‘Benito Cereno’ is a short story written by Herman Melville in 1855. A Spanish ship has lost sails, supplies and direction after Cape Horn, with a decimated crew and restive black slaves under the failing command of ill-fated captain Benito Cereno, who is closely watched by his black servant. When the British captain of another ship brings food and water to the distressed ship in a dead calm sea, he finds an appearance of order and resigned quiet, hiding a much darker truth.
Cape Horn is far from Brussels, but Melville’s tale has disquieting lessons for Europe. Its economy has stagnated for a decade, losing the winds of growth. Supplies – in the form of per capita income – have gone back to the level of twenty years ago for southern European countries; in ‘core’ Europe the poorer 50% of the population has barely had an improvement in real incomes; poverty is increasing everywhere.
Europe too has lost its political direction. After the 2008 US financial crisis, its political and economic commanders orchestrated a public debt crisis and austerity plans that have cost Greece and southern Europe a tragic impoverishment, as well as a loss of legitimation for Europe. As the waves of the crisis subsided, Brussels, Berlin and Frankfurt have stayed the course, that is, have stayed in the dead calm of political and economic stagnation. With no sails, commander or route, a new storm could easily rock Europe’s boat again.
Still, a visitor to Brussels could find an appearance of calm. Even on the eve of Europe’s elections there is no action, no critical debate on what has happened, no agenda for economic and political reform, no intention to change the sea route. One might be surprised to find the captain’s cabin empty, and command exercised from different, conflicting posts.
Angela Merkel runs the European Council where unruly national governments bow their head to the German status quo. Worn out and close to exiting power at home, Merkel – in line with German political history – wants all countries to behave as Germany does, has her way by using all sorts of policy rules and bilateral arm-twisting, but has not learnt the difference between command and hegemony. Plans to nudge Europe’s ship in the direction of neoliberal rough seas are eagerly provided by the would-be deputy commander, the technocratic and ineffective Emmanuel Macron, whose proposals for ‘reform’ never reach the European Council table. And whose domestic power has stalled, facing the unexpected revolt of the French ‘yellow vests’.
Europe’s other commanding post – the European Commission in Brussels – is led by Jean-Claude Juncker, whose weak and hopeless character would indeed fit well in Melville’s tale. The Commission is the standard bearer of the bureaucratic status quo, trampled upon by Berlin and trying to enforce economic rules that are mostly wrong.
A fourth man, Mario Draghi, from the outpost of Frankfurt’s European Central Bank, has been the only one taking some action; his ‘Quantitative Easing’ has been the only wind in Europe’s economic sails, but the route he charts protects the financial order that is at the source of the continent’s distress.
Around these four leading actors there is a very large number of junior officers climbing up and down Europe’s mast to get visibility and shout orders that few obey. All together they have shaped Europe’s standstill – a wrong sea route, inaction facing both windstorm and calm, contrasting steps that increased divides – the result, immobility.
The lower decks
Under the deck of Europe’s commanders, however, national politics has indeed become restive, turmoil is everywhere. With no economic gain to offer, governments have practiced ‘divide and rule’ and are turning to the need for order. Fast-rising political forces have challenged the ineffective European élite, waved the flag of national sovereignty, embraced hate against migrants, winning elections and entering governments in many capitals. Extreme right parties now have 10 to 30 percent of votes in most countries, populist rhetoric rules, limited revolts spring up. Conversely, the Left demands for reform or radical change have gone nowhere, the trade unions are in disarray, the mobilisations against inequality, racism, climate change appear as feeble voices against opposing headwinds.
The UK – has decided to jump ship with Brexit, but is finding that the rescue boats of national sovereignty do not operate as expected, and that a whole political class hangs on the ropes between Europe’s ship and the North Sea waves, unable to decide where to go.
A whole country – the UK – has decided to jump ship with Brexit, but is finding that the rescue boats of national sovereignty do not operate as expected, and that a whole political class hangs on the ropes between Europe’s ship and the North Sea waves, unable to decide where to go. In fact, the group of sailors who tried to escape the distressed ship of Benito Cereno ended up under water. A key lesson of Brexit may be that none can effectively leave the ship in distress.
The combination of immobility in a dead calm sea, policy inaction and ineffective social upheaval is Europe’s paradox. Seen from the commander’s deck in Brussels, calm is not a bad option after all. In fact, cooptation in power is working smoothly for the governments run by extreme right and populist forces, from Italy to Austria. They started with an anti-Brussels and anti-euro agenda and quickly adjusted to accommodate Europe’s realities; proposals for a return to national currencies in euro countries are nowhere to be seen in the run up to the May 2019 elections.
Calm is not a bad option either when we look at the United States ship, whose Trump commander is actively dismantling parts of its architecture, dismissing his crew and breaking all maritime rules, hoping that the winds of business and finance may sustain the country forever. There is where a socialist ‘slave revolt’ is brewing even within the Democratic Party preparing for the 2020 presidential elections.
The demands for the protection of society from the darker side of capitalism have not yet found answers in a progressive agenda of change.
On the ship of Benito Cereno, however, things had gone much further than in Europe. The slaves had revolted and taken command of the ship, although they were unable to control and steer it; in the end they were defeated by the British sailors and brought to trial; the doomed slavery order was briefly reinstated.
Europe’s citizens have much to revolt against, but also have privileges and rights to lose. Most resent the élites, many feel threatened by the poorest and by migrants. The demands for the protection of society from the darker side of capitalism have not yet found answers in a progressive agenda of change: no ‘New Deal Europe’ is in sight. And ‘Old Deal Nations’ are gripped by the dangerous fantasies of the extreme right everywhere.
Europe’s May 2019 elections and their political aftermath will bring this large turmoil to the surface, revealing a divided, unruly but not rebellious continent, playing one upheaval against the other. In the end, the European order may not be seriously challenged, and immobility could be the winning option for the present commanders and their replacement. At least until a European version of the ‘slave revolt’ becomes possible.