On developing alternatives to EU neo liberalism and austerity
Greetings from the future
Greeks are being subjected to a unique biopolitical experiment with broader implications for the fate of the European people and the physiognomy of modern societies. Austerity is not only about the brutal devaluation of people’s lives. The true aim is the colonilization of their hearts and minds by the logic of profit and competition. Greeks must not only endure but embrace deeply their misery. The pervasive terror of total disaster and the suffocating incrimination asks nothing less than the absolute adoption of a new mode of existence: a solitary existence, both indifferent and passive, seeking means of survival or the fleeting satisfaction of frivolous desires with an empty gaze in a social desert once called society. After all there is no such a thing in the brave new neoliberal world.
Whenever your heart and mind are at stake the existential anxiety is cataclysmic. It has become important for the emotional balance of people like me to leave Greece every now and then just in order to feel peaceful and calm. The tension, the pressure, the feeling that everything around you is so intense is unbearable. It feels like one is being abused in a weird way.
From the point of view of a Greek, things have become extremely urgent and dangerous. Of course, objectively speaking, we are not yet – as Europeans – at the edge of the cliff. But I am feeling like that, which means that I am also thinking like that. When I am feeling that I am already hanging by the edge of a cliff the best way to think is like an engineer. So, I am going to simplify matters, which means that I must apologize beforehand to the most rigorous readers.
As someone who has been trained as an engineer I will begin from the end. What is the problem we must solve and what does the solution look like? The problem of course is the hegemony of austerity in Europe, the imposition of neoliberal logic on the institutional structure of the European Union and even more so on the eurozone. The solution would be the gradual development of a non-neoliberal reconfiguration of the European project.
But isn’t this answer very vague, abstract and hard to conceptualize? To my engineering mind it’s deeply unsatisfactory even though it is a right answer. It seems that it is not enough just to say to people that neoliberalism is bad and we should change it. It’s not very useful – even in Greece after so many disastrous outcomes of implementing neoliberal policies. So, even if it’s a right answer, it is not very useful. When you are hanging at the edge of the cliff you need something useful. To just think that you must climb back up the cliff is not much progress. You need to answer the question ‘how’.
What if it’s an answer?
The crucial question then is: how do we shape the conditions in order to bring about an alternative reconfiguration of the European project? (Q1) There are several ways to answer this question depending on what is your main focus. Here, I will focus on the question of people’s minds, since it is the people that would have to step in and fight for another course for Europe. The next question will be: what is it that would weaken the appeal of neoliberal logic today? (Q2) Which takes us to the next and basic one: what is it that makes the neoliberal logic so powerful, today, in Europe? (Q3)
Let’s try to answer these questions in the reverse order. In order to answer Q3 I am proposing the following way of looking at the neoliberal hegemony in Europe: instead of focusing on neoliberalism as a problem, let’s think of it as an answer to a problem. The idea is that the appeal of neoliberalism today in Europe stems from the fact that it seems to be the only answer to a particular problem. I am simplifying obviously, there are lots of reasons that shape the condition we are facing today, but let’s pursue this line of thought to see whether we will end up with something useful or not.
If neoliberalism is an answer, what is the respective question? Let’s consider the rhetoric of the neoliberals. There are lots of different versions, I am just picking one. The world is changing, new global powers emerge creating their own spheres of influence challenging the geopolitcal dominance of the West around the planet. In Europe we used to have an expanding middle class, societies with high standards of living because we were in a position to exploit other parts of the planet. We don’t have this luxury anymore.
So, Europe has to change. We have to become more competitive i.e. we must import into Europe the areas and practices of crude exploitation. We must reduce the rights of the majority of the population, its standard of living and drastically reshape our societies ending the “disturbing habit” of democratic function. Access to crucial decisions must be an exclusive privilege of the economic elites i.e. the decisions must be taken according to the criterion of competition with the elites of different parts of the world, without the intrusion of criteria connected to the needs of the people through denomcratic processes. The middle class must be reduced drastically and the huge part of the European population must be deprived of fundamental rights. At this point, the status of the illegal immigrant may help us visualize what awaits the majority of Europeans in the future. According to this rhetoric, the question that only neoliberalism seems to answer is this: how are we going to deal with the fact that Europe is losing ground in the global power game?
Hence, in Europe today the popular classes and civil society are facing an unprecedented attack. People are deprived from the right to satisfy their basic needs. The promoted strategies of life based on unrelenting and flashy consumption cannot be fulfilled and the majority of people are excluded from the prospect of having a decent life. A situation like this creates a crucial existential gap in people’s lives: what we consider to be a desirable life is no longer available to us or it will no longer be available to us in the future for there is a growing feeling in our societies that things will get worse.
There are two directions to follow trying to bridge the gap. You can either challenge the first part (desirability) or the second one (unavailability). The second direction is often regarded as the common sense thing to do: let’s try individually or collectively to regain our place among those that have a chance of tasting the “benefits” of consumption, that is to acquire a place inside the constantly shrinking European middle class. The “door” is closing rapidly – excluding the majority of people – and we must fight hard not to be left outside. Actually, Chancellor Merkel is inviting individuals having the necessary qualifications from all over Europe to move to the big cities of Central and Northern Europe, in order to shape the new, multinational but much smaller European middle class.
Of course, one could argue that this is just rhetoric, it’s just part of the appearance of deeper tendencies of present-day capitalism – e.g. the financialization of the global economy, the fall of the profit-rate, the negative balance of forces for the popular classes, or other important tendencies such as environmental instability, the exhaustion of natural resources etc.
I could also add another – crucial to my mind – predicament of our time: today the post-war organizational and institutional configuration of modern societies is no longer stable for a number of reasons that I will not mention. Modern societies will change either towards more authoritarian modes of governance – combining the laws of the market with pre-modern institutional forms, what we might call “despotism of the market” – or towards a deepening of democracy by drastically redistributing power and access to decision-making from the elites to the people.
On top of this, the elites are blind to some broader deadlocks we are facing today while the above deeper tendencies approach their limits. Deadlocks that threaten humanity as a whole for the first time in our history. The elites care only for the maintenance and enhancement of their power. Crudely speaking, they do not even care about saving capitalism – or preventing the unfolding of its crisis – if it requires a negative redistribution of power for them.
At the level of appearance things are unfolding fast without the emergence of a respective awareness regarding the emergency of the situation. At the level of appearance we are stuck. That’s why, taking seriously the level of appearance is crucial to our cause. It’s the field in which our struggle takes place. Being aware of deeper tendencies is extremely important in order to be effective. But to be effective is not equivalent to exposing to the people the deeper inner logic of what is going on. Being effective means that at the level of appearance we must find a way to fight against the way things are unfolding, and change the course of historical and social movement. And to do that requires a systematic interaction with people’s minds transforming their cognitive maps for a new awareness to be born. So, even if the neoliberal rhetoric for the geopolitical decline of Europe is just part of the appearance, we must intervene and challenge our opponents on this ground, the ground of the real battlefield of appearance.
Hard times, hard choices, dirty work
Let’s come back to our exploration. The neoliberal strategy appears to be the only possible solution to the gradual geopolitical retreat of Europe. It seems to be the only solution due to a conservative cliché which is widely spread and deep-rooted in public opinion: we are entering in difficult times, hard choices should be made to overcome the difficulties, to endure hard times. Only neoliberals know what must be done. Only they are bold enough, only they are willing to do the dirty work. No one agrees – they say when they are pushed hard – with austerity, no one likes it, but it is necessary. No one agrees with concentration camps for immigrants and refugees, but it is something that must be done.
The left, and progressives in general – the cliché goes on – are soft, sensitive, naive people, incapable of leading society in the difficult times when hard decisions must be made. They are whining about poverty, the violation of rights, the weakening of democracy, the loss of social security, etc. They mourn for the loss of things from better, long forgotten times. All these things are unacceptable luxuries in the circumstances of the new, hard, global order. The left lacks a viable strategy. We cannot do the dirty job of adjusting Europe to the new global conditions. Moreover, we are dangerous because we are soft and naïve and out of touch with reality.
This cliché – reinforced incessantly and not accidentally by the adventure movies of Hollywood and various other dominant cultural “products” – is the implicit assumption that fuels the appeal that neoliberal strategy has today. It’s hard but necessary – it is the only game in town if we want Europe to survive.
Hey neoliberals, guess what? You are fired
Let’s assume that we have answered Q3. It is time to move onto Q2 in our inverted sequence: what is it that would weaken the appeal of neoliberal logic today? It seems that we must challenge the implicit assumption that supports the neoliberal strategy if we want to change the balance of forces and finally beat neoliberalism and austerity in Europe. We must reshape our strategy in such a way that it will weaken the implicit assumption that neoliberalism and austerity is the only way available for reversing Europe’s geopolitical decline. Our alternative strategy – reshaped accordingly – would have two dimensions: a negative and a positive one.
According to the negative dimension, neoliberalism and austerity are failing to reverse the decline of Europe. In fact they accelerate the decline. The neoliberal strategy and the aggressive policy of austerity signals a brutal, unilateral breach of the post-war contract between the European people and the elites. The contract was the outcome of a favourable balance of forces for the people, conceding to them access to the decision-making (democracy) and, hence, a significant share from the wealth-to-be-produced (redistribution, social welfare state). This contract gave Europe peace and the best decades in its history.
The decisive enforcement of the neoliberal logic of profit and competition in Europe and the respective austerity in the years of the crisis is not going to restore Europe’s geopolitical losses. Imitating the Asiatic giants by enforcing their “advantages” to Europe like cheap labor, lower standards of living, authoritarianism, environmental degradation etc. is not going to change the course of things. It wil not make Europe stronger. And that’s because when inflicting European people with a brutal policy of austerity and dismantling democracy, together with the fact that Europe consists of many different nations, the most probable outcome will be the rise of neo-fascism and extreme right-wing nationalism. The European countries – under geopolitical and financial pressure – will develop a national strategy to counteract these pressures and in reality will compete with each other. In terms of the above dilemma between desirability and availability of the promoted life the extreme-right wing political powers are proposing a national (collective) enclosure as a response to the loss of the relevant availability.
The domination of the extreme right-wing forces in European countries will be the end-product of neoliberalism and austerity. It will be their nastiest consequence, the endgame of the geopolitical decline of Europe. European countries will fight each other, not over who is going to rule the rest of the world, as in the past, but over who is going to be less miserable in a declining region.
The positive dimension draws from the conviction that the strategy of the left – a strategy based on cooperation and democracy – is not only a fairer strategy for the majority of the people – since it respects their needs and capacities – but it is also the only one that can reverse the decline of Europe. In geopolitics, regions of the planet are assessed by their productive capacity, their military power, their control over trading routes, their population, their resources etc. The European countries are relatively small in size and taken separately, their geopolitical power is not considered to be important. The unity of the European countries is a necessary condition if we want some degree of autonomy, geopolitically speaking. It is a necessary condition if we want to maintain the capacity to co-determine our future.
But, unity can only be achieved through co-operation. The neoliberal dogma that we are going to build unity through competition – not by combining our forces but by using them against one another – is a contradiction in terms. Additionally, the interdependence of the European economies, the unprecedented power of the “markets”, the banks and other financial agents and the neoliberal attack we are facing all over Europe makes it reasonable to assume that the European people will stand or fall together. In other words, it does not seem plausible that one European nation will be “saved” while the others are dragged down into darkness. European people today more than ever have a common fate. So, trying to restore “availability” without challenging and eventually changing the dominant coordinates of social and individual life is a dead end.
Unleash the kraken!
The major argument that the strategy of cooperation and democracy is the only real solution to the gradual geopolitical decline of Europe stems from the fact that the strategy of the left appreciates fully the biggest advantage of Europe: its own people. Due to various historical and cultural reasons, European societies invested a huge amount of resources in the development (cultural, educational, political etc.) of the people. Europeans embody a huge stock of capacities – despite the ferocious efforts of the neoliberals to strip them off these capacities the last decades – which is the most valuable geopolitical advantage of the continent. Neoliberals not only are completely blind to this fundamental fact but they are doing everything they can to wipe it out.
The strategy of the left – based on the logic of cooperation and democracy – can unlock the huge capacities of the European people. The geopolitical assessment of a region that seems to be in decline according to conventional standards can be altered drastically if we take into account the capacities of the people. Capacities that can be fully activated if we think of the people as autonomous, pro-active agents of democratic decision-making and productive units that allow them to fully manifest and cultivate even further their capacities, instead of rendering them just as obedient, silent labor place-holders under the control of others; a conception that overlooks, diminishes, and eventually squanders the huge potential of human abilities. By transferring the decisions to the people, by giving them the space and the freedom to realize and mobilize their capacities, we can utilize them to redefine our global status.
Additionally, a mature social configuration of the european project based on the logic of cooperation and democracy – focused on people’s capacities and needs – is in a position to recognize and deal systematically with modern challenges such as the energy challenge (finitude of natural resources), environmental instability, the unhooking from the notion of growth, respect of our traditions etc. We will be able to rediscover notions like rational, long-term, multi-dimensional planning, transformation of the productive matrix, the common good, life, fate etc.
Needless to say that at the geopolitical level, a mature Europe which is constanly transforimg its productive matrix following a different path of development will be a force capable of stabilizing the global competition (which is now accelerated alarmingly threatening peace at a global scale) and it would support immensely similar efforts in other regions of the planet.
Seen under a different light, democracy is neither indifferent and boring, nor something ‘nice’ and ‘polite’ but inappropriate for the hard times we live in. It’s not a luxury that we are no longer entitled to. It is not a waste of time and a dismantling phenomenon. It is not just an institutional or bureaucratic system of governance that is detached from the people. Rather, democracy is a powerful tool in their hands. Democracy is an irreplaceable instrument for the revival of our societies. It is a way of doing things. Actually, it’s the most efficient way of doing things. Why? Because democracy is co-operation on a large scale. And co-operation is the most distinctive of human traits.
Cooperation and democracy is the choice that those who dare to face the truth are prepared to make. This is what is hard. Enforcing cooperation and democracy requires a radical redistribution of power (in the form both of wealth and access to decision-making) from the elites to the European people. This is what it takes to restore Europe’s geopolitical status.
Assuming that we have answered Q2, let’s move to Q1: how do we shape the conditions in order to bring about an alternative reconfiguration of the European project? The reshaping of our strategy as an alternative answer to the question of the geopolitical retreat of Europe paves the way for a real counter-attack against neoliberalism. Having challenged the implicit cliché that supported the perverted neoliberal logic we are now in a position to form a real alternative.
Our battery of arguments starts to seem more reasonable and convincing once we have effectively disconnected the impression that neoliberal strategy is necessary even if it is damaging, from the idea that sustains it, namely the impression that democracy, labour rights, a decent living wage, a decent education, decent health care, etc. are luxuries. It seems now reasonable to argue that the revival of Europe should be based on people’s own capacities. It seems obvious that having people with so many embodied capacities in Europe today cannot be considered anymore as a problem but as an advantage. Reducing education, standards of living etc. is not only unfair and barbaric but irrational as well. People of different political, cultural and national origin, people with different class position, people of different religious convictions etc can agree that nurturing people’s capacities is more condusive to the revival of Europe than doing the opposite.
If we really want to challenge neoliberal hegemony and austerity we need an approach that seems appealing to the majority of Europeans. Situating our strategy in the proposed framework it appears to be a pragmatic, reasonable and better solution, rather than just a fair but unrealistic list of demands. This is a crucial step if we really want to fight back effectively, to change the course of things, to seriously question the hegemony of an inhuman transformation of human societies. For neoliberalism is not just a policy; it is an ambitious strategy of changing radically our mode of existence.
Mind the gap…
But there is a catch here. The implicit assumption is that we – who are “we” remains open and undecided deliberately – actually believe that democracy and cooperation are the most efficient and productive ways of doing things. There are evidence that we don’t. In other words, we must also face the consequencies of being under the hegemony of neoliberals for so long.
The last years new political movements are putting the issue of democracy very high in their demands. The democratic uprising taking place around us looks towards the desirability of the promoted form of life. It dares to question the prevailing view and challenge its assumptions. But the gravitational force of the dominant form of life is still strong inside them. Under the pressure of austerity, unemployment and poverty, there is a tendency of differentiating democracy from the urgent satisfaction of the basic needs. There is a tendency to focus on the loss of the “availability” leaving the issue of “desirability” – and eventually real democracy – at the backstage or at the rhetorical level. The vast majority of people that was hit by the brutal policy of austerity mobilizes and fights but it often fails to make the connection between its losses and democracy. Even political powers sensitive to people’s needs and their despair fail to appreciate fully the strong interdependence between them. And there is a good reason for this.
Our societies suffer from the syndrome of the “end of history”. People were raised believing that a good life is essentially an individual achievement. Society and nature is just a background, a wallpaper for our egos, the contingent context in which our solitary selves will evolve pursuing individual goals. The individual owes nothing to no one, she lacks a sense of respect and responsibility to the previous or the next generations, and indifference is the proper attitude regarding the present social problems and conditions.
Today, at the dawn of a new era of total threat, our societies – and political movements and parties as part of them – seem to seek quick and easy ways to restore availability. Ways that will not disturb the naïve and comforting conception of the “end of history” that we do not really need to engage profoundly into collective practices. The only thing we are willing to give is singular moments of participation. The idea is that through demonstrating and voting we can somehow solve the urgent problems of our societies with orthodox means, through the state and governments that are sensitive to our demands.
Let me be clear on this. I do not mean that representative democracy has no value; it’s a crucial dimension of a mature society. But we often ask too much from it and its failure to deliver on our expectations generates a misguided devaluation. Neither do I mean that governments sensitive to people’s needs are not crucial factors in this battle. I am just stressing the fact that we must have a broader view of the agents and the processes needed if we want to change things.
A bundle of important policies and powers once belonged to the state has been transferred either to external authorities or directly to the elites; in both cases out of the reach of the people. At the same time a vast number of neoliberal regulations and norms governs the function of the state and sections of social life. These elements combined render the governmental power not the political power but just one of its poles and shape a hostile environment in which considerable effort is needed just to open some space for the implementation of different policy.
In order to respond to these suffocating conditions, new organizational standards and methods are needed for the engagememnt of thousands of people in this day-to-day and multi-level fight. Without the people with the knowledge needed, aligned into groups of collaboration and embedded in a vast network of democratic decision-making that produces policies of our own logic, no governement will be in a position to wage this battle. A totally different notion of democracy together with digital technology can help in the transition needed. But we must be aware that it’s not just a matter of incorporating new notions and technology in the old paradigm of doing politics; a paradigm change is required, an immersion into a new conceptual, practical, emotional and aesthetic framework seems necessary.
A swift to our organizational and methodological principles presupposes that we will overcome the tendency – generated by the syndrome of the “end of history” – that things will change easily and quick through the revival of the previous institutional and political configuration of post war liberal capitalism. We must finally confront the reality that neoliberals are “burning” the bridges behind them with the past. We can only move forward by accepting the fact that we are entering a long period of hard fighting in which we must drastically change the coordinates of our political imagination. We must escape from the political fascination of the post war ideals of social configuration.
We are stronger than we think
It is time to wake up in a collective way. The new political movements are the first glimpses of such an awakening. They represent a desicive emancipatory moment of swifting the focus from availability to desirability of the promoted life. Defending or reclaiming our dignity requires the radical redistribution of power and the emergence of a new ideal for social and individual life that will radically transform the present desire for a status quo that is no longer available to us as a response to the existential gap. And in both of them (redistribution of power and transformation of desire) the issue of real democracy acquires its full significance and purpose. It is absolutely critical to sweep away the dust of the post war social and political configuration on such crucial ideas as democracy.
Reshaping democracy in our minds from a notion which is identified with the corruption of the political personnel or the boring and indifferent electoral processes, to a notion that respects and liberates our capacities for a common cause may give us a chance to change drastically the balance of forces. Democracy is the best way to activate fully the embodied capacities that people have, to unlock and mobilize the human reserves of creative power which are the only form of power we can have at our disposal in this struggle. If we elaborate effective ways and means of democratic functioning we will realize that we are actually much stronger than we think.
We have to be cautious here. We are talking about embodied capacities in humans and humans are peculiar animals. People don’t like being the passive objects of change. They possess the human need to be the agents of change. People do not have to be trained in democracy because they should, or because that’s the goal and the belief of a political power. People should not be viewed as the raw material that must be transformed according to some plan. Instead, we need a narrative that frames our current situation and a goal that will inspire people to make it their own. Through the struggle to achieve this goal people will be transformed and developed fully. The expansion of a democratic mentality and culture will be a side effect of this process. In the same way that exploitation and repression are never the explicit goal but always the unquestioned way of achieving a goal. Democracy must be the self-evident choice of doing things; not merely an ideological persuasion.
In the same vein, humans tend to identify with what they know best. It is a way of self-determination, a way to think of ourselves in a favourable light. Generative Democracy, a democracy that engages and enhances people’s capacities through co-operation is preferable because it respects and liberates people’s capacities; the same capacities that people tend to be proud of. It is of vital importance to reclaim the sense of self-esteem and personal fulfillment from the corporate fantasy that now rules our culture.
Our moment of glory
Perhaps democracy as it has been thought and practiced till today is just a small fragment of what is possible, situated in an incompatible social framework that prevents us from grasping its real content. We continue thinking, speaking, acting, and organizing with inadequate forms. Our established conceptual apparatus doesn’t let us see the full potential of our own logic. We haven’t yet found the ways of reconfiguring the “we” to really include people who are deeply from this side of the battle but have identities we cannot even recognize. We have to fully appreciate the fact that if we think differently we will realize that we are stronger than we think. And it is already happening. The escalation of the battle pushes us to adapt just to respond effectively and stay in the game.
In terms of today’s potentials, we as humans have never before been so close to achieving an emancipated and mature society. At the same time we have never been so close to total destruction. The duty of our generations is broader and bolder than we let ourselves realize. And democracy seems to be at the core of the new paradigm, of the new form of life that our duty calls for.