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The European Emperor has no clothes

By Darian Meacham
May 24th 2012



Severe austerity measures cause malnutrition, homelessness and suicides across southern Europe. European institutions that apparently fail to protect their citizens from harm lose their legitimacy. The pro-European left should defend the values, not the institutions, of Europe and the quality of life of all its inhabitants.

It seems absurd to have to say it, but apparently European politicians need to hear it: The politics of starvation have failed. This is not just some overexcited metaphor. Supposedly Christian Democratic politicians are pushing through policies that are literally starving the poorest citizens of Europe and depriving them of the democratic sovereignty necessary to peacefully resist what is clearly not in their interests  . This amounts to acts of violence committed by governments against their own populace. When malnutrition  suicides with economic motives  homelessness, hunger  , and infant mortality rates   are all up (as they are across southern Europe), and the policies causing these rises are being continually pushed on what seem to be purely ideological grounds, it’s time to call a spade a spade and say openly that the institutions pushing and implementing these policies are killing people.

When a political institution ceases to represent the interests of its citizenry it loses its legitimacy. And when the institutions of government lose their legitimacy, they lose their monopoly on legitimate violence. This is what is happening in Greece today and it is a recipe for disaster that must be addressed if it is not to spread. Put simply, radical cuts in pensions, welfare, health care, emergency aid for the poor, child benefit, education, never mind infrastructure development, are causing unspeakable pain to citizens of Europe. Europe has lost her legitimacy.

Confidence fairy

This word—Europe—apparently means little when the balance sheets of (nominally) French and German banks are at stake. How easily not just politicians but also fellow citizens forget what it means to be bound together by a project of common political destiny; to promise to support and protect one another so that the ravages of war and its aftermath, mass impoverishment, might never again be visited upon the continent and its people, and to invest together in the dream of mutual betterment and a sustainable quality of life for all. The supposed economic realists (the ones still pinning their hopes on the arrival of the confidence fairy  ) scoff at such utopian fantasy, the stuff of childish dreams they say: that’s not the world we live in today. The Economist, for example, calls Francois Hollande ‘rather dangerous’ because he ‘genuinely believes in the need to create a fairer society’, this from an editorial position banking on the arrival of Tinkerbell!

Politics is about the art of the possible, not a myopic vision of the actual state of affairs. Besides, I would rather cast my lot in with apparently utopian statesmen of the stature of Churchill, Schuman, Monnet, Spaak, and Adenhauer than with the current pantheon of mediocrity that governs today across the continent, lecturing us on the importance on staying the course of austerity.

The dream of a common destiny is what lies at the heart of the European project. If it, and along with it the plight of many citizens, is forgotten or cast aside in order to acquiesce to the demands of a fictitious master called the Market, then the project is lost and we would be better off turning to other institutions and means to ensure our well-being. This is what the anti-European far-left has argued for years, and they are right. It’s also what the far right of Marine Le Pen, UKIP, and even the ghastly Golden Dawn  in Greece argue, and sadly they are also right, which is the key to their appeal and electoral success. If the institutions of the European Union are unable or unwilling to defend the democratic sovereignty and standards of living of their own citizenry against the extra-political threats posed by the forces of free market capitalism, then they have lost their usefulness and should be restructured or abandoned.

This is not an attack on capitalism per se or even the idea of the free market. It is simply about the central function of democratic political institutions as defenders of popular sovereignty and quality of life. Europe in the current era must stand precisely as a bulwark against the amorality of market forces that are completely deterritorialised: no longer physically, institutionally, morally or emotionally rooted in any particular nation or political populace, but rather living a virtual existence in the fiber optic cables enabling the flow of capital at mind boggling speed, and occasionally touching down in offshore tax-havens, central London, or the marinas of the Côte de Azur.

To talk about an international French or German bank today means little beyond their influence on the political processes of the nations they were once rooted in. There is no room for national loyalty or political morality in finance, only a maximization of profit. This is not a condemnation, merely a statement of fact that any capitalist who knows his/her business will tell you. Political morality, defending the well being of the populace over and above the interests of capital, is the business of the political and its institutions. There is nothing radical here, just the basis of political economy as espoused by even Adam Smith. If the idea of Europe as manifest in the institutions of the European Union ceases to be about this, then it ceases to be.

And what about the ‘naughtiness narrative’ so beloved of the horsemen of austerity and many of their good austere Protestant supporters in the colder climes of the continent? Is it not the case that these layabout southerners got themselves into this mess with their profligate spending and now have to take their punishment like the naughty children they are? The prevalence of this narrative, bubbling under the surface every time a representative of the German or Dutch government takes to the stage to discuss the crisis is simply astounding. It’s also no surprise that many Greeks have swallowed this story; it’s being sold to them by the very criminals (yes, that’s what tax dodging is, a crime) and corrupt politicians that got them into the mess.

Was there rampant corruption throughout nearly every facet of Greek political and economic life? Yes, but the generations of corrupted politicians, oligarchs and the non-tax paying professional classes who have pillaged the country, literally scorching the earth when it suited their interests, are not the ones paying for it. It’s the salaried middle-classes and working poor who paid their taxes and yes, when they had to, paid a bribe to see the doctor or to get their electricity turned on that are now being made to suffer. The large scale tax avoiders and corrupt politicians moved their money out of the country long ago and are now peddling the same morality tale about profligate spending as Angela Merkel. It’s no wonder that Greek politicians who moralized about belt-tightening are now scared to eat in Athenian restaurants for fear of physical reprisal.

In Portugal, there was not even a debt issue. According to Robert Fishman  , Portugal was ‘managing its recovery from the global recession better than several other countries in Europe’. He argues that its trouble is the result of ‘unfair and arbitrary pressure from bond traders, speculators and credit rating analysts who, for short-sighted or ideological reasons have now managed to drive out one democratically elected administration and potentially tie the hands of another one’.

Put bluntly, the morality tale in which naughty children are taught an important life lesson by their fiscally responsible northern parents is a sham. The truth in the case of Greece is that the generous bailouts of these naughty child nations will be provided in the form of loans used to service the interest owed largely to international banks who lent irresponsibly in the Eurozone, with the assumption that if there was trouble they would be bailed out by the (this part is true) honest and hard working German, French, Dutch, British, etc. taxpayers. These are the same banks that are now refusing to lend the capital provided to them by governments in order to kick-start the economy.

Of course, northern European taxpayers funding these bank bailouts are simultaneously being told that they will have to accept a lower standard of living, while watching inequality grow in their own countries even during periods of sustained growth  . Politicians like Merkel have found a convenient scapegoat for this in the Greek people.

  Loss of legitimacy

The French have elected a presidential candidate (Hollande) who says ‘non’ to austerity, when speaking to French voters in Paris, and ‘don’t worry’ when speaking to French bankers in London. It’s no surprise that so many French voters smelled a rat; it’s just a shame that so many opted for wildly xenophobic, anti-European, and anti-regulation Marine Le Pen. The story she tells may be an emotive one: global finance, Europe and foreigners are ruining the chances for ordinary French people, but her solution, kicking out the foreigners, retreating to the illusory sovereignty of the nation-state, and lowering taxes for everyone is as much a fantasy as the ‘confidence fairy’. It remains to be seen whether Hollande is serious about a Europe that acts in the interests of all its citizens to build a truly fairer society, or whether the Social Democratic movement in Europe is as devoid of socialist ideals when it comes to economics as the Christian Democratic movement is of Christian ones.

Meanwhile, the most alarming feature of the elections in Greece is the rise of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn party, who took nearly seven percent of the vote in a country where the far right almost never breaches the one percent mark. The Golden Dawn is virulently anti-foreigner, anti-Europe, anti-Enlightenment, and anti-industrial revolution. Presumably they support a return to a feudal system. Nonetheless, if one positive aspect is to be drawn out of these results, it is that the Greek electorate is not buying the story being sold to them by the parties, politicians, and power brokers that robbed the nation’s coffers for generations. They are also saying rightly that a government that wilfully impoverishes its own people, or cedes sovereignty such other governments and transnational institutions may do so has lost its legitimacy and its right to govern.

Where does this leave the pro-European left? It’s time to rethink the uncritical support of the European Project in its current form that all too often seems part and parcel of the Social Democratic position across the continent. It’s time to articulate a position that is pro-Europe in the sense of sharing a common destiny without being pro-European Union. If the institutions of the European Union do not see their primary function as defending and improving the quality of life for all European citizens over and above the interests of global capital then these institutions in their current form are of little use to the true European project, conceived as the child of the enlightenment and the Social Democratic movement, and they must be treated as hostile.

Concretely speaking, from this perspective, defending the European ideal means defending, reinforcing, and expanding the welfare state as the best-known mechanism for improving quality of life and reducing inequality. It means investing in public infrastructure at all levels as the fastest route to economic and intellectual freedom. Most of all it means seeing in my fellow European citizens a compatriot, someone whose destiny is tied to my own and whose suffering I will not allow myself to be indifferent to. This is a continuation of the sense of Europe envisioned by the architects of the Union, who despite having widely varying ideological positions saw Europe as a means to alleviate suffering, in war or otherwise, and a means to further humanity, not as a mechanism for profit and punishment. This is a laudable vision and the time has come to reclaim it.


In his Politics as a Vocation, the German sociologist Max Weber famously defined a state as that entity which ‘upholds the claim to the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force in the enforcement of its order’. This understanding of the state has had an enormous impact on political thought in the twentieth century. In Greece, all signs point to a fraying of this monopoly

Originally published by Open Democracy

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