In the course of preparing material for something else, I spent a bit of time surveying left and progressive interventions over the forthcoming referendum in Britain on membership of the EU.
Let’s put to one side, for a moment, the dominant argument on the centre left and from most trade unions for a yes vote to stay in. The overarching argument among the bulk of the radical left in Britain is more defined in the negative.
It is against campaigning for a no. The balance of opinion is shifting, but it’s still the case that the position of arguing for an internationalist no is a minority on the left.
A very common objection runs like this: “Imagine what Britain would look like if we woke up the day after the referendum and the result was no. Nigel Farage and the racist right would be rampant. We’d still have privatisation and austerity. Instead of David Cameron we would possibly have a government led by a Tory eurosceptic – if anything more right wing than the current lot.
“The objective situation would be worse. You only have to imagine…”
One of the issues with that goes, I think, to a the heart of a wider malaise on the left, which persists despite the Corbyn breakthrough over the summer (which no one imagined in the spring).
What it asks us to do is to imagine that an enormous political transformation takes place, which changes absolutely nothing at all for the left in its capacity to win mass support. We are asked to imagine a huge political crisis, in which it is only the right which can conceivably – by any stretch of the imagination – gain.
The first problem with that is that it fundamentally misconstrues just how central EU (and we may add Nato) membership is to the British business class, the British state and the settled management of British capitalism.
British business, big and small, is deeply committed to EU membership. There’s no significant chunk of British capitalism in favour of withdrawal. And – through organisations such as the CBI and IoD – it has already started campaigning strongly for a yes vote. The same is true of multinational corporations with major investments in Britain.
It is particularly true of Chinese investment. The Chinese political leadership has been absolutely clear that it is considering economic expansion into Britain precisely because it is in the EU, with a market of nearly 500 million people.
To “imagine” a no result in the referendum without placing at the centre of what things would look like the fact that it would mean a huge defeat for a fundamental organising principle for British capital, foreign policy, power projection and strategy in a shifting multi-polar world is, frankly, to lack a sufficiently vivid imagination.
The second problem is that, usually by assertion supported by little more than anecdote, it proclaims that the referendum will not be about what it is declared to be about – and upon which the business class is already campaigning – but will be about xenophobia and immigration.
There’s no doubt that those will feature. But it is far from “obvious” that they will dominate and that that is what the meaning of the referendum will turn on.
Already, what were strident assertions – with the very best of internationalist intentions, to be fair – about how the argument would go are being refuted.
So, for example, in early summer a number of friends argued that despite Fortress Europe, the provisions of the European treaties meant freedom of movement for EU citizens between the 28 member states. This would be the central issue highlighted by UKIP, and it would make it impossible to be in favour of a no as that would lead to the additional exclusion of EU citizens from Britain on top of the continent-wide exclusion of refugees and other migrants.
“How do I explain to my Polish or Spanish workmate that I am voting no?” was an entirely legitimate question many put. That was in early summer. What’s happened since?
I’m very confident that those same friends have taken up all manner of arguments about the refugee crisis and have played a part in organising solidarity.
There is some truth in the claim that intra-EU migration was a major theme in Britain and elsewhere in the spring. Not now. In a few months the focus has moved to the exclusionary nature of the EU as a whole. Over the same period there was a remarkable shift in attitudes over Greece as it was crushed in the maw of Angela Merkel in July.
Who would have imagined that? In these circumstances it would be a flight from the developing political reality to go back to the conventional wisdom before the self activity of refugees and the movements they aroused changed that reality.
Of course, the racist right has also responded. In Germany, there is both a groundswell of support for newcomers and rising racist attacks. Pegida and others on the far right now organise under the central slogan – Merkel out.
But if the left were to limit its imagination to just that part of the picture devoted to the antics of the right, then the conclusion would be the disastrous line taken by German social democracy and liberals: that we should rally to Merkel, the government and the EU because to attack them under those circumstances would be to invite worse.
German social democracy and liberalism have form when it comes to adopting that line of argument in a sharp crisis. That’s what they said when they rallied to the establishment in 1932 – then the bourgeois establishment, which had largely regarded the Nazis as a dangerous auxiliary, handed power to Hitler in January 1933.
Thankfully, the forces on the radical left in Germany are doing no such thing today. They have not for a second moderated their opposition to Merkel just because she has fallen out with the more racist of her base.
The Portuguese election – and the response of the centre right president in blocking the formation of a government relying on the votes of the radical left and Communists – is a further sign that what we are confronted with, and the British referendum is a part of this, is a generalising crisis of the European political order.
It goes without saying that nationalist and racist forces will seek to gain in that crisis. But for the left to “imagine” that it is but an observer of events in which others are the actors is mentally to hurl ourselves into passivity.
What this habit of thinking would do is to make us permanently a prisoner of the crisis-wracked old order for fear of something worse emerging. That becomes a self fulfilling prophesy.
We will see what the elections today in Poland and soon in the Spanish state bring. But they are likely to point in their different ways to the deepening of the European crisis.
The British referendum will be an attempt to stem that crisis, and the huge problems facing Cameron’s government, with a yes vote. It’s no accident that the defeated Labour establishment put huge pressure on Corbyn to abandon a non-committal stance over the referendum and to declare that he would not support a no vote.
An argument under these circumstances which says we must not be for a no to the central organising strategy of the British ruling class because “imagine how much it will be worse” is in fact to ask us to imagine this developing crisis without any possibility of the left emerging as a serious social force.
But if that is our logic, then there seems little point in talking in terms of radical transformation and seizing of opportunities. We should just cleave to the devil we know instead.