The Left must ensure that the case against Europe is about transforming social and economic conditions, rather than as a basis for ultra-nationalist solutions to Europe’s malaise writes Reuben Bard-Rosenberg
It is hardly a shock to see Podemos leader, Pablo Iglesias, overstating the gains that Greece has so far achieved in its negotiations with the Eurogroup. To do so lends undue credibility to Podemos’ own position that Spain, along with other Southern European nations, can reverse the current social and economic disaster within the confines of the single currency.
The reality is that they cannot. Spain’s prolonged bout of mass unemployment (around 25% for the past three years) is not only a consequence of austerity. It also reflects the inability of the Spain to compete in the German-dominated European economy, where the pace has long been set by high productivity and stagnating wages. Within the confines of the Euro - without the possibility of depreciation or devaluation - such competitiveness can only be restored by breaking the back of organised labour and by slashing the social wage (expenditure on health, education, social security pensions etc.).
This, of course, cannot address the problem of unemployment, since any expansion of external demand, on account of greater international competitiveness, is more than outweighed by the decimation of domestic demand, due to declining incomes and government lay offs. Meanwhile, the sort of serious economic intervention that is needed to rebuild the Spanish economy on a popular basis is forbidden by Europe’s neoliberal state aid laws. Furthermore no government can seriously contemplate (or indeed threaten) the repudiation of its debts whilst it lacks the ability to print it’s own money. As Greece has demonstrated, debt negotiations within the Euro take the form of a cold war in which only one side has nukes.
Whenever I look at the economies of Southern Europe - in which double-digit unemployment has become a semi-permanent reality, and in which the pain of the continent-wide catastrophe is being felt by so many - I am taken aback by the fact that that the argument for a break with the European order is not being made more powerfully. I am equally taken aback that the left is not taking the lead in making such arguments. Indeed, it is being left up to quirky centrists such as Beppe Grillo to broach the possibility of a post-Euro future (and, more ominously, to fascists like Marine Le Pen). Meanwhile the insurgent parties of the left, whose popularity has grown in recent years, remain broadly supportive of the single currency. Even Sinn Fein, who outspokenly opposed the introduction of the Single Currency, now refuses to advocate withdrawal, on account of it’s potential to create further instability.
The problem is partly ideological. A section of the contemporary left remains infatuated with the idea of European integration - due to the marginalisation of class struggle politics, a tendency to equate progress with liberal notions of modernity, and an anachronistic obsession with beating back nationalism and with pursuing other culture wars. The problem also arises from a refusal to face reality - if Antonio Negri is to be believed, the EU only became a specifically neoliberal entity after 2008, and just needs to be swung back in the other direction (tell me more about how we can hold the European Commission to account…).
Yet, what we are also arguably witnessing are the limitations that arise from an obsessive focus upon parliamentary elections. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with revolutionaries standing in elections, and there is no general obligation for sincere socialists to prioritise ideological purity over attempts to build mass support. However, when socialists are organised first and foremost in electoral formations, when the goal of maximising one’s share of the vote on a particular day eclipses all others, this can prevent the left from fighting the types of political battles that absolutely need to be fought.
By their nature, arguments for radical change can be unsettling, and can sound as though they represent a leap into the dark. It is no surprise that, 90 years ago, the argument for a break with the gold standard had to be advanced by figures outside the Labour Party such as Keynes, or by party mavericks such as Oswald Mosley (prior to his turn to fascism). In the same way, the argument for the orderly dissolution of the Euro, and for winning back some of the democratic gains made over the course of the 20th century might be awkward for a party that is looking to maximise it’s immediate electoral appeal, and potentially to find a way of doing business with sections of the European establishment once in office. Yet it is an argument which absolutely needs to be made if we are to fight for a better future for the people of this continent.
In all probability, the case for breaking with the European order will be heard more loudly over the next few with years, since Europe’s crisis shows no sign of abating. Yet it is up to the left to make sure that the case against Europe is framed, first and foremost, as prerequisite for transforming social and economic conditions, rather than as a basis for ultra-nationalist solutions to Europe’s malaise - of the kind offered by Le Pen - or simply as a means of restoring capitalist stability.
Reuben Bard-Rosenberg is a socialist activist and radical folk music promoter.