Just as we cannot detach colonialism or slavery from the golden age of liberalism, neither can we swallow modern-day mainstream rhetoric on rights and freedoms in the face of racist migration policies and war, writes NICK WRIGHT swriting in the Morning Star
THERE is a measure of uncertainty about Rishi Sunak’s tenure at Downing Street. He is supposed to be the guarantor of fiscal responsibility and stable government. But he cannot be that sure of his footing in the parliamentary party if he has to maintain Suella Braverman in office as a sop to those he recently deposed.
There is of course, much-exaggerated liberal outrage at Braverman’s posturing, but the fact is that she is merely putting into words what are the essential features of Britain’s racist and discriminatory immigration policy, which itself is simply a different rendering of the principles which underpin the EU’s approach to the huge population shifts which are an unavoidable feature of 21st-century capitalism.
The notion of Europe as the embodiment of liberal values underpins much middle-class thinking about present-day politics. It is a famously flexible feature of the 18th and 19th-century notion of Europe a beacon of civilisation. This comes into violent conflict with reality every time a migrant child dies entering the watery frontiers of the EU in the Mediterranean.
Braverman, like her predecessor as minister of the interior, uses the same phraseology as deployed by the neo-fascist forces presently rising in some European states. These wrap their racist and exclusionary rhetoric around opposing migration as a necessity to defend European values against alien invasions.
The hinterland of thought behind current migration policies is widely shared across the spectrum of official politics. Hence, we find Labour’s contender for the Home Office job no less exclusionary in her take on cross-Channel migration, while the Labour leader himself can’t reflect on staff shortages in the NHS without — unconsciously, it might appear — reinforcing the racist narrative.
In France, Marine Le Pen now represents her anti-migrant policies as a defence of “republican” values. The Danish social democrats now compete with their domestic far right in promulgating restrictive and racist anti-immigrant laws. The newly resurgent Scandinavian far right presents its trademark Islamophobia as a defence of traditional and Nordic virtues, with a social democratic twist.
These elements see the cultural resilience and political resistance of migrant communities as a repudiation of liberal values, rather than a legitimate defence of their way of life.
The membranes which separate European liberal values from the most reactionary are fully permeable. Victor Orban’s Fidesz party was originally presented as a liberal challenge to Hungarian socialism and the man himself was vice-president of the Liberal International.
Against this there exists a materialist trend of thinking that is resolutely critical of Europe’s long tradition of hypocrisy. With his book Liberalism, a Counter History, the late Italian Marxist thinker Domenico Losurdo challenged the bourgeois mystification which hides liberalism’s shared heritage with the atavistic values of colonialism and the slavery which is the source of capital accumulation in every European and North American state.
Losurdo spells out, with great clarity and detail, the intimate relationship between the slavery that was the foundation of European hegemony and liberal political thought that marked the triumph of the transatlantic bourgeoisie.
His most distinctive innovation is his interrogation of long-buried sources of liberal thought as the ideology of racial and class hierarchy. This is supplemented by a searching investigation into the role of liberalism in the dominant ideologies which exclude “the other” from the bourgeois conception of the “community of the free.”
This is our nation’s history. In his Considerations on Representative Government, the English liberal John Stuart Mill conceived of the British empire in particular as a guarantor of “friendly co-operation among nations.”
He was writing the at the height of British imperial supremacy and deep into the industrial revolution — a revolution capitalised by slave labour — that gave Britain its head start in global warming.
Mill’s evasions survived neither the 19th-century conflicts with French, Dutch and Spanish rivals, nor the 20th-century challenge from a rising imperial Germany.
On this rivalry, Lenin wrote with painful irony: “Take the history of the naval and military expenditures of these two groups over a period of decades, take the history of the little wars they waged before the big war— ‘little’ because few Europeans died in those wars, whereas hundreds of thousands of people belonging to the nations they were subjugating died in them, nations which from their point of view could not be regarded as nations at all (you couldn’t very well call those Asians and Africans nations!); the wars waged against these nations were wars against unarmed people, who were simply shot down, machine gunned. Can you call them wars? Strictly speaking they were not wars at all, and you could forget about them.”
Britain’s 20th-century colonial wars, and the 21st-century Nato wars on Iraq and Afghanistan, are perfect examples of this kind of thinking, while the binary division in the minds of EU functionaries between Ukrainians and “others” is a modern-day variant.
For today’s “new cold war” warriors — who see themselves as liberals — this would be a challenge to their self-image, if they but allowed it.
Through the politics of war and refugees, the notion of the EU as an inherently progressive framework in which subaltern social groups are able to make a claim for equality, full liberty and universal human rights — buttressed by a supranational legal framework — is taking a battering.
The barely suppressed thought which posits a hierarchy of access to these values is made explicit in the treatment experienced by Ukrainian refugees in contrast to that imposed on those fleeing Nato’s wars or capitalism’s climate change in sub-Saharan Africa.
The refugee crisis is the burden its imperialist foreign policy has imposed on the European federal state. The costs of the Ukraine war are the price all of Europe is paying this winter for the surrender of sovereignty to the US.
Escaping the long shadow of EU fantasies
Keir Starmer’s sly sabotage of Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit campaign compromise — to respect the referendum result and negotiate an equitable deal with the EU — relied on the wide currency of liberal-minded illusions about the neoliberal EU.
Starmer broke shadow cabinet discipline to tell Labour conference that Labour was not opposed to a second referendum.
In retrospect, it is clear that this breached the trust millions of voters had in Labour’s word and was the turning point in the multi-faceted campaign to ensure the replacement of its leadership — and Labour’s electoral defeat, which was the price willingly paid for achieving this objective.
I had an interesting exchange with my neighbour who was staffing the People’s Vote stall in town. A progressive-minded Labour supporter and ardent anti-racist, he knew little of the Maastricht Treaty but was fiercely opposed to PFI schemes and privatisation.
He expressed some anxieties about the EU’s hard border against refugees, but had a vague and mistaken notion that the European Convention on Human Rights was an EU initiative.
He was sure the EU guaranteed trade union rights, but knew nothing of the European Court of Justice decisions on labour market “flexibility” and thought the Lisbon Treaty was about fair trade with the global South.
Surprised to find that the European Commission had annual oversight of member states’ budgets, he speculated naively that it might function as a moderating measure on Tory cuts.
My last conversation with him was dispiriting. His earlier enthusiasm for politics was diminished, and he had no explanation for Starmer’s now-resolute bipartisan commitment to Brexit.
This scenario is repeated in millions of instances, and is, where expulsion is not a factor, an explanation for the large-scale demobilisation of Labour Party activists.
When, at the turning point in the 2014 Ukraine “constitutional” crisis, and in conversation with the US ambassador to Ukraine, Victoria Nuland uttered the decisive words “fuck the EU,” it was in the context of a discussion about who the US would endorse as the next prime minister of Ukraine.
As US deputy secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, she was letting the world know that the domestic interests of European states and the collective interests of Europe — in as far as they were articulated by the EU — were to be subordinated to US global strategy.
Nuland is now, after the Trumpian interregnum, promoted and restored to prominence as the Under Secretary for Political Affairs with oversight of the totality of US global policy.
Just last month, she visited Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso — places in Africa where US interests run up against those of neo-colonial power France, and where Russia and China are building close relations with some states.
The left and the labour movement need to take account of the contradictions between the US global strategy and the interests of European capital, and be alert to the ways in which working-class interests are thus affected.
The fight for peace is one front in this battle. Alongside the Nato conflict with Russia being fought out over Ukraine, there is a renewed campaign for civil resilience — hardening domestic economies and civic institutions as a preparation for war — that goes alongside new repressive laws that seek to contain the inevitable resistance to counter inflation economic policies.
And there is a new burst of historical revisionism — the recasting of the victory over fascism in 1945 — as the ideological accompaniment to Nato’s expansion. This goes alongside the austerity regimes of the crisis-ridden states of capitalist Europe and the repressive laws, anti-union ordinances and enhanced police regimes that our rulers see as necessary to contain revolt.