Parergon about “German power”

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On October 13, I published a commentary on Thomas Fazi’s article about “The failure of mainstream European federalism”. On October 22, he replied to my article with a post titled “The inter-capitalist nature of Europe’s crisis”. I very much appreciate this. It helps improve our understanding of the issues at hand.

In the present piece, I comment on the latter article’s counterpoints to my own. Given that this will otherwise end up being a lengthy exposition covering a total of four posts that presumably not many will have the eagerness to follow, I try to stick to the essentials. For the sake of readability, I divide my comments in thematic sections.

Truism of German power

Thomas Fazi:

This is somewhat of a truism. Geo-economic and geopolitical competition is, after all, a zero-sum game: someone’s power necessarily reflects someone else’s powerlessness. The question is understanding how and why a certain balance of power emerged in the first place: is ‘German power’ a consequence of ‘non-German powerlessness’ – as Stavrou seems to imply – or vice-versa? There is, of course, no straightforward answer. Stavrou concedes that Merkel’s years in office have been characterised by a firm commitment to the tenets of ordoliberalism, but points out that ‘in the same period no other government in Europe has actually challenged this mindset’.

Prot: In hindsight, I should have made my initial point clearer and straightforward rather than employ the phrase “prima facie” and then proceed to abandon that claim. At any rate, I did dismiss said truism in the following sentence:

But I digress, for the power-or-powerlessness approach may seem tautological.

If I may reformulate and summarise my point, it is that the prevailing narrative for European integration and economic policy was/is not essentially “German”, for it reverberated or was concurrently produced in certain variations throughout Europe, and was espoused by large segments of the population. I am not questioning its very presence. I only doubt its quality of being German—its “German-ness” as it were.

Coercion and the Fiscal Compact

Totally absent from Stavrou’s argument is the notion of coercion; it is assumed that all governments that signed the Fiscal Compact did so freely and more or less willingly (and were free to refuse if they so wished). But is that really the case? After all, Stavrou himself acknowledges that many of the states that signed the treaty, such as France and Italy, ‘seem to disagree with its substance, at least in terms of their own view on fiscal policy’.

The reason I did not wrestle with the notion of “coercion” is not that I am oblivious to the events of the euro crisis, but because I believe that subsequent governments,  if indeed they thought their states were victims of coercion and continue to be subject to it, and if no other option were available to them, could or should appeal to the illegitimacy of agreements signed under duress, and proceed accordingly to unilaterally consider the Fiscal Compact void and odious.

None has done so, while no national government to date wants to entertain the idea of exiting the euro area, not even in an orderly fashion, not even as a credible “plan B” to perpetual austerity (the vast majority of Greek voters did vote pro-euro—perhaps events in Portugal will change this tendency, though I suppose we will need some months to find out for sure).

EU quasi-confederation

Stavrou is right in noting that it would be too simplistic to describe the EU, or at least the euro area, as just capitalist/neoliberal or as simply ‘an extension of German rule’. Things are more complex than that. Which is why it is also too simplistic to describe it, as Stavrou does in another article, as simply a ‘quasi-confederation, a league of states that serves the common objectives of the states’, reflecting the dominant ideology and/or the balance of power within and between member states.

I believe my view of the EU as a quasi-confederation needs to be examined in its context. Here it does not enjoy the treatment it deserves.

In that other article, I refer specifically to the design of the EU. I am trying to tackle the issue of what kind of political organisation the EU as such may be: federation, confederation, unitary state, something else altogether. I do not rule out the possibility that I may fail spectacularly in identifying its specifics and that my musings about “quasi-confederation” might be completely fallacious, misinformed, or misguided.

Since we are on the subject, and on treating the argument on its own merits, I have had a very interesting exchange of views with @jjermar, a fellow federalist. I published it on October 26: EU Confederation: exchange of views with Jakub Jermář.

Hopefully it helps clarify some of my inchoate points on what I want to denote by “quasi-confederation”.

The prevalence of neoliberalism

Thomas Fazi:

Though I would take exception to the notion that ‘the neoliberal paradigm is not so much a function of EU law’ – from the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) to the ECB’s mandate, the neoliberal paradigm is largely embedded in the EU/EMU’s architecture – it is certainly true that the EU/EMU, like all political systems, is largely a the reflection of the balance of power within and between countries (and that shifting that balance of power is a necessary precondition for any kind of progressive change in Europe, as I have argued elsewhere).

Prot: I agree—and have repeatedly claimed—that these rules are a means of hard-wiring neoliberalism into the system.

What I was just trying to suggest is that the rules are the manifestation of the power within and across our societies. We need not internalise—or attach credibility to—the “no alternatives” theory. Much of the Union’s primary law—the Treaties—can be interpreted in multiple ways. Even the mandate of the ECB, which I also consider too narrow in scope, is broad enough to be open to diverging judgement calls (what exactly is “below but close” to 2%? what is the “medium term”? and how are these judged in a given context?).

The fact that the rules were interpreted in the way they did, that certain Treaty provisions were prioritised over others, the expectation that as per the Five Presidents’ report new rules soon to be proposed by the Commission will also conform with the prevailing mindset, are all due to the prevalence of a certain ideology—the conventional wisdom—on how best to conduct economic policy as well as pursue European integration.

Power structures

Stavrou’s dismissal of the serious challenge that this poses to the ability of achieving progressive change in Europe is a reflection of what I would describe as a more general flaw in his analysis: the inflated role that he attributes to ideas in shaping the world. Ultimately, he sees the struggle playing out in Europe as one first and foremost of ideas and ideologies rather than one of competing economic interests.

In other words, Stavrou seems to subscribe to a worldview in which policy shifts are largely the result of certain ideas and ideologies – in this case ordoliberalism/neoliberalism or ‘euro-neoliberalism’ – assuming hegemonic status. I, on the other hand, would posit that ideas usually take hold either because they provide a justification for shifts that already under way or because they promote and sustain the interests of the dominant political-economic establishment of the time.

I do not think that there is some struggle of ideas taking place if that denotes some spurious dialectic or academic debate aloof from the fray. For the record, I do not rely on speculative metaphysics for understanding politics.

I do see the prevalence of a certain paradigm though, a certain way of thinking about things, which has to do with how these economic interests are understood in the prevailing conditions of European integration. For example, when the “competitiveness” or “resilience” of the euro is effectively conceived as a means of repressing direct and indirect labour costs, it is not just the thinking—or ex post rationalisation—of some homogeneous capital that is made manifest, but the general opinion among a whole range of analysts, policy-makers, businesspeople, and voters, not just in one country, but across a multitude of states; states which also congregate as European Council, Council of the EU, Eurogroup, European Stability Mechanism, or whatever other formation.

Though I grant I may not be explicit in each one of my articles, I do not treat political ideas as independent of their milieu. They are very much dependent on the material conditions and cultural-historical path dependencies of the people who endorse them.

Class-based analysis

It’s the lack of a class-based lens that leads Stavrou to conclude that there aren’t any ‘inexorable or insurmountable conflicts between national interests’ in Europe. If we take ‘national interests’ to idealistically represent the common interest of all the citizens of a given country, or at least of a majority of its citizens, then Stavrou is of course right: solidarity-based cooperation is in the interest of all European countries.

I think my emphasis on the cross-border facets of power is a case of using a certain “class-based lens”. It is a way of arguing that dominant interests do not necessarily coagulate along national lines. They transcend borders.

And if I may poke at this: is the narrative by which Germany stands against the rest of Europe a class-based one? I think whatever element of class analysis it may contain is informed and ultimately superseded by a nationalist view of Europe. “Nationalist” in the traditional sense of pro-nation-state: nationalism, positively understood, identifies a people with a territory, a state with a given people, and a territory with a certain state (just to be perfectly clear, I do not suggest that Thomas Fazi is far-right-wing).

The focus on German power identifies the interests of the German establishment with Germany as such—whereby “Germany as such” is this national monolith—while interpreting its extension abroad as German [semi-]hegemony, rather than a convergence of interests between various power establishments.

I have no admiration for Ms. Merkel’s government, at least insofar as certain European affairs are concerned. I believe they have been dogmatic over a number of issues, while establishing some of their policies for Europe on moralistic—not moral—grounds and silly stereotypes (they are not alone in that regard, nor is this a conservatives-only phenomenon). Their stratagems have deepened existing divisions in Europe, while their exhortations and pretences for holding the moral high ground have fuelled reactions from other parts of our shared political space.

A subset of these reactions, I claim, tacitly and perhaps unwittingly conforms to a traditional nationalist interpretation of the concatenation of events germane to the European integration process and the euro crisis. It is predicated on “us versus them” theories: on perceived struggles between homogeneous, nationally-defined wholes and groups thereof (“us” Greeks, Italians, Portuguese, Spanish, Southerners etc. versus “them” Germans, Dutch, Austrians, Finns, Northerners etc.).

Let us criticise Ms. Merkel’s policies for Europe in their own right, while avoiding the two-fold bias of treating Germany as some hive mind, and thinking of our local oligarchs as mere victims of German power. It is too convenient for, say, the Greek plutocrats to deny any responsibility, claiming that austerity is “just” imposed on the Greek citizens by Mr. Schäuble, the ECB, the IMF, or whomever.

Though I try not to rely on the term “capital” due to its polysemy, I would suggest, for the sake of cutting the much longer story short, that “European capital” would very much benefit from us peoples turning against one another in the name of some [perhaps primordial, unavoidable] struggle between nations. We would be losing sight of the real exploiters, while proceeding with a futile fight against fellow humans on the other side of “the border” who may be in a similar position to our own: unemployed, underemployed, working in precarious conditions, heavily indebted to some loan shark, coping with the anxiety that comes from the uncertainty over one’s own future, social exclusion, and so on.

To that end, my argument for tracing and emphasising the cross-border aspects of power is in line with what Yanis Varoufakis claimed back in February 2012, when he used Aesop’s fable as a means of describing the eurocrisis:

There are ants and there are grasshoppers in both Greece and in Germany, in the Netherlands and in Portugal, in Austria as well as in neighbouring Italy. And when we assume that all the ants are in the “North” and all the grasshoppers in the “South”, the remedies we introduce are toxic.

He also has a very nice video on this specific point, which I hereby embed:

That comes from the time when Professor Varoufakis was an analyst (he later had to focus on day-to-day politics).

The agent of change

The truth of the matter is that those of us with an intellectual leaning have to come to terms with the fact that any grand ideas we may come up with are bound to fall on deaf ears, simply because there is no collective social agent – movement, political party, etc. – at the European level capable of appropriating them and building a consensus around them.

I agree. It is also for this reason that I cannot treat “Germany” and all those states over which it ostensibly exerts [semi-]hegemonic control as indivisible wholes.

This agency for progressive reform in Europe has to be transnational. It cannot exclude Germans or other peoples. It cannot be some cartel among Southern Europeans, some “Latin” coalition against the “Teutons”, or anything of the sort.

I think that our problem is with the German elite (bankers, mega-corporations, a segment of the intelligentsia that bestows on them a national quality with the concomitant self-righteousness, etc.). This ambition of ours to upset the status quo has to attain the form of opposition to the equivalent Greek, Italian, Spanish and other elites, rather than fall behind national borders.

It would otherwise be lamentable to witness the recrudescence of 19th and early 20th century views on European affairs as the European leftism of the 21st century.

Acting and thinking

Hence, I would argue that our efforts at the moment should be directed at building that not-yet-existing social agent. To put it differently, what we should be doing at the moment isn’t so much thinking but acting.

I interpret this as a general statement that I would otherwise pass over in silence. Though since it is a variant of a view I often come across, I just use the opportunity to document my opinion on the matter.

Intellectual work cannot be dismissed as mere inaction, at least not in advance. Thinking and acting are not mutually exclusive. I would rather point to their complementarity. To act, one must know what it is they are acting for, what it is they are campaigning against, what exactly is wrong with the structures to be changed, whether such structures exist in the first place, what the qualitative features of their own plan may be, and so on. These issues are not self-evident, nor have they been settled for good.

To use this very exchange of views as a case in point: is it meaningless? Are we not trying to understand the problem[s] we are dealing with? Might not some other person read these writings and proceed to review their own stance vis-à-vis the status quo? Is there no value to be had in analysis; analysis of political issues that affect our life?

I treat thinking as intellectual labour. It is neither structurally superior/inferior nor more/less demanding than other forms of labour. It is just that: a form of labour. Insofar as it is concerned with real issues, political thinking should not be treated as surplus to the requirements for progressive reform.

I contend that not everyone can—or indeed needs to—be an activist: some will think; some will prove; some will present; some will act; some will enact.

Maybe I am wrong on just about everything I write about German power—or on any other topic for that matter—but if by chance any argument furnished herein or any proposition hosted on is anyhow accurate, then that would have to have an impact on the purpose of any given activist impulse: we would, for instance, not choose to act against German power as being German.

The gist of my argument

To wrap things up, my position is basically three-fold:

  1. no “German-ness” of power: that German power, conceived as the predominant way of proceeding with European integration and conducting economic policy, is not essentially “German”;
  2. conventional wisdom: that the locus of this power is the prevalence of a specific mentality, not the chimera of some decontextualised “idea”, but a context-dependent way of thinking about the market, the best practices for doing business, the modal features of European integration etc., which transcends the narrow confines of any given group of people, and which extends beyond the borders of any one country;
  3. cross-border dimension: that it also is a leftist attitude to see the exercise of authority in its cross-border expression, for that enables us to break free from traditional nationalist narratives of “us versus them”, whereby the sides involved are nations qua monoliths or homogeneous wholes of economic or other interests that overlap with national borders.

I wish to thank Thomas Fazi for this fruitful exchange of views. If you happen to be on Twitter, make sure you follow him @battleforeurope.