My posting of Étienne Balibar’s recent Guardian piece on my Facebook page invited comments that forced me to spell out my view of the troubled European experiment with integration. I admit that the thesis here is tentative to the point of vagueness — being that I’m no European except in a very far, removed sense. But this is how things look from my standpoint.
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From the outset, the main impulse to integrate Europe has come from the needs of big capital, particularly Prusian/German, French, and to a much lesser extent northern Italian/Alpine. The obstacles to this type of integration (forceful or not, but always from above), necessarily premised on the reinforced submission of working people everywhere, have flown from the active resistance of mid and small capital everywhere, a resistance so strong and organic, so rooted in the way in which Europeans actually work and lead their lives up and close, that its influence on European working-class politics has been formidable (and toxic) since the earlier times of the workers’ movement.
Look at the cataclysmic events swaying Europe since the mid 19th century, events in which working masses have played significant roles — e.g. the wave of revolutions in mid 19th century, the ascent of socialism in the continent, the failed revolutions following the Bolshevik lead, the Spanish civil war, the widespread resistance against fascism, the solidarity with the Soviet Union, Eastern European socialism, and the struggles against colonialism, the student and peace movements in the postwar. Clearly, there’s a persistent vein of politically independent working class motion visible here.
Yet, if one takes a serious step back, it seems as if the underlying tension shaping things up in Europe over the last two centuries has been that between the pressure of big capital to expand itself beyond national boundaries and the (ebbing-and-flowing, but ever present) resistance of mid and small capital. The tragic implosion of European socialism, largely the result of the pervasive inability of socialists to jell as an internationally coherent force, appears almost like a series of side episodes in the evolution of this tension. The swings and realignments of European socialism seem like tremors of this intra-capitalist conflict, whose social geology has shifted only gradually.
Both, the drive to integrate from above and the resistance of European nationalisms have proved to be robust political forces. Working people have never transcended the ideological and political horizon of this intra-capitalist conflict, except episodically and with tragic results. They have never been, for prolonged periods, the protagonists of European history. They have remained trapped in the conflict, unable to break free from it with their alternative, from-below version of European integration and globalism.
In today’s European left-wing politics (whatever the condition of the European left), this translates into a dilemma — whether to fight the EU framework or to focus instead on the myriad struggles that aim at reforming the EU or transform it from the inside out. In other words, Žižek or Amin (http://bit.ly/c3odEu).
Of course, resolving the issue in principle matters little, because — unfortunately — the state of the movement is such that local political conditions will (and must) take precedence. In other words, what’s good for the left in Greece may not rhyme with what is good for the left in Slovakia. We can’t will this reality away. The only conceivable way in which a coherent international European left may emerge is as a result of the strengthening of its national components paired with a robust, sophisticated understanding at the grassroots level that, in our times, national struggles ultimately lead to political blind alleys and more defeats. Hopefully at a higher level, but we’re back to square 1 in the Manifesto.