A saucepan banging anti-austerity protester in Thessaloniki, Greece. Demotix/ Konstantinos Tsakalidis. All rights reserved.
Kierkegaard, in his attempt to delineate the ‘leap of faith’, alludes to the biblical passage in which Abraham is about to sacrifice his son Isaac. This surrender to the divine will of ‘fear and trembling’ evokes the character of an altogether unfathomable act of faith: the ‘credo quia absurdum’.
It is a credo that seems to be working all too well if one ventures to grasp the way in which European leaders advance in the making of Europe. In fact, these leaders give the impression of advancing by leaps into the dark, piously hoping to eventually end up somewhere, as if ultimately the domain of political action emanated out of some kind of magical awareness, unfettered by any principle of reality and devoid of any arguments.
The European Union was conceived as a project of peace, prosperity and freedom from restraint. Yet, once this European dynamic was triggered, the European political class contented itself with minor adjustments without ever meditating on the nature of their cooperation and the purpose of the European Union in a changing world.
After the fall of the Berlin wall and as the prospects of economic and social development became more and more uncertain, this class did not deem it necessary to evaluate the magnitude of the ongoing transformations nor to measure the extent of globalization's destabilizing impact. Never was the question asked: what will the ‘raison d’être’ for the European Union be in the twenty-first century ? Increasingly worried by their internal politics, exhausted by electoral deadlines, the European leaders let themselves be overtaken by 'events'.
The political game was debased to such an extent as to resemble a succession of ‘political coups’, devoid of any long-term vision and unable to incorporate the European dimension into its ‘genetic heritage’, thus losing its credibility little by little. Never did the European governments recognize the opportunity the European standard set them in building their own politics. Never did they perceive the European Union as a new governing space that could amplify their political action.
Disoriented and anachronistic - this is what European answers to the twenty-first century are. As Ulrich Beck stresses, the classical solutions have become ineffective in a world where finance and economics have completely emancipated themselves from national frameworks. Whereas reason forces us to consider a close cooperation between States to implement the political recovery essential to the preservation of their autonomy, the states choose to place their bets on a salvation by the Nation – or at best a ‘nationalized’ Europe in the likeness of a Merkiavellian German Europe.
Their inability to think of political action and legitimacy outside of the national stranglehold has not only strengthened the intergovernmental facet of the European Union – to the detriment of community-based action - but further deprives European states of any global influence, thus leading to their own decline. Stuck in outdated categories, the political class seems to have resigned from the world and to have lost society.
Faced with their disavowed powerlessness, one may wonder whether the European states are on the point of renewing their stoic credo. In ancient Greece, whenever individuals felt alienated from the life of the city due to the sociopolitical climate, they would find refuge in withdrawn thoughts. This attitude of renunciation is admirably summed up by Hegel in his Phenomenology of Spirit when he describes the stoic's aim to be free, whether 'on the throne or in chains'. In other words, as he is not capable of acting nor of knowing where his place is, the stoic ends up confined in abstract thought. Obviously, for Hegel this 'moment of consciousness' constitutes an advancement in the quest for self-awareness. But for us, who are facing a new era in the European adventure, such thinking is staggering if not verging on the suicidal.
For the first time in history, the Nation State is not able to shield itself from the continuous assaults of the economic sphere. For the first time, and without admitting it, the leaders of those nations are unfit to keep their promises or even to ensure the political survival of their nation. By sidestepping political intervention to regulate the markets, they have become powerless to guarantee fair competition. By shunning concerted action they committed the 'original sin of the euro' - their only limit condition being the shortfall in public influence - just to end up in an untameable crisis. It is thus a crisis closely tied to a political no man's land that has backfired both on the member states as well as on the European Union.
Obviously, it is not enough to echo the sovereigntist invocations by iterating a bigoted pro-European discourse inadequate to explain the new course Europe could and should take, so as to ensure not only its survival and that of its member states in the twenty-first century, but also to facilitate fair and sustainable strategies of development.
Criticism of the frenzied neoliberal gamble initiated by the 'conservative revolution' is certainly justified: one cannot deny it is embedded in government establishments as well as within the sphere of the community. Competing visions of Europe are in play; visions that refer to diverging worlds and social models which are founded on antonymic political concepts. It is clear, for example, that the European model envisioned notably by one David Cameron is not that of a unified Europe which bases its legitimacy on a democratic globalization but rather that of a Europe yielding itself up to a wholesale take-over by the market.
His vision of Europe rests upon a political understanding reduced to its most simple formula: to assure his reelection and relay the interests of the City. Here, we find ourselves far removed from an approach that aims at actively channelling financial/economic globalization towards a universal progress that is socially and environmentally supportable. The possibly most disconcerting remark of a Prime Minister so devoted to the intergovernmental cause is his pretense that he is advocating an avant-gardist model beneficial for the member states.
This is, to put it bluntly, pure madness; it would require Europe - at this stage in its history – to opt for some form of Social Darwinism where financial markets and the ideological principle of unskewed competitiveness govern the optimization of capital and human resources, religiously assisted by a political class which ultimately would be quite useless.
Henceforth, even if we accepted the possibility of a cynical ruling class whose main concern would be to reap the benefits of betting on emerging markets and their increasing demand, while ignoring their fellow citizens who have to endure austerity measures leading to a quick degradation of the welfare state and sharp increase in inequalities - even in those circumstances, there would be no assurance that the global economy would spontaneously return to reason. In other words, this offensive solipsism will eventually result in a head-on collision - regardless of possible short-term gains.
Even though some prefer to remain deaf to the clamours of social justice, it is telling that economists themselves - some of them are well-known - press for a democratic rebalancing so as to ensure the viability of the world economy, even though theirs clearly is a reaction proffered in the name of interests. We have reached the point where even capitalism has become the victim of entropy since it cannot detect its own long term interests any more. As Beck underlines, 'the most convincing and enduring foe of the global financial economy ultimately is the global financial economy itself'.
Neither good nor bad in themselves, the markets do not contain the malicious power that 'conservative revolutionaries' try to bestow on them. The self-regulating market is a myth! The quest for immediate revenue and social irresponsibility stem from a logic that ignores principles of fair distribution of the community's profits and individual fulfillment. The drifts are the result of a missing public force which allows for a weakening of public power itself.
Therefore, even if the criticism directed towards Europe is dominated by inter-governmentalism and exploited by the tenets of a harsh and legitimate neoliberal economy, one may nonetheless convincingly assert that it cannot discredit the plausible utopia that is Europe. The latter will dwell in the new frameworks deployed to reorganize our political life and thought. At a time where more and more states appear keen to take back powers too easily conceded, to me it seems a matter of urgency to clarify the position: what idea of Europe do we defend? What role does politics play? What would the implications of a 'European internal policy' be?
In this regard, what is clear to me is that the European idea remains the most appropriate matrix to envision our future in the globalized world of the twenty first century. State and European Union have become integral parts of each other. Today, the responsible political discourse is the one that forgoes anthems of national interest, for national interests lose their meaning if the European dimension is barred from the discourse.
For the first time in its history. the European Union is so weak that its mere survival is at stake. The events have taken an existential turn. As Beck puts it, 'Europeans are experiencing the finitude of Europe'.
This rupture in daily habits has compelled a political reaction and has put Germany in a position of domination. For lack of imagination - or wanting to imagine - an effective governance at the European level, governments have let themselves be trapped by the crisis, creating the conditions for the advent of a German Europe. 'Armed' with economic might, the Chancellor has revealed her remarkable aptitude as she has turned the general disorder into an opportunity to consolidate her power and to impose her vision of Europe. By virtue of the 'logic of risk', the threat of a collapsing Eurozone thus became Angela Merkel's leverage mechanism. Merkiavelli thus subtly synthesizes the Machiavellian combination of 'fortuna' and 'virtu' , a combination that permits an extraordinary inversion of categories, since the legitimacy of her actions is based on the urgency of acting against the perils. In doing so she has succeeded in a single move in elevating sovereignists devoid of all purity or legitimacy to the posture of noble souls.
In the heat of the moment, the gap between the ruling class and those it is supposed to serve has been widening over the months. Politics, it appears, have detached themselves from the world. At no point in this crisis has the question of aberrations in the political workings of the Union and its states been raised - and no answers offered could have halted the roller-coaster of the crisis. Adorned with this 'rhetoric of danger', the intergovernmental authority of the European Union has little by little increased its influence. Inevitably, an 'executive federalism' as described by Habermas has been put in place. The dwindling democracy is all the more disconcerting, as the logic of risk has also led to a consolidation of power in the hands of one nation: Germany.
We have reached a shaky balance the outcome of which has yet to be seen. The irony of history wants Merkiavelli to be the person who could steer Europe towards an intergovernmentalism of an authoritarian type. Or she could be the person grasping that its interest is tied to that of Europeans and hence put an end to this negligence, so as to encourage a political Europe that acts in the interests of all on an economic as well as an environmental, social and educational level.
The society of risk offers the advantage of instigating action. This society of eternal conditionals pushes for governmental reactions but it also allows the dawn of a European consciousness within society. Europe cannot be imposed at any cost. Changing the course is possible and invalidates T.I.N.A. - 'there is no alternative'. It goes without saying that sustainable solutions should not be sought in a Germanized Europe nor from a bloated France. The future belongs to an actively cooperating Europe that seeks to establish wide-reaching environmental and social regulation and standards. Our 'safety' thus won't follow from 'religious leaps' - but from a political upsurge.
This text is the preface to the French edition of Ulrich Beck's 'German Europe' published by Editions Autrement. Thanks go to the author and publisher for letting us republish it here, and to Moh Hamdi for the translation from the French original.
The London School of Economics hosts an event entitled German Europe: are there alternatives? on Thursday March 21 with speakers Ulrich Beck, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, and Mary Kaldor, chaired by Richard Sennett. The debate is free and open to all with no ticket required. For event details see the LSE website.
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