The EU: neoliberalism and democracy – part 2

images (10)An argument was made a long time ago by right wing ideologue Frederick Hayek that Europe could only be united on the basis of the free market.  Generally speaking, unity by state power can be achieved by conquest, or diplomatic alliance and compromise which would be slow, messy and prone to threats of resort to the former method. The Left supporters of Brexit also pose the unity being attempted by the EU as one underpinned by, in fact essentially and intrinsically comprised of, neoliberalism and its child austerity.  This approach is presented as a policy choice at the national level but essential to the EU, which doesn’t add up.

The imposition of austerity in the Eurozone for example is a policy choice determined by the conservative leadership of Germany and some other Northern European countries. In large part this is a reflection of the interests of their particular national capitalism, or its perceived interests, so not an inevitable feature of European capitalist integration.

The imposition of this particular national capitalist regime across Europe cannot work so it involves the subordination of weaker capitalisms such as the Greek etc.  The ultimate subordination is expulsion from the Euro club, whereupon the Greek state is free to reflect its weakness through devaluation, have greater freedom to preserve or expand crony state ownership and decide which sections of its population it wants to throw to the wolves and which to protect. What it could not do on its own is reverse austerity and develop a strong capitalist economy.  A separate Greek socialism is out of the question.

The refusal of the strongest national states within the EU to seek an alternative to austerity that addresses the needs of all member states is grounded on refusal to implement fiscal transfers between states, common and pooled debt and greater regulation.  This would involve not less but more European integration but will not be accepted by the conservative led national states without their much greater control of the EU.  The question then becomes one of democracy.

For the nationalist opponents of the EU, on the right and left, democracy can only be national.  The Irish People’s Movement repeats this again and again:

“The EU is most accurately seen as a supranational anti-democratic system that deprives Europe’s diverse living peoples of their democracy while serving the interests of its big state members, as mediated through their ruling politico-economic elite, interacting with the Brussels bureaucracy. The project of EU and euro-zone integration is at bottom an attempt to overturn throughout much of Europe the democratic heritage of the French Revolution: the right of nations to self-determination, national independence, and national democracy.”

“. . . This right to national self-determination is the foundational value of all modern democracies and of democratic politics within them. But it is anathema to the EU elite. . . . The core illusion of the EU elite is that the peoples of the euro zone will consent to abandon their national independence and democracy, reversing centuries of European history . . .”

Today the increasing lack of democracy across Europe is sometimes put down to a lack of accountability of the governing elites in Brussels to the electorate, but it is notable that this complaint is widely expressed at national level as well.  The Irish State for example has long had two major parties periodically alternating in office that have had no ideological differences and which have provided no meaningful political choice.  In the last election the electorate voted against the incumbent main party and got it back in government.  In some other counties there has been more appearance of choice but it has been obvious for years that even social democratic parties have embraced neoliberalism, so it is not an EU only phenomenon.

It is argued however that it is worse in the EU and, unlike at the level of the individual state, nothing can be done.  It must be noted however that this malaise at the EU is partially a result of the processes at national level and made worse by being filtered here first. If pressure from below is stifled by the national political system there is much less to transmit upwards to the EU’s bureaucratic machinery.  At this EU level there are no European political parties, the trade unions at a European level are a shell and there are no other vehicles for protest except protest itself and its campaigns that put pressure on institutions but fundamentally do not threaten them.

The organisation, or rather the lack of organisation, of workers at the European level is not something that can be rectified by more democratic arrangements at the EU, although this would obviously help.  It is a task for workers themselves and seeking the nationalist way out is not a solution but rather running away from a problem that cannot be escaped.

The nationalist nonsense that posits democracy rising from the nation ignores the existence of nations that have had precious little democracy and ignores the process of struggle that imposed on ruling elites what democracy there is.  The idea that centuries of European history were devoted to the development of national democracy is as fatuous as the idea that these nations were generally independent states. War and subjugation has been a feature of the history of European states as much, if not more, than any sort of mythical independence, which no longer exists even for large European states never mind the smaller ones.

What is true is that the development of capitalism took place at the national level and that this involved the creation of classes which had a material interest in forms of bourgeois democracy and which fought for them as a result.   The state form within which this development took place has been elevated into the development itself but it is capitalist economic development and the political struggles that it generated that are the real foundations of bourgeois democracy.

That capitalist economic development has burst the bounds of nation states has created problems in relation to the forms of democracy that have taken root at the national level.  At this level the machinery of the state has legitimised capitalism through nationalist ideology and the exercise of state power that has educated, subordinated and reformed the society in which everyone has grown up in; making nothing more natural than the idea of belonging to a nation.  From this ideology and the state’s power to mould society has come the view that rights, freedoms and politics in general can only be framed at the national level with anything above this simply being political relations between the states and therefore not actually above them.

History is further perverted in this nationalist version by declaring that the ideals of the French revolution were purely national, ignoring the proclamations within it relating to the rights of individuals, the freedom of individuals and the equality of individuals.  In the first part of these two posts it was noted that for some Irish nationalists these “are not unequivocal concepts. There is no Union-wide consensus on what constitutes a higher or lower standard of protection of rights; there is no consensus on the source of human rights, such as the theory of natural law, whether secularly or religiously based, that would permit a rational analysis and evaluation of conflicting positions.”  But we are expected to believe such problems of unequivocal definition, consensus on source and application of rights, disappear within the nation, with all its minorities subservient to whatever the national ideal of these happens to be.  Most important of all, the national definition of these non-unequivocal concepts is assumed to be superior to the different understandings of these concepts that arise from the class divisions within society.  Instead these are assumed to be erased by unity behind a mythical ‘national interest’.

This understanding of the world as fundamentally structured by nations within which coherent, consistent and valid interests are formed and expressed reaches its height when we are told that:

“Although the EU has most of the formal features of a state, and Euro-federalists aspire to it becoming a United States of Europe, comparable to the United States of America, outsiders hesitate to regard it as a state in its own right. They think that if it were such it must surely have its own people, who would identify with it and insist on endowing it with some meaningful democratic life. But such a people does not exist.”

If this means anything it means that democracy can only exist for a relatively homogenous people, defined by nationality, which is the worst sort of ethnic-centred nonsense to which all nationalism is prone to fall into. It condemns those states that are multi-national in composition, which must presumably not expect to have any sort of democratic political arrangements.  This also of course absolves the EU, because it too cannot be expected to be democratic.  In fact no future unity of peoples can be expected to be democratic either. The more one reads this short paragraph the worse it gets.

But for a socialist it is precisely the identity of interests within the nation that must be exposed and rejected a false.  In contrast it is the identity of the interests of working people regardless of nationality that is the essential socialist argument and historically the nation state that has been the last barrier to the creation of the new society that expresses these common interests.  Workers of the world unite! is the clarion call of socialism.  If capitalism seeks to unite Europe on its own terms it is not the job of socialists to seek to reverse its progress but to fight for creation of the socialist society on these foundations.

If the nationalist left does not know how democracy, workers unity and a socialist future can be fought for except within the realm of separated national states then it should step aside because whatever the problems posed to socialists by the EU they will continue to exist, in fact worsen, in the nationalist rat race that implementation of their policies would involve.

concluded

Back to part 1

 

 

 

The EU: neoliberalism and democracy – part 1

EU-TWEET-2Both right and left supporters of leaving the EU see it as some sort of emerging Super State, a bureaucratic Leviathan sitting on top of a population of so many Joseph Ks, captured by its labyrinthine rules, in a state of helpless and woeful ignorance of the malevolent plans to which they are subject.

Within its confines there is no way out, there is no solution.  Nothing is familiar.   It is foreign in every respect.  There is no democracy and you can do nothing to change it.  For the Left it cannot be reformed – its essential character is neoliberal – although it can be defeated, or rather it can be escaped from.  And this is what Brexit offers.

It offers release from a putative empire and its recognisable emperor – Germany.  The very breadth of the alternatives presented as possibilities outside its walls is testament to the potential freedom existing beyond its bewildering restrictions, its Treaties, Guidelines, Regulations and Directives. The natural territory of democracy is the nation and the return of national democracy will free Europe’s very different peoples to make their own decisions.

The differences between the British, the Finns, Bulgarians, Greeks and Italians etc. are simply too great.  No cultural commonality or elements of unity can be found and therefore no common political architecture can accommodate their different views, aspirations, values and demands.  Lack of democracy within any project that attempts it is therefore inevitable.

The ‘Peoples Movement’ in Ireland, which opposes the EU and supports Brexit puts it like this:

“The supposition in the EU Treaty that member-states already share a common value system is, moreover, a disingenuous fiction. The principles of “liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and the rule of law” which are stated in article 2 of the Treaty on European Union to be the foundation of the EU, are not unequivocal concepts. There is no Union-wide consensus on what constitutes a higher or lower standard of protection of rights; there is no consensus on the source of human rights, such as the theory of natural law, whether secularly or religiously based, that would permit a rational analysis and evaluation of conflicting positions.”

——

Such an analysis is not one that any socialist can endorse or support.  In fact socialism rejects every substantive claim made above.

The EU is not even a State never mind a Super State.  If we begin with the understanding that the state consists above all of armed bodies of men and women then the EU has no army and no police with which to assert the class interests of European capitalism.  It often cannot unite politically even if it did have a single and coherent state apparatus to command. It had no such view when Yugoslavia disintegrated and it was NATO that went to war.  That it is not a Super State became clear in its failed intervention in the Ukraine, where it lacked the economic power, political unity of purpose and military prowess to counter Russia.

The illusion of a united, efficient and increasingly powerful bureaucratic apparatus reveals a view of bureaucracy as a predominantly rational and rules bound organisation that is internally coherent.  But not only is this not the case with any bureaucracy it is certainly not true of the EU.  Even its critics, or at least some of them, are not so much forced to acknowledge this but see it as a primary feature of the EU – that its rules are as often observed in the breech as in the observance.

There is apparently a remarkable level of non-compliance within the EU and its member states, in which EU Directives are not transposed into national law, rules are not adhered to, decisions at summits are not respected and European Court of Justice rulings are not enforced.  In other words the state machinery necessary to impose laws is not in place.

So the Maastricht rules dealing with debt and deficits were first broken by Germany and France while such rule breaking by Greece is anathema.  Much has been made of the Greeks fiddling statistics to get into the Euro but what they did was simply to follow what the Italians had done before, and everyone looks the other way when this is mentioned.  Bank stress tests are taken seriously by no one. The Eurogroup, the body that decides on these economic matters, that determines the economic policy in the Eurozone, has no legal standing and therefore doesn’t legally exist.

The incoherence of much of the bureaucratic machinery is illustrated in the inefficiency and corruption that besets the EU.  It lacks effective financial controls so that it has failed its own Court of Auditors for over twenty years.  In 2003 only 10 per cent of payments by the European Commission “faithfully reflected budgets and expenditure”, while the rest could not be accounted for and over 10,000 cases of larceny were uncovered in the year before. When the Chief Accountant reported that the EU budget “was an open till waiting to be robbed”, Neil Kinnock fired her. He also smeared another whistle-blower after she reported improprieties at Eurostat, a statistics agency whose figures were employed in allocating the EU budget. It has been investigated six times, during which shell companies, slush funds and “rake-offs” were all uncovered.

In his latest Book – ‘And the weak suffer what they must’ –the ex-Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis, rips into the failed design of the Euro and the rules it is based upon but admits that these rules are often in large part made up by the EU as it goes along.  This includes as a result of the struggle between the Bundesbank, its German ordo-liberals and the Draghi-led European Central Bank and its commitment to ‘do whatever it takes’ to save the Euro.

This is not some sort of all powerful juggernaut or all-powerful emerging German empire.  The GDP of Germany in 2015 was over €3 trillion while that of the EU as a whole was over €14.6 trillion, so the German share was around 20%.  Germany also lags behind Britain and France in terms of military capacity so whatever about its economic strength this is not basis for a fourth Reich.  Germany can lead but it cannot on its own determine the future of the EU.

The EU therefore lacks the scope and depth of function required of a state while aspiring to both, the difference for its critics often obscured by its declarations of intent and its bombastic and arrogant approach to what it does control.  It is not therefore easily identified, categorised and summed up so, when its more obviously nationalist critics denounce it, the simplicity of their analysis is often embarrassing. So the People’s Movement can’t help but notice that the EU has no army and police but “Their absence makes it all the easier to hide from ordinary citizens the reality of Europe’s hollowed-out nation-states and the failure of their own mainstream politicians to defend their national democracies.”  The People’s Movement declaration of hollowed out national states fails to register its admission that the EU proto-state is also empty of crucial functions.

The simple story of EU power also includes the declaration that the EU cannot be reformed as it is intrinsically a neo-liberal construct, one that enforces this economic policy on its members.  But as we have noted, such enforcement is not uniform.  The progenitor of the EU, the European Coal and Steel Community, was not a vehicle for the free market but a cartel arrangement for oligopolies. The EEC/EU was part and parcel of Europe-wide Keynesian policies in the 1960s and is now part of the neoliberal turn that was to be consolidated in the European Constitution but became part of the Lisbon Treaty when this constitution was rejected.  It is also strongly in evidence in the austerity agenda mandated by the Maastricht Treaty and enforced during the Eurozone crisis.  It has not therefore always been part of the EU and there is good reason why it may not remain part, including that it is not working, for example irrecoverable debt cannot be repaid.

While the EU has introduced state aid rules that restrict state subvention of private capital it does not prohibit it.  The Lisbon Strategy of 2000 called for it to be phased out but the reality became more rules that explain how it may be permitted.  In the years 2000 to 2011 its level didn’t change, amounting to 0.7 per cent of GDP, so argument continues as to whether public procurement in the EU is more or less open than its competitors in the US or Japan.

The EU is made up of states, which jealously guard not only the interests of their national capitals but also their own interests as states. This includes protection of state owned capital.  For example in the field of energy, where the EU has some competence i.e. it has some control, many components of this industry are still state owned. Even in the Irish State, at the depths of the crisis and diktats from the Troika of European Commission, European Central Bank and IMF, the state retained ownership of much of power generation through ESB and the electricity transmission and distribution system through EirGrid.

Those on the Left who regard the interests of nation states, and their powers of discretion, as the alternative to the neoliberalism of free markets have a lot of explaining to do, in particular how these states that barter and trade off the perceived benefits of trade to themselves, and the big capitalist businesses they seek to protect, are any sort of alternative.  The seeming obsession of the EU with competition rules is in part an inevitable result of any inter-state cooperation, which is undoubtedly more involved in the EU, but which would not disappear outside of it, that is if progress on trade and investment deals is to be made.

The emphasis on free markets and competition arises not just from a general and obvious commitment to capitalism by all the European capitalist states but from the desire to create a free trade area across Europe in the same way that there is generally free trade within the national states themselves.  This is not because the individual states do not want to intervene to bolster the position of national champions but because they must have rules and mechanisms that limit the same intervention by the other states that may be to the detriment of their own capitals.

The developing logic is to create not national champions but European ones, which leads to a similar process at the world level.  The US and Japan etc., like the EU, seek trade and investment deals that will allow the growth of their capitals without discriminatory barriers put in their way by other states.  Each therefore has to strike deals that limit such practices, not only between but also within their borders, and which protect their own big capitalist businesses. The confidence to exploit and exchange commodities that exists at the national level is sought at the European and world level through a single European market and world trade and investment deals.  To see these deals as the problem and not the system of exploitation and commodity exchange that is taken for granted at the national level is to forsake a socialist for a purely nationalist perspective and fail to understand the roots of what is going on.

A contradiction thus exists between the rhetoric of free competition and the state and EU interventions that seek to strengthen particular capitalist concerns.  From this also arises the repulsive system of lobbying by big business that is such a feature of the Brussels scene.  It brings to light the crony and corrupt interface between politicians and capitalists which has grown organically at nation state level and because of this is much better hidden from public view.

The contradiction is also expressed through the fact that the state at a national level not only provides for a level playing field that privileges the workings of capitalist competition, which finds expression through the market, but also intervenes positively to support groups of, or individual, capitalist concerns.

This not only involves what might be considered purely economic measures, such as grants, subsidies, and taxation arrangements but also purely political interventions that for example provide for or foreclose market access.  The rules and the wrangling in the EU are the outcome of the attempts to do this at a supra-national level.  Such activities would continue were Europe to revert to a world of separate nation states – the world beloved of nationalists and a left no longer confident of the future but hankering for a supposed golden age of social democracy, i.e. a particular form of capitalism.

What does change in the EU framework is acknowledgment that the state’s intervention in support of capitalism is no longer adequate if confined to the national level and that the political interventions required also have to take place at the European level.  The logic is creation of a political vehicle that can do this adequately, a European State.  If you don’t like this the answer is not to attempt to turn back the clock to an earlier form of capitalism that the development of the system has outgrown but to make the alternative to capitalism also international.

Forward to part 2

The UK general election part 3: sectarianism and democracy

SF 1 downloadIn the final post on the UK general election I want to look at the results from my own little polity and the political slum that is Northern Ireland.  Like all slums the blame for its condition lies with the landlord, the British state.  As usual all the tenants hope and expect that the landlord will clean it up. But it never does.

There the analogy should rest.  The most recent election was notable for what the front page of the Northern nationalist paper, ‘The Irish News’, described as ‘Nationalists turn away from the polls’.  Their parties, Sinn Fein and the SDLP, collected 38.4% of the vote while the DUP and Ulster Unionists captured 41.7%.  The latter figure does not include the various other unionist parties such as Traditional Unionist Voice and UKIP which brings the unionist total to 46.6%. If we include the Alliance Party, which is a unionist party in all but name, the unionist vote was 55.2%.

The message?  There isn’t going to be a United Ireland any time soon.  The Sinn Fein vote went down slightly by 1% even while the SDLP vote declined by 2.6% and it lost the Fermanagh and South Tyrone seat, not the way they wanted to enter into the historic hundredth anniversary of the 1916 rising.  ‘The Irish News’ explained that the nationalist vote had declined to its lowest level since the 1992 Westminster vote, which is before the ceasefires. That is, before the current peace process ‘strategy’ of republicans was/is supposed to deliver a united Ireland.

None of this fits with the accepted story of a rising Catholic population and a more and more demoralised Protestant one.  Sooner or later, the story goes, there will be a Catholic majority that will vote in a united Ireland. The truth of this is accepted by many and, I would hazard a guess, by many who would deny it vehemently in public.  I remember my aunt, a Shankill Road Protestant, remark about 25 years ago that there would eventually be a united Ireland, but not in her lifetime.  And she was at least half right in that.

Socialists have always supported self-determination for the Irish people as a whole, as the only democratic response to the Irish national question.  Not of course universally.  The Militant Tendency/Socialist Party tradition with its notoriously statist view of socialism, which incidentally has nothing to do with Marxism, has always managed to get it wrong.  Its statist view has seen it join left nationalist formations in Britain such as NO2EU, and it led the rightward collapse of the left in Scotland into Scottish nationalism.  In the North of Ireland on the other hand, entirely consistent with its accommodation to whatever nationalism is strongest, it has capitulated time and time again to loyalism and the British State.

This general response of socialist to the national question remains correct but the growth of nationalism in the North of Ireland, which now appears halted, has demonstrated that democracy is not a classless construct.  Bourgeois democracy in a society which has always been characterised by sectarianism has definite limits.

These limits are demonstrated in the more and more sectarian expression of northern nationalism.  This means that the expression of democracy by the working class can only be of a non-sectarian character, or it would fail to be a particular expression of the working class.  In other words the expression of a democratic alternative to partition must come from the working class and not from any nationalist formation.  It must therefore be non-sectarian, not in an unconscious sense, in which to be anti-imperialist is somehow also to be ‘objectively’ anti-sectarian, but in a conscious sense that this is the key objective – of uniting the working class.  Just like Scotland so must this be the case in Ireland, that socialism cannot be derived from what happens to be bad for the UK state but from the political unity of workers.

The degeneration of Sinn Fein and Irish republicanism demonstrates that fidelity to the belief in a united Ireland is no guarantee of progressive politics.  It used to be said that Irish republicanism was largely confined to Catholics because of sectarianism and this also remains true but it is also now the case that the Irish republicanism of Sinn Fein is confined to Catholics because it is sectarian.

Once the Provisionals stopped fighting the British and decided to join in the governance of its system, and started asking the landlord to sort out the slum – the landlord responsible for its creation – it stopped having any claim to progressive status.  It then became the most militant and vocal champion of Catholic rights, not civil rights, but sectarian rights.  This has been exposed in the case of a prominent Sinn Fein Minister and also in the recent election.

In North Belfast Sinn Fein put out an election leaflet that included a graphic showing the Catholic and Protestant proportions of the constituency, the none too subtle message being that the majority Catholic constituency should be electing a Sinn Fein MP.  But of course that also means that Protestants must vote for the sitting Unionist MP.

The Sinn Fein excuses for it only bury it deeper in the sectarian mire.  First the excuses arrived only after it spent weeks defending the leaflet.  Then it wanted, it said, to use the terms nationalist and unionist but the Post Office said census figures had to be couched in terms of Catholic and Protestant.  So what it is saying, after trying to blame the Post Office, is that  instead of rejecting the graphic it decided that yes indeed substitution of Nationalist and Unionist by Catholic and Protestant was fine.  Now we know what it means when it uses the former terms in future.

Oh, and one more thing.  It regretted its decision to include the graphic – as Mr Gerry Kelly said “I think, in retrospect, the decision then should probably have been to withdraw the graph, because it did give an argument to our opponents, whether that was the SDLP or unionists.”  Yes Gerry, you’re right about that.

SF2images (10)

The reactionary position of Sinn Fein was also demonstrated in another graphic used on its leaflet for their candidate in South Belfast.  Having misleadingly described the candidate as ‘the poll topper’ – in fact the sitting MP was from the SDLP – it then said he was the ‘only Progressive Candidate who can win’ – clearly not the case since the SDLP were not listed by the leaflet as one of the five parties ‘united for austerity.’

These five parties were the Conservatives, DUP, UUP, UKIP and Alliance Parties. One of these parties stood out from the others – the DUP.  Why? – because Sinn Fein is in permanent coalition with this party.  And at the time the leaflet was put through the doors the Tories looked like they might be relying on the DUP to get them into power.

Wouldn’t that have looked lovely – the so-called anti-austerity Sinn Fein in Government with the DUP who were keeping the austerity-inflicting Tories in Government.  Don’t bother to try to work out how Sinn Fein would have justified it, they have been justifying inflicting one of the most right wing parties in Europe on this part of the continent for years.

‘The Irish News’ front page has reflected the disorientation of Northern nationalism following the election.  It produced some commentator to explain what had gone wrong.

Apparently  there is a ‘growing number of nationalists who appear switched off from the electoral process (reflecting) a community more at ease with Northern Ireland.’

The commentator said that “I think unionism is more highly strung about identity issues.  Nationalism is more happy in general with the status quo and there is a lack of competition between the parties.  Nationalism is suffering a retreat.”

Almost all of this is rubbish.

Yes, nationalism is suffering a retreat, it’s been retreating for years, and now endorses the legitimacy of partition and its institutions, the British nationality of Irish Protestants and the unionist veto on a united Ireland.

Contrary to its assertion, there is no lack of competition among nationalist parties and unlike unionism there was no electoral pact between the SDLP and Sinn Fein during the election.

Relatively high unionist participation in the election is not because they are more highly strung about identity; in fact the lack of unionist voter participation has been remarked upon for years.  Did they suddenly get a fit of the nerves just recently?  Newspapers have recently reported increasing numbers of parents from what is called ‘a Protestant background’ refusing to designate their children as Protestant at school.

The fall in the nationalist vote is not because nationalists are happy with the status quo but exactly the opposite.  The stench of nepotism, cronyism and corruption from Stormont is all the more repelling on the nationalist side given the claims to radical politics and progressive change from the nationalist parties, particularly Sinn Fein.

Instead the DUP/Sinn Fein coalition Government has been beset by crisis, incapacity, incompetence, secrecy, arrogance, lack of accountability, lack of transparency and financial scandal.  The simplest of questions don’t get answered for years (perhaps never) by Government departments with dozens of communications staff.

The latest such offerings are the revelation of the extent of the employment of Special Advisors (SPADS) employed by all the parties in office without any public recruitment process.  These SPADS are supposed to bring special skills to their political masters, the most prominent of which appears to be their close connection to the parties and their ability to hide any special skills.

freedom of information request revealed that in one financial year the Stormont Executive spent almost £2m on these SPADS, more than the Scottish and Welsh governments combined.  In 2013/2014, the pay bands and grades for these special advisers varied across the UK, going from £36,000 up to £91,000.  In Scotland, three of them were in the top pay band while at Stormont all 21 posts were.

The second is the scandal around a contractor to the Housing Executive which we reported on before here and here.  The SPAD at the centre of the controversy, far from being dumped has been promoted while it is reported that the DUP member who took a more principled stand is being subject to disciplinary action by the party.  At the end of an editorial dripping with scorn ‘The Irish News’ declared of the Stormont regime that “it is increasingly doubtful if the institutions are worth preserving in the first place.”

When the main voice of constitutional nationalism expresses exasperation with the peace process institutions it really does mean a lot of nationalists are thoroughly disillusioned.  This is one of the main results of the election.  In itself it is not a positive but it is certainly a prerequisite for one to develop.

 

The Paris attacks

paris imagesWhen the events in Paris unfolded last week I initially thought that I was witnessing marginalised and alienated young people involved in acts of reactionary medieval brutality.  However the terrorists, and that is exactly what they were, employing the weapon of violence in order to terrorise into silence critics of their religion, were not young.  Nor was their inspiration.

Perhaps this does not matter.  Seeing them as marginalised and alienated adults is not so very different from seeing them as disaffected youth who are rebelling against an authority they despise.  It does however make it easier to appreciate that not every act of the marginalised and alienated is a distorted expression of progressive impulses.  For the second half of my initial view can hardly be challenged – that the Islamic fundamentalism expressed by the attackers is reactionary and characterised by medieval barbarism.

The forces mobilised by fundamentalism in such attacks should no more be seen as potential candidates for enlistment in the socialist cause, but who have unfortunately been led astray,  than are those who normally make up the ranks of the lumpenproletarian supporters of fascism.  Not all victims of capitalism are candidates for its socialist opposition.  That has never been the case, nor will it ever be the case.  The basis for socialism is not the most angry, desperate or oppressed but the working class and particularly its most enlightened sections.

These are not people who seek a failed or counterproductive means to an end with some progressive content.  The victory of Islamic fundamentalism over imperialism in countries with a Muslim majority is no sort of victory for the working class.  The enemy of my enemy is not by this fact my friend and the view that the greatest enemy is imperialism does not relegate to minor status the reactionary forces that seek to take society backwards.  This is especially true for socialists in those countries in which fundamentalism is strong and who do not have the luxury of seeing these forces as second order opponents or worse, genuine expressions of some sort of anti-imperialism.

The Anti-Capitalist Party in France states:

“This murderous violence comes from somewhere. It’s created in the heart of the social and moral violence which is very familiar to large numbers of the young people who live on the working class estates. It’s the violence of racism, xenophobia, discrimination and the violence of unemployment and exploitation. This barbarous violence is the monstrous child of the social war that the right and the left are waging in the service of finance. On top of this there are the wars they have started against Iraq, in Afghanistan, Libya, Africa and Syria. . . .”

But we can identify the ‘somewhere’ more accurately, for there is a direct connection between the murderous violence and reactionary social forces in what is called the Middle East, reactionary forces that are the enemy not only of French workers but of young people and workers in the countries of the Middle East.

The Anti-Capitalist Party also says that “there is no answer to the social decomposition of which the crime against Charlie Hebdo is a dramatic expression unless we fight the politics which make it possible.” But this social decomposition has taken the form in this case of Islamic fundamentalism, which must be fought.

The argument that the enemy is imperialism and the task is to oppose it as the root cause of the Paris events cannot excuse the need to respond to these attacks in the appropriate way, to identify the actions as wholly reactionary – the acts themselves, their motivation and their consequences.

In any case imperialism and fundamentalism are not opposites.  State sponsors of Islamic fundamentalism, such as Saudi Arabia, are often supported by imperialism and no general distinction can be drawn between the two such that opposition to one can be fundamentally separated from opposition to the other.  The forces of Islamic fundamentalism are at least partly the direct and indirect result of the actions of imperialism.  That they are only partly the result means that while opposition to one cannot be separated from opposition to the other neither can opposition to one be reduced to opposition to the other.

While some of this fundamentalism now pretends to an anti-imperialism this is the purest opportunism behind which lie reactionary class and ideological interests.  That first great fundamentalist state, Iran, now collaborates with imperialism in fighting a separate fundamentalist movement in the shape of the Islamic State.  The Islamic fundamentalists of Pakistan were for long dismissed by the Pakistani people as the B-team for the army that was the solid ally of the United States.  And we all are aware of the alliance between fundamentalism and the US in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Above all Islamic fundamentalism is an enemy of democracy and socialism.

It is therefore appropriate that the terrorist attacks have been used by the security agencies of western imperialist States to seek greater powers.  Even while the terrorists were known to these agencies and they failed to prevent the attacks.

Ordinary citizens cannot rely or place their trust in these agencies.  Their original sponsorship of Islamic fundamentalism in the war against the Soviet Union cannot be dismissed as a ‘mistake’ nor, as noted, can their continued collaboration with the most barbaric regimes that support various branches of fundamentalism be ignored.  “Saudi Arabia Launches Huge Arms Buying Spree; France to Net Most Orders” is one headline that shows both ugly faces of this alliance.

The restriction of democratic rights in France, Britain or Ireland will not come from these fundamentalists who do not have the power to implement their political programmes in these countries but from security apparatuses demanding greater powers.  It is not that the terrorists seek the implementation of repression in some misguided belief that this will stir resistance.  They do not seek resistance to the restriction of democratic rights because they do not support such rights themselves.  The whole idea of such a motivation would not cross anybody’s mind.

The reactionary character of these attacks is widely understood, which is why in France there has been widespread expression of the view that the division that the attacks seek to create must be opposed.  The latter is a progressive impulse that can only be consistent if it expresses complete opposition to fundamentalist terror and any racist or anti-Muslim response.

The indiscriminate murder of writers and journalists and any person that was in the Charlie Hedbo offices can also therefore only be seen as an attack on the right to freedom of speech, in this case the right to criticise Islam.  The attack was not an attack on Islamophobia or on racism.  The political programme of Islamic fundamentalism does not care for the equality of religious affiliation but regards non-believers in its faith as infidels.

In this sense statements that express the view that the “cartoons such as those published by Charlie Hedbo do nothing to advance the cause of freedom of speech. Rather, they amount to hate speech” do not change the nature of the attack.  In this situation it is necessary to identify clearly what has happened without fear that it compromises some political standpoint, which by virtue of being compromised demonstrates its misconception.

Such rights are purely bourgeois democratic rights?  Of course they are.  Is France not a capitalist country?  Bourgeois freedom of speech leads to the expression of views we dislike, even abhor?  How could it be otherwise?

But is it not better, much better, for French workers of all religions and none to have such democratic rights?  Are we only to defend freedom of speech when it is to our taste?  And for how long would that position be taken seriously?

The anti-Islam cartoons did not advance freedom of speech?  But were they not an expression of it?  And if there were no more cartoons ridiculing Islam, what would that be an expression of?  Is the Marxist critique of Islam also to be subordinated to the view that the oppression of Muslims means that the religious sensitivities of that people must not be offended lest their oppression be enhanced?  Where then are these peoples’ route out of oppression?  How are socialists in ‘the West’ to point out the hypocrisy of Christian support for war if religion is above criticism?

Perhaps it is only the religion itself that should be spared criticism but not its institutions?  But what of states where there is no separation?  Like many where Islam is the majority religion.

So the immediate response must be that of defending democratic rights and opposing the terrorism that seeks to destroy such rights.  It requires opposition to the security agencies of the State and the attempts to turn the actions of fundamentalists against every adherent of the Islamic faith through attacks on mosques and individual Muslims.

Such a defence must raise the banner of democracy against the fundamentalists that would destroy it, the repressive agencies of the State that would subordinate it to their control and to its false friends in the capitalist parties for whom it is accepted only in so far as it does not develop to threaten their system.

Does all this get to the root of the problem?

Is this root the alienation of capitalism or more specifically the imperialist domination and war against countries that are mainly Muslim?  Is it Islamic fundamentalism or religion in general?

I have mentioned a number of times that socialists are defined by what they are for but knowing what you are against is not a small thing either.  In Ireland we have socialists who are sanctimonious in their opposition to religious sectarianism but studiously avoid determining its exact concrete nature.

So yes capitalist alienation is expressed in the acts of desperate people who engage in barbarous acts of violence but we know that this alienation arises from the rather more concrete circumstances of imperialist domination and war in certain Muslim countries.  It would be impossible to effectively fight the violence of the Paris attacks without also opposing imperialist violence in these countries.  But the fundamentalist response to this imperialist violence in Paris and in these countries themselves is itself barbaric and must be opposed, in the interests of the potential victims of terrorism in France and in the Muslim world.

But if we know the causes of this alienation we also know how it has come to express itself in the backward form of Islamic fundamentalism.  We are therefore required to fight this reactionary, obscurantist ideology and programme.

Fundamentalism has grown not just because of the actions of imperialism, and the failure of nationalist and leftist programmes and movements in many Muslim countries, but also because it can more readily gain acceptance due to the fact that the populations are already deeply religious.

Combatting this is no easy task and, while opposition to religion must be a principle, its prosecution can only be carried out with regard to ensuring that those who want to fight for a better world in the here and now are not rejected for their belief in a hereafter world.  Such a fight will involve opposition to the material privileges of religion through its support by the state and through an alternative to the social programmes of well-funded fundamentalist movements.

In ‘the West’ it also means fighting the privileges of religion and for complete separation of church and state, in circumstances where it is rather easier to fight the material and ideological basis of religion.

As in all struggles it is necessary to be with the workers, in this case in their genuine expressions of revulsion at the terrorist attacks and their sincere advocacy of democratic rights, even, if not especially, when these are cynically and hypocritically appropriated by the likes of the dignitaries of such imperialism and Islamic fundamentalism who took part in the million person march in Paris.  At the same time it is necessary to put forward the equally sincere and honest programme that such violence can only be ended by opposition to Islamic fundamentalism, the imperialism that is its partner in barbarism and the irrational belief systems that so easily sanctify both.

The debate on socialist strategy and the Irish Left – Part 6

istanbul-red1Again and again the socialism of Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien rests not on the initiative of the workers but dependence on the state and the support of its bureaucracy – “Only a mass party with roots throughout the community, with an organisational reach comparable to the Catholic Church of old, can hope to win the active and passive support from the bureaucracy which is necessary to carry through socialisation measures.”

To their credit however, Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are too intelligent and honest not to acknowledge the obvious and very painful lessons of working class history.

They acknowledge the reactionary role of the state bureaucracy – “as it is, the bureaucracy stymies existing pro-capitalist governments all the time.”

And they acknowledge the potential for violence from the capitalist class and the necessity for the working class to prepare for it:

“At some point the reactionaries will try to move onto more aggressive measures, including investment strikes and ultimately a coup d’état. . . should the socialist-labour movement prove too resilient to fold before the disruption aimed at fostering economic breakdown, the doomsday weapon of violent reaction, whether through the mobilisation of a mass fascist movement or via a straight-forward coup d’état always looms over its head, ready to detonate. . . then an old-fashioned street revolution becomes not only desirable but inevitable.”

Unfortunately for them this acknowledgement renders much of their argument either mistaken or incoherent.

They do not develop what their acknowledgement of the potential for state violence means for their reliance on this same state to usher in socialism (at the behest of the workers’ movement). But they are hardly ignorant of how the state was behind the most vicious fascist and reactionary movements which decimated the working class movement in defeats that over 80 years later have not been reversed.

In the 1920s and 1930s in Italy, Germany and Spain and Chile in 1973 the capitalist state, under pressure from mass workers’ movements such that we do not have today, and in some cases with parties in Government with a perspective not very different from Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, clamped down on workers independent activity precisely because initiative and control was to lie with the state.  The state then succumbed to fascism where it did not succumb to the workers and either directly or indirectly handed power over to fascist or military dictatorships.

Only workers independent organisation apart from and against the state could have prevented this.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are correct to repeat the dictum of Marx that we must win the battle of democracy but they are wrong to see this battle within the terms presented by bourgeois democracy.

They are actually right to say that “parliamentary democracy . . . remains the best gauge of public support for a political tendency”.  Right in the sense that right now it accurately tells us where what passes for the socialist movement actually is, which is a small minority.

This means we must reject the phantasies of much of the so-called Marxist Left that workers are champing at the bit to vote for the left social democracy if only Marxists would forget their previous criticisms of this political tendency and pretend to be, or rather more accurately reveal themselves to be, left social democrats.

Parliamentary democracy will not and cannot, as the working class develops its organisation, political consciousness and power, reflect the support for socialism because it is not capable of expressing or reflecting the expansion of all of the aspects of socialist development of the working class.

I have said it does so now only because all these are at such a low ebb.  As they develop parliamentary democracy at best expresses the lag in development and its weakest aspects at that and it would be a cruel education of worker-socialists to tell them that their powers and potential are reflected in what they see in parliament.

The truth of this is so fundamental that it is true even in the opposite case – where parliamentary support for socialism exceeds the real social and political development of the working class in society.  The parliamentary road sought by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien, and by the small Left organisations, walks wide-eyed and innocent into the trap explained by Engels:

“The worst thing that can befall a leader of an extreme party is to be compelled to take over a government in an epoch when the movement is not yet ripe for the domination of the class which he represents and for the realisation of the measures which that domination would imply.

What he can do depends not upon his will but upon the sharpness of the clash of interests between the various classes, and upon the degree of development of the material means of existence, the relations of production and means of communication upon which the clash of interests of the classes is based every time.

What to do, what his party demands of him, again depends not upon him, or upon the degree of development of the class struggle and its conditions. He is bound to his doctrines and the demands hitherto propounded which do not emanate from the interrelations of the social classes at a given moment, or from the more or less accidental level of relations of production and means of communication, but from his more or less penetrating insight into the general result of the social and political movement.

Thus he necessarily finds himself in a dilemma. What he can do is in contrast to all his actions as hitherto practised, to all his principles and to the present interests of his party; what he ought to do cannot be achieved. In a word, he is compelled to represent not his party or his class, but the class for whom conditions are ripe for domination. In the interests of the movement itself, he is compelled to defend the interests of an alien class, and to feed his own class with phrases and promises, with the assertion that the interests of that alien class are their own interests.

Whoever puts himself in this awkward position is irrevocably lost. We have seen examples of this in recent times. We need only be reminded of the position taken in the last French provisional government by the representatives of the proletariat, though they represented only a very low level of proletarian development.

Whoever can still look forward to official positions after having become familiar with the experiences of the February government — not to speak of our own noble German provisional governments and imperial regencies — is either foolish beyond measure, or at best pays only lip service to the extreme revolutionary party.” 

Without large and powerful trade unions and other workers’ societies standing proudly independent of the capitalist class and its state; without a large cooperative sector owned, controlled and managed by workers; without a mass workers’ party with deep roots in the working class, with the confidence and respect of the masses outside its ranks, the votes of workers and wider society will not provide strong enough  foundations either to overthrow capitalism in the advanced capitalist countries or begin the building of socialism.

But these hardly feature, have walk-on parts or have a purely supporting role in the Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien production.  For them “Electoralism is the most important political activity in the European and North American societies and in practice it forms the centrepiece.”

They say that “It is only as a component part of the strategy of attrition that electoralism plays a critical part in moving beyond capitalism. Winning power is therefore not the only goal of electoralism; every bit as important is the role it plays in building a mass socialist party capable of winning it and of controlling the apparatus when it gets there.”

But even here they get the order wrong.  “But in order to benefit from electoral work there has to be an institutionalisation of the gains, whether through increased participation in the party or union, more subscriptions to sympathetic left-wing media, joining a co-op or simply voting for the party come election time. These and other possible methods of harvesting the labour expended in the springtime of campaigning all depend on having institutions capable of soaking up the goodwill.”

Here it is electoralism that is the engine to drive working class organisation, that builds the other wings and activities of the working class movement.  In fact, as an old Official republican said to me a few years ago, it is in elections that you reap what you sow, even in the narrow terms posed by Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien.

The commitment by them to bourgeois democracy is ironic given the decay of this form.  At the beginning of March ‘The Economist’ had a six page essay and a front page that asked “What’s gone wrong with democracy”.

It noted – “Nor is the EU a paragon of democracy. The decision to introduce the euro in 1999 was taken largely by technocrats; only two countries, Denmark and Sweden, held referendums on the matter (both said no). Efforts to win popular approval for the Lisbon Treaty, which consolidated power in Brussels, were abandoned when people started voting the wrong way. During the darkest days of the euro crisis the euro-elite forced Italy and Greece to replace democratically elected leaders with technocrats. The European Parliament, an unsuccessful attempt to fix Europe’s democratic deficit, is both ignored and despised.”

“Adjusting to hard times will be made even more difficult by a growing cynicism towards politics. Party membership is declining across the developed world: only 1% of Britons are now members of political parties compared with 20% in 1950. Voter turnout is falling, too: a study of 49 democracies found that it had declined by 10 percentage points between 1980-84 and 2007-13. A survey of seven European countries in 2012 found that more than half of voters “had no trust in government” whatsoever. A YouGov opinion poll of British voters in the same year found that 62% of those polled agreed that “politicians tell lies all the time”.

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All this reflects the supplicant position which reliance on the state places workers and the failure of the state to respond to popular opinion.  It reflects the legacy of the parties supported by workers who have embraced bourgeois democracy very much in the way proposed as much as it reflects the cynicism of other classes.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are aware of the dangers of integration into the existing political-economic system, of a tendency towards conservatism and dangers of bureaucracy but their strategy of attrition and its reliance on the state and representation as opposed to direct participation all feed these problems.

This approach teaches passivity, that someone else has responsibility for political activity and leadership.  That power lies in a machine (the state) that exists outside your own competence and capability.  That your own activity is primarily to engage in voting for someone else to press forward your interests and that your own productive activity is not directly something that you should seek to control.

All this can be said of the existing capitalist state and its bourgeois politicians. What Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien see as important – the state and electoralism – does not go beyond this.

Their confused perspective leads to incoherence and what is generally well considered in their argument succeeds only in accurately enumerating problems.

Mendel-Gleason and O’Brien are correct when they say that we need to convince workers “that they have to do great things for the socialist organisation, that the future itself depends on us all playing our role in that great collective project, outside of which there is no salvation.”

My argument has been that their conception of this great collective project is mistaken and that within it there is no road to salvation.

Concluded