Friday, 1 February 2019

Europe's Bourgeois Democracy

The American academic Alex Gourevitch has come in for some justified criticism on this side of the pond for penning a "Lexit" analysis of the current political gridlock in the UK entitled "Leave the EU Already". Apart from the annoying tone, his article is shallow in its understanding of both the EU and British politics. It presents Brexit as a matter of popular sovereignty and the cack-handed process overseen by the Conservative government as a strategy of elite delay pending a reversal of the referendum decision. This is doubly wrong. The UK does not recognise popular sovereignty, even if it does accept the obligation to honour the 2016 referendum result, and the legislature is actually united on the need to leave the EU, hence the vote to trigger Article 50 in 2017, it just cannot agree on the terms of doing so or the basis of the future relationship. However, I'm less interested in Gourevitch's misunderstanding of British politics than his insistence that "The European Union is one of the chief enemies of democratic politics", which is a claim regularly made by British Lexiteers as well.

The EU isn't an enemy of democracy, but it does believe in a limited and managed form of it in which certain interests are dominant. Of course, all democracies are managed, so this isn't really saying much. The fundamental question is, which interests are dominant? In the managed democracy of Russia, for example, the interests of the state elite are paramount. This reflects the way that the old nomenklatura gave way to the new oligarchs and class-based politics was stillborn in the 90s. As Russia's experience indicates, the variation in democratic practice - i.e. the way in which politics is conducted rather than its institutional form - cannot be understood outside the context of a country's history. To take another example, the current crisis in Venezuela is part of a wider, long-running South American debate over whether democracy should serve the middle class or the working class exclusively, which has given rise to the trope of pink and populist "tides" and the notion of winner-takes-all regime change.

The EU is a bourgeois democracy. I use that adjective not only to emphasise its continuity with political forms that developed in the nineteenth century, but to note that its practice is as much about tone and behaviour as material interest. But that practice can mislead critics into imagining that the EU is contemptuous of the electorate. Gourevitch says "National politicians created the EU institutions in a bid to avoid the rough-and-tumble of democratic representation, turning Europe’s nation-states into member-states". In fact, the EU as a project is an attempt to construct a pan-European middle-class demos committed to sound money and private property. It is an example of democratic construction, albeit a highly qualified one, rather than an attempt to avoid democracy. As such, it is the ironic inheritor of nineteenth century nation-building. Rather than being contemptuous of the people en masse, the EU is discriminatory on the basis of class. A little noted effect of the EU's hegemony has been the way that this discriminatory attitude (which, let us not forget, was pioneered in Europe by Margaret Thatcher) has fed back into domestic politics, notably in the all-too-evident class contempt of Emmanuel Macron.

The rise of populist and illiberal conservative parties within the EU is often framed in terms of Euroscepticism or a reaction to globalisation, but in practice there is little enthusiasm on the political right for quitting the EU, no matter how much they may use it as a scapegoat. The reason for this is that Europe's middle classes appreciate the EU. This can be valorised as "a quest for the quiet life", but what it actually boils down to is simple material interest. The EU preserves post-war middle-class social and economic gains and protects countries that would be individually weaker against the buffeting of global finance. You can launch a right-wing party on the back of Euroscepticism, but to win power you need to guarantee the value of middle class wealth, which means staying in the EU and (for the core) the eurozone. Viktor Orban may rail against George Soros, but he welcomes foreign capital into Hungary. Greece may have voted "No" to the bailout in 2015, but it folded as soon as the threat of expulsion from the eurozone was raised. It would be wrong to assume that the rise of nationalism necessarily weakens the EU. In practice, it does more to inhibit the development of pan-European working class solidarity, thereby preserving the middle-class demos.

So why is the UK different, or at least sufficiently different to vote leave in 2016 and appear sanguine at the prospect of a chaotic no-deal outcome in March? Given that the Scottish Independence referendum in 2014 was swung by middle-class voters frightened at the loss of sterling, perhaps it would be more accurate to ask what is so different about the middle classes of England and Wales (though middle-class Scots who voted for the union and Brexit, first accepting and then rejecting "project fear", would be an interesting case study). Do enough of them imagine that there will be no pain, or are they simply calculating that it will, as in the 1980s, disproportionately hit Mansfield and Tredegar rather than Solihull and Orpington? We should ask them, but the media seem more interested in talking to working class codgers who think that rationing would be good for the nation's moral fibre (at a time of inadequate pay packets and proliferating food-banks, the idea that this is representative of working class opinion is dubious, to say the least).

The focus on working-class reactionaries distracts attention from the comfortable, Tory-voting middle-classes that actually delivered victory for leave. When Labour MPs like John Mann talk about reflecting the views of their constituents, the media interpret this to mean Brexit-supporting Labour voters. In 2017, 43% of the Bassetlaw electorate voted Tory. That's where the bulk of Brexit support is to be found in Mann's constituency. The tensions that gave rise to Brexit were middle-class. On the one hand you had the common desire for a bourgeois Europe as a bulwark against radical socialism (this was an important factor in the British establishment's overwhelming support for the EEC in the 1970s), while on the other you had the lingering belief that the UK remained a global power with an independent destiny. It may be that the receding threat of socialism from the mid-80s caused the latter to become more dominant. Perhaps if Jeremy Corbyn had been elected Labour leader five years earlier, and scored as well in 2015 as he did in 2017, the referendum might have been narrowly won by remain.


  1. "It would be wrong to assume that the rise of nationalism necessarily weakens the EU. In practice, it does more to inhibit the development of pan-European working class solidarity, thereby preserving the middle-class demos."

    An excellent point. As such, in many ways it would be best for left-wing groups to push supranationalism much further and faster, in that it would help to shatter right-wing delusions and establish better links across national boundaries. The lack of 'fraternal' organisation at any popular level has been the most disappointing facet of the 40-odd years of EU membership.

    1. Since the 80s, the political centre left in Europe has focused on winning middle class support via third way policies. Solidarity has been marginalised by common standards & individual rights.

      In theory, the Greens have been best placed to advance supranational progressive politics. In practice, they abandoned activism and cleaved to liberal reformism once they entered national & EU parliaments.

      The trade union movement remains the best hope for the emergence of a genuinely supranational progressivism, but it is obviously vulnerable to nativism and remains constrained by geographical organisation (the old problem of achieving solidarity across multiple sites even within the same country). Paradoxically, the emergence of free-floating employers like Uber may stimulate greater international organisation despite the fragmentation of its workforce.

      The bottom line is that an EU-wide working class demos remains a distant prospect. The electorate in EU elections will continue to be disproportionately middle class (even more so than in domestic elections).

  2. Yes, Greens and Unions have if anything been weakened by their interaction with the EU, effectively acting as lobbyists for certain rules and regulations, but never really campaigning in common cause or in solidarity with foreign movements.

    Maybe part of this is due to the fact that the 'death' of the nation state has been a myth that governments have been only too eager to encourage, enabling them to evade responsibility and find a scapegoat. Unions in particular still seem tied in dependence to state policies focused on competition between different poles of national capital maximisation, even when these involve businesses from other EU states.

  3. ...working class codgers who think that rationing would be good for the nation's moral fibre
    Perhaps they hope that - as in WWII - rationing would actually improve the nation's diet as well.

  4. I speak as someone who voted to remain and regard the vote to leave as nothing more than a racist shreik!

    “The EU is a bourgeois democracy”

    So not a democracy then! More a very efficient way of exploiting the working class, both home and more pointedly abroad.

    Back in the days of the Soviet Union it was claimed, by the apologists for Bourgeois democracy, that it was a totalitarian state because they had a captive media, cameras on every street corner, spied on their citizens, opened citizens letters and did not tolerate alternative views.

    The Bourgeois democracies of today do all that and much more with steroids on – so to some extent a break from the 19th century!

    I am minded to accept the previous categorisation of the USSR as totalitarian and claim that Bourgeois democracy is even more so and getting worse by every technological breakthrough.

    I see the EU as a stepping stone to further totalitarianism and creating a technocracy (again code for a very efficient way of exploiting the working), where people are further removed from the centre of power. Now this doesn’t reduce the amount of democracy so much, because democracy is for me pretty much an illusion. Or more to the point you can have certain rights until you can’t have them!

    Again it is somewhat of a break from the 19th century because we have had the bizarre spectacle, repeated in Sweden, Denmark, Ireland and elsewhere of people getting a vote, voting the wrong way (i.e. against EU membership) and then having other votes until the people voted to join the EU! At this point the votes stop! I suspect we could see a repeat of this in Britain.

    So ‘we voted’ to leave the EU, so the people had their say, they didn’t really have their say, they were allowed to express their own false consciousness, their own brainwashing, their own debasement by the media. The gap between the ideas of those who orchestrated the campaign to leave the EU (reduce legislation, avoid taxes, free the labour market etc) and the ideas of those who voted to leave (stop immigration of dark skinned people) is a nice illustration of the whole disgusting concept that is bourgeois democracy! Talk about idiots led by scoundrels!

    I think I agree with Michael Parenti on this point, ‘democracy’ if it does exist is more a reaction against bourgeois rule not some natural outcome of it. You only have to see the history of bourgeois thought to see how they detest the very idea of democracy! I mean the ideology of the ruling class literally boils down to they are simply better than you. Seriously it doesn’t resolve to anything more than this, once you strip away all the bullshit.

    The actual referendum brought to light all the deficiencies with so called bourgeois democracy. Its shallowness, its ceremonial nature and, its superficiality.

    As the saying goes, the crisis is capitalism!

    Ben said:

    “It would be best for left-wing groups to push supranationalism much further and faster, in that it would help to shatter right-wing delusions and establish better links across national boundaries”

    There is literally no evidence for this and moreover no coherent logic to it!

    .”working class codgers who think that rationing would be good for the nation's moral fibre”

    I would say they have a more advanced position than those who regard the free market as the best for allocation of resources!


    1. There was a good example of the EU's conception of democracy in this week's episode of Inside Europe, when it was pointed out in relation to the Greek referendum rejection of the punitive bailout terms that Greece was only a small part of the EU and could not dictate terms to the majority.

      This appeal to majoritarianism is reasonable, but it ignores that the question of the bailout wasn't put to either an EU-wide vote or even a proper vote in the European Parliament. The clear assumption was that this was unnecessary because the Commission and Council together understood public opinion.

      In fact, as the history of referenda in Europe since the 90s shows, while they understand the opinion of the broad middle class that they represent, they routinely forget that the European electorate is mainly composed of working class voters.