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Thursday, 22 May 2014

Democracy and the Idea of Europe

On Monday's Newsnight, Slavoj Zizek (in between the exasperated sneers of an uncomprehending Jeremy Paxman) pointed out that the crisis of European democracy (the EU's "democratic deficit", the Troika, the ignoral of referenda etc) is less a crisis of Europe and more a crisis of democracy. China may now be proving, in a way that Singapore and South Korea were too small to convincingly do, that capitalism does not need democracy. Liberal ideology has traditionally claimed that they are mutually supporting and best thrive in tandem.

The idea of Europe is fundamentally liberal, but this means that it is wedded more to the rule of law (the Rechtsstaat of Ordoliberal tradition) than it is to democracy. The rule of law boils down to the defence of property and is thus inescapably suspicious of the demands of the propertyless. As liberals prove when they actually secure power, they are ambivalent about democratic practice, seeking to create a "protected sphere" through constitutional institutions and supra-national commitments. Localism is trumped by the national interest, while the national interest is deemed to lack the legitimacy to challenge international capital. Liberals remain starry-eyed about the idea of Europe precisely because it appears to float above the messy reality of democracy.


The European Parliament has long been a progressive icon, a pointer to a better future, even when characterised as an unruly child gorging on sweets and throwing tantrums (Nikki Sinclaire berating Nigel Farage over his dodgy expenses was an emblematic full-house). The metaphor embodies both hope for the future ("growing pains") and parental caution (the Commission and the Council of Ministers being the concerned adults setting boundaries).
Disillusion with the Parliament is believed to reflect the weakness of the institution itself, the growing unpopularity of European integration, and the more general disillusion with representative politics since the 1980s. In fact, this has been an era of neoliberal hegemony. The "centre party" - the various species of liberal, spanning big capital conservatives to modernising social democrats - has remained electorally dominant over the last three decades, both in national and European elections, and that won't change this week. The greens, nationalists and eurosceptics of today have simply substituted at the margins for the communists and neo-fascists of the first elected European Parliament in 1979.

Similarly, the oft-cited "polarisation" of US politics reflects the increased prominence of the culture wars and the media need for confrontation as economic and social policy has ossified into a neoliberal consensus (UKIP is benefiting from the same dynamics, partly by avoiding all discussion of economic and social policies outside of immigration and the EU). Since the apotheosis of liberal democracy as ideology in the early 90s (famously marked by Francis Fukuyama's essay The End of History?, which lost it's question-mark when expanded to book length), democracy in practice has been the target of increasingly cutting remarks by its presumed admirers. Of course, the modern trope of "democratic decay" and the attractions of the "Guardian State" are just an updating of the historic demand of the Party of Order for decisive intervention in support of elite interests. Nigel Farage's sympathy for Vladimir Putin is quite genuine.

Before 1989, communism provided a comprehensive justification for anti-democratic intervention in the West, both in terms of its perceived threat to undermine the state from within and without and to terrorise individual citizens. Militant Islam has provided a substitute for the latter but cannot credibly substitute for the former, despite media guff about the Caliphate and Sharia Law. Consequently, the corrosive "enemy within" has been recast as the inability of democracy itself to deal with current and future challenges, from burgeoning welfare rolls to climate change. The paradox of UKIP is that it is a symptom of the continuing strength of democracy, not its weakness.

The current and relatively sudden disillusion with Europe stems from the dropping of the social market mask in 2009-10, rather than from some slow accretion of red tape over the decades. The Eurozone crisis laid bare the reality of elite preference: sound money, austerity and wage repression. We have lost faith in a better capitalism, which is worse news for social democrats than for conservatives. In Europe, the historic expansion of liberal democracy sputtered to a halt by the Dnieper River a decade ago, coinciding with a similar failure on the banks of the Tigris and the Euphrates. The reverses of Crimea and Syria are the end of a long turn, not a new pivot. Meanwhile, the tocsin of demographic doom ("greying Europe") reminds us that the glory days are over and we must curb our aspirations.


The prospect we face is further "management" of democracy in the name of stability, freedom and the rule of law. But we also face a choice, though "we" are unlikely to be exercising it. It would be an error to presume that neoliberals are so wedded to free-market capitalism that the erosion of democracy is an unavoidable consequence. This ignores the Ordoliberal influence and in particular the primacy of the RechtsstaatThomas Lemke notes that: "the Ordo-liberals try to show that there is not just one capitalism with its logic, its dead-ends, and its contradictions, but an economic-institutional entity which is historically open and can be changed politically". In other words, both capitalism and democracy are contingent, and the preservation of each can be used to justify intervention in the other. In the current cycle, neoliberal Europe is sacrificing democracy to preserve capitalism, but it may choose to tack the other way once circumstances change. What won't change, the sine qua non of liberal democracy, is the defence of property.

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