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Finis Europae? Historical cycles and the rise of right wing populism

Why has Europe failed to inspire its citizens in a similar way to other ideas such as the nation, socialism or human rights? Here are some answers and some solutions.

Tents at the site of Occupy London outside St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London. PAimages/Yui Mok. All rights reserved.

In 2002, Jurgen Habermas and Ulrich Beck celebrated the great successes of the European Union: the re-unification of Germany, the expansion to the East, the successful introduction of the Euro. Old enmities had been left behind and former enemies collaborated in peaceful competition creating the most successful economic region in the world. Europe was becoming the model for the future of humanity.

The reality is different today. Europe is a dysfunctional entity that has betrayed its foundational values. Politicians, commentators and mainstream academics were aghast at the victories of Brexit and Trump. ‘Politics has gone mad’ said many. ‘The world is crumbling before our eyes’ intoned the French Ambassador to America.

Yet the rise of right wing populism and euroscepticism was not unpredictable. The economic, political and cultural trends leading to Brexit, Trump and the rise of the xenophobic and nationalist right-wing are similar and well-known. They did not seem to worry the European elites until recently.

My argument is that the current European crisis is the culmination of three overlapping historical cycles, three temporalities which, in a dialectical fashion, both created and are now leading Europe to its decline. The pioneering work of Etienne Balibar on the European Union and its teleologies is crucial in this approach.

The first, and longest, started in the fifteenth century with the Renaissance, the discovery and conquest of the New World and is still with us. It is the cycle of European capitalisation and provincialisation.

Over five centuries, Europe became the capital, the metropolis and capitalist centre of the world. The Europeans developed and then exported all over the world capitalism as the economic system and the (nation) state as its political organisation. But the cunning of history or reason (Kantian or Hegelian) worked its magic.

The colonials adopted the two principles and turned them against the master. The cycle is ending in our days as a process of European decay has set in. The violent economic development, the destruction of traditional communities and the artificial nature of the new states are giving rise to huge population movements.

The population movements are a symptom of the changing shift of power from the West to the East. The history of conquest and colonialism is now ending with the reversal of the centre-periphery division which have population flows as an integral part. They cannot be stopped by fences, walls or warships pushing back the dinghies bringing to us the new world dispensation.

The historical trajectory set up by the western conquests and reversed by the great anti-colonial struggles cannot be contained. We live the endgame of a five-century European domination and anyone who has experienced the post-imperial tristesse of Britain or France knows that while the reaction can be lethal, the outcome is inescapable.  

The second cycle is the short twentieth century between 1918 and 1989, the century of the European civil war between Germany and the other European powers and, secondly, between capitalism and communism. The first finished with the pacification between Germany and the rest of Europe, the second with the defeat of communism and the end of the cold war.

The social state and the EU were direct consequences of these two conflicts, an attempt to transcend the ethnic and ideological wars that raged over the last century and ravaged the whole world. The social state was a marriage of convenience between capitalism and socialism, the market principle and social justice as distributive mechanisms.

It was a major victory for the working class movement, the trade unions and the left. But it was also a concession by capital to the dynamic working class movement in order to present a superior alternative to Soviet communism. It was capitalism with a human face.

Anyone who has experienced the post-imperial tristesse of Britain or France knows that while the reaction can be lethal, the outcome is inescapable

The marriage of convenience worked because politics intervened in the economy and mitigated market decisions in favour of working people. The all-conquering dialectic worked its magic again however.

The adoption of the market principle by the communist states contributed to their demise which, in turn, freed the West from its lukewarm commitment to the social state. What started as the great compromise of our times has finished with the end of both social systems. Soviet communism is dead and the social state is not feeling too well either.

Finally, the third cycle of the “end of history” started in 1989. It is an attempt to re-establish Western hegemony at a time of rapid decline. The liberalisation of capitalism, the destruction of the social state, the privatisation of public assets and the commons, the deregulation of the markets and the disrespect and marginalisation of democracy have freed markets from considerations of social justice. Markets have been freed from correction by social justice.

Economic performance, productivity, competitiveness and the repayment of debts are prioritised over social justice and the needs of people. We are treated and are turned into little entrepreneurs of ourselves and our families. We have to provide for our education, health, old age and care. Rights and entitlements created by the post-war social contract are now destroyed, state institutions and services privatised, governments become collection agencies of international capital against their own citizens.

The unravelling of the social state was facilitated by what became known as the post-democratic condition. Complex social problems require optimal scientific solutions that cannot be put into public deliberation or, even worse, the vote.

Politics must promote broad centre-left and centre-right alliances with technocratic and grand coalition governments. Understandably citizens conclude that elections make no difference and turn away from politics. This derogatory treatment of the plebeians and the business as usual mantra lies equally behind Brexit, Trump and Le Pen.

The passionate intensity of right wing nationalism offers a message the people respond to: the elites are selfish, corrupt, delinquent. Its promulgation that power must return to the people is the great lie of our times. (The two greatest shocks of 2016 came in the states that most fervently had adopted neoliberalism and the politics of the extreme centre.)

But the cunning of history struck again. The victory of the West in the cold war has undermined Europe’s major achievements: prosperity based on solidarity and the pacification of ethnic conflict. Austerity and recession, unemployment and precarious employment, the impoverishment of the middle class and the huge increase in inequality have undermined trust in mainstream politics.

Blair, Cameron, Renzi, Macron and the European Commission’s white paper follow the ‘business as usual’ mantra when the citizens have massively abandoned it. Their convergence into the extreme centre has undermined input legitimacy. On the output side, the wall built between economics and politics means that politics has largely given up redistributive aspirations. This is the ground a billionaire or Le Pen have usurped. They claim fraudulently to stand for the social state and the unemployed, stealing from social-democracy its assets and pride.

As Jurgen Habermas, the greatest promoter of law-based federalism has insisted, the monetary union has developed into a non-transparent, post-democratic case of ‘executive federalism’

The same disaster has befallen the second achievement. The suffering of countries under austerity and the resistance of Greeks is well known. So is the shocking response from mainstream journalists and politicians. The line between acceptable economic and political critique of the Southern states (revealingly nicknamed PIGS) and racial slurs is very thin.

The refugee crisis has made things worse: national interests and the election cycles determine foreign policy without regard for Union decisions, international law or humanitarian considerations. Europe is returning to the old nationalisms and ideological or historical spheres of influence. Had the cold war lasted longer, had the victory of capitalism been delayed, perhaps Europe could have moved towards political union, the ultimate defense against the Soviets. This did not happen.

All this leads to the conclusion that the new world order announced with fanfare in 1989 will be the shortest in history. It started unravelling in the financial crisis of 2008. Two waves of popular reaction followed. In 2011, the Arab spring, Spain Greece Occupy Wall Street, the world Occupy movement expressed in the anti-austerity and ‘we are the 99%’ slogans the rejection of neoliberal misery. The elites did not listen. In 2016 and 2017, in the absence of progressive alternatives the voters moved to the nationalist right-wing. The disease remains the same, the symptoms were left untreated; the people are choosing quack doctors.

President Juncker is fond of asking the Quo Vadis Europa question and repeated it when presenting the Commission White Paper. Perhaps he is making a joke at his own expense. It was St Peter who asked the risen Jesus "Quo vadis?", when he appeared to him as he was about to leave Rome to avoid martyrdom. Jesus replied, "Romam eo iterum crucifigi" ("I am going to Rome to be crucified again") and Peter returned.

On March 25, the leaders went to Rome to celebrate Europe. Another Roman reference comes to mind. While the city burned, legend has it that Emperor Nero played the fiddle and sang the lost epic Ιliou Persis (the Sacking of Troy). It is perhaps an ample parable of our state.

The failures of Europe

In the 1980s, integration and the ever-closer union became the raison d’etre of Brussels. The method adopted to this effect was the imposed or agreed convergence of states in key areas. The neo-functionalist orthodoxy of the time relied on spill-overs from already integrated fields.

These spill-overs were set off by putative causal connections treated as constraints in the further advance of already existing convergences. But as the integration started entering key areas of domestic social order, it was resisted and stalled. New steps became harder and were achieved only through the ECJ, which returned to its earlier model of ‘integration by stealth through Law’. Both methods sideline popular participation.

The constitution debacle made it clear that further moves towards integration would be resisted by the European citizens. In part, the answer was the EMU, which constitutively separated the integration process from democratic politics. As Jurgen Habermas, the greatest promoter of law-based federalism has insisted, the monetary union has developed into a non-transparent post-democratic case of ‘executive federalism’.

The EMU removed a large tranche of national problem solving capacities, such as exchange and interest rate flexibility, without replacing them with corresponding European mechanisms. What was initially presented as a technocratic exercise morphed by stealth into a fiscal union and started pushing the eighteen towards a federal political entity, without the politics or economics. Was not the 2008 financial crisis a catastrophic failure in economic governance?

The answer of the establishment is differentiated speeds, variable groups of states choosing their partners and priorities: Visegrad with a human face.

In Britain, the Queen, reversing the story of the Emperor’s new clothes, asked a senior economist at the LSE ‘how come that such a clever lot as you failed to predict and prevent the crisis’? Nobody has asked or answered the question at the European level. As a result, the story of the last eight years resembles a driverless train hurtling towards a coming derailment.

If convergence through politics has been marginalised; if the law cannot bear the burden without further loss of legitimacy; if economics has failed spectacularly; the final method is diktat, radical alteration of individual and collective behaviour at gunpoint. The bailout programmes and their conditionalities are a case of integration through diktat. The measures imposed on Greece and currently negotiated include the reduction of the minimum wage, the weakening of the unions, deregulation of employment protection and liberalisation of services.

Fiscal and current account deficits are seen solely as the result of lack of competitiveness. This is caused by above average increases in unit labour costs in the large domestic sector of Greek economy. What is the cure? Internal devaluation and reduction in labour costs in order to have the South become a pale imitation of the Northern export-based model.

But there can be no export-led recovery, as in Germany in the 2000s, because the measures supposed to help exports are depressing further the much larger domestic sector through fiscal strangulation and wage decreases. This is an experiment in social engineering and brutal biopolitical re-arrangement of whole populations worthy of Jeremy Bentham and nineteenth century England.

The monetary union has underperformed economically and is now failing politically. All governing parties in programme countries lost the following elections while Northern political parties use Southern woes for election advantage. Social justice has been abandoned at the European level and is contained in largely impotent domestic politics creating resentment and xenophobia. Citizen alienation is now threatening the whole European project.

The answer of the establishment is differentiated speeds, variable groups of states choosing their partners and priorities: Visegrad with a human face. For Greece, entry to the Euro was a mistake but exit would be a disaster and has been rightly ruled out. The desire for flexibility and selection of an emerging hard core Europe will be highly problematic for weaker members.

Perhaps, weaker Eurozone members should explore the possibility of a flexible if split euro as Joseph Stiglitz has suggested. Otherwise, Fortress Europe will keep out not just refugees and migrants out but the European South too.

The future

The Commission White Paper shows that the ideological straitjacket of ordoliberalism does not allow the theoretical imagination or the will necessary to move in a radically new direction. The white paper half-heartedly acknowledges the chasm between policies and people. For European orthodoxy, crises lead by stealth to greater integration and the hope is that the same will happen in the present travails.

Yet, the unprecedented rise of the nationalist right wing, to which European policies have generously contributed indicates that this is not a ‘normal’ crisis. We need a different politics in a different Europe, a serious and far-going critique of the Union while defending the ideal of Europe. The task is to rebuild Europe from the bottom up as a community of democratic nations and peoples, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all top-down construct.

A loose confederation of European homelands to replace the failed federal plan should be part of this debate

The battle for the soul of Europe will take place on three fronts. First, a reversal of austerity and recession-creating policies. Wide political alliances of social-democracy and the left are necessary for such policies. They could include fiscal policies for growth, a banking union in the Eurozone area, the guarantee of bank deposits and Eurobonds.

The second task for the left is the re-politicization of politics after the long post-democratic interval at the European and domestic levels. A European public sphere of debate and action must be created developing and coordinating the many recent campaigns of resistance, the solidarity and social economy initiatives that have saved the name of Europe in Lampedusa and Lesvos.

The radical restructuring of politics and a rebooting of the constitution involves the substantial upgrading of the democratically legitimate institutions. Parliaments, including the European, should become independent of the executive and exercise their role of controlling and holding the government to account more energetically. Local regional and national authorities should develop direct democracy institutions, such as local referenda, citizen assemblies and collective budgets.

Europe has failed to inspire its citizens in a way similar to other great ideas such as the nation, socialism or human rights. The daily experience of the vast majority of European peoples is one of political, cultural and emotional attachment to the local, regional or national level.

Many powers and competencies should therefore return from Brussels to national capitals, regions and local authorities as a precondition for survival. Perhaps the idea of a loose confederation of European homelands to replace the failed federal plan should be part of this debate.

It is perhaps the duty of the left with its institutional naivete and youthful audacity to think through these major changes. Such ideas and initiatives can only come from those challenging the tired European establishment.

About the author

Costas Douzinas is Professor of Law at Birkbeck College, University of London and Member of the Greek Parliament for Pireas. His new book Syriza in Power: Reflections of an Accidental Politician will be published by Polity in June.

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