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The dilemma of the European Left

We must, without ceding to the old myths of totalitarianism, restore meaning to the ideal of sovereignty.

Jean De Munck
5 July 2016
open Movements

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Italian PM Matteo Renzi speaks during the panel on "Transformational Leadership" in Davos, January, 2015. Michel Euler / Press Association. All rights reserved.No doubt remains: the European left is in serious crisis. The compromise between capitalism and the state that emerged in the wake of the Second World War is definitively over, and as the world has globalized, the role of the state has undergone radical change. This is the central reason for the left’s current predicament. Globalized capitalism brought with it the structural erosion of state resources, leaving the European left between a rock and a hard place, faced with a choice between two equally unsatisfactory strategies.

The loss of state investment power

Let us begin by stating the obvious: the investments we make today set our course for the future. The left’s vocation is to orient collective investment towards the least advantaged in our societies by making choices that correct or complement private investments. To do this requires a state that is able to invest according to goals other than the ones selected by the market.

And yet, over the past thirty years, the state has lost a great deal of its capacity to take initiative in this regard, and continues to do so. To be certain, states still retain an exclusive hold on taxation, a source of financial accumulation that, in principle, should allow them to make autonomous choices.

This power has lost all significance, however. There are two reasons for this: first, states are saddled with astronomical debt, forcing them to submit to austerity measures imposed upon them by their lenders. This has made lenders to states into private governments in their own right; they decide, de facto and de jure, on policy measures for indebted countries. Second, European agreements linked to the restructuring of global capitalism have drastically limited state power to decide and to act. European agreements linked to the restructuring of global capitalism have drastically limited states’ power to decide and to act. States can no longer intervene directly in markets without being charged with limiting or distorting competition; they no longer have the power to issue currency; they have agreed to place their budgets under tight surveillance.

For all these reasons, the state is no longer a significant investment instrument. Even when Jean-Claude Juncker sought to establish a public investment fund, the result was a complicated instrument that still struggles to attract any significant funding. This is of little concern to the traditional right, whose policy positions favor privatizing government functions, even when that means placing them outside national control. It is, on the other hand, a preoccupation of the Euro-skeptic and nationalist right, and has thrown the entire European left for a loop.

The left’s two options

For parties on Europe’s left, the option remains of seeking out alliances with globalized private funds in order to attract and orient investments in their home countries. Leaders in what we shall call the “government left,” such as François Hollande, Emmanuel Macron, Sigmar Gabriel, and Matteo Renzi have chosen this option, under the constant threat of “investment strikes” (as Wolfgang Streeck calls them) by the private sector’s global government forces when profit conditions in a given country are not favorable to them. They bend over backwards to ensure that public goals are included in the boardroom agendas of multinational corporations, even to the point of including these corporations in state decision-making processes. The calculus in this strategy is evident, even when it is deployed with the most praiseworthy of economic intentions: a threatened elite is clinging to the sliver of room at the table that has been left to it by the global governing class. What would they not do for their invitation to Davos? A threatened elite is clinging to the sliver of room at the table that has been left to it by the global governing class. What would they not do for their invitation to Davos?

This option may well turn out to be a deadly choice for the left, however, one that leaves it distinguishable from the reform-oriented right in not much more than name. The left-wing parties that have followed this path are foundering in indefensible compromises, as François Hollande’s France clearly shows. Departing from this dead end, we may identify a second option in the reaffirmation of goals that are diametrically opposed to those of private governments. The “Indignados,” “Nuit Debout,” and Occupy movements as well as the movements that have coalesced around environmental and consumption-based activism have all made this choice in opposition to the government left.

This other left, which we shall call the “activist left,” is seeking fundamental changes to our approaches to social welfare investments. Its primary goals are to move beyond the obsession with growth at any price, to dismantle inequalities, and to radically alter the place of work in our society. Behind this first set of goals is an aspiration to shift our relationship with our environment, not through cosmetic changes, but by radically re-orienting investments in transportation, energy, agriculture, health, and other public and social services. For this reason, the activist left privileges lifestyle choice over full employment as a priority, prefers shortening the food supply chain to Monsanto-style large-scale agriculture, and favors public transportation over private car use.

This activist left is often characterized by an anti-state ethos and has found it tempting to leave the system entirely, circumventing the state through what is known as the “third” or “citizen” sector. But by turning its back on state power, is this half of the left not in danger of slipping back into a revolutionary vision that is far too romantic to be effective, and in this way condemning itself to impotence?

The second left accuses the first left of betrayal; the first left sees the second left as a herd of Bourgeois-bohemians who are not so much Occupying as occupied by daydreams. The first left has established fragile connections to crucial means, but, with its complacent policy positions, has lost sight of its ends. The second left is highly imaginative with regard to end results, but is desperate for the means to pursue them.

Old dilemma; new circumstances

It has most likely occurred to the reader that this is nothing new in the history of the left: proponents of compromise have always met with opposition from those in favor of radical alternatives. Relations between political parties and grassroots movements have always been complicated and even fraught. But there is a salient difference between the debates that shook and shaped the left in industrial societies and what is happening now – a difference that has remapped the issue entirely. Before the 1980s, the central role of state in social regulation was never called into question. Whatever their differences, reformists, revolutionaries, socialists, and communists could at least all agree that control over the apparatus of the state was necessary to transform society. At the beginning of the 1980s, however, legal and factual arguments began to call this idea into question, throwing off sparks that ultimately exploded into a conflagration. The undeniable reality we face today is that state sovereignty is becoming an illusion, more so every day. 

The undeniable reality we face today is that state sovereignty is becoming an illusion, more so every day. There are two reasons for this. The first is that we now live in interlocking networks of states; they vary in size and scale but all transfer the management of matters once dealt with on a national level to the supra-state level. This includes functions attributed to the state by centuries-long tradition, including defence, “foreign” affairs, currency, and public budgets.

There is no great “sovereign” in these transnational networks, only a series of highly fluid and constantly changing power relationships that arise from temporary coalitions among pseudo-sovereigns. (A close look at the details of any European Council summit meeting provides ample evidence of this.)

The second reason is the tremendous autonomy of civil society. The state is no longer the only organization working within our societies; it is not even the only umbrella organization. Schools, businesses, research fields, religious establishments, sporting activities, and the media all have their own independent lives. State power exerts less and less gravitational pull on these spheres. We should note that we are witnessing the state’s loss of social and economic initiative, while its security role is maintained.

The state’s predominance has been called into question in normative terms as well. Neo-liberal ideology, of course, has led this charge, highlighting the state’s inefficiencies and the loss of liberty implied by state sovereignty. It has, however, been backed from the left, for there are legitimate democratic critiques to be leveled at what Weber called the “iron cage” of bureaucracy. It is not unreasonable to raise doubts as to whether it is actually possible or desirable to change society by decree, to mistrust experts and civil servants who embrace planning over debate. Nor is it illegitimate to fear excessive paternalism on the part of the state in realms such as education or social welfare, or to recall how national sentiments that foster solidarity may transform overnight into nationalist sentiments that foment discrimination and exclusion.

In other words, the state’s central role has not eroded away merely for want of sufficient financial resources. The forces behind this erosion are political and normative, as well. Not for all that, however, should we conclude that globalization is causing the total evaporation of the state. We should rather note that we are witnessing the state’s loss of social and economic initiative, while its security role is maintained. Even the most fanatical free-market advocates are not yet arguing against the state’s monopoly over violence.

Critiquing illusions, relinquishing ideals

Today’s European left is post-national: whether it has chosen the route of government or taken up the banner of civic engagement, along the way it has given up the illusion of state sovereignty. But we should beware of tossing the baby out with the bath water: in critiquing our illusions, we risk losing sight of our ideals. Scrapping the ideal of the sovereign state means scrapping democratic practice. The goal of forming a socially and environmentally just society presupposes an established sovereign government. Scrapping the ideal of the sovereign state means scrapping democratic practice.

The dramatic situation in which Europe finds itself today arose from a justifiable critique of national sovereignty. But when the European Union’s member states transferred certain of their powers to the Union, the result, in the eyes of their citizens, was not stronger sovereignty on a greater scale. It ended up being the legal enactment of a loss of political voice that was already under way.

Europe’s government left ratified a critique of the illusion of state and nation without energetically providing a new, more vigorous ideal of European sovereignty. And the activist left has never seen the construction of a robust sovereign state as a central concern. Anticipating a phase that Marx envisioned within a classless society, the activist left dreams of a society with no state and no bureaucracy, which bears a certain resemblance to the utopias of the nineteenth century.

Can the left rebuild its platform?

How do we extricate ourselves from the horns of this dilemma? For the time being, it is impossible to sketch out a complete agenda. We can nevertheless accurately identify two conditions necessary to redefining the ends and means of a left-wing policy platform.

The first condition concerns the ends: the left has no chance of making a difference if it does not agree to engage in the imaginative thinking that characterizes its activist half. Without any doubt, any enduring policy platform the left offers must propose a path away from productivism and consumerism as they exist today. Europe’s social democrats are no longer accustomed to this kind of imagining; it will require a deep change in their thinking. They must therefore break with their old habits, a break that will begin with the task of coming up with a new and viable vision for the future of culture and education. Happiness cannot be found in growth alone; our schools must be maintained as political priorities and protected from the market; freedom of lifestyle is of more pressing concern than full employment; protecting biodiversity is of urgent importance: those are a few potential watchwords for tomorrow’s left. The left has no chance of making a difference if it does not agree to engage in the imaginative thinking that characterizes its activist half.

The second condition is a question of means: the government half of the left is correct in asserting that policy cannot be executed outside of the state. It must be acknowledged, however, that the current state apparatus is not actually capable of deploying any truly new forms of policy.

In accepting the neo-liberal institutional transformations of the 1980s and 1990s, Europe’s government left committed an historic error. It accepted the dismantling of financial regulation without batting an eyelash, it voted to do away with the European Central Bank’s accountability to democratically elected political institutions; failing to give the European Parliament any real say in the matter, it did not create any democratic economic governance in the Euro zone.

Europe’s government left would fall even further into error if it were to believe that the current situation is irreversible. Despite the prevailing economic orthodoxy, it is possible to regain control over currency creation and the regulation of public finance. Doing so would require that all of Europe’s left-wing parties, new (Podemos, Ecolo, Syriza) and old alike (Europe’s socialist parties), make it their urgent business to agree on an agenda for rebuilding the European Union on a platform that includes revising its treaties.

Its first goal would necessarily be to restore states’ powers to invest independently of private governments. The left’s most pressing need, therefore, is for a new theory of the state. We must, without ceding to the old myths of totalitarianism, restore meaning to the ideal of sovereignty. Without this ideal, there is no future for the European left in the twenty-first century.

Translation into English by Miranda Richmont Mouillot.

How to cite:
De Munck J.(2016) The dilemma of the European Left, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,5 July. https://opendemocracy.net/jean-de-munck/dilemma-of-european-left

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