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The Cosmopolitan Rejoinder

James Stafford, George Morris

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Over a career spanning five decades, the peace activist and academic Mary Kaldor has argued for a cosmopolitan left: supportive of global governance, the European Union and the human rights movement, and sceptical of the nation-state’s ability to provide security or justice. Renewal met Kaldor to discuss her  support for left campaigns against Brexit, and to ask what remains of projects for a left-liberal globalism in our current age of revived national power-politics.

Europe and the Cold War

James Stafford: You were involved with European Nuclear Disarmament (END) and with Hungarian and other Eastern European dissident movements in the 1970s and 1980s. How important were those experiences for forming your subsequent scholarship and activism?

Mary Kaldor: They were actually pivotal. My first job after university was working for the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and my early work in the 1970s was very much about the arms trade and military technology. 

When in 1980 we founded END – it really shifted, I think, the way I thought and what I thought was important. END seemed to suit me very well, because my father was Hungarian, my Uncle had been a dissident, in prison from 1948 to 1956; the idea that we would try to end the Cold War by bringing democracy to Eastern Europe, and that this was the best way to get rid of nuclear weapons, was 
a very appealing idea. 

There were two big influences arising from that: E. P. Thompson and his concep-tion of ‘history from below’, driven by citizens’ movements; and travelling to Eastern Europe and meeting all these incredible intellectuals who were developing completely new concepts, like civil society; that was new to us then ... anti-politics, the nature of totalitarianism, it was an entirely new experience. That had a huge influence on my subsequent thinking.

JS: Can you say a little more about END: what made it a distinctive position in the left of the 1970s and 1980s, compared to left positions on the Cold War?

MK: At the end of the 1970s, the Americans announced the deployment of Cruise and Pershing Missiles and the British announced they were replacing Polaris with Trident; that was the beginning of a new wave of anti-nuclear activism. I’d been involved in the first wave, my mother was an anti-nuclear activist, I’d been involved in Young CND; that’s why I went to SIPRI, I was very committed to the anti-Cold War agenda. 

END was actually started by E.P. Thompson; I was one of the founding members. Thompson launched this appeal in 1980 alongside Ken Coates and the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation. The idea was that instead of merely focusing on unilat-eral nuclear disarmament for Britain, we would talk about a nuclear-free Europe ‘from Poland to Portugal’, and we would link democracy to disarmament.

What was interesting was that Thompson was very keen not to split the movement. We produced this pamphlet, largely written by Edward, called ‘Protest and Survive’; even though lots of groups were springing up all over the country, some even calling themselves END, Edward recommended that everybody join CND, the old campaign for unilateral disarmament for Britain.

But there were still deep political divisions; which interestingly enough are echoed now in our current debate over Brexit. It feels very much the same to me. A lot of people in CND felt that you should end the Cold War by making peace with the Soviet Union; that nuclear disarmament came before human rights, both because a nuclear war was the worst thing that could possibly happen, but also because if you created peace between us and the Communists, somehow human rights would follow.

Whereas we made a different argument – actually initially on tactical grounds. It had always been easy for governments to attack the peace movement on the basis that we were fellow-travelers with the Soviet Union. It was very easy to marginalise the peace movement. By showing that we really were engaged with and cared about human rights in Eastern Europe, it gave us a certain degree of integrity.

JS: It feels to me that this paradigm of European or global civil society; of cosmopolitanism; of human rights discourse is coming in from a lot of criticism from the left. A kind of left neo-realism, people like Perry Anderson or Peter Gowan, is becoming our dominant mode of thinking about world politics. Why do you 
think that is happening?

MK: I think that was one big mistake we made. The Eastern Europeans we talked to and engaged with, they really ended up as neoliberals. Of course we were critical of neoliberalism, but we felt that wasn’t the key issue: the key issue was democracy and human rights. And my worry is, now, that the thrust of the left is anti-neoliberal, but people are forgetting the importance of democracy and human rights. 

There was always this idea that socialism needs the state; and that social justice is perhaps more important than political and civil rights. That was true in the 1980s as well. I remember I wrote an essay called ‘Warfare and Capitalism’, in which I argued that the Soviet system was a war system. It wasn’t a socialist system; it was a war system organised like capitalism is in war-time. Centralised planning, autarchy, the state controlling everything…. 

People were quite unhappy with the argument. They still saw Eastern Europe as socialist. I think now people still think that socialism is about defence of the state. Whereas activists for human rights see international institutions like the UN and the EU as their allies, activists for social justice hate the World Bank and the IMF and the international financial institutions. They see the state as the alternative, 
rather than arguing for the reform of global governance. 

Socialism and the Nation-State

George Morris: It’s striking that one of the things about the ‘human security’ approach you advocate is that it goes beyond the state: both in terms of international institutions but also civil society. But as you say in your latest book, the trajectory of global politics is back towards the nation-state. Is there any point in the left advocating for reform of the international system? How would we do it? 

MK: I think it’s the only possibility, actually. It just seems to me that the Lexit argument that we’re better off in a nation-state ... it doesn’t take into account how incredibly interconnected the world is – not just in terms of economics, but also in terms of politics and culture. 

Beyond that, it doesn’t take into account the fact that a very powerful state enables authoritarianism and doomed attempts to control borders and immigration. I just don’t think it’s feasible any longer. All it will lead to is increased violence and violations of human rights. It seems to me that the only alternative is reform of international institutions. The  question then is how do we do that as left-wing movements. It’s about creating alliances; but key to it all is the European Union. Reforming the European Union is the only way to reform global governance.

JS: Why is that? Is it because global governance has been constructed on a European model?

MK: It’s because the European Union is not a state. States were constructed through war, by and large. The European Union was constructed against war. Through this sort of odd negotiating process it’s stumbled on a model for global governance. What’s incredibly interesting about the EU ... while on the one hand, especially with regard to the Euro, it imposes neoliberal rules; on the other hand, in areas of digital rights, the environment, human security, it’s actually very progressive. As such, it therefore could play – as it already does, for instance, in climate change negotiations – an incredibly active role in global debates, and in constructing global governance.

What I’ve been arguing is that you start with the Weberian assumption that institutions are shaped by their sources of finance. You could imagine multi-level global governance, in which global institutions would be financed by a Tobin Tax, by a carbon tax, by taxing multinationals, leaving the state responsible for income tax, and municipalities for property taxes, congestion charging, local taxing. Different institutions with different sources of revenue, including those that escape the nation-state. The object isn’t to replace the nation-state, but to modify their worst elements: war and authoritarianism.

GM: What does that mean for Britain after Brexit? 

MK: There’s no good Brexit. A hard Brexit is a pure disaster. But a soft Brexit means that we’re rule-takers with no involvement in decisions: that’s pretty bad too. 

What I think Brexit has done is to Europeanise the left. When we had the referendum, politics was extremely parochial. What’s happened is that a whole generation of people are discovering Europe and discovering what Europe means, and getting engaged, and starting to organise and get involved in transnational movements and groups. 

I think there’s an important point there: everyone goes on about the European democratic deficit; but in formal, procedural terms it’s not as bad as people say. We have an elected parliament, we have a Council of Ministers in which we participated, we have the Citizens’ Initiative, we have a lot more civil society participation ... mostly corporate in the economic field, but on digital democracy, environment, and security there’s a lot of civil society participation.

But what is lacking is European politics. We could do a lot with the existing institutions. Of course I’d prefer it if we had an elected president or whatever. But it’s not about that. It’s actually about whether people feel politically engaged with European issues. And the problem is that until now people haven’t. There isn’t a European public sphere. And paradoxically Brexit may have helped to create one.

JS: Left-wing arguments for the EU seem to involve a lot of abstraction from what it does day-to-day, the decisions it makes. In the past few months, with the chaos over 
asylum policy and the Mediterranean border, the fresh moves to relocate the European border to north Africa, the statements of politicians like Matteo Salvini in Italy and Horst Seehofer in Germany, it seems like there’s a real danger that a new and different Europe is being born. A Europe that has always been there; a Europe that’s both neo-colonial and a bounded, a kind of Christian civilisational entity. That’s always been one part of the justificatory repertoire of the EU. 

MK: Churchill saying we could pool our colonies!

JS: Exactly. But my underlying point is that not all Lexiteers are nationalist. The argument they would make is that the EU is a barrier to an effective internationalism. You would need to rip it up and start again.

MK: That’s what they said about Yugoslavia. If we ripped it apart we’d get even more very nasty, closed-in, nationalist politics. We wouldn’t get a new internationalism.

I want to go right back to the beginning. I feel that it’s about what the END dialogue achieved. What I think we achieved is that we did change the discourse. That was key to ending the Cold War. We did bring peace and human rights together, we talked about global civil society, cosmopolitanism, humanitarianism, which became the dominant discourse in the 1990s. That’s what enabled 1989 to succeed.

Of course in retrospect I think neoliberalism was also very important. One of the reasons the 1989 revolutions were so peaceful was that the communists saw an opportunity to convert their political positions into economic gain. And they all gained like mad from privatisation and liberalisation and became oligarchs. Which wasn’t the case for the Arab uprisings: they were already very rich, they already were crony capitalists, there was nothing they could gain by giving in to democracy.

We have to work to change the discourse again across Europe. For me, a starting point is the idea that actually the refugee crisis was constructed. Even in 2015, when there was a huge influx of Syrian refugees – although many also came from Africa – even then, if we had allowed them in legally across Europe, they were a tiny proportion of the people who come in legally. It suited right-wing politicians to make the whole crisis much more visible. It’s absurd that we had 150,000 people in Calais. Surely we could have dealt with that. We are not going to be able to stop mobility, all we can do is manage it; ensure that if we do have a big influx we have enough resources to say, improve the National Health Service. We can’t actually halt it. It’s not possible or feasible. Trying to halt it will lead us into very nasty, racist, destructive policies.

Changing asylum policy and changing economic policy are the centre-pieces for changing Europe. A Corbyn government inside Europe could have an enormous effect, providing a magnet for left-wing movements across Europe. We have already seen big changes with the Portuguese, the Greeks, maybe now Spain ... Politics does shift!

Staying in the EU would also give Labour more space with business and financial markets to implement McDonnell’s economic programme and make it a real success. But it would also mean it would be easier to unite with other groups across Europe and to campaign against austerity and for European reform. Labour needs a strategy for European reform. Britain on its own is really powerless. But within the EU it could really have a big influence on pushing progressive policies, and also pushing for reform of other international organisations. It’s an amazing opportunity that I feel is being lost.

GM: I’m intrigued by how you see post-Brexit politics. Does that mean that British progressives should just spend the foreseeable future campaigning to get back in?

MK: No, or rather not only that. Whether Brexit happens or not they should be joining with other movements across Europe. It should still be supporting other left movements and campaigning for reform. 

JS: I guess this is where the END thing comes back for me. If you’re coming from a background of working with civil society across the Iron Curtain; then why is it necessarily an issue to work with European socialists if Britain isn’t in the EU?

GM: E. P. Thompson was famously hostile to the EEC.

MK: It was very different in 1975. His position was not anti-Europeanism— it was anti the Common Market. I can’t actually remember how I voted. Which is weird! But I remember being very critical of the Common Market. 

The reason I think it will be much harder is because we’ll be able to have much less influence outside the EU institutions. Of course we can still continue to do it, but the whole progressive movement will have a huge set-back if Brexit goes ahead.

JS: It’s interesting, being against the Common Market but in favour of the EU, because that’s what we’re headed back to, a ‘mere’ Common Market, with none of the political or social features.

MK: Exactly, the current Labour position is support for the Common Market but not for freedom of movement or European democracy! It’s absurd that this is what Corbyn and McDonnell are favouring.


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