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Issue #1741      July 27, 2016

Taking Issue – Rob Gowland

Europe’s not the problem; capitalism is

The successful “leave” vote in the British plebiscite on whether to stay in the European Union or to leave it was presented by its campaigners as a victory for British sovereignty, the regaining of power from the grasp of bureaucrats in Brussels. But is it?

Capitalism reaches the imperialist stage when its profits become so great that they can no longer be fully invested at home and must instead by exported for investment abroad. In Europe, this stage coincided with the discovery of the New World and the pillaging by European powers of vast quantities of gold from the newly discovered civilisations there.

Spurred on by the realisation that acquisition of new lands, whether in the Americas, Africa or the Indies, meant acquiring wealth – gold, silver, timber, spices and more – the European powers vied with each other to develop the means to seize and hold them: ships and guns, and the armies and navies to wield them.

Spain and Portugal led the way, but they were soon out-sailed and outgunned by their English and Dutch rivals. The rise of a new merchant class whose wealth was not reckoned in terms of how much land they owned, unlike their aristocratic predecessors, but in terms of how much capital they owned, provoked revolutions in England and in the next century in France. Although the aristocracy achieved some degree of accommodation with this new social strata, they had to recognise that the role of “ruling class” had in fact passed to the new-comers.

The Great Powers of Europe grew fat on the wealth of their empires, but rivalry between them erupted in the Franco-Prussian War and the Russo-Japanese War and then blew up completely in the First World War, a war to redistribute the world’s markets and colonies. When that war had finished, three of the empires that had started it had disappeared (the German, the Austro-Hungarian and the Russian) and the other European powers were deeply in debt to the USA, which had invested heavily in the outcome of the war and had to actually intervene in the conflict to protect its investment.

The USA emerged from WW1 as the dominant power in the capitalist world, but capitalism itself was now faced with a rival: socialism had been victorious in the former Russian empire. To prevent the spread of revolution, capitalists in Hungary, Italy and Japan resorted to fascism.

Capitalists in a number of countries plotted to destroy the new socialist state in a new war in 1929, but were hit instead by an unprecedented economic crisis that quickly became known as the Great Depression. The only country not affected by it was the USSR which went ahead building socialism.

Over the ensuing decade the European capitalist powers sought unsuccessfully to provoke a war between the USSR on the one hand and fascist Germany and Japan on the other. When that war finally erupted, Germany chose to fight its European capitalist rivals instead. The Second World War had begun.

By the time it ended, Germany and Japan had been crushed, the USA had profited greatly from the war (which was not fought on its territory) and former leading European states France and Britain had been reduced to minor-power status. The USSR however now rivalled the USA as a Great Power.

US capitalism had no option but to invest heavily in rebuilding German imperialism’s economy in order to compensate for the post-war spate of revolutions in Eastern Europe and Asia and the overthrow of the colonial system globally. The creation of NATO and the European Union were two measures intended to consolidate US domination over a revived Europe but at the same time to obtain the support and co-operation of European capitalism’s main players – France, Britain and Germany – by facilitating their economic development.

The bait, of course, was the opportunity for the major European capitalist corporations to make significant profits. Those same European corporations, however, never lost sight of the fact that their profits would be even greater and so would their power if they were not playing second fiddle to the US. Inter-imperialist rivalry is never far below the surface when corporations start to throw their weight around.

As a system, capitalism does not in any way serve the interests of working people or other disadvantaged strata of society. It was inevitable that there would be hostility on the part of many ordinary people in Britain towards the administration of the EU, for it is not concerned with solving their problems but only with enhancing the profits of the very biggest European corporations – and enhancing the imperial ambitions of the main European powers, namely Britain’s commercial rivals France and Germany.

Add in such other products of capitalism as racial prejudice, ignorance of economics, and monopoly control of the mass media and it is surprising the margin to leave the EU in the British referendum was only a million or so.

The effect of the vote on British capitalism was cataclysmic. British imperialism’s efforts to dominate its European “allies” (read “rivals”) have been seriously nobbled. Britain functioned as the USA’s voice in Europe, faithfully defending the “Atlantic alliance” against any tendency of European capitalism to pursue an independent course that might have conflicted with Anglo/US interests. Withdrawal from the EU would make this role much more difficult. Already, France and Germany have teamed up with imperialist hopeful Italy to lead Europe’s “negotiations” with Britain over its withdrawal from the EU.

The leaders of the Tories and Labour both supported staying in the EU, as of course did big British business concerns. Petty-bourgeois elements, however, particularly those on the far-Right, were able to take advantage of the media campaign over the supposed “refugee crisis” in Europe to whip up considerable fear and worry, compounded by the racism that the Right-wing loves to exploit.

The refugee crisis in Europe is real, a consequence of the colossal disruption caused by the wars being waged by the US – assisted by Britain, France and Germany, let us not forget. However, the refugees’ attempts to seek shelter in countries not ravaged by war – such as Britain – has been a godsend to the racists and xenophobes of the Right.

Contrary to the line promulgated by capitalist propaganda, the Cold War is not over. In fact, it never ended. Washington’s strategy is still focussed on fomenting war with Russia and China. The EU and NATO are both part of this drive, mechanisms Washington believes will negate the sovereignty of European peoples and serve both as cover and enabler of Washington’s aggression. NATO has always been Washington’s principal military weapon in Europe but now it is being deployed all over the world. The EU meanwhile has provided the US with not only diplomatic and economic support but also military support for its war plans.

Washington’s goal is to force Europe and the UK into conflict with Russia, but while British imperialism is perfectly willing, European capitalism is not so keen to sever its trade links with Moscow. Both France and Germany have lucrative trade deals with Russia and proved resistant to US pressure to sever them when Washington wanted Europe to impose sanctions on Russia over Ukraine.

However, the people of Britain are right to be suspicious of the motives and activities of the leaders of the EU. The European Union is a capitalist grouping and its purpose and role is to further the profit-making potentialities of European corporations. It is not concerned with the welfare and well-being of the ordinary people of its member countries.

The EU is concerned – and always has been – with restricting trade union rights, imposing austerity measures on the people, crushing small businesses under monopoly agribusiness and industry, and privatising all public enterprises. In other words, with advancing capitalism’s essential agenda. In fact, as Steve Hedley, Deputy General Secretary of British transport union RMT (the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers), observed: “The 1957 European treaty outlined the absolute necessity of the free movement of capital, labour services and the pre-eminence of the free market economy within the borders of the signatory states.”

The capitalist media has given a lot of coverage to the Brexit campaign championed by reactionaries like the Tory Boris Johnson. However, there was also the Lexit campaign: the Left Leave Campaign. As one of the Lexit convenors, also from the RMT trade union said: “We want to come out of the European Union because we want to protect workers’ rights.”

Not surprisingly, the victory of the Leave campaign has been followed by a noisy right-wing campaign of well orchestrated street demonstrations demanding that the result be reversed or simply ignored. This has been accompanied by an equally prominent campaign within the Labour Party to remove the Party’s leader Jeremy Corbin, seen as far too left wing for British capitalism to be comfortable with him.

The vote to leave the EU has given the Left in Britain (but unfortunately also the Right) the opportunity to change the direction of British politics. Let us hope the Left prevails.

Next article – Plea to stop Trump

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