Brexit and the EU Implosion: National Sovereignty — For What Purpose?

The defense of national sovereignty, like its critique, leads to serious misunderstandings once one detaches it from the social class content of the strategy in which it is embedded.  The leading social bloc in capitalist societies always conceives sovereignty as a necessary instrument for the promotion of its own interests based on both capitalist exploitation of labor and the consolidation of its international positions.

Today, in the globalized neoliberal system (which I prefer to call ordo-liberal, borrowing this excellent term from Bruno Odent) dominated by financialized monopolies of the imperialist triad (the United States, Europe, Japan), the political authorities in charge of the management of the system for the exclusive benefit of the monopolies in question conceive national sovereignty as an instrument enabling them to improve their “competitive” positions in the global system.  The economic and social means of the state (submission of labor to employer demands, organization of unemployment and job insecurity, segmentation of the labor market) and policy interventions (including military interventions) are associated and combined in the pursuit of one sole objective: maximizing the volume of rent captured by their “national” monopolies.

The ordo-liberal ideological discourse claims to establish an order based solely on the generalized market, where mechanisms are supposed to be self-regulatory and productive of the social optimum (which is obviously false), provided that competition is free and transparent (what it never is and cannot be in the era of monopolies), as it claims that the state has no role to play beyond guaranteeing that the competition in question functions (which is contrary to facts: it requires the state’s active intervention in its favor; ordo-liberalism is a state policy).  This narrative — expression of the ideology of the “liberal virus” — prevents all understanding of the actual functioning of the system as well as the functions that the state and national sovereignty fulfill in it.  The United States sets an example of decided and continuous practical implementation of sovereignty understood in this “bourgeois” meaning, that is to say today in the service of the capital of financialized monopolies.  The “national” right allows the United States to enjoy its affirmed and reconfirmed supremacy over “international law.”  It was the same in the imperialist countries of Europe of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Did things change with the construction of the European Union?  European discourse claims and legitimates submission of national sovereignty to “European law,” expressed through the decisions of Brussels and the European Central Bank, under the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties.  The freedom of choice of voters is itself limited by the clear supranational requirements of ordo-liberalism.  As Mrs. Merkel said: “This choice must be compatible with market requirements”; beyond them it loses its legitimacy.  However, in counterpoint to this discourse, Germany in practice affirms, in policies that are implemented, the exercise of its national sovereignty and seeks to submit its European partners to respecting its demands.  Germany has used European ordo-liberalism to establish its hegemony, particularly in the eurozone.  Great Britain — by its Brexit choice — has in turn affirmed its decision to pursue the advantages of exercising its national sovereignty.

We can comprehend then that “nationalist discourse” and its endless eulogy of the virtues of national sovereignty, understood in this way (bourgeois-capitalist sovereignty) without mentioning the class content of the interests that it serves, has always been subject to reservations, to put it mildly, from currents of the left in the broad sense, that is to say, all those who have the desire to defend the interests of the working classes.  However, let us be wary of reducing the defense of national sovereignty to the terms of “bourgeois nationalism” alone.  This defense is as necessary to serve other social interests as those of the ruling capitalist bloc.  It will be closely associated with the deployment of capitalist exit strategies and commitment to the long road to socialism.  It is a prerequisite of possible progress in this direction.  The reason is that the effective reconsideration of global (and European) ordo-liberalism will never be anything but the product of uneven advances from one country to another, from one moment to another.  The global system (and the European subsystem) has never been transformed “from above,” by means of collective decisions of the “international (or “European”) community.”  The developments of these systems have never been other than the product of changes imposed within the states that compose them and what results from those changes concerning the evolution of power relations between them.  The framework defined by the (“nation”) state remains the one in which decisive struggles that transform the world unfold.

The peoples of the peripheries of the global system, polarized by nature, have a long experience of this positive nationalism, that is to say anti-imperialist (expressing the refusal of the imposed world order) and potentially anti-capitalist.  I say only potentially because this nationalism may also be carrying the illusion of building a national capitalism managing to “catch up” with the national constructions of the dominant centers.  The nationalism of the peoples of the peripheries is progressive only on this condition: that it be anti-imperialist, breaking with global ordo-liberalism.  In counterpoint, a “nationalism” (while only apparent) that fits in with globalised ordo-liberalism, and therefore does not question the subordinate positions of the concerned nation in the system, becomes the instrument of the local dominant classes keen to participate in the exploitation of their people and possibly of weaker peripheral partners towards which it acts as a “sub-imperialism.”

Today, advances — audacious or limited — allowing us to exit ordo-liberalism are necessary and possible in all parts of the world, North and South.  The crisis of capitalism created a breeding ground for the maturation of revolutionary conjunctures.  I express this objective, necessary, and possible imperative in a short sentence: “Exit the crisis of capitalism or exit capitalism in crisis?” (the title of one of my recent books).  Exiting the crisis is not our problem, it is that of the capitalist rulers.  Whether they succeed (and in my opinion they are not engaged in the paths that would enable it) or not is not our problem.  What have we to gain by partnering with our adversaries to revive broken-down ordo-liberalism?  This crisis created opportunities for consistent advances, more or less bold, provided that the fighting movements adopt the strategies that aim at them.  The affirmation of national sovereignty then becomes obligatory to enable those advances that are necessarily uneven from one country to another but are always in conflict with the logic of ordo-liberalism.  The sovereign national project that is popular, social, and democratic proposed in this paper is designed with this in mind.  The concept of sovereignty implemented here is not that of bourgeois-capitalist sovereignty; it differs from it and for this reason must be qualified as popular sovereignty.

The conflation of these two contradictory concepts, and from there the rapid rejection of any “nationalism” without more precision, destroys any possibility of exiting ordo-liberalism.  Unfortunately in Europe — and beyond — the contemporary left engaged in struggles often practices this conflation.

Defending national sovereignty does not mean simply to want “another, multipolar globalization” (in counterpoint to the current model of globalization), based on the idea that the international order must be negotiated among sovereign national partners, equal in rights, and not unilaterally imposed by the powerful — the imperialist triad, the United States at the head — as it is in ordo-liberalism.  Still we have to answer the question: a multipolar world to do what?  Because it can be designed as still governed by the competition between systems accepting ordo-liberalism at home; or, in counterpoint, as an open framework giving margins of maneuver to peoples who want to exit this ordo-liberalism.  We must therefore specify the nature of the objective pursued under the proposed multi-polar system.  As always in history a national project can be hybrid, crossed with contradictions between trends engaged therein, some in favor of capitalist nation building and others who give themselves other goals, going further by their progressive social content.  China’s sovereign project provides a good example; semi-sovereign projects in India and Brazil (before the rightist coup) provide others.

The Stalled European Union

Although the collapse of the European project (and in particular the subsystem of the euro) has already been underway for years (Ref. Samir Amin, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism), Brexit obviously constitutes a major expression of it.

The European project was conceived from the outset in 1957 as an instrument implemented by the capitalist monopolies of the partners — France and Germany in particular — supported by the United States, to defuse the risk of radical or moderate socialist deviations.  The Rome treaty, by setting in stone the sanctity of private property, outlawed any aspiration to socialism, as Giscard d’Estaing said at the time.  Subsequently and gradually this character was reinforced by the construction of Europe, a reinforced concrete one since the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties.  The argument orchestrated by propaganda for the acceptance of the project was that it finally abolished the national sovereignties of the states of the Union, those sovereignties (in their bourgeois-imperialist form) that had been at the origin of the unprecedented massacres of the two great wars of the twentieth century.  Therefore this project has received a favorable response from the younger generations, by dangling the promise of a democratic and pacifist European sovereignty taking the place of the war-mongering national sovereignties of the past.  In fact the sovereignties of states were never abolished, but mobilized to make people accept ordo-liberalism, turned into the necessary framework to guarantee for the now financialized monopolies the monopoly of the economic, social, and political management of European societies; and that whatever the possible developments of opinions.  The European project is based on an absolute denial of democracy (understood as the exercise of choice between alternative social projects) that goes well beyond the “democratic deficit” invoked against the Brussels bureaucracy.  The evidence of it has been repeatedly given, and it has de facto annihilated the credibility of elections whose results are legitimate only insofar as they comply with the imperatives of ordo-liberalism.

Germany has been able, in the context of this European construction, to assert its hegemony.  Thus German (bourgeois/capitalist) sovereignty was erected as a substitute for a nonexistent European sovereignty.  The European partners are invited to align themselves with the demands of this sovereignty superior to that of others.  Europe has become a German Europe, particularly in the eurozone where Berlin manages the finances with preferential benefit to the German Konzerns.  Important politicians like Finance Minister Schäuble indulge in a permanent blackmail and threaten the European partners with a “German exit” (Gexit) in case they call Berlin’s hegemony into question.

One must not hesitate to draw the conclusion from the obvious facts: the German model poisons Europe, Germany included.  Ordo-liberalism is the source of the persistent stagnation of the continent, coupled with ongoing austerity policies.  So ordo-liberalism is an irrational system seen from the perspective of protecting the interests of popular majorities in all EU countries, including Germany, as well as from the perspective of long-term defense of ecological conditions of reproduction of economic and social life.  Furthermore ordo-liberalism leads to endless aggravation of inequality between partners; it is the origin of the trade surpluses of Germany and symmetrical deficits of others.  But ordo-liberalism is a perfectly rational option from the viewpoint of financial monopolies, for which it ensures the continued growth of their monopoly rents.  This system is not viable.  Not because it faces the growing resistance of its victims (ineffective to date), but because of its own internal contradiction: the growth of the monopolies’ rent imposes stagnation and the ceaselessly aggravated deterioration of fragile partners (Greece and others).

The captain at the helm is leading the European ship straight towards visible reefs.  Passengers implore him to change course — to no avail.  The captain, protected by a praetorian guard (Brussels, ECB), remains invulnerable.  All that remains for them to do is to launch lifeboats to the sea.  It is certainly dangerous, but a lesser danger than the certain shipwreck in sight.  The image will help us understand the nature of the two options between which the critics of the European system in place are hesitant to choose.  Some argue that we must stay on board, making the European construction evolve in new directions, respecting the interests of popular majorities.  They persist despite the repeated defeats of the struggles channeled into this strategy.  Others call for leaving the ship, as evidenced by the choice of the English.  Leaving Europe — but for what?  Disinformation campaigns orchestrated by the media pundits in the service of ordo-liberalism contribute to the confusion of the issue.  All possible forms of use of national sovereignty are amalgamated, all presented as demagogic, “populist,” unrealistic, chauvinistic, out-of-date, nauseating.  The public is pummeled by the discourse on security and immigration, while the responsibilities of ordo-liberalism for worsening conditions of workers are left out of focus.  Unfortunately whole segments of the left enter this manipulated game.

For my part, I say that there is nothing to expect from the European project, which cannot be transformed from within; we must deconstruct it to possibly rebuild it later on different foundations.  Because they refuse to reach this conclusion, many of the movements in conflict with ordo-liberalism remain hesitant regarding the strategic objectives of their struggles: to leave Europe or remain in it (or in the euro)?  In these circumstances the arguments raised by both sides are diverse in the extreme, often on trivial issues, sometimes about false issues orchestrated by the media (security, immigrants), resulting in nauseous choices, rarely about the real challenges.  An exit from NATO for example is rarely invoked.  Still the fact remains that the rising tide expressed in the rejection of Europe (like Brexit) reflects the destruction of illusions about the possibility of reform.

Nevertheless, the confusion frightens people.  Great Britain certainly did not intend to exercise its sovereignty to embark on a path that deviates from ordo-liberalism.  Rather, London wants to further open itself to the US (Great Britain does not retain the reluctance of some Europeans towards the transatlantic free trade agreement), the Commonwealth countries, and the emerging countries of the South, replacing the European priority.  Nothing else — and certainly not a better social program.  In addition, for the British, German hegemony is less acceptable than it appears to be for others, in France and Italy.

The European fascists proclaim their hostility to Europe and the euro.  But we must know that their concept of sovereignty is that of the capitalist bourgeoisie; their project is the search for national competitiveness in the ordo-liberal system, accompanied by foul campaigns against immigrants.  The fascists are never the defenders of democracy, not even an electoral democracy (except by opportunism), let alone a more advanced democracy.  Faced with the challenge, the ruling class will not hesitate: it prefers the fascist exit from the crisis.  It demonstrated this in Ukraine.  The scarecrow of fascists’ rejection of Europe paralyzes the struggles waged against ordo-liberalism.  The frequently invoked argument is: How can we make a common cause against Europe with the fascists?  These confusions make us forget that the success of the fascists is precisely the product of the timidity of the radical left.  If the latter had boldly defended a project of sovereignty, specifically its popular and democratic content, accompanied by the denunciation of the fascists’ bogus and demagogic project of sovereignty, it would have earned the votes that today go to the fascists.  The defense of the illusion of a possible reform of Europe does not prevent its implosion.  The European project unravels to the benefit of a reemergence of what sadly seems to resemble the Europe of the 1930s and 1940s: a German Europe — Britain and Russia outside of it, France hesitating between Vichy (in place today) and de Gaulle (still invisible), Spain and Italy sailing in the wake of London or Berlin, etc.

National Sovereignty Serving the Peoples

National sovereignty is the indispensable instrument of social advances and progress of democratization, in the North as in the South of the planet.  These advances are controlled by a logic that lies beyond capitalism, from a perspective favorable to the emergence of a polycentric world and consolidation of internationalism of peoples.

In the Southern countries the sovereign national project must “walk on two legs”:

(i) Engage itself in the construction of a self-centered and integrated industrial system in which the different branches of production become suppliers and outlets of each other.  Ordo-liberalism does not allow this construction.  It indeed conceives “competitiveness” as that of each industrial establishment considered alone.  The implementation of this principle then gives priority to exports and reduces the industries of the Southern countries to the status of subcontractors dominated by monopolies of the imperialist centers, which appropriate by this means a large part of the value created there and transform it into imperialist monopoly rent.  In counterpoint the construction of an industrial system demands state planning and the national control of the currency, the tax system, and foreign trade.

(ii) Engage in an original way in renovation of peasant agriculture, based on the principle that agricultural land is a common good of the nation, managed in a way that secures access to land and the means of exploiting it to all peasant families.  Projects must be designed on this basis for the growth of output per family/hectare, and priority industries put in place to allow this.  The objective of this strategy is to ensure the nation’s food sovereignty and control migratory flows from the countryside to the cities, to adjust the pace to the growth of urban employment.

The articulation of advances on each of these two fields is the main focus of state policies that guarantee the consolidation of broad popular alliances of “workers and peasants.”  This creates a favorable terrain for the advances of participatory democracy.

In the Northern countries popular sovereignty must also break with ordo-liberalism, implying here bold policies up to the nationalization of monopolies and the initiation of means of socialization of their management.  This obviously implies the national control of the management of the currency, credit, taxation, and foreign trade.

The imperialist system in place implements a differentiated range of means by which it exercises dominion over the nations of the peripheries of the global system and their exploitation.  In the advanced, industrializing countries of the South, segments of the outsourced global system, controlled by the capital of financialized monopolies of the imperialist triad (the United States, Western and Central Europe, Japan) and reduced to the status of subcontractors, offer major means by which a growing mass of the value generated in the dependent local economies is converted into imperialist monopoly rent.  In many developing countries, the modes of exploitation also take the form of brutal plunder of natural resources (oil, minerals, agricultural land, water, and sunlight) on the one hand and the implementation of financial plunders which seize the national savings of the countries in question on the other hand.  The coercion of ensuring that external debt service is prioritized is the means by which these plunders operate.  The structural deficit of public finances in these countries creates an opportunity for imperialist monopolies to profitably invest their growing financial surpluses generated by the crisis of the globalised and financialized imperialist system, forcing developing countries into debt under unconscionable conditions.  Financial plunder also has its destructive effects in the imperialist centers.  The continued growth of the volume of public debt relative to GDP is actively sought and supported by national and international financial capital, whose profitable investment of surpluses is made possible by it.  The public debt owed to the private financial market provides an opportunity to impose a drain on the incomes of workers, allowing the growth of the monopolies’ rent.  That fuels the continued growth of inequality in the distribution of income and wealth.  The official discourse that claims to implement policies to reduce the debt is completely false: their goal is actually to increase rather than reduce the debt.

Neoliberal globalization continues a massive attack against peasant agriculture in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  Accepting this major component of globalization leads to the enormous pauperization, exclusion, and misery of hundreds of millions of people on three continents.  It would actually stop any attempt of our societies to assert themselves in the global society of nations.  Modern capitalist agriculture, represented by rich family farming and/or agribusiness companies, seeks to massively attack global peasant production.  Capitalist agriculture governed by the principle of profitability of capital located in North America, Europe, the Southern Cone of Latin America, and Australia, employs only a few tens of millions of farmers, so that it has the highest global productivity; while peasant farming systems still employ nearly half of humanity — three billion people.  What would happen if “agriculture and food production” were treated like any other form of capitalist production, subject to the rules of competition in a deregulated open market?  Would these principles facilitate the acceleration of production?  Indeed, one can imagine fifty million new additional modern farmers, producing what the current three billion farmers can offer on the market above and beyond their own (and low) subsistence.  Conditions for success of such an alternative would require significant transfers of arable land to new farmers (lands taken from those currently employed by peasant societies), access to capital markets (to buy equipment), and access to consumer markets.  These farmers would compete easily with the billions of existing farmers.  And what would happen to them?  Billions of noncompetitive producers would be eliminated in a short historical period of a few decades.  The main argument for the legitimization of the “competitive” alternative is that this kind of development took place in Europe in the nineteenth century and contributed to the formation of rich industrial and then postindustrial urban societies able to feed the nations and even to export surplus food.  Why not repeat this model in the countries of the third world today?  No, because this argument ignores two key factors that today make it impossible to reproduce the model in third world countries.  The first is that the European model developed for a century and a half with labor-intensive industrial technologies.  Our contemporary technologies are much less labor-intensive.  And therefore, if the newcomers of the third world are to be competitive in world markets for their industrial exports, they must adopt these technologies.  The second is that in the process of this long transition Europe could make its surplus population massively emigrate to the Americas.

Can we imagine other alternatives based on access to land for all peasants?  In this context it goes without saying that peasant agriculture must be maintained and simultaneously engaged in a process of change and continuous technological and social progress.  And this at a pace that would allow a progressive transfer to non-agricultural employment as the system gradually develops.  Such a strategic goal involves policies protecting peasant food production from the unequal competition of modernized national agriculture and international agribusiness.  It challenges industrial and urban development models — which should be less based on exports and low wages (which in turn imply low food prices) and give more attention to the expansion of a socially balanced domestic market.  In addition such a strategy would facilitate the comprehensive integration of policies that ensure national food sovereignty, an essential condition for a country to be an active member of the international community, strengthening its necessary margin of autonomy and capacity for negotiation.


Extra Readings

For brevity I have not addressed here any adjacent major issues: the emergence of capitalism of generalized monopolies, new generalized proletarianization, the militarization of globalization and conflicts over access to natural resources, financial globalization as the weak link of the system, reconstruction of solidarity among developing countries, the strategy of ongoing struggles, the requirements of anti-imperialist internationalism of peoples.  I refer the reader to my book The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism (L’implosion du capitalisme contemporain) and draw attention to the institutional structures that I have proposed to consolidate the popular content of the management of economic transition beyond capitalism (pages 123-128 of the aforementioned book).

Samir Amin is director of the Third World Forum in Dakar, Senegal.  His numerous publications include The Liberal Virus, The World We Wish to See, The Law of Worldwide Value, The Implosion of Contemporary Capitalism, and Three Essays on Marx’s Value Theory.  His latest books from Monthly Review Press are The Reawakening of the Arab World: Challenge and Change in the Aftermath of the Arab Spring (2016) and Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism (2016).  Translated by Jenny Bright and edited by Fausto Giudice and Yoshie Furuhashi (@yoshiefuruhashi | yoshie.furuhashi [at]