On the ‘liberal EU dream’ and the ungrateful working class

The working classes of Europe are right to resist the demise of the nation state.

Rafael Behr writes in today’s Guardian that right-wing ‘populism’ is threatening the ‘liberal dream’ of the EU.

Behr’s article is striking in the accuracy of his observations and misguidedness of the conclusions he draws from those observations. One paragraph in particular stood out:

The case for keeping Britain in Europe has always been hampered by its reliance on abstract liberalism and historical romanticism: extolling openness and continental engagement as emblems of a modern, self-confident nation; recalling the founding purpose of the EU as the elimination of nationalism by blurring borders; rejecting Euroscepticism as a form of reactionary cultural protectionism, coloured at the fringes by outright xenophobia. Those were never easy arguments to configure as campaign themes with mass appeal. But what pro-Europeans now confront is something altogether more challenging, not just to the practical pursuit of their cause but to its very premise. There is still a liberal case for integration with the rest of Europe, but it gets progressively harder to make when so many countries in the rest of Europe seem to be turning their backs on liberalism.

So, then, there is nothing wrong with the idea of ‘blurring borders’ in the interests of ‘eliminating nationalism’ – even though he concedes that the average thicko is unlikely to be enthused by the prospect. The only problem, he concludes, is that blurring borders has become rather less appealing now that it means trying to integrate with all those nasty racists – sorry, nationalists – running rampant throughout the EU.

Indeed the entire article radiates the fundamental assumption that nationalism is, ipso facto, a Bad Thing. But this assumption, rooted in Europe’s decades-long post-WWII trauma fugue, has gone unchallenged for too long. Certainly history shows us nationalism can have some ugly consequences; but in large part the revived enthusiasm of Europe’s’little people’ for nationalism is not driven by a desire to find scapegoats, justify pogroms or generally hate on ‘bloody foreigners’. Rather, it is fuelled at base by the instinctive realisation that without some form of nationalism, there can be no nation-state; without the nation-state there can be no democracy; and without democracy, the little people get shafted, again and again.

The liberal dream of destroying nationalism has, in effect, worked to undermine the main bulwark ordinary people have had against the relentless march of globalisation: the sense that, by joining their voices as ‘The People’ to whom a government is accountable, they could ensure their interests remained in consideration. But one of the most significant trends of the twentieth century has seen national sovereignty inexorably nibbled away, whether by international regulatory bodies, trade agreements or the move towards EU federalisation. And with each reduction in the power and manoeuvrability of sovereign democratic states, the people to whom those states are accountable have lost power in turn. And as the power of electorates has ebbed away, so too has the power of each sovereign state to protect its ‘little people’ against the more predatory edges of globalisation.

Nowhere is this more visible than in the disjunction between the views of working-class people to the prospect of mass immigration, and the attitude of the middle and upper classes to the same phenomenon. The former group sees wages stagnate and living standards slump as competition for low-skilled jobs gets hotter and hotter. The latter, meanwhile, enjoys the benefits of price competition in the market for nannies and plumbers, not to mention the pleasant effect of housing scarcity on the value of their homes, all set off by a pleasant frisson of righteousness as they condemn the narrow-mindedness of the lumpenproletariat.

This class division is borne out by the data: a report published  today by europhile think-tank Chatham House shows that lower socioeconomic class and education is a strong predictor of euroscepticism. Now, you could read that as a contemptuous write-off of Brexiteers as ageing, ignorant thickos; or you could begin to ask yourself why the poorer, older and less educated don’t feel the ‘liberal dream’ of EU federalism is working in their interests. Could it be less because they are old, thick or poor and more because of an instinctive recognition that the aims of the EU are against the interests of the working-class populations of nations across the EU?

Rafael Behr may sign wistfully at the high-flown ‘liberal’ ideals that inspired the European project, and look askance at the under-educated, vulgar little xenophobes that challenge its legitimacy and belief system. He may grumble about the waning attractiveness of a federal EU clearly inhabited by groups of proles all of whom are every bit as resistant to mass immigration and the end of nation states as those awful Sun readers in the UK. But in lamenting the return of nationalism he has missed the inextricable connections between patriotism, belonging, democracy and a working class that wields some measure of power in the direction of politics.

The dying of the nation state throws the working class to the wolves of globalisation. Resisting this is not xenophobic, but thanks to the blindness of bien-pensants like Behr it has been left to the xenophobes for too long.

The refugee crisis looks quite different if you’re not a beneficiary of globalisation

I’m watching with interest the disparity between the way the migrant/refugee crisis is reported in mainstream media, and the way it’s reported online.

TV and papers shows the volumes of people moving, and depending on which paper you read either huge-eyed children and frail old people or else menacing-looking clusters of young men. The narrative is about resources, political debates within the EU about how to handle the crisis, or about which East European nation is the latest to close its borders.

The internet shows videos of rubbish-strewn campgrounds, refugees torching their tents in anger (say the memes) at being denied this or that, riots in German towns and furious meetings of villagers who have just learned that hundreds of strangers are about to be billeted on them.

I’m not linking to articles or posts because my aim here isn’t to join one side or the other, but to think a bit about what the disparity between them means. The elites – and by that I mean the wealthy, well-travelled, well-educated, internationalist net beneficiaries of globalisation – see  the refugee crisis as an issue of resources and, perhaps, of an ethical stance. A huge influx of people from a non-European culture is seen as a matter of resources and, in the long run, as a benefit to a Europe where birthrates are declining. They will work, earn, pay taxes – what’s the issue? There is also, perhaps more tacitly, a feeling among many that this influx will benefit those recalcitrant patches that still cling stubbornly to cultural homogeneity.

But globalisation has losers as well as winners. Ordinary people, getting by in ordinary jobs, some of which have been outsourced or offshored or rendered obsolete by robots, and for whom ‘a long way away’ is four hours’ drive, not four hours’ flight. The people who see their national flag as a source of pride, and whose identity is found in family, cultural traditions, belonging to a place, and not – as with the winners – a smorgasbord of international tastes, traditions, cultures and practices from which one can pick and choose while flicking through the FT in the BA lounge on the way to the next meeting.

I’m being a bit reductive here, but you get the idea. The former thinks globalisation is great, and isn’t that bothered about the refugee crisis except as a humanitarian disaster about which ‘we should do more’. The latter, when it thinks about globalisation at all, thinks it’s all out of their hands and all the money is going to the billionaires so we’ll just keep getting by, won’t we? And when presented with the outcome of the refugee crisis, namely large numbers of people arriving in their neighbourhoods who look and sound very different, the reaction of this second group is less humanitarian than outraged. Because these new arrivals might be the victims of war and privation and months of misery trudging through Eastern Europe, but now they’re in our town they’re competing with us for resources, funding, space and ownership of the local cultural norms. And we were here first! goes the cry.

Globalisation produces winners and losers. To the winners, the refugee crisis is about logistics, about doing the right thing, perhaps about loosening the bonds of cultural homogeneity. To the losers, it’s about being swamped. And neither side is able to see the others’ perspective with any empathy. It’s either ‘those self-righteous wankers who live in white neighbourhoods and don’t see them raping our women’ or else it’s ‘those knuckle-dragging racists who bring shame on my country with their vile hatred and backward xenophobia’. And meanwhile, the cold, hungry, miserable – and unmistakeably very, very foreign – refugees keep pouring into Central Europe.

To quote Creedence Clearwater, I see a bad moon rising.