Tag Archives: EU

The Future of Work

20 Jun

TCM editor, Alex Gourevitch, will be speaking with Kathi Weeks, author of The Problem With Work, about ‘The Future of Work‘ this Sunday at PS1. It is part of Triple Canopy’s ‘Speculations on the Future‘ program. In advance of this event, we thought it worth laying out a few facts relevant to the discussion. While we have spoken about some of the political questions at stake in the work/anti work debate (here, here, and here), those were relatively fact free speculations. And necessarily so. The issue at stake was hopes and desires for the future, and the organizing aspirations for a possible left. These discussions, however, can always do with a small dose of vulgar empiricism. A brief look at some relevant facts suggests that the most likely, if not most desirable, future of work is roughly that of increasing dependence on the labor market and lower quality work for most people. One word of caution: the data is limited to the US and Europe, entirely because that is our area of expertise and where the data is most readily available.

Although every so often there are breathless declarations of the end of workthe collapse of work, and that technology is leading to a world without work, the historical trend is the opposite. Ever since the 1970s, an increasing share of the population has been working. For instance, the graph below shows the employment to population ratio in the United States. Notably, even after the dramatic post-2008 decline, a higher percentage of Americans still work in the formal labor market than anytime before the mid 1970s. Slide1Similar survey data from Eurostat of all people between ages 15 and 64 shows, wherever data is available, that there have been dramatic or gradual declines in ‘inactivity‘ or non-participation in the labor market. In Germany, 35.9% of 15 to 64 year olds were inactive in 1983 while in 2012 that number had sunk to 22.9%. In Spain the drop was from 44.1% in 1986 to 25.9% in 2012. For France, 31.6% (1983) to 29% (2012), and the UK 29.1% (1983) to 23.7% (2012). The Netherlands saw the largest decline from 1983 to 2012, from 41.4% to 20.7%. The most likely future of work in the US and Europe is that more people will be working for wages or salaries than ever before, as absolute numbers and as a percentage of the population.

Three recent changes to the political economy suggest not only increased participation in, but greater dependence on, wage-labor, especially by those on the bottom end of the labor market. These are a) stagnation or reduction of welfare benefits, b) stagnation or decline of wealth and c) stagnant wages and precarious employment. Welfare and wealth are alternatives to wages as sources of consumption; lower wages and precarious employment increases insecurity of and need for employment.

For instance, in the case of welfare, the stagnation or reduction of welfare benefits means that states offer the same or worse benefits to those who cannot find or live off a job. This is consistent with increased numbers taking advantage of these benefits. For instance, recent reports made much of the 70% increase in Americans using food stamps, which represents a doubling of the amount spent on food stamps, since 2008. But food stamps alone are hardly enough to live off, and their increased use reflects the increase in unemployment. More broadly, American welfare benefits are not enough for most people to live off, many states recently cut benefits, and the welfare system is famously designed to spur labor market participation, not provide an alternative to it. Moreover, in Europe, where welfare benefits are more generous and less conditional, the consequence of austerity policies is, at best, to limit the growth of any such programs and in various countries to reduce or even eliminate them. Cuts to public employment and hiring freezes, increases in retirement age, and other measures mean the reserve army of labor will be larger, and most people will have fewer/poorer state provided alternatives to finding a job.

Finally, the increase in part-time, low-wage work, alongside stagnant or declining wealth at the bottom, further entrenches labor market dependence. We were unable to find longitudinal wealth data on Europe, but in the United States we have seen net declines in wealth for the bottom 60% of the population.

Share Total Wealth 1983-2009

Since wealth assets are not only an alternative source of income, but also, in the US especially a source of retirement income, this means greater dependence on the labor market for the working age population, as well as postponement of retirement, further swelling the ranks of the labor market. On top of which, wages remain stagnant and full-time work harder to find. Jobs are low-paying, part-time, and insecure and once one starts looking not at median but bottom quintiles, the situation is only worse. These trends are equally evident in Europe, where part-time, less secure employment has increased in places like the UK and Netherlands, alongside the more often commented increases in unemployment in places like Greece, Spain and Portugal.

In all, then, we can say that alternatives to employment have gotten worse or disappeared for the majority of people in the US and Europe, while the available jobs pay, on average, less than they used to and offer less security. There is every reason to think that the most likely near future of work will give us strong reasons to think about a different way of organizing work – about a better, if less likely, future.

Europe’s can-kickers

3 May

This week, Reinhart and Rogoff gave a non-walkback walkback of their debt research somewhat reminiscent of Michael Ignatieff’s apology for supporting the war. Roughly ‘but my opponents are still even more wrong!’ In RR’s case, just plug in “ultra-Keynesians” for Ignatieff’s anti-war “academics and commentators” and you get, in fewer and less tortured sentences, the same thing.

Meanwhile, the reality of austerity continues unfold. This week, James Meek reports in the LRB on the consequences of the Cyprus ‘bail-in.’ Turns out, unsurprisingly, that evil Russian oligarchs were not the only ones who got screwed, and that they were another bogeyman trotted out in the European attempt to refuse collective solutions to a systemic problem. Though he doesn’t provide us general numbers, Meek notes that many depositors with more than 100,000 euros in Cypriot banks were retirees who had to live off the interest, not high-flying spenders. Moreover, the key thing about the strategy for dealing with the Cyprus was that it localized the solution.

“Was there anything else the IMF and the Northern Europeans could have done? Yes; they could have rescued the Cypriot banks directly, from pooled European funds, as a trial of what is due to happen in future Eurozone bank emergencies. That would have got Cyprus off the hook. But there was never the will in Northern Europe to do this.”

Meek is referring to the proposed banking union, which would give the ECB power to resolve bad banks directly. The proposal is stalled for a number of reasons, including the status of so-called ‘legacy assets,’ or toxic assets – like the loads of mortgage-backed securities that banks took on during the bubble – currently on bank balance sheets.

Meek’s piece is worth the read just for the reporting alone, and especially for some of the pieces it adds to the puzzle of the Cypriot financial system, but largely for the reminder that the European strategy remains ostrich-like. Each banking system – Portuguese, Spanish, Greek, Irish, Icelandic, Cypriot, not to mention French, German, and Dutch – is being treated as if it were non-systemic, in either its origins or ongoing effects. The world of finance loves the public health metaphor of ‘contagion’ but this time their metaphors are the opposite – it is as if each country has a different, local disease that the in-house doctors can treat on their own. It’s true that everyone has a bad case of austeritis, and, as TCM editor Alex Gourevitch noted last week, austerity fatigue is increasing. In fact, at this point, austerity is seeming less like a recipe for resolving the crisis and more like an attempt to kick the can down the road. After all, the one thing Meek doesn’t point out is that nobody has enough money to bail out existing European banks. They are, as Mark Blyth reminds us in his new austerity book, “too big to bail.” What good is a banking union if it will cost so much to bail out all the bad banks? At the very least, the pain of even less radical solutions, like systematic financial repression, will be severe and will run its own major risks. Austerity and the attempt to localize the problem isn’t just a product of German cussedness or ECB ordoliberal ideology. It is a displacement exercise. Europe’s current rulers simply have no answers to the problems they have created, and don’t want responsibility for the risks of changing their dead-end course.

The Zombie Currency and the Fetters of Europe

4 Sep

Hobbes once said that money is the “Sanguification of the Commonwealth” Wherever it circulates, so it brings goods from those who produced them to those who need them, and in the process sustains the life of the body politic, the same way blood sustains the life of the body. If Hobbes was right, that is a bad sign for the euro. The euro was supposed to be the lifeblood of the European Union, circulating through and nourishing the political institutions of the Euro-Leviathan. Instead it is sucking the life out of it.

Part of the problem is that the euro was not just supposed to nourish existing institutions but conjure into being a set of institutions that had not yet been fully created. It was a political project through and through. It was supposed to compensate for the EU’s democratic deficit and confusion of powers: a kind of European version of post-Tiananmen China – economic vitality in the place of more democratic institutions. But, unlike China, the EU never went all the way to creating a highly coordinated, if undemocratic, Euro-Leviathan. What the euro promised was financial integration, macroeconomic stability, and technocratic peace. A common currency managed via European Central Bank monetary policy would bring borrowing costs down, given the implicit continental wide guarantee. This is exactly what happened at first. Sovereign debt yields converged rapidly, such that where Greek yields had been almost 25% in 1992 compared with German 7% yields, by the end of 2000, two years after the introduction of the euro, their yield were nearly the same. Credit flowed freely across borders, as did capital, consumer goods, and even labor.

But as we have seen over the past months, the background guarantee of supranational monetary support was not actually there, the Leviathan was a many-headed hydra, and the underlying economies diverged rather than converged. The ECB’s mandate is to control inflation not save banks or engage in fiscal transfers. There is no coordinated continental-wide fiscal policy. The responses to the recent crisis have been short-term, ad hoc moves, like the Long Term Refinancing Operations, in which the ECB loaned money to national banks to buy sovereign debt, in an attempt to keep yields low and increase liquidity.

The effect has been to extend the sclerotic features of the European political system into the economy, rather than to have that economy breathe life into the political institutions. Consider the following three facts, which together reveal just how rapidly the European economy has financially dis-integrated, even as the euro ghosts along preventing this dis-integration from becoming an economic reorganization:

  1. First, as everyone has noticed, sovereign debt yields have radically diverged to reflect not the strength of a continental economy with a coordinated economic policy, but rather dramatic differences in national economic potentiality. Germany is safe, France moderate, the PIIGS increasingly risky. (Note both the convergence from 1999-2009, and the rapid divergence from 2009 onwards. Graph from the ECB)

  1. Second, as Gillian Tett reported in May, cross-border private lending has seized up. An essential feature of eurozone financial integration had been the willingness of banks to make loans in one country backed by assets from another. Lending to Greek consumers were matched by German funds; lending to Spanish borrowers covered by French assets. Now, as Tett observes, “banks are increasingly reordering their European exposure along national lines…the fracture has already arrived for many banks’ risk management departments.”  Banks now demand that any loan to a particular country be backed by funding from that country. Where the economic strength of Germany thus facilitated borrowing, speanding and investment in weaker economies, it now subtracts from that same provision of credit. Given the economic contraction, Greece, Spain, Italy now have fewer good assets to put up against loans that now has to be backed nationally. This “asset-liability matching” is an indication that banks are already treating the european economies as breaking up, even if this break up is not registered at the level of different currencies able to register these different economic potentials. An April ECB report on financial disintegration notes that the standard deviation in interbank lending rates across countries has continued to grow and fluctuate wildly since 2009, and an August report confirms continuation of the trend in various financial markets: “the pricing of risk in the repo market…has become more dependent on the geographic origin of both the coutnerparty and the collateral, in particular when these stem from the same country.”
  1. Recently, the Financial Times reported corporations have had to seek financing from the corporate bond market, because bank loans are in short supply, and that the yields on corporate bonds are nationally divergent. According to the FT, “Interest rates paid by companies in the eurozone’s weaker economies have surged, highlighting the bloc’s fragmentation as the European Central Bank loses control of borrowing costs.” Further, this particular instance of fragmentation heavily favors large businesses that can sell bonds on corporate bond markets, and some countries have many more corporations with access to these markets than others. Money is going into already established avenues for investment, not new growth areas. Once again, financial markets are reflecting the fragmentation of the European economy.

In sum, diverging national bond yields, diverging bank loan structures, diverging corporate borrowing costs. The blood is running through the arteries of a foreign host.

The ECB is not so much keeping the euro alive as keeping it from dying. Public funding by the ECB is replacing private funding at the cost of sinking more and more money into going concerns, suppressing new avenues for investment. Banks are not lending to companies, they are investing in their own sovereign debt or parking cash back at the central bank. Major companies are sitting on cash hoards rather than investing.

The Euro is a zombie currency – a monetary undead, wandering around feeding off the flesh of living economic entities. Of course, there is an alternative to trying to goad skittish banks and bearish companies into investing. One could sequester savings and force investment through a massive, European wide investment plan. But that would require decapitating the zombie, or however else one finally kills the walking dead. The fetters of the EU political structure weigh too heavily on the economic forces of the Eurozone to allow such a radical act. There may be a European solution to the continent’s economic malaise, but it won’t come from the EU.

Guest Post: Europe’s Soft Coup d’Etat Part 2

21 Feb

Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two part analysis of the politics of the euro-crisis by James Heartfield. Part 1 found here.

In this current moment some of those who are standing up to the EU’s austerity packages have shouted about the attack on democracy. They think that the EU is attacking democracy so that it can push through its spending cuts. So it is. But much more so it is using the debt crisis to push through the abolition of national sovereignty. So often it has.

Two and a half years ago a very prescient sociology professor Ulrich Beck wrote ‘The crisis cries out to be transformed into a long overdue new founding of the EU’. Beck went on: ‘until now there has been no joint financial policy, no joint industrial policy, no joint social policy – which, through the sovereignty of the EU, could be pooled into an effective response to the crisis’. The only real barrier, thought Beck was ‘the national self-delusion of its intellectual elites’ who ‘bewail the faceless European bureaucracy’. (Guardian, 13 April 2009)

December’s Brussels summit, drawing its moral imperative from the sovereign debt crisis, ended with a commitment to create a much-greater coordination of economic and financial policy. Under the agreement national governments must submit balanced budgets, and face ‘automatic penalties’ if they do not. The thesis behind the agreement is that the southern European countries’ spending and indebtedness has undermined confidence in them and because of that in the Euro.

Shifting the blame onto Greece, Spain and Italy for the Euro crisis twists the truth. Throughout the buoyant years of the noughties the success of the European periphery was cited proof that the European Union was working. More, exporting countries, including Germany, were glad that easy credit boosted Greek and Spanish buying of their goods.

Apart from the economics, though, the important shift is towards ‘stronger economic union’. When the crisis began Greece’s troubles suggested to many that the European Union would ‘fall apart’.Professor Beck’s intuition that the crisis would drive the greater integration of economic policy proved to be as insightful as the fears that the whole thing would fall apart. Where he misleads us is in portraying this movement as a greater democratisation ofEurope. On the contrary, the trajectory is towards a much-diminished role for democratic oversight, and a much enhanced role for unelected officials dictating terms to elected governments. ‘Automatic penalties’ is European code for ‘not subject to political negotiation’.

The reason for the ‘automatic penalties’ is that as national elites European governments do not have the authority to see through tough measures. For many years now, governments have leaned on the European Union as an extra-national source of authority. Governments that are not willing to make the case for tighter budgets honestly in their own terms, have hid behind the claim that they must make adjustments to meet the external restraints imposed by Europe.  That is what Italian Minister Guido Cali meant when he said that ‘the European Union represented an alternative path for the solution of problems which we were not managing to handle through the normal channels of government and parliament’.

Not just Italy or Greece, but Britain and Germany sought again and again to ‘tie’ or ‘bind’ themselves into European Union rules that would limit the political temptations of excessive spending. Quite why sovereign states should choose to bind themselves and their successors in obligations that they cannot change or renegotiate is a conundrum for students of international relations. The answer to the puzzle is that these elites no longer derive the same authority that they used to from national electorates or constituent assemblies that once they did. Instead it is in the international summits, most notably the European summits that leaders feel secure, bound together in their mutual fear of the unruly electorates.

Fear of economic crisis is driving the integration of European policy, and it is not being consolidated as a democracy, but as a technocracy, where officials follow procedures, rather than make policies. Six years ago the voters of France and Holland voted down the centralisation of Europe under its then proposed constitution – which was abandoned soon after. Now, using fear of economic collapse, European elites have talked themselves into submitting to a more onerous set of impersonal and bureaucratic rules.

Guest Post: Europe’s Soft Coup d’Etat Part 1

20 Feb

Editor’s Note: Mainstream commentators for the Financial Times, like Wolfgang Munchau, are now giving titles to their op-eds like ‘Greece must default if it wants democracy.’ Meanwhile, ECB bankers argue that you have to scare democratic publics into sado-monetarist bailout packages. And finance ministers, like the Netherlands’ Jan Kees de Jager, want to radicalize Europe’s democratic deficit: “I am in favour of more control, more supervision … Money is the thing we can control Greece with.” The conflict between democracy and technocratic management is becoming increasingly clear. Today and tomorrow we run a two part analysis of these developments by James Heartfield, who argues that this tension is embedded in the logic and political structure of the European Union itself, not just the euro and monetary union. James Heartfield is a writer based in London. His most recent book is The Aborigines Protection Society: Humanitarian Imperialism in Australia, New Zealand, Fiji, Canada, South Africa, and the Congo, 1837-1909 (Columbia University Press).  

***

Europe’s Soft Coup d’Etat Part 1

Winter 2011/12. The Greek parliament is besieged from without by angry protestors. They riot burning down banks and government buildings. The Italian government, too, faces mass opposition – a general strike in protest at government €450 billion spending cuts. InIreland,Spainand many other European countries there are angry protests. But the Greek and Italian governments are not only under pressure from the public. They are answerable to other masters than the electorate.

Greek Prime Minister Lucas Papademos took office on 11 November 2011, though he stood in no election. Before becoming Prime Minister Papademos had been a senior official at the European Central Bank, and an advisor to the outgoing PM George Papandreou. Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti was appointed on 12 November 2011, having been made a life senator three days earlier by President Giorgio Napolitano. Before becoming Prime Minister Mario Monti had been an economics professor and a member of the European Commission. On the face of things, both Papademos and Monti draw their authority from their own parliaments – but everyone knows that is not so. Both of these unelected experts came to power in a ‘Soft Coup’; both deals were brokered by the European Union, in the middle of a harsh public debt crisis.

In the case of Greece, the European Union had been dealing with Prime Minister George Papandreou, leader of the largest, and best-polling political party in the last democratic elections, PASOK, twisting his arm to agree spending cuts. Talks were held between the Greek government, and the ‘Troika’ of the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission. Having agreed one round of cuts after another, Papandreou baulked at just how unpopular these were, and in October said that he would let the people vote on more cuts in a referendum. The European Union was outraged at the idea that the voters should be asked.

‘The announcement has surprised the whole of Europe,’ said French President Nicolas Sarkozy. ‘Giving the people a way to express themselves is always legitimate, but the solidarity of all the euro-zone countries cannot be exercised unless everyone agrees to make the necessary efforts.’ In a parliamentary session in The Hague, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the threatened vote a ‘very unfortunate development’ and said ‘we have to do everything to prevent it.’ (Wall Street Journal Europe, 2 November, 2011) After crisis talks Papandreou agreed to cancel the public vote and to suspend normal party politics in favour of a government of ‘national unity’, and to stand down as Prime Minister in favour of Papademos. Robbed of a voice Greek people were more willing to protest and even to riot. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble wants the Greeks to cancel future elections and have a government without any politicians, only ‘experts’.

Around the same time another European leader – of the right in this case – was forced to stand down. Silvio Berlusconi had often been attacked by the European Commission, charged with corruption. But each time the question was put to the polls the wily Berlusconi won over voters. In November 2011, though, the debt crisis gave the Commission the lever it needed to prize Berlusconi out, and he resigned. European Council President Herman van Rompuy told Italians on 11 November 2011 that ‘the country needs reforms, not elections.’ Mario Monti was appointed Prime Minister and, in turn, appointed a ‘Professors’ Cabinet’, or ‘technocratic government’. Monti’s first reforms were to cut spending and to attack trade unions.

In a single week the elected governments of two of Europe’s democracies had been swept aside. At the very moment that Italian and Greek people needed to deal with the problems they faced, they were robbed of the chance. Before they could see their own political representatives argue out the best outcome on party lines, with the parliamentary contest mirroring the contest for votes. The party political system was a lever for ordinary people to push their goals right into the centre of government. But without it, public administration stopped being democratic, or even political. It was called ‘technocratic’ – government as technique, not as a negotiation; mechanical, not through dialogue. Instead of leaders there were experts. Instead of a contest ‘national unity’ was imposed (though many outside did not feel they were a part of it).

The events of November 2011 were called a ‘Soft Coup’, or a ‘coup without tanks’. But what Junta was taking over? Even the angriest protestors were not sure who to blame. If there were no tanks, where was the confrontation?

It would be hard to avoid the role that private financiers played appearing at every corner to warn against any backsliding on cuts. The ‘technocrats’ were not experts in juggling or medicine, but in finance. Mario Monti has been an advisor to Goldman Sachs, Coca Cola and the listing agency Moody’s as well as European Commissioner responsible for the Internal Market, Financial Services and Financial Integration, Customs, and Taxation. Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate Papademos taught economics at Columbia University and even served as senior economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston in 1980, before taking up positions at the National Bank of Greece and the ECB. Not surprisingly the anti-cuts protestors have been outraged to learn that Monti is a member of the secretive Bilderberg Group – all of which adds to the sense that government has been subverted by a secret coup led by high finance. Still, pointing the finger of blame at ‘capitalism’ or finance seems too vague. Down with capitalism, for sure, but does that really tell us any more about the forces arraigned against democracy?

Greek protestors have seen a German hand behind the changes, and they are not wrong. Chancellor Angela Merkel has called loudly for tighter rules on government spending, and for wayward governments to be reined in. In Athensthe protestors have even burned the German flag (and alongside it the Swastika flag to heap on the insults) while the newspaper Demokratia reports the new austerity agreement with a parody of the sign over the gates at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp ‘Memorandum macht frei’. Greeks talk more often of the wartime occupation when the German Wehrmacht starved the country. Pointing the finger at Germanyseems to make sense, except that Angel Merkel is not alone in her demands for Greek probity. Nicolas Sarkozy (whose country was also occupied by Germanyin the Second World War) is so close to Merkel that the press have coined a collective noun Merkozy. Just before he was bundled out of office, Silvio Berlusconi, too was lecturing the Greeks on the need to stick to their promises. Greek protestors wish that their enemy was justGermany’s leaders.

The Coup d’État against democracy inGreeceandItalydoes have a shape, however soft it looks. Its shape is the European Union. The pressure brought to bear on both countries came through the European Union. The ‘Troika’ of the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund brought pressure to bear on the Greek government to change its policies and make-up. Though an ad hoc body, the Troika is reported to be renting an office inAthensto keep an eye on spending there.

The Troika does not just oversee Greek spending. There is a Troika looking at Portugal’s budget, too. Jürgen Kröger, Head of EC mission, Rasmus Rüffer for the ECB and

Poul Thomsen of the IMF visited in May 2011, returning in February 2012 to spend two weeks looking at the budget there before deciding whether to release the latest batch ofPortugal’s €78 billion rescue loan.

In January 2012 all but two of the 27 heads of state at the European Summit agreed to German Chancellor Angel Merkel’s new fiskalpakt with binding limits on budget deficits and quasi-automatic sanctions on countries that breach deficit and debt limits enforced by the European Court of Justice. ‘The debt brakes will be binding and valid forever,’ said Merkel: ‘Never will you be able to change them through a parliamentary majority.’ (Guardian, 31 January 2012). From the European Union viewpoint to put questions of government beyond democratic control is a great success. Binding limits, with automatic sanctions, policed by unelected officials is what they want. ‘Parliamentary majorities’ overriding the expert officials is what is to be avoided.

Nor is it always the case that the enemy is the left. In the same month that the European Council was cooking up the fiscal compact, the European Commission wrote three separate letters of warning to Hungarian President Orban charging him with bringing in ‘undemocratic’ laws. By ‘undemocratic’ they meant that the new constitution put the Central Bank under the control of the democratically elected government, instead of leaving it in the hands of the expert technocrats, while threatening, too, that judges and information commissioners would be subject to the rule of parliament. Step through the looking glass into the EU-world where the rule of the people is dictatorial, but the rule of unelected experts is democracy.

Ex-sixties radical Daniel Cohn-Bendit stood up in the European Parliament to demand that Orban’s constitution be investigated for breaching the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. The man once known as Danny the Red ranted on that the Hungarian leader was striving to beEurope’s equivalent of Hugo Chávez or Fidel Castro (Guardian, 18 January 2012).

Cohn-Bendit as a student radical wrote

“The emergence of bureaucratic tendencies on a world scale, the continuous concentration of capital, and the increasing intervention of the State in economic and social matters, have produced a new managerial class whose fate is no longer bound up with that of the private ownership of the means of production.” (Obsolete Communism, the Left Wing Alternative, London, Penguin, 1969, p 249)

It was far-sighted indeed to spot the very trend towards bureaucratic-managerial rule for which Cohn-Bendit himself would become a spokesman. The only thing he did not foresee was that the bureaucracy that was emerging would be transnational, not just national.


“In a democracy you have to push people to do things by scaring them”

17 Feb

This past Tuesday, at a roundtable on ‘the future of the euro’ at Harvard University, we heard Lorenzo Bini-Smaghi utter these exact words. His Royal Smaghi-ness was a member of the ECB executive board until last November, and was advising his audience on more than his personal political views. He was giving us a glimpse deep into the technocratic vision that predominates in Europe at the moment, and the particular techniques in play to manage the situation. What stood out in the banker’s comments was, first, an extraordinary ideological commitment to the euro and, second, a somewhat delusional vision of social control.

The context for the banker’s comments was a discussion of the austerity measures being rammed down the throats of the Greek public. The measures are but one of the preconditions for a bailout package that will include other disciplinary measures, like international monitors of Greek spending decisions. The ‘people to be scared’ that B-S had in mind were, most immediately, the Greeks. They were to be scared into believing that there was one way and only one way to resolve their debt crisis, and that if everyone did not get in line, the withdrawal of European help would lead to even worse consequences. But it became clear that Bini-Smaghi’s comments applied to more or less the whole European public, perhaps minus the ‘sensible’ Germans. At another choice moment, LBS said “The Italian situation is different from the Greek one, but don’t tell the Italians. That is only something you say outside Italy. Inside, you say the opposite.” In other words, you want them to be scared, even if you have to lie to them.

Why? Because otherwise two things will happen. For one, the majority of Italians or Greeks might get the crazy idea that they don’t have to screw themselves in order to save themselves. There might be alternatives to massive austerity and a bailout of the banks. For another, the greater the fear the greater the limits on political outrage, or at least, the more the local ruling political parties will feel pressure not to attend to local outrage.

Bini-Smaghi’s comments speaks volumes both about a certain technocratic vision or political method and its limits. The method is based on the thought that central bankers and related technocrats possess the technical expertise and know-how to know what the rational response is to an economic crisis. This knowledge is supposedly value-free, and a matter of pure economics. However, most people not only lack this knowledge, they take to the streets in a mistaken, irrational pursuit of their own interests. BS dismissively called this ‘politics.’

So far, so familiar. But the most striking thing about Lorenzo’s BS is that the technocratic vision of control is far more expansive. It is not an attempt simply to apply expert economic knowledge to economic policy. It is a more radical ideological project. The delusion is that the political domain can be subject to the kind of fine-tuned control ‘at the margins.’ It is not just that technocrats ought to run national governments, or at least monitor their spending, but that national publics themselves can be pushed, pulled and cajoled with precision. Bini-Smaghi was talking about incremental doses of austerity until public outrage boiled over, and then stepping off the gas. And if outrage becomes too threatening to the background project, then more and more fear of a withdrawal of bailout funds to scare political leaders into imposing budgets and repressing unrest. One almost wonders if there isn’t some model floating around technocratic circles in which the relevant variables are ‘fear’ ‘austerity’ ‘bailout money’ and ‘outrage.’ The policy strategy being a kind of optimization function in which the aim is to get as close to ‘outrage’ without it boiling over into revolution.

Of course the dream of total social control is nothing new. It rattles around in the mental recesses of any expert claiming a monopoly on the legitimate possession of pure knowledge. But it is in play here in a substantial way. The coyness of the troika – demanding one package of reforms one day, another the next, promising money then imposing more terms, softening stances when protests get too dicey but putting the screws to national leaders, and above all playing a long game of amorphous indecision so as to maximize the space for deception – is all part of this managerial political approach.

Aims are not the same as success. The aim of total social control, especially when it becomes ideological, and especially when it sees politics exclusively as a domain of irrational, emotional behavior that has to be manipulated by various techniques, is its own foolishness. For one, it leaves actors without the ability to acquire actual political knowledge – there appears to be no knowledge to acquire, beyond that of the techniques of manipulating irrational publics. For another, the social world simply is not amenable to that kind of technical, fine-tuned control. Tweaking with the margins of outrage in relation to doses of austerity and fear is not just a creepy and outrageous political project, it is a fool’s game.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,525 other followers

%d bloggers like this: