Dead Men Left

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

"Another Europe is possible": more on the constitution

Andrew at Hold that Thought, a new blog, takes on the very brief case made at DML for a left "no" vote:

...the socialist "no" side, who argue that the constitution will make it possible to curtail existing social protections in countries like Britain; that rejecting it will be a kick in the bollocks for its supporters like Blair and Chirac; and that scrapping it will allow a new improved consitution to be drafted... But the first point borders on incoherence, since the biggest threat to social protections in countries like Britain within a politicized Europe comes from countries like Britain. The new political forum created by the constitution means that not just a hobbled British Left, but a united European Left coalition will be able to mobilize against the rolling back of workers's rights and for social justice; the very things under threat with or without the EU Constitution, thanks to globalisation. The second point, of course, misses the whole point of the vote and is the kind of narrow minded rubbish that's usually blinds the Left to its true motivations. Finally, the third point is nothing more than wishful thinking; as Habermas points out, it will simply strengthen the hand of those who think the idea of a politicized Europe goes too far (namely Washington and those who want to limit the idea of a united Europe to that of a laissez-faire marketplace and nothing more.)

The specifics don't work, and the whole is fatally flawed by its reliance on a polemical piece from Jurgen Habermas that I'll come to later. Taking his first point, from which the others logically follow, a major part for of the case for a "no" vote in Britain, should we face a referendum, is not to defend social protections in Britan, but to defend them across Europe. There are no more ardent enthusiasts for wholesale deregulation and a thoroughgoing neoliberalism in Europe than the British political class, exemplified by the oleganious Peter Mandelson, here seen trying for screw over the Third World. Notice also how that saviour of the Left, Gordon Brown, joins in the fun. Allowing all that, the proposed constitution will, if ratified, strengthen the free-marketeers everywhere in Europe. The British welfare state has taken a hammering after 26 years of Thatcherism and its ideological children; those currently bashing away at the NHS, state education and the rest will be strengthened here, as elsewhere, by the constitution.

This should not be difficult. It is a free market treaty with a few sops. That's why the no campaign in France has been led by the Left. The case for a "no" vote there is even clearer: backdoor Thatcherism should be fought just as much as if it walked in through the front. There will be no gains, no improvements, and the real possibility of distinctly worsened conditions for millions of workers across Europe - "old Europe", and new - if this constitution is ratified.

Startlingly, Andrew seems to dismiss the actual contents of the constitution as irrelevant: social protections are "...under threat with or without the EU Constitution, thanks to globalisation." It is as if the simple fact of declaring there to be a ratified constitution, irrespective of what it actually says, will be sufficient to usher in a glorious cosmpolitan dawn for the 25 member states. We, the happy Europeans - moving swiftly past the unhappy Africans and unhappy Asians we lucky few imprison on our borders - will march, volumes of EU legislation in hand, towards the new Jerusalem.

The pessimism should be obvious. A classically ultra-left position, that constitutions are essentially irrelevant compared to the real demands of power, joins hands with an ill-founded Europhile reformism. Nowhere in this is any sense that other agencies or forces may exist that are better placed to deliver social justice than the venal political classes of Europe, committed for decades to a broadly neoliberal vision of the world. Quite why a declaration of faith in the existence of the EU by its citizens would alter their course is unclear.

This is Habermas' major claim. He sees no possibility of change from below, and so retreats to a thoroughgoing legalism. Worse, there is an ugly undertone to statements like these:

Bush is the one who would rejoice at the failure of the European constitution, for it would allow Europe to develop a common foreign and security policy with enough soft power to bolster opposition to the neoconservative view of global order, also within the United States. It is in our common interest to develop the United Nations, and the law of nations, into a politically constituted world community without a world government. We must attain an effective juridification of international relations, before other world powers are in a position to emulate the power politics of the Bush government in violation of the law of nations.

Good Europeans vs. bad Americans is a model all internationalists should noisily reject. To dismiss - at a minimum - the 48% who voted against Bush in November 2004; to dismiss the many historic achievements of the US left; to write off any possibility of change in America that does not depend on external confrontation is to evince a profound, pessimistic conservatism.

Habermas is too smart not know that an "effective juridification of international relations" depends on the effective development of international force; if he is serious about wishing a strengthened Europe to face a neoconservative Washington, he must wish also that we enlightened EU citizens develop not just "soft power", but hard military muscle. By such means can we hope to corral the backward peoples of the globe into a "politically constituted world community".

It is not cynical to observe that the continent responsible for slavery, colonialism and genocide the world over contains no innate moral superiority by which such a new power might be justified. Absent the last fifty years, and we are left with a four-hundred year record of European colonial conquest and brutality sufficient to inspire a certain diziness - all conducted by the most enlightened of conquistadors and conquerors.

Where genuine progress in Europe has occurred, it has not been because of our vainglorious ruling classes; it has been in spite of them. Democracy, fundamental rights, welfare states were all forcibly extracted, continent-wide. The growth of mass labour movements and their ability to apply overwhelming political pressure are responsible for such progress as has occurred. For the last twenty-five to thirty years, such movements have been on the back foot; Habermas, searching for a force capable of breaking a brutal "neoconservative" offensive, ignores them entirely.

I believe he is wrong to do so. The "political spaces" Habermas wishes to develop through a mystified constitution-worship are already being developed: the growth and successes of the global Social Forums movement are the most visible expression of that. These, it is true, remain marginal. But they exist nontheless, and their marginality is not fated: we have seen, in Britain, what can happen when the broad global justice movement unites with and feeds into a narrower but deeper political movement against the war. Such a unity was critical to the success of the anti-war movement here. The great anti-war mobilisations could not take place without it. That anti-war movement, in turn, has been responsible for bringing a great rupture in the conventional political framework, whose political effects were are only just beginning to see. The battered labour movement is beginning to recover. These are the forces that will demonstrate "another Europe is possible". The constitution, if ratified, will only weaken them.