The recent European Parliament elections yielded some striking results, with nationalistic and far Right parties doing especially well, notably in the UK, France and Denmark. In Greece, it was the far Left that did best, but here, too, the theme was one of hostility to the EU. Some of the commentary about this has been rather hyperbolic, forgetting that the turnout in these elections was usually quite low. In the UK, the anti-EU Party UKIP topped the poll, but given the turnout this meant that less than 9% of eligible adults voted for them. Since this was at the most propitious time – an EU election, rather than a national election – and after a great deal of publicity this does suggest that pretty much anyone minded to ever vote for UKIP did so now. Thus overall support is not huge.
But, still, the results mean something and I think that that they are mainly understandable as an inchoate response to neo-liberalism. It is noteworthy that both UKIP in the UK and, especially, the FN in France articulated programmes which were in many respects leftist, for example in terms of the protection of public services and, even, nationalization. They positioned themselves as critical of big business elites, established political elites and dominant metropolitan elites.
There is nothing very new about this. Far right parties have always sought this kind of populist appeal, and have been able to gain some working class support and, more especially, support from those on the fringes of working and middle classes – Poujadism in France being a relatively benign example, National Socialism in Germany a much more toxic one (it bears saying that neither UKIP nor even the more extreme FN, for all that they have elements of racism, can be considered to be comparable to the Nazis).
It is not difficult to debunk this positioning. UKIP, for example, is at heart a party of the Thatcherite Right, and (although its policies are not always very clear) is hostile to employee rights and the NHS. But that isn’t really the point. The policies are less important than the tone and the idea that, somehow, these parties stand against elites of all sorts and speak for ‘ordinary people’. That may be – in my view is – completely untrue, but why is it so appealing at the moment?
The answer lies in the way that globalization, of which the EU is a prime example, has eroded democracy and made political accountability virtually impossible. Immigration becomes the focus for this because it is by far the most visible consequence. Yet it would be absurd to respond to globalization simply by limiting immigration, and certainly to do so in the name of anti-elitism. All such a move would do would be to ensure that corporations could move around the world at will, but workers would have to stay in one place and take whatever employment was given to them. To be consistent, an anti-elitist politics would have to limit capital mobility as well as labour mobility, but there is no suggestion, least of all from UKIP, of wanting to do this – it is really only the Greens who have a consistent position on this.
What has opened up, then, is a new political configuration in which the internationalist Left and the globalizing Right have come to share some common viewpoints, in opposition to traditionalist elements of both Left and Right. That is why opposition to the UK immigration cap on non-EU migrants, and to the idea of British exit from the EU, can be found as much amongst City of London financiers as bien-pensant Hoxton hipsters. And complaints about immigration and a desire to leave the EU can be found as much from harrumphing Home Counties Colonels who were traditionally Tories as benefit claimants in North England towns that were the traditional Labour territory.
A good way of describing this cleavage is to adapt the terms coined by the organizational sociologist Alvin Gouldner in 1957 – cosmopolitans and locals. Adapted to this context cosmopolitans are educated and skilled, comfortable with different cultures, travel widely and have a global frame of reference. Few of them will have voted UKIP or FN. Locals are poorly educated, travel little, feel uncomfortable with difference and have a national frame of reference. Many of them will have voted UKIP or FN. What economic globalization, unaccompanied by democratic political globalization, has done is to exacerbate and deepen the polarization between these two groups in ways which have hitherto had little political representation because political parties traditionally cleave on class lines rather than on the global-local axis.
The best way for locals and globals alike to co-exist is to create a more internationalised democratic polity. The locals because it is the only way that their voice can effectively be heard; the globals because it is the only way to make their views legitimate. And all of us, because given that there is no prospect of global capitalism being re-nationalised we need political structures to regulate and control it. The irony is that, as regards the EU elections, what the revolt of the locals is most likely to achieve is less not more international governance and more not less marginalization of local concerns.
Today is the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day landings, one of the major contributors to the defeat of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Europe. Out of that defeat grew the remarkable, and at the time quite unpredictable, thing which has become the EU. Imperfect as it is, it still represents the best chance for people in Europe to modify the twin evils of nationalist intolerance of globalism and corporate indifference to localism.