17 – The Other Victim of Ideological Excess (25 Feb 09)

    As evidence continues to pile up about the damage done to national economies and the international financial system through policies inspired by ideological excess, the European Union is beginning to loom large as yet another victim of the same thing. The ample evidence of its being in trouble may not as yet have prompted the mainstream commentariat to see the connection, but it is there even so.
     In short: the neoliberal legacy, sometimes known as market fundamentalism or market worship, has been the major hurdle that halted an earlier gradual process of integration. It mostly blinded Europe’s political elites to the necessity that integration of economic institutions would, in the longer term, require the development of Union-level political institutions to deal with policy demands and problems following from such integration. Looking further back to a contributing cause of this blindness, we can of course see that the illusion of separate economic and political realms, fundamental to the dominant school of economics, had much to do with it. Without the fiction that these are self-contained areas of human experience, neoliberalism no longer has an intellectual leg to stand on.
     Mrs. Thatcher in particular saw the creation or strengthening of European-level political institutions as a threat to what she held dear, and believed in the healing powers of the market inside Europe. I once had an opportunity, at a conference, to ask her how European leaders would cope with specifically political problems arising from economic integration. She took my hand in both of hers and looked at me incomprehendingly before repeating the mantras for which she had become well-known. Even though there is that formidable political development embodied in the Euro, the European Union of today has become more or less what Mrs Thatcher wanted it to be.
     Priorities determined by market worship placed the fate of the Union in the hands of those who endeavored to widen it, and all but silenced those who understood that, without first deepening, the Union would lose coherence in the long run. And indeed, with a bloated membership of 27 governments, the Union now proves to have become politically so unwieldy that it appears incapable of moving in any direction.
     Official recognition that for some time already we have had a “Europe of two speeds”, and moves to foster institutions in line with that reality, would help at this stage. But Europe suffers from the same plight of unimpressive competentence of its political elites that we can observe in other parts of the former “first world”, like Japan and, indeed, the United States – leaving the as yet unfathomed Obama out of consideration for the moment.
     This poor quality of elites among active politicians, but also noticeable in, say, most editorial offices, deserves study. It may have something to do with the fact that the current generation at the top have made careers in an environment of relative prosperity – the Golden Age of post-World-War-II capitalism – and unlike the preceding couple of generations have had hardly any experience in truly fighting for political ideas and for helping to devise political institutions aimed at material betterment of middle class and lower than middle class society. Their natural brilliance has rather been put in the service of political elbow work, encouraged by the “baby boom” glut of potential rivals, and of the ultimately unserious goals involved in celebrity culture. I am talking about an environment conducive to a certain type of elite, but Nicholas Sarkozy, the president of France, may serve as a rather good individual example of the type.
     Last Sunday the still serious newspaper le Monde commented on the narcissism of this president, something in full display in the “Sarkozy shows” with which he stays in the limelight – and which are well-described in the latest column by Jan Sampiemon. Le Monde concludes that Sarkozy is not suited for the post he occupies. His political imagination appears vacuous once you look beyond the immediate objectives on which he throws himself with seemingly limitless energy. He is interested in crises because they provide opportunities for him to display crisis-management skills, as he did rather well with the Georgia crisis last summer. But as the French philosopher Alain Badiou points out in a popular book on the meaning of Sarkozy: the transformation of the French EU presidency into a permanent crisis-management machine is a symptom of his powerlessness. Throwing yourself on crises substitutes for a longer term political program. Urgency has its own meaning and logic. It absolves those involved from having to construct a coherent political vision as an explanation for what they do.
     In the current great crisis confronting the European Union, Sarkozy appears to have substituted self-interested posturing for true diplomacy in the context of the French-German relationship, so cardinal for Europe. The unofficial two-speed Europe used to work relatively well because of informal but intensive deliberations between German and French officials prior to whatever important moves were on the agenda. That crucial institution resting on a generation of diplomats appears to have disappeared, with its specialists either dismissed, retired, or out in the cold.
     Instead, Sarkozy gives the impression through his nonchalance and media leaks to be disdainful of Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel. Having emerged from the political world of Eastern Germany, she is not the product of an environment in which most things could be taken for granted. She is sensitive to the idea that the European Union needs to develop a recognizable political stance in the world, especially vis-à-vis Russia. But she apparently does not dare to adopt the leadership role that current circumstances, combined with Germany’s weight and credibility in the European Union, would seem to be an obvious choice. In this week’s Der Spiegel is an article, Bundeskanzlerin Königing des Ungewollten, which almost scathingly critical about her wait-and-see approach that makes her the unintentional plaything of others.
     As for the third major European government leader, Gordon Brown, since the technical role he performed last autumn in connection with the financial crisis, we have only noticed silence. The pride displayed in being allowed as the first European head of government to meet with President Obama, and all the usual talk about that vaunted, but rather pathetic, “special relationship” with the United States, once again leaves an impression that the segment of the British political elite that chooses its rulers would prefer to lift anchor and have the island drift westward to be closer to Washington.
     When still working together with his predecessor, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown helped to make sure that Britain was kept far from European integration moves. Blair himself was another prime example of a head of government uninterested in political ideas, but expert in handling the populist levers of celebrity culture. As the main non-American enabler of George W. Bush, helping to give a semblance of legitimacy to the latter’s violation of international law, he made a clear expression of a unified European political position in the world impossible when the American invasion of Iraq, which was decried by vast majorities of European populations, offered a perfect opportunity to do so. I wrote about that here.
     There are European politicians of caliber, who appear to have it in them to live up to the ideals and imagination that was common among their predecessors of the formative years of the European Community. The highly respected prime minister and finance minister of Luxemburg, Jean-Claude Juncker, is one of them and is widely regarded as an ideal possible president of the European Commission. He chairs the regular meetings of the 16 member states forming so-called Euroland, having exhanged their original currencies for the Euro. But Luxemburg is among the smallest of member states, and Sarkozy has already shown to have no qualms about placing himself on a collision course with Juncker.
     European thinkers who could enrich the current deliberations concerning political measures to cope with the current economic crises with plausible and original ideas also exist. But these do not appear to have been invited onto Europe’s highest levels where, we must not forget, officials confer with each other in the conceptual straightjackets they squeezed themselves into when they accepted that the guiding genius of the market would render unnecessary what they are now asked to do – make major political decisions. They are entirely unprepared. Decades of believing “We won!” and belief in the superiority of “the market” at all times, have clearly deprived them of the skill to discover the right questions to find answers to.
     In the meantime, the rise to power of President Obama has encouraged a return of general European complacency about the absence of a distinct European voice in the world to help correct what has gone wrong since the beginning of this century. But then, the ideologically inspired dominant part of Europe’s political class never understood that such a presence in the world was a main impetus for European integration when that began to take shape half a century ago.