20 March 2010

Battle for the nation state

Battle for the nation state

Alex Gordon, Morning Star, London, 18 March 2010

Monopoly capital and the forces of so-called "globalisation" face yet another deep crisis. This has awakened new interest in the ideas of Karl Marx, which have proved much more resilient than the forces of imperialist globalisation have claimed.

The international banking system has been temporarily saved from complete meltdown, but only by the extensive intervention of the state with public money.

If the situation were not so serious, we may even have been amused to witness the spectacle of those who once claimed the total victory of global markets, the "end of history" itself and the death of the nation state scrambling for government bail-outs and demanding state intervention.

Over the last 40 years the drive for world market integration has unleashed and intensified competitive pressures on capital and labour.

Capital markets now have a global reach and capital flows have increased in speed and volume. This has undermined "normal" democratic policy cycles.

These factors weaken the ability of organised labour to resist economic exploitation and of nation states to regulate economic activity.

Labour practices such as offshoring and flagging out - the operation of commercial ocean-going vessels under "flags of convenience" to avoid health and safety and social legislation - have thrown into doubt the ability of the state to act as a regulator of markets.

The primary vehicles for limiting nations' rights of nations to self-determination and for removing sovereignty are the G8, the International Monetary Fund, the North American Free Trade Agreement bloc and the European Union.

However, by unleashing the forces of capital with little or no regard to the consequences no-one has been immune from the fallout. The weakening and total removal of political and economic levers to deal with the crises at a national level is simply intensifying the nature and depth of the malaise.

The imperialist war machine has developed as the military wing of corporate globalisation over the same period to deny, where necessary, the right to self-determination enshrined in the UN charter.

Nato secretary-general Lord Robertson declared in 1999 that the "Rubicon had been crossed" with the illegal attacks on Yugoslavia. Imperialist military intervention has been dressed up in post-modern, media-friendly terms like "humanitarian war" and "nation building."

Despite the now obvious limitations of letting global capital rip without any meaningful restraints, there is clearly a great deal of confusion as to how workers should respond to the present crisis.

An honest appraisal of the left's response to imperialist globalisation must accept that regrettably there has been a significant tendency to adapt to the logic of market dominance and to post-modernism, the ideology that developed in tandem with it.

Marxian slogans such as "Workers of all lands, unite" and "The working men have no country" have been appropriated as crude justifications for the proposition that the nation state is, indeed, dead.

These death notices, to paraphrase Mark Twain, have proven to be greatly exaggerated.

Marx also had to deal with such idealism in his own time. The Proudhonists famously wanted to "abolish nationalities in the interests of the social revolution." Marx calmly responded by asking whether this meant we must all become French.

The present crisis of capitalism and massive attacks on the idea of the nation state and democracy demand that we return to "the national question" with sober senses, as Marx would have it.

To begin with, we must understand that nowhere did Marx write of nations themselves disappearing, only of the "vanishing of antagonisms between peoples."

Marx's immediate call to action to the working class was to take from their oppressors what had been denied them.

In the Communist Manifesto he wrote: "Since the proletariat must first of all acquire political supremacy, must rise to be the leading class of the nation, must constitute itself the nation, it is so far, itself national, though not in the bourgeois sense of the word."

The battle for democracy in this country had been raging long before those words were written down. The first trade unionists asserted freedom of association. The Chartists demanded universal adult male suffrage, secret ballots, abolition of property qualifications and payment of MPs, equal constituencies and annual parliaments in their struggles for political representation to effect economic change.

At that time, the modern nation state was a relatively new concept born of rationalism and enlightenment.

The French serf had only recently become a citizen of the republic. The New England farmer had defeated their British rulers a few years earlier to become a citizen of the United States. The ensuing struggles against slavery and the American civil war were played out in a clearly national context.

These modern developments have continued since the second world war with the growth of the United Nations. Nearly 200 countries sit in the UN general assembly - so much for the death of the nation state.

Even imperialist, supranational organisations such as Nato and the European Union have had to create nation states - for example the client statelet of Kosovo - and oppose the creation of others for their own geopolitical purposes.

However the overriding logic and purpose of the EU is to hollow out the democratic structures of states and incrementally to transfer law-making powers to unelected, undemocratic, supranational institutions in Brussels through treaties and directives.

This anti-democratic, slow-motion revolution in reverse has gone unnoticed by many voters and most political commentators, who still see the Westminster Parliament as the key citadel of state power in Britain.

This is why the debate over many contemporary political and social issues in Britain has such an unreal quality.

On the question of railway privatisation most voters in Britain support renationalisation. Yet how many voters are aware that an EU directive orders the separation of train operations from rail infrastructure? How many know that the European Commission prohibits democratic political control over railway investment and ownership by elected governments?

Faceless bureaucrats are imposing rail privatisation on member states using EU directives.

Other neoliberal EU directives, such as those for general services, postal services, health services and numerous EU rulings and treaties, are designed to hand public services to the private sector, further restricting the power of elected governments to respond to the needs of their electorates.

Imperialist, supranational bodies such as the EU are seeking to roll back democratic advances achieved in previous centuries. Not content simply to defeat and scatter forces for socialism, modern imperialism seeks not "the end of history," but to reverse history.

Progressive forces must respond to this threat by defending and restoring national democracy. Ultimately, national independence is required for democracy to flourish. The freedom of all nations to develop without external, imperialist interference should be the touchstone for our understanding of Marxism in the modern context.

National independence should once again play a decisive role in the defeat of the parasitic class, which has no more interest in the fortunes of workers and their families than an economic army of occupation.

As Marx said, "capital is reckless of the health or length of life of the labourer, unless under compulsion from society" - by which, I believe, he meant the state.

Marx also said that democracy is the road to socialism. The war for democracy is yet to be won, but the army of labour is crying out for the battle to be rejoined.

  • Alex Gordon is president of the National Union of Rail, Maritime & Transport Workers. This article is based on his oration at the wreath-laying ceremony at Karl Marx's grave last Sunday organised by the Marx Memorial Library