Friday 22 August 2008

Branch Meeting: The Other Europe

At last night's branch meeting, we were treated to the debut lead off from C, a very recent recruit to the massed ranks of Stoke Socialist Party.

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.


Anonymous said...

Very good :) But I've a few comments to make.

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.

Sorry, but the restructuring of Eastern Europe didn't happen because people were that desperate to join the EU. It was deliberately and forcefully imposed by the world's "financial community", who manufactured economic crises into which the post-Stalinist states were born. So argues Naomi Klein in Shock Doctrine, anyway. While we can understand how a lot of the discontent at the old regimes found expression in pro-Western sentiment (just as we can understand why socialists in the West were attracted to Stalinist parties) I think it's fair to say that most people's reaction to escaping from the Empire of the East wasn't an urge to subjugate themselves to the Empire of the West.

And I take even more issue with this:

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.

I'm not convinced. Of course they have shared interests, but then so did the capitalists and aristocrats of pre-WWI Europe. And in a way, those interests found a certain perverse expression in the trenches remember the bayonet - the weapon with a worker at both ends). Capitalism creates competition, one way or another, and when it happens at the level of superpowers and regional blocs there's every chance of it taking on a military aspect.

How the decline in American hegemony will manifest itself is hard to say, but the existence of mutual interests between the capitalists of the world is not enough, IMHO, to suggest a peaceful outcome. Far from it, personally, I think that accelerating resource depletion will intensify the competition between the superpowers. If the world ever needed revolutionary defeatism...

Anyway, I actually came on to sollicit your predictions for September 20th. Without prejudice. How likely do you think the BNP are to carry out their march, bearing in mind that they've already rescheduled a couple of times? If not, how big do you think it's likely to be? I realise there's no crystal ball, but your guess has one advantage over mine given that you're actually in Stoke.

Phil said...

How do Complex. In answer to your points:

1)I would suggest the path to EU entry on the part of East European countries is more dialectical than my superficial treatment above suggests. Did Western capital want them in the EU? The answer has to be yes - new (albeit not that lucrative) markets, more resources and a well of skilled but cheap labour were all there for the taking. As for the East themselves, again I think we would be in agreement in that elite circles saw the EU as a profitable opportunity, both in terms of markets and the kinds of aid payments the Irish republic, Portugal and Greece did well out of.

In terms of a popular clamouring, I didn't want to give the impression that East Europeans wanted to subordinate themselves to Brussels-based empire or anything. But C noted in his lead off (the comrade has a Lithuanian background) that the West is popularly associated with modernity and progress - so the EU and by extension, neoliberalism is perceived in positive terms.

2) I should have added the caveat *at the present time* regards Russia/NATO confrontations. The rest of what you say I'd agree with.

3) Re: Stoke and the BNP, I'm not going to say much about our plans as local fash do occasionally visit this blog.

Firstly, and this needs to be stressed, the BNP are not having a march. Fearing some very ugly scenes the police have prevented them from doing so. What is supposed to be happening is the BNP are holding a memorial meeting followed by leafleting their strongholds in Stoke. Because of this, local anti-fascists have planned a response that takes this into account.

Whether it will go ahead, it's hard to say. It depends if they can secure a venue and if they're confident of getting a good turnout. The lack of publicity about it since the end of July might just be them being secretive or evidence of it being quietly dropped. Whatever the case, whether it goes ahead or not, we will still be out publicising our anti-fascist message.

Anonymous said...

Thx, sounds like we agree more than we disagree on Eastern Europe.

And it's good to hear more on the BNP thing