The POI (Parti Ouvrier Indépendant) has recently been holding some timely eurosceptic discussions. Following shortly after the widespread two million strong strikes in France and the unofficial stoppages of some thousands in the British Isles, its conference in Paris on the 7 and 8 February provided firm evidence of the pan-European impact of the EU directives and policies on societies extending from the Atlantic coast to the borders of Russia and beyond. Representatives of 22 nations participated. Collectively they bore formidable witness to the devastation caused by 30 years of privatisation and free market economics. It was a powerful stimulus to reflection on some pertinent themes.
Gordon Brown’s ‘British jobs for British workers’ was given a fair amount of attention. While his utterance brought some advantage to the strikers, it was not considered to be the best line of approach. The issue at stake in the British dispute was that national agreements over wages and other matters were being deliberately broken by anti-union employers trying to reduce wages to a third of national rates. Casualisation through use of foreign sub-contractors employing foreign workers also damages health and safety provisions, eliminates need for pension provision and puts an additional burden on the welfare state whether in terms of housing, education or health care. It is always true that, in broad terms, the most economical labour is that available on the spot, and if that labour is not appropriately trained then one may reasonably suggest the employers have been failing in their provision of training – something well known to have been going on for a generation or more in the UK.
But participants at the conference also recognised that the opportunity to move to seek work was not to be decried. Migration has been an essential feature of western societies from time immemorial and the freedoms to flee tyranny and to seek to better oneself economically are valuable. But migration has never been an unlimited right and its present abuse by employers is only one step away from transportation of Africans across the Atlantic to slavery. It has nothing to do with the free movement of individuals seeking better opportunities; and it inherently contains security issues.
The unofficial strikes in Britain have been described as illegal. But the important question concerns the ethics of the EU and the legitimacy of its institutions. On the one hand, collective agreements have both substantial moral value and the force of contracts, even when not legally binding. On the other hand, decisions of courts founded on ambiguous or fraudulent law, on the dubious ethics of lawyers and derived from source institutions that have negligible democratic foundations, lack authority. John Locke is well known as the political philosopher who examined the circumstances when revolutions are justified and provided the intellectual and moral foundations for the American Revolution and his thoughts are relevant again today. As the legal system decays, so do its judgments lose their moral quality; implementation is then a matter of violent coercion.
Free market economics was widely criticised at the conference. Over and over again, delegates described the destruction of the social order caused by privatisation: the closure of schools, of hospitals, ghettoisation of housing, all in the name of the global free market. A Hungarian spoke of the social upheaval that has followed the end of the Communist system as creating insoluble problems. Another speaker compared the devastation of today with that of 1929 in creating precisely those social conditions in which fascism will flourish again.
The free market has been exposed as a sham and a fraud. The European doctrine of the free movement of capital, labour, goods and services is nothing but an expression of ideology masking undisclosed interests and its implementation always conceals distortion of reality. The free market ideology lacks foundations in social or political theory and is a spurious artefact of inapplicable mathematical models; it serves the concealed, grotesque ambitions of tiny elites. The rational analysis of real life markets — of their structure and function as normative systems — has scarcely begun.
While, following the onset of the present financial crisis, wider recognition has emerged of the necessity of market regulation, it is important that this recognition should not be used as an excuse to impose authoritarian measures. For at present there is no structure for the regulation of multinational corporations and the appropriate foundation for such a body is not the EU but the UN. Until there is such a body, the necessity of nations protecting themselves against the menace of corporate bodies much larger than themselves, must be acknowledged.
Thus Mr Brown’s remark merits further attention, as an expression of a nationalist sentiment. This topic received only modest attention at the conference. For a century or more, nationalism has been considered an element in an undesirable political agenda and thus a cause of war. It has become synonymous with one country seeking to dominate its neighbours by military force or economic pressure. Yet this activity is better described as imperialism, or more simply as aggression.
Nationalism as the legitimate defence of the interests of a people generally resident in a given territory and speaking one language is not wrong. The nation-state it should be remembered is the fundamental unit of the United Nations and it embodies a people’s legitimate aspirations to sovereignty. That the criteria of national identity in practice are more complex than these two elements alone suggest, does not invalidate the principle.
Where national boundaries properly lie is not a matter that is simply determined; nonetheless a practical pointer is the settlement that followed World War II in Europe. The recent re-arrangements of the post-World War II national boundaries in Europe were the subject of critical comment at the conference. But the relationship between nation and regional or ethnic identities is complex, a matter to be determined by culture and values and not by brute power play.
Elsewhere in the world these issues may be of uncertain resolution. But what should be noted in this context is that the British employers were racially motivated; and fortress Europe is not acceptable.
One of the most important implications of nationalism today concerns the legitimate defence of unique languages. I counted almost 20 different languages spoken at this conference. The work of the small team of translators was impressive even as it exposed issues of representation in situations structured by linguistic differences.
One is tempted to dream of the benefits of a universal language. But this dream is dangerous: the realities of linguistic differentiation must be recognised. There have been estimated to be 6000 languages in the world, including in this figure those languages spoken in the past but now fallen into disuse. The number of languages that are spoken on an international scale is less than a score; and the number in broad use is under 100.
A little research into the languages implemented by manufacturers of computer keyboards, or into the linguistic capabilities of Microsoft Windows shows the scale of the task if all the languages of the world are to be properly recognised.
Language, culture and identity are very closely intertwined and, while the link between nation and language is not simple and direct, maintaining national identity is an essential step in defending the languages and culture that belong within it. The two Gaelic languages, plus the Welsh, Celtic and Anglo-Saxon languages and cultures are still important features of the culture of the people who today only speak one language, English.
My assessment of the conference must be that euro-scepticism is live and well and that the legitimacy and authority of the EU is deteriorating day by day. But it also left a deeper impression. The two days of the conference created a sense of a vibrant and self-reliant working class (notwithstanding the lack of jobs, income or material goods) far removed from the cliques of fat cats of the EU in Brussels and in banks and elsewhere. Working class Europe is also a Europe whose connections, links and hence culture for centuries have extended all around the world and are not bounded by an arbitrary regional wall. The socialism of the future will be pluralist in a way that it has not been previously, notwithstanding the fact that socialism is an ideology based on universal values.
But that is not the end of the matter. There is also the question – What is to be done? To this question the conference could have given more attention.
There was a need to say more about the single currency the Euro and the damage it is doing to many European economies. The possibility that member states will have to suspend membership of the single currency in order to secure their economic survival needs to be addressed.
Further only scant attention was given to the lack of democratic processes in the institutions of the EU: the distance between the MEP and his constituents, the secrecy of the Council of Ministers, the emergence of rule by directive, the constitution of the European Court. Even less attention was given to the secrecy with which multinational corporations and other global bodies cloak their affairs. The secrecy hiding the key political processes of the modern world is probably the most important issue facing the peoples of Europe and the world today. Until this cloak of secrecy be broken and removed, democracy at global level will be vacuous. The task ahead is to build this democracy at global level and the EU stands in the way of fulfilling this task.
PJC 12 February 2009.