Monday, 12 December 2016

Giving wedgies to the nerds: anti-science jeering from the left

Can't say I'm a big fan of a certain strand of lefty acting like high school jocks 'giving wedgies to the nerds' when it comes to some aspects of the natural sciences and science communications.

Every now and then, I read some smug, self-congratulatory posts (or more commonly the comments beneath them) from often postmodern humanities-trained individuals describing scientists as sexless nerds with no social skills. It’s dispiriting coming from people who say they want a kinder, more egalitarian world. Relatedly, in recent months, I've seen multiple articles in leftish publications jeering at artificial intelligence research, the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, the simulation argument, human enhancement, synthetic biology, neuroscience, space exploration, and even gifted (progressive) science popularisers like Neil Degrasse Tyson and Bill Nye.

This comes atop the already widespread irrational fears of many of these same people of 'teh kemikalz', genetic engineering, nuclear energy, vaccination, and so-called electro-pollution. The only areas within the natural sciences that seem to get a free pass from some quarters of the left are climate science and conservation biology. Perhaps this is because such people erroneously believe that the findings of these researchers are endorsing their assertion that modern life is rubbish.

There are convincing arguments as to why artificial general intelligence or strong AI might be further away than some people think. The many worlds interpretation is not a consensus position in physics, and many argue it is unfalsifiable. There are thoughtful disagreements with the simulation argument. Even as the alleviation of terrible suffering from some genetic disorders may soon be possible, ethical quandaries abound. Security is a legitimate concern with synthetic biology and how accessible it is becoming. There is certainly some less-than-rigorous neuroscience research that tends toward the deterministic and less than replicable at best and outright quackery at worst. Private space exploration is likely promising much more than it can deliver. And science popularisers should probably read a little more philosophy before they start suggesting it is a waste of time.

There are lots of very interesting social, economic, ethical and political conversations to be had about all these subjects, and many of those most familiar with them -- the researchers themselves -- are indeed having these very conversations. But the rhetorical equivalent of stuffing geeks into their lockers is not just mean-spirited; the wilful ignorance on display is as embarrassing as boasting that you can't read.

It’s also a sure-fire way to push natural scientists into the arms of the libertarians.

Friday, 11 November 2016

In defence of the basket of deplorables

I am worrying a bit that if we pin the blame for Trump on the faux-radical term 'white supremacy' (an insult to all those murdered throughout the 20th Century by actual white-hooded, jackbooted white supremacists), or demand that we acknowledge racism and misogyny first before we are allowed to talk about class, then we are letting Democratic Party neoliberalism off the hook.

Is racism part of the story? Of course it is. Is misogyny part of the story? Absolutely. 

But if more Latinos voted for Trump than for Romney (29 percent! Jesus fuck!), more Blacks, more Asians, then the story has to be more complicated than such a narrative.

The fact that more middle class and upper class voters backed Trump than lower class voters did isn't at all surprising. Most working people voted Democrat; most wealthier people voted Republican—as is usual. That is salutary: across the West, overwhelmingly most workers continue to side with the left over the right.

The point, THE POINT, is not that most workers voted Trump, but that as a result of the neoliberalisation of the left, large numbers of workers (still a minority, but a substantial one) are increasingly either voting for the hard-right option, or more often staying home, to some extent understandably recognising that for whomever they vote, it still gets worse.

If we only look at the 2016 numbers, while there’s lots to chew over, it does not tell us enough: it's the *change* from 2012 (or even worse, from 2008) that tells us that actually, yes, there appears to have been a substantial movement of the lowest income brackets from Democrat to Republican and in the highest income brackets from Republican to Democrat (even as the lower brackets go blue and the upper brackets go red). When socialists are saying that class is the key to explaining Trump, this change over time is why we are saying this.

And racism and sexism will not be defeated by denouncing Trump's working class rustbelt voters as racist, sexist, thick mouth-breathers or, as one image recycled from the Bush years that I've seen shared described them, the inhabitants of 'dumbfuckistan' (curiously combining a hatred for workers with Islamophobia, one of the very things for which we are supposed to be hating Trump).

Rather, the left must try to reach out to them and say: "Trump is no solution to your *very real pain* at deindustrialisation." Refreshingly, this is the conclusion that both Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have drawn.

(Let me pause for a second and let me mount my usual hobbyhorse here: Note that the degrowthist likes of Naomi Klein and Bill McKibben are in favour of deindustrialisation. Let's pause for a moment and imagine what sort of globally panoramic Trumpism further deindustrialisation would bring)

If the rest of us do not draw similar conclusions to Sanders and Corbyn, but continue to assail such voters as "deplorables", then we will only help maintain the conditions that encourages this flavour of odious politics and leave a left that unites working class blacks, whites, latinos, indigenous, refugees, men and women, gays and straights, disabled and able-bodied, to further rot on the vine.

Identity politics—the politics of working class division—is the garlic and holy water that protects apologists for capitalism from what truly frightens these vampires: class politics.

The same goes for Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen or Geert Wilders in other countries where we see the exact same collapse of the centre-left and rise of the new right. We can fight racism without treating working people like scum.

Indeed, it seems thoroughly bizarre to me that anyone who thinks workers are scum could ever genuinely care about inequality, whether of the racial, sexual or gender variety, at all.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall: Closet climate lefty?

TL;DR: Saskatchewan’s climate white paper has many problems, but its main planks — grand public works to support much needed new technologies; command-and-control intervention instead of market-based, regressive, ineffective carbon pricing; and insistence that those least able to pay not bear the greatest burden — should be saluted by the left, not demonised. The document needs to be tweaked, not trashed.
  • The white paper says carbon taxes are unfair; they are.
  • The white paper says the EU and California’s emissions trading schemes don’t work; they don’t.
  • The white paper says that direct regulations such as banning coal plants, and enforcing low-carbon fuel use are more effective and faster than carbon pricing. This is true.
  • We need small modular nuclear as it’s clean, baseload, dispatchable but also in this form much more scalable, and perfect for remote communities. Regina is the only Canadian government openly, proudly backing nuclear and not hiding this sector under a bushel. This should be applauded.
  • Carbon capture and storage (CCS) for coal will probably never be profitable as there are already so many cheaper clean alternatives. But we still need carbon capture for many industrial processes that have no easy decarbonisation solutions. So Regina should be convinced to switch its CCS focus from the coal-fired power sector to industrial emissions, like Norway has just done. 
Meanwhile, what on earth is a supposedly progressive group like Climate Justice Saskatoon doing backing flat taxes?


It’s a funny old world. Every now and then, the political left and right perform a do-si-do, with conservatives taking up what has historically been the progressive stance on an issue and their lefty counterparts doing the reverse.

One Prairies-based example of such political cross-dressing is the public-works-focussed climate strategy of Saskatchewan’s right-wing government and how it has been demonised by carbon-price-loving liberal-lefties and environmentalists as a fingers-in-ears approach while the planet burns.

In reality, while the Saskatchewan climate plan is very far from perfect (and its gaps and errors should not be minimised), the main planks are very much in keeping with traditional social democratic thinking, while its critics appear to have drunk the neoliberal climate Kool-Aid.

Saskatchewan’s 54-page climate change white paper released last week argues furiously against the federal ultimatum to the provinces of carbon taxation or emissions trading—market-based greenhouse gas mitigation policies that in climate-vanguard Europe for example most of the left views with deep suspicion. The province’s suite of preferred alternatives include regulation of industry, large-scale public works, and significant expansion in government funding for research and development­—an étatiste command-and-control approach that one normally associates with a Keynesian, social democratic left.

In response, the Pembina Institute, an environmental think-tank, criticised the strategy’s opposition to carbon pricing as “out of step” with business groups such as the Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition, a group of corporations that includes Shell, Enbridge and Suncor, and market-oriented green outfits such as Smart Prosperity and the Ecofiscal Commission.

Climate Justice Saskatoon, which has links to the Leap Manifesto of Naomi Klein, Greenpeace and Idle No More, attacked the plan as "inadequate, and biased towards economically unsound technology options,” that are no replacement for carbon pricing.

It’s a world turned upside down. To buttress the Saskatchewan government’s opposition to carbon taxation, the white paper authors draw on analysis from Marc Lee, a researcher with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, perhaps the country’s most prominent left-wing think-tank. While Lee is in principle in favour of some form of carbon tax so long as it moves from a regressive flat tax policy to something more progressive, he has sharply criticised British Columbia’s carbon tax for its unfairness toward the poor and working class, and for the lack of evidence that it has resulted in lower emissions. 

Carbon taxes, like value-added taxes such as the GST, are flat taxes and thus regressive. The left has historically been strongly opposed to flat taxes because the rate imposed is the same regardless of income or wealth. The left has instead always preferred progressive taxation, where tax rates steadily increase as one moves up the income and wealth ladder. Various elements of the right have long wanted to rid society of progressive taxation altogether and impose a wholesale move to flat taxes, but has been stymied by how popular progressive taxation is. From former Reform Party chief Preston Manning to Canadians for Clean Prosperity, headed by Mark Cameron—former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s director of policy and research—a certain flavour of right-winger is positively gleeful that carbon taxes opens the door to doing away with income and corporate taxes. This form of carbon pricing is now giving the right an ecological fig leaf to moves that it has never before been able to get away with outside of eastern Europe and some of the most hardline Republican-controlled states in the US.

And with carbon taxes, there are additional effects that exacerbate the already regressive nature of other flat taxes. The poorer you are, the greater proportion of your income is devoted to energy and transport costs, both of which tend to be carbon-intensive. Adding to this, it is increasingly the case in Canada’s cities that soaring real estate costs are pushing working class families further out of the urban core, thus requiring still greater expenditure on travel from locations poorly served by public transit. The wealthier professional class meanwhile get to take the subway or their bike to work. Lastly, renters tend to live in older, leakier and thus less carbon-saving apartments, and so can end up paying absolutely more not just relatively more in carbon taxation than the usually wealthier owners of new homes. For all these reasons, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change itself notes that carbon taxation’s regressive nature is the main barrier to its adoption. So BC introduced a low-income credit to partially offset these effects.

However, as the Saskatchewan white paper notes, quoting Lee, while BC’s carbon tax has gone up since being introduced, this low-income credit has not, making the regime regressive, with lower-income households paying a greater share of their income than higher-income households. Meanwhile, some two thirds of the carbon tax revenues have paid for corporate income tax cuts and another 17 percent in cuts to the progressive income tax system.

To be fair, Lee has written that a progressive version of the carbon tax would go some way to correcting this injustice, but he has also noted that in any case, the mitigation effect of BC’s tax is more hype-based than evidence-based.  The Saskatchewan white paper again quotes Lee’s figures: Since 2010, BC’s greenhouse gas emissions have increased every year. The brief drop in emissions in 2009-10 was instead a product of the global recession. BC’s carbon tax is “as near as we have to a textbook case” of what a carbon tax should look like, according to Angel Gurria, secretary general of the OECD, yet there is little evidence to suggest it is working to mitigate emissions.

Extending this criticism, the paper goes on to deploy the arguments of Simon Fraser University sustainable energy researcher Marc Jaccard, who like Lee is not opposed to carbon taxes in principle but feels they should be complemented with other, more demonstrably effective measures. The paper approvingly quotes Jaccard’s finding that BC’s carbon tax is projected to achieve a reduction in 2020 annual emissions by three to five megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent, while the same government’s decision in 2007 to cancel two coal-fired plants and one gas plant is projected to achieve a reduction of 12 to 18 megatonnes in 2020, compared to business as usual. The single largest emissions reduction effort performed in Canada has been Ontario’s shuttering its coal-fired power plants, a product of government fiat not a carbon price, has reduced annual emissions by 25 megatonnes.

Many have written that this is because BC’s carbon tax rate, $30 a tonne, is simply too low to have any behaviour-changing effect on consumers or businesses. The International Energy Agency reckons a global price on carbon should be $95-$100 by 2030 for the price signal to begin to have deep decarbonising effects. Canada’s National Roundtable on the Economy and the Environment had put the figure at CAN$50 by 2015, climbing to $100 by 2020 and more than $300 by 2050. Economic modelling by Jaccard found that to achieve the federal government’s current climate pledge of a 30 percent reduction on 2005 levels by 2030 (a mere two percent reduction on 1990 levels, the normal international baseline) would require an immediate national carbon price of CAN$30 a tonne, rising $15 a year till it hits $200 by 2030, and perhaps as high as $265. Jaccard believes such high rates are politically infeasible. But his modelling work shows that the same scale of emissions reduction can happen via direct regulations (admittedly as a complement to a low carbon tax of $40 a tonne).

But what about emissions trading, also known as cap-and-trade, that other form of carbon pricing that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says provinces may adopt in order to achieve an equivalent of $50 per tonne by 2022? One of the key problems with carbon taxation is the uncertainty over emissions reduction. Emissions trading at least imposes a cap on emissions, and then different economic actors have to buy or are given permits to pollute up to that maximum. Again the white paper leans on the work of Jaccard, who noted in a recent paper that California, which has achieved some of the fastest emissions reductions in North America, has a modest price on carbon of $15 a tonne through a cap and trade programme that is linked to Ontario and Quebec, but roughly 90 percent of these reductions have come from direct regulation such as low carbon fuel standards and zero-emission vehicle requirements for auto manufacturers, not emissions trading. The white paper also argues that emissions trading does not work in the real world. The document notes that EU carbon credit auctions have never achieved anything close to the €30 a tonne target price, instead hovering around the low single digits. The latest carbon credit auction in August of the Quebec-linked Californian carbon trading system (that Ontario is to join in 2017) sold only 35 percent of the available credits. In May, the auction sold just 11 percent.  

Climate justice campaigners in Europe have long been very much opposed to the EU ETS for a number of reasons. The ‘trade’ part of cap and trade does nothing to reduce emissions. Instead, it allows companies to buy “emissions allowances” or “carbon offsets” which are supposed to represent emissions reductions elsewhere. Offsets in particular often do not deliver real reductions over what would have happened anyway. Emissions trading, like carbon taxation, aims to drive market actors to make the cheapest short-term cuts, but these quick fixes, such as switching coal for gas, can end up locking in fossil fuel infrastructure that may be preferable in the short term, but in the medium term we actually want to phase out as well. Large-scale clean-energy infrastructure projects that are expensive to build over the short term are less responsive to carbon pricing. They require programmes of public works instead.

Here we see the ideological world turned upside down once more: A core belief of carbon pricing proponents is that the market is the most efficient mechanism for realising mitigation targets. Yet a core belief of the left has always been the opposite: that the market is less efficient at realising such social goals than democratic planning.

And just such a planned, grand projet d’état is exactly what Saskatchewan is engaged in via its commitment to the world’s first commercial-scale carbon capture and storage operation. It has ‘picked a winner’. This is, in part, because the price on carbon needed to drive uptake of CCS given its substantial costs would be astronomical. Such high carbon prices are unlikely to be achieved in the time we need negative emissions technologies (NETs) such as CCS to come online, so a more government interventionist approach would be needed to make CCS viable in the appropriate time frame. Meanwhile, most climate and energy scenarios developed by IPCC modellers that allow the planet to keep within 2°C of warming above pre-industrial temperatures assume widespread uptake of negative emissions technologies—tech that removes carbon from the atmosphere, with a major role for CCS. At some point in the second half of the century we will have to go net negative, meaning we are drawing down more carbon from the atmosphere than we are pumping out.

However, many green campaigners are right to be sceptical about CCS—up to a point. After a brief few years of enthusiasm in the mid 2000s, commercialisation of CCS has since hit the buffers. Funds expected to be raised via the EU ETS have not materialised and cash-strapped governments are getting cold feet. The fundamental problem remains that CCS simply makes coal so much more expensive than many other clean energy options already available. Meanwhile, research seems to consistently show that leaks from fluid carbon dioxide stored underground or under the sea bed are likely, undermining the entire enterprise. Recent breakthroughs offer some hope that carbon dioxide can instead be stored in solid mineral form much more rapidly than previously thought, but little is known yet on the cost of this.

So the Saskatchewan government’s position that CCS will allow coal-fired electricity generation to continue on as before while the climate is protected is probably not quite right.

But while Saskatchewan’s CCS project is attached to the coal-fired generating station at Boundary Dam, coal is not the only source of emissions to which carbon capture technology can be applied. Last month, Norway, the other major jurisdiction in the world that has bet big on CCS, announced in the wake of the fizzling out of the prospects for CCS in the power sector, it was switching the focus of its CCS strategy away from coal as a target, and toward industrial emissions from the cement, ammonia and waste sectors instead, at a cost of potentially billions of crowns. This is important because while there are multiple off-the-shelf alternatives that are available right now given the political will that cover about two thirds of the sources of global emissions, for the remaining third, easy solutions remain elusive. This is especially true for sectors like steel and cement, where the bulk of emissions come not from combustion of fossil fuels, but from chemical reactions involved in the manufacturing process itself. We need steel and cement for so much of modern society, not least for trains, trams, subways and wind turbines, and how we anchor offshore wind turbines to the sea bed, but there are no cheap, strong substitutes for most applications yet. So for these sectors, carbon capture is our best hope, at least for the time being.

Rather than demonising Saskatchewan as putting its collective head in the sand, climate campaigners would do far better to lobby Regina to replicate Norway’s initiative, but perhaps for the province’s potash sector, which is similarly difficult to decarbonise and identically irreplaceable. If either Saskatchewan or Norway were to be successful in efforts to profitably commercialise CCS-for-industry, this would be a huge victory for global warming mitigation. And the learning that will proceed from the province’s CCS efforts are likely to be helpful later in the century when we will need to be drawing down vast quantities of carbon from the atmosphere.

The second reason that Saskatchewan should cheered on by activists is that in its climate strategy, it is the first province to place development of nuclear power generally, and small modular reactors specifically, in pride of place. Indeed, it is the first jurisdiction in the country to even acknowledge the central role nuclear is playing in the clean transition.

When Ontario decided to shutter its coal plants, it told the world that renewables, primarily wind and solar, would fill the generation gap. But wind and solar are variable energy sources. The wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine. Sometimes there is too much wind or sun. The amount of electricity generated is determined not by power system planners, but by the weather. One of the reasons that the discovery of fossil fuels was such a boon for civilisation during the Industrial Revolution is that for the first time in human history, we could have abundant, cheap energy at any time we wished. We did not have to wait till the caprices of Mother Nature aligned with our goals. Green groups will say that the problem of variability can be solved with energy storage, but the cheapest, least carbon intensive, most efficient ‘battery’ that lasts for more than a few days that we have right now is storing water behind a dam, and Ontario reached the limit of reservoir it could build decades ago. So to provide electricity when the wind turbines cannot, Ontario had to build out great swathes of gas fired capacity. (Only wind is mentioned here because solar power provides less than one percent of annual generation in the province) Similarly, energy systems modelling research is showing that if Alberta is to depend on wind to pick up the slack when that province closes its coal plants, it will have to build out almost as much new gas capacity to pick up the slack for wind. And, in a truly perverse outcome, the province would have to use renewable energy credits to try to encourage firms to build out the expensive gas plants that can quickly ramp up and ramp down depending on the weather while sitting idle at other times.

And it is not even gas that has done the heavy lifting of the clean transition in Ontario, but its fleet of nuclear plants, which today deliver 60 percent of the province’s electricity (compared to wind’s six percent and gas’s 10 percent). Lamentably, most environmental NGOs and green think-tanks in Canada are opposed to this clean, dispatchable, baseload technology over fears over its safety despite it being the energy source with the fewest deaths per terawatt hour. Like the global warming deniers, these groups persist in their point of view in the face of all evidence to the contrary.

Like hydro (another clean, dispatchable, baseload source of electricity), build-out of nuclear does however have very expensive up-front capital costs. This makes it less favourable to risk-shy investors without significant government guarantees, as has been seen in the UK as a Tory government allergic to large-scale public works has had to in effect bribe private firms to build its Hinckley Point C reactor, far outstripping what a purely public project would have cost.

So ironically, going nuclear should be much more likely under more left-leaning, interventionist governments, even though it is the left where one is most likely to find the most fervent opponents of this clean energy source. Yet we have in the conservative Saskatchewan Party a champion of government intervention to support the development of small modular nuclear reactors. One of the great selling points of SMRs is the hope that they will be able to be manufactured on an assembly line, and so enjoy significant economies of scale compared to the construction of reactors on-site. Modular also means that these reactors would be scalable like Lego bricks. Up to now, such scalability has been one of the main attractions of wind and solar. Combining the scalability of variable renewables with the reliability of nuclear allows the latter to more quickly meet steady growth in demand while maintaining security of supply. Better yet, very small modular reactors (VSMRs) could be deployed in remote Canadian regions that currently depend on dirty, expensive, undependable diesel generators. The VSMRs could be flown in via shipping container and remotely operated. With decades of experience in the nuclear sector, Russia is keen to develop the technology, but many developed, developing and emerging countries are understandably reluctant to lock themselves into dependence on Moscow for their energy needs for 30-60 years. Canada, which also has decades of experience with nuclear power, would be viewed as a much more trustworthy supplier.

There are a handful of start-ups in Canada and the US that are keen on developing the SMR concept. Some offer little more than paper technologies but other firms are larger or have more experience in related fields. But as with conventional large-scale nuclear, such companies need a great deal of government hand-holding to get their product across the bridge from concept to successful development of markets. As left-wing economist and advisor to UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn Mariana Mazzucato has argued in The Entrepreneurial State, far from the private sector being the locus of dynamism and innovation as we are regularly told, the private sector only finds the courage to invest after the public sector has made the high-risk investments. From microcomputers to mobile phones to biotech and pharma, it was in fact state bank-rolling of not just R&D, but government’s active creation of new markets that is responsible for most of the tech and medical wonders that surround us. It will be the same with SMRs, and while green think-tanks and NGOs embrace carbon pricing, a policy that explicitly says the market knows best, Brad Wall’s government is swimming upstream against this ideology and, yes, picking winners.

None of this is to say that Saskatchewan’s climate strategy is in all respects exemplary. There remain many, many problems. Wall’s belief that CCS will keep coal alive is likely as mistaken as British Columbian Premier Christy Clark’s wish and prayer that she can develop a liquefied natural gas industry in her province amidst a global glut. Wall cheekily says that all the nuclear plants around the world that use Saskatchewan uranium should be counted as emissions reductions that the province has implemented. This is never going to happen. For this sort of change in carbon accounting to occur, all the emissions of oil, coal and gas that are Canadian-sourced but combusted elsewhere would then have to count as Canadian emissions. And Regina’s resistance to new federal methane regulations is as much a flouting of the climate math as Edmonton and Ottawa’s insistence that oil sands can further be developed while keeping below 2°C of average global warming below pre-industrial temperatures. Worst of all, it’s not just electricity that needs to be cleaned up; transport and heating need to be decarbonised as well (presumptively by cleaning up electricity and then electrifying these sectors), but there is no mention of any of this. BC for all its problems at least has a series of electric vehicle incentives (albeit nowhere near as effective as those enacted in Norway, where more than a quarter of all new vehicle sales are electric).

But there is no reason to be demonising Saskatchewan’s climate strategy any more than that of any other province. Quite the contrary. Its focus on command-and-control intervention, grand public works to support new technologies, opposition to the most widely touted market-based emissions mitigation policies, and insistence that those least able to pay not bear the greatest burden, is in general the sort of thing required by a just transition.

Wall’s climate strategy is, even with its many lacunae, closer to any left-wing concept of climate justice than Climate Justice Saskatoon’s fart-catching for the green capitalists.


(Much more could be said about how the white paper backs nitrogen-efficient crop varieties, no-till farming, and use of genomics to improve beef and dairy yield, all of which are important contributions to the climate discussion in agriculture, but this analysis on the energy policy aspects is already long enough as it is)

Tuesday, 7 June 2016

The progressive Brexit debate: A comical tragedy

What the debate between progressives over Brexit could have been like:

SCENE I. The front room of The Picket and Placard, a cozy old pub

Enter LEAVER and REMAINER, old friends who have been campaigning outside the local Tesco for their respective sides. REMAINER buys the first round.

Leaver: Comrade, it’s a simple question of democracy. The EU does not meet democratic norms, and we should reject it just as we reject monarchy, the House of Lords and TTIP.

Remainer: Comrade, I’ve looked into the EU’s structures and I must agree, there is indeed a substantial democratic deficit. But we must stay in to reform the EU.

Leaver: But how, comrade? What would be the mechanism by which it could be democratically reformed? In the UK, if we do not like the government, we elect a new one. We cannot do that in Europe.

Remainer: You raise a good point, comrade. I will have to think some more about that. At the same time, there has at least been some democratic advance over the years. The Lisbon Treaty gave the European Parliament, the only elected EU institution, a lot more power.

Leaver: True, comrade, but unlike any other democratic parliament, it still has no right of legislative initiative. That means it can’t make laws; it can only amend them. The unelected commission is the source of all legislative proposals. And the galloping expansion of structures of extra-democratic decision-making by bureaucrats and judges since the Eurozone crisis more than outweighs any democratic gains in the Lisbon Treaty anyway.

Remainer: Don’t get me wrong, comrade; I am appalled at the sharp erosion in democracy over the last few years both in the Eurozone and the wider EU. What has been imposed on Greece is unforgivable. But we both want to see progressive change: higher wages, stronger social protections, union rights, and an end to privatisation. Yet in a globalized economy, social democracy in one country just isn’t possible any more. Only much larger economies like the US and China seem to be able to withstand the slings and arrows of capital flight. The EU may not respect the democratic will of the people, but do you really think international markets will be any more respectful? Internationalism isn’t some added extra; it’s one of the only weapons we have left.

Leaver: You raise a good point, comrade. I will have to think some more about that. But I also don’t think we should just call for Brexit and leave it there. Workers across Europe need to join together in a movement for European democracy. It will require international coordination, including open-ended cross-border strike action, like nothing we’ve seen before, more ambitious than the dozens of one-day strikes in Greece, Italy and Spain, which, as militant as they were, were not enough to make EU elites back down. I would be perfectly happy with a United States of Europe——but it has to come from the will of the people, from such a movement, not imposed from above.

Remainer: But, comrade, that’s what I think is necessary too! And I think I have an answer to your question about how to reform the EU. It cannot be done from within as there is no mechanism for this, I agree. It has to be via pressure from the outside: a true European democracy movement, making European elites so frightened that they have no choice but to give us democracy. I think we basically want the same thing.

Leaver: Yes. Nonetheless——and it’s not an easy choice, comrade——I’m still going to vote Leave.

Remainer: I too have struggled over this decision, comrade, but I’m still going to vote Remain.

Leaver & Remainer: But after the referendum, let’s both continue to work together to build that European democracy movement!

Our players hug, raise their fists together in defiance, sing the Internationale, and exit (or remain) stage left.

What the debate between progressives over Brexit has actually been like:

SCENE I. A Facebook comment section

Enter LEAVER and REMAINER, old friends who have just returned from a hard day’s outrage on the Twitters.

Leaver: Comrade, it’s a simple question of democracy. The EU does not meet democratic norms, and we should reject it just as we reject monarchy, the House of Lords and TTIP.

Remainer: Democracy schmemocracy, you racist shitlord!

Leaver: Comrade, come on, I think we can have a sensible conversation here. We’ve been friends for years.

Remainer: Boris! Nigel!

Leaver: And your side is backed by Cameron, Osborne, the CBI, and the IMF, and funded by Lord Sainsbury, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley. Need I go on? The left should not just automatically take whatever position is opposite to our opponents, but rather formulate an independent position.

Remainer: What, do you want Boris for prime minister?

Leaver: You’re not making any sense. That’s not a logical response to what I just said.

Remainer: The EU is an environmental wonderland, saving us from climate deniers.

Leaver: That also does not follow on from our discussion. But okay, I’ll take your bait: What is important is not whether the king is good or bad, but that he is a king. In any case, the EU’s flagship climate policy, the Emissions Trading Scheme, is a neoliberal boondoggle that has not resulted in carbon mitigation. Meanwhile the EU deregulates and privatises the very public energy companies we need to build out clean-energy infrastructure.

Remainer: Whatever. People are xenophobic idiots. If we leave the EU, this will give confidence to the far right and then two weeks later everyone will be a Nazi and all the immigrants will be gassed. Only the EU can liberate us from the mouth-breathing Sun readers.

Leaver: You really don’t like working people very much, do you? In any case, isn’t it the EU that is building Fortress Europe, letting migrants drown in the Mediterranean while bribing autocratic Turkey to keep them out?

Remainer: Brexiters are objectively siding with racism and xenophobia.

Leaver: Now you’re just blurting out slogans, not even debating any more.

Remainer: There’s no debating with racists and xenophobes. Their hate speech must be shut down.

Leaver: What?! This is crackers. You’ve known me for years. We’ve been on how many pro-immigration protests together? Was Tony Benn a racist and xenophobe?

Remainer: Bigot! Fascist! Boris! Nigel! Boris! BORIS! BORRRISSSSS!

REMAINER defriends LEAVER, later no-platforms them from speaking at a university public meeting, and then subsequently sends them to the countryside for re-education via a series of unlearning-racism sensitivity workshops.