In his new book, The Left Case Against the EU, University of London School of Oriental and African Studies economics professor Costas Lapavitsas analyzes the current status quo within the European Union (EU) and attempts to map out an opposition strategy for the European left. The Left Case Against the EU examines how the EU got where it is today and, in this framework, looks at how German hegemony was developed and established, outlining the EU’s response mechanisms to crises. Finally, Lapavitsas introduces a proposal for how the left can move forward, pointing out that specific circumstances of each European country need to be considered in such a process. This discussion is especially relevant given the ongoing Brexit crisis in the UK. As Theresa May’s Brexit deal faced a historic defeat that led to a vote of no-confidence, the real challenge for the left is bringing forth concrete counterproposals.
How We Got Here
In mapping the complex, top-down process of bringing together heterogeneous countries into a Union, Lapavitsas stresses the pivotal role of European governing bodies in the development process of the Union and the state of matters today. His view can be summarized in the following excerpt from the end of the book’s first chapter, the brilliance of which justifies citing it in its entirety:
The E.U. and the E.M.U. [European Monetary Union] are not a neutral set of governing bodies, institutions, and practices that could potentially serve any socio-political forces, parties, or governments with any political agenda, depending on their relative strength. Rather, they are structures in the interests of capital and against labour. They have also gradually become geared to serving the economic advantages, and thereby the international agenda, of a particular dominant class, above all, German industrial export capitalists.
Lapavitsas goes on to support this argument by demonstrating the “pre-eminence [of] monetary factors” within the institutions of the monetary union and their objective to impose strict “fiscal discipline” to member states. For all this to be rendered possible, the supposedly democratic institutions of the single market have been transformed into a “technocratic realm,” as he points out, where the most knowledgeable dictate the course of action for everyone, while partaking in democratic decision-making is only permitted within narrow limits.
The second aspect of his analysis on how the European Union got where it is today is a crucial one: Member states have no mechanism for “purchasing vast quantities of primary state debt, if policy necessitates it,” and more fundamentally, “neither legitimacy, nor desire to carry the costs and burdens of each other’s actions.” Given the top-down conglomeration of non-homogeneous countries — within which national identity and interests of national capital have been established — no historical basis exists for the creation of a “European identity” that would effectively legitimize the burden-sharing between countries of the Union, when needed.
Thirdly, Lapavitsas critiques, quite fiercely, the status that German “industrial exporters” have acquired within the European Union by “navigating the straits of the common currency in [their] interests.” More specifically, he claims that the basis of German hegemony within the EU rests upon the structure of the institutions and the existence of the “peripheral” countries, as well as on the peculiarity of German financialized capitalism. He then concludes that the success of Germany is mainly driven by weakening domestic labor rather than increasing productivity.
Therefore, Lapavitsas manages to create a clear image of an EU dominated by technocratic institutions, aiming to enforce specific policies which are exploited by the German capitalist class for its own benefit at the expense of both the German domestic labor force and the labor forces of the “peripheral” countries.
Mapping the Way Forward: The Real Challenge for the Left
Turning to the most important part of the book, and of this discussion in general political discourse, Lapavitsas introduces some proposals for how the left should move forward. He concludes that a European demos (meaning a homogeneous peoples of Europe with common national, or other, identity) does not exist. There are no common European intranational interests due to the different characteristics of class structure within each European country. In turn, this observation leads him to conclude that we should return to the national level to regain sovereignty, and to this end, he outlines some rough guidelines, such as placing banks under public ownership, giving “pride of place” to public investment and public ownership of key resources, and doing so in an environmentally conscious way, ultimately aiming to tip the balance between capital and labor in favor of labor.
Notably, the first conclusion that Lapavitsas reaches — that the capitalism of each country is different from that of any other country, as are the class relationships developed within it — is essentially the same theory of uneven and combined development outlined by Trotsky. Specifically, Lapavitsas’s subsequent conclusion, based on the above, argues that we ought to return to the national level to regain sovereignty through the aforementioned strategies and, most importantly, that “there is no need to proclaim a global working class to ensure international solidarity.” This conclusion is problematic in three ways.
First, it is problematic because it urges people to regain sovereignty primarily on the national level. This is important, and as Lapavitsas correctly observes, it is more effective to directly fight the capitalist structures that directly oppress us, either within parliament or out of it, through our struggles. However, his position undermines the importance of the internationalist struggle. He tangentially expresses a hope that the fight at home alone will eventually turn into an internationalist struggle; nevertheless, national and international struggles are necessary and sufficient conditions for each other. As Kunal Chattopadhyay puts it in The Marxism of Leon Trotsky, “Today the entire globe … has become the arena of a worldwide economy; the dependence on each part on the other has become indissoluble.”
This means that working people of each country — peripheral or central, southern or northern — need to understand how their positions and everyday jobs are interrelated with those of other workers within a globalized economy in order to understand their true power and fight in solidarity. Hence, the struggles on a national and international level go hand-in-hand, and one should not be undermined in favor of the other. Only in this way can the historical condition for a European (even a global) demos be created, this time on the basis of equality and solidarity.
Secondly, Lapavitsas’s argument (and this is common in the European and global left) has one additional complication: Are the measures he proposes the end goal, or some intermediate step to transition to socialism? If the mixed economy proposed by Lapavitsas is the end goal, his proposal is contradictory: Isn’t the promise to use capitalist institutions in their entirety in favor of the working people contradictory and unrealistic?
However, if the proposed solution’s aim is “preparing the ground for the socialist transformation of Europe,” several pivotal questions arise. The proposed path from this transitional period to socialism ought to be specified, and most importantly, the type of socialism we are aiming for ought to be specified if the argument is to hold merit.
The proposition to open a path toward socialism and a concrete proposal on what that socialism ought to look like are, again, closely interrelated, and a proposal for one without a proposal for the other cannot stand alone as a serious argument. Following multiple failures of socialist construction in the past century and of popular uprisings that would supposedly lead to a more just social arrangement, it is pivotal to exercise extreme detail and preciseness in our phrasing and proposals. This is not to ensure academic rigorousness, but rather for all people involved in the struggle to have a clear and aligned view on what the goals are so that they can effectively, democratically and directly control the entire process.
Finally, it is pivotal, even for an intermediate proposal, when exiting the EU within capitalism, to bring forth a quantifiable solution on how to run industries, supply goods and keep the economy running at least at the levels that it does at the moment. It is natural that in a short book addressed to a diverse readership, a scientific approach cannot be outlined in its entirety. Nevertheless, a proposal for radical clash cannot be serious without a rigorous scientific basis for running the economy and its several industries.
Overall, Lapavitsas’s work is an informative, well-structured academic tool to understand how the balance of powers within the EU has stabilized today. Most importantly, as a tool for comprehending the above, the work has been written in such a way that it can be easily understood by people who have no experience and previous knowledge of economics, or financial institutions and their operating principles. Furthermore, the book is an important starting point for the debate on what the future strategy should be and where the left ought to go from here.
The proposal that Lapavitsas puts forth has serious limitations that render it incomplete; nevertheless, it is a first step that could potentially be incorporated in the totality of a socialist strategy, possibly as part of an intermediate situation, but with a clear socialist goal. This socialist strategy will not be the product of academic work, but rather of the collective work of workers and unions across industries, political parties and academia, in close cooperation with each other.