What is the meaning of the extraordinary intervention by the president of Portugal in usurping parliamentary powers and denying the right of the Socialist Party to form a government?
It has certainly demonstrated again the incompatibility of the euro with the last 40 years of claims for parliamentary democracy in Europe.
For some, it is evidence that the central division in Europe now is between “Europeanism” and “national sovereignty”.
The right wing president of Portugal is, however, very clear that it is the result of a different contradiction, more fundamental and truly central.
That is between the organisation of Portuguese capitalism, at home and its projection abroad, and the interests of working people – also at home in Portugal and abroad.
Tellingly, he invoked not only the opposition of the Communist Party and Left Bloc to the EU and strictures of the eurozone, but also the determined opposition of both parties to Portugal’s membership of Nato.
There was a brief time – kept artificially alive in the wishful thinking of some social democrats – in which the increasingly deep organisation of European capitalism and its states in the EU was some kind of progressive counterweight to US power, which sits at the apex of the Nato military alliance.
That moment – which could, at a stretch, claim plausibility from about 1988 to 1992 – ended in the course of the expansion of both Nato and the EU in the 1990s. They both extended eastwards and in tandem. There was no conflict of substance between the two great Cold War organising principles of Western European capitalism.
Those snags which did occur – who was to take precedence over the crises in the Balkans throughout the 1990s, for example – were relatively easily resolved.
While there are indeed real differences and tensions between the US and EU, the central truth remains this: there is not a single state which is part of both the EU and Nato which experiences any kind of destabilising or existential conflict over its membership of both world centres of power. That includes Portugal.
The reason for that is that neither Nato nor the EU are extraneous impositions on the national elites in Europe and the ways in which they seek to enhance their economic and military power.
The two institutions are, of course, hierarchical, reflecting the relative strengths of their component states and national capitalist economies. Different states and capitalist interests may jockey for position within them. But every single national elite is signed up to those institutions – not as some kind of negation of their national capitalist interest, but as the settled mechanisms for pursuing those interests.
That is the reason why the elites and traditional governing forces in Portugal cleave – as do the British and all the rest – to both the EU and to Nato. They do so not with the idealist language of Jacques Delors, the President of the EU Commission back in the late 1980s. They do so with the coarse and harsh language of nationalism, chauvinism – patriotism.
That’s why the very process of semi-organising capitalist interests across Europe necessitates, rather than negates, national-chauvinist politics, an outgrowth of which is the “eurosceptic right”.
In discarding even parliamentary democratic norms and excluding the possibility, for now, of the centre-left forming a government with the support or tolerance of the radical left, the Portuguese president did not sacrifice Lisbon to Brussels. He acted for his national class in defending the interests of Portuguese capitalism within the EU and Nato.
It is the capitalist and imperialist nature of the EU – in conjunction with Nato – which lie at the heart of how the left should respond to it, not its “Europeanism”.
That does not mean a flight from political reality into the realms of abstract propagandism – simply saying we are against capitalism, however it is organised, whatever currency, state form, international arrangements and ideological wrappings it assumes.
That may be enough to be a moral or ideological anti-capitalist. It is not enough to oppose actually existing capitalism politically.
That requires confronting the institutions and centres of power of European capitalism and its states from a thorough-going anti-capitalist perspective.
There is a wrong lesson to be drawn from the experience of Greece and from the intervention of the Portuguese president. It is that in some way capitalism has vacated the terrain of the nation-state, leaving it and the ideologies which depend on it – patriotism, nationalism and so on – somehow empty vessels into which the left can pour a progressive content.
On this perspective, the recomposition of the left in Europe following the disastrous performance of the Syriza-ANEL government is to be along national sovereigntist lines – a popular front of all anti-EU forces in which the left seeks to win hegemony. That was, actually, the case made by various traditions of the left for the strategy pursued back in January in forming the Syriza-ANEL administration.
So we should “reclaim” nationalism and patriotism, inflecting them in a left wing direction. But there is nothing to be reclaimed and there is no fundamental conflict between the various European nationalisms and the EU. The hard right front-runners in the Polish general election tomorrow demonstrate that.
The alternative for the radical left is to rest opposition to the increasingly undemocratic EU order on an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist axis.
This is the strategy of those of us who in Britain argue for an internationalist no in the upcoming referendum on EU membership. An internationalist no is not a left-patriotic no. And internationalism in Europe is not an aggregation of national left patriotisms. It seeks instead to “divide the nation” – or rather bring its fundamental division to centre stage – along the lines of class. In so doing, it projects a vision of the working class across Europe in common revolt. And beyond Europe.
It means taking seriously and thoroughly opposing the line of argument expressed clearly by the patriotic president of Portugal. He crystallised that politically by expressing the unwavering support of Portuguese capitalism to not one but to two transnational bodies – the EU and Nato, the latter still being the primary military instrument through which European capitalism projects power beyond its borders.
It is telling that the right wing eurosceptic Nigel Farage in Britain is wholly at ease with Britain’s Nato membership, which he rightly sees as a means to magnify the weight of British militarism on a world stage.
No campaign of the left can – by commission or omission – afford to echo that position. The historic positions of the radical left, despite a number weaknesses, in most of Europe in the 1970s and 1980s were for withdrawal both from the EU and from Nato.
It would be a very dangerous slippage if we were to abandon that now. The difficulties in building an internationalist no in the British referendum campaign are not fundamentally to do with the “balance of forces” in Britain, the particular ideological terrain in the country and so on. Those things do matter Any serious campaign needs to take them into account.
But the fundamental difficulty is that building such a campaign requires, at its heart, an uncompromising opposition to British capitalism, militarism and nationalism.
That, however, is precisely why we need such a campaign. It is also why we should work to recompose a left on anti-capitalist and internationalist lines. To do otherwise is either to cede the ground to the radicalising right, or to give it red coloration.