Sunday, 4 December 2011

Sowing whirlwinds: European elites get the crisis they deserve

James Wickham: Europeans are getting fed up with Europe. Everywhere as the crisis deepens and as some experts demand closer European integration (‘fiscal union’, Treaty change, etc.), more Europeans are becoming disenchanted with the European project.The sociologist Neil Fligstein showed that European integration has had most support from the better off and the better educated.More generally, unlike the creation of modern Italy or even modern Germany in the 19th century, the European project was never a mass movement.

Today even some national elites are abandoning Europe.Certainly here in Ireland much elite opinion seems to be now more pro-American than pro-European, and anti-German jokes worthy of Biggles and the British Daily Mail appear to be normal in the media. Yet this is hardly an Irish peculiarity. Elite disenchantment is pervasive, probably a response to the growing popular discontent.

All of this arguably stems from two long-standing trends.In the past most Europeans have passively tolerated European integration.It was plausible that it had some connection to economic growth from which they benefitted; it sometimes delivered some small but tangible benefits in terms of ease of travel, rights to health services, etc; in some countries it brought better governance and more progressive social, cultural and environmental policies.And then of course some interest groups (e.g. farmers) gained, as did some regions.

The Maastricht Treaty even created some rights for us as European citizens.

But all of that is in the past. For the last decade the EU has been chipping away at the basis of its own popular support.It stands for the privatisation of state assets, and even more crucially, the marketisation of state services - the European Court of Justice not as enforcer of citizens’ rights but of the rights of the free market.If the European Social Model is built on national welfare states, then the European project is now about weakening these – and putting nothing in their place. Why on earth should anyone apart from neo-liberal thugs support it?

More recently another trend has surfaced.Central to the European project was the creation of European institutions (above all the Commission itself) which were to act for Europe as a whole.Although necessarily the big states might dominate Europe, such European institutions would ensure the smaller states had a disproportionate voice.Furthermore, European institutions could ensure that policy differences were not just between nation states, but between different European-wide interests.

Yet as the crisis has mounted, so European institutions have been sidelined. The member states have often ensured that European posts (such as above all the President of the European Commission) are filled by nonentities who can’t threaten them. Now European politics have collapsed to the level of 19th century nation-state realpolitik, with ‘Germany’ demanding this and ‘France’ demanding that and ‘Ireland’ protesting something else.In such a situation it’s hardly surprising that ordinary people understand the crisis in equally national terms (the nasty Germans want to boss ‘us’ around, the spendthrift Irish want to squander ‘our’ taxes, etc).

So why don’t progressives start calling for a new Treaty?One that links fiscal union to European democratic control? One starting point: a European President directly elected by all European citizens?


Paul Hunt said...

It is obviously difficult for the 'progressive-left' to confront the reality, but the centre-right is in government in most EU member-states. Denmark recently - and very narrowly - bucked the trend (and it may have something to do with a reaction to the nasty antics of its equivalent of the UK's BNP). Centre-left governments in Austria, Slovenia and Cyprus ae not looking like healthy bets for re-election. France may buck the trend next year, but, even if he is successful, Francois Hollande may find that he will have to upset pampered elements among his core support.

Yes, of course, these 'neo-liberal thugs' have surborned the democratic process, but it might profit the centre-left to reflect on why this has happened, on why it has been allowed to happen and on why, when this Neo-con hegemony is experiencing its inevitable desructive implosion, ordinary voters are not flocking in their millions to the banner of the 'progressive-left'.

But such reflection would probably be too difficult, too hard, too potentially divisive, too destructive of out-dated, but cherished, ideological baggage, too disrespectful of the 'houshold gods'.

It is much more comforting and comfortable to rant about the evils of markets, to advance utopian visions and to stake out the high moral ground.

Nothing will be achieved until the centre-left restores its electability in a sutainable manner. The alternative is alignment with the woolly-brained and utopian Greens. At least it should be fresh in the memories of Irish people how wonderfully well that worked out when they latched themselves to FF to leverage their tiny political base to push their economy-damaging Green whizzo schemes.

Until the centre-left confronts honestly the reasons for the continuing trend decline in its electability it will not be possible to achieve anything in the broader public interest.

vernon G said...

and what exactly is your thesis on the decline of the centre left??

Paul Hunt said...

@Vernon G,

I have no monopoly on wisdom, but I have advanced some contentions on this blog quitw a few times previously, but there has been little meaningful engagement - characterised by a certain defensiveness and a questioning of my motives.

This network:

does its best to encourage the left to confront the reasons for this terminal decline in its electability, but there appears to b no interest here.

It doesn't surprise me, but it is disappointing.

disgruntled observer said...

"I have no monopoly on wisdom"

You're too modest. Are you sure?

paul sweeney said...

I think you have a point Paul. While the old Communist Left in Europe declined, it seemed along with the Soviet Union (I can’t see the cause and effect too clearly), social democracy also seemed to lose its path. In many countries, especially the UK, social democrats enthusiastically embraced many aspect of neo liberalism. No wonder so many turned off them.
Blair’s attempts to marketise the public sector is one and the reduction of many progressive taxes (and public services) is another. Of course, the public sector needs constant pressure to change and adapt but putting a theoretical price on its services and giving spurious bonuses to top executives (eg to NAMA) for doing the job they are well paid to do is not the way to progress.
The right is in power in too many EU states and thus the Commission reflects this. They have made the Union so “business friendly” that, for example, it failed to regulate banking (with the tacit acquiescence of many social democrats) and this now threatens the edifice itself. Another example is that privatising sound commercial public assets is easy pickings for the private sector and means that many firms do not grow organically but feed on the growth of commercial areas of the public sector. It can make them weaker and less entrepreneurial.
The reasons why the right dominates Europe after the patent failure of its philosophy in practice (Ok some conservatives will argue it was a high octane free market version of the neo-classical economics) is a puzzle. But part of the answer is the Left, both democratic socialist and social democratic, failed to provide a plausible alternative vision as well as good electable candidates in most countries.
My own view is that the basis of a new progressive vision begins with a reversion to one’s basic philosophy.

Paul Hunt said...

@Paul Sweeney,

Your willingness to engage and the open-minded nature of your response deserves a response from. I will do so when I find some time. Thank you.


Surely you can do better than that :-)

Paul Hunt said...

@Paul Sweeney,

It is not so much the failure of the centre-left to present a plausible alternative, bur the failure to develop the post-war social democratic consensus (which the right was forced to accept until it could overthrow it) based on Competition, Solidarity and Co-operation for the modern era. These are the values and principles which guided the development of the EU. It falls to veterans of the centre-left, such as Jacques Delors and Helmut Schmidt (the latter, who is now 93, delivered a magnificent speech to the SDP annual conference in Berlin last Sat.) to keep the flame burning.

Capitalism will always be with us. The propensity to speculate to accumulate, to accumulate to speculate is a part of human nature. It is a continuous struggle to keep it subject to democratic governance so its detriments may be curtailed and its benefits enhanced. It is futile to think that it may be suppressed, supplanted or superceded; the continuous challenge is to manage it.

Over the last 30 years in developed economies more and more people had the opportunity to behave in the capitalist mode - to accumulate to speculate, to speculate to accumulate. It is frankly insulting to sneer at their aspirations or desire to 'better themselves'. (Many Irish people came to the game rather later - and many participated in a frenzied but ultimately self-destructive manner.) Politicians such as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton recognised this, but conceded farr to much to secure their electoral support.

But it is only part of human nature and the project for the centre-left is to ensure that the 'rules of the game' are developed and applied with popular consent to ensure justice for all with respect for human freedom and dignity - and to ensure a balance between the role of the state and markets. This must recognise that genuinely competitive markets are the most efficient means of allocating scarce resources, that effective decentralisation of the the provision of public goods subject to local democratic accountability is required and that the collective interests of citizens as consumers must be advocated forcefully.

All of this is probably too much of an 'ask' for those on the 'progressive-left', so I fear the centre-left is condemned to inexorable electoral decline (with occasional forays into office accompanied by the woolly-brained and utopian Greens and with the 'rules of engagement' set by the centre-right.

This provides a perfect mix of ingredients in terms of popular discontent with the political process to advance populist, xenophobic and nationalist extremists.

Paul Hunt said...

Same as usual. A faint hint of engagement on these issues and then....nothing. Oh well. If the left fails to make the intellectual case to stake out political territory much deeper and broader than its usual redoubts it will leave the field open to some very nasty elements that will not fail to spot an open goal.