Class bites back in the European UnionEuro

by | 3 Apr 2009

What is left in Europe? Once upon a time in the 1970s, the left was clear: the European Community was a neo-liberal project,driven by capital interests and destructive of the social settlements established following years of class conflict within individual European nation states. The Community was to be actively resisted in the effort to secure long fought for social rights. In the last 30 years, however, left and left-leaning attitudes towards Europe have grown far more nuanced as the newly reborn European Union (EU) has presented itself, less as an agent of capital, and more as a regional bulwark against the most pernicious of the forces of economic globalisation.

From the Treaty of European Union onwards, signed in Maastricht in 1992, the EU has seemingly developed social ambitions to match its market liberalisation zeal. Throughout Europe, movements of the traditional left have accordingly and variously sought to manipulate the supranational efforts of the institutions of the EU, in order to argue for the positive regulation of a European labour market. Nowhere more so has this been the case than in the United Kingdom, where European law detailing the working hours of the labour force now appears as a welcome foil to a Government that is still inexorably wedded to market liberality, or would prefer that we all ‘choose’ to work as many hours as we ‘wish to’. By the same and highly important token, however, a ‘new’ left, founded in respect for notions of equality (between sexes, sexual orientations, races, ages etc.) has mightily applauded the commitment of the Union, and especially of its Court, the European Court of Justice (ECJ), to socially-pliable European (economic) treaty rights  and human rights, celebrating, for example, the ECJ’s establishment of the principles of equal pay for equal work, as well as, say, its extension of limited rights of European citizenship to non-Europeans where they can demonstrate ‘family ties’ within the Union.

So then, with European elections fast approaching, should a European left now throw its wholehearted support behind the European project?  With a second referendum now planned in Ireland on the most recent of European treaties, the draft Lisbon treaty, which European leaders hope will reverse the negative Irish vote of last year, should a European left agree with Nicolas Sarkozy that the Treaty is a vital new legal framework for the EU, more importantly since it legally concretizes a globalisation-defying European social policy? Can we hope at a time of global economic crisis that the EU will act as a saviour of social rights and the social settlement within Europe?

Looking back at history however, and, more particularly at the intellectual traditions of a post-war European left, warning voices can and must be heard: the left should remain forever wary of the claims of EU institutions to be representing the social ambitions and interests of Europeans. Above all, in the immediate post-war period, the philosopher Hannah Arendt was highly pessimistic about the prospects for the European project: for all of Europe’s liberating rights-based discourse, the predominantly economic nature of the founding European Treaties would only repeat and aggravate the inherent failings of historic European efforts to effect social revolution through the republican constitution (Ahrendt’s views are specifically related to the then EEC by Michael Walzer in Exodus und Revolution (Fischer Taschenbücher 1995)). According to Arendt, European (economic) law would subdue and negate the confrontational class politics of European revolutionary moments, would promote a class-denying economic and social rationality, and would finally assert its own self-deluding, normative narrative of evolutionary progress instead. The de facto bourgeois monopoly over European law would deny and destroy confrontational European class politics, would mask the continued exploitation of a European labour movement and would inevitably disenfranchise a European left.

So who is correct: Sarkozy or Arendt? Recent events prove highly instructive. Wildcat strikes in the United Kingdom by UK based workers against labour brought in from other European states under European law (the Posted Workers Directive), in order to build oil refineries, power stations and various other industrial facilities has been greeted in the UK press – including a left-leaning press – as a highly unpleasant example of continuing xenophobia amongst a white British working class. The presence of the British National Party on picket lines, as well as the use of Gordon Brown’s slogan of ‘British jobs for British workers’ by the jobless, have been met with superior disdain. Workers and the jobless are lectured alike: the future is one of labour movement across national frontiers, British workers are already benefiting from European free movement provisions and now work in other European countries, racism against other Europeans must be resisted. Resistance against working class xenophobia is, furthermore, deemed to be even more important since, as The Times opines, anti-European racism could so quickly translate into racism against non-white UK minorities: ‘For many, complaints about foreign workers coming here and taking their jobs are disturbingly reminiscent of the atmosphere whipped up in Britain’s cities during the 1960s and 1970s, when the backlash against Commonwealth immigration was reflected both in the ballot box — in support for extreme right-wing parties — and, in many cases, in street violence. As unemployment starts to edge up to levels last seen in the mid-1980s, the hunt is on for scapegoats’ (January 30, 2009).

For a European left, then, the problem would initially seem to be one of the outmoded nature of the labour movement, of labour protectionism and an inherent hostility on the part of a ‘white’ working class to new left agendas of economic realism, ‘internationalism’, equality and the rights of all individuals regardless of their origin and identity. But this first impression inexorably deceives: wildcat strikes are a instead wholly legitimate response to European law and the ECJ, who have now taken the economic rationality of the European Treaties to its grim conclusion, giving wholehearted legal support to wage competition in Europe, needlessly forcing national workers into confrontation with one another, and inexorably destroying social solidarity amongst Europeans. Worse still, the disdain with which a labour movement that is seeking to protest against an unfair European law is treated – the manner in which it is labelled racist and resistant to a European social agenda founded in equality and non-discrimination – further reinforces a long-term trend whereby a European working class is denied political voice within the European project; whereby European labour is marginalised and demonised, as a European left turns upon itself in a misplaced conflict between class and race, between common social agendas and identity politics, such that big capital continues to rule the European stage.

The immediate legal problem is one of a significant evolution in European law, promoted by national economic ministers and confirmed by the ECJ, which has moved beyond allowing European workers to move to other countries to work under the same conditions as native workers, to promote, instead, the importation of cheap European workers from other member states at rates and under labour conditions that undercut those secured in national bargaining agreements between employers and Unions. Before we examine just how European law has forced European labour into conflict with itself, however, it is important to understand how the European project as a whole has historically and consistently marginalised a European working class.

The Marginalisation of European Labour

Is the European project one that is hostile to notions of class? More particularly, have processes of European integration marginalised a European labour movement as Arendt asserted? Tellingly, this question of fact is one which is never answered, and indeed barely ever addressed within a vast academic literature on European integration studies, which, being idealistically dedicated to the ‘deepening’ of the cultural influence of the EU, has concerned itself solely with questions of why Europe should be considered a ‘good thing’, rather than issues of how Europe is factually ‘a bad thing’. However, the traces of a differentiated class impact can be identified within the very dissimilar self-perceptions of European identity maintained by different social classes within Europe and, more particularly, have recently been so identified by the American sociologist, Neil Fligstein, in his timely book, Euro-clash (Oxford University Press 2008).

For Euro-clash, then, read ‘a clash of European social classes’ and an embarrassment for European politicians and academics alike: why has it taken an American to reveal to the obvious to us, that, as a simple matter of course, an integration process, which is primarily economically-driven, is perceived to be of great benefit to a small elite of Europeans (10-15%), who will accordingly give it their full support at all times, is thought to be of occasional benefit to a middle group (40-50%), whose ‘European-ness’ is, by the same token, necessarily contingent; but is, likewise perceived as a very real threat to a final set of Europeans (40-50%) who remain inexorably politically trapped within national paradigms of consciousness and self-protection.

Fligstein accordingly presents us with the shocking, but surely not too surprising fact that socio-economic variables furnish us with an exact prediction of degrees of European identity formation amongst European individuals. Persons will identify themselves as more or less European in direct correlation to their mobility, levels of civic association (business, professional, NGO-related, tourism-related etc.), levels of education and levels of (higher) cultural interaction. At one level, this seems a self-obvious conclusion, dictated to us by common sense, but does Fligstein, the empirical sociologist, tell us more: does he tell us whether this brave new European world of reinvigorated class and differentiated identities is merely a matter of perception or, by stark contrast, is one of brutal fact?

Fligstein’s orienting thesis is taken from Karl Deutsch and is, thus, also flavoured by centuries of European history (of class struggle and nation formation). Reviewing the wide range of sociological theories, historically centred on the nation state, which help to explain why groups of individuals with very divergent life experiences, as well as interests, are prepared to give their undivided loyalty to one political-legal entity, Fligstein plumps for Deutsch’s exhortation that: ‘the historical “trick” to the rise of a nation state will be to find a horizontal solidarity for the existing [class] stratification and a rationale that using a state apparatus to protect the nation makes sense’. In Arendt’s politically-centred view, both Deutsch and Fligstein may initially appear to be a mite cynical: identity, loyalty and the feeling that the search for a common fate is the best bet for self-protection (against forces internal and external to the nation), are not to be won through the contestation around class ‘stratification’, but are, rather, to be bought through the establishment of a common culture (through shared national institutions such as church, army and educational establishments), which, continuing stratification notwithstanding, give a diffuse sense of common purpose and protection. Nonetheless, to the degree that the various joint institutions of national life are themselves centres for the reproduction and reconciliation of the antagonistic class politics that at once undermine and build a nation, which are the institutions of European life that might permit the reproduction and reconciliation of a purging European class conflict?

And it is here that Fligstein begins to sketch out a reality — not a perception — of European life that segregates European classes and denies them access to antagonistically-reconciling politics. European integration is now and has always been a response to economic realities; in a first integrationist wave, with an eye to the need to rebuild the shattered economies of European nation states (and empires); and, in a second stage, as an answer to the pressures of globalisation and the need to reform (protect) European economies, in order to meet the competitive pressures of a global market. In turn, however, economic processes of integration within the European market are themselves, and also give rise to specific ‘fields of interaction’ between individual Europeans, which then determine the make-up of a European society, and also create opportunities for, and place constraints upon, European politics.

This process of economically-bounded interaction should never be mistaken for integrative ‘spill-over’ between economic, social and political contexts of life. Quite to the contrary: taking care empirically to dissect the exact nature of economic integration, globalisation, social interaction and political constraints/opportunities, Fligstein demonstrates that integration has not evenly and smoothly spread its impacts across the whole of a European society. Instead, the initial process of integration, though often blocked by nationally-oriented member states, nevertheless gave birth to powerful economic elites, with lobbying capacities at European level. By the same token, globalisation pressures and economic reforms have likewise enabled Europeanised elites to strengthen their presence within the higher — ownership — strata of the increasingly integrated European market. In socio-economic terms, the elite or ownership class now experiences a daily reality of Europeanisation within the workplace and within social life. Equally, the European elite has long found its political voice in Brussels, perceives Europeanisation to be in its interests (i.e., to act as a bulwark against globalisation), and will, therefore, place political pressure upon member state governments to deepen the integration process at both national and European levels, no matter how resistant such governments may be. By contrast, at national level, political pressures — the need constantly to re-assert the core elements of national life — have also determined that national frameworks of property and labour law have been maintained and that market integration, in wide-scale industrial sectors, such as defence and telecommunications, has been effected, not through establishment of conspicuously European firms, but through mergers, joint ventures and jointly owned subsidiaries; an integration model that leaves the concrete impression that economic life is still national and not European in nature (ironically, even where ownership is American). This, in turn, determines that the mass of industrial workers experience their daily lives wholly within the national context. In contrast to a middle class, which may have a more diffuse understanding of Europeanisation processes, and which, at the very least, experiences Europeanisation — and, importantly, interacts with other Europeans — through the benefits of culturally-oriented tourism (i.e., not mass package tourism), a working class is never socialised within joint institutions of European life.

The site of politics for the European working class is a primarily national one. Further, at national level, the European working class confronts a national political leadership, which is itself beholden to the Europeanised interests of an ownership elite, and which is also uncertain of the degree of nationalised support that it will receive from a mass of middle class workers, whose political sentiments often prove to be as unpredictable as their partially-Europeanised daily life. In political terms, then, the European working class is doubly excluded from reconciling process of antagonistic European class expression; on the one hand, as they neither experience a site or institution of joint European political interaction; and, on the other hand, since they might never claim the undivided (national) attentions of their own political leaders.

Legal Consolidation of Class Exclusion

To the degree that economic processes of European integration have isolated the working classes of Europe within national paradigms of protective politics, where they cannot but fight, the one against the other, rather than join together to contest bourgeois European economic might, recent non-votes against the draft European constitution or the draft Lisbon treaty cannot simply be dismissed as the result of the European populace’s unfortunate ignorance about and lacking understanding of the workings of European institutions. Instead, hostility is surely a highly rational phenomenon, both amongst the social class to whom integration is most threatening and amongst the better placed group of ‘occasional’ Europeans whose support is given either to the nation state, or to the EU, in line with a considered calculation as to which body is better placed to provide social cohesion at any one time. Indeed, ‘no’ votes are, potentially, the only sites of European politics within which class antagonisms might, at least, be jointly aired.

Given this conclusion, we must now ask how European law — and more particularly the European Court of Justice — has made its own particular contribution to the exclusion of European labour from political sites of class conflict; whether it, too, and not just a diffuse process of economic differentiation, is actively engaged in the bourgeois colonisation of the normative framework of European law, a process of colonisation, which, by means of its negation of the European nation and its history of class struggle, has undermined the European left? The response to this question, however, is relatively easily found and must now be a resounding ‘yes’.

The recent European Court of Justice cases of Viking, Laval and Rüffert have thus become pivotal within this context, not simply since they have, quite remarkably, rejected the warnings given by Marx and, more recently, by Karl Polanyi (The Great Transformation (Beacon Press: New York 2001 [1944])) about the dire consequences of forcing a working class into wage competition with itself. But rather, since they have also again excluded a European working class from any possible site of political contestation, within which its antagonistic interests might be presented and asserted. The adjudicative interplay between a Posted Workers Directive, purportedly introduced by the Economic Ministers of the member states in order to regulate potential social dumping within the European market, and European rights of establishment and service-provision, as well as the primary provisions of European state aid law have thus led in European law to: 1) the creation of an absolute judicial prohibition against an international seaman’s strike (and all international solidarity strikes) called in solidaristic opposition to the re-flagging of a vessel, in order to allow for the hire of cheaper foreign labour (Viking); 2) the imposition of a judicial value of ‘proportionality’ upon all national strikes called in defence of local union/employer bargaining agreements (Viking & Laval); and 3) the establishment of a final prohibition on the democratically-legitimated enforcement of all local bargaining agreements, as local and national authorities are precluded by the provisions of state aid law from tailoring their tenders in line with such agreements. 4) Further, rather than being an instrument that guards against social dumping, the Posted Workers Directive is deemed by the Court to give European protection only to universal provisions of national labour law, such as minimum wage requirements, working hour legislation and health and safety regulation applying to all workers in a member state (Lava, Viking & Rüffert). By the same token, then, the Posted Workers Directive can be used to overturn collective bargaining agreements above and beyond minimum national social protection legislation.

Not surprisingly, such judgements have drawn a host of outraged comment from commentators, not least since the European Court appears thus to have drawn a coach and horses through the social constitutional settlements of countries, such as Sweden, who, historically, have not maintained minimum wage legislation, but have, instead, reconciled antagonistic class struggle by means of governmental enforcement of union-employer negotiated bargaining agreements. At this one level, the ECJ would thus seem to have confirmed that the corporatist model of economic organisation within Europe is dead, and declared – the somewhat untimely – sovereignty of an Anglo-Saxon model of universal welfare provision. However, the interventionist impact of the Court just as surely extends far beyond the misconceived negative constitutional juxtaposition of Anglo-Saxon with continental models of social organisation, in order to effect the bourgeois colonisation of the framework of European law instead.

The clear, but shocking, historical analogy is the case of Lochner v New York, decided by the US Supreme Court in 1905, whereby the democratic right of the State of New York to set its own working conditions (including the rights of workers to strike) was overturned with reference to the US Constitution’s absolute guarantee for property. Presented by the majority of the Court as a legal inevitability, driven simply by the hierarchical precedence of the Constitution over state legislation, the hidden motives within the Court were nonetheless readily exposed, as a dissenting Judge (Justice Holmes) laconically observed that the democratic right of the states to legislate in this area was also guaranteed by the Constitution. The bourgeois sentiments of the historical US Supreme Court are readily identified; but so, too, however, are the bourgeois sentiments of European ‘judge-kings’ who develop their own notions of what ‘social justice’ within Europe should mean, and, at the same time, deny a European labour movement as a whole the opportunity to assert its antagonistic interests against a bourgeois European economy. The truth of this statement is to be found in the fact that The ECJ need not have decided as it did.

Eastern enlargement and the failure of Western Europe to afford a measure of democratically-legitimated redistributive justice to its recently-liberated eastern cousins is the backdrop against which the cases were decided, and it is also the backdrop against which the ECJ chose to assert the hierarchical precedence of economic rights within the EC Treaty (Articles 43, 49 and 87 EC) above the constitutional traditions and democratic processes of the member states. For all their talk of the creation of a ‘European social constitution’, the measure of the ECJ’s notion of social justice in modern Europe is to be found in its promotion of social constitutionalism within a dominant European economic model of ‘allocative efficiency’, or the notion that the market alone should decide what is paid for each economic service rendered. Viewed from outside the Court this was an ill-timed and emotional response to the clearly disadvantaged position of Eastern European workers with a notion of ‘social justice’ that will see them work for less than western workers, and western workers denied access to their own jobs. Worse still, this false individual sentiment has affected the shape of European law as a whole as the Court rejected the useful precedents of an earlier series of social insurance cases, and tied the hands of national courts, making the rational legal notion of ‘proportionality’ – or the idea that action must be rationally suited to its political ends –the impossible yardstick against which class antagonism must be measured within Europe.

Within the social insurance cases — primarily concerning professional ‘trade agreements’, rather than the industrial bargaining agreements commonly concluded by the mass trades union movement — the core ECJ decision was one that the restrictive practices beloved of the professions (e.g. forced individual membership of professional indemnity schemes etc.) were per se legitimate mechanisms of social policy, and might only be reviewed under the European competition regime (Article 81 EC), with an eye to a procedural principle of proportionality, whereby such private arrangements would be reviewed by national courts in order to ensure that they were fair and not abusive in their composition and rates. Such a procedural resolution was also conceivable in the case of collective bargaining agreements; however, here the formula is reversed. Collective bargaining agreements are deemed to be per se restrictions on European rights; strikes will be contested in national courts to ascertain whether they are proportionate with those rights, in their substance, and not in their conduct.

And thus false sentiment is unveiled as bourgeois might. A strike we should never forget is an antagonistic political statement by means of total withdrawal of labour. It can never be ‘rational’ or ‘proportionate’. Certainly, strikes may be illegally conducted and, here, proportionality may have a real legal meaning, allowing courts to review whether strike votes were properly held. Beyond that, however, the strike is an irrational and disproportionate act, a concrete political expression of antagonistic class conflict, a modern continuation of the struggle that both creates and undermines our market and our state, a necessary site of reconciling conflict between antagonistic European classes; and a necessary site of conflict for European labour that the European Court has decisively foreclosed.

The Lesson for the European Left

What then is the lesson for a European left? Should we reject the European project as a whole? This commentator would argue no; but, we must now fight for ‘our’ Europe. At one level, this must mean a rejection of the cynical ‘social policy mechanisms’ found within the draft Lisbon treaty. That treaty does not address the growing disconnect between Europe’s economic aims and the need to maintain a just European social settlement. Instead, it merely asks national bureaucracies to ‘benchmark’ their ‘best practice’ in social policy areas! Is this what the left fought for? At a far deeper level, however, we must also address our own demons: firstly, we must never be seduced by the lure of an internationalism that concretises itself in legal rationality rather than antagonistic politics – legal rationality is merely a fig leaf for bourgeois sentiment; but secondly, we must also urgently address, analyse and overcome a schism within the left – a schism that pitches class against race, individual identity against collective action, and that allows the forces of capital to divide and rule us.


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