A SPECTRE is haunting Europe: the spectre of nationalism.
Far-right political parties have been gaining traction since 2008’s financial crisis; a trend greatly accelerated by a recent influx of refugees, prompting many European governments to adopt strict border-control policies and distance themselves from their formerly cosmopolitan stances. ‘Euroscepticism’, as it is euphemistically known, has become so widespread in England that the British Prime Minister has scheduled a referendum, in order for the public to decide whether there will be a British exit—or, ‘Brexit’—from the European Union (EU).
This post adopts a Classical Marxist perspective, drawing solely upon analysis of the works of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. The reader should consider ‘Marx’ to be a synecdoche for ‘Marx and Engels’, employed in the interest of brevity to avoid repetition.
Following the Second World War, European states sought to consolidate their peace and prosperity. The 1948 Hague Congress saw the creation of the European Movement International and the College of Europe, the first steps towards European integration, intended to counter the extreme nationalism that had arisen throughout the continent during the interwar period. In 1950, the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community began the process of economic and political integration that would eventually become today’s EU. Now geared towards making European economies competitive in an era of globalisation, the EU has become a largely neoliberal institution.
When the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC) threatened to collapse the euro, harsh austerity measures were imposed on Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain at the behest of the German government and the European Central Bank. The defeat of the ‘Grexit’ proposed by Greece’s radical-left government, Syriza, confirmed the hold of austerity in Europe, dashing the hopes of social-democratic reformers. At the same time, while millions flee civil wars in the Middle East, European governments have sought to block the safe passage of refugees into Europe.
In the United Kingdom—or, more specifically, England—the rise of the UK Independence Party and the resurgence of widespread Euroscepticism has pressured the ruling Conservative Party into calling an ‘In/Out’ referendum on Britain’s EU membership, to be held on the 23rd of June this year.
Having rejected calls for a referendum in 2012, Prime Minister David Cameron remains opposed to a ‘Brexit’, advocating instead for reform of the Union. The Labour Party is also officially backing the ‘In’ campaign, although its leader Jeremy Corbyn has been a vocal critic of the EU’s lack of democracy. Opinion at both ends of the political spectrum is divided as to exactly what is in Britain’s best interest, and whether it would be most effectively achieved by reform or rupture.
In the event of a successful ‘Out’ vote, Cameron has stated his intention to immediately trigger the process to enact Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which allows members states to leave the Union ‘in accordance with its own constitutional requirements’.
Absent from, or at least minimised by, most contemporary accounts of the nationalism prevalent in European countries before the Second World War is any causal inference drawn from economic conditions. The dominant liberal narrative revises downward the significance of the Great Depression as a root cause of WWII, pointing instead at a lack of international institutions and peace-making free trade between states. By contrast, realists see economics as a variable, but consider nationalism a constant; a necessary precondition for power politics. For constructivists, nationalism is simply another learned idea, albeit one so popular that it gave rise to the modern state system. This may well be true, but it is of little help to us in understanding why a specific idea should so predictably regain primacy during times of economic downturn.
Marxism, while sharing a partial theoretical framework with constructivism, shuns the latter’s ‘ideas all the way down’ approach. Instead, it considers ideological positions such as nationalism a part of society’s superstructure—along with other non-material aspects such as law, religion, and the state—the shape of which is ultimately determined by the economic base: the means and relations of production.
‘The mode of production of material life’, according to Marx:
… conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
Marx saw ideology as a form of false consciousness that causes subjects to misidentify the true source of their unease; that is, their sense of alienation, that arises due to the capitalist mode of production. It is this false consciousness that misleads English workers into thinking their economic woes are the result of weak borders and insufficient democracy, rather than the inherently exploitative nature of capitalism.
‘The ideas of the ruling class’, according to Marx, ‘are in every epoch the ruling ideas’. The liberal ideology with which people are constantly bombarded describes a world of infinite abundance, in which everyone can be rich if only they work hard enough. When their upward mobility fails to materialise, they convince themselves it is because they are paying too much tax to support immigrant Others who seek only to destroy ‘our way of life’, rather than the downward pressure the capitalist class has been putting on their wages in order to stay competitive in a global marketplace.
Many of the strongest proponents of the ‘Out’ vote are the same people who were most enthusiastic about joining the EU in the first place; i.e., the English bourgeoisie. One possible explanation for this is that, having witnessed the job losses and fall in real wages of the proletariat over the past four decades, they have begun to sympathise, and now seek to correct their previous error. The Marxist explanation is that ideology has lead them to conclude that their deserved wealth is being stolen from them, not by employers or the rent-seeking financial institutions who have an obvious incentive to do so, but by hordes of ‘terrorist immigrants’ and ‘lazy Mediterraneans’ who refuse to work hard and pay their taxes.
Ultimately, though, Marxism holds that the outcome of the referendum is immaterial. Even if Britain is permitted to leave the EU, such an act would be largely symbolic. Greater economic and political integration will inevitably continue apace, because that is what capitalism demands as it marches inexorably towards monopoly.
Despite the impartial rationality often attributed to him by his adherents, Marx’s work was very clearly a moral project. Although the ‘mature Marx’ shied away from the predictions about the imminent collapse of capitalism he made in his youth, his work remained littered with ethically charged notions of ‘progress’ and ‘higher planes’ of human existence. His overtly scientific pretensions seem to have been a largely strategic device, intended to lend an air of empiricism to his arguments. But, that the legitimate concerns of a modern English website designer should be identical to those of a nineteenth-century anvil smith is essentially an unfalsifiable hypothesis.
Implicit in Marx’s notion of alienation is a coherent form of Aristotelian eudaimonism. It relies heavily on a specific conception of ‘human nature’ in order to establish what is truly best for people. Such optimistic biological determinism would appear to favour an ‘In’ vote on the basis of people’s natural urge to cooperate. However, similarly fallacious appeals to nature can be just as readily employed to assert the opposite.
Eurosceptics’ stated concerns about loss of cultural identity or state sovereignty, security, and the lack of democratic accountability in the EU, must necessarily be dismissed by Marxism as a case of false consciousness; a mere trick of perception that distracts them from the more legitimate concern of genuine emancipation. This denies outright the possibility of an agent who is fully aware of the inherently exploitative nature of capitalism, but who deems it unobjectionable. But, we can see that social Darwinists, Randian objectivists, Hobbesians, Malthusians and neoclassical economists really do exist, and many of them have given the matter serious consideration.
Given that the ‘reserve army of the proletariat’ has effectively been outsourced to the Global South, few English workers will ever actually bear witness to the most ferocious examples of capitalist exploitation. If the people are being blinded to exploitation, it is not simply by ideology, but by the globalised mode of capitalist production itself. At the same time, they do not own the means of production, so they cannot be considered members of the bourgeoisie. They are the proletariat, but they are materially benefitting from another, even more exploited proletariat offshore. Further, many modern knowledge workers may not feel alienated from the products of their labour. In this, we can see that Marx’s bourgeois–proletarian binary fails to account for much of the middle class. Ideology undoubtedly plays a significant role in inflating the threat of terrorism and downplaying the long-term economic benefits of mass immigration in their minds; but, given their relative comfort, preferencing short-term security concerns—however statistically unlikely—could be said to be rational.
The predictive limitations of Marx’s dialectical equation were demonstrated by his failure to anticipate either the mixed economies of post-war Europe or the impact of labour unions. For him, the conflict between thesis—the unbridled capitalism of the nineteenth century—and its antithesis—the ‘spectre of communism’—would inevitably lead to a new synthesis in the form of socialist revolution. In fact, the resultant synthesis would usher in what is commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Capitalism. Keynesian macroeconomic prescriptions, which combined free trade and government austerity in prosperous times with a quasi-socialist welfare safety net and stimulus spending during economic downturn, effectively saved capitalism from itself. The subsequent return to deregulation during the 1980s that ultimately lead to the GFC arguably puts paid to Marx’s view of history as a linear progression. So, too, would a Brexit.
Even if Marx’s vision for the eventual withering of the state comes to pass, today it appears far more likely that such an occurrence would see control seized, not by the people, but by large corporations who could potentially employ private militaries to impose their will on the public. Therefore, while a vote to regain national sovereignty may not be a permanent solution, it could be an effective stop-gap measure for delaying such an eventuality.
Classical Marxism offers a plausible, if imperfect, explanation of how nationalism is an ideological position causally related to economic crises, while simultaneously functioning to obscure that relationship.
We can see how the Great Depression saw a rise in nationalist sentiment, leading to the Second World War; how post-war economic growth then saw nationalism steadily recede from popular discourse, allowing for the creation, expansion, and ever-greater integration of the European Union; and how this trend continued until the financial crisis of 2008, which once again catapulted nationalism to the fore.
However, Marx’s account relies on unfalsifiable ethical assumptions to diminish non-economic concerns, and finer granularity is required to account for the middle class than is allowed for by a bourgeois–proletarian binary.
 Engelbert Stockhammer, ‘The Euro Crisis and Contradictions of Neoliberalism in Europe’ (Working Paper 1401, Post Keynesian Economics Study Group, 7 Jan 2014), https://www.postkeynesian.net/downloads/wpaper/PKWP1401.pdf
 Polling suggests that public opinion in Scotland, Wales and Ireland is overwhelmingly pro-EU. ‘“Remain” in EU Still Ahead Although Lead Has Narrowed’, Ipsos MORI Political Monitor, Jan 2016, https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3692/Remain-in-EU-still-ahead-although-lead-has-narrowed.aspx
 Tom McTague, ‘Jeremy Corbyn Vows to Form Left-wing Alliance in Europe to Roll Back David Cameron’s EU Renegotiations’, The Independent, 28 Feb 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/jeremy-corbyn-vows-to-form-left-wing-alliance-in-europe-to-roll-back-david-camerons-eu-a6900536.html
 Treaty of Lisbon, Article 50, 13 Dec 2007, http://www.lisbon-treaty.org/wcm/the-lisbon-treaty/treaty-on-European-union-and-comments/title-6-final-provisions/137-article-50.html
 John J. Mearsheimer, ‘Kissing Cousins: Nationalism and Realism’ (Yale Workshop on International Relations, 2011), http://irworkshop.sites.yale.edu/sites/default/files/Mearsheimer_IRW.PDF
 Alexander Wendt, Social Theory of International Politics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 92.
 Karl Marx, ‘A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy’, in MECW, Volume 29: Marx 1857–61, 263.
 Friedrich Engels, ‘Letter to Franz Mehring, 14 July 1893’, in Marx & Engels—Collected Works (MECW), Volume 50: Letters 1892–95 (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 2010), 164. PDF e-book.
 Because moralistic radicals had begun to appropriate ‘Entäusserung’ (alienation), Marx ceased using the term in his published work after 1845, but continued to use it in his unpublished work. George G. Brenkert, Marx’s Ethics of Freedom (London: Routledge, 2013), 14.
 Marx and Engels, ‘The German Ideology: Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to Its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Stirner, and of German Socialism According to Its Various Prophets’, in MECW, Volume 5: Marx and Engels 1845–47, 59.
 Daniel Hannan, ‘What Brexit Would Look Like for Britain’, The Spectator, 23 Jan 2016, http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/01/what-brexit-would-look-like-for-britain/
 Robert Tombs, ‘Make England Great Again’, Foreign Policy, 22 Feb 2016, https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/02/22/make-england-great-again-brexit-eu-david-cameron
 See, e.g., Tim Ross, ‘Liam Fox: Terrorists Could Enter Britain Among Refugees’, The Telegraph, 30 Jan 2016, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/eureferendum/12131945/Liam-Fox-Terrorists-could-enter-Britain-among-refugees.html
 Jörg Bibow, ‘Euro Union: Quo Vadis?’, Social Europe, 2 July 2015, https://www.socialeurope.eu/2015/07/euro-union-quo-vadis/
 Louis Althusser argues for a distinction between ‘Young Marx’ and ‘mature Marx’ in For Marx (London: Verso, 2005), 49–86.
 Most notably, the piece of propaganda literature commissioned by the German Communist League in 1848. Marx & Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, in MECW, Volume 6: Marx and Engels 1845–47, 477–519.
 Brenkert, Marx’s Ethics, 4.
 Alan Gilbert, ‘Marx’s Moral Realism’, in After Marx, ed. Terence Ball & James Farr (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 155.
 See, e.g., Ludwig von Mises, Human Action: A Treatise on Economics (New York: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1949), http://www.econlib.org/library/Mises/HmA/msHmA1.html
 Engels, ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’, in MECW, Volume 4: Marx and Engels 1844–45, 384.
 Marx & Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’, 481.
 Damien Cahill, The End of Laissez-Faire? On the Durability of Embedded Neoliberalism (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2014), 11–12.