Richard Seymour has a great piece reflecting on the UK’s looming Brexit catastrophe. He shows how the left must counter rightist demands for sovereignty with demands for democracy. What’s fascinating is that we see this rhetorical shift in both the United States and Europe, but not in the UK. Ultimately, this is a problem for an emerging left internationalist consensus.
The most prominent US advocate for left internationalism, or international cooperation based on solidarity among peoples, is Bernie Sanders. In his recent speeches, Sanders has called for a new partnership with nations around the world, including US adversaries, and a foreign policy willing to let go of US hegemony and military primacy (sounds like great power concert to me). More recently, he has called for a global democratic movement to challenge authoritarianism. His emerging narrative suggests that greater international cooperation is needed to reverse inequality and combat the power of oligarchs and far-right nationalists.
Yanis Varoufakis largely agrees. By launching his DiEM25 movement, he calls for the democratization of European Union institutions, making them more responsive to a European public through greater integration at the federal level. The economic aspects of the DiEM25 platform are most interesting. It calls for a “European New Deal” and macroeconomic management by European institutions, a kind of federal version of Keynesianism consistent with left internationalism.
The internationalism of Sanders and Corbyn largely converges around the rhetoric of democracy, which Seymour himself is championing. However, I couldn’t help but think that Seymour’s piece is one big sub-tweet of Jeremy Corbyn, who has never truly opposed Brexit and has yet unequivocally adopt the new “international democracy” narrative. Rising pressure in the Labour Party appears to be making Corbyn’s position more difficult to maintain, but it’s hard to know if he actually will shift his position on Brexit (it may already be too late). Overall, Corbyn has retained what Dan Nexon has called a “paleo-left” posture toward international institutions like the EU. These are assumed to be entirely neoliberal constructs beyond any reforms by leftists. Rather than restructuring these institutions to regulate regional economies or the entire world economy, they prefer to tear these institutions down and withdraw from them. This posture has echoes of Hardt and Negri’s understanding of a postmodern Empire, in which the only way to be free from neoliberal domination was simply to withdraw into some kind of autonomous, self-contained society.
It’s this version of leftism that plays on the same rhetorical terrain as the authoritarian far-right. By refusing to reject Brexit, Corbyn allows the “sovereigntist” rhetoric of UK conservatives go unchallenged. He leaves Sanders and Varoufakis without an international ally in the UK whom can be a partner in championing left internationalism and the social democratic reform of international economic institutions. This means that so long as Corbyn maintains his anti-internationalist position, and prevents a resurgent Labour Party from developing its own left internationalist position, then he is something of a liability for the broader Sanders-Varoufakis project.
However, these tensions will never be publicly acknowledged by any of these actors. Given the threats from the authoritarian right in the US, the UK, and Europe, open criticism by Sanders or Varoufakis against Corbyn could be fatal to the broader goal of reviving the left. Nonetheless, Corbyn will remain a drag because of his refusal to think about reforming the EU based on democratic and leftist principles. In the mean time, the UK might crash out of Europe and contribute to a broader global economic decline, if not an outright crisis.