Losing sight of the bigger picture: 5 Lessons from the Rise of Ukip

by Christian Gilliam

With the recent media focus on Ukip’s apparent ‘earthquake’, complete with questions over an in-out EU referendum and loads of pictures of Nigel Farage drinking in pubs, it’s easy to lose sight of the role Ukip and the ‘Europe question’ are playing within the global political economy. Let’s take a look at five lessons we can pick up from the rise of Ukip and the shifting agenda on Europe:

1. Ukip benefits from the contradictions of capitalism.

It’s sadly ironic that Ukip benefits from the overwrought excess caused by the economic and ideological system they support and want to see radicalised. That is, unfettered markets and global capitalism, which creates an insecure underclass of precariousness in the form of zero-hour contracts, limited employment rights, underfunded and ineffective public services, and a massive democratic deficit in the face of unaccountable transnational corporations (who themselves massively benefit from dead labour and substantial surpluses in the reserve labour force, i.e. the unemployed). Coming out from this, as Deleuze and Guattari are famous for asserting, is a distinct sense of reactive ressentiment: emotions and acts of aggression aimed at that which one identifies as the source of one’s disturbance. This is Ukip’s lifeblood.

2. Capitalism benefits from Ukip.

Blaming immigration for these issues is merely a way of localising the structural inefficiencies of the current global politico-economic system. On the surface at least, it’s perhaps convenient to believe such nonsense, insofar as it seems easier to remedy the ‘Europe’ problem, than the problem (“I see no ships…” as Nelson once said). It feeds into a meta-narrative established in part by the Conservatives in 2008 of the ‘evil’ from within – i.e. benefit scroungers – or else a strategic cul-de-sac in which one can no longer refer to the structural issue at hand. More than this, it also provides an outlet for the very ressentiment precipitated by our current system: we see a double direction, a turn back against oneself before being projected against ‘the Other’, in this case ‘the migrant’.

3. The real issue with Europe is its complicity in global capitalism.

Certainly, global capitalism is the haunting spectre here. Let’s be serious, the real issue with the EU is that it is not being used as it should: as a way to reinforce our democratic strength in the face of large, global unfettered corporate capitalism and the transnational managerial class. Instead we see the European Central Bank holding hands with the International Monetary Fund to force countries like Greece to adopt an oddly watered-down, but nonetheless corporate, neoliberal austerity package. This is not surprising, considering the revival of European integration in the 1980s in general in the form of the European Monetary Union coincided with the emerging global neoliberal restructuring process. Nothing signified this more than the Internal Market programme of the Single European Act of 1983 and its drive for liberalisation and deregulation, the unashamedly neoliberal convergence criteria, and the strengthening of the supranational institution through various forms of ‘productivity coalitions’ (hence the significance of the successful neoliberal infiltration of European Round Table of Industrialists).

4. The spectre of Ukip has cornered the left into blind support for the EU.

Given the above, and the recent austerity-driven ‘structural adjustments’ forced upon countries like Greece, the truly startling development is the (mostly) unquestioned reverence for the EU that has not only remained unabated since Delors’ 1988 pro-EU TUC speech, but that has now crystallised, particularly within the Labour Party and the centre-left. Of course, for quite some time now, the left has found itself in a position whereby it must accept the basic coordinates of liberal capitalist democracy, and in turn try to redefine its position within this space. Is this not precisely what the Giddens-Blair ‘Third Way’ indicated? But now it seems that the rise of ‘nationalism’ is playing a fundamental role as the discursive counterpart in ensuring the sustenance of the defeat, particularly on the question of Europe.

This is to say nationalism has not only deployed a strategy of localising inefficiencies, but has also – insofar as Europscepticism has been conflated with nationalism – strategically blackmailed the centre-left into blind support for the EU and European Integration. Before Ukip it was, at least for the Labour Party, the conflation between Europscepticism and the Conservatives. In both cases, to raise objections to the EU as an abstract concept (or indeed in concrete terms) within the centre-left, is to be greeted with scorn. In such scenarios, one is immediately taken as a nationalist, as a closet xenophobe, as misguided as to the practical necessity of the EU in a globalised world and so on, or as foreign to ‘progressive’ politics: an empty signifier if there ever was one!

5. It’s not Europe; it’s the political economy stupid!

With this, we have lost sight of the bigger picture, and indeed the bigger problem: global capitalism. Of course the EU is hardly irrelevant. But given that the core issue lies with the global political economy – or dare I say ‘globalisation’ – it is hardly wise to focus exclusively upon the kinds of crises typically associated with state-centric approaches. Rather we should focus on the conflicts affecting the very parameters of the world system, such as global financial crises and trans-institutional shifts in ideological orientation. How odd then that EU scholarship refers to economics as ‘low politics’? A Clinton adviser once quipped, “It’s the economy, stupid!” to which we scream, “It’s the political economy, stupid!”

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Published 26th June 2014

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