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AS THE European parliament held its penultimate session prior to Brexit, all of the phoneyness that has surrounded Britain’s departure seemed to crystallise into a single exchange. It began with Farage telling us that there was a battle going on “between globalism and populism” and that he was on the side of the latter.
This comes to us as surprising news. This, after all, is the former banker who got rich from the unfettered movement of capital. The politician who pushed for Brexit, not out of opposition to Europe’s neoliberal economic rules, but precisely on the grounds that Britain could pursue even freer trade outside of the bloc, and subject British workers to an even nastier race to the bottom.
Farage is about as averse to globalism as he is to impersonating a lobster with anger management issues.
Yet the response from the vice-president of the European parliament was no less disingenuous. Pulling Farage up on his usage of the word “hate,” Mairead Mcguinness solemnly admonished that “we should not hate anyone, or any nation or any people.”
This, she said, was especially the case “given what we listened to before” – a reference to the memorial service for the Holocaust with which the parliamentary session had commenced.
Yet, Farage – egregious far-right lobster though he is – had not, in this instance, expressed hatred towards a person, a people, or a nation. Rather he had said “we hate the EU.”
It is, in fact, quite astounding that the leadership of the most powerful trading bloc in human history should compare antipathy towards their institution to the hatred that sent Jewish people to the gas chambers.
Yet, in a sense, it is also not that surprising. It is consistent with the way in the very real threat of the far right has, since the great crash, been used to discipline the entire political eco-system.
Whether it’s Bernie’s punchy 2016 campaign being blamed for Hillary’s pathetic failure to beat Trump, or French liberals hysterically moralising at Melenchon for failing to endorse Macron, or the presentation of Corbynistas as part of a rising tied of barbarous horseshoe-shaped populism, the upsurge in the dangerous right has been leveraged to demand undue deference to the prevailing political order.
It is also perhaps unsurprising that, on the eve of Brexit, the European parliament should be a particular epicentre of mutual phoneyness. It is after all a fairly phoney institution.
It is not a “parliament” in a sense that would be understood by any Englishman born after 1649. And it is populated by organisations such as the “European People’s Party” and the “European Socialist Party,” whose corporate identities are meaningless to everyone other than a small cross-continental caste of beardie-weirdie Europeanists (Martin Schulz, I’m looking at you).
And yet, the festival of phoneyness that sprang up on both sides of Britain’s departure spilled out also onto the streets. Thus we were treated to the ridiculous spectacle of the words to “Land of Hope and Glory” being projected onto a giant screen so that self-proclaimed patriots could sing along.
In contrast to the radical left, the Brexit right are not united by a coherent set of intellectual heterodoxies, nor by any shared subcultural reference points in which anybody is very deeply invested. This is not, as Remainers claim, because Brexiteers are thick. Rather, it is what happens when a supposedly countercultural movement leeches off the established order.
This also explains the absurdly over the top flag-waving and Union Jack leggings. Like reality TV contestants, whose success depends upon their ability to ferociously project character-cliches in lieu of an actual personality, the get up of right-wing Brexiteers is meaningful only insofar as it has the capacity to jolt the senses of outsiders. They are incapable of producing something that is genuinely meaningful to one another. And they are, in a sense, parasitic upon liberal nightmares.
Yet, as the dust clears from the phoney war, a real battle now appears upon the horizon. The terms on which Britain and Europe trade are still to be hammered out. We should not be fooled into believing that our interests are represented in some great tug of war between an entity called Britain and an entity called Europe.
Neither the symmetrical imposition of European market rules, nor the Tory government winning special leeway to push the bar even lower, offer any future to working people.
But nor should we resign ourselves to the idea that our interests are condemned to be irrelevant in the tumultuous years ahead.
Brexit has lit a small tinderbox under the European system at a particularly opportune moment. It coincides with a mass upsurge in France which is, objectively, a revolt against the European economic order.
Macron’s obsession with lowering the social wage does not just arise from his right-wing liberalism, nor his admittedly towering levels of personal bellend-itude. It is consistent with the sorts of policies that all Eurozone governments have been heavily pushing since the start of the last decade.
No doubt these serve domestic elites. But this fetish for competitiveness is also effectively mandated by a system of frictionless European trade, ever freer external trade, prohibitions against state aid, and a single currency system in which competitive devaluation is impossible.
This has long been the case but what has changed, as of January 31, is that for the first time in history, leaving the EU is a visibly practical possibility. Whatever the polls on the continent currently say about ongoing membership, this is a massive game changer, given how badly the European system serves most people that it governs.
Ultimately we have far more in common with working people in France and Italy, when it comes to the question of future economic arrangements, than we do with the Tories and their backers. And this demands cooperation.
The Labour Party, with its Europhile parliamentary party, and its structural lack of agility, cannot be expected to be a vehicle for such co-operation.
A good start could, however, be made by radical left organisations in different countries, along with the militant bits of the labour movement, coming together to push for an approach to international trade that is based upon something other than unfettered competition and an anti-interventionist “level playing field.”
At the turn of the millennium, in Seattle and Genoa, we saw the fire that can be unleashed when people in different countries unite against neoliberal globalisation. And today, the prevailing conditions truly demand that we fight this fight once again.
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