The crisis of the European Union is developing in a continually more unmistakable direction through the inextricable intertwining of three problems: a) Its interrupted development. The data speak clearly: between 2009 and 2014 the economy of the Eurozone fell by 1% and has not regained the 2008 levels; in the same period – without looking at China (+53.9%) – the USA grew by 7.8%, the United Kingdom by 4.5%, and Japan by 2%. b) The collapse of popular consensus: here it must be said right off that Brexit has by now urgently and inescapably reintroduced the problem of democratic legitimation that the European process has kept unresolved from its inception and which from now on will be increasingly more difficult to sweep under the rug. c) The exponential growth of xenophobic nationalism: the migration flows, a potential growth factor in so far as they offer a limitless supply of labour power with ruinous effects on the austerity regime, have everywhere stoked the feelings of insecurity of the popular strata and opened them to political adventures of all colours.
These are the results of a quarter century of European integration officially launched by the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht of 19 February 1992, which represents a major rupture but at the same time also a substantial continuity with the preceding history of the integration process. With the creation of the single currency a truly supranational power was established for the first time. The nation-states are in fact deprived of the consubstantial power to ‘issue money’. At the same time, however, the treaty enshrines the definitive recognition of absolute freedom of movement for capital and entrusts the governance of the new currency to a European Central Bank that is to concern itself exclusively with price stability.
In this respect, the Treaty abandons a previous configuration, which had, up to the 1970s, always strictly tied the prospect of a single currency to the creation of a federal political power based on the existence of a single balance of payments and a single tax system capable of mitigating, through transfers, disparities in the economic and social developments of single countries.2 Nevertheless, Maastricht is not only an infernal device of European economies that prevents growth by blocking support for domestic demand. It is also a culture and vision of society. It is no accident that the ratification of the Treaty coincided with a profound geopolitical change in the equilibrium in which contrasting visions of the world had existed throughout the Cold War.
Without this radical mutation in the world’s structure it is impossible to understand how the modifications in the political economy, although radical, could introduce a slow but relentless change in the nature of European civilisation. Indeed, a drastic change is occurring in the contents of the citizenship pact signed at the end of the Second World War, but at the same time a marginalisation of political decision-making in favour of a bureaucratic administrative power that presents itself as an executor and guarantor of market discipline; this change has been followed by a crisis of political systems that has guaranteed democracy as alternance, and finally also a recasting of historical memory and consciousness which obscures the deep nexus between the European project and the catastrophe of the Second World War.
Philippe Schmitter remains fully aware of the impossibility of going beyond the framework of what he himself calls ‘modest reforms’ The European Union is not a state and much less a nation, and the idea and practice of democracy are unthinkable and inseparable from the historically determined framework of the nation-state exercising full sovereignty.3 Now it is rather clearer how, with Maastricht, the issue of a deficit of democracy has faded into the much more radical issue of the disappearance of the political.
The stages of this path are readily recognisable. The nation-states foreswear the fundamental prerogative of governing their own economy in favour of an organism that is pre-emptively stripped of any political dimension of a federal sort. At the national level the, completely political, power disappears of governing domestic demand, without an analogous prerogative being reconstituted at the federal level. The ECB takes the market as the obligatory point of reference in governing the currency, arriving at a paradoxical recreation of the gold standard regime. Naturally, the new liberalism has absolutely no naturalistic vision of the market as something that is born and is reproduced spontaneously by dint of its own forces. The eighteenth-century creed of a ‘self-regulated market’ has given way to the consciousness that the market is necessarily a political construction that needs to be defended and protected, but – and this is the essential point – not through a succession of discretional decisions; it is, rather, to be maintained through a system of impersonal rules.4
The transformation of the banking crises into crises of public budgets, as a result of the uncontrolled bailout policies without quid pro quo’s that have been enacted everywhere, has led to the appearance of the figure of the debtor state programmatically exposed to what Jens Weidmann, president of the Bundesbank, likes to call, in perhaps unconscious Foucauldian language, the ‘discipline of the markets’. The new supranational power, in fact, has absolutely no interest in assuming the responsibility of ‘ruling’. It wants to monitor and punish violation of the rules that the states have negotiated and subscribed to in the language of private law. The distinction between state and government that is asserted at the centre of Foucault’s research in the late 1970s is striking today for its impressive anticipation of the logic of European governance in which we are immersed. What is involved is a ‘method’ whose specificity is ‘in bypassing the institution from behind, in bringing out what could roughly be called a technology of power’5 through technologies and ‘apparatuses’ (‘dispositifs’) as forms of power that are alternative or ‘parallel’ to those which arise from political representation.
A useful development of the concept of apparatus has been put forward, which suggests as its distinctive feature the separation between being and practice: ‘the term apparatus designates that in which, and through which, a pure activity of governing is carried out without any basis in being’.6 This means a framework of distinction and contraposition between ‘living beings’ and the apparatuses, the latter understood as ‘a pure activity of governing that is only aimed at its own reproduction’.7 The apparatus of governing produces ‘de-subjectification’, or, one might say, depoliticisation, and passivity.
These conceptual refinements are anything but irrelevant for a better understanding of the circumvention of politics and the state pursued by EU governance. The appreciation accorded the nation-state, which occurs through the increasing responsibility given to the European Council, is also only apparent. Precisely because of the principle of subsidiarity put forward and codified by Maastricht, the nation-state becomes the passive instrument of the realisation of a supranational order that could not be constituted and move forward by entrusting itself exclusively to the cosmopolitan dimension of globalisation but which instead has to be grounded in territories and nations.8 The state is not a victim of global processes, as has often been naively and simplistically supposed, but is complicit in propagating them in a way that is no less essential for being subaltern. Austerity policy and the crisis of politics are therefore advancing hand in hand, not only in terms of the punitive social contents but also in the procedures of power that place the state in parentheses, prefiguring a legality increasingly separated from any form of democratic legitimation. The EU rules that Maastricht began to establish not only conflict with the European constitutionalism that emerged from the Second World War but also internally disempower the political systems, exposing them everywhere to the shock waves of populisms of various kinds.
Two authors with a classical social democratic culture, Colin Crouch and Wolfgang Streeck, today maintain that Maastricht reopened a conflict between capitalism and democracy through a) the constitution of increasingly oligarchical economic powers and b) the aggravation of the system of inequalities.9 The 1999 Blair/Schröder manifesto was an attempt to lend coherence and ideological dignity to a new political approach already widely adopted in the government practices of European socialist parties. It is a hymn to modernisation bereft of any consciousness of the cyclic character of capitalist development, that is, its structural tendency to alternate growth and crisis.
The abandonment of the role of social protection traditionally played by the left opened a phase of intense mobility in European political systems. The successes of Berlusconi and of the Lega Nord in Italy and of the Front National in France (which in the 2002 presidential elections beat the socialist candidate in the primaries) were largely determined by a shift in the working-class vote. This was the beginning of a still ongoing molecular process, which amounts to what Gramsci called an ‘organic crisis’.
In his analysis, the crisis of democracy is always intertwined with forms of entropy of the political: ‘at a certain point in their historical life the social groups detach from their traditional parties […]; when these crises occur the immediate situation becomes delicate and dangerous because the field is open to violent solutions, to the action of dark forces’. The crisis of the political party is all the greater the greater is the strength of the powers constituted ‘relatively independently of the fluctuations of public opinion’.10 Italian fascism arose out of a situation of this kind. But involutional tendencies of an authoritarian or Caesarist type can also appear within a continuation of parliamentarian forms of government.
This theoretical model has something to say about the processes now underway. I have primarily in mind here the turn accomplished in Italy in November 2011. It was the conclusion of the project of a reformist and liberal-democratic refoundation of Italian politics (to become a ‘normal country’) that gestated in 1989. The pressure of the financial markets opened the road to a veritable state of exception as a form of government. Decisive steps of democratic processes (in the first place recourse to the ballot box) were set aside, naturally to ‘save’ democracy. With the nomination of an ‘outside podestà’ as Prime Minister – this was explicit way in which Mario Monti was defined in the pages of Corriere della sera in August of that year – two things were accomplished: a) the prerogative of the executive to determine the government’s orientation vis-à-vis the economy, having already adopted the programme dictated by the ECB; this was then generalised at EU headquarters in June of the following year with the approval of the Fiscal Compact; b) the end of bipolarism and of the harsh but vital confrontation between the right and the centre-left, which had in a sense kept Italian democracy on the alert during the Berlusconi decade, and the formation of a majority of ‘national unity’ (the communist terminology was proposed by the then President of the Republic) that duplicated all the degenerative phenomena (trasformismo and corruption) already present in Italy’s political system. It is the liberal-democratic principle of government alternance that was explicitly called into question. In the February 2013 elections, with 25% of eligible voters not going to the polls, a third of the electorate rejected en bloc the established political organisations, opening up a structural crisis of the political system reconstituted after 1989, with the end of the Cold War.
Identical phenomena occurred in Greece, with the insurgence of a populist formation that then rapidly transformed itself into a grand coalition managing austerity policy. And the same scenario can be expected now in Spain after two consecutive elections.
The same grand coalition in government in today’s FRG exhibits, although without the populist phenomenon, partially analogous tendencies. Angela Merkel has been in power for more than ten years. The SPD was dealt a strategic defeat in the 2005 elections due to the ruinous tampering with the labour market and the social state on the part of Gerhard Schröder with the aim of giving new impetus to German exports. The German social democrats, reduced to electoral levels below 25%, and without any programmatic identity, were now the junior partner of a majority united in managing a European policy founded on balanced budgets. Precisely the violent reactions recently unleashed around the problem of immigration show how, in the context of this coalition and based on this policy, a massive rightward shift of the country’s political axis has taken place, which makes it increasingly difficult to bring about any possible attenuation of austerity policy.
Austerity policy, moreover, has shown itself to also have a strongly binding effect of an ideological sort. There is sometimes talk, as regards the scolding tones of German public discourse, especially involving Europe (‘they should do their homework’, etc.), of echoes of a Protestant tradition. I think, however, of a completely different ancestry – specifically, in terms of the major emphasis being placed in the terrain of economic analysis on competitiveness and competition, that a Social Darwinist tradition is re- emerging, which has long ago left a nefarious mark on European history. The vision is coming back of the individual who realises what is best in himself in pitting himself against his peers, that is, once again, individualism as the survival of the fittest. There is no need to waste words on the authoritarian essence of this view of the world. Nevertheless, it is important to be aware that it is precisely this interpretation of subjectivity that has been an essential factor in affirming neoliberal mass common sense.11
The ‘civilisation’ of Maastricht, however, is not without its weaknesses and contradictions. The British vote has triggered the debate that the Greek case in July 2015 was not able to stimulate. On that occasion Wolfgang Schäuble, rather, went as far provocatively as to sneer at the decision of the Greek government to hold a referendum. The day after the event, the spectre of what was possible became visible. The journal of the Italian employers’ association, Confindustria, assumed the burden of an openly Jacobin position: ‘Wake up, Europe!’ was the continual headline for three days in Il Sole 24 ore. In an editorial, the director Roberto Napoletano even asked that German trade surpluses be used to finance the development of all countries.12 It is not clear how long a position of this sort will be maintained that wants to see the Prime Minister in office seek greater visibility. The German press, in turn, immediately took up diametrically opposed positions. Even the liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung used decisively anti-British tones and openly delegitimised the meaning of the referendum.13 As far as German companies operating in England are concerned, starting with the Deutsche Bank, the newspaper announced their rapid return back home.
There is an open spirit of retaliation. But it will become more difficult to ignore the importance of the popular vote, as occurred in 2005 with the French and Dutch rejection of the constitutional Treaty. Referenda analogous to the British vote are being projected in Denmark, Holland, Hungary, and Poland. Also, without accepting the catastrophic prediction of George Soros, who sees the EU condemned from now on to inevitable disintegration, it is clear that the new pronouncements in favour of exit will make the position of those who intransigently defend the established order untenable. This is where all the importance of the British vote resides, which, in drawing attention back to the issue of necessary democratic legitimation of the process of European integration, is beginning to shift political weight towards the vast spectrum of social strata increasingly hit by austerity policy. Because this is what is at issue here, not a presumed and anachronistic ‘sovereignism’, absurd in terms of the inevitable process of globalisation.
Nevertheless, it is indispensable to realise that the German line can prevail only to the extent that it unites all of Europe in a vast and solid area of consensus, first of all among the entrepreneurial strata. Austerity policy certainly prevents the pie from growing, but in the prostrate posture of trade unions and political representation of the world of labour everywhere it is possible for the ruling strata to take increasingly greater portions of the pie. Profits can grow without running the political risk of a redistributional conflict that would inevitably open up in a situation of development.
In conclusion, the prospects of a political Europe, whose remaining shreds are still occasionally displayed in Sunday columns or in bombastic speeches at official commemorations,14 can progress only to the extent that an attack on austerity policy materialises. Federalism, that is, a political power capable of re-establishing the nexus between growth and equality, far from emanating ‘inevitably’ from the process of economic integration managed by the markets, as functionalist theory has long maintained, can only advance to the extent that the social and political conflict is reopened.