Can Europe Make It?

What Europe? What bottom up? A reply to Etienne Balibar

For its citizens, Europe has become a cold and alienating power, instead of the welcoming space it was meant to be. Where did that political and intellectual left which in the last two decades has been decisively Europeanist go wrong?

Ida Dominijanni
7 June 2013
Europa. Flickr/Eva Ekeblad. Some rights reserved.

Europa. Flickr/Eva Ekeblad. Some rights reserved.

With the sense of timing that has defined his articles on the European construction process for years, Etienne Balibar declares 'red alert' on the state of the Union, this time regarding the recent developments in France and Italy, and suggests a historic responsibility to reintroduce a restructuring of the European project ‘from the bottom up’. We should be grateful to him once more and answer his call, as we know that the alarm, just like Hemingway’s bell, tolls for all of us: we’re in the midst of a general decay nobody, the far left included, can escape from.

Our failure

The scale of the problem is known to all: along the years, Europe has become more and more distant, alienated and alienating for its citizens, who cope with it like a cold, demanding power, instead of living it as a democratic and welcoming space. And we are also aware of the chain of mistakes and fateful decisions: a unification process that has always been more committed to the economy than to political affairs; an institutional engineering concerned more with the kratos than the demos, surrendered to technocratic governance, eager to get rid of politics tout court; an economic and financial crisis that condones the nonchalant use of the state of exception, in Greece or in Italy; a centre left unable, all over the continent, not only of contrasting, but even of recognizing said processes and the consequent political and social havoc.

But where did we go wrong? – ‘we’ being that political and intellectual left, which in the last two decades has been decisively Europeanist, ignoring the sovereignists' alarm over the progressive dismantlement of national welfare systems.

It is also our defeat, because what we could have done – resolutely building a public sphere where the word ‘Europe’ becomes a shared feeling, a wish and an intention - we have not, so far, managed to do. To contrast the solid technocratic and neoliberal hegemony that keeps on ruling the Old Continent, there is no recognizable counterhegemonic choir, capable of keeping the debate constantly open to the possibility, the necessity and the practicality of another Europe.

Yet, that ‘we’ is characterized by some solid beliefs, as the 'Europe from the ground up' debate on openDemocracy shows. We know what should be done: a Europe that belongs to its citizens against a Europe ruled by governments and finance; a social Europe against neoliberal governance; a Europe built from the bottom up around goals of full employment, inclusive citizenship, the common good, against this Europe so unsuccessfully designed from the top; a Europe that is open against ‘fortress Europe’; a Europe of rights against one controlled by the sole law of the markets; lastly, a Europe capable of handling the political in a concert of representative institutions and participatory democracy. 

Nevertheless, I am afraid the key word here is should; even if it does not indicate a limit to feasibility, it's generally with such a list of vague aims that the discussion stops. Even we - meaning the aforementioned ‘we’ – do not think Europe can shift from the ‘should be’ ideal to the materiality of 'being', from voluntaristic injunction to generative practise. 

Three repressions

When the political debate is closed, and gets trapped in ‘should bes’, there’s usually an untaken next step that deceives and paralyzes all debaters. At the bottom of our failure to build 'another Europe', I see three 'repressions' (in the Freudian sense) that stall any will to transform and our radical intentions.

The first is the lack of a common language. Twenty-six official languages and more than sixty regional ones are not only ‘an asset’ as optimistically described in the Brussels rhetoric, they are also an enduring obstacle to the creation of some sort of shared European narrative, and to the exchange of ideas and experiences – above all political experiences. The European Union’s policy on this subject does not go further than a generic hymn to multilingualism.

Yet, it is essential to remember that between politics and language there’s a genetic, constitutive relationship, and that political articulation cannot exist without a linguistic articulation. And it is also worth remembering that our linguistic repression is linked to an older repression, in the history of modern politics, the one of the relational and metonymic (maternal) dimension, to advantage the legal representative and metaphoric (paternal) dimension, the failure of which we are now protesting.

The second repression, which is historical and political, regards the year ’89 and its social, ideological and political consequences. We are well aware of the fact that 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall was really the starting point for the acceleration of Europe-building following a neoliberal agenda. Yet, as 1989 and European Communism drift down in history books, they do not speak to the European social consciousness any more.

Still, it’s from there that both the neoliberal hegemony ruling Europe and the new frontiers of inequalities, discriminations and exclusions (or semi-inclusions) that retrace the old dichotomy between east and west, north and south originate. Without a critical reading of European political history of the twentieth century, and more precisely of the dialectic between capitalism and real socialism, there will be no reconstruction of European citizenship founded on the principle of 'égaliberté'. And it will not be possible to save any part of the European social ideal, which has already been replaced by an ideology of austerity, demonization of government spending and sanctification of economic competitiveness.

The third repression, anthropological and political, is related to what Ulrich Beck described as an existential and biographical experience of missed European construction that is now leaving a sediment in our societies. When we invoke political agency ‘from the bottom up’ by a community of European citizens against technocratic governance, what type of ‘community’ do we have in mind? Who, today, are Europe’s citizens - and in what way were they shaped by that governance, its empty promises, its exorbitant requests, its systems of discipline?

The Italian case is quite illuminating in this regard, because the transition from twenty years of Berlusconism to Mario Monti’s technocratic ‘solution’ - two models now intertwined in Enrico Letta’s government – could be described as a transition from a form of biopolitical governmentality based on the injunction of enjoyment, typical of the ‘triumphant’ phase of neoliberalism and the euphoric credit economy, to a form of biopolitical governmentality based on the injunction of sacrifice and on a 'blame-game' debit economy. This transition had a depressive impact on Italian society, and is one of the causes for the lack of mobilization ‘from the bottom up' – what we witnessed instead was mobilization arising in the most ambiguous form of bitter and gregarious populism. The sequence and the evolution of the three Italian types of populism, from Bossi to Berlusconi to Grillo, says a lot about the type of social mobilization that neoliberal policies usually produce.

Now what?

Fundamentally, is there an effective form of political mobilization for our purpose, in the context of a depressed society? And what is it? Aren’t we risking an extra-political implosion – a clear sign of which is the macabre Italian series of debt-related suicides – rather than political mobilization as a result of social frustration?

This of course leads to a broader question, which is that of European identity in this globalized era. The struggle for the construction of Europe should be seen as integral to the complex transition from an era of global Europeanization to an era of European provincialization. The problem we are now facing is how to make this transition a dawn rather than a twilight, and how to re-imagine a European identity stripped of its old hegemonic claims without being confined to the present depressive spiral. It will not be an easy task.

Thanks go to Chiara Gristina for the translation from the Italian original.

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