Europe in a labyrinth and the material power of ideas

The Greek government has the mandate to revive the idea of solidarity and social justice, but also the idea of the economy itself.

Michael Hauser
25 March 2015
Europe, the Very Idea

Europe, the very idea is a series on the philosophical notion of Europe and what reflection upon it can lend to the sphere of concrete politics.

Labyrinth of Chartres cathedral. Flickr/Steve Snodgrass. Some rights reserved.

Labyrinth of Chartres cathedral. Flickr/Steve Snodgrass. Some rights reserved.At the beginning of the economic crisis, the European Commission revelled in optimism and an almost leftist rhetoric. In A European Economic Recovery Plan published in late 2008 we read:

‘The current economic crisis gives another opportunity to show that Europe serves its citizens best when it makes concrete action the touchstone. Europe can make the difference. In difficult times, the temptation is to feel powerless. But Europe is not powerless. The levers of government, the instruments of the European Union, the influence of intelligent coordination add up to a potent force to arrest the trend towards a deeper recession. A Europe ready to take swift, bold, ambitious and well-targeted action will be a Europe able to put the brakes on the downturn and begin to turn the tide. We sink or swim together. (…) The fundamental principle of this Plan is solidarity and social justice. In times of hardship, our action must be geared to help those most in need. To work to protect jobs through action on social charges.’

And what are the results?

Entangled situation

The total debt of all of the EU member countries combined was 78% of GDP in 2008, while in 2014 it amounted to 107.7% of GDP. The debt increased by 30%.

Since 2008 the GDP growth of the European Union has been oscillating around zero; in 2013 it was 0.1% rising only to 1.3% in 2014.

The unemployment rate in the EU fluctuated around 7% in 2007, while at the end of 2013 it was nearly 11%. Youth unemployment for the EU was 23% in the first half of 2014 with the extremes 57% in Greece and 55% in Spain. Eurostat estimates that 23.815 million men and women in the EU were unemployed in January 2015.

There is a decline of confidence in the EU and in the project of European integration. The share of people favouring the EU dropped from 68% in 2007 to 46% in 2013. Only 29% believe that European integration boosted the economy of their country. And only 17% believe that reducing public debt should be the government's priority.

The reduction of government spending became the only tool in fighting the economic crisis notwithstanding the fact that this impacts mostly on workers' rights and social welfare. European countries are advocating the reformation of labour rights with a goal of reducing the cost of labour and social spending. The reformation is based on a reduction of the minimum wage, increasing the state pension qualifying age, making layoffs easier and promoting part-time work and temporary employment.

Economic recovery has not happened: debt has accumulated and the Eurozone economy has stagnated. Even in the countries that have reduced government spending, most can hardly talk about recovery. Pro-austerity Finland has fallen into triple-dip recession, Great Britain had a narrow escape, Italy cannot stop a rise in debt ratios despite all its cuts. Germany is the only country showing some signs of recuperation, but here the spending cuts are compensated by incentives introduced by no other country, e.g. infrastructure investments or the introduction of childcare subsidies.

There is simply no evidence of the effectiveness of austerity in stimulating recovery. The Eurozone may have averted a triple-dip recession but remains stuck in a deep structural slump. Stefano Fassina, the former deputy Italian finance minister, said “Titanic Europe” is heading for a shipwreck without a radical change of course.

Almost all of the European politicians and economists admit these days that growth is more important than cuts in spending, but nobody has any idea how to induce growth. Nonetheless, following the election of Syriza in Greece and the government attempting to finally take seriously the proclamation of EU from the beginning of the crisis about “bold, ambitious and well-targeted action” aimed at accomplishing solidarity and social justice, the representatives of the EU don't see the party's program as a leading example of how to bring Europe out of this entangled situation. At best, they consider its program a controversial attempt to deal with issues of one country, at worst naïve and dangerous. And yet, the Greek finance minister Varoufakis and EU representatives reached a deal reminding Europe of its Keynesian past while referring to Roosevelt’s New Deal.

The Greek government has committed itself to following the Thessaloniki Programme, which clearly addresses the party’s aims of a balanced budget, improvement of the tax system, fighting against corruption and nepotism, among other things. Its goal lies in solidarity, social justice and a balanced budget. Compare this with a European Commission that has no new emergency plan after the failure of A European Economic Recovery Plan.

There is a new situation in Europe that could be described as multiplied entanglement. If we do nothing, the current economic tendency (increase of debt and unemployment, economic stagnation) will go on until it reaches some indeterminate limit. If we want to reverse this tendency, we have to take action in a way that might seem too risky or even doomed to failure. There is a weird new social and political space-time in Europe that ties together political passivity with political activity: both seem ineffective in the sense that the multiplied entanglement can be unravelled by neither passivity nor activity.

Ideas as an economic factor

In this situation of multiplied entanglement there is a new phenomenon gaining power. Let's call it internegativity. There is a fundamental negative tendency dominating Europe these days. It's a tendency of some of the indicators either to gradually worsen, e.g. rate of debt or unemployment, or to stagnate as GDP and growth have done. For some time now this negativity should have been empowering the alternatives in all of the countries suffering from crisis: legitimizing them while developing activities that strive for the implementation of these alternatives.

This negative tendency, however, keeps negating them. Therefore they seem at best to be mere theoretical constructs with no real possibility of political implementation. In return, the negation of alternatives then affects social and economic tendencies and makes the situation even more negative. It is not like the negativity in Hegel's dialectics where negativity juxtaposes its own antithesis in a dialectical process. In this case, negativity interconnects with other negativity and creates a relation of mutual reinforcement: internegativity.

Internegativity robs us of even the remains of the security provided by liberal capitalism under the pretension of a natural and effective system, while also preventing the search for and implementation of alternatives.

This internegativity has, however, one positive effect. A distance is being taken from what used to be assumed to be a ‘natural’ political and every-day world.  This distance means that we are losing something: we are losing the security provided by a seemingly natural world. After the loss of the security provided by an underlying confidence in the underlying political structures of our social world, there is necessarily a sense of emptiness and the prevailing attitude that there is nothing one can rely on any more. This attitude expresses, however, only one thing: the loss of support provided by the world order of the moment, which has begun to dissolve. It is precisely this emptiness that creates the space for the reappropriation of ideas like solidarity, justice and freedom, though in a different form. It's not an appropriation buttressed by a world order, but an appropriation that is deprived of a back-up. An idea isn't adopted on behalf of a world order, but for its own sake. This can be called the  decontextualization of ideas.

This change provokes the disintegration of our “natural” world. Ideas like solidarity, justice and freedom have always figured as words flexible, relative and even constrained in meaning. We might imagine the following type of realist statement being made about such an antiquated term as solidarity: ‘well, of course we are fond of solidarity, but you know we have to restrain any rise in debt so we should be very careful indeed about things like solidarity. If we yield to the temptation of solidarity, we soon find ourselves in a vortex dragging all of us down straight to the bottom. We ought to follow economic reality and rectify our sense of solidarity as needed.’

Solidarity can be a dangerous idea if we are not flexible enough to adjust it to the evaluation of rating agencies (for example). As long as solidarity, or other similar ideals are grasped this way, they will never be more than pretty words having no impact on the real course of things.

But the entangled crisis is the situation in which solidarity transmutes into idea and a change happens. Solidarity as an idea becomes incorporated into the psychosomatic tissue of human being as well as into political bodies.

In short, belief is created. In the entangled economic crisis, the economy itself becomes just such an idea. This idea was outlined for instance by the United Nations in Article 8 of the Declaration on Social Progress and Development: ‘Each Government has the primary role and ultimate responsibility of ensuring the social progress and well-being of its people.’ The economy-as-idea is a benchmark that can be used to evaluate and reshape the measures that are in place today (e.g. ratings). These contextual measures have been fetishized for some time now. Even though they evaluate only partial economic achievements, they pose as the goal itself, to which we are to subordinate the idea of everyone's material conditions. The economy-as-idea rectifies the relation between the measures and the goal of an economy: the measures and even ratings are subordinated to the goal of economy.[1]

Materialist ideas existing outside the established economic and political context provoke activities which can guide Europe out of the labyrinth. The ideas become economically productive. Who are the realists now? Those refusing ideas as mere pipe dreams do not have any answer to the economic conundrum, and at the same time they admit that the current state of affairs is unsustainable in the long run.

They are not genuine realists because they wait for a mysterious miracle that would break the vicious circle. Materialist ideas, on the other hand, could set off effects leading to the breaking of the vicious circle that the European Union and others have found themselves in. Under current conditions, the realists are those who have learned of the economic meaning of ideas.

From this point of view, the only realist government in the EU today is the Greek one – aspiring to make Greece the first European country to break the deadlock. The government appears determined to unravel the entangled situation that the EU finds itself in these days. Its politics may be something more than just an expression of the traumatic social situation in Greece and an unprecedented galvanization of Greek society. The Greek government has the mandate to revive the idea of solidarity and social justice, but also the idea of the economy itself. In the end, its fate rests on whether it will keep on incorporating these ideas into its politics or abandon them under the pressure of circumstances. The future of Greece, and ultimately also that of Europe, depends on whether these ideas become a real political and economic power.

[1] This redefining of measures was done, for example, by Mahbub Ul Haq and Amartya Sen in their Human Development Index, used currently by the United Nations



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