Continuing with the Europe theme of last week's meeting, he chose to spoke about the perception of the "other Europe" east of the Oder. He noted that Eastern Europe has suffered centuries of cultural denigration in the West and how the usual stock response to blame Russia and 'asiatic despotism' for its underdevelopment obscures the role the West played in maintaining this state of affairs. For example, many an 18th century travelogue by Western travellers marvelled at the backwardness and ignorance in the East as their circles in the West were embracing Enlightenment ideas. But this was a one-sided appreciation of the situation. In actual fact, as industrial capitalism was starting to develop in the West it became increasingly dependent on the East for grain. Therefore, Western development was brought at the price of Eastern underdevelopment: the local ruling class had an interest in keeping the peasantry indentured within feudal relations of production. The rise of capitalism, at least initially, was accompanied by a strengthening of Eastern feudalism.
In some ways this was reinforced by the iron curtain. Though for a brief period after the Russian Revolution, the East symbolised a new, muscular modernity, the disintegration of the Eastern bloc over 1989-91 saw it reduced to a handful of basket cases clamouring for Western aid. As some countries moved toward the European Union, it became clear they would be admitted at a price: the dismantling of their economies and restructuring along neoliberal lines, and a programme of reforms to meet a minimum standard of liberal democracy. The ascension of Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Hungary and the Baltic Republics in 2004 may, on the surface, signal a break down in the East/West division but an inequality gap still exists. For example, the GDP per capita of the three EU states bordering the ascension countries (Italy, Austria and Germany) stood respectively at $35,000, $36,000 and $40,500. For their eastern neighbours the figures were Poland ($11,700), Czech Republic ($17,000), Slovakia ($13,900), Hungary ($20,000) and Slovenia ($22,100) (all rounded to the nearest 100).
It's unsurprising that workers from the East, particularly the Poles, have travelled to the West to find employment. Unfortunately, in Britain and despite their status as EU citizens, migrant workers are among the most exploited sections of the working class. Very low wages - often beneath the statutory minimum, substandard housing and con-merchant landlords are no strangers to thousands of workers drawn from this layer. If this wasn't enough, the political establishment, at times deliberately, at times unconsciously conspire to dehumanise them. We on the left are frequently appalled by xenophobic attacks on migrants by the mainstream right wing press. But we also need to beware of liberal paternalism. "Supportive" sections of the ruling class have been known to hail East European workers as "efficient", "hard-working" and willing to work the kinds of jobs slovenly British workers won't do. But all this does is render them dehumanised automatons impervious to appalling working conditions, underlining their "alien" qualities and reinforcing the cultural "othering" of the East.
The discussion moved on to the South Ossetian crisis and how perceptions of the conflict are likely to strengthen this separation further, but this time with Russia as the condensing point for all the anxieties about the East. In part this was already fed by the uneasy interdependence between it and the EU. Russia is an exporter of the energy the EU needs, and the EU presents to Russia its most lucrative markets. Tensions are not helped by much of the EU's military apparatus being tied to the USA via NATO.
On the conflict between Georgia and Russia, there's very little need to go into the ins and outs considering the forensic treatment it has received in the mainstream media and on the blogs. But there were two arguments of interest that came up in the discussion. Picking up on analysis found all over the internet, was the observation that the crisis marked the beginning of a nascent multi-polarity in international affairs threatening to overtake the USA's position as global hegemon. Linking into this was speculation about why Bush acquiesced to Georgia's assault on South Ossetia. Knowing this was likely to provoke Russia into overt military action, and given the US wants to strengthen its grip on the Middle East via a string of bases and friendly regimes in the region, why be so foolhardy to allow an apparent reversal in Georgia? One comrade ventured that perhaps the US position is now stronger. Russia's projection of power into its near abroad has left many on the EU's flank fearful of interventions in their direction. It undoubtedly helped focus the mind of the Polish government who overcame 18 months of jitters and signed up to Bush's missile shield. Ostensibly designed to intercept missiles from the remaining 'Axis of Evil' - Iran and North Korea - Russian military strategists are not daft enough to think this doesn't give NATO a key strategic advantage over its position.
But for all the positioning and posturing the "new cold war" is a rhetorical recrudescence of distrust and paranoia. The politicians may spout hot air, Russians and generic East Europeans might be making a come back as "baddies" in popular culture (Indiana Jones, The X-Files and Hellboy, for example), "dodgy" Russian businessmen maybe swanning around with their dubious wealth, buying up premiership teams, and the spies are running around London leaving a trail of isotopes in their wake. But at present the ruling class in the East and the West have more than enough mutual interests to prevent this going beyond an exchange of insults and human rights lectures.
The walls, barbed wire and minefields may have gone and the cultural divide is stronger than before. But a more fundamental division, between the rulers and the ruled, between capital and labour is even more deeply entrenched. As long as this constant exists, regardless of the differences within and between East and West, so does the potential for unified international action to fight it.