Review by Steve Dobbs
It is now widely recognised that the EU faces an existential crisis, and this was the subject matter of Katya Adler’s BBC documentary which aired on BBC Two last night (watch here). Adler takes us around some of the countries of Europe and highlights how and on what basis opposition to the EU has taken shape.
Italian Populism and the failure of the Left
Much of the documentary focuses on Italy, where the populist Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle or M5S) has grown from the brainchild of comedian and blogger Beppe Grillo to a semi-mass movement achieving over 20% in recent elections. Five Star was also the driving force against pro-EU Prime Minister Renzi’s referendum on democratic reform, turning it into a successful anti-EU and anti-establishment vote.
The support for this anti-establishment populism is clear. Alder visits Sicily, one of the poorest parts of Europe and a Five Star stronghold. She interviews a former Fiat factory worker, who explains how the car factory closed down in 2011 to move to Eastern Europe due to cheaper labour costs. This caused a devastating knock-on effect for the local economy. Youth unemployment in areas of Europe like these is up to 50%.
However, what should otherwise be favourable conditions for revolutionaries in Italy have not led to the growth of any far-left political parties. The blame for this lays primarily with the experience of the two nominally far-left parties in Italy during the 2000s, the Communist Refoundation Party and its smaller split, the Party of Italian Communists. Both parties participated in ‘centre left’ coalitions and bourgeois governments with social democrats and liberals, completely discrediting themselves in the eyes of the working class, particularly by entering the 2006 Prodi government which presided over huge cuts to public services and corporation tax. It is this perception of betrayal of the workers by the far-left that demoralised workers and paved the way for the ‘neither left or right’ petit-bourgeois populism of Grillo.
Adler later goes to Tuscany in the North, supposedly the wealthy and industrial part of Italy. Instead, she finds ‘supposedly posh Tuscany’ is full of closed and abandoned shops. She meets up with her childhood friend from one of the villages. He used to run a successful restaurant business, but that closed down and now he has to work three part-time jobs to get by.
EU Imperialism and unequal exchange
The ideal of the EU single market without barriers was that it would ‘level out’ the price of goods and services and perhaps even wages. Similar to Kautsky’s theory of ultra-imperialism, where the growth of imperialism would supposedly lead to it merging into a single common imperialist trust, this has proven to be a pipedream. The single currency of the euro actually facilitates national exploitation and unequal exchange from the poorer countries (such as Italy) to the richer countries (such as Germany).
For example, if we compare the wages of a productive (industrial) worker, in Italy the average hourly wage was 28 euros against Germany’s 38 euros, earning the Italian 26% less (Eurostat). Now we could argue that this is due to a lower cost of living. However, the opposite is the case:
‘Consumer Prices Including Rent in Italy are 11.66% higher than in Germany’, ‘Restaurant Prices in Italy are 20.32% higher than in Germany’ and ‘Groceries Prices in Italy are 40.65% higher than in Germany’ (Numbeo).
So lower Italian wages are not due to a lower cost of living. When Germany and Italy do business together in euros or trade goods, one hour of Italian labour is thus exchanged for only 44 minutes of German labour, so Italy loses out. Conversely, one hour of German labour is exchanged for 1 hour and 21 minutes of Italian labour, so Germany gains by over a third. No wonder then that in 2012, Germany invested (i.e. exported capital worth) 25,182million USD into Italy, whereas Italy invested only 595 million USD (or 2.4% of what Germany did) in the same period (Santander).
This is what Marx referred to as unequal exchange, and is the logic behind imperialism’s drive to export capital in order to raise profitability. The result is that there is a net transfer of value, in this case from Italy to Germany, and this is the basis of imperialist super profits. Corporations that obtain these profits are able to afford greater salary and benefits to their staff. These super profits are also taxed and provide additional income for the state, allowing them to afford better public infrastructure, social reforms and what Lenin called ‘sops’ to pacify sections of the working class.
Of course, it is quite possible for unequal exchange to happen on the basis of two different currencies, where the exchange rate between them would determine the degree of exploitation. However, a single currency in a single capital and goods market makes this a lot easier. No wonder Adler quotes an Italian newspaper claiming that 90% of Italians believe the adoption of the Euro currency has been a complete disaster. She openly admits ‘[o]ne of the fundamental flaws of the Euro is that it has made Southern Europe (Spain and Italy) uncompetitive, whilst the North (Germany) has boomed’.
Far-Right Critique the EU
The Marxist Left’s failure to adopt such a critique of the EU, as part of a critique of capitalism and imperialism more generally, has given a free reign to the far-right to make them instead.
In the documentary Adler visits Hungary where, in defiance of EU rules, the government erected 140 mile razor fence and closed its borders to the refugees fleeing Syria in 2015. A referendum was called by the right-wing, anti-EU nationalist president Victor Orban whether to let in just 1,300 refugees as required by the EU. Over 98% of voters voted No, although a wider anti-EU sentiment was mobilised on that basis.
Whilst Orban is a hard right nationalist and an enemy of socialism and the international working class, what is interesting is that his analysis of the EU is superior to much of the Left. When confronted on the contradiction of being anti-EU and yet accepting EU funds, he says
It is difficult to use light language when reacting to any talk [in the EU] about connecting any discussion of money to the issue of immigration. Not to mention that….I don’t think [Hungary] gets money as ‘help’ from the West. This is a complete misunderstanding. We can’t accept that and I have never accepted this idea that they are giving us money out of solidarity. Like heck they are! What we’re talking about is that Hungary is the member of a common economic zone. We had to live under communism for 40 years while they had 40 years of capitalism. They are rich and have lots of capital, while we are poor and lack capital because we’ve lived under communism. Regardless of this, we together decided to unite our economic areas. It’s completely obvious that we can’t have honest and fair competition between businesses, people and countries that have had 40 years to become rich while the other group was robbed for 40 years. There has to be some kind of mechanism that provides fair and honest competition for these two groups to interact in. If we didn’t have this, they would invade us economically. We would be a colony if this disparity was allowed to stand. They know this too because they’ve had colonies (Budapest Beacon 2015).
Orban implicitly recognises the nature of imperialism and the unfair competition (exchange) the EU facilitates. Consequently he sees EU funding as a partial form of compensation! This is not dissimilar to what Che Guevara expressed at the Afro-Asian Conference in Algeria when addressing the Non Aligned Movement with reference to the ‘socialist’ Soviet Bloc:
[T]he socialist countries must help pay for the development of countries now starting out on the road to liberation…
We believe the responsibility of aiding dependent countries must be approached in such a spirit. There should be no more talk about developing mutually beneficial trade based on prices forced on the backward countries by the law of value and the international relations of unequal exchange that result from the law of value (Guevara 1965).
Now obviously the EU is not socialist, and imperialism is not simply a policy choice that can be switched on and off. The Soviet Union was not dictated by the internal logic of capitalism for profit so it could carry out exchange for the benefit of Cuba, and it did. On the other hand, there is no such thing as humanitarian imperialism. Why can’t most British Marxists recognise what both Orban and Guevara did?!
Orban uses a crude but broadly correct critique of EU imperialism to garner support for his right-wing nationalism and opposition to immigration, but Marxists with a deeper critique of the EU along similar lines should be able to win support for international solidarity with workers and socialist revolution.
Anti-Globalisation and Capitalism in One Country
In Northern France, Adler speaks to an ex-factory worker who explains that the local metalworks closed and moved to China. Neglected by the Left, this town elected a far-right National Front councillor who opposes globalisation. Currently, the far-right are seen as the main opponents to globalisation and ‘the globalists’. Yet their alternative is obviously not socialism, but what Le Pen calls ‘economic patriotism’. In other words, a reactionary nationalism not far off something from the 1930s.
Le Pen does say ‘the programme I want to implement is forbidden by the EU’. This is true; The EU does place restrictions on radical measures which could emanate from both the far-right and far-left. If only Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had made this point and campaigned for a Leave vote in 2016!
But Le Pen’s programme of ‘capitalism in one country’ would be disastrous for the French working class as a whole since capitalist profitability would dictate wage cuts for the French workers, or at least a section of them. In fact this is exactly what the Nazis did, where immigrants, Jews, criminals and political prisoners had wage cuts and/or were sent to (slave) labour camps, whilst the ‘Aryan’ section of the working class (the labour aristocracy) were actually afforded wage increases (contrary to popular knowledge)!
Putting Revolution back on the Agenda
The problem is that imperialist capitalism (globalisation, neoliberalism) has gone hand in hand with social liberalism, giving a progressive sheen to reactionary economics (think Obama, Clinton, Blair) that has oppressed the working class. Marxists should oppose the EU and globalisation, which are both forms of capitalist-imperialism. We are for the destruction of the EU superstructure along with all bourgeois institutions and the banks and multinational corporations. But in its place we do not want national capitalism or ‘patriotism’, which means becoming slaves of the national capitalist class and under the jackboot of fascists. We want liberation of all the working class and oppressed peoples of all countries. We want workers control and ownership of society as a whole. We want the fullest democracy possible – sovereignty for the working class, not bourgeois parliament or ‘the nation’. And for that we need to build the forces for socialist revolution. If you agree, join us.
Budapest Beacon. 2015. ‘Orbán: Hungary’s sovereignty depends on receiving EU funds’. http://budapestbeacon.com/public-policy/orban-hungarys-sovereignty-depends-on-receiving-eu-funds/27582
Eurostat statistics. hourly labour costs. http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php/Hourly_labour_costs
Guevara. 1965. At the Afro-Asian Conference in Algeria. https://www.marxists.org/archive/guevara/1965/02/24.htm
Numbeo. Cost of living comparison between Germany and Italy. https://www.numbeo.com/cost-of-living/compare_countries_result.jsp?country1=Germany&country2=Italy
Santander TradePortal. Germany: Foreign Investment. https://en.portal.santandertrade.com/establish-overseas/germany/foreign-investment
Santander TradePortal. Italy: Foreign Investment. https://en.portal.santandertrade.com/establish-overseas/italy/foreign-investment
*Note that I use 2013 Net FDI Inward Flow figures since 2012 figures were not available