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The End of Politics (2): Europe

April 21, 2010

by Costas Douzinas

How different does Europe look today from ten years ago. In 2000, influential commentators hailed the dawn of the ‘new European century’ to replace the atrocious ‘American’ 20th century. Europe was on the way to becoming the model polity for the new world. The re-unification of Germany, the successful introduction of the Euro and the expansion eastwards were ushering a new age of prosperity and freedom.

Jurgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck enthused about the European model and prophesized its exportation to the world. Many were the successes of the Union, they claimed.  Old nationalisms and xenophobias had been left behind, former enemies collaborated in peaceful competition creating the most successful economic region in the world. The Union’s principles of democracy, human rights and multiculturalism were a beacon of hope. Europe was the model for the future of humanity.

The reality is so different today. The Union is no longer a model but a dysfunctional organization that has betrayed its founding principles of economic stability and prosperity based on social solidarity and justice. As the Greek tragedy shows, it has turned into a bureaucratic placeman for market discipline and an economic enforcer of international capital. How did that happen?

The change started when the Maastricht treaty adopted the neo-liberal agenda pioneered by Thatcher in Britain. Deregulation of financial transactions, privatization of public assets and utilities at bargain prices and taxation regimes favouring transnational corporations were introduced throughout Europe. The commitments to full employment and the welfare state were dropped as the European states revised their re-distributive efforts to fit strict expenditure constraints and balanced budgets. Century-old gains of the trade union and radical movements were reversed. The new orthodoxy was that competitiveness and productivity would improve if the power of the Unions was seriously curtailed (something again pioneered by Thatcher in her attack on the Miners Union), labour law protections weakened and employment security abolished. Maastricht started one of the largest transfers of capital and power from labour to business, a process now reaching maturity.

The neo-liberal faith is that monetary stability, improved productivity and competitiveness lead to growth and translate into economic rewards for the employed part of the population. Increased consumption, rising property and equity values will make the masses adopt ‘popular capitalism’. The ‘seduced’ two thirds of the population will support an obscenely unfair economic system to the extent that it offers them improved standards of living, unless they become unemployed or ill. The unemployed and underemployed third of the population, on the other hand, is abandoned, opts out of the political system and is treated as a security threat and policing matter.

These changes were accompanied by extensive marketing campaigns, which promoted consumption and the stock market. Neo-liberalism is not just an economic faith. It is a global ideology telling people how to see themselves and others, what to value and how to relate to the world.  The introduction of the Euro accelerated the process. In theory, it would lower transaction costs, increase capital returns and lead to greater investment and productivity. But growth levels did not rise and when the world financial and economic crisis hit, Europe tumbled into deep recession.

The stability pact 3% deficit ceiling had been repeatedly breached by every state before the recent crisis but was covered through creative accountancy and political agreements. The neo-liberal argument to the apparent failure of the euro promises was that state action should be cut further and remaining labour market rigidities removed. This is what Greece is now asked to do in a way that puts her in the same position as developing countries under the IMF ‘Washington consensus’.

The uncertainties and unbalanced architecture of the euro were concealed from the public. The modernizing ‘public intellectuals’, the liberal economists and journalists, who enthused about the euro, ‘discovered’ suddenly in the last month that fiscal discipline without common economic policy means that the strong turn their interests into universal truths at the expense of the weak. The government ‘discovered’ suddenly that the financial markets can target the bonds of a weak states and make huge gains. But this has always been the function of the financial markets as we know from the attacks on the British pound in the 80s and on the banks in 2008. It takes naivete or bad faith on the part of the rulers to claim that this is something unprecedented while at the same time using the same mechanisms to raise loans.

One response to the structural problems of the monetary union is to propose greater economic integration, which necessarily leads to closer political union. For the Left too, democratic politics is the only way to resist the neo-liberal consensus of big capital, Eurocrats and political elites. But any closer European politics would have to address what EU propagandists call the ‘democratic deficit’. This is a euphemism however hiding the truth. The EU has no deficit but a total absence of democracy. Let me explain.

Every single principle of a democratic constitution from the separation of powers to democratic accountability and executive transparency are violently breached. The governments-appointed Commission exercises the exclusive power of legislative initiative, Parliament like, but also enforces the law, executive like. Government representatives and council of Ministers emissaries legislate in collaboration with government appointed commissioners. The Parliament is a talking shop with minimal powers something understood by the European citizens, which has turned its back to European elections, recently recording the highest levels of voter abstention ever. This combination of unaccountable eurocrats and national bureaucrats has led to a mountain of legislation amounting to more than 100,000 pages. These are imposed on states without even a minimum discussion by national Parliaments and amount to 70% of legislative production in Britain.

The European lack of democratic accountability has been welcome by national governments (which can agree unpopular measures in Brussels without having to get MPs to vote in Athens) and has infected national Parliaments. The only participation citizens are allowed in European affairs is through lawsuits, applications to the ombudsman and lobbying of ministers and commissioners. This is a sad remnant of the original vision of a democratic European integration.

On the few occasions the public was asked to vote on the European construction, it has decidedly rejected the proposals.  The referenda over the European ‘constitution’ in France, Holland and Ireland confirmed extensive popular distaste and the one in Britain had to be cancelled as a result. The typical and angry response of the frustrated elites was to re-package the ‘constitution’, offer bribes to the Irish and the Poles, and impose a President and Foreign Secretary, whose only quality is that they are universally unknown non-entities.

This European attitude to democracy shows postmodern cynicism at its worst. It combines Brecht’s dictum that if the people do not vote for the government, the government should dissolve the people and elect a new one with the principle of ‘as if’: the more you get your proposals rejected the more you should act as if they have been unanimously approved.

Based on these reversals, academic propagandists for the Union argue that popular participation is undesirable because it is ‘ignorant irrelevant and ideological’. Princeton Professor Andrew Moravcsik claims that ‘social Europe is a chimera’ and democratic participation should be discouraged because it ‘runs counter to our consensual social scientific understanding of now advanced democracies work.’
Economic and scientific expertise is not open to debate and voting. Indeed all democratic participation and mobilization is expensive, counter-productive and gives the impression that there may be more than one solution to problems that have objectively right answers. The great advantage of the Union is that it is so ‘boring’ that people do not care about it.

This complacency has been undermined by the Greek measures.  Europe can no longer be seen as a remote bunch of faceless bores dealing in esoteric rules of trade, competition and regulation of products. Its diktat, solicited and accepted by the obedient Greek government, now reaches the basics of popular well-being. To smooth its passage, Eurocrats and the Greek government followed identical ideological tactics. The politics of fear (bankruptcy, Titanic, non-payment of salaries) mimicked the exaggerated claims of the war on terror. The monotonously repeated claims about the ‘objective character’ and inescapability of the measures co-opts the trust generated by scientists. It is a typical case of ‘good cop, bad cop’: Germany and the markets are bad and speculators, we Greeks patriotic and victims. As in police movies, the positions can be easily reversed: we Greeks are lazy and cheats, Europe represents reason and modernity.

The dominant vision turns politics into a region of economics and morality. Why ask for social justice, if you can get a good ombudsman. But as similar measures are imposed across Europe, a process of de-legitimation of the neo-liberal model and even of the EU more generally has started kicking in. We may be at the real beginning of the 21st century as the legitimacy of the post-1989 system starts collapsing. This is the great opportunity of the left: it is perhaps the first time that the idea of ‘another Europe’ may take roots.

All great ideas in modernity, from human rights to popular sovereignty to the nation and socialism were advanced originally by intellectual and political elites but were able to inspire people and turn them to action. This has palpably failed in Europe. Elites have become European but the people have not followed. This loss of nerve of intellectuals is quite striking in Greece. The answers given recently to a newspaper asking why intellectuals do not participate in the crisis debate were revealing. Most intellectuals are now liberal modernizers, part of the elites that run the country according to European directives. The rule of law, public morality, and market integrity are the guiding principles, as packaged in Brussels. Social justice, the single issue that most consistently defined the public intellectual and brought together Sartre and Russell, Camus and Derrida, has been forgotten in the quest for the latest EU research grant. No wonder nationalism is on the rise: the liberal ‘constitutional patriotism’ may sound good in Berlin where nationalism has repeatedly turned genocidal but can create no affect or loyalty in Pattissia or Byronas.

No immediate prospect of a European demo-cracy exists because no European demos has been created. This liberal failure has boldened neo-liberal apologists to propose a new type of integration. Oxford academic Jan Zielonka announced in 2006 that Europe is becoming a benign Empire. Its complex governance, neo-medieval maze of jurisdictions and committees of experts which find their equilibrium through spontaneous market adjustments and is closer to the Holy Roman Empire than a modern democracy. Policy networks and lobbying are more effective for decision-making than popular sovereignty and elections. As Perry Anderson sarcastically comments, this is a ‘return to medieval petitions submitted to the prince’.

So is Europe moving towards cosmopolitanism or empire? Recent events show clearly that the current direction is imperial but not in Zielonka’s sense. A quasi-imperial metropolis (Germany) imposes on the provinces (Greece) measures that lead to large transfers of value to the local delegated elites and the centre while creating the stability necessary for neo-colonial enterprises. As Greece prepares fearfully to receive the various imperial inspectors from Europe and the IMF, it has accepted its status as a mandated territory of limited sovereignty, somewhat like Kosovo.

Historically all cosmopolitanisms ended up in empire. Stoic philosophy ended up in Rome, Christian spiritual universalism became conquest, genocide and conversion, modern reason and progress degenerated in colonialism and the ‘civilizing mission’. Similarly today the cosmopolitanism of European integration ends up in the imperialism of the market and the strong-arm tactics of the IMF.

But there is another tradition that belongs to the left. Liberal cosmopolitans forget that the first to call himself cosmopolites was Diogenes the Cynic. He was a fierce critic of institutions, conventions and the powerful unlike the Roman Stoics, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius who are presented as the founding fathers of cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitan tradition takes place in the streets of Athens and Paris more than in the backroom negotiations of bankers and elite politicians, in the parrhesia of the young rather than the monotony of TV commentators and the hospitality towards the excluded and persecuted.

This is today the responsibility of the Left: to save democracy from its gradual decay into the neo-imperialism of terminally boring experts and the neo-evangelism of neo-liberal dystopia.

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