Wednesday, 22 June 2016

Reasons To Remain – Sovereignty and Democracy

The Punchline

There is no absolute sovereignty. It is always constrained by power, whether that power be military, economic or political. A country may have self-determination, and thereby freedom to take its own political decisions, but those decisions are never made in a vacuum. Small weak economies are always limited in what political decisions they can take, precisely because they have to bargain with other larger more powerful economies, and with multinational companies, and try to attract investment and trade from them. Britain's economy is tiny compared to the EU, US, China etc. Just because a decision is made by the most scrupulously democratic means, therefore, does not mean that the decision is one that the people of a country would have freely made, in other circumstances. In fact, weakness in relation to other economic powers, to multinational capital and so on, is more likely to lead to decisions being taken behind closed doors, and without the consent of the people. Its why nearly all tax havens are based in small island states, where corruption is rife.

If You Are In A Rush

  • Sovereigns like King John, Charles I, Louis XVI once thought they had absolute power, and ruled by Divine Right. They soon found that there is no absolute sovereignty, and that as with any other such right, it depends on your power to enforce it.
  • Workers are nominally free to exercise sovereignty in the decision over who to sell their labour-power to, and at what price they will sell it. In practice, they have to sell their labour-power or else starve, and because the owners of capital are more powerful, workers have to sell their labour-power at a price that guarantees profits for the employer. Similarly, countries are nominally free to make decisions about what tax rates they will impose etc., but they need investment from large multinational corporations, who can negotiate how much tax they will pay, and can even get incentives to invest in the first place.
  • These huge multinational corporations are able to play one country off against another, to get them to offer the best terms. One of the reasons Britain has attracted such investment is that it has had the most lax regulations in relation to capital, and offers a useful, cheap entry point to the EU. Outside the EU, Britain will have to offer much greater incentives to capital, incentives that will directly reduce workers wages and conditions, and impose greater exploitation on them.
  • Britain will find itself having to accept more and more international rules and regulations, that have been decided by much larger economic powers, such as the EU, US, China, but will have little influence on determining those rules and regulations. As an economy that has been in relative decline for 150 years, Britain's ability to have say in international bodies, making those decisions will get less and less. In a decade, on present trends, the UK will slip to being only the 12th. or 15th largest national economy, behind places like Mexico and South Korea, Brexit will likely speed up that decline.
  • An isolated Britain will not only have very limited political and diplomatic influence, and declining economic power, it will be susceptible to any future period of tension. In the near term, the next time a dispute arises over Gibraltar or the Falklands, ofr example, Britain will find itself short of allies. But, as an island dependent upon trade, and imports for its very survival, in any future conflict with Europe, Britain would be starved into submission within a matter of weeks.
  • In WWII, the Nazis had contacts with the former King Edward VIII, and they had contacts with other elements of the old aristocracy that had shown sympathy to them during the 1930's. Hitler hoped to do a deal with Lord Halifax, so as to line Britain and Germany up against the USSR, even after the war had started. Britain is very undemocratic compared to Europe, as it has continued to provide a powerful role within its constitution to these medieval institutions such as the Monarchy and the House of Lords.
  • The EU is not a perfect bourgeois democracy either, but it has the potential for a rational further development in that direction without all of the encumbrances of entrenched privilege, and ritual that have prevented the abolition of the Monarchy, House of Lords and other undemocratic institutions in Britain.

If You Have Time

What is sovereignty? It means the ability to be able to make decisions yourself, rather than someone else making those decisions for you. But, in reality, the only possibility of such sovereignty would belong to God, and as there is no God, there is no absolute sovereignty. Sovereignty, at one time, was in fact, expressed as the Divine Right of Kings, but King John found that he had no such absolute right, when he was challenged by the barons, and forced to sign the Magna Carta; Charles I lost his head over the issue; as did Louis XVI. 

Thomas Hobbes, in his discussion of sovereignty in “Leviathan”, writes that an absolute monarch only retains the right to act as sovereign so long as they do so to fulfil their obligations in that role. The French people, having overthrown the aristocracy thought they had gained sovereignty, but in fact, were unable to hold on to it, and Napoleon Bonaparte usurped it. But, Bonaparte soon found that his right to sovereignty was circumscribed too, by the power of Britain, at Waterloo. Britain had sovereignty in respect of Grenada, but in 1983 the US used its military power to invade the island without a by your leave to the sovereignty of Britain.

As with all other such rights, in practice, sovereignty only extends to the extent of your ability to enforce it. The more powerful you are, the more sovereignty you have, and vice versa. Moreover, it is not just a matter of military power. There is a difference between political sovereignty and economic sovereignty. Countries that freed themselves from colonial rule, and obtained self-determination, thereby obtained political sovereignty. But, even countries that have never been colonies, may lack economic sovereignty if they are small and lack economic power. In a world where large multinational corporations have larger revenues than the GDP of many small, and some medium sized economies, and where the transactions on financial markets, dwarf the financial resources of even the largest economies, the idea that any country can possess absolute economic sovereignty is naïve. Given that political decisions are inseparable from economic decisions, ultimately political sovereignty itself is highly constrained by these limits on economic sovereignty.

The only way even medium sized economies can hope to exercise economic sovereignty is by combining together with other economies to form larger economic and political unions so as to exercise control over capital. That indeed is why the EEC/EU was formed, and why nation states themselves were initially created. Because the EU has been formed by capitalist economies, the control over capital it seeks to impose, is not the kind of control that socialists would seek, but is the kind of control and regulation that national economies themselves were forced to seek, in the 19th and 20th centuries. That is control and regulation to create a level playing field, to provide the conditions for the long-term accumulation of big industrial capital, and to prevent the interests of individual capitals undermining the interests of capital in general. Yet, in seeking even that kind of control, the interests of workers are enhanced too.

People like Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson, who represent the interests of all those backward looking small businesses, that can only survive on the basis of protectionism and by paying low wages and giving poor conditions to their workers, alongside massive state subsidies to make up for those low wages, of course, complain that the EU is a club for big business. But, workers have every reason to prefer big business over small business for the reasons set out above. It has always been the case that it is big business that can afford to pay higher wages, and provide better conditions, to establish training and so on for workers, whereas it is the small businesses that have always been the most virulently anti-union, centres of reaction.

As Engels put it,

"Moreover, the larger the concern, and with it the number of hands, the greater the loss and inconvenience caused by every conflict between master and men; and thus a new spirit came over the masters, especially the large ones, which taught them to avoid unnecessary squabbles, to acquiesce in the existence and power of Trades’ Unions, and finally even to discover in strikes — at opportune times — a powerful means to serve their own ends. The largest manufacturers, formerly the leaders of the war against the working-class, were now the foremost to preach peace and harmony. And for a very good reason. The fact is that all these concessions to justice and philanthropy were nothing else but means to accelerate the concentration of capital in the hands of the few, for whom the niggardly extra extortions of former years had lost all importance and had become actual nuisances; and to crush all the quicker and all the safer their smaller competitors, who could not make both ends meet without such perquisites. Thus the development of production on the basis of the capitalistic system has of itself sufficed — at least in the leading industries, for in the more unimportant branches this is far from being the case — to do away with all those minor grievances which aggravated the workman’s fate during its earlier stages."

As Marxists, we do not actively call for support for big business as against small business, because what we want is not one form of capitalist business as opposed to another, but worker owned businesses, worker owned co-operatives that form the basis of a new kind of society. At the same time, we do not call for monopolies where they have been established to be broken up into smaller businesses, which would be a reactionary step. We do not call for the establishment of monopolies, including state capitalist monopolies, but we oppose them being broken up, because such monopolies represent an advance over small businesses. They form a base for workers to transform such monopolies into worker owned enterprises, able to organise production on a rational basis.

The Brexiters talk about the UK being the world's fifth largest economy, but it is puny compared to the economy of the EU, US, or China, and it is dropping down the rankings fast, as it has been doing for 150 years. Britain has a huge trade deficit that is growing larger by the day. It is only financed by the generosity of strangers, who lend money to Britain. But, outside the EU, the UK will see the Pound fall, and the willingness of foreigners to lend to it, to fund its deficits disappear. The myth has been created that central banks can dictate interest rates by printing money, but they can't. Interest rates are determined by the demand and supply for money-capital. As Britain's trade deficit continues to balloon, as its exports fall outside the EU, whilst the willingness of foreigners to lend to it declines, then UK interest rates will rise, just as happened over recent years, to Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Ireland. No amount of diktats from the Bank of England can change that, and money printing will simply cause inflation to spike even higher, and lead to even higher interest rates. Rather than further fragmentation, what the experience of the Eurozone shows, over recent years, is the need for greater EU consolidation, and the development of a United States of Europe.

A look at the situation over taxation is illustrative. Large multinational companies are able to play off one country against another, to locate their head offices in one low taxing economy, even though the majority of their activity and profits are undertaken in another. The only hope of being able to end such practices is by the creation of larger economic units. The problem here, in fact, is that the EU, currently, is not sovereign enough, and the individual nation states still retain too much sovereignty. If all taxes on profits, and other such activity went to an EU Treasury, it would be impossible for any company to locate its head office in one EU country where the tax rate was lower, and thereby to play off one country against another, to pressure them to each reduce their taxes on profits. As the EU becomes more closely unified, it will have the muscle to enforce such rules, and will thereby drain potential tax revenues from countries outside it.

A large company might currently be able to threaten to pull out of one EU country, but no large company is going to pull out of the EU as a whole, which is the largest, most prosperous market on the planet! By being part of the EU, Britain does not lose sovereignty, but gains it, because it is part of this larger, more powerful, economic and political bloc, which is itself better able to stand up to threats be they economic, political or military. Just look at countries like Norway or Switzerland, which are outside the EU, but which have to abide by EU rules, to pay into the EU budget, to accept free movement of labour and so on, in order to be a part of the single market. They in fact, suffer a loss of sovereignty, because all those rules and conditions they must abide by, are taken without them having any say in what those rules should be. Yes, they are nominally free to make economic and political decisions for themselves, but in practice, the economic necessity of being inside the single market means that the political and economic choices they can make are limited from the beginning. Its a bit like the myth of consumer sovereignty that was exposed by Henry Ford's statement in relation to the Model T, that customer's could have any colour they liked so long as it was black!

In the 1920's, Trotsky, with the reality of the Russian Revolution, and the wars of intervention, fresh in his mind, spoke about the limits that Britain would face if it were to undertake a socialist revolution, separate from the rest of Europe. At the time, Britain was still the dominant economic and military power in the world. It may be hard to believe it today, but in the 1920's, all expectations were that the next major war would be between Britain and the United States. Britain was the dominant power, but the US was rapidly seeking to overtake it. The US, recognised the importance that the Royal Navy had played in enforcing British global power, and by the end of WWI, had as big a navy as Britain. Britain sought to maintain its superiority, and throughout the 1920's, this arms build up looked like it would inevitably lead to war between the two leading powers.

Trotsky, long before WWII, and the ability of Nazi Germany to isolate Britain, warned that Britain's historical advantage of being an island was, in the modern world a major weakness. In pre-industrial times, when populations were small, and could be fed with home agriculture, when the navy was comprised of wooden ships, that could be provided from British forests, it was possible to treat the seas around Britain as a huge moat across which its enemies first had to travel. But, in fact even in Elizabethan times, wood to maintain the navy had started to run short, as it also began to be used in industry as fuel. 

“England is an island and America is likewise an island of a sort, but much larger. England is completely dependent in her day-to-day existence on countries beyond the ocean. But the American “insular” continent contains everything that is necessary for existence and for the conduct of war. England has colonial possessions on many seas and America will “liberate” them. Having begun the war with England, America will summon hundreds of millions of Indians to rise in defence of their inalienable national rights. The same summons will be issued to Egypt and Ireland – there is no lack of those who can be called upon to free themselves from the yoke of English capitalism. Just as today America in order to drain the living juices from Europe comes to the fore draped in the toga of pacifism, so in the war with England she will step out as the great emancipator of colonial peoples.” (Trotsky, loc.cit.)

And so it was. Roosevelt proposed a pact with Stalin against the “gin soaked colonialist” Churchill, to end the colonial empires of Britain and France, and in the 1950's, the US carried that idea forward, to build its own influence in the Middle East, for example, in its opposition to Britain during the Suez Crisis. In the modern world, Britain needs food from Europe and other parts of the globe, it needs oil and gas from Russia, North Africa and so on. It requires large amounts of other primary products for its remaining manufacturing industry, and it now imports the vast majority of manufactured goods from other countries, such as China and the EU. In the event of some future conflict, Britain's economy would be strangled within a matter of weeks if some external power, which could be the EU itself, were Britain outside it, chose to apply pressure to it. Britain would be turned into an equivalent of the embattled Cuban economy, isolated and dwarfed by its much larger neighbour. To put it another way, does even a large British county like Yorkshire, lose sovereignty, in practice, as a result of being part of the UK, or does it gain it, by sharing in the protection and power that such a larger body offers?

And ultimately, the question of sovereignty is inseparable from the question of democracy. A decision is not democratic simply because it has been the consequence of a vote. The EU as it stands is far from being the most democratic of organisations, but it is, if anything, more democratic than the UK. The EU does not have a head of state who holds their position solely as a result of an accident of birth, for example. The Brexiters complain about the EU bureaucracy, but, in fact, the EU bureaucracy is only the same size as the staff at Kent County Council! The Brexiters portray the EU Commission as unelected bureaucrats who take decisions that then bind the rest of us. But that is no more true than that the UK civil service, or local government officers are unelected bureaucrats who take decisions that then bind the rest of us. In fact, in each of these cases, the actual political decisions are made by elected politicians not by those bureaucrats. There is an argument to be had in every such case, about what the power of the bureaucrats is in relation to the politicians, but that does not apply any more in relation to the EU than it does the UK.

Nor does the EU have an upper chamber like the unelected House of Lords. The House of Lords currently has over 800 members, compared to just 635 elected members of the House of Commons. The Liberals who have been effectively obliterated as a political party, in terms of members, councillors and MP's, have 108 members of the House of Lords, or more than 12% of its membership. Despite years and years of discussions and proposals over the reform or abolition of the House of Lords, it has continued not only to exist, but to grow! Its existence, as with the Monarchy, should be anathema to even the most timid of true democrats, yet none of the critics of EU democracy have a word to say about these British feudal relics.

Prior to the Lisbon Treaty, EU members states were discussing the establishment of an EU Constitution. The whole process was undertaken by typically bureaucratic methods, but at least there was a discussion over the establishment of such a constitution, as opposed to Britain which has no such constitution, and the terms of which are continually being determined by unelected judges on an ad hoc basis, via precedent and judicial review. A decision to Remain in the EU, opens the door to a debate over all of these issues, for the need for a series of Constitutional Conventions across the EU to discuss and draw up proposals for an EU Constitution, leading to the convening of a Constitutional Conference, and establishment of a series of democratic bodies, as part of the formation of a United States of Europe.

Remaining in Europe provides the basis for extending democracy and sovereignty whereas a vote to Leave will reinforce all of those undemocratic, feudal vestiges of the past.

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