Viewpoint: The political theory of enlightened isolationism, or, in muted praise of Jeremy Corbyn

Viewpoint: The political theory of enlightened isolationism, or, in muted praise of Jeremy Corbyn

Charles Turner

Many on the right of the Tory party fear that Jeremy Corbyn may be about to slip into Number 10.  They were furious with the rebels behind Amendment 7 to the EU Withdrawal Bill; they fear that it may now be easier for parliament to reject anything but the softest of Brexits.  That opens up two scenarios: either a soft Brexit is agreed by parliament and the tories’ civil war intensifies, or the government negotiates a harder Brexit, it is rejected by parliament in an effective vote of no confidence, and the tories’ civil war intensifies.  Either way, Corbyn gains.

Yet if Corbyn is a nightmare for the Tory right he is also one for us remainers; as his statements about the single market and a second referendum confirm, like Liam Fox and Owen Paterson but unlike Theresa May, he believes in Brexit as the basis for resetting the British economy and with it British society.  They want a low tax Singapore-on-Thames with fracking and GM crops thrown in, but minus Singapore’s progressive housing policy.  What Corbyn wants is still a bit of a mystery.

Some say Corbyn is a Marxist who dreams of turning the UK into a gloomy version of Cuba.   I don’t think that is quite right: neither Marx’s hard-headed economic analysis nor Marxism’s aggressive millenarianism are really his thing.  There is of course the famous image of hunting in the morning, raising cattle in the afternoon and being a critic in the evening, which sits well with his enthusiasm for allotments and jam-making; the idea that every child should learn a musical instrument, of which he made so much during the June 2017 general election campaign, may have been inspired by the Buena Vista Social Club; and there is his shouty defence of school dinners: ‘children!…eating together!…in our society!…in our community!’

Where Corbyn parts company with Marx and possibly Cuba is in his pacifism. He may be naïve about the intentions of Russia or Iran, but behind it there is less a belief in the global triumph of international socialism than a sense that the UK has historically done more harm than good abroad and would be better off retiring from the fray, and that when it does it can renounce nuclear weapons, join the majority of states that have never had them, stop selling fighter bombers to Saudi Arabia, and become a lesson to the rest of the world.  Corbyn’s anti-European anti-capitalism, and his belief that the EU is a neoliberal project that will shackle Labour’s economic policies, are subsumed within this problem of war and peace.  It was here where the clearer dividing line lay between him and his remain campaign colleague David Cameron: if at one point Cameron implied that leaving the EU might precipitate world war 3, Corbyn believes that leaving it is a positive step towards world peace and global justice.  If Cameron was presenting the standard line about the EU’s pragmatic justification, what lay behind Corbyn’s position? A basic pacifist instinct to be sure, but some of what he says has a more complex intellectual heritage.

Whether Corbyn has read Marx or not, you can bet he hasn’t read a word of Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762-1814).  Yet Fichte’s thinking on war, peace, the state and commerce is not a million miles from Corbyn’s.   Fichte was one of a long line of European thinkers who had been reflecting on these questions at least since the French wars of religion and the thirty years war, the outcome of which came to be known, not entirely happily, as the European states system.  If Hobbes thought that the modern state’s framework of security allowed individuals to pursue ‘felicity’, Adam Smith saw the pursuit of self-interest itself as desirable; commerce was an alternative to war because it demanded of people that they relate to one another in more complex and sophisticated ways than war did.

There were two problems with this: the relationship between states remained deeply unstable even when it was not overtly warlike; and as the fiscal and military capacities of European states grew, they didn’t so much provide a legal framework for the market-oriented commerce, as pursue commercial gain themselves, especially outside Europe.  European states became more aggressive, not less, with the prospect of commercial gain.

Towards the end of the 18th century Germany produced two distinct answers to these problems.  Kant argued that, in the long run, the problem of war would drive European states to form a federation of republics; while the imperative of commerce would transform this federation into a cosmopolitan European order.  With trade and the financial revolution, the growth of public credit and therefore debt would force states to choose between servicing their debt (leading to military catastrophe) and funding their military (leading to a constitutional crisis).  Since neither was desirable, exhaustion would forces states to develop republican constitutions and form alliances that demilitarized the European states system.  But in the meantime there were numerous examples of the abuse of the spirit of commerce: the imperial plunder practiced by European states was the most notable, but there were also states that were closed in some way, that restricted commerce beyond their own borders, in particular when they were self-sufficient in key resources.

This is where Fichte comes in: writing in 1800, he saw such closed commercial states as a solution to the problems of war and peace Kant was grappling with.  Kant had been naïve to assume the gradual emergence of an awareness of the need for republics throughout Europe; and, Brexit fans take note, any federation that was worthwhile, he thought, would only hold together if it was prepared to ‘annihilate’ any member that defied its terms.  In any case, as long as people assumed that they benefited from commerce more than they did from living under a settled state, the spirit of commerce would lead to more disorder – and more destructive competition between commercially oriented states.  People would continue to think that they thus benefited as long as commerce was able to meet their expanding desires for consumer goods.  Commerce, war and consumerism were thus fatefully entangled, and so, Fichte believed, the only chance of a genuine and reasonable social contract was for states to withdraw from the arena of global competition as far as possible and establish planned, self-sufficient national economies.  Then, instead of competing with one another economically, and going to war with one another as they plundered the rest of the world’s resources and subordinated its peoples, European states would co-operate with one another over the allocation of goods and resources that were available in some states and not others, and compete with one another in areas where competition was healthy and productive, such as the arts and sciences.

Fichte’s vision required that citizens be persuaded to reduce their desire for consumer goods to a minimum.  He valued the right to work and to material comfort above the right to property and to dispose of it as one wished. And it is here that much of what he said resonates with Corbyn’s own vision of socialism; indeed, some of it could be inserted seamlessly into his speeches: ‘Everyone should be catered for and live securely before someone decorates their home, everyone should be warm and comfortably clothed before someone dresses splendidly…It is not right that someone says they can afford it.  It is unjust that while one person can pay for what is superfluous, one his fellow citizens lacks the basics or cannot pay or them’.

Corbyn is easy to caricature as a little Englander, but like Fichte two centuries before him, he may be tapping into an instinct all of us have for a simpler life, one less burdened by the need to make decisions about things – such as the provision of basic utilities – we would rather leave to competent state authorities, and less disrupted by the yearning for, or need to migrate to, other countries.  He is right to say that many people who are self-employed would rather be regular workers, and while he has been lambasted for wanting to leave the EU and for saying that free movement will end, and seen as a ‘British jobs for British workers’ man, he is also pointing out the truth that, for every successful member of the international middle-class working in well-paid jobs in Paris or Berlin or London, there are thousands who have traipsed half way across Europe to live in a caravan and pick carrots and lettuces for a pittance, or across oceans to live in squalid camps and die building skyscrapers.  Some on the libertarian left actually favour free movement for all, EU citizens or not; Corbyn by contrast seems inspired by Brian Barry’s idea that, ‘in an ideal world, everyone would be free to stay where they are’.

It’s an admirable instinct and one that deserves more extended reflection.  I still won’t be voting for him though.


Charles Turner is Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick.

Image: Gary Knight