14 June 2015

The curse of nations

The European, and particularly British, political left is incarcerated in national parochialism

In the mid 1980s a group of socialists in Exeter decided to set up Exeter Labour Briefing which soon morphed into Devon Labour Briefing. We identified with the politics of London Labour Briefing (the capital city of the UK) and adopted the Labour Briefing rubric. At around the same time there was a Brighton Labour Briefing, a Dover Labour Briefing and so on. There were surprises in the bag when an Isle of Wight Labour Briefing was in the pipeline, but nobody expected, nor was there any talk of, for instance, a Calais Labour Briefing.

If there had been we would have said in surprise, “Yes, but their situation is so different; they’re part of French politics - and anyway how can we understand them unless they write in English, and why would they do that.” Very much the same applies today: North Devon may get its own branch of Left Unity, but North Brittany will not. Let’s unpack the obviousness behind all this.

Since the French Revolution, but particularly since the First World War, the nation state has become the main terrain of cultural and political identity. The legal and political structures of the state are the focus of identity and meaning for the state’s citizens, even its socialist ones. Knowledge of the political position facing people in the neighbouring states is usually thin on the ground. In addition, everyone in one state knows (or should know!) the state language, but armed with single language literacy, meaningful communication with citizens from another is rendered difficult to impossible.

The political and cultural zenith of the nation state occurred in the years following the Second World War, when nation-statism was bolstered by state economic planning and the welfare state. Since the 1980s neoliberalism has undermined that dominance to some degree through globalisation at the economic and cultural level; yet the nation state remains the focal point of organisation for popular political activity.

So today the focus of all socialist and progressive activity in Britain is national. No significant political movement in Britain has its HQ outside the UK. British political organisations may affiliate to pan-European organisations, but the key unit of organisation remains national. In contrast, even if they have a national base, many corporations are international in their scope, while the left, trade unions and left-leaning political parties are stubbornly national. The asymmetry of this situation is noteworthy.

So long as pan-European political identity remains non-existent, and while the nation state remains the key unit of legal, political and financial power (even more so since the financial crisis of 2008), there is no option other than social struggle at the national state level. That much is clear. But the way out of the stranglehold of exclusive national identity can only be through downsizing national identification to bring it into balance with other identities: municipal, regional, European, international. To do that requires the acceptance of universal values plus opening up means of international communication.

1 June 2015

2015 General Election: the worst but one outcome

The outcome of the May 2015 general election in Britain was unpredictable. For the left the worst but one outcome came about.

Before the release of the exit poll on the night of 7 May, the result of the May 2015 election was uncertain and that uncertainty was one of the few things that gave the election some interest. I thought that the Tories might do better than the polls were suggesting, but I never dreamed that they would end up with an overall majority. One thing that still puzzles me today is the extent of the collapse of Liberal Democrat vote in Lib Dem seats, which is the direct cause of the Tory majority.

In the pre-election uncertainty I ranked the possible outcomes from worst to best. My logic was straightforward. I wanted to see the the political right as weak as possible - no UKIP whip hand on government, no Tory overall majority. And I wanted the left to be as influential as possible and I thought that best achieved with a minority Labour government pushed leftwards by being dependent on the SNP, Greens Plaid Cymru.

The actual outcome was my worst but one possibility.

Below is is the list of possible outcomes as understood before the result was declared. The actual outcome is in bold.

1. A Conservative minority government with a parliamentary majority thanks to support from UKIP and/or Ulster Unionists.

2. A Conservative Government with an overall majority.

3. A Conservative-LibDem Government with an overall majority.

4. A minority Conservative government where UKIP and Ulster Unions do not give it a majority.

5. A grand coalition of Conservatives with a Tory Prime minister.

6. A grand coalition of Conservatives and Labour with a Labour Prime Minister.

7. A Labour-LibDem Government with an overall majority.

8. A minority Labour government which does not command a majority with the SNP, Greens and Plaid Cymru.

9. A Labour government with an overall majority.

10. A minority Labour government which has a majority with support from SNP, Greens, Plaid Cymru.

Socialists looking forward after May 2015

Following the Conservative election victory on 7 May 2015, the Left should be guided by the following points:

1. We all lament the new Tory majority government, and the electoral system that gave this party a parliamentary majority with 37 percent of the votes.

2. Socialism, meaning the ending of capitalism, is no longer on the political agenda in Britain, at least in the short and medium term. Nevertheless, we should campaign for a meaningful shift of income and wealth in favour of ordinary working people and struggle for the advancement and protection of civic freedoms and human rights. One only has to look across the Channel to some of Britain’s neighbours to see that such things are possible, even within the framework of capitalism.

3. When contrasted with the Tories, Labour is to be preferred - and there remain a small number of Labour MPs who are personally committed to Left causes. Yet the main logic of operation of the Labour Party is to reinforce the existing political system and to maintain and promote capitalist power. In the absence of any electoral pact with Labour (an unlikely possibility) we rightly challenge Labour in elections.

4. Left Unity or any other leftist party is unlikely to become a major electoral force, particularly within the framework of the FPTP electoral system. Progressive voters, even if they are willing to abandon Labour (and after all Labour is a serious contender to the Tories in many seats), have two left-of-Labour options ourselves and the much larger Greens. Exclusive electoralism cannot be an option: Left Unity must be as much a campaigning organisation as it is an electoral one, if it is to serve any purpose.

5. Although the Green Party is not a socialist party, we need to work with and within the Greens and strive for as much synchronisation of policy as possible. In some cases it makes sense for socialists to join the Greens as individuals and to work to build that party. In others building a separate Left Party is the best option. Dialogue between the Left and Greens is always desirable.

6. We must support the progressive demand for an independent Scottish state to be established for the benefit of all the people who live in that territory irrespective of their nationality or ethnicity.

7. We support the continued membership of the EU by all the component units of the British Isles (the UK, the Republic of Ireland and a future independent Scotland). Withdrawal could only benefit nationalist reactionary and ultra-free-market forces in the UK, particularly in England. The Left seeks to realises its objectives not just in the UK but in association with others across the EU member states.

An Ermine in Czernopol by Gregor von Rezzori

A masterpiece which paints a portrait of multicultural and polyglot Central Europe between the World Wars.

The book is a masterpiece, and like many such masterpieces the text is often a struggle to read, in this case as a result of sometimes difficult language, obscure historico-cultural reference and complexity of plot and situation. But don't give up; for me even months after reading Rezzori’s novel the message and images of the book remain in the head.

The story is told through the eyes of a young boy, a character who is self-consciously modelled on the author, an Austrian German from a minor aristocratic family, now living in the interwar period in what had become a provincial town in Romania. Czernopol is the fictional name, but this is a thin disguise for the town, the name of which is Czernowitz.

We are introduced to a wide range of eccentric characters, who are surviving amidst the anomie and confusion of the epoch. Most poignant in the book is the episode towards the end of the growing anti-Semitism in the town which explodes into a pogrom.

Though always perceptive, throughout there is often an unreal quality to the writing. Although the narrator is a child, much of what is written is far from childlike observation. In addition, we are often given huge stretches of description and dialogue from which the narrator is absent.

The book was first published in German in the 1966, but only received its definitive English translation in 2011.

Von REZZORI, Gregor, An Ermine in Czernopol, Nyrb Classics 2011.