Witnessing the punishment inflicted on Syriza by the European Union (EU) as well as that party’s own inept handling of the Eurozone crisis, the Left is recoiling from the ‘good Euro’ strategy – the hope for ending austerity within the Eurozone – and beating a hasty retreat to the shelter of the sovereign state. We have seen explicit calls for the restoration of fiscal and monetary sovereignty to national states, and even calls to explore political alternatives outside of the EU itself. Yet if ‘social Europe’ has been exposed as a mirage, the European Left now risks embracing another chimera – the vision of a social-democratic national state.
The sudden rush to the sovereign state is a remarkably rapid turn-around for the Left as a whole. Although there has long been a rump of old social-democrats suspicious of globalisation and its associated supranational institutions, over the last thirty years the larger portion of the Left subscribed to globalist ideologies and institutions in one form or another. On one end of the spectrum, ‘Third Way’-style movements saw the embrace of political centrism, international competitiveness, free trade and EU integration as a necessary part of progressive politics. On the other end, anti-globalisation activists and non-governmental organisations hoped that the global coordination of various social movements would allow them to ratchet above the nation-state onto a higher, transnational plane of progressive politics. Part of the problem with the latest about-face back towards the state is that the Left itself is not clear about what it is turning away from, and what it opposes in the EU. Stathis Kouvelakis denounces the EU as ‘imperialist’, while Cedric Durand sees the EU as a proto-state defined and captured by neo-liberal capitalist interests.
Durand’s piece exemplifies some of the confusion with which the Left has approached the EU. On the one hand, Durand criticises the EU for being too large and cumbersome to be easily shifted, making it rigid and insensitive to popular will. On the other hand, he criticises the EU for its tiny bureaucracy, having insufficient institutional capacity to effect any meaningful social and political transformation. On the one hand, monolithic and sprawling, on the other a stripped-back proto-state focused only on neo-liberal imperatives. Durand charges the EU with failing ‘to keep diverse societies and social strata together in turbulent times’. The implicit contrast here is between the ‘bad’ EU proto-state, stripped back to its core capacities to serve the interests of neoliberalism, and the supposedly good, progressive national state. But there are several problems with this contrast.
First, it is a mistake to see the EU as a state at all, whether proto-, imperialist, neoliberal or otherwise. To conceptually distinguish the EU bureaucracy from the bureaucracy of its member-states as Durand does is a cardinal error. For what need does the EU have of its own independent bureaucracy, given that the EU itself is nothing more than the intermingling and regional coordination of these very same national bureaucracies? As Christopher Bickerton’s work has shown, the EU is not a new type of state, but a new protuberance from the old nation-state. The EU is the external manifestation of European states’ attempts to manage and defuse popular conflict and social struggle over the last third of the twentieth century, in which the defeat and retreat of social democracy was institutionalised at the pan-European level. Thus what both the pro- and anti-EU Left fails to recognise is that the EU is built on the failures and compromises of late Cold War-era social democracy.
Now that the EU itself is tottering, it would be a mistake to expect social democracy to emerge from the rubble, as the EU itself is built on the ruins of social democracy. Even Durand seems to implicitly concede this, given the limited content that he gives to national sovereignty: ‘Formulating policy proposals guaranteeing people a safety net during this transition will be key to facilitating new electoral victories, beginning with Spain’s elections this fall.’ Here, the minimal protections against destitution offered by old-style social democracy is offered as the defining criteria of state sovereignty in place of the imperative of popular self-rule.
Waiting to excavate the ruins of social democracy from beneath the crumbling EU will lead to nothing – as it is these ruins themselves that are the shaky foundations of today’s European order. In the face of the Left’s defeats in the 1970s, in the 1980s, many on the Left retreated to ‘social Europe’ in the hope that it would emplace supranational protections for the remnants of social democracy. It was contempt for mass democracy, representative institutions and popular support that sustained the Left in the delusions of ‘social Europe’, ‘global civil society’ and ‘global resistance’ over the last two decades. Tragic enough the first time, it would be a farcical error to repeat the same mistake now in reverse – retreating from the dissolved mirage of ‘social Europe’ into the empty desert that is national social democracy. Even while being remote from power, the leader of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, already seems content to reside in this desert, as evidenced in in a remarkably cynical statement of political abdication when he discounted mass support in the name of compromise with Spanish social democracy.
One way to avoid this trucking in the politics of fantasy, whether pro- or anti-EU, is to see that the struggle against the EU is not the attempt defensively to rally the nation against supranational institutions in order to protect the welfare state, but that it is first and foremost a struggle to restore popular self-rule – or, in a word, sovereignty.