Fundamentalism and the EU “four freedoms”.

The single market of the EU is founded on four freedoms, the freedoms of movement of goods, services, capital and people. This is a wonderful piece of political branding, for who could possibly be against freedoms? Only a fool or a Brexiteer, if there is a difference in EU eyes. But in fact the package is one of several mechanisms (the Euro being the most notorious) by which a programme of market fundamentalism has been imposed on the people of Europe.

Market fundamentalism is a view which although under attack is still the dominant political ideology of our times, that markets know best. Markets decide and the rest of the social fabric must lie as it falls. And accordingly, the main effect of the treaty obligations by which the members have bound themselves is to reduce the power of governments to intervene in their own economies.

No wonder there is such contempt for democracy in the institutional arrangements of the EU and such horror when people are allowed to express a view. Democracy and market fundamentalism are incompatible, radically opposing views of how society should be shaped. Democracy implies that people can not only have aims not presented to them by the market, but make viable choices outside the market. To fundamentalists this is dangerous nonsense.

Looking at the freedoms themselves, it is not surprising that free movement of capital will largely benefit its owners, although predictable that capital will seek the cheapest sources of labour. But freedom of movement of goods sounds thoroughly benign – who wants their goods priced up by tariffs or held up by obstructive officials? Besides, trade in goods benefits everyone, comparative advantage providing both more guns and more butter as every schoolchild knows. But as always, it depends where you start. Just as every developing economy which has emerged in the last half century (ever?) has built up its industry from fragile beginnings behind the protection of tariff walls, so mature and even declining industries might need similar protection, if only to give people time to adjust. The tide perhaps cannot be held back, but sometimes a wall to keep out the worst storms is useful.

The timing of the EU single market could in this respect not have been worse. Industries already reeling from cheaper goods and lower labour costs outside Europe have had to face additional competition from within Europe. Whole cities and communities in the UK have been hollowed out as a result of the dual onslaught – I think of once prosperous Loughborough and Leicester near where I live, now shadows of what they used to be. In response the mantras of market fundamentalism are hypnotically repeated: markets are sovereign, governments cannot intervene and must step aside. But stepping aside is not a neutral act.

Besides accepting that markets are more important than people, inaction disproportionately benefits the multinational corporations within which something like two thirds of all international trade takes place. These corporations ARE the market – in other words most trade is a sort of fiction. These corporations are the same as show such aversion to paying taxes in countries where they operate, but this aside they might claim it is up to governments to look after their own people, while multinationals attend to their earnings. But even that saving balance has been lost.

Fundamentalist governments are gripped by the sense that all prosperity requires is to shrink the state and let markets provide. Gone, dismissed as leftist nonsense, is any sense that governments might have any duties of trusteeship towards their people. So the externalities of trade, the hollowing out which destroys communities in the old world and the pollution which destroys the environment in the new, are left unattended. Corporations inherit a scorched earth.

Then we have the free movement of people. This controversial freedom can be made to sound as if it restores the power of the worker – if firms in one country are not congenial, the workers will flow to those of another, onwards and upwards. Maybe this is true for a very small proportion of highly sought-after workers. But for most the reality is that any successful economy will be flooded with cheap labour. There will be consequent strains on public spending as public services are oversubscribed, reinforcing or excusing the fundamentalist view that shrinking the state is the only way forward.

But think what desperation anyway might cause a worker to uproot family, abandon home and possessions and travel thousands of miles to a country of different culture and language in the hope of work. Just as with the great emigrations of the nineteenth century, and indeed the economic refugees of today, the “free” movement of people is a cruel symbol of failure or abdication of responsibility by governments.

For indigenous workers, free movement of people acts only to depress pay, preventing them from sharing in any gains from trade and filling them with such rage and despair they will turn to whomever promises revenge. It is a freedom which comes with a heavy price. This is no liberal regret, for the greatest irony is how severely free movement attacks the basis of traditional conservatism, that attachment to place, tradition and evolved culture which at its best gives people roots and nurtures values.

So the four freedoms are not gifts to the people of Europe, they are pillars of market fundamentalism. Is it too late to think again? Certainly the damage done to older industries is probably irreversible. But we might stop compounding the damage with further economic vandalism. We could reflect on what might matter more in our lives than the profits of multinationals. We might even consider whether there might after all be such a thing as society, whether competition is really the only model for how we live together. Or we could carry on until the anger of the newly dispossessed elects more demagogues and dictators.

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America’s last election?

Could November see the last presidential election in the US? If Donald Trump were to win, the possibility could not be discounted.

Consider Trump’s utterances and style and his fundamental belief that the US is under a diffuse threat which only he recognises and which is broadly speaking the fault of foreigners and outsiders. These are the hallmarks of a would-be fascist leader – fascist not in any stereotypical left-right sense but in the simple and original sense that he believes in leadership by a single strong personality who alone has all the answers and who alone can put the country or the world to rights. It goes without saying that he also believes he himself is that personality.

Add to that his clearly and repeatedly stated belief that elections are rigged if he does not win them. Add also his almost maniacal sensitivity to criticism, which prevents him from staying silent when anyone refuses to acknowledge his greatness, let alone makes a point against him.

Now suppose that he were to win and therefore have at his disposal the full executive power of the most powerful country in the world. He would still be restrained by the rule of law, you might say, but other holders of that office have been tempted to trifle with the boundaries set by law and Donald Trump is not a man to trifle. Voicing criticism of President Trump need not become a criminal offence, but critics might find themselves suddenly accused of other crimes, or harassed by agencies of the executive. Sedition would suddenly be everywhere, often self confessed in plea bargains by anyone who crossed the executive, as we see in China. Simplistic ethnic or creed based explanations for any setback the country might experience would be commonplace, as they already are in the candidate’s speeches, but how easily could that turn to suggestions of a “final solution”?

Yes, the language is deliberate, these terrible outcomes could rival those of 1930’s Italy and Germany. But beyond that, why would a President convinced of his own popularity and essential rightness submit himself to the uncertainties of another election? After all, elections as we have been told are rigged unless they give the right result, so perhaps there would be a state of emergency postponing the next election, or more likely there would be large scale disqualifications from voting affecting people who – perhaps for no better reason than their ethnicity or religion – could not be counted on to make the right choice.

Americans are rightly proud of the strength of their constitution and might dismiss such fears as fanciful. We should all hope they are right, but history suggests such an outcome is not impossible.

Baggini and representative democracy

I read two articles this week by the philosopher/journalist Julian Baggini brandishing the idea of representative democracy to decry in one case the result of the Brexit referendum and in the other Jeremy Corbyn’s refusal to abandon the mandate his membership gave him because his Parliamentary colleagues don’t like him being leader.
Democracy is such an important idea in our society that confusion about it is always interesting.We tend to assume that the idea needs no examination. In fact, if philosophy has any purpose at all it is to examine precisely those ideas we take for granted but put great weight on.
It is probably true that difficult decisions are best taken by those able to understand the implications of various courses. Leaders with a certain level of intelligence are a good thing, although they need many other qualities. This is not the same and should not be confused with the probably false idea that government is best left to experts or technocrats. Experts need to provide the known facts but all difficult decsions go beyond known facts and need some judgement about factual uncertainties and more importantly, values.
Moreover it is never obvious or even determinable in advance who will make what will turn out to be happy decisions. Complexity rules out government by continual plebiscite (technologically enhanced Athenian democracy) not because the people are too ignorant or too easily misled to know what is good for them but because the questions are too difficult to frame for a binary (yes/no) answer, not to mention the sheer number of decisions great and small which need to be taken. But this has nothing to do with a certain elite class or even elite individuals knowing better what is good for us collectively. The philosopher kings that Plato wished for do not and never will exist. In that sense, democracy is a process of eternal disappointment, but the alternative is to believe that someone has privileged access to the answers, which is the meaning of fascism (and what it has in common with theocracy).
So we select rulers as best we can, from a limited choice offered to us and bounded by whatever artificial constraints our particular voting system places on the method of choosing. The best ruler we can hope for is capable of understanding and taking into account the expert advice but not being dominated by it, best illustrated perhaps by the political command of a country’s armed forces. Even though we nearly always end up disappointed, we can at least reject those who have tried and failed and those we feel should not be allowed to try. And as long as we can all participate in this process in whatever way our system allows and most importantly revise our choice at suitable intervals, we are protected from at least some of the worst abuses of power. This is the value of democracy, it offers no miracles but a measure of protection well worth the two cheers Forster proposed.
Returning to Baggini’s two targets, it is certainly arguable that we should never have referendums and instead leave all major decisions to our elected rulers. With hindsight, our ex-PM might agree! But the argument, such as it is, is just about our constitutional arrangements, not about the intellectual capacity of the electorate. It is particularly weak in the case of Brexit because we have had several referendums on major constitutional questions before and even a referendum on the EU. An alternative view is that since we choose leaders within a given constitutional framework, major changes to the framework itself should not be taken by those leaders but put to the governed. In that view the referendum came rather late.
(Remainers, of which I think Baggini is one, seem always to assume that Leavers can only have been misled or stupid, but people voted Leave for many reasons, some good and some bad just like Remainers. Not least, although many supported a free trade area they simply did not see the point of a federal Europe, which is the goal and lodestar of the EU institutions and many of the member governments but for which interestingly no one argued a positive case.)
As for Mr Corbyn, it is hard to see why any idea of representative democracy even touches his decision not to stand down as leader of his party. A party, after all, is just a group of people hoping to convince the electorate at large to allow it to rule. That group can make its own internal governance arrangements but there is absolutely no reason why it should mirror those of the state. It could choose to privilege the opinions of those it has succeeded in getting elected into Parliament, but it need not and it has not. So, whether Mr Corbyn is right or wrong to stay as leader of his party against the wishes of his MPs just has nothing to do with the fact that we live in a representative democracy.

Work and welfare

Suppose that, through the use of machines, sufficient resources could be produced without full employment. The balance between the forms of work and welfare that we are used to would have to change. Since we are arguably in the middle of a transition to such a state now we need to think about how they might change. Otherwise, and we can already see this happening, we will move back towards three broad tiers of society – the top wealth owners who can easily live and even get richer on what are basically rents; those with relatively secure jobs or other job related incomes like pensions or small businesses; and the “precariat” as they have been aptly called, who rely on occasional work, zero hours contracts, welfare benefits etc and for whom poverty is never far away. So far, so Victorian, but the enormous danger is that this structure of society is not stable, not in equilibrium. It depends at the very least on the acquiescence of the precariat, whether through the modern equivalent of bread and circuses, through apathy and inertia or, more likely, through a conviction that the order of things is too complex to change, one of the main axioms of neoliberalism.

The era after the industrial revolution led both to unprecedentedly nasty wars which were in large part the spilling over of commercial (imperial) competition into violence and to violent revolutions within some societies. Although ultimately better conditions for workers were brought about particularly by pressure from unionism and the labour movement generally, in many societies it was a close run thing. This degree of progress was accompanied by a partly successful push towards democratic control of societies, but not universally and not without some dark diversions through dictatorships of different kinds. We cannot be confident that the outcome of re-running the experiment will be equally benign, especially when democracy has been corrupted to the point of uselessness by the introduction of deliberately undemocratic structures like the European Union on one hand and on the other, by the blatant manipulation of public emotions without regard for truth or balance which is what now passes as political skill.

Thus it is important to consider how work and rewards are or can be related in society. In the ancient world the balance was very different and NOT working was often the prerogative of the citizen. Slaves worked, citizens didn’t, at least well-to-do citizens didn’t. There may have been other civic obligations, like fighting in the army, but labour for income was not something on which citizens prided themselves.

In fact, in aristocratic societies both yesterday and today the elite do not work but own most of the wealth and receive and spend most of the income. Typically these have been rentier societies, with the income of the elite coming from wealth (generally land) and very little else. In more modern societies the particular form of work we call entrepreneurial activity became more valued, although much of what passes as high entrepreneurship today remains rent-seeking behaviour dressed up with bustle. But in the twentieth century income distribution generally became more tied to work and median incomes were gradually and slowly raised as labour pressed for their effort to be recognised in income distribution. That process has been reversed or at least halted in the last few decades by neoliberalism, with huge pressure on wages except at the very top to benefit profits. The highest “wages”, those of the most senior executives, have become in effect rents on the holding of high office in a company, out of all proportion to effort or effectiveness.

All this is worth reciting only to show that the relationship between work and reward is and always has been complicated. It is simply a myth that work and reward were always linked closely together. “If you don’t work you don’t eat” may sound robust and fair and may be so in some limited scenarios, but as a depiction of real societies it has seldom if ever applied and it has very rarely applied to elites. It is not a principle on which any complex society has been based and it is doubtful, even by the time all the humane exceptions to it have been allowed, whether it ever could be. So although the new predicament of how to distribute the goods and necessities of life if sufficient were available without everyone working needs to be thought about very carefully, the link it seems to threaten between work and reward is not universal, nor eternal, nor even particularly common.

Democracy and Europe

Democracy in a small enough context can mean that people can individually influence decisions that may affect them. It does not mean that they will get their own way, for of course they may be outvoted, so it may still happen that a democratic decision is imposed on the unwilling. Nor is there any guarantee that decisions will be good ones, for the majority may be wrong just as any individual can be wrong. But at least everyone has a chance to influence the decision. The tyranny of a majority you had a chance to be part of is somehow more palatable than a tyranny you were excluded from altogether.

This idea (sentiment?) has to be abandoned however when the number of people involved is too great. Even before that threshold is passed, decisions may be sufficiently complex that many individuals do not have the knowledge or experience to make an informed decision. They will then probably follow with their vote whomever they feel has the right expertise and commands their confidence. So we quickly arrive at the idea of representative or leadership democracy. If we cannot all participate in every decision, because of numbers or complexity, the next best thing is to have a say in who gets to make decisions. This is the basis of western democracy in its many forms.

The people get to choose periodically who will rule and crucially they get to remove leaders who no longer impress, so that the rulers must always bear this in mind in their decision making. Combined with checks and balances, such as divisions of power and rights of appeal, transparency and openness of information where these exist, this is the way most western states are organised. At its heart is the idea that power depends on and derives from the consent of the majority of the people for a given individual or group to lead, a consent which may be withdrawn if the results are unsatisfactory or unpalatable.

A significant part of the case against the European Union is that it has been deliberately designed to evade such democratic control. Despite the changes in the Lisbon Treaty, the unelected Commission not only holds great executive power and has the duty to enforce EU decisions against member states but has the sole right to propose legislation. Basically, much can happen just because the Commission wants it to happen and nothing can happen unless the Commission proposes it should. True, the European Parliament must now approve the appointment of the Commission initially and has the somewhat “nuclear” option to dismiss the whole Commission by a vote of no confidence. But whatever its supporters may say, this is far from being the same as the way governments are chosen in parliamentary democracies, where executive power goes to those who have participated in and won an election themselves. Besides, if the Parliament does refuse to ratify the commission it opposes itself to the Council of ministers rather than the Commisssion. And once ratified, to a large degree there are no democratic controls on the executive powers of the Commission. Yet it acts in many respects as the European Government. Indeed, it is charged to take its own view of what is best for Europe, in contrast to the council of ministers where national government interests are represented or the parliament which, however inadequately, represents the people directly.

Unfortunately, this is a highly technical issue which does not lend itself to soundbites. But significant reform in this area, possibly even abolishing the Commission or replacing it with a regulatory body without a stranglehold on legislation or wide executive powers, would go a long way to changing popular perception of the EU and making its institutions more accountable and responsive to its people. It should be central to the debate about whether the UK continues to be a member.

After all, that debate should not be about trade and whether membership adds or subtracts on balance from UK GDP, because nobody really knows about that and the putative answers that are touted are all compromised by self interest.

It should not be about whether the UK can again be a great power on its own, because the negative answer to that question is surely beyond debate and only nostalgia keeps the argument alive.

It should not even be about control of borders because as the current refugee crisis shows sheer numbers rather than laws are the issue there.

It should certainly not be about entitlement to welfare benefits which seems to have risen to the top of the U.K. wish list, maybe (is this too cynical?) because it can be settled very easily.

The debate should simply be about the way we in the UK relate to the rest of Europe. It makes no sense to have an antagonistic attitude to our nearest neighbours, we must surely cooperate on as many issues as possible. We must trade with them as much as possible and we need to find joint solutions to many problems, not least security and the environment, which in the modern world a single nation state cannot address in isolation. It does not necessarily follow however that we should all have the same laws, the same currency or the same policies, still less merge our national identities into a supra-national state.

But the combination of the Commission’s powers and the de facto position that it alone represents a European standpoint means that at the heart of all European legislation is a drive towards more and more integration – closer and closer union. It is no use the President of the Council (the key intergovernmental body) assuring the UK government that closer union is not an aim of the EU, nor the UK government interpreting that as an “opt-out” from closer union for the UK. The institutions of the EU and in particular the Commission enshrine integration as an objective and put incremental progress towards it beyond democratic control.

So the question is whether it is better for the UK to stay in the EU as it stands and try to reform it from within, or to leave and try to encourage it to evolve in a sensible, more democratic, non-integrationist direction from without. The pity is that the current renegotiation might have given us a unique opportunity to push for change, but it looks like the chance will be squandered for some relatively minor reform of welfare entitlements. It has to be said that a strategy of reform from within has failed miserably so far – and why wouldn’t it, when the powerful original members are pro-integration? Why then should we expect it to work in the future? Thus the choice is to accept a flawed and ill-founded set of institutions which reduce our freedoms and take us towards a destination none of us want, or leave and try to start again. Neither option is attractive or without danger. But Brexit may be the lesser of two evils.

One thing is certain. A “yes” vote in the referendum will mean business as usual. A “no” might mean that the will of the people is taken seriously in Brussels and Berlin and that renegotiation acquires new urgency even after the vote.