“An anti-capitalist perspective, […] requires a breach with the EU” – Interview with Kevin Ovenden

kevin ovendenWhile at the Marx is’ Muss Congress 2016, Pavle Ilic and Anja Ilic (Marks21, Serbia) interviewed Kevin Ovenden, a British activist and publicist, active on both the British and the Greek political scenes. One of the most important voices of the British left, Kevin has recently written a book on Syriza, entitled “Syriza: Inside the Labyrinth” (Pluto Press, 2015). Taken before the murder of Jo Cox, this interview tries to delineate some of the contours of the European project before the Brexit vote, touching upon the dynamics which have moulded the current context: the austerity orthodoxy of the EU, the attitude of the social-democratic left, and the growth of the extreme right. Following the vote on June 23, Kevin will comment on the results for Lefteast.

First of all, you divide your time and activism between Greece and Britain. Both of these countries have lately been developing varied and influential radical left wing, as well as an extreme right in their political currents. This could be described as a local expression of a global, or at least a European trend of political polarisation. Can you please say a few words about the changes in the political structure of Europe that we are currently witnessing?

You’re right to say that it’s a local expression of a general phenomenon. Let me say that there is a danger of over-generalising. We need to bear in mind the national particularities. But even given the national particularities, there are underlying processes on the European continent and the existence of the European Union – [that] doesn’t replace national politics, but it does give a synchronisation to the national politics. There is a European political entity.

So, about the processes. First is the alienation of people from the old political order, and particularly from the neoliberalised politics of the centre. This was the politics from the mid-nineties onwards, which show the central left, in the form of, say, Bill Clinton, in a way, in the United States, but Tony Blair, [Lionel] Jospin, [Gerhard] Schröder, [Costas] Simitis, [Romano] Prodi, all moving – not just as right-wing social democrats, but in the form and content of that politics – onto the neoliberal terrain. Politics became about technique to win a small number of people.

So, there is an alienation from politics. This predates the onset of the crisis following Lehman brothers, but it would’ve been accelerated by that, because, with minor differences, the response of the central left and central right has been pretty much the same, in the terms of the policies of austerity. So, we see, country after country, the total votes and the share of the vote for the centre-left and the centre-right has been declining, with a few exceptions, for about twenty years or longer. This has meant that forces, either to the left of the mainstream or to the right, can find themselves in a position to grasp that popular feeling. You see this in the United States – one expression is Bernie Sanders; on the right, the expression is Donald Trump. We can move on to the centrality of racism for the right.

[There were] the attempts by the centre to shore itself up, given that in some countries, initially, people said “Well, maybe austerity is the only alternative”, because of the huge national debt – [but] there’s nowhere now, including in Britain, where people accept the austerity measures in public opinion polls. The government is unpopular; its policies are unpopular. They’ve turned increasingly to racialised politics, and nationalist and chauvinist politics. This began in the centre, but it has paved the way for the growths of the far right. The far right, particularly the extreme, fascist right, has not grown by battling against the state. The state and its policies have paved the way for the far right.

On the left, there’s a great variation, as to which political force has been able to pick up on this mood. In Britain, extraordinarily, Jeremy Corbyn, who is essentially radical left in his politics, has been able to pick up on that and get elected to the Labour Party, which has a kind of primary process [form], like [in] the United States. In Greece: Syriza, which has already existed as a party; in the Spanish state: Podemos, an entirely new formation… Lots of variation, but these are the underlying processes.

What effect do you think the refugee crisis will have on this process?

The refugee crisis is, of course, not a crisis caused by refugees – it’s a crisis of the political system responding to the refugees. The European continent actually needs labour. But, it order to absorb that labour and make the most of it, it needs to have an economic model which breaks from austerity – not necessarily a socialist model, but one which is prepared to plan and invest over a longer period of time.

So, you have 800 000 people coming to Germany, and you’ve got to plan the kindergarten places, the schools and so on – the training to fill the labour market. Now, German capitalism could do this in the ‘50s or ‘60s – this was the secret of the Wirtschaftswunder, of the economic miracle: Germany recovering from the ashes of the Second World War. But now, the whole doctrine and the low profitability of capitalism is pressing them in an austerity direction. Europe could absorb the refugees, but it can’t on an austerity basis. Therefore, we face a choice of breaking [with] austerity, or the political structures of Europe will become more and more racist in an attempt to keep the refugees out.

They can’t keep the refugees out. They can make it very difficult, and they can make sure more people die trying to get to Europe – and they’re doing that – but they can’t stop even the flow across the Aegean. Now, the other route is opening – people are trying to go from Libya to Italy. This is leading to pressure from France and Britain in particular for a renewed military intervention in Libya. So, five years after we “liberated” Libya, we’re going to have another intervention in Libya, ostensibly because ISIS is there, but in reality they’re doing this to stop the refugees from coming from Libya to Lampedusa and so on.

The-Brexit-and-the-economic-consequences-for-the-United-Kingdom-and-the-European-Union2-768x512The impact of the attempts by the established parties and the governments to deal with the refugee crisis has been that they have turned more and more to racism. Some have done that deliberately, like David Cameron, in a [recent] attempt to win an election in London on a very sharply racist basis. Others, such as Angela Merkel, have not intended to go down this route, but because they’re not prepared to break from austerity, they’re compelled to go down the route of more and more restrictions on refugees. Angela Merkel says: “We welcome refugees”, but it’s Angela Merkel who signs the EU–Turkey deal, which is the deal of shame.

This is the dynamic around the refugees. It’s very important that it’s not true that just because you have austerity and you put some migrants, the people just turn racist. That’s not happened in Greece: 85% of people in Greece, where unemployment amongst young people is 50%, 85% of people say “We should welcome the refugees”. That’s because the left has been able to give a battle to stop the right from pumping racist poison into the society, which is what they try to do.

Most mainstream media tend to mystify the relation between the Western imperialism and the refugee crisis. But, an aspect of this crisis and also of left-wing strategy that rarely gets mentioned is the need of Europe for an influx of labour power that can come from nowhere else, other than from outside Europe. If Europe needs labour and Middle East is providing that labour, why would European elites devote themselves to oppose immigration?

Because to make the most of that labour, you need to move to a model of growth, not a model of austerity. And although the austerity hasn’t worked – on one level it hasn’t worked, on another level it has – the claim for austerity, claim from the IMF and “the Troika” was: you make the cuts, reduce the debts, and then you will enter a growth cycle. This is being said every year for the last seven years in Greece, but the analysis of the left is the one that’s proved right. Though, not just the left, [but] many mainstream economists – or, virtually, all mainstream economists – say that in trying to pay the debt, you’ll run down the economy further.

Essentially, it’s an equivalent question – why do they stick with austerity rather than turn to a growth model, which could absorb the labour that they need? And the reason they do it is: although austerity hasn’t worked for the claim of what it was to do, the reality of austerity was always a class battle; it was a policy of class warfare against the European working class. And on that level – until recently, anyway – the European business class and its representative thinkers were really quite pleased that they’ve managed to go through seven years since Lehman brothers, with not much in the way of generalised European working class struggle.

That’s picking up a bit now. The labour of Greece is slightly exceptional – Greece has more struggle. It’s changing a little bit now, with the very big movement in France, which offers a lot of hope, if it can win against the Labour Law and associated with Nuit Debout occupation of the squares. They’re sticking with austerity and this model, and the austerity requires the racism – even though there is an alternative, but the alternative would mean them having to have another policy of dealing with the European working class; then, the constant squeeze, because of the low profitability.

Can I just say, about imperialism as well: of course, there are the direct military interventions, but also we should prepare ourselves for increasing numbers of refugees from climate change. The impact of imperialism is understood not just in this military aspect, but the fact that it’s a vicious organisation of capitalism by the greater powers. Semi-organisation in capitalism is meaning that large numbers of people in Sub-Saharan Africa face the failure of crops and so on, and also we have large numbers of people in the cities of the Third World, who are underemployed, unemployed and so on.

To summarise everything – could you please comment on the interrelation of the mentioned factors: austerity, ideology of European identity, the refugee crisis, the crisis of the European Union, which is made obvious by more and more people talking about the unsustainability of the EU, and also the issue of Brexit?

On the question of the European identity: since the Treaty of Rome, until this crisis, the ECU, the European project – it’s never been about something progressive, but it’s always had a progressive story to tell. Fifties into the sixties, we can have a return to economic growth without it leading to a war between France and Germany, which is what it did twice in the 20th century. The seventies into the eighties, we have the fall of dictatorships, and the Europe seen as some kind of guarantor of personal rights – rights of women and so on. It never was! Women won their right to have abortion in Britain when Britain was outside of the EU. The EU did not give women the right to control their own bodies in Britain. Ireland is in the European Union, and Ireland bans abortion. The position of women has nothing to do with the EU, but this was the ideology. And then, in the nineties into the two-thousands: the expansion eastwards, and a promise that it could secure democracy.

Now we see democracy goes out the window, when it comes to Greece. Senior European officials said: “It doesn’t matter which way you vote – there’s Maastricht, the fiscal pact, and there’s the memorandum.” So, the EU has undermined that Europeanism, but still essentially the left is clinging to Europeanism – and that’s what they’re doing in Britain, and that’s really a product of the political weaknesses of the left.

Europeanism rose as an ideology in the centre – it’s a kind of European reformism in Britain in the ‘80s, coming out of two things. One was the defeat of the British working class movement. It wasn’t responsible for the defeat, but it became a justification afterwards for an alternative to a policy of class struggle. Miners were defeated, so the people said: “We can’t fight as a trade union – we’ll try to look to the European Court.”

Second was political – the defeat of the Mitterrand and Papandreou governments, because when the path to national reformism is blocked, we must try it on a European level. It is at this point that PASOK, which had been for a referendum and exiting the European Union, switched to being in favour of the European Union.

So, the ideology is a product of the defeat of the workers’ movement and the defeat of the left, but it now plays a role in further weakening the labour movement, because everywhere it encourages the idea that the only thing we can do is form an alliance with the central right against the far right. This is the position of the SPD in Germany: if we don’t keep the grand coalition going, the alternative will be the AfD. It’s the grand coalition which leads to the AfD.

The left – and this is what we’re trying to do in Britain with the left exit campaign – the anti-capitalist left [is] trying to clarify what the European Union is, but also to put a clear fighting alternative on the left. And the fighting alternative will confront the European Union, because the capitalist class is being held in power by two instruments – their own national state, which is the primary instrument, and their own national political system; and they also have the European Union.

In Greece last year, the election of January led to the shattering of the two political instruments of the ruling class – New Democracy, the centre-right party, and PASOK took a beating. The Greek capitalist class was incapable, politically, of making its fight inside Greece. It relied upon the European Union, which is a club of the capitalist classes, to conduct that fight for them. When Gerhard Schröder was smashing the Greek government, he wasn’t smashing Greece as a whole – he was smashing the Greek government on behalf of German capital, but also on behalf of Greek capital. And that’s the relationship between the two. So, if you have an anti-capitalist perspective, it requires a breach with the EU – you not only need a breach with the national bourgeoisie, you need them both.

A Serbian version of this interview has been published on the Marks21 platform. Pavle Ilic and Anja Ilic are Sociology students and members of Marks21.