Wednesday, February 26, 2020

What a state to be in

Anarchism is an odd academic specialism to have. I often get thought of as an anarchist, whereas I am really an interested bystander. I always think that anarchism provides insights, rather than specific programmes, and those insights are valuable to anyone who is interested in politics. One thing it does lead to is a scepticism of the nation state. The anarchist rejection of government never meant that there would not be any political and economic social units, just that they were not to be conventional states. Anarchists proposed multiple forms; producer co-operatives, mutualist associations, labour syndicates, autonomous cities, extensive property rights, communal self-regulation, bio-regions, and etc. Whatever their chosen unit, anarchists often placed them within larger collaborative structures, such as Proudhon's Federalism. As per the slogan coined by the ecological anarchist, Patrick Geddes, they 'think global, act local.' The sense of global interconnectedness runs through anarchist thought.

I thought of this as I read a curious libertarian Brexiter article in the Telegraph by Allister Heath (£). It helps explain why Brexiters continue to be angry and rant about the EU even though we have left. They want to destroy the EU permanently - for everyone. Their argument is that a world of independent nation states alone, without any supra-national organisation, is the best form of political and economic organisation. The result of this thinking is that the destruction of the EU will liberate everyone.

It's a curious argument. Its universalism about the benign nature of the nation state is ahistorical. Its utopianism is unrelated to historical experience. Given that Brexit has made other Europeans shudder and has increased the EU's legitimacy amongst member states, as well as its attractiveness to those outside, it looks like a piece of wishful thinking. A controversial, non-consensual win in the UK does not make it a global model to be followed by everyone. Elsewhere, the Eurosceptic movement is minuscule and the EU has never been more popular.

The article shows that right-wing libertarians have made their peace with nationalism. It's curious, because nationalism is a collectivist doctrine. Heath's argument, like much of Euroscepticism, rests on a category error. There are two classic ideas in liberal thought describing the origins and nature of a social contract underlying the modern state. That of Hobbes is based on the willingness of people to place themselves under the power of an absolute ruler to enforce peace, while the version derived from Locke sees the social contract as a voluntary association constructed out of the rule of law and democratic governance. Brexiters see the EU as the former, its supporters as the latter.

Heath's celebration of the nation state as the only form of sustainable political organisation leads Brexiters into contradictions. The EU is at once a Hobbesian leviathan, a centralised authoritarian beast, but also weak, unstable and on the point of collapse. Both versions can sometimes appear in the same sentence. This is why they portray Brexit as liberation. The problem is that it's a mirror image of reality. The EU is a federal organisation of democratic states that is not independent of its members wishes. It has a limited area of legal competence, defined by treaty, and a functioning elected parliament. Membership of the EU means shared sovereignty and collective decision making in defined areas, but not unconditional submission to authority. However, it is powerful in protecting and advancing its members' interests through collective organisation and in accordance with the mandate given by its member states. This power is something the UK is about to experience in negotiations. Unsurprisingly, a comparatively small single nation is guaranteed to be the weaker party. The EU's federalism may not be the same as Proudhon's, but it is nothing like the Eurosceptic fiction.

Heath and others have resurrected the old 19th century liberal panacea of the self-determination of nations. And in doing so, they haven't addressed the mixed history of nationalism and national liberation. It is true that national statehood has been a way of rescuing the persecuted and freeing peoples from tyranny (Heath supports Kurdish independence, alongside the very different cases of Catalonia and Scotland), but there is no guarantee that the result will be democratic and liberal. Post-colonial states have relapsed into bloody tyrannies. National territories are not ethnically homogenous and minorities have been persecuted, expelled, and killed. With each nation comes the concept of treason, and with it the identification of groups of people as existential enemies (see this fine piece on Hindu nationalism for example). Then there is Rummel's concept of Democide, based on the statistics that show that far more people have been killed by their own state in the 20th century than have died in international wars. National self-determination has a very mixed record, hence the perceived need for supra-national organisations to mediate and protect citizens.

The EU was created as a response to the two world wars. Both were the result of catastrophic failures of nationalism. But let's not forget that they were also due to failures of other attempts at international collaboration. The balance of powers failed. Deterrence failed. Appeasement failed. Collective security through the League of Nations failed. The EU was a conscious attempt to avoid those failures by building a regional alliance based on economic self-interest and administered by an agreed legal framework overseen by national governments and a democratic parliament. So far, it's been a success. And it is this incremental, voluntary, and limited federation that Heath wants to overthrow in favour of something that has a history of collapsing into local and global bloody conflict.

It might sound odd, but anarchists had a far more realistic appreciation of the nature of nation states and the need for international cooperation than Daily Telegraph columnists. But then Brexit wants to replace a fictitious European Union with an even more fictitious nationalist utopia. And in an increasingly interdependent world, we are the ones paying the price.

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