Monday, April 17, 2017

Right turn

It's a wonderful Greek spring and I am enjoying the good fortune and privilege of being in my house in Pelion. The weather is gorgeous and the trees are in blossom. Cats are lolling about on the patio, stretching and yawning in the sun, occasionally to wake up and insistently demand food.

But there is a cloud on the horizon. At the moment I can come here as often as I like, when I like and as for as long as I like. For some reason, a number of my fellow Brits have decided that my right to do so should be taken away from me. My liberty and that of many others is down to my status as a citizen of the European Union and we are in the process of leaving as a result of a political miscalculation. So please don't tell me to move on, or sneer at me as a "remoaner." Depending on the final settlement, Brexit could hit me hard. I would love to see our departure stopped. It's personal.

Though this isn't just about me. I am upset by the referendum itself for constitutional and political reasons as well. Plebiscites are crude distortions of democracy. The mandate is weak, the majority was slim, and the outcome is highly uncertain, all of which should caution against change, rather than launch us recklessly into it. But above all, as I have been going on about for ages, Brexit is unambiguously a victory for the right.

However you look at it, this is not a win for the left, despite those who are optimistic about what they call a "lexit." Leftists who want to leave tend to make two main arguments. The first is that this was a working class revolt.

Owen Jones summarises and rebuts an argument that he once made:
Since the Brexit vote, the 48% who sought to remain have been demonised as a privileged elite attempting to subvert an authentic working-class revolt. “The working class have spoke!” crowed multimillionaire American citizen John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, recently. The referendum was a clash between the angry “millions of working-class people” and “prosperous middle-class homeowners in London”, declared the Sun. “Remoaners” are a clique formed of “citizens of the world” conspiring against the patriotic British working class, or so the story goes.
The only trouble with this is that, as Jones has spotted, it isn't true.
While Fareham is cast as part of an anti-establishment vanguard, Tower Hamlets – which has prevalent child poverty and two-thirds of whose residents voted for remain – is subsumed into the caricature of a pampered liberal elite. Most working-class Britons under 35 opted for remain, while most middle-class people over 65 voted for leave. Most working-class people who are white went for leave, most working-class people from ethnic minorities went for remain. Consider that the next time the Brexit press imposes its simplistic narrative on a complicated reality. Applying their logic, black supermarket workers and young apprentices form part of the privileged remoaner elite.
Reality is much more complex.

The second argument is based on economics. Forgetting the left's earlier attraction to the idea of 'social Europe' and the European Social Chapter of the Maastrict Treaty, they contend mainly that the EU is a vehicle for the imposition of right-wing economic orthodoxy, regardless of democratic demand, throughout the continent. This isn't without reason and there is nowhere better to see it than in Greece.

The crisis here rumbles on. There are small signs of recovery, but the social costs of austerity are ever-present. Greece's scope for action is limited by membership of the Euro and the flawed construction of the single currency. However, once again, real Greece is not the country of the left's imagination. Growing Greek indebtedness over decades would have resulted in a financial crisis whatever. Endemic corruption, clientelism, and the mess that is the Greek state, with its tangled bureaucracy, are obvious to anyone with more than a passing interest in the country. Greeks despair of the system. If it was to avoid economic collapse, Greece would always have needed structural reforms together with the large additional loans, coupled with debt write offs, that it has received from the IMF and EU institutions.

The problem has always been the macro-economic conditions required by by the lenders. They have plunged the country into a deep recession, a spiral from which it struggles to emerge. Keynesians predicted as much. The institutions have been misguided. But would Greece have got a better deal from anyone else? No way. The problem is the global economic consensus. Of course the EU's economic assumptions are based on it. It's a consensus after all. This is what needs to be challenged.

So rather than disengage, wouldn't it be better to support the social democratic left's work to change the EU from within? Well, part of the "lexit" narrative is that the EU cannot, and never will, change. This is an odd contention to make about a dynamic institution that has transformed itself from a coal and steel community of six countries, to a loose union of twenty-eight democratic nations, some with a new common currency, in only sixty years. And again it isn't true. Here are a couple of examples of the type of left thinking taking place in the EU. Wolfgang Kowalsky thinks change is back on the agenda after a hiatus and that we are heading towards a more flexible approach to integration. Whilst Prime have produced a research paper with constructive proposals for a democratic economic policy. Instead of getting involved, leavers on the left have chosen disengagement, which suggests that their nationalism is stronger than their socialism.

No, the right have won. Labour is collapsing into irrelevance, twenty points behind in the polls and supporting Brexit, leaving the half of the country that wanted to remain in the EU without representation. A Conservative hegemony, deeply wedded to economic orthodoxy, stretches ahead of us. The right have succeeded in consolidating power and building their electoral strength. They have had three main successes.

First, they managed to get the referendum held despite the huge indifference of the British electorate. There was no demand for a referendum. Outside a small group of obsessives, nobody was bothered. All opinion polling had Europe as one of the lowest salience issues as this chart makes clear:

People who had never thought about the EU or took our membership as a given were forced to take a position.

Secondly, the right were successful in mobilising opinion because they linked a low salience issue with one with much higher salience, immigration. And in doing so they legitimised a popular xenophobia. Just as the left has had a tin ear for the anti-Semitism in its midst, so the left leavers are resistant to the evidence that popular racism had much to do with the win. They cannot hear what outsiders find loud and concerning. This is one reason why reading some of the polemics of the poet George Szirtes is so illuminating. As a former child refugee he has the ear of the incomer to hear the whispers of the ghosts of the past that the EU was created to lay to rest. This essay is fabulous.
I don’t think demonisation is too harsh a word, in that Leave rhetoric called forth certain demons, or rather that it quite consciously opened the trapdoors where such demons were hiding. It legitimised them. It called forth the firebombers. It called forth those who immediately set upon elderly widows of French and German birth who had lived in the country for decades and taunted them by asking when they were going home. It called forth the teenagers on the Manchester tram who demanded a black American get off it. It called forth the murderer of Jo Cox. 
As is his reflection at the end of a piece on Hungary from February:
Whatever some politicians say, we are citizens of the world whether we admit it or not. We consume and live by that which was once strange and once we close doors and windows we begin to suffocate. The terms in which the EU referendum was conducted extended far beyond normal debate about the movement of peoples, whether refugees or poor workers seeking a better life. They sought and exploited a latent hostility towards the foreign, a hostility that has increased since the decision. What this can lead to is more than a lack of air. It is a kind of aridity that becomes combustible. A few sparks can do it. The conditions for combustibility are already in place in the UK and in other parts of Europe, particularly in the region where I was born, and – especially now – in Trump’s US. Isolationism and patriotism are on the rise, partly as political acts, partly as social mood, exacerbated by whatever means, for political reasons. 
Drop enough sparks on dry ground and a fire starts. We have seen such fires before. The view beyond the cell, as Vas put it, is vital: better still to get out of the cell and out into the fertile world, and become its citizen.
I know that focus group research is plagued by the possibility of sample error, but this is alarming:
When asked what level they would expect to see for immigration after Brexit, the views of leave voters are clear: "zero"; "immigration should be stopped"; "no more East European immigrants"; "as low as it can possibly go". 
And what happens when these totally unrealistic expectations are not met? Will there be an embittered constituency waiting for something more extreme?

This brings me to my final point. Brexit was our alt-right moment. If you are in any doubts read this profile of Arron Banks.

OK, there are many sincere eurosceptic leavers on both the left and right who want nothing to do with this stuff. Also, UKIP and were not the official campaign, though they probably tipped the balance. But Brexit will be hugely disruptive, and disruption is what the alt-right seek to provide the opportunity to lead us into some dark places.

I don't think that they can do it on their own, as Jan-Werner Müller argues in this article right-wing populists need mainstream allies to win. This is what the official Brexit campaign provided in the referendum, but only for the limited purpose of leaving the EU. Their aim is more ambitious, to break up the EU completely. It stands in their way, and particularly in the way of the authoritarian anti-democratic movement. Wilders, Le Pen, Orban, Kaczynski all see themselves as the future and Brexit as a model to follow.

The power centre of this authoritarian and illiberal right is Putin. He has long had his band of faux-left figures, 'useful idiots' like Greenwald, Pilger, and Assange cheering him on, but could more effective alliances be forged in the mainstream? The pro-Trump sycophancy shown by Michael Gove is alarming, but I don't think it will go much further. What has happened though is that this utterly distasteful politics has shaped the agenda in ways I would not have thought possible before.

It's not a happy prospect for our country. Amongst some of the left, nationalist arguments over sovereignty and an economic critique of neoliberalism have combined with the dishonest reporting of the tabloid press to produce a fictional view of the EU as a static bureaucratic monolith, rather than an evolving supra-national organisation and alliance of democracies. We are not only leaving the EU, we are abdicating our responsibilities and abandoning our allies who are attempting to shape the Union and challenge economic orthodoxy. Instead we are retreating into a Tory hegemony, while left leavers dream of social democracy in one country. I rather think that a left turn is more likely within the EU than in Britain.


roybaintonwrites said...

Dear Peter,
I read your latest entry with a sense of deep sadness underlined with grim fear. I'd already blogged about the new 'Fascism Lite' which has risen from the ashes of the Reich. I've written a column in our local rag for 2 years, but the hate and vitriol I've had as a 'remoaner' from Mansfield's 72% Leavers has made me pack it in. Back in 1989 when Wendy and I bought our house in Normandy, my ultimate aim was to retire to France to write. It was never going to work because I never had enough income to improve the house, and after 11 years of full time writing I knew 'success' (JK Rowling style) was never to be mine. So in 2009, in need of capital we sold up. What irks me is that no-one has the right to take away my Citizen of Europe status, but that's happening. There's a whiff of Munich 1933 in the air and with Trump also scoring with the Leavers, Labour in a fucking mess, the brainless acceptance of lies and contradictions of fact, the sky is darkening. Thankfully, at 74 I've seen the besy decades of Britain. By the time I die, those times will simply be incredible memories of decency and progress.So, it's all over for a big Seig Heil to Paul Dacre and the victorious Tories on June 8th. Re-open Dachau; save a bunk for me.

The Plump said...

Well Roy, it won't be Dachau. This isn't the triumph of an ideology that says that we will reach perfection only if we eliminate a specific group of people. Instead it is the victory of people who grumble about foreigners stealing their wheelie bins. Yep, government based on the principles of miserable old gits who can't understand why everyone else shouldn't be as miserable and misanthropic as them. Hideously depressing. If you want to read a wonderfully prescient satire on this, James Hawes 'Speak for England' is a gem.