We've already covered the coming referendum at great length in our paper and our journal, both in terms of the political context in which it is taking place and in terms of what is really at stake for the working class. We will assume, therefore, that you're all well aware of our position on both accounts.
As the title of our forum shows, our aim today is to go much beyond the coming referendum. But, in order to deal with it once and for all, let me quote what we said in two previous forums which were devoted to similar issues.
The first of these forums dates back to November 1992. At the time, John Major's pro-European Tory government had been caught up for months in a row with his party's Eurosceptics over Britain's signing up to the EU Maastricht Treaty. This is what we said at the time:
"Maastricht has developed into such a 'sensitive' issue in the politicians' world that Major did not even dare mention the M.. word in his parliamentary bill on the Treaty...
"Yet, as "sensitive" an issue as it may be in the politicians' world, the Maastricht saga has been going on for much too long by now for anyone to take it seriously. No wonder politicians are having a hard job trying to keep it alive among the electorate. With good reason too. Isn't Europe an irreplaceable gimmick to divert people's attention from today's real problems? It is totally harmless because, by its very nature, Europe is beyond the reach of British politicians. It cannot backfire because whatever happens, the sinners are sitting hundreds of miles away from Westminster, in Brussels or Strasbourg. And it can take the blame for almost anything... In short the Europe scarecrow is a politicians' dream."
Seven years later, under Blair's first Labour government, in April 1999, at a time when the political scene had been taken over by the issue of whether Britain should join the euro-zone, this is what we had to say: "While British companies were gearing up to join first, the Single Market and then, possibly, the euro-zone, they turned the screw on the standard of living of the working class here. This was not because the latter policy was a requirement or a consequence of the former, but rather because these were two aspects of the same profit drive.
"This is why we believe that for working people and the unemployed there is nothing to expect from this capitalist-made European Union and nothing to support in it. Not any more than there is anything to expect from or support in any other institution of the capitalist class... But likewise there would be no more stake in fighting for the abolition of the European Union than for that of other capitalist institutions in and of themselves. It is the capitalist system... that needs to be overthrown and this cannot be done bit by bit.
"This is why we also believe that those who are arguing against Britain joining the euro, ... and even more so those who are arguing for complete withdrawal from Europe, ...are barking up the wrong tree. To argue that the British working class would be better "protected" if Britain retained its own currency or even reintroduced stringent custom barriers, can only bolster nationalist and other reactionary currents. In any case it is a self-delusion and can only lead to a dead end."
Today, there is nothing to change to these assessments. Just as much as in 1992, the EU is primarily a hot potato in the rivalries between politicians. And, just as in 1999, the main enemy that the British working class needs to fight is the British capitalist class, not the institutions behind which it conceals its domination over society - whether they may be in Westminster or in Brussels.
This being said, let's now move on to the main focus of this forum. As opposed to both sides of the referendum debate - which both claim to represent British "national interest" - our concern is the interest of mankind as a whole. And from this point of view, behind the issue of the EU lie questions which are much more fundamental for the working class and society as a whole, namely: what is in the interest of the working class with regards to nationalism and national borders? Where do they come from, what has been their role in the past and why, today, are they an obstacle to the development of human society, just as the capitalist system itself is?
When nationalism was a unifying force
Up to the mid-18th century, there were no policed borders in today's sense anywhere in the world. Human migration across the globe had been going on for tens of thousands of years. And before the barrier of man-made borders was put in its way, it took place entirely freely. In fact it was governed by only two things, firstly, need - including the need to find food and other resources and the need to flee natural disaster or an enemy - and secondly, the capacity to undertake a journey.
So the first migrations of our ancestors from Africa, which, according to recent studies, probably took place between 62,000 and 95,000 years ago, can be put down simply to the search for better pastures - i.e., a better life. Just like most of today's migrations! Yet in those days - and for thousands of years - the only obstacle humans encountered was their own capacity to push on and survive against nature. Today, human migrants may be forced to resort to all kinds of dangerous methods to cross the world - but their biggest problem is national borders and the artificial obstacles created to protect them. Yet these horrendous obstacles, epitomised by the concrete walls and rolls of razor wire we see today, have not existed for 99.9% of human existence!
So, how did these borders and the nation states which they protect, arise - and why? They were not spontaneous growths. They had to be constructed, even though the "nation" may sometimes - but not always - seem to have already embodied a culture, language and religion held in common.
And while today, nationalist slogans are the rallying flag of the most reactionary forces, especially those of the far-right, until the mid-19th century in Europe, they were both progressive and unifying, as a means for the rising bourgeois classes to rally the oppressed in order to fight against reactionary autocratic rule. In a society which, so far, had been atomised by the on-going rivalries and wars between feudal rulers, new entities thus emerged, welded together by a common fight against the feudal system and by their success in overthrowing it.
The classic example of the forging of bourgeois nationhood was provided by the French bourgeois revolution of the late 18th century.
Having overthrown the monarchy, the French revolutionary bourgeoisie needed a more centralised state authority, capable of enforcing a single legal system, instead of the disparate local systems which used to be enforced by the feudal lords. It also needed a market protected from the competition of its rivals. This meant unifying all sorts of aspects of day-to-day life - in particular language. Next to the patois and regional languages which most of the population had been using so far, people were taught French - formerly the language of the elite - which allowed them to communicate across the whole country, thereby facilitating travel and exchanges between various sections of the population, and the development of a common culture and sense of "nationality".
While capitalism was still establishing itself over Europe, those rallying to the national flag, whether in Poland, Italy or Germany, were in some respects the most "progressive" elements of these societies. They demanded republics against the remnants of feudal rulers and empires - seeking to emulate the French revolutionaries, and taking hold of their most radical and secular ideas. Thus we see the French and English working classes in 1848 taking to the streets in solidarity with the Poles, who were fighting against their home-grown autocrats and the Russian empire; we see Marx and Engels supporting the fight in Germany for unification; we see Garibaldi's progressive attempts to create a nation state in Italy and of course the support given by Marx and Engels to the Irish Fenian nationalists in their ongoing struggle against British rule.
The "internationalism" of the First Communist International of 1864 was aimed at freeing peoples of all forms of oppression by linking what came to be denoted as "national oppression" to class oppression, since this was the ultimate unifying factor of peoples under the systemic exploitation of capitalism. And in fact the Italian radical nationalist Guiseppe Mazzini, along with Karl Marx, was present at its founding.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that many of the champions of the bourgeois nation state of the time also assumed it would have to be a viable economic entity, a large enough unit for the development of a modern society. For example, Mazzini proposed a map of his "ideal" Europe in 1857 consisting of just 11 unified nations - for instance, unifying Switzerland, Savoy, the German Tyrol, Carinthia and Slovenia into one entity. How very different from today's map of Europe - with its 50 sovereign states - or even the 27 countries drawn into the map as a result of the Versailles political settlement which concluded WWI!
The progressive expansion of the world market
The rise of this progressive form of unifying nationalism initiated by the bourgeoisie in its revolutionary days, was followed by another progressive process which, in turn, began to unify a world which had been previously largely atomised into a single economic entity - the development of the world market.
The 18th and particularly the 19th century - which produced Karl Marx in fact - saw an unprecedented acceleration of development in every single sphere of human activity and indeed, a great leap forward in science and manufacturing which took the ideas of socialists out of the realm of fantasy and into the realm of reality. Now, a world which could cater for the needs of all became a material possibility. This was, in essence, the scientific socialism of Marx and Engels - on which we communists of today base our politics.
As Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto: "The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in the tottering feudal society, a rapid development."
World trade, now fed by revolutionary manufacturing, developed exponentially. The commodities previously available only in the established capitalist countries like England and France and their close neighbours in Europe, now became available around the world. To quote the Manifesto: "The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate. It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image."
Of course, this was still only one-sided, as the main beneficiaries were the richest countries, but this is what has laid the basis for another kind of organisation of the world economy in which the planet's resources would be shared out across the world and used in the best interest of its inhabitants, thereby providing the impetus for a colossal growth in the productive forces.
The nation-state becomes a straitjacket
However, as early as the mid-19th century, when Marx wrote the Communist Manifesto, it was already becoming evident that the private competition between individual capitalists was the cause of recurring havoc in the economy and a brake on its development. Likewise, it was also becoming obvious that the main obstacle to the development of the world economy as a whole lay in the competition between different national bourgeoisies, which used their national states and their national boundaries to protect their profits. By doing so, they were imposing a straitjacket on the circulation and pooling together of all available goods which were produced - which would have benefited humanity as a whole.
This was why, in the struggle over the issue of the Corn Laws, Marx and his comrades took the side of the free traders against those arguing for protectionist measures. Not because they had any illusion in the "progressive" nature of those who were in favour of free trade among the bourgeoisie. No, not at all.
Marx and Engels recognised that for a period of time in the development of the capitalist mode of production, protectionism had helped modern production to replace antiquated methods and allow the development of mass production, thereby creating the conditions for the rise of the class that would hold the future of society in its hands - the urban working class.
The British Corn Laws of the 18th and 19th century had been designed to protect domestic markets (mainly supplied by the landed aristocracy's and gentry's vast farms) against cheaper foreign imports of wheat. But this meant that wheat was priced artificially high - and so too, was the working class staple food, bread. A split arose in the ranks of the British bourgeoisie between those whose money was invested in land - who were in favour of protectionism - and the free-trade-favouring industrial capitalists who were unable to reduce wages without starving their workers. If the Corn Laws were abolished, then cheap wheat imports would push down the price of bread and thus the cost of wages - increasing the industrialists' profits. The free traders eventually won the struggle against the corn laws simply because they became the dominant and wealthiest force among the bourgeoisie.
But there was another aspect to this issue, which brings us to Brussels - not the Brussels of today's EU but the Brussels of 1847! To quote Engels: "Towards the end of 1847, a Free Trade Congress was held at Brussels. It was a strategic move in the Free Trade campaign then carried on by the English manufacturers. Victorious at home, by the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, they now invaded the continent in order to demand, in return for the free admission of continental corn into England, the free admission of English manufactured goods to the continental markets."
Marx had in fact prepared a speech to this congress, but was not given the chance to make it. He was in favour of free trade in this case again, but only because he saw it as creating the optimal conditions for the development of industry and paving the way for the fastest progress in human society. His reasoning was based on two ideas. First, that under the conditions of free trade, the contradictions of capitalism would all the sooner come to a head - and thus open the way for social revolution. And second, that the more the world market expanded, the more the capitalist mode of production would replace backward methods of production, thus necessitating the development of a proletariat everywhere. In other words the expansion of capitalism meant the growth of the working class as an international class.
As it happened, trade liberalism failed to weather the first serious economic crisis. At the first sign of danger, the capitalists asked the state to reintroduce trade barriers. And this became a recurring pattern. Nevertheless, by and large, it did achieve what Marx had expected from it by expanding capitalism and its market to the entire world and producing a working class which was truly international.
The nation state, a war machine in the trade war
The late 19th century saw the build-up of state military power as the main weapon used by the rich capitalist classes in their economic rivalries. Clausewitz's famous statement, in the early years of the 19th century, that "wars are the continuation of politics by other means" could have been rephrased in the latter part of the century to read "wars are the continuation of capitalist competition by other means".
For a long time, Britain's industrial pre-eminence had been unchallenged. This was coming to an end. French, German, American and, to a lesser extent, Japanese capital were now bidding for their own share of the world cake, thereby threatening the status quo which had so much benefited British capital. Markets, trade routes and, above all, new sources of raw materials for the domestic industries of the richest players, became the cause of endless rivalries which often threatened to spill over into military confrontations. More and more resources and fire power were brought in, to reinforce the colonial armies of the colonial powers. Africa, being the last relatively "open" land available, became the centre of a fierce battle between the capitalist rivals in the 1880s, in what came to be known as the "scramble for Africa."
The French and British capitalists took control of much of West Africa without clashing openly with each other, but they nearly did in East Africa. In South Africa between 1899 and 1902, to uphold the interests of Cecil Rhodes' Consolidated Goldfield Company against the Boers' claims to independence, the British army staged two wars against the Boers - who had some logistical help from the agents of German companies, hoping to get their finger in the diamond and gold pie. And there were other confrontations looming across the world.
In the end, however, it was in Europe that imperialist rivalries broke out into a full-scale and direct confrontation between the rival bourgeoisies, resulting in WWI. 65 million soldiers were mobilised of whom 8.5 million were slaughtered and 21 million wounded. As French writer Anatole France said: "You think you're fighting for your fatherland, when you're dying for your banker." Indeed, what was really at stake behind the diplomatic pretext of this war, was how the imperialist powers were to share out the rest of the world between them. This war, of course, could not and did not end the rivalries between the rich bourgeoisies. But it was a landmark in that it showed the extent of the dependence of the now decaying bourgeoisies on their national state machineries - a dependence which was to increase much further, in parallel with the decay of the capitalist system as a whole.
The nation-state, a crutch for capitalist profit
The centralisation of the state and its military machine now provided a permanent source of profits for the bourgeoisie, through the public debt and through military procurement. And then, as the state's intervention in the economy increased, more public money flowed into capitalist coffers thanks to civilian procurement. At the same time, the capitalist class was able to depend increasingly on its state for keeping the working class under control. In Britain, many of the so-called social reforms - inspired by those introduced by the German state in the 19th century - served this function.
But the state above all served as a crutch for capitalism during the interwar crisis years in the aftermath of the 1929 Crash. Immediately the states stepped in to bail out their respective capitalists at the expense of the poorest classes in society and with the primary aim of protecting their respective companies against foreign competition.
The most blatant case was, of course, that of Germany, where the entire resources of the state were put at the service of the big companies by Hitler's Nazis. Behind their populist nationalism was a policy aimed at cutting drastically the working class' share of national income and thus allowing the big companies which had financed fascism to restore their profitability. They enjoyed a massive cut in their wage bills and huge state orders, first for the newly-established state-owned enterprises, such as the Goering steel works, and subsequently for the army.
Another outstanding example of state intervention was in the USA. Here Roosevelt in effect nationalised the banks in 1933, by exchanging massive amounts of state funds against worthless stock - which shareholders were allowed to buy back at a token price once the crisis was over. Roosevelt's "New Deal", as it was called, has often been compared with Mussolini's corporate state which had bailed out the Italian bourgeoisie when confronted with recession in the early 1920s. Roosevelt's showpieces like the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) which brought electricity to large areas of the South through a series of interlinked dams, matched Mussolini's draining of the malarial Pontine Marshes, which were subsequently used to grow wheat, or his massive rebuilding of the country's rail and road systems. The main beneficiaries in Italy were companies like Fiat, and in the USA the TVA provided contracts for General Electric.
By 1936, every politician in the capitalist world was hailing the "recovery" and the imminent return of the "good old days". What none of them was prepared to admit was the fact that this "so-called" recovery had been paid for by massive state orders and subsidies and by a brutal turn of the screw on the working class. But while the rich American state could offer its capitalist class a solid crutch that could last for many more years, this was certainly not the case of the European states, at any rate not without crushing the resistance of the working class in order to enslave it, as Hitler did in Germany.
The bailouts which were implemented by every rich national state after 2008 did not go nearly as far as those of the 1930s, of course. Or should we say, they haven't gone as far yet, because who can be sure of what the future has in store? Nevertheless, regardless of the form they took, these bailouts had the same fundamental objectives as those of the 1930s - to safeguard the profits of their respective wealthy classes at the expense of the working class majority and to protect their interests against their foreign competitors. And the consequences are the same as in the 1930s - increased dependence of the capitalist classes on their respective state machineries and increased competition in the trade war.
Nationalism in the poor countries - a dead end for the poor masses
Many would argue that, at least, nationalism has been a powerful, but also progressive means to organise the impoverished masses of the poor countries so as to shake off the stranglehold of colonial or imperialist domination.
In a way this is true. But only in so far as, in some cases, there was a mass mobilisation against the foreign oppressing power. However, not only was this mobilisation rarely successful and very costly for the population, but the fact that it was always led by bourgeois or petty bourgeois forces, meant that the poor were led into a dead end.
In fact, the imperialist powers were quick to realise that by granting independence to their former colonies and selecting the political personnel that would man the new state machineries, they would ensure that the interests of their imperialist companies remained in safe hands.
The failure of the pan-Arab and pan-African policies of nationalist leaders like Nkrumah and Lumumba in Africa or Nasser in Egypt finally resulted in the atomisation of entire continents like Africa and the Middle East into completely artificial countries. However, a successful fight for building larger, more viable economic entities would have required a mobilisation of the poor masses on a much larger scale - on the basis of their common social interests - which was what the nationalist petty-bourgeois leaders feared most. Besides, ultimately, the objective pursued by most - if not all - of these leaders was an independent state machinery which would allow them and their petty-bourgeois peers to take over control of the local natural resources and exploit the poor masses.
In the end compromised leaderships made compromises, allowing the colonial powers to retain most of their financial and industrial interests behind the facade of national independence for the colonies. This was just as much the case in India as in Africa a decade later. The legacy is a catastrophic situation in most of the former colonial territories - the so-called "developing" world - which today fills sinking boats across the Mediterranean with people fleeing for their lives. And they are fleeing on-going civil wars which are fuelled by the ethnic and religious conflicts created precisely by the artificial borders drawn by the imperialist powers. Or they are desperately hoping to build another life for themselves away from the abysmal poverty left by these powers in their unviable - but supposedly "independent" - countries.
From the captive markets of colonial empires ...
If there is one thing that the capitalists fear, it is uncertainty. While they always seek to make the largest possible profits out of their capital, they'd rather not take any risk in the process. Their problem, however, is that because their market is ruled by private competition, it is chronically unstable and, therefore, unpredictable and risky.
Over the relatively long history of their system, the capitalists have constantly tried to avoid - or at least reduce - this unpredictability, by using tariffs and other protectionist measures against foreign competitors. However, such measures are, at best, short term solutions. First, because they cannot prevent competition from causing havoc in the domestic markets themselves. And second, because they can only exacerbate the trade war faced by the capitalists operating on the world market at large.
Nevertheless, the richest capitalist classes have resorted to a form of expanded protectionism by using their large colonial empires as a protected, captive market. However, like all attempts to resolve the contradictions of the capitalist system, not only did this one fail, but it actually backfired, making matters worse.
A striking illustration of this is what happened in the 19th century to what was then called "British India". In an article written in 1853, Marx described it as follows: "Till 1813 India had been chiefly an exporting country, while it now became an importing one... India, the great workshop of cotton manufacture for the world, since immemorial times, became now inundated with English twists and cotton stuffs. After its own produce had been excluded from England, or only admitted on the most cruel terms, British manufactures were poured into it at a small and merely nominal duty, to the ruin of the native cotton fabrics.. (By 1850, total cotton) exports to India... reached more than 1/4 of the foreign cotton trade... The cotton manufacture also employed now 1/8 of the population of Britain, and contributed 1/12th of the whole national revenue... The East India Continent became actually their best market... (However) the industrial interest found that their trade declined instead of increasing... They found out that the power of consuming their goods was contracted in India to the lowest possible point."
In other words, having built Britain's modern cotton industry on the ruins of India's traditional cotton craft, British capital soon found that its looting of its Indian colony had resulted in such impoverishment that the captive market it now offered to British capital had shrunk - which, in turn, fuelled a crisis of overproduction in the British textile industry.
As it turned out, therefore, using their colonial empires did not provide the rich capitalist classes with a solution to their problem. But they were soon to find another way of using these empires.
... to the setting up of currency zones...
One of the sources of potential problems in international trade was the use of different currencies. As long as they remained exchangeable against a well-defined, fixed amount of gold - a system that economists called the "gold standard" - international trade was relatively simple and predictable. However, by the end of the 19th century, the amount of gold available was already increasing much more slowly than the quantity of money in circulation. As a result, the rich countries' gold reserves became increasingly inadequate, making the "gold standard" more and more unsustainable.
Up to World War I, this was not too much of a problem for British capital. The British pound dominated the world market with around 60% of all commercial transactions being carried out in pounds. Because of this, all countries used the pound as a reserve currency next to their gold reserves. But WWI changed all this. First there was the emergence of the USA as the world's largest economy while Britain's ageing industry was slowly collapsing. And then came the Great Depression which eventually forced the pound off the "gold standard" in 1931, together with many other currencies. This put the dollar in pole position at a time when the US government was pressurising the then main colonial powers - Britain and France - to open up their colonial markets to US companies. Since neither France nor Britain had the economic or political clout to counter this pressure, they resorted to another device. From the mid-1930s both countries got their colonies - and a number of semi-colonies which were part of their respective zones of influence - to use a currency which had a fixed exchange rate against the French franc and the British pound, respectively.
Thus were born the "sterling area" and the "franc zone". Of course, belonging to these areas came at a price. Not only did it mean that member countries had to submit their financial affairs to the scrutiny and diktats of the British or French financial authorities, but it also meant that they had to pay their share for Britain's and France's economic problems - in particular in case of inflation. Meanwhile, although restrictions to foreign competitors had been partly lifted in the two currency zones, French and British companies were still able to undercut their US competitors by playing on their currencies.
However, as the US domination of the world economy gathered momentum, such tricks could not be sustained. After World War II, the US became the world's dominant creditor country. As a result of the Bretton Woods monetary system, introduced in 1944, only the dollar stuck to the "gold standard". The other currencies involved in this system were meant eventually to return to the "gold standard", but in the meantime, they were to be traded on the basis of an exchange rate in dollars which was to be kept within a narrow 2% band. Thus, most of the world became a de facto "dollar zone".
This system allowed world trade to operate relatively predictably for a while. But not for long. Due to the escalating cost of colossal military expenditure, especially in Vietnam, in the late 1960s US inflation began to rise and speculators embarked on massive bets against the dollar. By 1970, the US gold reserves were so low that the convertibility of the dollar into gold had become a fiction. The following year, Nixon brought this fiction to an end by closing the dollar's so-called "gold window", thereby effectively killing Bretton Woods and its system of predictable exchange rates. One after another, all the main countries devalued their currencies, in a race to undercut the competitors of their respective capitalists - especially as this coincided with the first major postwar recession.
Meanwhile, the combination of US pressure and on-going unrest in the poor countries, had led both Britain and France to loosen their grip over their colonial empires and, eventually, to disband them. But, even after this, their currency areas remained. The "sterling area" was finally completely disbanded at the end of the 1970s. But the "franc zone" remained, mutating eventually into an appendage of the euro-zone, broken up into 4 zones which still includes 18 countries in Africa and in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Needless to say, although there are no formal trade barriers around these zones, French companies still have a dominant position there!
As to the US, despite its vocal remonstrations against the European power's "backyards", it had built up a "backyard" of its own - a new "dollar zone" which survived the collapse of Bretton Woods. In this zone, which initially included many semi-industrialised countries across the world, currencies were pegged against the dollar. But the populations of these countries were to pay a high price for this. In particular those in South-East Asia, where the local currencies' dollar peg was one of the main factors behind the speculative bubble which eventually led to the region's financial crisis, in 1997 - forcing countries to devalue their currencies by 50% or more, while dropping the dollar peg. Today, while the US dollar area still exists, it now includes just one Asian country - Hong-Kong, which although part of China, has its own currency - plus a host of mostly oil-producing Middle-Eastern countries, as well as Venezuela, Cuba and two East African countries where the US has military assets.
... and to the development of trading blocs
Before losing the economic weight provided by their colonial empires, the rich European powers had embarked on another attempt to protect their profits against their US rivals. This attempt was to lead to today's European Union.
The idea was to unify the European markets into one single entity free of internal tariffs and comparable in size to the US domestic market - thereby providing the largest European companies with the base of operation they needed to beat their US rivals in the international trade war. But, of course, this wasn't the way this project was sold to the public at the time. European reconciliation became the official watchword and, apart from the most bigoted nationalists, a lot of people went along with this.
In and of itself, the idea of reducing competition, was not new in Europe. The first "common market" in European history dated back to 1834, when the Prussian state had set up a "Zollverein", or Customs Union, with some of the former statelets of today's Germany. Later on, various bilateral treaties allowed entire industries to temporarily break out of the straitjacket of their national borders. For instance, an Anglo-French treaty signed in 1862 provided that Britain would withdraw all restrictions to the import of French wine and luxury goods, and reduce its tariffs on other goods, while, in return, France reduced its tariffs on British steel and manufactured goods. However it should be said that none of these deals survived economic or political shocks. At the first sign of crisis, barriers were raised again and new deals had to be negotiated.
Now, fast forward to the aftermath of WWII. Among the big players, France and Germany were the most vocal supporters of some kind of European economic unity. But then of course, their economies had been largely destroyed by the war and they had lost most of their pre-war share of the European market. To make up for this they both needed some form of agreed sharing-out of the European market. Britain, on the other hand, was the only European country whose industrial production and markets had actually increased during the war. As a result, although the British government didn't openly oppose European unity, it consistently vetoed all practical measures.
The process which was to lead to the launch of the European Union was to take another 43 years. The first stage in this process was the launch of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1950, whose initial aim was really to salvage French and German coal and steel by bringing them under a common organisation. But only Italy and the Benelux countries joined this initiative. Britain's response was that it was inconceivable that "vital economic forces should be handed over to an authority that is utterly undemocratic and responsible to nobody." Today, such a statement could be expected from Gove or Farage. But at the time, its author was none other than Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee! Despite Britain's boycott, however, the ECSC went ahead.
The second stage was the establishment of the European Economic Community or EEC - usually known as the Common Market - as part of the Treaty of Rome, in March 1957. It was still a shell without much content, involving more statement of intent than actual commitment. However, it created a permanent framework for discussions with some limited decision-making powers related to trade, which was a big step forward, compared with the past unending squabbles. Eventually this stage ended 11 years later, in 1968, when all EEC internal tariffs were abolished and a single external customs duty was enforced. The main beneficiaries were the biggest companies which had been large enough to expand their activities across the whole of the EEC. Just as the main beneficiaries of the complex system of agricultural subsidies and compensations known as the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), introduced the same year, were the biggest landowners and food companies.
Finally came the third and last stage. On 7th February 1992, the Maastricht treaty provided the legal framework for a "European Union", which formally came into being on 1st January 1993, and which was designed to allow the free circulation of people and goods within this "Union". In 1999, the passport-free Schengen zone, opening up (some of) the Union's borders, came into being, followed by a partial monetary union in the form of the euro-zone in 2002, thus completing the European Union's construction.
Predictably, in the meantime, other trading blocs had been mushrooming around the world. And the US had been busy building up its own. AFTA (ASEAN Free Trade Agreement) was set up in 1992, as a proxy for US capital's influence in South-East Asia, and subsequently enlarged to include all 10 ASEAN countries. As to NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement), it came into being in 1994 as a direct partnership between the US, Mexico and Canada. Trading zones also emerged in Africa. But these "economic communities" as they were called, were just proxies for British and French capital, designed to keep each other out of their respective backyards and retain their monopoly position against their US rivals.
Has the development of these trading blocs smoothed out the chaotic operation of the world market for the capitalists, as they were meant to do? Not at all, in fact. Of course, trade may be relatively more predictable within each trading bloc. Although that remains questionable, since even inside a trading bloc, capitalist production remains as blind as ever and therefore, prone to causing crises of overproduction. But in addition, the development of trading blocs has triggered yet another wave of concentration among multinationals. And this, in and of itself, has intensified the capitalist trade war, as well as increasing the scale on which it is taking place. Once again, the remedy invented by the capitalist system to try to resolve its own contradictions has only resulted in making them even worse.
A patchy Union
Going back to the EU, what has finally come out of the lengthy process of European-unity-building is a rather strange animal.
Admittedly, the number of EU member states has increased considerably from the founding 6. Britain finally joined the EU's forerunner, the European Economic Community, together with Ireland and Denmark, in 1973, followed by Portugal and Spain in 1986. And today's European Union has 28 member states - for the time being, in any case.
But the European Union doesn't really match what's written on the box, since it does not even include Europe's largest country, Russia, nor many of the Eastern European countries. Nor does it include Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, although they all have EU "associate" status.
What's more, despite apparently having a single set of coherent institutions, the EU is really a patchwork of more or less connected "pieces", sewn together with a diplomatic thread which can easily snap.
Obviously, the base "piece" of this patchwork is the single market itself, which includes all 28 members and has privileged relations with a number of other countries outside. But for this base "piece" to be really comparable to the US market - since this was the objective in setting up the EU in the first place - at least three other vital "pieces" were actually required. And while they are more or less part of the EU patchwork, they are still full of holes.
The first of these vital "pieces" was the passport-free Schengen zone. In the US, even at the height of the police hysteria generated by the "Patriot Act" after 9/11, no-one ever suggested imposing passport controls between the various American states, because this would have be enormously costly, both for the government and for US companies, although for different reasons. Not so in the EU, though. Britain and the Irish Republic have always refused to join the Schengen zone while 4 other EU countries have postponed joining it to some undefined later date. On the other hand, 4 Schengen zone members do not belong to the EU (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, and Switzerland). Of course, with 26 member countries, the Schengen zone is still a pretty amazing achievement. But the recent reactions of many of its members to the refugee crisis, temporarily restoring passport controls in order to keep the refugees out of their borders, exposes the hypocrisy, limits and fragility of the Schengen agreement. It would only take a few member countries yielding to the xenophobic demands of far-right thugs for the whole Schengen system to collapse.
The second vital "piece" required by a single, US-like market was that it should be oiled by one single currency - since this is one of the vital functions of money in the capitalist market. This was all the more vital for the European capitalist classes, as the most effective weapon of US capital on the world market is the domination of the dollar. So the aim was to create a new currency which, because it would be backed by an economy larger than the US, would be able to beat the US at their own monetary game - by taking over the dominant role of the dollar both as a trading currency and as a reserve currency. Quite logically, therefore, EU treaties provided that all members should eventually join the euro-zone, once their economy met certain criteria. But, as in the case of the Schengen zone, opting out was allowed - which Britain immediately did, followed later by Denmark. Apart from these 2 "euro-rebels", there is also Sweden which, quite openly, does nothing to even try to meet the euro-zone criteria and six other EU members which are "trying", more or less enthusiastically, to meet these criteria. In total, as a result, 19 EU members out of 28 are now using the euro. On the other hand, two countries which are not part of the EU - Kosovo and Montenegro - have unilaterally decided to adopt the euro without meeting the criteria, which means that they cannot issue euros themselves. But there again, the hypocrisy, limits and fragility of the euro-zone was recently exposed by the Greek crisis. It highlighted how the euro could be used as a weapon for the EU's richest capitalist classes to exercise their domination - and the dictatorship of their banks - over the Union's weaker members. As we saw at the time, and may see again, should the crisis get worse at some future point, the euro-zone may face internal storms, if not outright breakaways, which could, in turn, trigger frantic speculative attacks against the euro. Will the euro-zone withstand such attacks and its strongest members choose to defend it? No-one can be sure.
Finally, the third vital "piece" which was needed - and the most contentious - was some form of federal institution with enough authority to keep the whole construction together. By way of comparison, for what it's worth, let's remember what it took for the USA to develop such institutions despite having no internal borders. It took them over a century and a bloody civil war into the bargain. Of course, today's Europe is hardly comparable to the US in the 19th century, but this does give an idea of the difficulties involved in a capitalist society which is driven by private competition.
The problem is that, in today's Europe, each capitalist class wants to have its cake and eat it. It wants the advantages of the EU, but not the constraints and discipline that make these advantages possible. Hence their resistance to political integration, which, in addition, is compounded by the demagogic game of their politicians, who tend to blame everything and the kitchen sink on the sins of other EU members, in order to divert attention from their own responsibilities, or simply to gain votes by whipping up xenophobic prejudices. Haven't we seen that kind of game being played out here, again and again, by the two main parties, to the extent of propping up Ukip in the process?
A disunited Union
This combination of factors explains the extraordinary time it took for the EU to get off the ground, but also the constant centrifugal tensions within it, ever since. The endless opt-outs of so many EU regulations which are granted to member states reflect these tensions. But, beyond this, there is the very operation of EU institutions. Take the elected EU parliament, for instance. After all, it has as much legitimacy as any national parliament - and in fact even more, because unlike the British parliament, it is elected more or less everywhere on the basis of some kind of proportional representation. Nevertheless, decisions are usually taken by the EU parliament on the basis of a consensus, while controversial issues are left aside. And even then, ultimately, it is the Council of Ministers - which is formed by representatives appointed by the governments of all the member countries - which has the final say over any decision. Undemocratic, sure, but no more undemocratic than the decisions of the cabinet ministers appointed by the governing party in Britain, or any other EU country. In other words, the participants in the EU institutions, just like those in national governments, primarily defend their respective capitalists behind their declarations on the defence of the "national interest".
An example of these centrifugal tensions is provided by the so-called EU "red tape" that the eurosceptics complain so much about. Many EU directives have no other purpose than to try to create a European-wide legal framework which conflicts as little as possible with existing national regulations, but can nevertheless be used in all 28 member countries. Starting from scratch and drafting radically new regulations would be much easier and the result would be far less confusing. But none of the member states would have that, because they all have some hidden vested interest to protect. So, as a result, EU directives tend to look like a dog's dinner, with so many special cases, clauses and sub-clauses that they can only be compared to British parliamentary bills - which are notoriously bad in this respect.
But the complexity of EU directives is compounded by another factor, caused again by the centrifugal forces at play within the EU: not only do they have to take into account the current regulations in member states, but they also have to be amended in response to all the little tricks that member states get up to. This is the case, for instance, for the norms that imported products must comply with, in each EU state. They essentially use these as non-tariff barriers to protect their respective companies. In the formative years of the EU - the 35 years of the EEC, before the Maastricht Treaty - a huge amount of work was devoted to harmonising norms in every industry. The process was very slow because all decisions had to be taken unanimously between the partners of the time and, all in all, only 130 norms were standardised. But, over the same period, 8,500 new norms were introduced in Britain, 13,000 in France and 19,000 in Germany! And although this over-production of norms has slowed down, it is still a cause of constant revisions of EU directives. Here lies the real source of the "red tape". It should not be blamed on the "faceless men of Brussels" as the Eurosceptics call them, but actually on the on-going attempts by each government to find tricks to allow its companies to by-pass EU directives in order to undercut their rivals.
So, to conclude on the EU, Lenin's famous description of the League of Nations as "a thieves' kitchen", would be a perfect fit for the EU's leading body, its Council of Ministers - but with the addition that these thieves are constantly trying to rob each other. And one could say that what is somewhat remarkable about the EU is that despite these bitter rivalries which were always there, right from the beginning, it came into existence at all and managed to survive to date.
The unacceptable cost of national divisions and private profiteering
Just as the EU and other trading zones have totally failed to stop the chaos prevailing on the world market, they have also failed to deal with the waste generated by the survival of national borders and rivalries.
And this has been true even within the framework of the European unification process. Euratom, the joint European civilian nuclear research project which was launched in 1957 as part of the Rome treaty, was a case in point. At the time it was decided that France, which was the only European country which already had a nuclear capability, would host the project in its existing facilities and take responsibility, while the 5 other countries of the European community would contribute financially and provide their own teams of scientists. The idea, on paper in any case, was that all results would be shared between the 6 countries involved. Euratom did proceed as planned. However, under pressure from their respective big companies which saw nuclear research as a promising source, if not of energy, at least of profits, both Germany and Italy decided to go it alone and develop their own research facilities, keeping their results to themselves. How much time was wasted in that way is, of course, impossible to say. But the absurdity of these rivalries is just jaw-dropping.
In a world divided into national entities which have long become far too small for mankind's technological and scientific abilities, the waste of human and material resources can only be colossal - if only because the same efforts are duplicated across the world in more or less every sizeable so-called "independent" country, in order to resolve the same problems. Except that instead of using the results of the efforts made by others, each country insists on developing its own specific technology and its own specific standards - which might or might not be the best choice - usually in the name of preserving "national independence", but more often than not, in order to offer a source of profits to one or another of its companies.
Take health services, for instance. There is nothing more standard than the human body. Physiology, genetics, biology, etc. do not depend on language or religion. So why would it be impossible for the World Health Organisation, for instance, to use all the medical and technological expertise it can find across the planet, in order to design a system allowing every individual to carry a complete health record and every medical doctor to consult this record when the individual needs treatment, wherever this may be? In Britain, several attempts to develop such a system just within the country, ended up in abysmal failure, at an exorbitant cost for the NHS. Yet, such systems already exist in other countries. They may still be imperfect but they are nonetheless working - thereby showing that developing one is possible. However, each of these existing systems has been developed according to locally designed standards, using a locally developed technology and requiring specific equipment - usually as part of very profitable contracts granted to a number of private companies for which this represents a long-term boon, since they will be paid to maintain and improve the system for many years to come. If this example shows anything, it is that even in such a vital area as health, national borders are a major obstacle to the progress of society.
There are many other such examples. Take satellites. They can be used to carry out many vital tasks - whether in relation to weather and harvest forecasting, sea and seismic surveillance, fire protection, telecommunications, etc. More or less every country could use the services and information provided by satellites. However, the vast majority of the satellites which have been launched around the earth so far, had only a military purpose. Moreover, only a handful of countries like the US, Russia, France and China, have the technological capability of designing and building satellite launchers - while a handful of others are still at an experimental stage. But these countries keep their technology to themselves in the name of preserving their "national interests".
A few private companies, which usually built up their capability on state funding before being privatised, are now hiring satellite services for civilian purposes. Examples of such companies are the French Arianespace, which is the world's largest provider of satellite launchers, or the American IntelSat which has the world's largest fleet of telecommunication satellites, and whose services can also be hired for other tasks. But using the services of these companies is beyond the means of most poor and small countries, including those for which these services would be most vital - particularly those African countries which are most exposed to famine caused by poor harvests.
But beyond such examples, the division of the world into rival national entities which organise their economies as a function of their so-called "national interest" - that is, according to the interests of their respective capitalist classes - is the main obstacle which stands in the way of a rational organisation of society across the world. It makes it impossible to pool together existing material resources and use them as efficiently as possible, where and when they are needed. It prevents the rational use of skills where they could be vital. It excludes any form of international division of labour which, by specialising specific parts of the world in activities for which they are best suited, would avoid a lot of duplication and waste.
What's more, this division into national entities forces entire populations to survive with great difficulty in inhospitable regions where no-one should have to be living, when they could have a decent, enjoyable life in temperate regions where there is so much available space. But, as today's refugee crisis shows, as long as they survive, national borders can easily be raised against those seeking shelter.
Only the working class can unify the planet
Of course, there is a close link between the survival of national borders and the parasitism of capitalist profit in today's society. Whatever the proponents of capitalism may say about the EU or similar supra-national frameworks, when it comes to protecting or boosting their profits, they always turn to their national states for assistance, procurement and subsidies of all kinds. They're all in favour of abolishing borders, but only in so far as it allows them to flood the world with their speculative capital, impose their goods on people from other countries, or bring in cheap labour according to their needs.
If the history of the EU - and its rather chaotic operation - prove anything, it is that even when the capitalist classes try to overcome the contradictions of their system by repainting it with a slight coating of rationality, they just cannot prevent their rivalries from coming to the fore and compromising the whole operation. And there is good reason for this, which is that whatever the capitalists and their politicians may choose to do, it is never as a function of the interests of the majority, but always to boost private profits.
The world's national borders and national states have long passed their sell-by-date. They were drawn long ago either at gunpoint, as a result of the rivalries between the richest capitalist classes, or by colonial functionaries, whose only concern was to preserve the interests of the imperialist powers. These borders were artificial and took no account of the interest of the populations. There was - and there is - nothing rational about them and they would have disappeared long ago if it was not for the needs of this increasingly decrepit capitalist system.
Indeed, the national states remain a vital necessity for the capitalists to maintain their profits at the expense of the population and to enforce their exploitation on the working class. And in situations of crisis, they use their state as a weapon to take over markets - when they do not use it as a war machine against the working-class itself.
Unlike the capitalists, the working class has no need for national states and national borders. It never had any stake in retaining these remnants of the past. As opposed to the capitalist classes, whose existence is based on individual competition, using the protective shelter of national states, the working class is an international class, whose social interests are the same, everywhere across the world. What's more, the capitalist system itself has increased this international character by mixing together in its factories, mines and fields, workers hailing from every continent. And this should be seen as an opportunity by the entire working class - because it creates the possibility for the working classes of all continents to join ranks together in their common fight against the exploiters and their system.
If the working class needs anything, it is a world free of these outdated national borders which, even today, prevent the effective operation of the world economy and are used by the exploiters to keep entire populations in jail. This is what it has to fight for.
The international character of the working class is its main strength, together with the fact that it produces all the value in this society. Against this strength, if it was really used, there would be little that the capitalists classes would be able to do to protect their decaying, corrupt system.
We will conclude this forum by quoting Marx, one last time: "the working class has nothing to lose but its chains. It has a world to win."