Market utopianism supposes a price-setting market in human beings without a society. Photo: Getty
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Greece and the birth of fiscal colonialism

Greece is caught in a vicious debt cycle that leads to a perpetual need for stimulus.

It is often noted that Athens is the birthplace of democracy. The city is less often credited as the cradle of the market economy. Maritime trade linked the port towns of the ancient Mediterranean, between which cargo was transported according to an insurance system beyond political control. Over time, Athens became dependent on imported food for survival. Regulations were brought in to stem rising inequality, including restrictions on usury, fixed prices for bread and constraints on property sales. And yet inequality increased.

As the volume of maritime trade grew, so did the wealth of its merchants. The link between the maritime economy and territorial democracy was debt. Free citizens lost their oikos, or family home, and became indentured slaves. Power, land and wealth was concentrated among a group that the Greeks called oligarchs. To this day, there is a constitutional guarantee that the Greek state will not tax shipowners on their earnings.

The origins of globalisation – the face-off between territorial democracy and international capital – are to be found in Athens. This power struggle intensified under the Roman empire. The sea lanes were every bit as important in the formation of the imperial system as the Roman roads.

Yet, as the nation state ultimately replaced the city state, free-flowing capital remained difficult to domesticate. This underpins the left’s enthusiasm for the European project, which developed in the 1980s as a transnational means to constrain promiscuous capital. It has not worked out that way.

There is something degenerate about the politics of Greek debt. It is as though nothing has been learned in 2,000 years – as if the left had forgotten the powers of capital and imperialism and the right cannot make a distinction between the financial economy and productivity.

We are being asked to choose between two failed dogmas: debt-based socialism and market utopianism, neither of which is capable of generating value, neither of which resists the reduction of human beings to commodity status by developing labour value and the virtues of loyalty and trust essential to any relationship.

The narrative that suggests that fiscal discipline was the cause of German economic success after the Second World War, without reference to workers on boards, a vocational labour market, self-governing cities and regional banks, is a distortion. Germany has not established its system of democratic vocational and corporate governance practices. In Gramscian terms, it is dominant without being hegemonic.

Unsustainable contradictions are now in play. Without a recognition of what was wrong with the formation of the euro and the overall direction of the EU, there will be no resolution to the conflict between debt and democracy. Political violence and mass unemployment are now possibilities in Europe. Fascism is the logical next step.

Market utopianism supposes a price-setting market in human beings without a society. Welfare statism, which is what left politics has become, has no place for society or capital. Both are bankrupt. Permanent Keynesianism and limitless debt spending are a nasty place for a political economy to be, in permanent bad faith and servitude. There is a double tragedy here. Since joining the EU, Greece has become an entirely monetised economy and so the value of its currency is of fundamental importance. In other words, it has become dependent on subsidies and imports. Outside the EU and the euro, it would have a standard of living closer to that of Bulgaria than of Belgium.

Syriza has pursued an entirely incoherent strategy of simultaneous resistance and surrender. Greece is caught in a vicious debt cycle that leads to a perpetual need for stimulus. The result is what we now have: fiscal colonialism without political reciprocity. The wiser strategy would have been to surrender a semblance of national democracy in favour of the German social market system. The German system is pro-worker; its foreign policy is not. This is what the UK Labour Party should be challenging.

After the Second World War, the British occupying power in North Rhine-Westphalia, under the supervision of Ernest Bevin, the Labour foreign minister, was a crucial force in brokering free and democratic trade unions, worker representation on boards and a vocational economy that defined the social market economy. It promoted labour value rather than debt in its political economy and a social democracy rather than an administrative state in its politics. Where is that British Labour Party now?

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell don’t need to stand again as MPs – they’ve already won

I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. 

We’re a week in to the campaign, and it’s clear that the 2017 election is going to be hell on toast. The polls show the Tories beating Labour in Scotland (for the first time in a generation) and Wales (for the first time in a century). The bookies put the chances of a Labour majority at around 20/1, odds that are striking mainly because they contain just one zero.

The only element of suspense in this election is whether Theresa May will win a big enough majority to keep Labour out of power for a decade, or one big enough to keep it out for an entire generation. In sum: if you’re on the left, this election will be awful.

But there was one bright spot, a deep well of Schadenfreude that I thought might get us through: the campaign would provide plentiful opportunities to watch the people who got us into this mess be humiliatingly rejected by the electorate yet again.

After all, Ukip’s polling numbers have halved since last summer and the party has fallen back into fourth place, behind the pro-European Lib Dems. Nigel Farage has failed to become an MP seven times. It thus seemed inevitable both that Farage would stand, and that he would lose. Again.

If the vexingly popular Farage has never made it to parliament, the odds that his replacement as Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall (the Walter Mitty of Bootle), would manage it seemed minimal. Ukip may have won last year’s referendum; that did not mean its leaders wouldn’t still lose elections, preferably in the most embarrassing way possible.

The true highlight of the election, though, promised to be Clacton. The Essex seaside town is the only constituency ever to have returned a Ukip candidate at a general election, opting to let the Tory defector Douglas Carswell stay on in 2015. But Carswell’s libertarian belief that Brexit was definitely not about immigration always seemed an odd fit with Ukip, and he left the party in March. In the upcoming election, he seemed certain to face a challenge from the party’s immigration-obsessed donor Arron Banks.

The Clacton election, in other words, was expected to serve as a pleasing metaphor for Ukip’s descent back into irrelevance. The libertarians and nativists would rip chunks out of each other for a few weeks while the rest of us sniggered, before both inevitably lost the seat to a safe pair of Tory hands. This election will be awful, but Clacton was going to be brilliant.

But no: 2017 deprives us of even that pleasure. Carswell has neatly sidestepped the possibility of highlighting his complete lack of personal support by standing down, with the result that he can tell himself he is quitting undefeated.

Carswell has always stood apart from Ukip but on this matter, at least, the party has rushed to follow his lead. Arron Banks spent a few days claiming that he would be running in Clacton. Then he visited the town and promptly changed his mind. At a press conference on 24 April, Paul Nuttall was asked whether he planned to stand for a seat in Westminster. Rather than answering, he locked himself in a room, presumably in the hope that the journalists outside would go away. Really.

As for Farage, he seems finally to have shaken his addiction to losing elections and decided not to stand at all. “It would be a very easy win,” he wrote in the Daily Tele­graph, “and for me a personal vindication to get into the House of Commons after all these years of standing in elections.” He was like an American teenager assuring his mates that his definitely real Canadian girlfriend goes to another school.

Why does all of this bother me? I don’t want these people anywhere near Westminster, and if they insisted on standing for a seat there would be at least the chance that, in these febrile times, one of them might actually win. So why am I annoyed that they aren’t even bothering?

Partly I’m infuriated by the cowardice on show. They have wrecked my country, completely and irrevocably, and then they’ve just legged it. It’s like a version of Knock Down Ginger, except instead of ringing the doorbell they’ve set fire to the house.

Partly, too, my frustration comes from my suspicion that it doesn’t matter whether Ukip fields a single candidate in this election. Theresa May’s Tories have already assimilated the key tenets of Farageism. That Nigel Farage no longer feels the need to claw his way into parliament merely highlights that he no longer needs to.

Then there’s the fury generated by my lingering sense that these men have managed to accrue a great deal of power without the slightest hint of accountability. In the south London seat of Vauxhall, one of the most pro-Remain constituencies in one of the most pro-Remain cities in the UK, the Labour Leave campaigner Kate Hoey is expected to face a strong challenge from the Liberal Democrats. Even Labour members are talking about voting tactically to get their hated MP out.

It remains to be seen whether that campaign succeeds but there is at least an opportunity for angry, pro-European lefties to register their discontent with Hoey. By contrast, Farage and his henchmen have managed to rewrite British politics to a degree that no one has achieved in decades, yet there is no way for those who don’t approve to make clear that they don’t like it.

Mostly, though, my frustration is simpler than that. I just loathe these people. I want to see them humiliated. I want to see them stumble from gaffe to gaffe for six weeks before coming fourth – but now we will be deprived of that. Faced with losing, the biggest names in Ukip have decided that they no longer want to play. And so they get to win again. They always bloody win. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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