Politicians must grasp the difference between free market and corporate stitch-up - or face popular rage
Does anybody in the governing business actually understand political ideas anymore? Or, to be more precise, is there any interest in what constitutes a real political position as opposed to a desperate scramble for tactical advantage? You will gather from the wording of these questions that they are rhetorical.
Almost nobody in the professional political class seems to me to have the remotest idea of what constitutes a coherent argument involving the basic equipment of consistent principles and rational conclusions. Oddly, this judgment applies most of all to the revivalist Labour party, whose leadership presents itself as being more purely ideological and avowedly principled than any in living memory.
The morass of confusion and self-contradiction is most clearly illuminated in the messy, ever more vindictive, debate about Brexit which, in fact, can scarcely be dignified by the name “debate” since there is no agreement about what would constitute winning. Some of this is the result of deliberate obfuscation and dishonesty around the specific question of ending our membership of the European Union.
But there is a larger void too. In fact, some of the most difficult points about the exhaustively disputed advantages and disadvantages of the EU could be brought into luminous clarity if the parties involved understood (or stopped pretending that they did not see) the obvious political lessons.
The most fundamental facts of economic and governmental life are being scrambled, obscured and blatantly misrepresented in ways that are designed to make sensible discussion virtually impossible. And it is not just in cynical old Europe where this crime is being perpetrated: the American presidential election is making a grotesque nonsense of the issues that might provide some understanding of what is at stake for the country.
But let’s look first at the EU farrago since the perversity and deceptions here are so blatant. Surely suspicion should have been raised when it became apparent that the most fervent opposition to Leave, and the most militant opposition to the referendum result, came from an unlikely alliance between political Left-liberals and global corporate interests.
It was perfectly understandable that, in a shameless display of brazen self-interest, international corporations which dominate the globalised economy should be in favour of a system that would tear down borders and allow them untrammelled access to as big a unified trading bloc as possible. For what we used to call, back in the day, “corporate capitalism”, the EU is very heaven.
Here in a package deal is a bloc of countries trussed up in regulation that puts smaller competitors out of business, and is ready to provide an infinite supply of cheap labour which can be shunted around the continent without restriction. What’s not to like?
If you were wondering where all that passionate advocacy for a repudiation of the referendum vote was being generated, just remember that there is a great deal of investment (which is to say, money) at stake here. (Did you really think this was all about idealistic devotion to the communaitaire European vision?) The destabilising of the EU arrangement presents a threat to the hegemony of some of the most powerful manipulators of capital in the world. So I get it: I understand what that well-organised campaign is about.
This is manipulation of public opinion by what should be a clearly identifiable, self-serving source to protect its own vested interests. What I do not understand is why anyone who regards himself as being on the Left or even the centre-Left – indeed anyone who professes sympathy with what we might call “little people” (ordinary working families or aspiring entrepeneurs) – should be pitching in with such gusto.
The EU is a club that celebrates the power of Big Leagues: Big Business, Big Government, and Big Bureaucracy. To a much lesser extent, it grants power to Big Labour in the form of the most well-connected trade unions, but this is very much on sufferance: any union that put up serious resistance to the transporting of cheap labour – which is what the “free movement of people” should properly be called – would find itself outside the magical sphere of influence very quickly.
Incendiary discontent will not be defused by any election unless there is a serious attempt to talk properly about the commodification of labour
But how can it be morally worthy for the Mediterranean countries which have youth unemployment rates of around 60 per cent, and the eastern European countries which are struggling out of post-Soviet poverty, to lose the best and brightest of their young to the rich established economies of western Europe? What kind of freedom is that?
It’s a dream for ruthless international businesses for whom local community ties and historic roots are a nuisance at best and a major obstacle at worst but it further impoverishes the poorer countries and makes conditions of employment impossible for all but the most nomadic and adaptable.
Most significantly at the moment, it creates impossible tensions with the indigenous workforce who do not have the mobility or the minimal personal responsibilities of that transient labour army which employers find so very useful. As this column has noted before, this is an almost perfect example of what Marx called the “commodification of labour”. It has become the most febrile component of the electoral politics of Britain and the United States: the incendiary discontent which will not be defused by any election in the foreseeable future unless there is a serious attempt to talk about it properly.
At this point, regular readers may be tempted to conclude that I am regressing. My account must sound conspicuously like that of the young Marxist I confess that I once was. But the Left’s failure to acknowledge what should be staring it in the face is not the whole story.
What should be central to any real argument about the globalisation of labour – because that is what the electoral hot potato of immigration actually means – is that it is very different from the kind of economic freedom that is of genuine benefit to the people of the world. Free markets and free trade have produced mass prosperity on a scale that is unprecedented in human history: not just prosperity in the crass material sense but self-determination and self-fulfilment of a kind that was once available only to the wealthiest and most privileged individuals.
In the developing world, free-market economics and the lowering of trade restrictions have wrought miracles, bringing whole swathes of Africa and Asia out of poverty. Now all this is in danger of ossifying with the US and the EU likely to block entry not only to emerging markets and small, flexible entrepreneurs but even to major countries: the long-negotiated EU trade agreement with Canada has just collapsed, absurdly, due to a veto by one small Belgian region.
Even self-styled progressives in the West are now endorsing this retreat from open markets. Hillary Clinton is pulling away from free trade commitments in her eagerness to placate indigenous working class voters who are lured by Trumpist xenophobia. So she veers more and more toward protectionism and high-tax government when the only true antidote to economic stagnation is the opposite of those. What she and Theresa May need to offer is a new political settlement in which the indispensable role of free trade is accepted alongside protection against the unlimited imported labour which leads to social unrest.
In Britain, too many Conservatives who ought to know better confuse monopolistic corporate interests with free markets, and refuse to recognise the difference between national sovereignty and nationalism. Maybe some politicians here and in the US do understand all this. It’s difficult to tell because there is so little grown-up discussion. Meanwhile ordinary people believe they are being forgotten or deliberately shafted by a conspiracy of the powerful: global corporates, international money, and self-aggrandising super players. Are they wrong?