Workers’ rights, migration and some necessary realism – why another Europe is (still) possible

Last Saturday, Another Europe is Possible held a day of workshops on the left-wing case to remain in the EU. It was also my dad’s birthday. Pulling these two together, I argue the left case to vote in to build a European alternative.

It was my dad’s 67th birthday at the weekend. He died of lung cancer four years ago from being exposed to asbestos as a builder in the 1970s. I’m not the only one to have lost a parent (or both) and of course I won’t be the last. As I’ve posted before, he spent his working life fighting for workers’ health in the workplace – steelworkers and miners to begin with but as time went on working with cleaners and other night workers in hospitals, teachers with stress and office workers. He was an internationalist within Europe and beyond, part of a network spanning the USA, India and China in particular.

At the European level he worked with the European Trades Union Institute and others to lobby and campaign for better health and safety legislation. He was a socialist and he knew it wasn’t revolutionary work but it concretely acted to protect workers’ health in Europe. He was of course, not supportive of a neo-liberal Europe, but he saw the possibility of a radical alternative and knew that there were small, valuable victories that could be won within the EU. Quitting the EU will empirically mean that workers’ rights to health at work will get worse and I’m as sure as I can be that he would have been opposed to leaving.

One of the arguments that I find problematic about the radical left case for leaving is that it will weaken global capitalism and benefit the Global South by proxy in weakening the EU. Empirically in the short term there will undoubtedly be a crisis both for the British political elite (quite capable of destroying itself on its own as we have seen over the last few weeks) and for the EU, but in the medium to long term, a few banks will move to Frankfurt and that will be that. Germany and France will not let the EU fall apart completely. Within the UK, none of these arguments will gain any kind of political traction on the doorstep whatsoever. There are not the conditions for a “lexit” case to gain any kind of public attention or sympathy. Far less an argument about the Global South couched in theoretical terms that many voters will not understand, much less have sympathy for.

I’m an internationalist – there is no struggle which is not about overcoming the major economic division between North and South, or that is not intersectional and just keeps on banging on about class. But I don’t think we can wave a magic wand and somehow turn substantial anti-migrant, sexist public sentiment into altermondialiste ultra-leftism – we need to start with where people are at. That also means recognising our political strength within any particular situation. Weakening the structure of capitalism globally will not strengthen the left nationally or internationally. At a local level a vote to leave will undoubtedly strengthen xenophobic, anti-migrant sentiment even if it weakens the current leadership of the Conservative party. Within Europe, Brexit would strengthen racist right-wing populist parties who are most opposed to the open migration policy which is so desperately needed. How this would benefit the millions of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, I don’t know. Fortress Europe is brutal and horrific, but it does not follow that a weakened EU would change this predicament.

There is no quick route to building up a radical left movement to the global imperialist, capitalist system we currently have or the nasty neoliberal state at a national level. The EU referendum is not a political opportunity for radical left debate about the global economy – it just isn’t. This debate is not being led by an insurgent party to the left of Labour which is causing Labour political problems in their heartland – it has been forced by UKIP manipulating Tory right-wingers and working class alienation, disillusionment and decades (if not centuries) of disinvestment by the British state.

Something which I find deeply frustrating is that fighting for empirical improvements in workers’ right at an EU level is dismissed by autonomist ultra-left figures as reformist. Fighting within existing structures does not mean that we support them. It is a recognition that we are not powerful enough to overcome them right now and that alongside and through fighting smaller battles, we build for a radical alternative.

For me, my dad and his broader generation taught me the importance of the long march through the institutions – that 1970s New Left strategy which clearly has not succeeded but remains politically valuable. At a local level, within our own workplaces, I don’t see that we have any other choice but to be in and against the state or whatever fragmented public or private institution we find ourselves working for. It might not be politically sexy to fight for EU regulation of vibrations or noise or the use of chemicals at work, it is clearly not the sum total of what we want, but it matters.

There are tangible reasons why in a UK context specifically, leaving the EU will likely push us towards a more market-oriented economy with fewer employment protections and even more xenophobic migration controls. Recognizing that fact does not mean we turn away from building solidarity with people in the Global South and Southern Europe who have borne the brunt of EU economic policy. There is no short-cut to building an international alternative to current European and global economic system. Voting to leave and the temporary crisis in capitalism it would bring about will not somehow magically create the movement we need. In the UK it would do the opposite by strengthening the most racist elements of the mainstream political right, not to mention entrenching Conservative political control in England if Scottish independence followed. It would also bolster right-wing anti-EU sentiment across Europe, strengthening xenophobic political parties at precisely the moment when a radical, open migration policy is needed.

Building an alternative Europe is a much longer, slower task, but it will not be made easier by leaving.

Another Europe is Possible is the left campaign to remain in the EU.

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Why they don’t give a shit: the chronic indifference of the South-Eastern elite to industry

 

In an excellent dissection of the Conservative party’s failure to offer the steelworkers of Port Talbot realistic long-term state support, Paul Mason briefly referred to the education of large swathes of the political elite:

Not giving a shit — about industries, jobs or social consequences — is at the heart of the ideology the political elite has learned since they were at private school.

This is the soft-end of the critique – clearly the steel crisis is not being caused by the private school education of much of the Conservative cabinet, it is the shifting structures of the global economy which are at work. However, the role of private schools is not just important in thinking about fostering a particular attitude of indifference. Elite, mostly private education plays a deeper, more structural role in British, and especially English, society, which is central to understanding the structures of capitalism in Britain. This is not simply ‘a textbook lesson in neoliberalism’, the tendencies underlying the disinterest in industry in particular have much longer historical roots.

With a famous series of articles in the mid-1960s, Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn delivered a decisive critique of British capitalism. They presented a systematic historical argument about how the social structure of the UK developed, noting the fusion between the rising bourgeoisie and the aristocracy as the key development in preventing conflict within the ruling class and limiting direct bourgeois political control. Within this, brief mention was made of the importance of the public schools in fusing the rising industrial bourgeoisie, the expanding professional middle classes and the aristocracy around the pseudo-aristocratic ideal of the ‘gentleman’.

In fact in their work, an analysis of the nascent public school system of the late 19th century plays only a relatively minor role. It was the work of historian W.D. Rubinstein who really ironed out the creases in the Anderson-Nairn understanding of the British elite[1] and the geography of Britain’s class structure. He showed how middle-class incomes over the 19th century became increasingly concentrated on the South-East – exactly where the majority of private schools were founded and remain. More importantly for the case of the Port Talbot steelworkers, his analysis showed how the wealthiest men of the 19th century overwhelmingly made their fortunes through banking and commerce and lived in or around London. The provincial industrial bourgeoisie were relatively speaking, poorer, lived further from the centre of political and economic power and were culturally disinclined towards sending their sons to the Anglican boarding schools of the South-East.

London and its Home Counties environs have long been the place of residence for Britain’s elites and it remains so in the 21st century. As education became increasingly important for accessing professional employment over the 19th century, this necessitated the creation of an educational infrastructure of elite social reproduction. The reform of Oxford and Cambridge and the older public schools in the late 19th century meant the preservation of a pseudo-aristocratic heritage within education which remains powerful today.

One famous interpretation of British economic malaise, saw this apparently anti-business educational culture as at the heart of the decline of the UK economy, an argument which gained traction amongst Thatcher’s Conservative government. Rubinstein’s rebutted the ‘Wiener thesis’ firmly, and described how public schools fostered links with the most ‘dynamic’ areas of the British economy. Already by the late 19th century, the core source of wealth for British elites and the major area of economic development was concentrated on the City of London and this trend increased over the first half of the 20th century.

As finance grew in importance, students from the public schools increasingly opted to go into finance. Eton in particular developed intense links with the City. The overlap between land-ownership and City finance grew as landed estates declined in value and the wealth exchanged grew. Oxbridge and the public schools formed an increasingly important part of this nexus of elites focussed on the South-East of England, or what Tom Nairn called ‘the Crown Heartland’. This was ‘a Southern-lowland hegemonic bloc uniting an hereditary élite to the central processing block of commercial and financial capital.’ Within England and by proxy, through the continuing political power of Westminster, it is this shifting but persistent social and economic constellation who dominate British politics, economy and culture.

The public schools, and, it must be said, increasingly a small number of elite state schools, are the first institutional stage in what must be understood as a broader infrastructure of elite power, with Oxbridge, the City and Westminster being its other obvious institutional bases. It is not the curricular emphasis of the public schools which creates a bias towards finance within the British economy, it is their role within a nexus of economic, cultural and political power concentrated on South-East England and the fact that generations of their alumnae have gone on to work in these central institutions of the British state.

More than any other Conservative politician, Cameron himself embodies this Anderson-Nairn-Rubinstein understanding of the British ruling class. He comes from a family which has worked in the City for generations, married into minor aristocracy over several generations (both himself and his father) and has sent its sons to Eton from the late 19th century (which could be behind the apparent decision to send his son to prep school). Samantha Cameron may have family with strong aristocratic Yorkshire-Lincolnshire connections, but she grew up and went to school in the South-East of England.

Why though does any of this matter for the steelworkers of Port Talbot?

The ‘political ideology’ of the public schools is not anti-industry per se. Rather it forms part of a broader institutional pattern within the British ruling classes. Post-war, state-owned industry did not challenge the hegemonic position of the City of London over British economic life any more than industry did during the 19th century. This tendency of the south-eastern elite to be largely indifferent to the fate of industry predates neoliberalism. For certain strata of the elite, the City has been integral to their personal and broader class interests for generations.

Whilst the ownership of the Port Talbot mills by Tata, an Indian multinational, reveal the depth of changes to the British and global economy, the response of the Conservatives is partly driven by this path-dependent set of interests aligned with this socio-cultural south-eastern elite. These interests are deeply historical and relate to the long-term orientation of the British economy. Neo-liberalism gave this a new form and mode of operation but it did so within the context of an existing geography of class and economic power which was structurally indifferent to provincial industry.

Moving away from this model would involve a seismic shift within the British economy and society. It would involve acknowledging the real geographical political division within the UK is between the Crown Heartland elite and the rest of the country. The steelworkers of Lanarkshire, Port Talbot and Scunthorpe, just like the rest of us, have more in common than what divides us.

 

[1] There are clearly important distinctions to be made in terms of the history of Irish, Scottish and Welsh elites which I can’t do justice to here. I refer to British elites concentrated on London as these groups were dominant within the British ruling class as a whole but that is not to say that there are not distinctive national histories as well.