privatisations can not be reversed
Many thanks Lea for highly constructive comment. I am with you all the way but would like to add in another dimension that the left must consider urgently within a radical, pluralist and internationalist programme. The EU offers us one of the most developed sites of political engagement in order to socialise economic globalisation, having institutions with which citizens, as well as sovereign governments may engage. Within these sites of engagement, however, a radical left must also begin to sketch out how it will approach the primary problem of gloablisation: the management of economic convergence/divergence, in particular, in order to protect democratised notions of social justice (manage the interaction between ’embedded’ economies).
To date, at European level, left management of convergence/divergence falls into two camps: on the one hand, the ‘more Europe’ argument, whereby cross-European social policy (Third Pillar rights) is legitimated by an enhanced role for the European citizen (Habermas); on the other, the ‘less Europe’ thesis, whereby, the economic conditions for national management of social justice are established via mechanisms of economic differentiaton (eg, Fritz Scharpf’s suggestion that EMU be reconfigured along ERM lines).
In my work on the economic constitution, I have to date fallen more or less into camp two, feeling that centralisation of economic policy cannot but accelerate the disembedding of complex national economic-social matrixes, with uncertain results, Brexit has begun to change my thinking, above all since a pluralist cross-European ‘resistance’ (also against Salvini etc) appears to me to be emerging as a powerful left force which counteracts very unpleasant residual nationalisms. Nevertheless, I remain wary that this emergent public sphere could or should develop an equalising European economic-social policy a la Habermas; firstly, since the dangers of co-option of the left into the liberal economic model remain stong, as you describe so well above; but, secondly, also since I sense in the young, radical left, a total rejecyion of old style collectivism (so easily perverted by nationalists).
Ie, we are now, as a left, urgently faced with the task of completing the pluralist left project in its redistributive functions. As the intellectual history of, say, Harold Laski teaches us, this far from an easy undertaking, and I have been struck recently by some paradoxical left thinking in this area which seems only to mirror ordo-liberal models (constitution by law of the parameters of the international economy (tax, social dumping etc..). Far more radical schemes are perhaps needed, eg, the redefinition of ‘collective goods’, and their reconfiguration across borders and levels of government (green energy policy?). We need in any case to work on these issues as a matter of urgency – I find lexist arguments retrograde and even reactionary in their reliance on the totalising-exclusionary national collective (ie, rascist), but we must find our own clear path to international social justice (redistrbution) if we are to counter them effectively.
The anti-fascist case against a corporative oligarchy in the form of a United States of Europe can be found buried in the wealth of anti-corporatist material at http://www.poclad.org . The Green Movement in USA especially wonders why Europeans want to water down their votes by employing a corporatist playing field?
The green movement and climate change could provide the backbone for this sensible, down to earth approach. Our young people have the broad view and flexibility to make it work. My own, older generation can be held back by our outdated habits. It will exciting and rewarding to follow and support this realistic, practice work.
Europe has intractable problems relating to the single currency and its trade imbalances, these can’t be resolved because Neo-Liberal politicians have rigged the system in such a way as to serve the interests of only the few. To say there isn’t a left wing Brexit is to ignore the implications facing all the southern countries. in Europe and coming calamity of countries simply running out of Euros.
Everyone should take careful note of what Professor Mark Blyth is saying here, and how the Greek people were unnecessarily paying for Europe’s banking debts. Which is what Osborne did to the British economy.
This article makes no mention of the fact that beyond brexit we remain a member of the Council of Europe, a democratic forum for pan -european co-operation that includes 47 countries rather than just the privileged 27.
Why should a co-operative vision exclude half of europe? We have the forum we need already in place, it was established in 1949 to promote peace in Europe ( it is a misconception to that this was an aim of the eu) and we do not need to remain in the eu, or waste energy trying to reform the unreformable ( the treaty of Rome is part of the problem, not just Lisbon) in order to work together for peace and democracy.
I agree with Lee Jones and Simon’s comments above.
(Real) ‘left’ reform in the EU remains a distant fantasy. DiEM25, Yanis Varoufakis’ pan European(ist) project claims 75,000 members after 3 years of fairly high profile left media publicity. Lets face it, only a fraction of those will be activists within any particular EU Party of any consequence. With an EU population of over 500 million, and centrists domination of EU Parties (just add them up in the EU Parliament.) plus their control over most mass media, DiEM is going no where fast. Harsh reality.
Varoufakis himself now backs Corbyn’s strategy to honour the Labour Manifesto promise, which still stands as policy, that the Party would accept the Referendum decision – which was ‘leave’. By some unspecified terms, but nevertheless, the decision was leave. Or do we follow the EU custom and practice of requiring repeated referenda until the recalcitrant population bring forth the ‘correct’ answer?
There is a perfectly, economically sound and beneficial ‘Lexit’ proposition, which if delivered, as a GE mandate, by a Corbyn led, democratic socialist left government, could certainly be delivered, in spades, with appropriate macro economics and monetary economy understanding.
The fact of the UK Gov’s advantage of retaining a sovereign, fiat currency, confers enormous fiscal scope upon a Gov that realises this ‘money’ power legal, system reality.
I refer to the school of economics understanding called MMT – Modern Monetary Theory – which explains that UK Gov, as sovereign currency issuer, already, has no money constraint. Only constrained by the limit of real resources available to purchase, or hire, incl labour.
I suspect that YV’s recent conversion to supporting a Corbyn Labour Brexit has a lot to do with his realisation that a Lexit might just be the fillip that his flagging DiEM project needs to jolt it into life in EU countries.
And YV has also realised perhaps that many UK citizens are severely hurting as a result of Tory policies for which the EU has offered zero protection. The EU Treaties have not hindered one iota of the deadly Austerity in UK since 2010 particularly. There is a real opportunity, by voting intention polls, of UK Labour winning a GE. Gov collapse remains a possibility that we fight for until the last possibility in this major constitutional crisis.
A Corbyn led Gov, whether soon or in 2018, is by far the nearest democratic socialist, internationalist (that has never changed for Labour left) Party any where near winning power in the EU, within perhaps a decade or more from now.
Both politically, and macro economically, the strongest case right now is for the ‘Lexit’ negotiated soft exit, with long transition buffer, as 1st preference. And, yes, as 2nd preference, whatever the Tories choose and take responsibility (and blame) for, incl. ‘no deal’, if a suitably long transition buffer period is agreed with the EU. (Whose interests are firmly also in an orderly change over, with minimum ‘real’ economy shock.)
That latter no deal Brexit can be planned, given the kind of time already being offered by some EU leaders, that is a further 2 years of the existing rules before switch over, plus the 21 months from next March already agreed.
Which takes us right up to the end of this Gov’s term in office before the next GE. And will likely leave any decision on the future relationships deal (EU and external), yet to be negotiated, once the degree of withdrawal (this first phase being decided by March 29th) has been settled – the present Parliamentary matter in hand.
I think YV has realised that from both a UK and EU reform strategy perspective, we should both continue to let the EU and Tories, neoliberal all, eat themselves, as long as the Tory Gov escapes collapse, as the next phase of negotiations – our new future – grind on in public gaze of continuing dissatisfaction in all camps.
But, just suppose Labour do, in due course, come to back a 2nd referendum, as the Party policy suggests, in the final event of ‘no deal’ exit being the starting point for phase two of the negotiations, what if Labour then campaigned for not ‘remain’ as last time, but instead for their ‘Lexit’?
That would be interesting too. Because I bet Labour would win that vote easily, if it gets fair coverage in media.
Interestingly, the longstanding Guardian Economics Editor, Larry Elliot, in defiance of the paper’s newsroom bosses, just argued that even a no deal Brexit could be very quickly fixed by a future Labour Gov.
But, either way, the best strategy for now is to let the Tories and EU elites (think Italy, France far right etc.) destroy themselves..
“The left needs to turn resolutely to Europe…”
All of those things sound delightful, but how are they going to come about, exactly? The EU is not reformable. Even if it was, it would take the election of socialist governments simultaneously in two-thirds of EU jurisdictions – how likely is that? This is just a cosmopolitan fantasy.
If people on the left want to argue for a European socialist federation, that is a fine ambition to have. But where are how they going to argue for it? That would have to be in the context of national, democratic politics. The possibilities and openings for arguing for new political alternatives is diminished by the outsourcing of political authority from democratic states – from the demos – to EU technocracy. A revival of the civic republican ideal would seem to be a necessary condition for new, radical alternatives.
Some may see a left wing case or Brexit, others a right wing case. But in the first instance it is a democratic case.
They are turkeys voting for Christmas, always have been. However, within the strict confines of nation-state politics, the real socialist Left is an admirable counterweight to help other citizens balance against the Establishment, which, of course, has long since included Labour.
Thanks for this article, which I enjoyed. However, I am left with the feeling of it being unclear why, if socialism failed nationally, it has any better odds succeeding transnationally. Sure, one can point at Mitterrand and a failure of political imagination after the end of the ColdWar, but there were also great socialist advances on a national level (Atlee government, French working rules etc). But when national solidarity is being rent asunder due to a lack of solidarity on a national level, how on earth can it be constructed continent-wide? The problems of no common language, few popular common institutions (beyond the Champions League…), little information in common etc seems to suggest that the problem of the working class holding together will suffer the same defeat that it DID suffer when they sided with their own nations in WWI.
I want to believe your prescription but my head won’t let my heart follow quite yet….