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Home / Bill Mitchell / Being anti-European Union and pro-Brexit does not make one a nationalist

Being anti-European Union and pro-Brexit does not make one a nationalist

Summary:
The European Parliament elections start today and finish at the weekend (May 23-26). The Europe Elects site provides updated information about the opinion polls and seat projections, although given the disastrous showing of the polls in last Saturday’s Australian federal election, one should not take the polling results too seriously. But it is clear that there is an upsurge in the so-called populist parties of the Right at the expense of the traditional core political movements (centre-right and centre-left). It is also easy to dismiss this as a revival of ‘nationalism’ based around concepts of ethnicity and exclusivity and dismiss the legitimacy of these movements along those lines. However, that strategy is failing because the ‘populist’ parties have become more sophisticated and

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The European Parliament elections start today and finish at the weekend (May 23-26). The Europe Elects site provides updated information about the opinion polls and seat projections, although given the disastrous showing of the polls in last Saturday’s Australian federal election, one should not take the polling results too seriously. But it is clear that there is an upsurge in the so-called populist parties of the Right at the expense of the traditional core political movements (centre-right and centre-left). It is also easy to dismiss this as a revival of ‘nationalism’ based around concepts of ethnicity and exclusivity and dismiss the legitimacy of these movements along those lines. However, that strategy is failing because the ‘populist’ parties have become more sophisticated and extended their remit to appeal more broadly and make it difficult to relate them to fascist ideologies. The fact that the progressive (particularly Europhile variety) continue to invoke the pejorative ‘nationalist’ whenever anyone begs to differ on Europe and question why they would support a cabal which has embedded neoliberalism and corporatism in its very legal existence (the Treaties) is testament to why the traditional Left parties are showing up so badly in the polls these days. The British Labour Party, for example, should be light years ahead of the Tories, given how appalling the latter have become. But they are not a certainty if a general election was called and the reason is they have not understood the anxieties of the British people and too many of their politicians are happy to dismiss dissent as being motivated by racism. The Brexit outcome so far is a good case study in that folly.

Latest EU polling trends

The EU elections polls are currently predicting the following:

1. Left-wing: GUE/NGL down 1 seat to 51

2. Greens/EFA up 4 to 54

3. Unaffiliated (Pirate Parties) up 5 to 5

4. Centre-left: S&D down 39 to 152

5. Liberals: ALDE (incl. Macron’s Renaissance) up 42 to 109

6. Centre-right: EPP down 48 to 173

7. National conservative: ECR down 11 to 59

8. Unaffiliated (Italian M5S and allies) up 25 to 25

9. Eurosceptic populist: EFDD down 48 to 0

10. Unaffiliated (British BREXIT) up 28 to 28

11. Right-wing: ENF/EAPN up 45 to 82

12. NI (Nazis, Satirists, Communists) down 2 to 13

So quite a major decline in the seats held by the mainstream centre-right and centre-left parties and a rise in the the so-called ‘populist’ parties.

Remember that in the European Parliament elections, voters from the 28 Member States vote for national parties which then seed candidates to create the pan-European groups listed above. These groupings share similar (but not identical) ideological positions.

The Eurosceptics (Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy) were made up of AfD, M5S and Ukip is gone given the rise of the Brexit Party in the UK and the defection of AfD into EAPN.

Within the UK, the two major parties have been decimated in the polls (Labour down to 18 per cent, Conservatives to 12 per cent) while the Brexit party has around 35 per cent of the expected vote.

The Brexit Party among Londoners scores 20 per cent with Labour up to 24 per cent and the Conservatives languishing at 10 per cent.

There is a strong regional divide in British opinions.

In Germany, Diem 25 is standing (Yanis Varoufakis and others) under the guise of Demokratie in Europa and expressing a strong Eurofederalist agenda, as one would expect.

After much fanfare, the expected polls are not looking good for this group – hardly recording an intended vote!

Interestingly, in a campaign pitch, Yanis Varoufakis dismissed Brexit as “a mere sideshow compared to the muffled, but more fundamental disintegration taking place across the European Union” and declared that “Nationalism is on the march everywhere” (Source).

He said that:

With Brexit from the north and the Italian government’s deployment of xenophobic anti-Europeanism from the south, “ever-closer union” is becoming a farcical symbol of the disconnect between reality and the EU establishment’s propaganda.

So we are tying Brexit with nationalism.

The nationalist put down

Last week, the usual Twitter anti-MMT crowd claimed that in supporting Brexit and the dissolution of the EU, Thomas Fazi and I were promoting a crude nationalism. Apparently “left nationalism is still nationalism”.

This sort of attack followed statements by one of the gang inferring that MMT was somehow linked to Hitler because the latter had used expansionary fiscal policy to stimulate Germany during the early years of the Great Depression.

You have to give it to them for imagination.

Of course, the term ‘nationalism’ in the way the Diem 25 leader was using it above and the attention-seekers on Twitter were using it is pejorative and designed to invoke what is known as ‘ethnic nationalism’, aka racism.

The Remaining Left in Britain have indeed inferred that the 2016 Referendum result was largely driven by racism. The UK Guardian has been particularly vocal along these lines.

The other excuse that the Remainers use to ‘explain’ the fact that they lost the Referendum is that the Leavers are otherwise just stupid.

Stupid and racist.

So they want the put the matter to the people to decide once and for all!

I loved this Independent editorial (February 16, 2019) – Let us march once more for a Final Say on Brexit – claiming that:

There is still time for democracy. There has to be …

The Independent has long demanded – a Final Say on leaving the EU.

And the UK Guardian article (January 14, 2019) – How and why Britain might be asked to vote once more on Brexit:

Can we just call the whole damn thing off? Could Brexit be stopped so that Britain can get on with the rest of its life? … Another reason is because such a massive issue was decided by such a tight margin in the summer of 2016.

There is still time for democracy! 52 per cent voted to Leave – that was democracy.

The Australian government was reelected last week with a tighter margin than the Leave vote achieved. Should we just say that we scrap that vote and let the people decide … again?

During my recent trip to Scotland, I was also reminded of a 2006 book I had read when I was writing my 2015 book – Eurozone Dystopia: Groupthink and Denial on a Grand Scale.

The book – Ethnicity without Groups (published by Harvard University Press) – by American sociologist Rogers Brubaker is a study of group formation and the way stereotypes are formed.

He outlines a concept of “groupism” as:

… the tendency to take discrete, sharply differentiated, internally homogeneous and externally bounded groups as basic constituents of social life, chief protagonists of social conflicts, and fundamental units of social analysis …

In the domain of ethnicity, nationalism and race, I mean by ‘groupism’ the tendency to treat ethnic groups, nations and races as substantial entities to which interests and agency can be attributed.

His work aims to disabuse us of these neat categorisations. He presented a rather interesting way to understand group formation which incorporates cognitive psychology, cultural practices and political struggles.

But the point of raising this is not to have that discussion but to consider his discussion about the differences between ethnic and civic nationalism.

He wrote:

This has been used to suggest that there are, fundamentally, only two kinds of nationalism: civic nationalism, characterized as liberal, voluntarist, universalist, and inclusive; and ethnic nationalism, glossed as illiberal, ascriptive, particularist, and exclusive. These are seen as resting on two corresponding understandings of nationhood, based on common citizenship in the first case, common ethnicity in the second.

There is a tendency in the literature to distinguish between “one’s own good, legitimate civic nationalism from the illegitimate ethnic nationalism found elsewhere”.

Why my Scottish sojourn reminded me of all this, and just before the Tweet heroes accused me of being “nationalist” and had Hitler in the same conversation, was that Burbaker wrote:

Scottish National Party (SNP) leaders emphasize even more strongly the party’s civic nationalism, especially its inclusive, residentially based definition of Scottishness …

… after the narrow defeat of the Quebec sovereignty referendum in 1995, notoriously blamed … on the ‘ethnic vote,’ SNP leader Alex Salmond said that “Quebec is not Scotland and Scotland is not Quebec … The linguistic and ethnic basis of their nationalism is a two-edged sword … we follow the path of civic nationalism.”

Civic nationalism relates to the shared rights of citizens.

In the 2009 article, Civic Nationalism and Language Policy by Anna Stilz, we read about “civic nationhood” which describes:

… describe a political identity built around shared citizenship in a liberal-democratic state … [the state] … need not be unified by commonalities of language or culture (where ‘culture’ refers to the traditions and customs of a particular national group). It simply requires a disposition on the part of citizens to uphold their political institutions, and to accept the liberal principles on which they are based. Membership is open to anyone who shares these values. In a civic nation, the protection or protion of one national culture over others is not a goal of the state.

(Reference: Stilz, A. (2009) ”, Philosophy & Public Affairs, 37(3), Summer, 257-292, https://www.jstor.org/stable/40468467)

In practical terms and on the same theme, Jurgen Habermas concluded that immigrants should only be required to:

… assent to the principles of the constitution within the scope of interpretation determined at a particular time …”

(Reference: Habermas, J. (1998) ‘Struggles for Recognition in the Democratic State’, in Cronin, C. and de Greiff, P. (eds.) Inclusion of the Other, (Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press).

So there are no notions that there might be “preferred members of the political community” as in the concept of “liberal culturalism” which is predicated on the view:

… that the state ought to privilege and endorse particular national cultures, those that have historically been associated with a given territory.

This doesn’t mean that other rights are trampled on. Just that the state should “protect the identities of its historic nations(s)”.

In civic nationalism theough there are no concepts of ‘in groups’ and ‘out groups’. But that demarcation becomes border-specific.

In the SNP case, all those within the current borders of Scotland are Scottish and those outside are not.

The recent Social Europe Op Ed – Understanding the far-right populists: focus on their political message (May 16, 2019) by Daphne Halikiopoulou, draws on these concepts in an attempt to explain the way in which the far-right political movements are achieving acceptability and booming in the polls at present.

She challenges the notion that the:

… rise of the far-right populists is down to a popular cultural backlash. What’s really happened is they have broadened their support through a civic-nationalist narrative.

She makes the point that the GFC, post-GFC austerity and the rising European inequality should have spawned increasing support for the “left-wing populist parties, pledging to cater for voters’ material concerns”.

Instead, the Left has vacated that space while it panders to the EU-centric neoliberals and the voice of anguish has been expressed by the:

… far-right populists, with their promise to restore ‘national sovereignty’ in the name of ‘the people’, which have capitalised more effectively on social insecurities.

One version of the “‘backlash’ story” relates to “cultural grievances” – specific groups demand action such as “stricter immigration policies”.

But the author says that this sort of story misses the point as the “populists” have increasingly made “their message more appealing to broader sectors of the population”.

So the right-wing groups are “shaping” opinion rather than necessarily reflecting it.

These parties are thus moving beyond the normal appeal to “angry white men”, reflecting traditional insecurities relating to deinstrialisation, and are now appealing to broader cohorts with “multiple insecurities”.

In this way, they have evaded crude characterisations that they are fascist and gained a certain legitimacy for a “spectrum of voters” who would not normally support an “explicitly racist party”.

I think of the Brexit Party in Britain which contains people who are clearly not racist (for example, the ‘Full Brexit’ crowd) but who understand the neoliberal, corporatist nature of the EU and the fact that these ideologies are embedded in the legal structure of the Union and will be difficult to expunge without dissolution (and exit for particular nations).

The Social Europe article notes that the new populist strategy is not to create an “outgroup” on the basis of “ascriptive or organic criteria (as deployed by fascist or conventional extreme-right parties) but rather is done through civic distinctions—seeking to exclude those who supposedly do not espouse ‘our’ values of democracy and tolerance.”

So we are seeing a spread of a “civic-nationalist narrative” which allows for a normalisation of “exclusion”.

This is the way the formerly right-wing extremist racist parties are gaining favour – “permitting … [them] … to appeal to a wide spread of social groups with different backgrounds and preferences.”

Which then begs the question – how are these groups different to, for example, the SNP?

Sure, we can be suspicious of their true motivation (racist) and conjecture they dress this raw motivation up in the more high-end civic nationalism.

But how would we ever be able to test that proposition?

But the point is that the Left parties have not been able (or refuse to) give voice to these ‘multiple insecurities’ that working people now face as a result of neoliberalism.

They have typically gone down various holes – identity, fiscal austerity, Eurofederalism and similar.

Their obsession with reforming the EU as a progressive force means they do nothing more than write stacks of papers with a new gee-whiz reform proposal that spawns are talkfest and gets lost in the reality of a European system that is resistant at the core to fundamental change.

Being anti-EU is not ‘nationalist’

Now I wonder what these attention-seeking Twitter heroes have in mind when they accuse Thomas and I of being ‘nationalists’?

It is clear this hostility is related to our views on the European Union and Brexit, specifically, which are articulated in their most coherent form in my 2015 book – Eurozone Dystopia: Groupthink and Denial on a Grand Scale (published May 2015) and our 2017 jointly authored book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017).

It is interesting though that this crowd blur their disdain for our position on Europe and Brexit with my work on MMT. They seem to think they have to go feral against MMT as part of a discussion about Brexit.

As I said in Birmingham the other day, MMT is agnostic about Europe. What MMT allows us to understand are the consequences of particular currency arrangements, for example.

My support for Brexit is values based – I prefer to promote democracy and dislike neoliberal cabals that cannot be reformed easily – and I think the British government has all the fiscal tools available to shield the British economy from significant adverse consequences arising from exit.

As to concepts of nationalism, in ‘Reclaiming the State’ we go into some detail our conception of the state and specifically eschew any reference to ethnic exclusivity.

We wrote:

The fact that the vision of national sovereignty that was at the centre of the Trump and Brexit campaigns, and that currently dominates the public discourse, is a reactionary, quasi-fascist one – mostly defined along ethnic, exclusivist and authoritarian lines – should not be seen as an indictment of national sovereignty as such. History attests to the fact that national sovereignty and national self-determination are not intrinsically reactionary or jingoistic concepts – in fact, they were the rallying cries of countless nineteenth- and twentieth-century socialist and left-wing liberation movements.

We went on to write:

… a progressive vision of national sovereignty should aim to reconstruct and redefine the national state as a place where citizens can seek refuge ‘in democratic protection, popular rule, local autonomy, collective goods and egalitarian traditions’, as Streeck argues, rather than a culturally and ethnically homogenised society … This is also the necessary prerequisite for the construction of a new international(ist) world order, based on interdependent but independent sovereign states.

We support dissolution of the EU in its current form and a return to fiscal power of the nation state because under the current arrangements currency sovereignty has been abandoned for at least 19 of the 28 Member States (we could add in nations such as Denmark, which doesn’t use the euro but pegs to it).

We also support the dissolution (and Brexit in particular) because democratic freedoms are compromised to more or lesser degree for all 28 Member States in favour of neoliberal, market oriented corporatism.

That has nothing to do with ethnicity.

The structure of the European Union and its most advanced expression the EMU demonstrates the reluctance of citizens (and their leaders) in the Member States to consider the concept of ‘one Europe’ in a fiscal sense.

The structure of the Treaties is testament to that.

No permanent fiscal transfers.

No federal fiscal capacity.

No central bank bailouts.

The whole structure is built on suspicion of each other – suspicion by the Germans or Dutch that the Italian government might go crazy and spend like there is no tomorrow – suspicion that the Greeks might want to introduce a more generous pension system than some other country.

There is no sense of civic-nationalism within Europe as a whole. Only within individual states.

Where we draw the boundary line of an individual state is determined not by race but by the willingness of citizens to permit its polity to transfer resources between groups for the betterment of all.

There is no Europe in that sense.

So our objection to the EU is based on our belief that currency sovereigny is paramount and democracy should not be compromised by ideological constructs which create structures that suppress the legislature and privilege corporatism.

Conclusion

So I get it that the accusation that Thomas and I are ‘nationalists’ is just a red flag to try to invoke some weird connection to Hitler or some other unsavoury concept to discredit our work within these Europhile-type communities.

But the fact that those ‘communities’ operate in that way is symptomatic of the whole decline of their political voices and the success of the right-wing forces that have become much more sophisticated in their framing and messaging.

It is also the reason why, despite all the horror stories that the middle-class, Left media pumped out in the lead up to the 2016 Referendum, 52 per cent of the voters still said they wanted to leave.

But then we have to restore democracy don’t we and have another vote!

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2019 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Bill Mitchell
Bill Mitchell is a Professor in Economics and Director of the Centre of Full Employment and Equity (CofFEE), at the University of Newcastle, NSW, Australia. He is also a professional musician and plays guitar with the Melbourne Reggae-Dub band – Pressure Drop. The band was popular around the live music scene in Melbourne in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The band reformed in late 2010.

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