• Review of Perry Anderson, The New Old World, Verso, London, 2009.
  • European Union in the Constellation of Neoliberalism

  • By George Souvlis | 16 May 13 | Posted under: Reviews
  • Edward Thompson is our finest socialist writer today - certainly in England, possibly in Europe’.1 With this flattering statement 33 years ago Perry Anderson began his monograph on E. P. Thompson Arguments within English Marxism. A fair historical judgment would not hesitate today, particularly after the recent loss of Eric Hobsbawm, to bestow the same munificent praise on him. Despite the fact that Anderson’s historical writing differs notably from the passionate and often polemical tone of the founder of social history, it displays some of the most productive aspects of British Marxist historiography. The key institutional aspects of Anderson’s intellectual trajectory are his role in the editorial committee of the bimonthly Marxist journal New Left Review, of which for many years he was the editor, and his masterminding of the radical publishing house Verso which has published more than 3,000 titles during the last four decades and 10 penetrating studies in the fields of intellectual history and historical sociology, with topics ranging from the absolutist state to the origins of postmodernity. Taking also into account his fluency in seven or eight languages he could easily be described as one of the last leading modernist historians.

    The central topic of The New Old Word is the history of the construction of the European Union. The distinctiveness of the book compared with the majority of studies of the subject lies in its espousal of a historical-critical viewpoint in attempting to delegitimise the dominant technical discussions of the  European Union and his struggle to rescue its internationalist political programme despite the EU’s neoliberal derailment. In view of this, The New Old World consists in a theoretical and historical riposte to the mainstream Social Democratic and Christian Democratic idealised defence of the European Union’s current form as well as an implicit counterproposal for its transformation into a supranational political formation that would promote the interests of Europe’s working people. The study is divided into four chapters; the analysis moves from the general to the specific and concludes byreturning to the general. The first chapter examines the origins of the EU, its current form and the various theorisations of it; in the next two chapters the analysis focuses on national case studies of Western (France, Germany and Italy) and Eastern (Turkey and Cyprus) Europe with the last chapter addressing the ideological forerunners of the EU and offering predictions for its future. I will limit myself here, however, to the chapters on the supranational dimensions of the institution.


    Critical debate

    The author’s intention is to open a critical debate on the present European conjuncture in contrast to the current conformist evaluations which have starved the public sphere, blocking intellectual and political horizons from working out alternatives to the Union’s neoliberal course. Anderson begins his research from the foundational moments of the European Community, inscribing its emergence in the post-war historical context. Keeping his distance from the Weberian axiom of value neutrality, Anderson declares his admiration for the European construction as ‘the last great world-historical achievement of the bourgeoisie’.2 According to the British historian, the creation of the EU represents a peculiar synthesis of the geopolitical interests and rational plans of the post-war European great powers in combination with the deliberate federalist vision of Jean Monnet and his colleagues for a supranational European polity. This understanding grasps the politico-economic apparatus which reestablished post-war bourgeois interests as a political utopia, although, since it has not been realised, it remains only a potential one.  In this way, Anderson offers a political alternative to the transfiguration of the EU through a constitution primarily promoting intense interstate antagonism.

    Accelerating historical time, Anderson proceeds from the analysis of transition to that of synchronicity and focuses his historical lens, with short excursuses, on the period before and after the Maastricht Treaty. The key global transformation of the last three decades is ‘the metamorphosis of capitalism as an international order’.3 The EU has been decisively affected by the general neoliberal turn of the economy and its executive body, the European Commission, which since the 1990s has been ‘openly committed to privatization as a principle, pressed without embarrassment on candidate countries along with other democratic niceties’.4 The full-employment and social welfare-provision goals of the post-war nation-states have ceased to be priorities. The new pan-European directive is the regulation of inflation through the shift of macroeconomic policymaking from the national to the supranational level, ‘from national capitals to Frankfurt and Brussels’.5 For this reason, the Eurozone is as a whole backed by a Stability and Growth Pact obliging national governments to meet harsh budget targets. The above-mentioned processes have modified core functions of the nation-state, depriving it of its traditional right to autonomous economic policymaking. As such, the EU no longer has a regulatory role but intervenes drastically in ‘issues that voters do indeed usually feel strongest about - jobs, taxes and social services’.6 Its interference, though, is not limited to the economic sphere but extends to areas of military and diplomatic policy, with the ‘New Europe’ engaging inter alia in the ‘humanitarian’ war ‘in Afghanistan, where a contemporary version of the expeditionary force sent to crush the Boxer Rebellion has killed more civilians this year than the guerrillas it seeks out to root’.7


    Single currency and reunification of Germany

    Three major historical processes contributed decisively to the configuration of the EU’s neoliberal physiognomy. The first was the introduction of the single currency. The initial purposes the states had in undertaking this move – lower transaction costs and greater predictability of returns for business – have not been fulfilled. According to Eurostat, unemployment in April 2013 across the 17 EU countries in the Eurozone has reached 12% for the first time since the currency was launched in 1999. So far, the EU has ‘recorded a growth rate well below that of the United States, and lagged far behind China’.8 The refusal of the European Central Bank, after the global financial crisis of 2008, to buy the debt of the member-states has increased the inflation rates of their economies and particularly those of the southern periphery through ‘enforcement by Germany ... of draconian austerity programmes, unthinkable for its own citizens’.9

    The second crucial transformation was the reunification of Germany. The cost of the process was a severe downturn in the country’s economic growth. The economic recovery was based on a notable wage squeeze. As a result, since 1995, German unit labour costs have fallen by around 20%. The extended period of economic decline came to an end in 2006 when growth leapt to 2.9%, from 0.8% in 2005. The economic recovery reestablished Germany as the central hegemonic power on the continent.10 Anderson assigns a dual role to the new European hegemon in the current conjuncture: ‘Germany now, more than any other state the ultimate author of the Euro-crisis, in driving through a system of capital relaxation abroad and wage repres­sion at home, has also been the principal engineer of the attempts to stifle it’.11 Thus, the efforts of the German political and economic elite to implement this policy have proved lucrative for the markets and catastrophic for the working people of Europe.

    The third historical change is related to the process of the EU’s expansion into Eastern Europe. European integration, contrary to the dominant discourse of the western opinion-makers, is characterised by ‘combined and uneven development’. The role assigned by the EU to the post-communist societies was that of ‘a zone of business-friendly fiscal regimes, weak or non-existent labour movements, low wages and – therefore – high investments, registering faster growth than in the older core regions of continent-wide capital’.12 The phrases of the EU’s lobbyists about the supposed ‘restoration of Democracy in Eastern Europe’ of the early 1990s have now vanished. Brussels does not hesitate to support corrupt politicians like the Hungarian Ferenc Gyurcsány in the undermining of democratic norms in his country.13 Another exemplary demonstration of the hypocrisy of the EU’s proclaimed democratic goals was in the Greek case: the Troika’s backing of the non-elected ex-banker prime minister Lucas Papademos. Systemic needs dictated the EU’s expansion into the East. Eastward expansion secured the conditions of economic reproduction of core European capital insofar as it ‘now has a major pool of cheap labour at its disposal, conveniently located on its doorstep, not only dramatically lowering its production costs in plants in the East, but capable of exercising pressure on wages and conditions in the West’.14


    Interimperial class struggles

    In Anderson’s historical narration, however, it is not the movement of productive forces which explains the changing political map of Europe. Espousing the Marxist theoretical principle that the political level is where one can map the indices of change, Anderson’s analysis uses as central interpretative key for the present Hayekian catallactics the ‘inter-imperial, inter-ruling class struggles’15 of the European elites. Thus, according to the reasoning of the British historian, the EU’s neoliberalism was not the outcome of the conflict between labour and capital but the result of the struggles among various antagonistic capital fractions, the resolution of which was wage suppression. Acknowledging the importance of the actors’ political choice within the existing structural constraints in the making of the EU, Anderson avoids a reductionist interpretation of its neoliberal drift. Thus, in The New Old Word we see ‘the principal performers in the process of integration – in ever-greater density as the tale unfolds up to Maastricht, and the arrival of Chirac and Schröder – operating not as puppets of disembodied powers, but as figures with a degree of choice’.16 The EU’s transformation into ‘the theoretical proving-ground of contemporary liberalism’17 has occurred since the policymaking of the dominant political blocs of Christian Democracy and Social Democracy – without any meaningful difference between them – is duplicating the realities of the economic base, contributing substantially to the ‘deregulation and privatization not only of industries but also social services’.18

    Furthermore, the economic ‘modernization’ of the Union did not keep step with the democratic enlargement of its political superstructure, creating a structural asymmetry within the European construction. The horizontal inter-ruling-class competition in Europe is responsible for the unaccomplished, though ideal-typical, capitalist development. In other words, the incomplete capitalist modernisation produced a supine federal union, ‘a caricature of a democratic federation, since its Parliament lacks powers of initiative, contains no parties with any existence at the European level, and wants even a modicum of popular credibility’.19 Anderson sees the restriction on the ‘exercise of popular will’ as having been still more strongly imposed through the backing of the Constitutional Courts. Rejecting a legalistic conception of the supreme courts, which perceives them as the ‘bastions of democratic principles’, he proposes instead that they function as systemic stabilisers, their key role being ‘to accommodate the political establishment of the day’.20 Post-war continental nation-states created and used the new Constitutional Courts as the legal ‘tight corsets’ of the newly established democracies in the battle against communism.21 An illustrative example of Anderson’s view of the law as class-coloured is the ban of the German Communist Party in 1956 by the Bundesverfassungsgericht (Federal Constitutional Court).


    EU as a terrain of struggle

    The picture that emerges from New Old Word’s analytical scheme is that of the bourgeoisie’s failure to perform its historical role in creating and maintaining political democracy on the supranational level. This argument re-inscribes Anderson’s work in the ‘bourgeois paradigm’ first used in his article ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, according to which England did not complete a ‘proper’ bourgeois revolution because of the overbearing and continued prevalence of aristocratic power and privilege.22 The pattern recurs in the dilogy on the absolutist state where the passage to capitalist modernity presupposes the occurrence of ‘bourgeois revolutions’.23 Despite the obvious political and historical limits of this historical interpretation, Anderson insightfully demonstrates the EU’s neoliberal turn, but at the same time – separating form and content – he does not reduce its internationalist political utopia to the economic base, conceiving it as a privileged terrain of class struggle.



    1. Perry Anderson, Arguments Within English Marxism, London: Verso,  1980, p. 1.
    2. Perry Anderson, The New Old World, London: Verso, 2009, p. 78.
    3. Ibid, p. 541.
    4. Ibid, p. 65.
    5. Ibid, p. 66.
    6. Ibid.
    7. Ibid, p. 72.
    8. Ibid, p. 50.
    9. Ibid, p. 53.
    10. Ibid, p. 52.
    11. Perry Anderson, ‘After the Event’, New Left Review II/73, January-February 2012, p. 58.
    12. Perry Anderson, The New Old World, op. cit., p. 55.
    13. Perry Anderson, ‘After the Event’, op. cit., p. 55.
    14. Perry Anderson, The New Old World, op. cit., p. 55.
    15. Jordy Cummings, ‘Perry Anderson. The New Old World’, Socialist Studies, Vol. 6, No. 2, 2010, p. 228.
    16. Andrew Coates, ‘The New Old World. Perry Anderson. Review Essay’, Tendance Coatesy, http://tendancecoatesy.wordpress.com/2010/06/28/the-new-old-world-perry-anderson-review-essay/, 28/ 9/ 2010.
    17. Perry Anderson, The New Old World, op. cit., p. 55.
    18. Perry Anderson, ‘Renewals’, New Left Review II/1, January-February 2000, p. 6.
    19. Perry Anderson, The New Old World, op. cit., p. 60.
    20. Perry Anderson, ‘After the Event’, op. cit., p. 53.
    21. Ibid, p. 54.
    22. Perry Anderson, ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, New Left Review I/23, January-February 1964.
    23. Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State, London: Verso, 1974; and Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism, London: Verso, 1974.

Related articles