This joint therapy session between Owen Jones and Yanis Varoufakis fails to dispel the cognitive dissonance created by their respective decisions to argue against Brexit despite being such vocal critics of the European Union
Less than a year ago, this blog was remarking on what a good time it was to be a eurosceptic in Britain.
Our longed-for referendum was finally on the way after the UKIP surge and David Cameron’s desperate concession to staunch the bleeding of his own MPs to Nigel Farage’s insurgent party. Meanwhile, the Left finally seemed to be rediscovering their long-misplaced euroscepticism after witnessing Greece’s treatment at the hands of the eurogroup and finally realising that post-democratic, supranational governance is not the shining utopia they had been so sanctimoniously claiming.
Back to the present day, and once again there are many reasons for thinking British eurosceptics to despair, and precious few reasons to hope. The Leave campaign is being conducted by an official group comprised primarily of B-list politicos who actually seem to think that a group of mostly right-wing politicians prancing around the country screeching that Brexit will Save Our NHS will be a) remotely believable, and b) a referendum-winning issue.
But perhaps most depressing of all is the fact that the awakening left-wing eurosceptic movement seems to have rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep.
This is most evident in Owen Jones, who last year seemed on the cusp of rediscovering the euroscepticism of Tony Benn, only to fall back into irrational support for the European Union as the Greek crisis receded and the EU referendum drew closer.
But we also see the same syndrome appear in people who have direct and harsh experience of the European Union’s antidemocratic ways, but who nonetheless come rallying to its aid – as though their limited imaginations simply cannot comprehend a world without the EU. The prime example here is that of Yanis Varoufakis, who should know better than almost anyone the degree to which Brussels is antidemocratic by design and utterly resistent to fundamental change.
And now, in a new YouTube video [see top] we have Owen Jones and Yanis Varoufakis together in a joint therapy session, perhaps to work through the immense cognitive dissonance that both must currently be feeling from spending 2015 railing against the EU, and 2016 telling us how it is our humanitarian duty to keep the rotten enterprise afloat.
Varoufakis’s view in a nutshell:
The Left should never lose sight of the history of the 1930s. After 1929, the Left failed to create the coalition with other democrats that was necessary to prevent the descent into the abyss of the 1930s.
Now, I see such an abyss opening up in front of our eyes in the centre of Europe today. And if it does, we are going to unleash very vulgar and brutal ultra right wing forces throughout Europe, and various xenophobic tendencies that will be turbocharged by the disintegration of the European Union.
Brexit would speed up the disintegration of the European Union and in the end the only beneficiaries will be those ultra-nationalists, xenophobes, racists everywhere, including in Britain.
In other words, Britain should sacrifice her own freedom and democracy because the rest of Europe is a perpetually backward powder-keg of barely suppressed “ultra right-wing” populism and resentments which will lead us back to war faster than you can say “Treaty of Versailles”, unless we dissolve our individual national identities into a common European body.
Note how Varoufakis says that Brexit would “speed up” the collapse of the EU, not that it would precipitate the collapse. That suggests that he strongly believes that the EU is doomed regardless, but still wants Britain to remain inside the burning building along with Greece to the bitter end. Quite why Britain should sacrifice our own democracy and future economic and even political stability in this way is never explained by Varoufakis or Owen Jones.
Note too how Varoufakis is keen to say that the only ones looking forward to Brexit are the foaming-at-the-mouth racist mobs which are apparently just waiting for their signal to wreak havoc on the streets of Britain. This is a variant on the claim that we should remain in the European Union because Vladimir Putin would apparently like nothing better than for us to leave. That’s certainly an interesting way to run a country – doing the precise opposite of what Vladimir Putin might want at every single decision point – but as a general rule one would have thought it was best to focus more on what is best for Britain rather than what is worst from the imagined perspective of some other world leader.
Then we get the same pigs-might-fly optimistic leftist vision for Europe that Owen Jones has also promoted, and which Jeremy Corbyn spoke of in his recent pro-EU speech at Senate House:
Our criterion should be a broad, pan-European, democratic movement for preventing the post-modern 1930s from hitting us and future generations.
[..] I feel it in my bones that to all of us we have a duty to band together across borders throughout Europe to prevent this decline, this degeneration into an ultra right wing cesspool of xenophobia, of deflation, of loss of jobs, and this is something we can only fight at the level of Europe. It cannot be fought at the level of Scotland, of Wales, of northern England.
This is an attempt, maybe Utopian, to say “Okay, forget that we are Greek, Scottish, English, German, Italian, let’s get together as European progressives and ask ourselves a very simple question: ‘how do we stop this decline?'”
So it’s not about democracy at all. It’s about leftists from across the European continent banding together to inflict their particular worldview on a reluctant continent. Varoufakis may want to use the European Union as a megaphone to amplify his neo-Marxist message and leftist policies, but he has no intention of his Brave New Europe being a democracy – at least, not if the majority of voters prefer more right wing, capitalist ideas.
Note that Varoufakis says that these right wing terrors (mostly existing only in his mind) cannot be fought at the home nation or English regional level. But he conspicuously fails to mention that they cannot be addressed at the UK level – because, presumably, he believes that they can. Which once again brings up the question of why Britain should remain part of the European Union when Varoufakis himself tacitly admits that Britain is not in need of Europe’s help.
Varoufakis goes on to make legitimate criticism of the lack of real democratic accountability and responsiveness within the member states themselves:
What is the enemy? The enemy is the contempt for democratic processes in our national capitals and in Brussels, because the contempt that the elite has in London for democracy is only reinforced by the contempt that Brussels has.
We make decisions in pure opacity. You have no idea what George Osborne says in Ecofin on behalf of you.
But while he keeps offering More Europe as a solution, at no point is it explained why each member state should not simply strive to become more democratic in their own way and in accordance with their own traditions, culture and history.
The British parliament’s oversight of the government’s handling of EU matters is abysmal at present, with ministers, diplomats and MEPs rarely being held to anything like proper account for the decisions that they make on our behalf in Brussels. That is something which could be changed with sufficient political will – ideally as part of a far more widely reaching constitutional convention, but as a lone issue if necessary. But this is change which must come from within – the EU is never going to start issuing directives instructing national parliaments to pay much closer scrutiny to their own government’s interaction with Brussels.
Ultimately, the problem with Varoufakis’s argument is that it basically amounts to a vain struggle to bring greater transparency to European institutions which nobody wanted in the first place. Live streaming meetings of European finance ministers (to use one of his examples) is all well and good, but it does not change the fact that the entire foundations of the EU were built without the expressed democratic consent of the people.
If your right to decide unilaterally what new car you want to buy is taken away and vested in a group including of 27 of your neighbours, your family is unlikely to be greatly mollified by being allowed to watch your joint deliberations on the internet as together you hash out a compromise. Because they reject the fundamental premise of the exercise, attempting to add a thin layer of democratic gloss over the top doesn’t make it any better.
But half way through the video, Varoufakis makes an important concession, with great emphasis, saying:
The retreat to the nation state is never going to benefit the Left. Never.
And there you have it – the real reason why even the EU’s strongest critics, like Yanis Varoufakis and Owen Jones, ultimately just can’t abandon their commitment to the European Union. Because the only realistic chance they see of imposing their left-wing policies on broadly centrist or centre-right populations is by doing it through the remote and unaccountable auspices of the EU.
The Left look around and see free markets accepted and delivering prosperity in nearly every country, including those who have sworn eternal opposition to capitalism. And despite the Corbynite takeover of the Labour Party in Britain, there is still no evidence of a groundswell of public longing for 1970s style statist economic policies to be brought out of mothballs. What chance, then, does the Left have to bring more of the economy under state control other than the extreme long shot of seizing control of Europe’s supranational layer of government on the back of the supposed European left-wing popular movement (DiEM25) talked up by Varoufakis and Jones?
As Varoufakis admits, “the retreat to the nation state is never going to benefit the Left”. The Left can only advance their cause by sidestepping nation states altogether, which means taking control of the EU, where national legislatures are bypassed and unpopular and even hated policies can be imposed on the peoples of Europe with very limited opportunity for effective resistance (see Greece). This may seem laughably unrealistic – and it is. But it is the Left’s only remaining hope, and so they cling stubbornly to their delusion even if it means betraying democracy and supporting the EU in its current form (and with its current policies) until the time comes for their popular revolution.
Meanwhile, the young Left have simply grown up with the European Union, do not see it as a threat or even a problem of any kind, and have been repeatedly told that opposition to the European project is synonymous with racism and ignorance – and so they support it unquestioningly. And this puts left-wing figureheads like Owen Jones and Yanis Varoufakis (and even Jeremy Corbyn) in a pickle, because there is only so far they can lead their flocks or step outside their side’s own Overton window before the people take fright at being made to think unthinkable, heretical thoughts.
This was not a problem for the late Tony Benn. Benn was able to trash talk the European Union and talk about democracy, and he was indulged much like a crazy but beloved uncle or grandfather. And that enabled Benn to make a compelling case against the European Union and for Brexit, drawing not on left-wing or right-wing political objectives but purely on his respect for democracy.
As this blog explained:
When asked his own thoughts about the European Union, Tony Benn did not do what most contemporary Labour Party personalities do, and talk about the virtues of undemocratically imposing more stringent social and employment laws on Britain (an irritatingly less social-democratic country than our continental friends). Because Tony Benn understood that the left-wing case against the European Union was about democracy, democracy and more democracy.
Tony Benn understood that some things are more important than whether Britain might happen to move in a slightly more left or right wing direction as a short and medium term consequence of Brexit. He understood that self-determination and democracy – particularly the ability for the citizenry to remove people from office – is the first and most important consideration in determining the democratic health of a country.
And Benn understood that living in a democracy where his own side would sometimes win and sometimes lose was far preferable to living in a dictatorship where his own preferred policies were implemented through coercion with no public redress.
Unfortunately for Corbyn, Jones and Varoufakis, they do not command the universal love and respect enjoyed by the late Tony Benn. They cannot make a case for Brexit to their followers based on democracy, because in truth their followers generally do not care about democracy – they care about getting their way, and imposing their values and policies on Britain whether the people want them or not. In other words, the Left’s most high-profile EU apologists are being led by their followers – and it shows in the paucity and half-heartedness of their arguments against Brexit.
And it is in this context that we should view this fifteen minute televised therapy session between Owen Jones and Yanis Varoufakis, two intelligent people who know deep down they are on the wrong side of democracy, and are desperate to find as many reasons as possible to soothe their burning consciences.
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