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Referendum Blues

Michael Chanan
Like many other socialists, I have had strong doubts about whether the EU is capable of the reforms that would be needed to shake off the shackles of its disastrous neoliberal policies, especially after two visits to Greece last year to film episodes for our new documentary about money and debt, Money Puzzles. I could not imagine myself voting to leave, despite a number calls from the left to do so which I found pretty persuasive, partly because I refused to align my vote with the utterly disreputable politicians calling for exit, and partly because all my instincts, my sense of cultural identity, belong with a European imaginary. I have to say ‘imaginary’ because actually existing Europe is as far from its democratic ideals as actually existing socialism in Eastern Europe was from real communism.

The second time we were in Athens last year, attending an international conference of the left with the hopeful title ‘Democracy Rising’, it was July the week following the referendum, when Syriza ignored the huge majority against austerity and capitulated to Brussels, leaving everyone incensed, bewildered and confused. It didn’t make sense to accept more international debt and more cuts, not to invest in the country’s recovery but simply to pay off existing debts. Speaking at the conference, the journalist Paul Mason summed it up: ‘What have we learnt? We’ve learnt that debt is coercion.’ On my previous visit I interviewed the economist Costas Lapavitsas, then a Syriza MP, who has long argued that Greece needed to quit the euro (but not the EU), defaulting on its sovereign debt in the process, a call he repeated at the conference. (As for the UK, the best thing Gordon Brown ever did, he said, was to keep it out of the euro, though one should then add that this was also what the City financiers wanted.)

In September I was in Buenos Aires, to find out what happened when Argentina defaulted at the end of 2001 – the largest sovereign debt default in history. (The economy collapsed, the national currency disappeared, people resorted to barter, the provinces issued their own currencies; it took about a year for order to be restored.) I was lucky to get an interview with the then Minister of Economy, the young and dynamic Axel Kicillof, an economist of leftist persuasion well versed in both Marx and Keynes, who provided a lucid commentary on more than just Argentina’s woes, but also a valuable external perspective on Europe. He expressed criticisms of both the IMF and the ECB. The European Bank was responding only to the financial problem but not the economic one. ‘The question of Europe, as I see it, is that it has to decide if it’s just a monetary union, or if it also has an element of political unity.’ I should have asked him where that left the UK. I also interviewed another former Argentine Minister of Economy, the venerable Aldo Ferrer (who has since died).  Neoliberalism, he believed, perverted the functioning of the real economy, and threatened the project of European integration. ‘Applying the same rules to the German economy as the Greek. The lack of solidarity. I think there’s a profound crisis of neoliberal rationality.’ But that crisis is not limited to the EU. It has also played out in old Blighty in the shape of austerity, to the exclusion and punishment of those who are already the most disadvantaged, dispossessed of social justice. And this, it seems, led to last Thursday’s result. With nothing to lose, a small majority uttered a strong cry of disillusioned resentment.

With everything else I learnt on subsequent filming trips to Brussels, Barcelona and Madrid, I could not evade the conclusion that Europe is not reformable without the demise of the neoliberal agenda. The refugee crisis only reinforced my feeling that the EU is in fact dysfunctional. I was thinking I might have to abstain. If I’d been polled, I would have been classed as ‘undecided’, which would hardly reflect my attitude of plague on both your houses. The reporting around Cameron’s desperate bid at re-negotiation didn’t help – it was flimsy, tendentious in foregrounding the immigration issue, and neglected almost entirely what would surely have been Cameron’s key concern, namely, to protect the City of London, the Secret City, as we called it in our film about the Square Mile, which serves jointly with Wall Street as HQ of global financial capital. (Is this not the real basis of the ‘special relationship’ which Obama now assures us will not be affected?).  And the City which controls the principal tax havens highlighted by the Panama Papers. How could it possibly help to vote in their favour? Cameron may have miscalculated, but the City has hedged its bets, embarking on a merger between the London and Frankfurt stock exchanges.

But I was unhappy at the idea of abstention – I take the act of voting seriously, and have never failed to do so (and of course voted to join the EC the first time round back in 1975). Once the campaign proper began, the utterly noxious utterances coming from both sides, and their pernicious exaggeration by the mainstream media, all pandering to base populist motives, became highly oppressive. Everyone seemed to talking past each other. Positions became more and more polarised. Digital campaigning hotted up, but who can judge its efficacy from spending a few minutes a day swiping through their social media feeds? Interesting independent commentaries appeared, arguing this way and that, but they didn’t help me make up my mind. I started turning off, like many people, I imagine, and was glad to be able to escape for a few days. On a short visit to Madrid in the middle of the month, comparing notes with friends on both our elections, while my doubts about the EU were  shared by everyone, no-one seriously thought that Britain should vote to leave. The murder of Jo Cox by a crazed white supremacist while I was still there removed any remaining hesitation, and a week later I duly voted remain. When I woke up early Friday morning to hear the news, I was surprised how depressed it made me feel. And now I’m inevitably pessimistic.

It’s almost incidental that on the day I went off to Spain, I discovered when I withdrew some euros at the airport that the pound had fallen in a jittery premonition of Brexit. The ups and down of the exchange rate over the following week demonstrate afresh that especially in moments of crisis, gains and losses on the money markets and stock exchanges are driven by irrational speculation (unless perhaps you’re George Soros and your speculation is rational). But this is the fate we are now most immediately condemned to suffer, along with the xenophobia, the triumphalism of the racist right, the indignation of Scotland, and the instability injected into Northern Ireland. Beyond our borders, the supranational institutions of Europe are seriously wounded, and in several countries fascistoid populist nationalists are the only ones to congratulate Britain for its decision. If the financial markets escape the control of the ECB, which has little room for manoeuvre and less initiative, the euro will be destabilised.

I said to my friends in Madrid that a vote to leave would produce a constitutional crisis in a country without an actual written constitution. But then in Spain, they explained, it’s the very constitution which is a big part of the problem – the way that elections are slanted, the status of the autonomous regions, especially Catalunya, whose bid for independence will not be resolved whoever wins on 26th June. It looks as if the alliance of Podemos and Izquierda Unida will increase their joint representation as Unidos Podemos, and the political balance will shift, but with voting in progress as I write, nothing is certain. Yet the unfolding political shift going on in Spain derives from an underlying current which is reinventing the political domain from below by trying to break from the verticality of established political parties. One other thing about Spain: as Owen Jones has observed, there is no mass anti-immigration party contesting Spain’s elections, and mainstream parties are not trying to outdo each other with anti-immigration vitriol. Not for lack of immigrants, but that is not the prism through which people understand their problems.

Money Puzzles reports on the decentralised networks of local solidarity groups, the platforms for fighting eviction, running food banks, or exposing local corruption, which carry forward the spirit of 15M – 15 May 2011, the day the indignados camped out in the centre of Madrid. We also report on the Solidarity movement in Greece, a meeting of debt activists in Brussels denouncing illegitimate debt, a conference on green economics in Bristol. In short, the manifestations of a networked movement which is forging an alternative economics not just in theory but in practice, through building solidarity. It’s slow work, but wherever we filmed, the groups who received us inspired a feeling of positivity which they draw from the reconstruction of collectivity, the rebuilding of community from bottom up. Nothing will come down from above that isn’t damage limitation. The ruling plutocrats will have their agendas but their thinking is bankrupt, and their solutions are abstract and sterile. The Europe I identify with is not theirs, but will be glimpsed in our film, which will launch in the autumn.

Meanwhile, here’s a sequence from the Spanish chapter:

Neighbourhood Solidarity in Madrid

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