Over the past decade or more the core nations within the European Union, have been in, or close to a terminal economic and social crisis. Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and the UK, are among the worst effected, but these are not the only countries exhibiting severe economic, financial and social dysfunctions. Even those in the best of conditions are only lower down an increasingly long sick list and still waiting for some form of financial triage. The various forms of capitalist inspired welfare-state economic models, set up after the Second World War are now progressively failing the bulk of their working-class and lower middle-class citizens. Most of the social-welfare systems in European countries are either under considerable strain or slowly hemorrhaging as the economic and social crisis deepens. In addition, unemployment and low-paid precarious employment have become outstanding features also common to all EU countries.
Even in the UK, which is by no means the worst example, there are crisis levels of failure in housing, hospitals, prisons, old-age and child-care services, education, policing and local government services. To a greater or lesser extent, such compound failures are to be found within all the nation’s of the European Union. A noteworthy consequence of this state of affairs, is the fact that it has become popular in the media and some political circles to blame the act of union itself along with its adopted currency (the Euro) for these multiple failures. This superficial blame-game is occuring despite the fact that these self-same symptoms are to a considerable degree, replicated throughout the entire capitalist world.
Europe’s problems are actually global problems.
For example, in North America and South America, the same or similar siguations exist despite the fact that none of these countries are part of a structured economic, political or monetary union. The socio-economic situation became so bad for working people in the Middle East and North Africa that it sparked off what became known as the Arab Spring. Not one of those countries was in an economic or political union or operating with a common currency. From such a degree of global concurrence, it should be obvious that something much more fundamental than national co-operation and a currency weakness has been at work in Europe. Yet very few media commentators and so-called economic experts have concluded that it is the capitalist mode of production globally that is causing the problems within the EU and elsewhere – not the union of European people, nor the common currency they have adopted.
This unwillingness or inability to understand the role of capitalist economic model when serious problems occur, has led to the search for secondary and superficial symptoms to blame. It is as a consequence of this failure to understand the real cause of the problems facing people and nations in Europe, that the European Union project now has a good chance of falling apart. Economic and political disunity is replacing unity. The UK has already decided to exit and this spring intends to trigger it’s Brexit process of institutional separation from the European Union.
Unsurprisingly, and arising from a similarly mistaken diagnosis, it is also the case that many people in other countries are thinking of doing the same. This rejection of the EU, is a movement which is gathering strength and being led in a right-wing nationalist direction rather than an anti – capitalist internationalist one, with all the potential dangers this holds. After Brexit, will there be a Grexit, or a Frexit, or any other alphabetic prefixes from the 27 member countries of this capitalist club? That remains to be seen, but either way as the capitalist economic system continues to convulse and stagnate there is more big trouble brewing in Europe. And not for the first time.
Europe – a source of immense wealth.
Since the beginning of recorded history there have been elites fighting each other for domination of what is now known as Europe. Long before the present countries of Europe were formed by means of the sword and cannon, tank and bomb, the continent was seen as an attractive place to live for some and a lucrative place to loot for others. The reason is obvious. Europe is a very productive landmass. It has an excellent range of climates, with well – watered land. It can produce large surpluses of food and raw materials. Navigable rivers and nearby seas made access for trade or invasion not too difficult. The ancient Greeks elites found Europe so productive they invaded many parts of it and colonised as much as they could manage. Later the elites of the Roman Republic, Empire and Principate did their best to tax and tithe as much of the Eastern and Western Europe as they could control before this form of forced European unity eventually broke apart.
Other successive elite attempts to exploit the people and resources of Europe – as a whole or in part – by armed aggression have included the French under Napoleon Bonaparte, the Austria-Hungarian dynasty of oppressors, the Prussian elites of Bismarck’s time and even the Czarist aristocrats of pre-revolutionary Russia managed to march their peasant army as far as Paris before retiring to control more manageable portions of eastern Europe. The Nazis by blitzkrieg and ‘boots on the ground’, occupied as much of Europe as possible before being fought to a standstill and final defeat.
The Stalinist elite at the end of the Second World War got as far as Berlin in their so-called socialist union of states, before it too collapsed. All these successive fuedal and later non-fuedal elites recognised that Europe could not only sustain it’s working population in an adequate fashion, but could also be a source of wealth extraction for their own insatiable greed. That is why they fought lengthy wars to get their hands on it. Each time – whoever won – the successful elites drained wealth away from those who produced it and brought misery, hardship along with premature death into their lives.
Undoubtedly it is a fact that wealth extraction by elites has been the recurring trouble for Europe in the past and it is still the trouble now. Europe (including Greece, Spain, Portugal and Italy etc.) would be fine without its collective production being continually diverted into the pockets and bank accounts of the obscenely wealthy. It would have always been a wonderful place for working people to live if it were not for them being excessively exploited and continually being dragged into the ‘us’ and ‘them’ wars between squabbling factions of the numerous feudal and post-feudal elites. In the early 20th century the countries of Europe experienced essentially the same symptoms of widespread unemployment, economic stagnation and financial collapse, from essentially the same causes.
In that case – as now – there was a rejection of establishment politics and a turn to more radical right wing and left wing forms. In western Europe the left-wing radicals lost, the right-wing radicals won and led many countries to flirt with or actually fully embrace extreme forms of nationalist tribalism – Fascism! But this outcome did not occur before working class resistance to that crisis was first divided (racially, politically and nationally) before being defeated. At one level the modern European Union of the mid to late 20th century was created in order to regulate wealth extraction by the various national elites without the need of going to war with each ‘other’ as had happened in the past and again in 1914 and 1939.
The neo-liberal occupation of Europe.
Yet it clearly hasn’t worked. Wealth is still being extracted from working people in Europe and they are still being pitted against each other by their national elites. The essential difference is that this contest is currently being conducted by means of economic wars instead of the military wars of the past. In addition, over several decades the European elites of each country have repeatedly used divisive ideologies and the power of the state to crush the organised resistance of working people to their increased exploitation. Defeated workers in this neo-liberal economic war have been forced into unemployment schemes, foodbanks, slums and street living rather than being herded into ghettos, concentration camps and work detachments. Financial explosions have replaced high explosive bombs raining down on innocent people in towns and cities, but lives are still being shattered when credit-default swaps and other instruments of financial destruction detonate. The edifices of welfare provision are now being steadily undermined rather than the trenches of militarised warfare, but casualties are still mounting up in practically every town and village. Alongside discrete pockets of prosperity in Europe there has been a long 50 year economic and financial war against the working classes.
At the heart of the EU neo-liberal economic and political agreement, is the free movement of capital and labour which enables high levels of wealth extraction to take place. This, together with the political institutions necessary for its smooth functioning, has allowed the business, financial and political elites to accumulate large amounts of wealth and carve out lucrative careers for themselves. All this elite wealth has been extracted by means of taxes and unpaid labour-power from the combined working classes of Europe. The hugely disproportional wealth accumulation at the heart of the capitalist mode of production, is merely the other side of the coin to the unemployment, precarious employment, low pay, and atrophy of welfare services for ordinary working people.
Moreover, it is the relative impoverishment of the majority, which has helped to further accelerate economic stagnation and welfare reductions within this huge continent and threatens the unravelling of the Europe Union in its present form. Less income paid to the masses means less taxes paid to the state and less spent in the shops. Tax dodging by rich individuals and companies adds to the problem of state debt. Once again capitalism has entered a systemic crisis and stagnation phase and a downward economic and social spiral has developed. It cannot be surprising, then that after many economic and social defeats, working people in Europe have now begun another fight back – albeit within the realm of elite-controlled politics. With as yet very little alternatives, many working people have broken completely with neo-liberal social democratic globalists and are choosing to follow the nationalistic pro-capitalists wing of politics which has once again become more emboldened and more successful.
Renewed nationalism in Europe (and elsewhere).
However, a move to nationalism offers no solution for the working classes in Europe or elsewhere. Nationalism, in its modern bourgeois form, is more than just an ideology based upon the needs of a particular section of the pro-capitalist elite to control the resources of an area of territory and deliniate it by natural or human determined ‘borders’. To accomplish this territorial control it also needs an emotional dimension which utilises an ‘us’ and ‘them’, social pathology. It is this aspect of nationalist ideology, which under certain circumstances, can also function as a cancerous social pathogen. The ‘us’ is imagined as being a collective based upon some pre-selected partial form of identity. The ‘them’ are all other human beings who are judged to not belong to the ‘us’ collective.
As noted earlier, this ‘us’ and ‘them’ dualistic social pathology leading to war ang genocide has a long terminological history; eg. Greek and Barbarian, Jew and Gentile, Orthodox and Catholic, Protestant and Catholic, Hindu and Muslim, black and white, etc. This pattern of pejorative ‘us’ and ‘them’ discrimination also occurs in many other areas of contemporary life, from gangs to football, for example. How dangerous this commonly displayed symptom becomes depends upon the area of focus and the type of stress people are under. It becomes particularly dangerous when it is ramped up into something resembling a socio-psychological disorder such as ultra-nationalism. This is because hightened nationalism and extreme nationalism, due to real or perceived stress, frequently claims an imagined superiority to the ‘us’ and an imagined inferiority to ‘them’. That way they can then become stereotyped as the despised ‘other’. With the massaging and grooming of a collective ego, in this way the ‘us’ and ‘them’ syndrome can then take on a more malignant form.
It was a combination of extreme nationalism and a compounded ‘us’ and ‘them’ syndrome (using race, religion or political criteria) that became something of a bourgeois inspired social disease and enabled the 20th century Fascists in Italy, Germany, Spain (and the elite in Japan) to gain political and then military power. And this is merely to note the 20th century examples of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ genocidal outcomes of this ideological malady. It is precisely, this ‘us’ and ‘them’ syndrome worked up into a serious socio-psychological disorder which is also the hallmark of modern day Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorism rooted in the Middle-East etc., and Jewish and Christian Zionism focussed on the gradual anihilation of Palestine. However, it should be remembered that the cultural origin of all the various ‘us’ and ‘them’ pathologies is a part of all our histories. It is a tendency to which we can all become susceptible – if we fail to recognise it’s danger and oppose it.
Another World (and another Europe) is possible.
For this reason, any proposition which does not consistently elevate ‘humanity’ over all other forms of identity will allow the ‘us’ and ‘them’ virus to stay alive. And, as in the past, this virus can easily become immune to the superficial remedies normally used to keep it under control – or more accurately – which drive it underground. When immunity happens, the pathogen can then break out in a full-blown epidemic or social pandemic. I suggest, a resurgent Fascist movement is still not yet on the cards in Europe, or elsewhere, but currently the ideological virus of ‘us’ and ‘them’ discrimination is being kept alive on all sides of the political spectrum. It is also evident that various forms of authoritarian tendencies are impatiently waiting their chances to assist in spreading this intellectual disease further.
The possibility of such a development is particularly dangerous when one section of the working classis is considered as the ‘us’ and another section of the working class projected as ‘them’. This is a policy utilised by all past elites and the pro-capitalist elites of today are no different in this regard. They are eminantly capable of using it in one form or another, (based upon the ‘us’ and ‘them’ of race, age, gender, nationality or religion) to divide the workers and pit them against each other. Even – despicable workers (voting for Trump) versus reasonable workers (voting for Clinton) – or pro-brexit workers versus anti-brexit workers – has recently been used to serve such a divisive purpose. This too needs to be resisted before it goes any further. It should be obvious that being united to the highest possible degree is the only way working people can eventually challenge and overcome the powerful system which exploits them all to a greater or lesser degree.
When some on the left join the bourgeoisie in positing ‘us’ and ‘them’ in relationship to any divided opinions among working class victims of the capitalist mode of production, then intentionally or unintentionally they are betraying the project of uniting the working classes of the world. The working classes of Europe (as elsewhere) are currently being drawn toward nationalism and religious – sectarianism by right-wing political or religious reactionaries. They are being pushed in the same general direction by social-democratic left-wing reactionary ideology which elevates secondary identity antagonisms over class antagonisms. The latter by their failure to seriously and consistently champion the rights of all workers, white, black, men, women, young, old, to a life beyond wage-slavery or even beyond unemployment and relative, if not absolute poverty, have left many of the oppressed with very little choice but to assert their chosen non-class based identities and pit these against all the ‘others’.
I further suggest that genuine revolutionary-humanists should not be expressing ideas which try to persuade workers to adopt any of these divisive opinions even when they – like ourselves – make problematical or contradictory decisions from time to time. The future for a peaceful Europe and a peaceful globe requires a voluntary unity of working people owning, controlling and sharing their resources on a needs plus basis, not on a profit driven greed basis. For this reason, among many others, we need to view all working people as ‘us’ – as one common humanity. We are the majority of a single species which has before it the urgent task of ending class oppression and divisions and saving the planet along with it’s associated life forms before the capitalist mode of production pushes it and ‘us’ beyond our combined capacity to recover. Sadly, that way of viewing Europe and the world has still to be struggled for on the intellectual level as well as achieved on the practical level. Whether enough of ‘us’ respond to this task, to make a difference in the difficult years ahead, remains to be seen.
Roy Ratcliffe (March 2017)