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Stathis Kouvelakis: Brexit, Europe and Greece

Stathis Kouvelakis19 September 2016

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Three weeks after the UK voted to leave the European Union, Stathis Kouvelakis addressed a Paris meeting of Greek radical Left party Popular Unity. Translated by David Broder

The tectonic plates are moving again in Europe, rapidly changing the landscape. The breaches opening up in the Euro-unifying construction are concentrated around two focal points. On the one hand there is Brexit, and on the other hand – perhaps more under the surface, but just as corrosively – there is the social and political crisis tearing through France.
Brexit: contradictions and possibilities

The British ‘no’ to the EU received the decisive endorsement of the working and popular classes – in the Midlands and Northern England, if not Scotland and London. But at the same time, politically speaking the Brexit campaign was dominated by reactionary, xenophobic and even openly racist forces, following the lead of part of the Conservative Party and Nigel Farage’s UKIP. This creates a series of negative effects, which we can see in the troubled climate now reigning in British society and more particularly within the Left. And that’s not to mention the infamous rise in violent racist incidents or even the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox – a Remain supporter – perpetrated by a far-Right fanatic.

The supremacy of the Right in the Brexit campaign has widely been used as an argument by all those on the Left – broadly defined – who insist on remaining within the EU and present the choice of the majority of the electorate as having been dictated by racism and xenophobia.

This is an argument that we must absolutely reject.

In our view, the fact that it was reactionary forces who pushed through Brexit can only mean one thing: that the counterweight, the political and social Left, did not do its job. In other words, the Left did not explain that the EU is a structurally neoliberal, anti-democratic and imperialist body. It did not explain that the EU is coordinating the application of austerity policies, at the same time as having spent decades methodically building up a ‘fortress Europe’, closing its borders to migrants and refugees and transforming the Mediterranean into a watery grave for tens of thousands of people.

This is also the major error that Jeremy Corbyn made, ultimately supporting the case for remaining in the EU despite his numerous reservations and asterisks of convenience. Despite his criticisms of the EU, in making this choice he left himself unable to explain why the heart of what he offers (cancelling austerity, and a peaceful foreign policy outside of the Atlanticist framework) would prove utterly incompatible with the EU. If he had done that, taking a position for Lexit – an exit with a plus sign from the Left – the situation today would have been completely different. It would have placed the Left and political movements in a position of strength relative to an urban bloc today falling prey to a deep crisis, both within and outside of Great Britain.

Despite all this, we ought to welcome Brexit as a positive development, and also a fundamentally important one from a historical point of view. That was how it was quite rightly received in Greece by anti-memorandum circles and the activist Left. Indeed, Brexit represents the sharpest blow thus far struck against the European ruling classes’ political project – known as the EU. This is an economic blow, but above all a political and ideological one. The withdrawal of the EU’s second biggest economy will strengthen its centrifugal tendencies and crucially destabilise the remaining ‘Union’ (rather an inappropriate term now) of the 27.

That is without doubt the essential point. Brexit strikes a crushing blow against the keystone of Europeanist ideology: faith in the irreversible character of ‘European unification’, the belief that it constitutes a sort of inevitability, the natural course of things and of progress, the received wisdom that opposing it would mean losing our computers and going back to typewriters and index cards. In this sense Brexit marks the end of the EU as a political project for unifying Europe – the project born of the debris of the Second World War.

Finally, we should dwell on another point regarding Brexit, in order to be able to address the following question. Looking at the political-ideological orientation of the forces that dominated the Leave campaign, what was the decisive element of their campaign that gave it its dynamic? Quite simply, the recovery of national and popular sovereignty – that is, a fundamentally democratic demand. The principal slogan of the Brexit campaign was ‘Take back control’, and surveys showed that the fundamental reason mentioned by all those voting for Leave was ‘the principle that decisions concerning this country should be taken in this country’ (49%, as against 33% mentioning ‘increased control of migration and borders’).

Naturally, the recovery of national sovereignty – just like democracy as such – is not itself any magic bullet, nor the measure of a positive and progressive process in light of workers’ and popular interests. We might want national sovereignty in order to develop an anti-immigration policy and promote the further deregulation of work conditions – and that is what the representatives of the Right proposed in the Brexit campaign, the likes of Farage, Johnson and their cronies. We also need national and popular sovereignty if we want a government that rejects austerity and neoliberalism, unilaterally exercises a policy of welcoming migrants and refugees, and which can break the logic of fortress Europe.

Without doubt, that was the major error of Corbyn and all his supporters within the Labour Party. In leaving the challenge to the EU in the hands of the Right, they also left the demand for national and popular sovereignty – in other words, the question of democracy – in the hands of the Right. Such a situation involves huge dangers. History teaches us that when this question falls into the hands of reactionary forces, and when these same forces become the main representatives of popular anger, we are running straight toward some particularly unpleasant events.

Leaving the EU, a strategic question in the fight for hegemony 

Thus we arrive at our first conclusion: Brexit adds a new dimension to the process that has been underway since the first phase of the 2008 capitalist crisis. Opposition to the EU very clearly establishes the strategic question of the struggle for political and ideological hegemony in Europe today. To put that another way, the choice today is not between a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ EU, between one or another version of the Eurozone – as the bankrupt European ideology continues to claim – but between a Left or Right-wing fight against the EU. We can say without any exaggeration that our country [Greece] has acquired the most advanced experience of this question, and indeed paid a costly price for that. In Greece the EU unambiguously showed its true face, casting aside its trappings – mere rags – of democracy and its so-called ‘European values’. This means that for activist-Left and anti-memorandum forces – particularly in the post-Brexit period – our objective can be nothing less than Grexit, leaving the EU by referendum.

Our objective has to be a dissolution of the EU, in such a way that a new project emerges on this monster’s ruins – a project of cooperation and convergence of the European peoples on the path to social progress and socialism.

The ‘French Spring’ or the return of the revolutionary movement

I am now getting to the second case of discord that I mentioned at the beginning: the political-social crisis that has broken out in France these last five months. If I had to sum up my feelings over this period in just a few words – having been able to experience it myself at first hand almost day-to-day – I would say that in France there is a ‘whiff’ of the Greek spring of 2011.

It was the obstinacy of François Hollande and [prime minister Manuel] Valls’s government in passing the labour reform law – which is nothing but a transfer of a large part of the ‘acquis mémorandaire’ [pun on ‘acquis communautaire’, the built-up body of EU law] into the French context –  that unleashed the crisis. Besides, these are the same measures that the EU supports in all European countries where it thinks that some scraps of labour rights still remain, as we saw with Matteo Renzi’s Jobs Act in Italy and the new cycle of labour reforms now awaiting Greece. Even aside from public opinion – in its crushing majority opposed to their policy – Hollande and Valls did not even have a parliamentary majority to pass the bill signed by Labour Minister El Khomri. A large number of the ruling Parti Socialiste’s MPs not only refused to vote for the bill, but even tried to put forward a motion of censure against the Valls government. Sadly, despite the French Communist Party MPs’ full backing they did not manage to get the necessary number of signatures. 

In order to get out of the rut of parliamentary opposition – within and outside their party – Hollande and Valls had to resort to waiver procedures. They applied constitutional article 49.3, which authorises a bill being approved without being put to a vote (!) – and the only possible way of blocking it is to advance and then pass a motion of censure against the government. But most importantly Hollande and Valls imposed a police repression unprecedented in this context in the whole period since May 1968, with the evident goal of creating a climate of fear and tension. The only thing that they have thus far succeeded in doing is destroying their party’s surviving social base, with the result that the surveys all show François Hollande failing to reach the second round of next year’s presidential elections, with a score of under 15%. Given politicians’ most frequent comments on the future now coming into view for the Parti Socialiste, there has now emerged the expression ‘Pasokification’ [in French, ‘Pasokisation’].

Not only the violent neoliberal offensive, repression and the self-destructive advance of a bastardised social democracy give the current French conjuncture a whiff of Greece in 2011. Rather, the most important similarity is the impetuous appearance of an extensive, polymorphous, eminently revolutionary, deeply social movement, supported by the majority. This upsurge has seen the convergence of the working-class trade union movement, fighting in long and hard strikes, particularly in the docks and refineries, and a large part of the student and high-school, which has developed new forms of collective action (or ones new to the French context, at least). This was a youth that descended into the streets, occupied squares, and participated in supporting strikes. And they discussed with the unions and workers’ movement, despite their mutual reservations and the difficulties they faced. It rose up not only over this specific point – that is, the El Khomri bill [labour law], but – as one of the main slogans picked up on the squares had it – ‘the world produced by the El Khomri bill’.

That is, the world of the absolutism of the boss, boundless commercialisation, environmental disaster, authoritarianism and racist violence.  

This is without doubt the first time in decades that there has been such resonance for the rising anti-capitalist discourse ‘put on the agenda’ and carried forth by the most advanced segments of the workers’ movement and the youth.

This movement’s expression and its political preparation are without doubt the key to how things will develop in the near future. Without getting ahead of ourselves, let us note the dynamic that the most visible personality of the French revolutionary Left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, seems to be taking on. According to the surveys he is clearly ahead of Hollande. Naturally, it is no chance thing that this rising figure is increasingly the standard-bearer for confrontation with the EU. After he welcomed Brexit as a positive development, emphatically clearing the way to the question of the EU and its legitimacy, Mélenchon likes to present himself as ‘the candidate [standing for] breaking with the European Treaties’. And he has made clear that if Germany and its satellites block any re-examination of the treaties, then a future left-wing French government will have no other choice than to resort to a referendum allowing it to leave the EU. 

Mélenchon’s other reference point explaining the development of his position is Greece. The lesson he drew from Tsipras and his government’s capitulation is that any confrontation with the EU has no prospect of success unless it has a ‘Plan B’ including the option of leaving the Eurozone and EU. Upon his and Oskar Lafontaine’s initiative two meetings in Paris and Madrid launched this debate, with the participation of personalities and forces mostly coming from the European revolutionary Left.

The crisis strikes Europe at its centre

Thus the second and last conclusion is that the epicentre of the crisis has now been displaced from the countries of the periphery – the ‘weak links’ in recent years – toward the countries at the centre of Europe. The accentuation of the tensions between social classes, the blows to the construction of European unity and the crisis in the legitimacy of the European ruling classes’ strategic plan are opening up new possibilities for rising intervention. In Britain this phenomenon took on the trappings of a revolt at the ballot box, in favour of Brexit. In France – fittingly, given its revolutionary tradition – it has taken the form of an uprising by workers and youth; the first wide-scale social conflict that any major European country has experienced since the start of the decade.

This double breach also defines the challenge that the Left – and more particularly the forces waging the anti-memorandum struggle in our own country [Greece] – has to face. The developments at the very heart of Europe are strengthening and preparing the terrain for the counter-offensive, after the disaster the Greek people was led into through the infamous legacy of Tsipras and Syriza. That is the double message sent by the British ballot boxes and the town squares of France: that the time for mourning and tears is reaching its end, and a new cycle is beginning.

In honour of Brexit I will end with the lines everyone knows by Percy Bysshe Shelley, the English poet and revolutionary, Hellenophile and close friend of Lord Byron. These were the last lines of a poem he composed the day after the 1819 Peterloo massacre, when the forces of order massacred the workers who had rallied to demand the right to vote: ‘We are many – they are few’.

Originally published here.

Filed under: brexit, eu-referendum, eurozone