The 1975 song – The People United Will Never Be Defeated – which was written in sympathy with the Chileans after the brutal Pinochet coup and other national struggles (for example, in Italy and Germany) raises the question: Who are ‘The People’. Relatedly, in Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) we talk about a currency-issuing government being able to pursue public purpose which advances the well-being of the people. Who is the public and the people in that context? I ask these questions because they are germane to research on cosmopolitanism and the Left view of the European Union and similar arrangements that reflect an antipathy towards the concept of the ‘nation state’ and the belief that progressive advance can only be organised at a supra-national level in order to be effective. Today’s blog post just continues that theme based on current research.
The 1975 song reprises some of the Solidaritätslied which “is a revolutionary working song written between 1929 and 1931 by Bertoit Brecht” about the tribulations of workers facing unemployment and homelessness during the Weimar Republic in Germany.
It also reprised words from the Carlo Tuzzi’s 1908 song – Bandiera Rossa – about the Italian labour movement’s struggles for socialism.
Importantly, it was augmented to recognise the emergence of the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini with the lyrics “Long live communism and freedom” (translated from the Italian).
The point is is about these songs are about the independent national struggles in Germany and Italy for a better society for their workers by their workers.
The various versions of these melodies and lyrics have been subsequently used in other national struggles for better workers’ rights in various nations.
That gives us a hint of who the ‘People’ that are the object of the song might be.
In our 2017 book book – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World (Pluto Books, September 2017) – Thomas Fazi and I framed the problem of progressive struggle in terms of a focus on the nation state.
Our ‘vision’ rejected the view held by many progressive thinkers that the nation state was no longer a viable organising unit for political decision-making because global capital had rendered national borders irrelevant.
We initially made it clear that our conceptualisation of the ‘nation state’ had nothing to do with xenophobia, ethnicity, etc – the traditional concerns of ‘nationalists’.
For us, the nation state was defined in terms of currency sovereignty and the attendant capacities that flowed from this status.
We contended that the currency-issuing nation state was the appropriate organising scale for progressive advance and that many on the Left had abandoned that scale, or claim they have, as an expression of their activism.
They eschew what they claim is nationalism!!!
And they accuse any one who promotes a concept of a national community as being racist, and more recently (in the British context) of being anti-Semitic.
Which then leads them to hang on to notions, for example, of a ‘united Europe’ even though it is plainly obvious to them that constructs like the EU have become neoliberal to the core (at the Treaty level) and many of the more astute thinkers realise that it is impossible to reform that sort of structure in any progressive way.
Others hang on to vague notions of an eventual reform process delivering outcomes that might turn out to be an attenuated version of the neoliberalism.
But the Left has to face the fact – the so-called ‘Four Freedoms’ underpinning the – European Single Market – that are at the core of the EU are basic neoliberal constructs.
The question that has occupied my thoughts in the recent past period relates to why are elements on the Left (the group I summarise as the ‘Europhile Left’) so dogmatic about the need to subjugate national autonomy to supra-national authority and hold on to the view that this supra-national authority is the only way to deliver progressive outcomes.
The view is rather odd when we, for example, examine the evolution of the European Union over the last several decades under its ‘single market’ aegis.
I realise that, say, in the British case, the various sequence of British governments starting with the Callaghan Labour government in the 1970s through to the modern Tory disaster have been ‘more’ neoliberal than the other EU Member States.
But that doesn’t alter the argument which is about bringing the political struggle back to the scale defined by the currency issuer and reducing the capacity for depoliticisation (for example, the ‘Brussels told us to do it’ dodge).
In – Reclaiming the State: A Progressive Vision of Sovereignty for a Post-Neoliberal World – we demonstrate that a fundamental shift in progressive thinking about these matters occurred in the mid-1970s, when the Callaghan Labour government in Britain turned ‘Monetarist’.
At this point, the supra-nationalists in the Left turned their back on a glorious history of struggle on behalf of the workers.
Relatedly, the lacuna left by the lack of leadership in the social democratic movements around the world (which has seen their electoral popularity plummet), is being rapidly filled by so-called ‘populist’ forces, mostly on the Right.
The Left decry these developments – and evoke the fears they have about the rise of ‘nationalism’.
But, curiously, they pin their strategy on ‘reforming’ the dysfunctional supra-national apparatus, which has contributed to the malaise in the first place.
They are so scared of ‘nationalism’ that they will fight to stay in a predatory, neo-liberal structure (for example, the EU).
And when that is pointed out to them they come back with claims that the EU is not really neoliberal – that there is plenty of scope for individual action at the Member State level.
A recent case in point is the UK Guardian article (March 2, 2019) – Labour’s Leavers have got the wrong idea about the EU – where we learn that:
1. Greece was spending like crazy and had to be wound back – so the Germans or Brussels are to blame for its destruction.
2. That the fact that “the EU can block domestic budgets that overstep debt rules” does not stop Member States from doing good things – as long as they are prepared to tolerate 20 per cent unemployment for ever.
3. That the EU doesn’t stop “state-owned business to run trains” even though the “operation of trains and network must be separated. Yes, but once the rail systems are privatised, a Member State cannot reinstate a public monopoly – which is actually the point in relation to British Labour’s Manifesto.
All the usual arguments.
The point is that there are two interrelated problems facing progressive advance for nations such as Britain:
1. Its own domestic neoliberalism – DNA for Tories; dominating Labour via the Blairites.
2. Its membership of the EU.
Dealing with the first will always be frustrated by the second, which is why I support Brexit.
As I have said often, even if Britain deals with the second, there are no guarantees that it will benefit, if it fails to deal with the first.
Brexit is, in my view, a necessary not sufficient condition for advance.
But what it will do is firmly focus the political struggle on the domestic situation, which is the traditional arena for these types of power struggles.
Prior to the shift in focus towards supra-nationalism, the progressive Left were traditionally very much ‘nationalist’ in outlook.
As Noam Gidron wrote in the Vox Op Ed (February 8, 2018) – The left shouldn’t fear nationalism. It should embrace it:
… while many people take for granted an inherent contradiction between nationalism and left-wing politics, there simply isn’t one, either historically or philosophically …
Throughout the 20th century, progressives mobilized for social justice most successfully when they spoke in the name of national solidarity …
Left-wingers often cite the adage that patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel — and with good reason. But it is important to also remember that a deep sense of national commitment underpins the egalitarian institutions we hold dear.
Left-wing struggle has always been organised at the national level and focused on improving the lot of the workers within that spatial domain.
It was never a feature of Left struggle that a concern for ‘workers of the world’ should be at the expense of the workmates around us.
And, moreover establishing a sense of “national communities” with a “deep commitment to the well-being, welfare and social esteem of our fellow citizens” is the best way to display generosity to other workers on an international scale, who may not be as well off.
Noam Gidron wrote:
We have deep and encompassing obligations to those we consider our own, based on a shared sense of membership in a community of fate — or more simply, based on our shared national identity.
This sense of national solidarity was “at the core of the social democratic agenda”.
The – Social and Allied Services – aka ‘Beveridge Report’ (download in PDF from the Archive is 60 mbs) – published on November 20, 1942 was one of the foundational documents of the full employment era in the Anglo world.
It defined the Social Democratic vision of the Welfare State, early in the post Second War period.
I discussed the Report in these blog posts (among others):
1. Back to William Beveridge requires a commitment to true full employment (January 3, 2012).
2. Employment as a human right (June 29, 2017).
The Terms of Reference were clear:
To undertake, with special reference to the inter-relation of the schemes, a survey of the existing national schemes of social insurance and allied services, including workmen’s compensation, and to make recommendations.
If you read the 300-plus page Report, and I have read it several times since I started researching these issues in the late 1970s, you will see a focus on conditions in Britain.
From the outset, the pros and cons of existing conditions in Britain are analysed. There is scant mention of working conditions elsewhere.
Further, he followed up the release of his Report with a monograph – The Pillars of Security and Other War-time Essays and Addresses (published 1943), which in his own words presented “some duplication of thought and phrase” with his other work at the time (including the Beveridge Report).
He wrote (p.10) of the Beveridge Report that there was a “deep and vivid interest of the people of Britain in the kind of Britain which is to emerge when the floods of war subside” and that the essays in the “Pillars” volume would “put that Report more clearly in its proper perspective”.
He wanted nothing short of a “programme of ‘New Britain'”.
Chapter 13 on ‘Social Security and Social Policy’ he addresses the various snipes and criticisms that had been made of the Beveridge Report since its release.
In a way, his response is redolent of how I think in relation to the current gross misrepresentations of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT) that are now making a daily appearance in various social and other media outlets.
William Beveridge wrote (p.138):
The time has come, I think, for Sir William Beveridge himself to say that he never said that.
In other words, if one wants to know what MMT is read the original literature!
In a sub-section of that Chapter entitled “The National Minimum a British Idea”, we read that he thought the Beveridge Report:
… as a whole is intended to give effect to what I regard as a peculiarly British idea: the idea of a national minimum … which we learnt from the trade unions and have embodied in Trade Board Acts, is necessary but isn’t sufficient. There is wanted also a minimum income for subsistence when wages fall for any reason; a minimum provision for children; a minimum of health, of housing, of education …
All these aspirations are clearly ‘national’ in spatial spread.
And, when one researches the historical record in more depth, it was clear that the Labour movement, in general, gave the Report “Enthusiastic support” (Source).
– “… it lays the right foundations”.
– “… the Plan as a whole clearly conforms to trade Union principles, objects and aims.”
– “… is its importane as a test and touchstone of our political future as a democracy.”
And, the same arguments that circulate today in relation to MMT from the Marxists, were wheeled out about the Beveridge Report:
… this plan is founded on the wrong principle. It is an attempt to make the worker more secure under Capitalisml and that can only result in an even worse catastrophe.
And that sort of criticism will ever be thus and is essentially without reply. In the modern context, I just say – enjoy the latte while the revolution is plotted.
We can find similar ‘grand statements’ around this time in other nations, all of which talk about ‘The People’ in terms of solidarity and collective will.
The point is a progressive view of national solidarity was always at the heart of the labour movement.
The operation and the viability of the Welfare State was predicated on a sense of “shared national identities”, as Will Kymlicka (December 17, 2015) wrote in his article – Solidarity in diverse societies: beyond neoliberal multiculturalism and welfare chauvinism (Comparative Migration Studies).
He wrote of “the importance of national solidarity as a progressive political resource” and the way that it can be reconciled with global concerns about immigration and multiculturalism.
His discussion goes to the heart of who ‘The People’ represents.
He notes that a commitment and agreement “that decisions should be made democratically” in not capable, alone, of defining what a ‘nation’ represents.
His example is that all people in Europe probably share that commitment but that doesn’t “tell us whether there should be one state in Europe, or twenty-eight, or two hundred and eighty.”
But to advance the discussion, we see that:
Nationhood provides a sense of belonging together and a desire to act collectively. Ideas of belonging together, collective agency and attachment to territory are part of the very meaning of shared nationhood. Where a sense of nationhood is widely diffused, people think it is right and proper that they form a single unit, and that they should act collectively, despite their diverging interests and ideologies.4 Nationhood, in short, generates converging preferences on units.
This in turn allows redistributive welfare state structures to work smoothly. That capacity has clearly bedevilled the Eurozone, for example, which lacks a sense of ‘nationhood’.
And while this sense of ‘nationhood’ engenders are particular view of ‘The People’, which the neoliberal era has attempted to erode, it also does not preclude generosity to peoples in other nations.
We are to understand that there are two arenas:
1. The welfare state – which defines a “social membership”, the rights of citizens, a “shared society”
2. Humanitarian concerns for all – “the welfare state is not about a humanitarian impulse to relieve suffering, offer hospitality, or rescue from distress”.
That is the dilemma that the cosmopolitans toy with.
They want one world but then put borders around part of that world and operate as if they are nation states. But they lack the ‘social membership’ quality that ensures there is on-going social justice and an upholding of citizens’ rights.
No one could rightly argue that the EU upholds the rights of the Greek people. They have been sacrificial lambs to uphold the arbitrary rules that define the EU fiscal structures.
And that is quite apart from whether the Greeks were profligate or not.
Will Kymlicka provides a useful example – a sort of test:
If someone has a heart attack in front of us on the street, we have a humanitarian obligation to assist, whether they are tourists or citizens, but in the case of citizens, we also have an obligation to identify and address factors (such as economic insecurity) that make some people much more vulnerable to heart attacks than others. We typically do not think we have a comparable obligation with respect to tourists. We might say that justice amongst members is egalitarian, whereas justice to strangers is humanitarian, and social justice in this sense arguably depends on bounded solidarities. Nationhood has helped to secure such an ethic of membership, and its resulting bounded solidarity.
That has been the historical position of the progressive Left.
In defining the welfare state in terms of ‘social membership’, we are not forgetting that within that ‘club’ is an ongoing power struggle between labour and capital – between those who want solidarity and those who do not.
Interestingly, the Post Second World War era was marked by a transition, sometimes subtle, among the socially progressive political parties, to being voices of “the people” in a struggle for social justice and away from an emphasis on class antagonism and system overthrow.
Socialist parties became social democratic parties. It was not a smooth, uncontested transition. But it occurred.
It didn’t mean that class conflict and struggle didn’t “shape” the way in which the welfare state evolved. There is an extremely complicated discussion to be had about the layering of class over nationhood.
In a future blog post(s), I will juxtapose nationhood as the organising unit for progressive action with other conceptions – such as the “various post-national cosmopolitan, agonistic, or ecological theories of democracy and citizenship” all of which eschew, allegedly, the concept of nationhood.
And as an afterthought, while I was digging through my document pile, I was reminded of this – Speech – by the, then British Labour Party leader, Hugh Gaitskell to the Labour Party Annual Conference on October 3, 1962
He listed the reasons why he was opposed to UK membership of the Common Market.
1. “So let us have less of this talk of narrow nationalism” – he was decrying national stereotypes.
2. “It is not a matter of just any union, it is a matter of what are the effects of the union” – he thought the concept of the ‘union’ was less important than the specific nature of the legal structures and ideology of the union.
3. “We want to be quite sure that we are free to deal with the problem of local unemployment in the way we think best”.
4. “Nor can we ignore the possibility that in view of the removal of controls on capital movements we could be faced with a dangerous situation in this country and yet lack the independent power to deal with it” – this is a point I will elaborate on in a future blog post.
One of the classic attacks these days on MMT is that we have ignored the power of global capital. The claim is false and in many of the core writings one can find discussion of this issue.
The capacity to invoke capital controls is one measure that a progressive government would desire to stem speculative capital flows. Membership of the EU prohibits such tools. That, in itself, is a significant reason why a progressive nation should stay clear of the EU.
5. And Hugh Gaitskell noted – “some of the measures which Selwyn Lloyd took in 1961, could not have been taken without the approval of the Commission and the Council of Ministers” – Lloyd was a Tory Chancellor between 1961 and 1962 in Harold Macmillan’s government. He oversaw the 1961 currency crisis.
6. “The T.U.C. were absolutely justified in pressing upon the Government the need for the special and indeed overriding recognition of the importance of maintaining full employment. For my part, I should like to see it made plain that a British Government is bound to put this as its top priority and that it cannot be deprived of the power to use whatever methods it thinks are necessary to secure and maintain security for our people”.
7. “We are now being told that the British people are not capable of judging this issue – the Government know best; the top people are the only people who can understand it; it is too difficult for the rest. This is the classic argument of every tyranny in history” – resonates with the view that the Leave vote was not legitimate because the voters were ignorant, racist buffoons!.
8. “But what an odious piece of hypocritical, supercilious, arrogant rubbish is this! And how typical of the kind of Tory propaganda we may expect upon the subject – the appeal to snobbery: ‘the big people know best; you had better follow them!’ It is all on a par with the argument of inevitability. ‘You cannot escape: you must be with it. You must belong, no matter to what you belong.’ What a pitiful level of argument we have reached!”
We can, of course, extend the list of propagandists to Blairites, Europhiles and more.
Not much has changed has it since 1962.
I urge you to read the whole document.
This is ongoing research.
Helsinki Lecture Series
My lecture series at the University of Helsinki in my role as Docent Professor of Global Political Economy, at that university, is now in its second week.
The lectures are part of a formal program but the public is welcome to attend subject to lecture hall space being available.
The remaining lecture schedule is:
- Tuesday, March 5 – 10.15–11.45
- Wednesday, March 6 – 12.15–13.45
- Thursday March 7 – 12.15–13.45
They will be held in Lecture hall XV (fourth floor) at the University of Helsinki main building, entrance from Unioninkatu.
Our original introductory textbook has now been withdrawn from sale as per our agreement with Macmillan.
The material was absorbed, in rewritten form, into our new textbook – Macroeconomics – which was published on February 25, 2019.
The new book has an additional 18 chapters and the content is considerably expanded. It covers a two-semester sequence (at least) from introductory on at the University level.
That is enough for today!
(c) Copyright 2019 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.