Monday, December 24, 2012

Timely cries for reform of the EU or the shadow of the Owl of Minerva

When philosophy paints its gray on gray, then has a form of life grown old, and with gray on gray it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known; the Owl of Minerva first takes flight with twilight closing in.
- G. W. F. Hegel, "Preface," Philosophy of Right

Hegel's famous remark was a metaphor for his belief that we can only begin to understand the full meaning of a period of history as it's coming to an end.

In the case of the European Union, we don't know whether we witnessing a new phase of development or the flight of Minerva's Owl. But two new books on the EU crisis feel more like signs of the end of an era to me.

Für Europa! Ein Manifest (2012) is a manifesto by two European politicians, Daniel Cohn-Bendit, longtime Green Member of the European Parliament (MEP), and Guy Verhofstadt, former Prime Minister of Belgium and currently an MEP for the Liberal Party. The jointly authored manifesto itself takes up the first half of the book. The second half is the transcript of an interview with the two authors, in which their separate contributions are identified.

Was, wenn Europa scheitert (2012) is by Geert Mak, a Dutch author. In both cases, I'm working from the German translations of the book, and deriving my own English translations from them.

The European Union lost sight the democratic core of the "European project," allowing the shallow and highly instrumental logic of neoliberalism to dominate their priorities and their conduct.

All three of these authors are hoping to save the EU. But they are realize that will not be an easy task, and the problems are far more serious than the leaders of EU countries have been willing to admit. Instead, they've been muddling along, which can be enough to achieve real improve. Mak quotes a proverb that hope is the un-healable sickness of humanity. But without taking a qualitative leap forward of some kind, the EU's prospects of survival look grim.

Benjamin Franklin's saying may be more appropriate to the EU's present situation: "He that lives upon Hope will die fasting." At least that how it appears in several online versions I've found. In my 1987 Library of America edition of Benjamin Franklin: Writings, it appears in Poor Richard's Almanack of 1736 as, "He that lives on Hope, dies farting." (?!?)

Another of Poor Richard's sayings from the 1740 Almanack certainly describes German Chancellor Angela Merkel's self-righteousness in dictating austerity policies to the eurozone "periphery" economies: "To bear other People's Afflictions, every one has Courage enough, and to spare."

Politics is now taking its revenge. As Mak writes, "The crisis is developing increasingly from a financial catastrophe to a political disaster," the looming failure of the European Union project.

Soaring rhetoric about the greatness of the EU is common currency in europolitics. These three authors indulge in some amount of it. All agree that rapid progress toward a real political union is essential to saving the EU from wrecking itself. Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt in their manifesto state the case in dramatic terms:

Europe must give the economic and financial globalization of today a social, ecological and political face. Europe must complete what it once began: the globalization of freedom and human values. A pressing condition: Europe must once and for all shake off its national demons. A radical change of direction is needed. A veritable revolution. We must build up a federal European Union. A federal Union which will allow Europe as quickly as possible to take its place in the post-national world. Only cowardly, lazy and short-sighted heads of state and government could not grasp that. Hold the mirror in front of their own powerlessness. Don't them them have any day of peace. Go ahead of them to the other Europe, the Europe of the future.
Continuing with Poor Richard, he would likely agree with them. "Hear Reason, or she'll make you feel her." (Almanack 1745)

The problem is, the chief leaders of the main left and right parties in Europe right now are largely the kind of leaders who facilitate and become themselves "cowardly, lazy and short-sighted heads of state and government." The European political elite appears to be in a 1914 state of dysfunction. Poor Richard in the 1943 Almanack said, "Experience keeps a dear school, yet Fools will learn in no other."

What's alarming with the current European situation is that most of the relevant leaders are not learning. With dramatic failures of austerity economics in Britain, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain, both conservative and social-democratic leaders continue to press forward with more of it. Even though it's precisely that policy that's ripping the EU apart and will likely deprive them of the time they need to achieve a full federal Union, even if the EU member states will be willing to accept it.

Yet Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt are on board with the basic Angie-nomics precepts of balanced budgets and restricted public debt, even in times of economic crisis. They are right that Europe's ability to influence world affairs will be considerably diminished if the EU falls apart. But that unity just can't be built on the ruins of the economies of Greece, Ireland, Italy, Portugal and Spain, which continues to be Merkel's course. The SPD and the Greens in Germany are not challenging that vicious policy in any serious way. Neither is the Socialist President of France, François Hollande, who successfully campaigned against it in his election victory in 2012. When Cohn-Bendit's own French Green Party decided to oppose Merkel's fiscal suicide pact, aka, the Stability Pact, a treaty now in effect which essentially blocks signatory countries from using Keynesian stimulus in a recession, Cohn-Bendit split with his party because of his support of the treaty.

They complain that the eurozone countries hardest hit by the crisis are being made to pay too much of the price. But their economic prescriptions are generally "left" neoliberal ones, e.g., a "green deal" to promote green industry with longterm investment. (pp. 29-33) They also seem to believe that a big part of the problem of recovery in the current recession is the absence of that famous figure the Confidence Fairy, as Paul Krugman successfully christened the most hackneyed conservative magic formula of all, the idea that the wealthy would start investing and acting like "job creators" (in the fashionable Republican phrase) if they could just manage to start feeling more cheerful about things.

Mak is notably better in recognizing that there is something deeply wrong with the neoliberal ideology of deregulation, deprivation of labor rights, and the starving of public services. It has its left and right versions, but the distinction is becoming harder to detect. It's mainly that the "left" version is aimed at marketing these policies to the constituencies most damaged by them. Mak understands that the ugly results of that ideology and the policies flowing from it are at the center of the current political crisis of Europe:

The ideologists and theoreticians of the free market, the rightists as well as the leftists, and the politicians and bureaucrats who follow their way and contributed to creating this crisis, had something in common in doing so: their astounding contempt for the ordinary human existence, for the completely normal work in schools, in neighborhoods, on the land and on the street. It is a world of thought in which - as the Dutch economist Arjo Klamer puts it - there is no place left for the logic of everyday life. For example, for the logic of the oikos, the common destiny of the family, of relatives, of the household. Or the common destiny of civil society, the city, the colleagues at work. Against [Bill] Clinton's slogan [from the 1992 Presidential campaign], "It's the economy, stupid," Klamer opposes his own motto: "It's the society, stupid!" (p. 108)
After generations of not just talk but concrete developments, the EU is now, primarily under German leadership, crushing the economies of several nations in the name of austerity economics that were factually and theoretically completely discredited by the experience of the Great Depression.

Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt fall back on formulas that had become well established before the onset of the 2007 slump and the 2009 Greek debt crisis. They try to stigmatize all national opposition to EU membership as just reactionary and backward-looking. Cohn-Bendit says flatly, "Euroskepticism is reactionary and damaging for citizens, because the euroskeptics want to leave the citizens out with no protection." (p. 101)

But the problem in countries like Greece is that the economic hardship being imposed by eurozone membership and by the brutal, clearly failed austerity policies being forced on them by their European partners. It's not "reactionary" for people in those countries to demand justice and a decent economic future for their countries, which is scarcely possible under current policies. Democracy is supposed to give people a way to fight back against such plutocratic misrule. The fact is that the Social Democratic Parties have generally colluded in supporting these conservative policies, in some cases like Greece and Spain taking the lead in imposing them, which the French Socialists are now in the process of doing, as well. Even though their base constituencies are the ones being damaged the worst by those policies. The result in Greece is that it looks like the Social Democratic PASOK party will be lucky to survive at all as a political institution.

It was true historically that its was mainly conservatives and reactionaries that opposed European unity in the form of the EU. Pro-European conservatives were particularly attracted to the real business opportunities in making trade and the movement of people far more flexible, and to the influence the EU could give Europe in setting international economic policies. Social Democrats and Greens saw the EU as a way to anchor democracy and social-democratic social policies and to expand them to additional countries. Both groups were thinking in reasonable terms about real possibilities. Prior to 2009, it would have made sense to say that opposition to the EU was reactionary, both in effect and in the political perspectives of the euroskeptics.

Times have changed. Mak sees more clearly than Cohn-Bendit and Verhofstadt that unless the EU can become democratic enough to respond to the very real needs of its citizens, including the "periphery" countries, who are faced with the very real damage being done to them by governments that have effectively become captive to an economic plutocracy, it would be anti-democracy for the EU to continue. The Argentine experience since 2001-2 shows a way that countries like Greece and Spain could break out from the euro vice that is killing their economies and the future of their younger generation. If the EU can't reverse the current austerity policies and fast, it would be remaining inside the EU that would be the reactionary thing for those countries to do.

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