Monday 11 February 2019

Party Before Country

What is the "national interest"? In everyday thinking, the world is composed of different nations. These compete with each other for markets, resources, prestige and, occasionally, territory. To serve a national interest is to maximise a nation's share of all these things. But this is pure ideology, or to use another commonsensical expression, total bunkum. A nation, as Benedict Anderson had it, is an imagined community. A shared history, language, and cultural touchstones are the stuff by which nations are thought and they supposedly bind us together in common endeavours. Surely then the national interest is merely the aggregation of what's best for the majority of people who happen to be a given nationality, right? It's not. The social context of all nations is an international system underpinned by the globalised capitalist mode of production, an irreducibly extractive and exploitative economic system that sees a tiny minority pile up vast quantities of unearned wealth. The state's job is to manage this state of affairs, meaning each nation is scarred by a writhing, angry class divide between those who own capital and those who don't. The state, however, is sovereign. As far as official society is concerned, what it says goes. Therefore the nation and the national interest is explicitly identified with those of the state, and the state's interest is indissociable from the interests of "its" capitalism. The national interest is therefore the common bourgeois interest.

Forgive the long preamble, but understanding this is important if we are to properly understand Theresa May's approach to Brexit. A month ago, her Brexit deal was shown the door by a record-setting Commons vote. And so she changed tack. From her my-way-or-no-way strategy prior to the vote, she put her best listening face forward and declared she was open to suggestions. In they came, from demented Brexiteers to continuity remainers in search of an escape from the impasse. Making the choice between a soft Brexit deal that was in the national interest as per the definition above, or going with the unworkable plan junking the Irish backstop and comprehensively rejected by the EU, keeping the bulk of her party together ... she chose the latter. Then heading off to Brussels she discombobulated her backbenchers by simultaneously ruling out and ruling in the Irish backstop. Bizarre. This chicanery was upset by Jeremy Corbyn's letter to the Prime Minister, which outlined Labour's red lines for supporting her deal. You'll recall this annoyed the remainers here, mainly because Guy Verhofstadt and Donald Tusk were very welcoming of the proposals. Not least because its desire for a continued customs union with the EU is the least disruptive Brexit there is. Then Sunday night May's reply to Corbyn winged its way to the leader's office. She rejected the customs union because the UK should be free to strike its own trade deals (again, for reasons to do with Tory posturing more than anything else), but made cooing noises about more talks, etc. If running the clock down is how you get your deal through the Commons, then you would do exactly as May has done this last fortnight.

Then there's the the suggestion tonight that May is reconciled to a no deal Brexit, because the politics of it make her and the Tory party look good. Well, it keeps the party together anyway. Paul Waugh quoting an anonymous source reports "She’s been told – ‘You need to understand prime minister, it’s very simple maths – the ERG [European Research Group] will fuck you, fuck the Conservative party and they will throw themselves over a cliff. Your Remainer colleagues will not’. It’s who’s got the biggest balls." However, one shouldn't overstate the foolhardiness of the ERG, they don't want to be the ones to crash the Tory party and open the door to Corbynism.

May's perception of the immediate interests of the Conservative Party have guided her Brexit strategy and shenanigans since. In this respect, she is no different to her predecessor. The question is when the national interest, the collective capitalist interest, is so obviously ill-served by a no deal Brexit and a sensible arrangement eminently do-able, why is she willing for British capital to take a battering so the Tory party doesn't? Again, it comes down to the priority of class politics over economic order politics. One of the crises besetting the Tory party is its disarticulation from business-at-large, and the growing hegemony of the most reckless, short-termist and decadent sections of British capital. A no deal Brexit is sure to compound this further. But, as May knows, doing a deal with Corbyn could completely wreck the Tory party and a split between the Tory mainstream and its enfeebled centre right on the one hand, and its hard right on the other could keep them out of government for, well, forever. Her class instinct pushes her toward preserving the Tories at all costs because the party has traditionally been the political vehicle and articulator of those interests. Casting about the political landscape now, alternatives to the right are a joke, liberalism/centrism are effectively political elites without a party, and the Labour Party are going to nationalise your wine cellar. Or to put it another way, in the absence of a political formation for bourgeois interests May's overwhelming priority is to preserve the Tories, as battered and knackered they are. How they can recover and reverse their long-term decline is not her concern - that's the problem for a future leader. Therefore the profit margins of British capital are a price worth paying if the Tory party, the chosen organ of bourgeois rule, survives.

This shows in extremis the class character of the national interest, of "putting the country first". For May the fate of her class is inextricably bound up with the Tories, and so as far as she's concerned she is pursuing the national interest. But her no deal nonsense will mean more than a few companies going into the red, it means severe limits on international trade, rising prices, businesses going to the wall and with it burgeoning unemployment. Still, she and the cracked Tory elite won't have to pony up the cost for saving their party - they've volunteered us for that.


Boffy said...

"The state's job is to manage this state of affairs, meaning each nation is scarred by a writhing, angry class divide between those who own capital and those who don't."

In fact, for modern capitalism even more bizarre than that. The vast majority of capital today is owned by no one. It is socialised capital, in the form of corporations, and cooperatives. This is the logical culmination of capitalist development, as Marx describes it in Capital III, Chapter 27,

"It is the point of departure for the capitalist mode of production; its accomplishment is the goal of this production. In the last instance, it aims at the expropriation of the means of production from all individuals. With the development of social production the means of production cease to be means of private production and products of private production, and can thereafter be only means of production in the hands of associated producers, i.e., the latter's social property, much as they are their social products."

Those that appropriate wealth in vast quantities today do so not from their ownership of capital, which has become socialised, as Marx describes, but from their ownership of fictitious capital, through which they exercise not ownership but control over that social capital. As Marx describes, this class of parasites have now become as irrelevant to the process of social reproduction, as the landlords became, once the capitalist farmer arose to take over their social function.

The social function of the private capitalist today is undertaken by the professional manager/technician/administrator, themselves drawn from the ranks of the working-class. Even the provision of money-capital, which is the role played by the owners of fictitious capital, is no longer required, because it can be achieved via a centralised provision of credit, owned and controlled by a Co-operative Bank, or later by a Workers' State.

It demonstrates why the pressing political demand fo the day is the struggle for the extension of democracy from the political to the industrial realm. The continued control over capital they do not own, by shareholders is not defensible, even in bourgeois property terms. Control over socialised capital, as Marx sets out can only logically be exercised by the associated producers themselves. The fact that the dominant form of socialised capital is the multinational corporation, is also the other reason that policies such as Brexit, based upon the ideology of economic nationalism, are today thoroughly reactionary.

Unknown said...

The article gives Theresa May too much credit. She isn't looking out for the National Interest, or her class interests. No, she is looking out for herself and the Tory party, in that order, and nothing else whatsoever.

Ken said...

The invisible man quotes the article thus,
“The state's job is to manage this state of affairs, meaning each nation is scarred by a writhing, angry class divide between those who own capital and those who don't. The state, however, is sovereign. As far as official society is concerned, what it says goes. Therefore the nation and the national interest is explicitly identified with those of the state, and the state's interest is indissociable from the interests of "its" capitalism. The national interest is therefore the common bourgeois interest.”
Why am I invisible? There is but ONE state but more than ONE nation in the sarcastically titled United Kingdom. Country A is joined to Country B by treaty, the Treaty of Union. Thus the national interest, singular, is identified with those of the state. I don’t think that you meant to write this, but, the argument presented does not demur from the notion that there is one nation. Hmm, yes, and that would be England.
So here we go, written out, again, of a significant left account of the current impasse. I was going to anticipate the lectures which this might provoke about the regressive nature of Scottish independence, but, frankly I’ve banged my head off that particular wall too often.

Phil said...

Perhaps you need to read a little more keenly. This is first an account of what is popularly understood by the national interest, and how this is assimilated by the powers that be to state interests and, in turn, the interests of the ruling class. It doesn't talk about the national interest of Scotland or even how the concept is contested *because it's a consideration and analysis of how the Tories understand the issue*.

Ken said...

My bad. I didn’t spot the cigarette paper between you and the Tories on the vocabulary deployed on this issue, or, should I say, this issue which is invisible to our English comrades.

Phil said...

It's a matter of the level of abstraction. If this was the post you thought it should be, obviously the fully contested character of what the national interest means would have been opened up. But because the focus was on *the Tory party*, it wasn't.

Ken said...

I didn’t expect a different post, merely a recognition that the U.K. state contains more than one nation. Exactly how many might be contested, Northern Ireland anyone, but the existence should be acknowledged. As keenly as I read it, I couldn’t find it. I really should get over being invisible in left analyses at every level of abstraction. It’s a bit like women 40 years ago being told to get over the “fact” that mankind meant every body. That’s my last eye roll on this for this week.

Phil said...

But Ken, it's simply not relevant to the discussion so it wasn't addressed.