State and Nation: An Interview with Neil Davidson

Nam June Paik, Video Flag Z

Benjamin Birnbaum: In which context did you decide to write Nation-States: Consciousness and Competition? Politically, territorial fragmentation is again on the political agenda in Europe and on the academic level since the 1990s a “new generation, confronted with the sudden emergence of catastrophic post-communist nationalisms in a supposedly ‘globalized’ world, has had a greater interest in ‘the dynamics of relatively rapid changes in degrees of ethnic, racial or national groupness.’” 1

Neil Davidson: The essays and chapters in the book were written for a number of different occasions between 1999 and 2014. My initial impetus for writing about nations and nationalism was an attempt to understand developments in my own country – Scotland – which in 1997 had just voted in a referendum to establish a devolved parliament, which opened in 1999. I was particularly interested in why nationalism as a political movement had historically been so weak in Scotland, even though “Scottishness” as an identity is paradoxically very strong. The dominant nationalism was British (or even Irish, for many Scots of Irish Catholic descent), not Scottish. Given the recent political hegemony of the Scottish National Party (SNP) it is easy to forget that, although it has been in existence since 1934, it had precisely one MP at Westminster before 1967, and then for a matter of months. It only formed a majority government at Holyrood since 2007 and achieved a majority of Scottish MPs at Westminster in 2015: and even now it is not the case that a Scots necessarily vote for the SNP on a nationalist basis. Explaining the particularities of the Scottish question led me into wider considerations of nationhood in general, but there were also three other factors, all of which were inescapable throughout the 2000s for anyone working in the field. One, of which the Scottish situation was an example, was the emergence of “stateless-nation” nationalisms in the advanced West, in situations where there was not (or was no longer) national oppression, as in Catalonia and Quebec. The second was the disintegration of existing nation-states on what was often referred to as an “ethnic” basis, most obviously in Yugoslavia and in several central African states. The third was the claim by neoliberal globalists that the nation-state form was becoming redundant, although we have obviously heard less about this since the bail-outs of 2008.

BB: In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels wrote “the working men have no country” which – interpreted in a very abstract way – became one of their most famous statements on the national question. Yet, later writings on Poland and Ireland focused on a concrete political strategy, underscoring the dialectical relationship between national self-determination and proletarian internationalism. Which lessons can be drawn from Marx and Engels regarding the national question and what did the word “nation” mean to them?

ND: Marx and Engels used the word “nation” in a number of different ways: sometimes, like Johann Herder, to mean a people; sometimes, like Adam Smith, to mean a territorial unit; and sometimes to mean a mixture of the two. In other words, like virtually everyone else of their period, they used the word very loosely and in a common-sense way – quite differently from the scientific rigor with which they defined “the capitalist mode of production,” for example. They certainly didn’t associate nations specifically with capitalism – indeed, Engels occasionally talks about the “German nation” existing during the fall of the Roman Empire. For this reason – as a modernist in relation to nation theory – I don’t think that Marx and Engels’ random and untheorized comments on particular nations are the basis for a Marxist theory of the subject; their theory of ideology has much more to offer us; more specifically, what Marx himself had to say about religion. This has of course long been subjected to both careless and deliberate misrepresentation. The point of the passage containing the reference to “the opium of the people,” is not that religion is a drug administered by a ruling class to dull the senses of the people, but that it is manufactured by the people themselves to fill the void created by what the later Marx would call their alienation. In this sense nationalism is the modern form of religion, with the state, or forces seeking to establish a new state, occupying the organizational role once played by the Church.

Where Marx and Engels have important things which are directly about nations is in relation to the attitude socialists should take towards specific national movements. At heart their attitude is based on whether the success of any movement – secessionist or irredentist – is likely to advance the possibility of the socialist revolution, although this was often in indirect ways. Essentially, they saw nationalism, in the sense of political movements leading to the establishment of nation-states, as part of the process of bourgeois revolution which would sweep away pre-capitalist forms and enable the conditions for the creation of a working class. This is the context in which they decided which nationalisms to support and which to oppose. Poland and Ireland are respectively oppressed and held back in developmental terms by the British and Russian Empires, and so had to be supported. Equally, national movements which relied on the great empires for their existence, such as pan-Slavism in 1848, had to be opposed. It is of course possible to agree with the latter conclusion with accepting the mystified nonsense about “non-historic nations” that Engels sometimes used to support it.

BB: You state the classical Marxists have developed very little systematic thought on the concept of the nation and the main thoughts – mainly formulated by the Austro-Marxists – basically reflect non-Marxist approaches. What did they neglect and what might constitute the basis for a Marxist approach to nation theory?

ND: If we leave aside the Austro-Marxists, most of the Classical Marxist discussions of nationalism follow Marx and Engels in focusing on strategic questions: in other words, which national movements – if any – should be supported and which opposed. It is interesting that the figures associated with the two nations which most preoccupied Marx and Engels, Rosa Luxemburg (on Poland) and James Connolly (on Ireland), took diametrically opposed positions. (Connolly was of course Scottish, but of Catholic Irish descent.) I have some sympathy with Luxemburg’s dismissal of the notion of “the right of nations to self-determination” as a form of metaphysics, but Lenin’s distinction between “oppressor” and “oppressed” nations was nevertheless essential as an operational starting point, at least during the colonial era. Today the situation is more complex. Clearly there are still oppressed peoples like the Kurds, Palestinians and Tibetans, but the notion of oppression is not particularly helpful in formulating a response to the Scottish or Catalan national movements: a wider conception of what is in the interests of the working class is required.

The Classical Marxists did not, however, have very much to say about what actually constituted a nation, other than passing references to the centrality of shared language and the suitability of the nation-state form for capitalist development. It is for this reason that many of the most influential contemporary Marxist analysts of nationalism have turned to non-Marxist thinkers for a theoretical framework, most notably in Tom Nairn’s reliance on the Weberian Ernest Gellner. I am not suggesting that there is no value in Gellner’s work, incidentally – quite the contrary – but the point is that it had a coherence that Marxist equivalents lacked. The Austro-Marxists might seem to be an exception and Otto Bauer’s writings are certainly highly sophisticated, but in ways which seem to me to involve a conception of nationalism which is (to use Anthony Smith’s terms) perennialist or even primordial – any form of identity which a territorially based group might happen to have in, say, the Fifth century CE, is retrospectively labeled a “nation.” But a central Marxist claim is surely that some types of ideology and consciousness are only possible at certain points in history. When theorists abandon this perspective it usually means that have become subject to the very ideology which they were seeking to explain – as I think was the case for both Bauer and Nairn.

BB: In your book you distinguish national consciousness and nationalism. Could you explain these two terms and the implications of this distinction (also with respect to the concept of identity)?

ND: Nations can be defined in either objective or subjective ways. The former, which usually involves a checklist of factors like language or territory, certainly presents an appearance of scientific rigor. Unfortunately, nations have a tendency to emerge in groups where these factors are absent, inconvenient though this undoubtedly is for social and political scientists: telling the Swiss that they are not a nation because they lack a common language, or the Kurds that they are not a nation because they lack a contiguous territory is, however, unlikely to convince either of these (otherwise very different) groups. In fact, the only conceivable definition of a nation which does not immediately lead to anomalies and exceptions is a subjective one: a group of people feel themselves to be collectively distinct from other groups, usually for accumulated historical-cultural reasons, but they need not be. The reasons may be different from case-to-case, but this subjective feeling of identification is the only attribute which they all have in common. This sense of mutual recognition is what I call “national consciousness”: a more-or-less passive expression of collective identification among a social group. It is perfectly possible for a people – including, until recently, the majority of modern Scots and Catalans – to possess national consciousness without becoming nationalists, but it is not possible to be a nationalist without having national consciousness.

National consciousness is not the same as national identity. Identities are the ensemble of all the external signs through which people show both to themselves and to other people how they have chosen to be categorized. These signs can be as visible as particular types of clothing or as audible as particular ways of speaking, but most often they are simply the ways in which people respond to being addressed in a particular way. National consciousness, then, is an internal psychological state which seeks expression in the outward signs of identity.

Nationalism is a more-or-less active participation in the political mobilization of a social group for the construction or defense of a state. As a political ideology, nationalism – any nationalism, relatively progressive or absolutely reactionary – involves two inescapable principles: that the national group should have its own state, regardless of the social consequences; and that what unites the national group is more significant than what divides it, above all the class divide. Finally, it is possible to demand a nation-state without either national consciousness or nationalism: this was certainly the case in Scotland during the 2014 independence referendum, when many Scots campaigned and voted for separate state for “social” rather than “national” reasons.

BB: The sociological tradition inspired by Durkheim and Weber underscores the need for societies to create cohesion in order to counteract the disintegrative effects of industrialization. In what way the Marxist focus on the dominance of the capitalist mode of production gives deeper insights regarding the development of national consciousness?

ND: The key figure here is neither Durkheim nor Weber, but one which I have already mentioned – Gellner. Nationalism here is essentially a substitute for the role of religion in what Weberians call traditional or agrarian societies. In effect they dismiss the idea that nations are permanent aspects of the human condition before industrialization, only to reintroduce it as inescapable after the process has begun. The Marxist emphasis on the dominance of the capitalist mode of production is partly based on the historical fact that some populations developed both national consciousness and fully formed nationalism before industrialization began, above all in England, but also in the United States and France, and to a lesser extent in the United Netherlands. To argue that nations only appeared at some stage in the later 18th century would be as absurd as arguing that capitalism only appeared at the same period. In fact, national consciousness took as many centuries to become the dominant form of consciousness as the capitalist mode of production did to become the dominant mode of production, and it did so as a consequence of the latter.

In these pre-industrial capitalist states nationalism was the product of four main elements. The first element was the formation of externally demarcated and internally connected areas of economic activity. In this context, the importance of capitalist development is less in the domain of production than that of circulation, for it was in the creation of trade networks that merchant capital began to link up dispersed rural communities both with each other and with the urban centers to form an extensive home market. Linked directly to this element was a second, the adoption of a common language by the communities that were being connected to each other at the economic level. The need to communicate for the purposes of market exchange began to break down the distinctiveness of local dialects, forging a language common, or at least comprehensible, to all. Language in this way began to set the boundaries of the economic networks referred to above, boundaries that did not necessarily coincide with those of medieval kingdoms. Clearly such economic and linguistic unification was far easier in a small centralized kingdom like England than in a territory like the German Empire. The formation of standard forms of language was immeasurably aided by the invention of printing and the possibilities it presented for the codification of language in mass-produced works. The increasing standardization of language then fed back into its original economic formation, as the merchants whose trading networks had originally defined the territorial reach of linguistic comprehensibility, increasingly identified themselves with that territory, to the exclusion of rivals who spoke a different language.

The third element was the character of absolutism, the form taken by the feudal state during the economic transition from feudalism to capitalism. The local jurisdictions that characterized the classic epoch of military feudalism began to give way to greater concentration of state power, notably through the introduction of standing armies and, partly in order to pay for them, regular centralized taxation. Death and taxes both involve bureaucracies that required a version of the local language, comprehensible across the state territory, with which to conduct their business, thus strengthening the second, “linguistic,” element referred to above. They also had two unintended effects. On the one hand, the introduction of regular taxation and the adoption of mercantilist policies reinforced the economic unity that had begun to emerge spontaneously from the activities of merchant capitalists. On the other, the military rivalry that characterized the new system necessitated mobilizing the active support of the bourgeois minority as a source of financial backing and administrative expertise. Despite these innovations it is nevertheless important not to mistake the role of absolutism in the birth of nationhood, which was that of a midwife, not that of a mother. The arrival of nationhood coincided not with the establishment of the absolutist states but with their overthrow.

The fourth and final element is the Reformation, which made religion more than an ideologically pious enhancement to the image of the ruling dynasty. Wherever Protestantism became the dominant religion within a given territory after 1517 it contributed to the formation of national consciousness by allowing communities of belief to define themselves against the intra-territorial institutions of the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. In part, this was through the availability of the Bible in the vernacular, but this in turn was dependent on the existence of pre-existing linguistic frameworks in which market transactions and state administration could be carried out. In short, Protestantism acted as a stimulus to national consciousness only to the extent that the development of capitalism had provided it with the framework to do so. Naturally the process went furthest in England, but even there it was not until after the death of Elizabeth in 1603 that Protestantism came to be separated from regnal solidarity with the monarch.

Outside of a handful of countries, however, capitalism and industrialization arrived simultaneously, so in a sense Gellner is right to say that mass nationalism was a product of industrialization, but his insight was too focused on the functionality of nationalism for industrial societies. At least as much attention should be paid to the way in which industrialization, and the related process of urbanization, together produced the changes in human consciousness which made nationalism possible (for the subordinate classes), as to the way in which the more complex societies they produced made nationalism necessary (for the dominant class). It is all too easy to ignore how unprecedented these experiences were (and still are) for the people undergoing them.

BB: You point out that capitalism is a system of competitive accumulation based on wage labor. These two aspects indicate the reasons for the persistence of the states-system: first, the need for capitals to be territorially aggregated for competitive purposes; second, the need for that territory to have an ideological basis – nationalism – that can be used to bind the working class to the state and to capital. 2 You regret that analyses often overemphasize either internal politics or geopolitical relations. How can one discuss the nation-state in a more balanced way?

ND: Part of the problem is the way in which the way in which the academy is divided into more-or-less arbitrarily defined disciplines, so that national consciousness is a subject for Social Psychology while the nation-state is the province of International Relations. This way of studying the world, which was as alien to Adam Smith as it was to Karl Marx, has the intended ideological effect of fragmenting our understanding of how it works. There are times, of course, when one needs to investigate a specific aspect of the social whole, but this can only be done satisfactorily by keeping in mind that, however microscopic the subject, it is part of a greater whole from which its significance is derived. There is no particularly special way of dealing with academic fragmentation in relation to the subject of the nation, other than by foregrounding the notion of totality in relation to it, as in the case of any other subject.

BB: Could you elucidate why “national consciousness does not compete with revolutionary class consciousness directly for the allegiance of worker, but as a key element in reformist class consciousness” and its consequences for a revolutionary agenda? 3

ND: Reformist consciousness was famously described by Gramsci as “dual” or “contradictory”; on the one hand accepting the permanence of the system, on the other rejecting the effect of its operation. The most basic expression of this contradiction is an acceptance by workers of the wages system accompanied by a rejection of the particular level of wages which they are being offered, but it extends to all aspects of social life. Workers remain nationalist to the extent that they remain reformist. And from the point of view of the capitalist class in individual nations it is absolutely necessary that they do so, or the danger is always that workers will identify, not with the “national” interest of the state in which they happen to be situated, but that of the class to which they are condemned to belong, regardless of the accident of geographical location. Nationalism should not therefore be seen as something which only “happens” during separatist movements on the one hand, or during fascist and imperialist manifestations on the other: the capitalist system generates nationalism as a necessary, everyday condition of its continued existence. It develops new structural capacities, new modes of experience and new psychological needs in the people who have to work in the factories and live in the cities. It is this need for some collective sense of belonging with which to overcome the effects of alienation, the need for psychic compensation for the injuries sustained at the hands of capitalist society, that nationalism provides in the absence of revolutionary class consciousness, but in conjunction with reformist class consciousness. One might say that the origins of national consciousness see the emergence of an identity-ensemble adequate to the historical conditions of generalized alienation; but the needs produced by capitalist industrialization last as long as the system itself.

It imperative that loyalty to a state be secured, and the nation is the means. Workers have often been asked to accept rises in interest rates, cuts in wages and services, or participation in imperialist wars, but never for the benefit of capitalism, always for the benefit of a particular nation, for “the national interest.” It is not only the state which makes such appeals. The organizations of the working class themselves reinforce reformist class consciousness within a national context. At the most elementary level this is because such organizations are unwilling to challenge the nationalism within which political discourse is conducted, for fear of being labeled unpatriotic. More importantly, however, it is because they seek either to influence or determine policy within the confines of the existing nation-state. Typically, therefore, nationalism is invested with the contradictory character of the reformist world view.

BB: Against the common assumption that neoliberalism doesn’t need the state you hold that it doesn’t only need the state, but with reference to David Harvey you affirm that the neoliberal state “needs nationalism of a certain sort to survive.” 4 Can you explain this link?

ND: In a sense this is only the contemporary form of the general capitalist need discussed in my previous answer. The neoliberal organization of capitalism heightens three existing tendencies: the transformation of human relationships to market transactions, the reduction of human capacities to mere factors of production and the self-identification of human beings primarily as consumers. The result is to raise levels of atomization and alienation to a previously unimaginable extent, with potentially dangerous consequences for capital, which still has to achieve the tacit acceptance, and preferably the active support, of the working class in the process of its own exploitation. Otherwise, the system is potentially threatened, either by social breakdown, as individualized consumers transfer the competitiveness of the market to all other areas of life, or by social conflict, as workers begin to discover or rediscover their class-consciousness and mobilize in their collective interest. But repression on its own will not produce the degree of willing acceptance that the system requires. In these circumstances nationalism plays three roles. First, it provides a type of psychic compensation for the direct producers, which is unobtainable from the mere consumption of commodities. It is, as they say, no accident that the nationalist turn in the ideology of the Chinese ruling class became most marked with the initial opening up of the Chinese economy to world markets in 1978 and the suppression of the movement for political reform in 1989, which was followed by a “patriotic education campaign” the general tone of which continues to this day. Second, it acts as a means of recreating at the political level the cohesion which is being lost at the social level. Third, it uses this sense of cohesion to mobilize populations behind the performance of national capitals against their competitors and rivals. This last aspect requires some elaboration, because potentially it involves risks or at least inconveniences for capital. The imperial nationalism unleashed by the Conservatives before 1997 in relation to “Europe,” was not because the EU was in any sense hostile to neoliberalism, but as an ideological diversion from the failure of neoliberalism to transform the fortunes of British capital. The nationalism invoked for this purpose now places a major obstacle for British politicians and state managers who want to pursue a strategy of greater European integration, however rational that may be from their perspective, as can be seen in the current referendum over British EU membership.

But there is another danger for the ruling classes too, namely that neoliberal nationalism will lead to the fragmentation of neoliberal states. The difficulty here is a deeper one. Because nationalism is such an inescapable aspect of capitalist development, the first response to intolerable conditions is to seek to establish a new nation-state, although this is usually only possible where some level of national consciousness already exists, as it does, for example, in Scotland. In other words, neoliberalism may require nations, but it does not require particular nations. And invoking nationalism as a counterweight to neoliberal social and economic policy can involve a different set of problems for individual ruling classes; not problems of the order of class war or the war of each against all, but those involving the uncertainties and inconveniences caused by the potential fragmentation of the nation-state. This outcome is generally only possible where an alternative national consciousness is available and associated with a distinct territory within the state.

In spite of the risks or inconveniences for capital, however, it is not clear what could replace nationalism as a means of securing even the partial loyalty of the working class to the capitalist state and preventing the formation of revolutionary class consciousness. Could loyalties be transferred upwards to a global or even regional state? This seems implausible. As Benedict Anderson once remarked: who would die for Comecon or the EU? Nor could loyalties easily be transferred downwards to individual capitals. It has been known for workers to support their company, even to make sacrifices to keep it in business. But this tends to happen where firms are local, well established and where workers are employed on a long-term basis. Where workers make sacrifices in terms of job losses, worsened conditions and real cuts in pay, they do not do so because of loyalty to the firm, but because they see no alternative that does not involve the even worse fate of losing their job entirely. Individual managers or “team-leaders” may internalize the ethos of McDonald’s or Wal-Mart, but workers cannot: the reality of the daily conflict between themselves and the employer is too stark to be overcome. Beyond this, even those companies which still retain health insurance and pension arrangements come nowhere near providing the integrative functions of even the weakest nation-state. The oil millionaires and media celebrities who respectively fund and front the Tea Party in the US may intend to make that country even safer for Wal-Mart and Wall Street; but their free market rhetoric always has to be expressed in terms of reclaiming the nation from the Marxist antichrist in the White House and the liberal elites who threaten American freedom, not restoring the rate of profit.

BB: Not all social conflicts can be directly reduced to class struggle. During recent conflicts such as in Yugoslavia or Rwanda and also in relation to Islam the term ethnicity has been imposed as a major explanatory factor of conflict. To what extent should this term be regarded as insightful?

ND: The way in which the notion of “ethnicity” is currently and increasingly being used contains a number of problems for the left. Two stand out in particular. On the on hand, those who approve of ethnicity as the affirmation of an cultural identity, in so far as they emphasize supposedly innate differences between human social groups, are in danger of lending credibility to the current form taken by racist ideology. On the other hand, those who disapprove of ethnicity as a manifestation of (real or imagined) exclusionist tribalism are in danger, in so far as they suggest that “ethnic” nationalisms are particularly prone to oppressive behavior, of obscuring those characteristics which all nationalisms have in common, whether they are oppressor, oppressed, or fall into neither of these categories.

“Ethnicity” has been defined in three ways: first, where members of a group have a common line of descent and consequently a shared kinship; second, where they have a common position within the international division of labor and consequently a shared occupation; and third, where they have one or more cultural attributes in common and consequently a shared identity. Ethnicity in the first sense no longer exists. Indeed, even before capitalism had penetrated all corners of the world in the search for markets and raw materials, the growth of trade, conquest and migration had already made the existence of endogamous gene pools increasingly rare. The second meaning retains some validity where it is used to describe either the way in which existing occupational patterns in pre-capitalist societies were used by European colonists to classify the population as supposedly endogamous groups, or where the migrations set in train by colonialism had led groups to define themselves as either endogamous, or in possession of some quality or characteristic which distinguished them from the native populations around them. It is the third meaning which is currently dominant and which I find the most problematic, since it is effectively a way of labeling people through the use of an ideological super-category that includes virtually any characteristic they might conceivably possess.

For socialists, the aim is to overcome the divisions which are increasingly described as “ethnic,” by removing the oppressions that give them significance, not to perpetuate or add to them. This may mean supporting oppressed nations or peoples, but the notion of “ethnicity” is ultimately a means of dividing people up into ever more arbitrary classifications. At best, under the guise of celebrating “cultural difference,” it only obscures what people have in common by emphasizing relatively superficial aspects of our social world. At worst, in a struggle for scarce resources it can be used as a means of marking down certain people for persecution.

BB: In France, Ernest Renan’s idea of a civic nationalism, opposed to an ethnic nationalism is pretty widespread. Insofar as both types of nationalism act within the frame of a nation-state, can there be substantial difference between these two allegedly inflexible, pure types of nationalism?

ND: “Civic” nationalism is frequently presented as the only true form of nationalism. Certain nationalisms are said to be inherently oppressive precisely because they are based on an “ethnic” identity. The contrast is often made between this kind of nationalism and one described as “civic” or ‘social” – Scottish and Catalan nationalism, for example, are frequently described in this way, not least by Scottish and Catalan nationalists themselves. What is interesting about the argument about “civic” nationalism is that it is precisely the one that has historically been used to defend multi-national oppressor nationalisms like those of Britain, in addition to those with republican constitutions like France. There are significant difficulties for socialists in attempting to use “civic” nationalism as an alternative to “ethnic” nationalism. Two in particular stand out. The first is that the category of the “civic” avoids any engagement with the fact that there are certain activities which nation-states must undertake, regardless of how non-ethnic they may be. One of these, as many refugees from Syria and other war-torn zones are currently discovering, is defending borders against people who are defined as “not-of-our-nation.” The second is that, as I said in response to the previous question, ethnicities can either be invented to categories groups by their enemies or as self-identification by those groups themselves, without any reference to real or imaginary kinship relations: culture can just as easily be made the basis of ethnicity as blood-and-soil tribalism. Precisely because ethnicity is a socially constructed category, however, ethnic categorizations can be produced anywhere with the same disastrous results that we have seen in the Balkans, Rwanda, Iraq and Ukraine. Consequently there is no reason why “civic” nationalism cannot be transformed into “ethnic” nationalism in their turn under certain determinate conditions, just as it did in Germany – a modern, developed and highly cultured capitalist society – during the 1930s. This is a conclusion that adherents of “civic” nationalism are, of course, most anxious to avoid.

BB: In the Critique of the Gotha Programme, Karl Marx wrote “The working class must organize itself at home as a class and that its own country is the immediate arena of its struggle – insofar as its class struggle is national, not in substance, but […] ‘in form.’” To what extent can exit from the European Union can contribute to shift the balance of power in favor of the working class in Europe?

ND: The EU and its predecessors have always embodied the way capitalism has been organized at any particular time. It is not, in other words a body suspended above shifts in the capitalist system reflecting “European values” or other liberal fantasies. As the transition to neoliberalism was imposed within the constituent nation-states, it was bound to be embedded in the EU’s own policies and rules and the EU accordingly began its own march towards neoliberalism no later than the Single European Act in 1986. This has been confirmed and deepened by every single subsequent Pact and Treaty from Maastricht on 1991 onwards. What made the process easier than in the individual nation-states was that the EU always lacked most of the democratic constraints which made the transition at least a contested process in Britain or Italy, even in the period when it did more-or-less embody more social democratic conception of ownership and control.

Hayek argued in 1939 that “Interstate Federalism” at the European level would be desirable because it would ensure that economic activity should be removed as far as possible from the responsibility of meddling politicians who interfered with the market order to win electoral support from ignorant voters. The EU has followed Hayek’s advice by centralizing power in the hands of appointed officials, above all in the Commission, which alone has the power to initiate legislation, three types of which – regulations, directives and decisions – are binding. The Parliament has a right to be consulted, in certain circumstances, but none to initiate legislation in its own right: in this respect it has far less power than any national government, or for that matter, any devolved government like the Scottish or Catalan. But this is not the only democratic deficit. If the Commission is a supranational body, the European Council is an intergovernmental one. It consists of the heads of state or heads of government of the member states, who are of course elected in their own countries, but not of course by the inhabitants of the other countries whose fate the Council decides. These structures are one reason why we should reject claims that the EU is as amenable to reform as any nation-state. In fact it is much less so. Capitalist states are permanent structure until they are overthrown, although they can adopt different policies according to the political parties or coalitions which oversee the apparatus at any time, and these can be more or less beneficial to the working class and oppressed groups. The problem with the EU is that, although it is not a nation-state, the balance between unelected state managers and elected representatives is even more heavily weighted in favor of the former in the EU than in its constituent members. Reforms are never easily achieved, particularly under neoliberalism, since it has removed several mechanisms from control of states. Nevertheless, it is not impossible. In any event, it would be easier to achieve reforms in any member state than in the EU, where it requires winning unanimity in the Council, and there is more possibility of simultaneous revolutions in all 28 of them than of this happening.

The second Hayekian aspect of the EU is the use of rule-bound policies – on limits to public spending, on debt as a proportion of GDP, on competition – to limit what national politicians can do at the behest of their electorates. Since the rules do not allow for devaluation or the levels of state expenditure or debt which would have been necessary to stimulate the economy, the only remaining response to the crisis of 2008 was austerity. The EU’s embrace of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) – far more enthusiastic than Washington’s, incidentally – and the possibly even more insidious Trade in Services Agreement (Tisa) are only the latest and most extreme examples of this. In this context it is incredible to me how lightly how some Remain supporters are prepared to pass over the experience of Greece. In Yanis Varoufakis’s revelations about his encounters with the Troika, it was the EU institutions – the European Central Bank and the Commission – and not the International Monetary Fund which were the most unbending.

The lack of democracy and presence of binding rules would be reasons enough to leave the EU, but there are least three others, each of which attests, not only to the inherently reactionary nature of the project, but to how it fails to perform even the role for which it is most celebrated by liberal boosters: overcoming national self-interest. First, the EU is designed to maintain the structure of existing inequalities between European nation-states. Beneath all the talk of “solidarity” this is inescapable: a financial and industrial structure designed to meet the needs of the strongest economies – France and Germany and, since the advent of the Euro, increasingly just the latter – but which forces the weakest to play by the same rules, will always be detrimental to them, particularly when there is no mechanism to transfer funds or resources within the EU in the way that can be done within nation-states.

Second, although the EU is not an imperialist power in its own right, as a collective body it does, however, increasingly act as an adjunct to NATO, and consequently as a support to US interests. This role was inscribed onto the EU’s DNA from the beginning. The US initially encouraged and supported the formation of the EU’s predecessors as part of a Cold War bulwark against its Russian imperial rival, and this is the main reason why there was no war in (Western) Europe between 1945 and 1991: although engaged in in economic competition with each other, the EU member-states were united behind the USA in the same geopolitical alliance. But if the EU itself does not act as an imperial power, the main constituent nation-states increasingly do, and they by no means always bow to Washington’s wishes. Here again we see the more powerful placing their own interests over those of supposed European unity. For some this is externalized, as in the persistently underestimated French presence in Central Africa, but for others it is manifested in the heart of Europe itself – most obviously in the case of Germany, whose recognition of Croatian independence in 1992 contributed to the subsequent Yugoslavian bloodbath.

Third, the EU is structurally racist. The very idea of “Europe” is necessarily exclusionary. It is little remembered now that Morocco applied for EU membership in September 1987, much to the hilarity of the Commissioners, who turned it down on the grounds that it “did not meet the criteria for membership.” The much vaunted “freedom of movement” within the EU is predicated on blocking the movement of those without, as tens of thousands of desperate refugees are currently discovering. The spectacle of these people being trapped in the camps, behind barbed-wire fences and facing the police dogs and tear gas on the borders of European civilization is obscene enough, but it is compounded by the attitude of the constituent states themselves. For here again their individual interests take precedence over even collective barbarity, as the Schengen Agreement collapses into a free-for-all to defend individual borders against the alien hordes.

There is one final positive argument for the EU, which tends to be expressed by sections of the radical left. It is that capitalism rules everywhere, from the EU right down to our individual workplaces. But, so this story goes, at least the EU fulfils one of the few positive functions of capitalism: it brings together workers into one of the largest groups on earth, and their pressure can transform the EU. This is a classic example of confusing our wishes for reality. The EU organizes the ruling class, it does not organize workers. As Trotsky once wrote in another context, a brake cannot be used as an accelerator. There are no EU-wide political parties, or trade unions, or movements. Solidarity across borders does not depend on constitutions or institutions, but on the willingness of workers to support each other, even if in separate countries. Instead of invoking imaginary battalions of workers organized at a European level, it would more useful to begin building where we are. The struggle against neoliberal capitalism is unlikely to begin simultaneously across the whole of the EU, or to be confined within its boundaries. What we are likely to see is an uneven series of movements of different intensities, within different nation-states which, if victorious, could form new alliances and ultimately a United Socialist States of Europe. However, this vision cannot be realized within the EU, but only built afresh on its ruins.

BB: Regarding US foreign policy in the Middle East you observe that “failure to ground analysis in the class basis of modern states leads to a restricted notion of what is rational for state managers and consequently a failure to understand why they take certain actions.” 5 What place is there for anti-imperialism within an anti-capitalist strategy?

ND: The point I was trying make in the passage you quote was mainly directed against some versions of the “Political Marxism” associated with Brenner, Wood, Teschke, et. al, in which capitalism is reduced to market dependence or compulsion. But capitalism is not simply about markets – indeed, if this definition were taken at all seriously then you would have to doubt whether it exists across most of the world even now. In the specific context of imperialism, however, the fixation on markets leads to either (what are effectively) Weberian conclusions, in which geopolitics is treated as a separate sphere from economics, or to regarding decisions by politicians and state mangers as “irrational,” because they don’t immediately correspond to the needs of specific capitalist groups. Now, it is clear that the US-based oil companies were not exactly enthusiastic about the Iraq War, but the capitalist state has to act in the interests of national capital as a whole, not merely particular sectors, which is ultimately what the war was about: the US teaching former allies and current  enemies what would happen to them if they got out of line, showing allies that the US is still the only state which deploy the necessary levels of firepower to subdue rogue states, controlling Chinese access to oil supplies, and so on – none of which has much to do with market competition as such. Leaving aside the unspeakable misery the invasion of Iraq has caused for the Iraqis, it was in most respects a failure for the Americans, but that does not mean it was irrational, simply that it was a gamble, the outcome was contingent on a number of factors which they could not foresee, not least levels of internal opposition.

As this suggests, I do think that anti-imperialism is a necessary part of any serious anticapitalist strategy, but it is important to understand what this means. Part of the left’s inability to arrive at a coherent position on the current situation in the Middle East is because  Stalinists and other “socialism-from-above” types actually believe that (e.g.) Assad is an anti-imperialist – or who at any rate cannot see any prospect of an alternative to him ever emerging from below. But there is also another problem of a more theoretical nature, which takes two forms. One is a series of misunderstandings of the Classical Marxist positions on imperialism and self-determination which were established immediately before and during the First World War. The other, compounding the initial error, is to imagine that these positions can simply be transposed from the period in which they were formulated to today without any serious attempt to assess what has changed in the intervening period (although this problem scarcely confined to the issues of imperialism and self-determination).

When Karl Liebknecht raised the slogan “the main enemy is at home” he did not mean to imply that the only enemy was at home. The context is crucial here. The right and center of the Second International justified supporting “their” states in the First World War on grounds of either self-defense or because the other side was worse in some way – less democratic, more oppressive to the colonial peoples over which it ruled, and so on. This was why understanding the systemic nature of imperialism was so important: it was irrelevant who fired the first shot as competition between the dominant states would have led to war at some point in any case. Hence the necessity for socialists everywhere to oppose the state in which they found themselves, rather than using the actions of its enemies as an excuse for not doing so. But Lenin did not imagine that revolutionary opposition to Russian barbarity required him to remain silent on German atrocities, and he was not, in fact, silent on them. The slogan “turn the imperialist war into a civil war” was meant to be applicable everywhere, on both sides, from Britain to Japan.

At least some contemporary would-be anti-imperialists have abandoned several aspects of this tradition. For one thing, imperialism is no longer understood as a system, as an inescapable aspect of contemporary capitalism. Instead, imperialism is a policy carried out by governments, or it is an attribute possessed by particular nation-states, or it takes the form of sentient beings with cognitive or emotional capacities – as in those extraordinary formulations where imperialism is reified so that “an” imperialism “wants,” “needs,” or “thinks” this or that. Mostly US imperialism is held responsible for any event or process from the formation of Da’esh to the Ukrainian revolution: no one else possesses any agency, or has any motivations. Everything that happens is apparently the result of the omnipotent if hidden hand of “US imperialism.” With an enemy this powerful is there any point in resisting? Sometimes the US is replaced by an undifferentiated and unified “Western imperialism” in which there are apparently no conflicting interests, competing capitals or geopolitical rivalries. In fact, this usage rather gives the game away. “Western” imperialism used to be counterposed to the (supposedly non-imperialist) “East.” Now, the notion that there could be “degenerated” or “deformed” worker’s states in which actual workers were not only powerless but subjected to monstrous bureaucratic oppression was always a piece of metaphysical claptrap, but calling for their defense at least had a certain logical consistency. What are quite incredible are the calls by Stalinists and at least some orthodox Trotskyists to defend, to exculpate, Putin’s Russia or Assad’s Syria – both corrupt, undemocratic, but conventionally capitalist states. Pursued logically, in 2011 this would have led – and in some cases did lead – to supporting the Egyptian Revolution (because it was directed against am ally of the US), but opposing the Syrian Revolution (because it was directed against an enemy of the US). It is incumbent on socialists in the West to oppose their government’s bloody interventions in the Middle East and elsewhere, but there is no reason why this should also involve supporting the regimes which are murdering the workers and peasants who will be the basis of any renewed revolutionary movement.

This interview originally appeared in Période.


1 Mike Davis, “Marx’s Lost Theory,” New Left Review II/93 (May-June 2015).
2 Neil Davidson, Nation-States: Consciousness and Competition (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016), 220.
3 Ibid., 70.
4 David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 85.
5 Davidson, 228.

Authors of the article

is member of the editorial committee of the French-language review Période and graduated from Sciences Po Paris.

lectures at the University of Glasgow. Among other works, he is the author of The Origins of Scottish Nationhood (Pluto, 2000), How Revolutionary Were the Bourgeois Revolutions (Haymarket, 2014), and Nation-States: Consciousness and Competition (Haymarket, 2016).