When Stalin was asked in the late 1920s which is worse, the right or the left, he snapped back: “They are both worse!” And this is my first reaction to the question of whether or not to leave the EU.
I am not interested in sending love letters to the British public with the sentimental message: “Please stay in Europe!” What interests me is ultimately only one question. Europe is now caught in a vicious cycle, oscillating between the false opposites of surrender to global capitalism and surrender to anti-immigrant populism – which politics has a chance of enabling us to step out of this mad dance?
The symbols of global capitalism are secretly negotiated trade agreements such as the Trade in Services Agreement (Tisa) or Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). The social impact of TTIP is clear enough: it stands for nothing less than a brutal assault on democracy. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of Investor-State Dispute Settlements (ISDS), which allow companies to sue governments if their policies cause a loss of profits. Simply put, this means that unelected transnational corporations can dictate the policies of democratically elected governments.
So how would Brexit fare in this context? From a leftwing standpoint, there are some good reasons to support Brexit: a strong nation state exempted from the control of Brussels technocrats can protect the welfare state and counteract austerity politics. However, I am worried about the ideological and political background of this option. From Greece to France, a new trend is arising in what remains of the “radical left”: the rediscovery of nationalism. All of a sudden, universalism is out, dismissed as a lifeless political and cultural counterpart of “rootless” global capital.
The reason for this is obvious: the rise of rightwing nationalist populism in western Europe, which is now the strongest political force advocating the protection of working class interests, and simultaneously the strongest political force able to give rise to proper political passions. So the reasoning goes: why should the left leave this field of nationalist passions to the radical right, why should it not “reclaim la patrie from the Front National”?
In this leftwing populism, the logic of Us against Them remains, however here “they” are not poor refugees or immigrants, but financial capital and technocratic state bureaucracy. This populism moves beyond the old working class anticapitalism; it tries to bring together a multiplicity of struggles from ecology to feminism, from the right to employment to free education and healthcare.
The recurrent story of the contemporary left is that of a leader or party elected with universal enthusiasm, promising a “new world” (Mandela, Lula) – but sooner or later, usually after a couple of years, they stumble upon the key dilemma: does one dare to touch the capitalist mechanisms, or does one decide to “play the game”? If one disturbs the mechanisms, one is very swiftly punished by market perturbations, economic chaos and the rest. So how can we push things further after the first enthusiastic stage is over?
I remain convinced that our only hope is to act trans-nationally – only in this way do we have a chance to constrain global capitalism. The nation-state is not the right instrument to confront the refugee crisis, global warming, and other truly pressing issues. So instead of opposing Eurocrats on behalf of national interests, let’s try to form an all-European left. And it is because of this margin of hope that I am tempted to say: vote against Brexit, but do it as a devout Christian who supports a sinner while secretly cursing him. Don’t compete with the rightwing populists, don’t allow them to define the terms of the struggle. Socialist nationalism is not the right way to fight the threat of national socialism.
[Appeared in The Guardian on June 4th 2016.]