• Europe: A Lock and a Key

  • By Patrice Cohen-Séat | 17 Nov 14 | Posted under: European Union
  • The European treaties jointly developed and voted by the right and social democracy have created a twenty-eight-key lock, which requires all keys to be turned simultaneously if any change in the fundamental direction of the Union’s policies is to take place. At the very least, since the less powerful states are to some extent obliged to follow the trend, the hard core of the European structure would have to reach an agreement if any change were to occur. In practice, this gives the most important countries a virtual veto. Within the present political balance of power, therefore, changes in the EU’s structure can only be made in the direction of still more liberalism. This is a ‘pawl effect’: Except in the case of a major political crisis (in which, say, a major country takes the path of disobedience or stands in the way of a move), movement is only possible in one direction, never in the other. Even if everything depended solely on France and Germany, it is highly improbable that both countries would simultaneously elect majorities, each of which decided to break with liberalism. This is, characteristically, the situation in France where a socialist majority was elected in 2012 on a platform of ‘renegotiating’ the European Treaties. However, this appeared to the newly elected MPs so unattainable that they simply gave up the attempt. Hence the sharp acceleration of François Hollande’s drop in popularity as soon as it became clear that this had just been a campaign promise and that nothing would really change on this decisive question.

    Thus the system is jammed. The degradation in living and working conditions of millions of people impels them to want ‘a change’. But the European structure in fact prohibits it. Under these conditions, the debate distortedly pits those who put stress on the impossibility of change within the European framework, and thus propose to exit it, against those who, pointing to the impotence of each individual nation state to influence the course of globalisation, maintain that exiting Europe or the euro would have still more disastrous consequences. Nearly everywhere the great majority of the population is more afraid of the real or imagined consequences of leaving the European Union or the euro. Even in Greece, where the austerity policies have had truly devastating social effects and have massively discredited Pasok, Syriza’s leap forward was only possible because its leaders assured people that they intended Greece to remain in the euro area.


    From parliamentary democracy to authoritarian euro-liberalism

    The member states of the European Union, particularly those in the euro area, have thus insidiously but radically changed the political system. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the progressive development of regimes called ‘parliamentary democracies’ in Western Europe, then, after the collapse of the ‘socialist’ countries, throughout Europe. The parliamentary regimes accompanied the development of capitalism and the considerable social progress that this social formation historically enabled. Their institutions were based on two inseparable principles. On the one hand, universal suffrage, which was gradually conceded, granted citizens some real powers. On the other hand, the affirmation of the unalienable and sacred character of private property placed the ‘private’ power of capital outside the political arena. This rule, which was written into the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen and repeated in the preamble to France’s 1958 Constitution, thus limits the sovereign power of the people. Even today, French constitutional jurisprudence is the intransigent guarantor of this – for example by protecting the right of shareholders to make strategic decisions in their own interests in the management of firms or by putting forward the idea that a tax rate of 75 per cent would be ‘confiscatory’ and therefore illegal.

    There is, therefore, a double source of legitimate power in parliamentary regimes – through elections, for political power, and through property, for economic power. It is up to the political power to establish the means for exercising the right of property – but without attacking it or its principles. In such a system, the state can act on the macro-economic framework through monetary and fiscal policies, particularly through its budget and through public property. It can set the rules to be applied in the different sectors of productive activity. But it cannot go further and itself decide on the use of capital or the management of a firm. Only the supporters of socialism have opposed to this – including in the ultimate from of an administered economy – a different regime in which the state would have ownership of the means of production and exchange, thus having in its hands the two kinds of power – political and economic. The respective roles of the state and of the market have, over the last two centuries, been at the heart of the political clashes between left and right and, within the left, between the libertarians and the statists.

    But these clashes took place within the framework of each nation-state, which thus could, according to specific conditions, arbitrate between the two sources of power. In France, after the war, the programme of the National Council of the Resistance organised a historic compromise between the two forces present. In this way, more or less everywhere in Europe according to the particular history of each country, there developed what in the end was called – and later denigrated as – welfare state regimes. This was a balance in which the state had power to intervene strongly in the economy and to organise and preserve some major social gains: public services and companies, labour rights and status, systems of solidarity, social security, etc. What is new in the present form of the EU’s structure is that this compromise can no longer be built in a national framework. In the name of ‘free and undistorted competition’ the European Union is imposing unification based on the reduced ability of states to act, leaving much greater powers to the markets, that is, to private forms of organising society. Symbolically, one of the most sovereign of all functions, that of issuing currencies (for countries in the euro area) has been taken away from the states to become an exclusively European competence and entrusted, moreover, to an ‘independent’ central bank.

    This is indeed a complete change of regime. The equilibrium that had been built up in the so-called parliamentary-democracy systems between the power of citizens and of money has now been smashed. Above all, there is no longer a space in which this equilibrium could be the subject of democratic discussion. On the one hand, the treaties that establish the EU’s new order impose upon the national legislatures, and even on the Union’s own institutions, rules that greatly favour the markets, for example by drastically limiting the ability of public authorities to intervene in the economic arena. On the other hand, in those areas where political debate might take place at the European level, the institutions favour inter-state processes. This, quite rightly, gives the citizens of each country the feeling that these issues are beyond their control and that they are powerless. This is why the European elections are the ones with the lowest level of participation. In sum, the EU’s structure has transferred a decisive part of the powers of the states to a largely bureaucratic machine that does not obey the fundamental rules of democracy. In effect, political authority is reduced to benefit the powers of money, and democracy has taken a giant leap backwards.

    The EU imposes on its constituent countries a liberal regime (in the sense that the role of public powers is in retreat while that of capital is increasing), which, as a consequence, is also becoming authoritarian. Indeed, the most important political conflicts can have no democratic outcome. This is clearly shown by the political debate of spring 2013. How to reduce public expenditure or the cost of labour may be discussed in the national context. Thus François Hollande was able to seize the unexpected opportunity of putting in his place the President of the European Commission, who took it on himself to list the reforms to be carried out in France. Nevertheless, these principles (reduction of public expenditure and labour costs) are imposed on all. This is why the policies of the social democratic left so resemble right­wing policies that they confuse people. It is not due to a lack of imagination, as some commentators like to imagine, but to the need to follow the Union’s constituent orientations.

    Hence social conflict changes its nature. Since political discussion that could give legitimacy to some choices is impossible, they are imposed authoritatively. And thus social conflictuality changes its nature. If there can be no political debate capable of lending legitimacy to these choices, they will be imposed in an authoritarian fashion. It is then no longer on social and political terrain that contestations and frustrations can be expressed. Social militancy declines in parallel with electoral participation. Instead, sub-political forms of challenging the status quo are developing; the riots in French urban peripheries in 2005, like those which occurred in several major cities in England in 2011, are spectacular expressions of this. With political measures excluded, the response is simply one of law and order. We have entered a new type of political regime: authoritarian euro-liberalism.

    This change of political regime has gone virtually unnoticed because it has taken place without any spectacular changes in our national institutional systems. Its tool is simply the legal principle whereby standards set by international treaties (in this case the founding acts of the European Union) are superior to national legislation. Everything is called into question without anything apparently having budged in the domestic institutional and juridical order. The introduction of the neoliberal order in the treaties themselves has dried up political discussion by imposing a certain kind of relationship between the state and the market: the new role assigned to the former is to guarantee the primacy of the latter.

    This political choice is imposed on both the right and the left, which from this point on necessarily find themselves essentially in agreement. Authoritarian euro-liberalism has indeed killed democracy.


    The challenge of building a progressive Europe

    Thus, from the very way it was conceived, the construction of the European Union is one of the principal causes of the democratic regression we have been experiencing over the last forty years. But it would be a pure illusion to imagine a return to the status quo ante, that is, to democratic parliamentary regimes in a national framework. The present situation is actually the solution conceived and carried out by the dominant forces to deal with the deep and irreversible transformations in the production system, particularly the digital revolution, which they themselves had to face. The considerable increase in investments needed particularly for research and development, has made a change in the scale of finance and trade indispensable. In the same way that the nation-states had enabled nascent capitalism to break the shackles inherited from the feudal mode of production, so the creation of continental-scale economic zones has been imposed as part of a vaster movement of worldwide integration whose agents (the IMF, WTO, World Bank, etc.) play a crucial role. Setting the goal of fighting this new political regime of authoritarian euro-liberalism cannot, therefore, be conceived as an impossible return to past democratic forms incapable of meeting the challenges of the very new epoch we have entered. The progressive forces must think out a political system capable of responding to the challenge of globalisation and find avenues of struggle capable of overcoming it.

    The system established in the framework of financialised capitalism is quite accurately characterised by the term governance.

    While the concept of democracy features the plurality of choice – reflecting the conflictual confrontation of socially distinct and mutually opposed social interests – the term governance stresses the alleged efficiency of the management of a given economic order, as defined by the European treaties. In the absence of possible alternatives, the main matters under discussion do not touch on political concepts concerning citizens or social forces, but technical options for experts to deliberate on.

    As we have seen in Italy, in Greece, and elsewhere, the establishment of governments of ‘technicians’, often coming from European economic and financial institutions, tends to replace the search for compromise and political balance that allows the formation of majorities. Neoliberalism, that is, the ideology that reflects the needs of financialised and globalised capitalism, has thus found the political regime suited to it, a regime in which the real debates take place outside the democratic sphere, inside the impenetrable institutions according to the dominant forces’ internal balance of power. Thus the political cycle opened two centuries ago with the establishment of parliamentary democracies has come to a close.

    The world’s major economic areas are characterised by different types of institutional upheaval. The United States, China, India, and Russia, in particular, are continent-nations and therefore very integrated economic areas, which face problems distinctly different from Europe’s. The European countries, on the other hand, are faced with the necessity of organising institutional integration on the basis of longstanding national traditions. As it is was not possible in our period to accomplish integration through violence, as had formerly occurred elsewhere, the policy has, since the war, been based on ‘small steps’ and faits accomplis. More recently, this policy has clashed with a growing movement of rejection of the EU’s structure, expressed among other ways by the success of the ‘no’ vote in France and the Netherlands in the 2005 referenda held on adopting the ‘Constitutional Treaty’. Under pressure, the principal political forces of the countries concerned were obliged to throw off their mask and disregard popular sovereignty. In France, this has involved a veritable institutional coup d’état, the right (UMP) and the left (PS) having decided to vote together in Parliament to pass a treaty that over 55 per cent of the people had rejected.

    Today we can see, with the rise of the extreme right and of ‘Euroscepticism’, that this institutional violence, coupled with an unprecedented economic and social crisis, is tending to reach its limits and is exposing the EU’s architecture to the danger of disintegration or explosion. However, it has resisted this for several reasons.

    Firstly, because of a deeply rooted feeling of its necessity, people have committed themselves to the European Union following two world wars and the hope of ‘never again’. This motive remains all the stronger as the world seems increasingly dangerous. Secondly, the idea of ‘a powerful Europe’ is a way for small or medium sized countries to resist in an increasingly fierce economic war.

    The main reason, however, is undoubtedly the absence of a political alternative. The relatively recent creation of the Party of the European Left (EL) has not yet produced a European political project able to unify what we call ‘radical’ left forces. Between the countries of the East and West, or the North and South, the differences in situation and the conflict of interest are important obstacles. While ‘Brussels’ is a strong identifier of the present European project, there is, so far, no similar identifier of an alternative left project. It is significant that the EL only played a marginal role in the recent European election campaigns, despite the fact that Alexis Tsipras’s symbolic candidacy for the presidency of the European Commission gave it, for the first time, some degree of visibility.

    Finally, the European institutions themselves are a self-blocking mech­anism.

    For all the above reasons, a significant change in the orientation of the building of Europe presupposes a new treaty and thus, in theory, a simultaneous agreement between all the countries of the Union. At the very least, political majorities must simultaneously form in the most important countries in order to propose such a transformation – either by re-negotiating the Treaty or by subverting it. This would be, in the present state of affairs, a completely improbable political situation.

    Progressive forces are thus confronted with the literally historic challenge of agreeing on a concept for building Europe. The dominant forces have solved their own problem by establishing an authoritarian regime. Since the policies of members are constrained by the treaties (‘free and undistorted competition‘), the institutions, especially the Commission, the Central Bank, and the Court of Justice, are the policemen of its rigid orientations. Returning to a democratic regime therefore presupposes inventing a new way of articulating the national and European forms within a new kind of construction. By definition, the treaties we need should not contain any predetermined economic or political model and would be exclusively devoted to affirming the principles and essential objectives of European democracy and defining its institutions. Above all, in contrast to the present construction, the convergence should be founded, in the long term, on respect for the full sovereignty and the free choice of the peoples concerned. This implies that the Union should be of variable geometry. A member state, in any area where an essential aspect of its social options is at stake, could thus be able to choose freely whether or not to take part in an area of European policy. It could even negotiate its withdrawal in the event of a complete impasse with its partners, were it the will of its democratically consulted citizens.


    Towards a progressive majority bloc

    Over and above the institutional dimension, the essential issue is a political constellation that could carry this new conception. It is enough to observe the results of the European election to see that, in most major countries, the stagnation of radical left forces is at too low a level to be able significantly to weigh on the course of events.

    This weakness brings us to two interconnected phenomena. On the one hand, the popular social strata that have historically made up the left’s main social base are afflicted by increasing electoral abstentionism. On the other hand, the better off strata are hanging on, as best they can, to their post-war gains. The fear of being declassed tends to radicalise in a rightward direction a significant number of people, whose social situation is most fragile and who feel threatened by the crisis. At the other extreme, the best off groups aspire to move up and join the upper social strata. Between these two, a large mass of middle strata hopes to preserve its position by not taking the risk of shaking up the system, either at the ballot box or in the streets.

    The social bloc that, out of fear or self-interest, supports the dominant forces is, nevertheless riddled by contradictions. In Greece, a virtual laboratory situation, this bloc is split in a crisis situation that has struck violently at the popular and middle strata. This led, in the course of a few months, to a mass transfer of the electorate from Pasok to Syriza. It is obviously impossible to foresee what will follow – especially in a country that does not play a central role in the present European structure. However, Syriza’s trajectory shows the possible path for forming an antagonistic social bloc once the progressive forces become capable of proposing an overall project suited to the demands and aspirations of a great part of the disadvantaged popular and middle strata. Unemployment, job insecurity, and poverty have for several decades now been the adjustment variables of a capitalist system undergoing profound transformation. This, in practice, means that the most disadvantaged sectors have borne the brunt of the crisis through cuts in social expenditures and the reduction of public services while being stigmatised by campaigns against state ‘handouts’. Fighting against this division between the middle and bottom strata and the isolation of the most disadvantaged, upon which the dominant forces have built their power, is an essential condition for a progressive political outcome, that is, for ‘exiting the crisis’. It involves reconciling and articulating the fundamental interests of the disadvantaged groups with those of the broadest possible sections of the so-called middle strata.

    This goal presupposes a Europe-wide project. Political and social struggles today are stumbling over the divisions that capitalism has organised at this level and at a world scale. The blackmail of the race to the bottom to improve ‘competitiveness’ is an objective and subjective obstacle to popular mobilisation. The issue of jobs (i.e., the fear of unemployment) has become the major preoccupation of wage earners, eclipsing any other issue. Under such conditions, the only way to overturn the balance of power, which is so tilted today towards the dominant strata, is to mobilise on an international scale – and particularly on the scale of the European Union.

    Thus, however we look at the question, the building of the EU appears to be at the same time the lock installed by the dominant strata to establish and perpetuate their dominance and an indispensable key for combating it. After more than forty years of weakness and setbacks, progressive forces must now realise that their political convergence at this level is an absolute priority. In 1848, putting forward the famous slogan ‘Proletarians of all countries, unite!’, Marx and Engels explained that this unity should be preceded, in each country, by the victory of the proletariat over ‘its own’ national bourgeoisie. Since then, the question of whether ‘socialism’ was possible ‘in one country’ has become one of the major problems of the emancipatory movement. Contemporary realities are, today, providing at least a partial answer: The only way to fight globalised capitalism is to organise class struggle on the same scale. For Europeans, through timeliness and necessity, this involves working for political unification at the continental scale.

    This objective is now on the agenda. For a dozen years – roughly since the creation of the Party of the European Left – there has been a change of scale in political work. The European Social Forums, then the Joint Social Conference, the beginnings of the Alter-Summit process, and some positions taken by the European Trade Union Confederation, show that, faced with the social damage done by European policies, new connections for resistance and working out alternatives are being woven inside the Union. Alexis Tsipras’ candidacy for European Commission president also shows that there has been a maturation in this direction. In a situation marked by increasing social suffering and a dangerous disintegration of political systems, we need to prefigure a European alternative for developing a constructive social and political dynamism. No one can foresee what the spark will be that sets off a social movement spreading like a forest fire. Will it be a breach opened in one of the countries of the Union by a political victory of the radical left? Or a significant incident that catalyses social anger? The fact remains that the political responsibility of the forces of this ‘radical left’ will be decisive in encouraging the emergence of a project and thus of hope in Europe. This is also the condition that could prevent such a movement, if it arises, from ending in adventurism. Peoples of Europe, unite!

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