What makes a free society: On the heteronomy of the eurocrisis

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When the world is conceptually reduced to its most basic components, a free society may be discerned as a group of individuals that have the power to ask and answer the following question: “Is the law just?”. If they find that it is not, they, free as they are, are fully conscious that they may change the law for as long as it does not serve its purpose of promoting the well being and cohesion of their social group.

All laws are human in origin, the institution of society is, as Cornelius Castoriades1 has trenchantly put it, always imaginary; imaginary in the sense that it is created by the individuals of society and which, conversely, does not and cannot exist prior to society, as an objective, universal, “natural” constant, which shapes and determines interpersonal relations and rules broadly understood.

A free society is one that uses its laws, its institutions, for its own service, and abides by them for as long as they are useful for its preservation. In other words for as long as these laws and institutions foster justice, freedom and the welfare of individuals in society; and for as long as they exist to the point where no one would oppose them so vehemently so as to rather opt for the complete obliteration of the social structure, than for the continuation of these imaginary constructs. Such a society of individuals is autonomous, in the sense that it rules itself, and most importantly, it knows that it rules itself.

Brussels. Outside the European Parliament.
By Protesilaos Stavrou CC BY-SA-NC

In contrast, an unfree society is, in essence, recognized as a group of people that either find meaningless or impossible the very questioning of the justice of the law; or are not able to ameliorate the inherent injustice and deleterious influence of such a rule. A society like that is therefore unaware of the fact that laws and institutions are human in origin, and that beyond the social imaginary there exists no human society, no polity.

Consequently these unfree societies become alienated from the very institutions they have at some point in time created; so alienated from them, that they grow unaware of the fact that the laws and institutions are imaginary—that they are theirs.

A society operating in such a pervasive ignorance, a heteronomous society, is slavishly obeying the rules it established and the institutions it founded, to the extent where legal and political determinism becomes the main feature of social conduct, as a primordial alienating factor of the individuals from their own creations, since it is rules that govern people instead of people living with rules.

In our very European case during the eurocrisis we have all seen how certain macroeconomic and fiscal rules—imaginary as they undoubtedly are—have become the very source of alienation of the individuals in Europe, from their own institutions. We the people of Europe, or at least the people who reside in the euro area, never had the chance to ask whether the rules concerning public debt, budget deficit, inflation rate and long term interest rates, were either just or sufficient in bringing social harmony, in preserving justice and in expanding liberty.

In our case the law has been accepted without any further discussion on its actual legitimacy in as far as social peace is concerned; and in its name, in the name of some arbitrary, simplistic and largely uneconomic rules, we have seen conditions being imposed on people, through the use of coercion, in desperate conditions, to radically reshape society, once again in line with another fictitious “growth scheme”.

The question, or rather the possibility of the question, of whether the Stability and Growth Pact (and all other pacts that follow the same logic, e.g. fiscal compact) in particular and the overall Euro architecture in general, were just or not, was never offered to us directly and explicitly. This is either due to the intergovernmental character of European integration which effectively rules out citizens, by placing “national” (state/statist) interests above citizen/social ones; or to the complexity and indecipherability of the system, which can certainly be considered a concomitant of the quasi-confederal European Union edifice.

The plain fact concerning the macroeconomic and fiscal rules of the Monetary Union, is that the economy is a profoundly complex system of interrelations and transactions, which can never be narrowed down to a few, not even to many, holistic aggregates. It is preposterous to speak of such arbitrary rules, as products of any sort of science, for the very reason that they draw out most of the factors that determine an ever-changing, radically uncertain, economy.

To see the human world through the lens of some fixed aggregates, is to introduce determinism in the very method of understanding, by treating such aggregates not only as ontological entities—which obviously they are not—but also, and most importantly, by considering them as guiding lights and pseudo-sacrosanct rules that no group of people may ever transcend or violate; and in our case, if such rules, incorporated into law, are ever violated, retribution shall await the “sinners”.

It is in effect, in the name of such chimerical rules, of such makeshifts, that we witness at the heart of the eurocrisis an egregious injustice, which either manifests itself as undemocratic edicts that come from the troika or from some technocracy concocting schemes in the ivory towers of some European capital; or which operates as the alienating, heteronomic, factor in European integration, where citizens—those who really grant authority to imaginary institutions (in the sense that “the emperor has no clothes”)—are completely, or effectively, excluded from the decisions that shape and determine their lives and conduct.

If we are to live in a better world, if we want Europe to be a land of peace and prosperity broadly understood, if Europe is to be a meaningful and lofty ideal; we must all be aware of the fact that currently we exist in a system of heteronomy; a system that has been divorced from our will, scrutiny and power to change or to shape it, in any comprehensive sense. We live in a milieu of heteronomy, in that we are determined by our imaginary institutions–institutions that are growing exterior to us; we are subservient to them, instead of utilizing them as means to our ends, for justice, liberty and welfare.

If it is autonomy, self-rule, that we wish to have; if we want to be masters of our selves and to be conscious of the fact that institutions are always ours and are always imaginary constructs, subject to our will for change; we will ask for another Europe, another political order that not only allows some margin for reform, but so enamored it is with change, or with the possibility of change, that it places it as its quintessential element and defining narrative.

The eurocrisis has ample examples of such a profound injustice and deprivation of liberty. Now we can barely reshape our laws and institutions. As a matter of fact we witness them exerting pressure on us and seeking to change us as per their caprice, contrary to our desires and ends. No wonder people across the land of Europe are indignant, each for their own reasons while all can trace their unrest to the inherent injustice, alienation and heteronomy of the laws and institutions that govern us and determine our conduct; an injustice that has put us all on a race to the bottom against ourselves.

Will this ever end? No matter the case, please leave the window of doubt always open.

1. This post elaborates on, or effectively reproduces, the core ideas of Cornelius Castoriades, especially as these were presented and elucidated in his The Imaginary Institution of Society.