Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Would we be better governed out of the EU?

Musing about the hard left stance on the EU. As I understand it, they want to leave because the EU is a capitalist neoliberal club governed on behalf of the global elite. The more intelligent left wingers realise that the UK is also a capitalist neoliberal club governed on behalf of the global elite. But they reason that they have more chance of turning the UK into a socialist state than the EU.

Are they right?

Well, I think that, like Marx, they are right with a lot of their diagnosis, but wrong – catastrophically so – with the solution. They’re right: the EU is a capitalist neoliberal club governed on behalf of the global elite. So is the UK. The difference between the two is the thick strand of human rights thinking woven into the architecture and practices of the EU, which underpin everything and which protect all its citizens from depredation by state or commerce. It is so effectively woven in that the neoliberals, when they came along in the 1980s, were completely unable to extract it. And that, of course, is one of the chief reasons – and frequently stated in public - why the UK’s elite want to pull us out of the EU, so that they can do away with all that human rights “nonsense”. That is why being inside the EU, even in its current state, is better than being outside it.

But would it be possible to reform the UK’s governance outside the EU in such a way that we, the citizens, will benefit more than if we stayed in the EU? That is the socialist hope, that being freed of EU restrictions about what they can do with industry and so on, they will be able to change the way the UK governs itself. At least, I think that is what it is – it seems to me that they could do a lot of what they want while remaining within the EU, and it is not clear to me just how much they would be restricted.

And if we were out, what then?  In terms of governance, we will have the most uneven contest since David and Goliath, and David is without his slingshot. On one side the massed, rich and powerful ranks of the neoliberal elite, both political and commercial, most of the media, and many of their powerful international friends, whose aim is to reduce the powers of citizens still further so that there is even less opposition to their ability to create profit. The day we leave, even before that, they will be preparing the way to removing citizen protections in employment, health, civil rights, the environment, anything that stands in the way of profit. On the other side, a man who has never governed will very  slowly gear into action, aided by a couple of low circulation newspapers, a few rich friends and several hundred thousand well meaning, energetic, enthusiastic but mostly naive supporters. The contest, if you can call it that, will be ugly but mercifully short.

Perhaps the socialist wing of Labour might consider a more delicate strategy, and conclude that staying in the EU enables them to protect themselves and the citizens of this country far better than leaving. It may not be ideal, but it is sensible not to fight battles you can’t win. Socialism within EU rules is possible, and many in the EU are receptive to the message that principles other than neoliberal ones can be effective. As I argue in my previous post, some strategies, like state ownership, previously did more harm than good in some circumstances, but may now do more good than harm due to the excessive power now wielded by corporations. The trick is to know how much is enough and how much is too much. And, as far as I can see, we can do everything we want and need to do while remaining in the EU.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

States, corporations and people

I have a simple view of the world as divided into three great groups of actors: states, corporations and people. The balance between the three fluctuates in the long term and the short term. Neoliberalism – the doctrine that state power is too pervasive and the state needs to be “shrunk” as far as possible – arose from the experience in the mid twentieth century of the rampaging Nazi and Soviet states and the violence and bloodshed caused within and around them. The aim of the prophets of neoliberalism – Hayek, Friedman and others – was to prevent states from ever being able to do such things again. The key thrust in the process was to reduce the regulatory capacity of the state, thereby increasing the freedom of markets. Their assumption was that increasing the power of markets would enable ordinary people, however they are conceived – citizens, consumers, human beings – to live more free lives. Neoliberalism came to the fore in the developing world in the 1970s and 1980s as the great creations of the Bretton Woods settlement – the IMF and the World Bank – began to insist on its principles as conditions of their loans. It came to the fore in the developed world during the 1980s with Thatcher in the UK and Reagan in the USA.

At the same time as the spread of neoliberal practices in the developed world, globalisation began to bite. The increasing connectedness of everything everywhere created conditions in which corporations and financial elites could become footloose and hence beyond all but the most rudimentary state control. At the same time the financial elites have worked to capture the people in control of many state apparatuses to ensure that their interests are always given priority. This shift in the balance of power means that citizens are as far as ever from taking control of their own destiny. Given these circumstances, perhaps the old definitions do not apply in the same way as they used to. It used to be the case that state control of productive industry was (for some) self evidently less efficient and effective than private control. Given that private control is so far beyond the capacity of governments or consumers to regulate, it becomes more tenable, perhaps, to work back to state control of monopolies, like water supply, and near monopolies, like railways.

We have seen clearly how badly state control can go wrong, and we should not forget the lessons of history. We now see clearly how badly commercial control can go wrong, and how far commercial interests have subverted state regulation, from taxation to the health and safety of the population. Perhaps it is time to work towards a new settlement, involving any combination of state action, citizen power, and other forms of organisation, such as the mutualisation of therailways suggested by David Boyle. The old opposition of markets and Marxists is no longer sufficient for the new world order, so a new way of thinking about the relations between states, markets and people must emerge. (Perhaps that is what some people mean by radical centralism – I have no idea.)