by Nick Wright
Elections to the ‘parliament’ of the European Union take place this year.
The largely powerless politicians elected to this assembly know better than many of their electorate that real power does not rest in their debating chamber. During their terms of office the 170th anniversary of the the 1848 ‘year of revolutions’ in Europe occurs. This was the year that Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto; the year that the republican flags of revolt flew over the capitals of European cities. Red, black and gold in Germany, Red, white and green in Britain, Italy and Hungary, red, white and blue in France.
The old order trembled, ruling classes and the wealthy feared for their property, their power and their lives
The revolutionary crisis was continental in scale, challenging the established order in every country. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his, real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.”
Europe today, as ever, is divided between the vast mass of wage labourers – a category that reaches into strata that, as never before, are forced to confront their constrained circumstances today and the precarity that faces their children – and the privileged elite.
The post-war political consensus upon which millions of workers gave their consent, explicitly through the ballot which was denied their 1848 forebears, has proved illusory.
‘Social’ Europe, post-war continental capitalism’s silent tribute to socialism as it existed on our continent is the latest casualty of socialism’s retreat.
Working people in every country of the European Union, whether those northern states where social peace was constituted on a post-war welfare state consensus; the southern late-fascist states that belatedly dispelled the open dictatorship of capital in the 1970s; or those central and eastern states where that dictatorship resumed in the 1990s, are facing broad attacks on their living standards, job security, public services, wages and pensions.
The broad centre ground of politics is occupied by formations that accept, even proclaim, the irreversibility of this capitalist integration or, shamefacedly fail to challenge it.
The EU consensus – one that embraces conservative and christian democrat; nominally socialist and explicitly social democratic; liberal and seemingly ‘radical’ – is grounded in the assertion and the assumption that outside this prison of ‘political realism’ no meaningful political action is possible.
This consensual chorus has now been joined by a new voice, by the ‘autonomist’ theorists Sandro Mezzadra and Tony Negri.
In a piece entitled ‘Breaking the Neoliberal spell: Europe as the battleground’ the two academics interpolate this dominant discourse with a claim that ‘the issue of wage and the issue of income, the definition of rights and dimensions of welfare, the topic of constitutional transformations related to single countries and to the European constituent issue can, today, only be addressed at the European level.’
Outside of this sphere, they claim, there is no such thing as political realism.
In doing so they wilfully conflate Europe, as a site of struggle, with the European Union as an institutional framework and thus confine the prospects of a breach in bourgeois hegemony with advance within the institutional framework of the EU.
It is hard to imagine a terrain less promising for an insurgent working class, or one more removed from the daily realities of its precarious existence.
The authors argue that their lack of any direct electoral interest puts them in the best position to acknowledge the relevance of the upcoming 2014 European Parliament elections and claim that it is easy to foresee high abstention rates and a significant success of “Euro-skeptical” forces (united by a return to “national sovereignty”, and by the hostility towards the Euro and the “Brussels technocrats”) in the majority of the affected countries.
They go on to assert that “We have long been maintaining that the existence of Europe is a fact, and that both from the point of view of the normative frameworks and from the point of view of governmental and capitalist action the integration process is well beyond the threshold of irreversibility.”
It is ironic that writers who clothe much of their distinctive theoretical approach in a singular and elaborate ‘parole’ should accept, with so little reflection, the analytical categories and the lexicon by which the dominant media condition the public discourse around the EU.
And it is true, as they say, that the authors do not have a dog in this fight. Rather, in accepting the rules of the game, and the language of the dominant class, they have self-identified with the referee.
They are right that EU elections are characterised by high levels of abstention. This has always been the case and at a basic level reflects a widespread understanding that the process has little purchase on the real centres of power; that the parliament is simultaneously a gravy train and a talking shop; that such decision-making that takes place formally within these institutions is largely impermeable to popular pressure, is almost exclusively located behind closed doors in bilateral and multilateral discussions between representatives of the governments of the constituent states and is, in the final instance, and often in the first, subject to the direct influence of the banks and big business.
In so far as voting levels are likely to rise this is more likely to be the product of the increasing hostility to the bearers of the EU consensus rather than any sudden enthusiasm for the Union’s procedures.
Thus “Euro scepticism” is rather skepticism about the European Union. In as far as it expresses itself in a claim to recover national sovereignty this reflects an instinctive understanding that political power is principally exercised at the level of the national state.
The countervailing concept of ‘popular sovereignty’ and workers rights, which underpin the progressive critique of the European Union is one which poses in its very essence the contradiction between the desires of the masses and the realities of power and dominance.
It is because real political and economic power is so remote from their grasp that the people see its ‘return’ to the national arena as a desirable aim.
It is here that Mezzadra and Negri bring some insight to the discussion. They acknowledge that sure enough, ‘today’s Europe is a “German Europe” and that its economical and political geography is re-organising itself around a precise power and dependence relations that reflect themselves at [the] monetary level.
In this they are, presumably, at one with those who see the need for the German working class to advance its wages at the expense of monopoly profits as a practical gain also for the workers of Southern Europe and simultaneously a weakening of German capital’s dominance. They also set themselves, perhaps unconsciously, against the liberal and trotskyite notion that challenging the contemporary conditions under which German capital seeks to compensate for its late (and in the last century twice unsuccessful) accession to imperial power is somehow an attack on the German people or is essentially racist and chauvinist.
Mezzadra and Negri deploy a language that sufficiently opaque as to cloak their meaning in ambiguity but if they really are clear sighted about the role of German capital in the direction of the EU policies and the management of the Eurozone they are also in unconscious contradiction with their own assertion that there exists a potential to activate “within the European space the power and richness of a new constituent hypothesis.”
It would indeed be a richly productive constituent hypothesis that could effect the dissolution of the European banking system, the central role of the European Central Bank, the contingent activities of the World Bank and the IMF, Merkel’s mastery of the Eurozone and the uncountable ties that bind the European bourgeoisie to the global system.
Their unlikely instrument for this grand project is the election as president of the European Commission the figure of Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Syriza’s dominant faction and champion of the illusion that a Greek escape from the grasp of the Troika (and the domination of German capital) can be achieved without leaving the Eurozone and within the European Union.
The authors write predominantly it seems for an Italian audience and thus it is from Italian communists that we hear the entirely correct point that European Union and the Eurozone today represent (and not yesterday) both the form and substance of the hegemony of the dominant class over the subordinate social classes in Europe.
How then best to combat what has Mezzadra and Negri describe as ‘executive federalism’ and the European Union’s neo-liberal project’?
At one level millions of workers within the states that make up the EU have begun to answer this question with actions that reflect both their national traditions and display great imagination. And they are joined by countless others; young people without work or in education and facing a future of precarity; professionals without a professional future; artisans and small entrepreneurs displaced from a hitherto secure market niche by the drive to monopoly and public servants newly marooned in the sphere of capital accumulation and revenue capture rather than the public services they originally entered.
Indignation in the face of a future without hope has moved a new generation into political activity, some of it now dissipated in barren gesture politics but much of it refreshing the intransigent ranks and bringing with it idealism and anger and a new spirit of tactical innovation.
The spontaneous movement of millions who face spiralling housing costs, rising prices, diminishing wages, declining public services and privatised health and education demands a clear lead from the leaders of trade unions and the political parties that claim to represent the republic of labour.
Where this leadership is absent, uncertain or fails working class abstention grows, or worse, forces from the right make a more or less successful bid for votes based – not on a claim for secure, well regulated and well paid work, decent housing, adequate public services, health and education but – on appeals to a narrow nationalism, racial and national chauvinism and hostility to ‘the other’.
And it is here that Mezzadra and Negri contribute another insight with a particular resonance for Britain – that even the right wing forces that present themselves as ‘anti-European’ (or at least their more politically astute adherents) operate within a perimeter of what is today politically thinkable and practical in Europe – a substantial deepening of neo-liberalism.
However, here our autonomist theoreticians’ conflation of the EU with Europe leads them further astray, for it is not just politicians on the spectrum Merkel-Rajoy (or for British readers Clegg/Cameron) who demonstrate the heterogeneity of the neo-liberal bloc but social democratic leaders like the ‘socialist’ Hollande who now announces a tranche of cuts even more sweeping than Chancellor Osbourne, or Ed Balls who seems constitutionally unable to envision an economic policy that is free of the bankers veto.
Just as the racist right idealises the nation – that which Mezzadra and Negri call a “community of destiny”– the autonomist duo themselves constitute the European Union as the concrete expression of the European ideal. They do this explicitly in their idealisation of the European Parliament (“the relative reinforcement of the powers of the parliament”) and in the notion that the candidature of Tsipras will turn this electoral campaign into a moment of European debate, where the different forces will face the need to define and describe at least a draft of a European political programme.
Of course, they don’t actually have a dog in the fight. But hope that, while they envisage at most a movement intervention, they do not exclude the possibility that this intervention could find further interlocutors among the forces moving in the electoral competition.
Here they are like those hopeless souls who dream of a lottery win without having the initiative to buy a ticket.
For them the imaginary construction of a discourse is sufficient. By a leap of imagination they envisage the reconstruction of a general horizon of transformation, to collectively elaborate a new political grammar.
One does not expect autonomists to draw on a personal experience of electoral contests but to acknowledge the relevance of the European Parliament election necessarily entails a clear sighted examination of the positions advanced by the main protagonists, a realistic assessment of their prospects and a serious attempt to identify factors that might enable a telling assembly of forces.
In this Mezzadra and Negri have strictly limited their options for they do not expect to see any winning social movement that has not interiorised the European dimension.
Thus they dismiss the millions who stubbornly insist that the immediate solution to their most pressing problems lies within their grasp, within the framework of their communities defined by language, history, culture and the concrete expression and the location of political and state power.
Negri and Mezzadra see with some clarity the human dilemmas faced by millions. Their scenario features, from the point of view of of the labour force and the forms of social cooperation, as starting points a growing precariousness, a mobility inside and outside of the European space, the downgrading of relevant portions of cognitive labourers and the formation of new hierarchies within the cognitive realm.
What they seem not to see is the extreme precariousness of the European Union as an imperial project, the structural fragility of the banking and finance system, Europe as the site of a massive over-accumulation of capital and the European Union as the fundamental institution for buttressing bourgeois hegemony.
For them the European Union is a phenomena characterised by permanence and solidity. 1848 is finally negated.
Accordingly they fail to see the necessity of a fundamental rupture with the EU.
Idealising the European dimension can be dismissed as the harmless fancy of English liberals, French trotskyites, German social democrats or Polish job seekers. Idealising the contemporary collapse of German social democracy into the arms of Angela Merkel as a mediation point on the ground of the social wage sends Mezzadara and Negri on a trajectory towards compromise and class collaboration.
Perhaps they will refuse this step. They have an alibi, they are not political actors. They are not responsible in the way that trade union leaders and social democratic politicians who pretend that the post-war welfare state has in the European Union a reliable guarantor. But in their own way they are responsible.
In defining their sphere of operation as strictly theoretical they privilege theory. But in posing the theoretical question of how the social movements can converge, multiply their “local” power, into the European framework they demonstrate the abstract character of their analysis and the idealistic nature of the project.
For the human subject – and the class aggregates of many such subjects – where is this European level to be found? In the ballot box for the European Parliament, for one moment in half a decade?
For Mezzadra and Negri, like their revisionist forbears in the socialist movement, the movement is everything, the ultimate aim nothing.
Breaking the Neoliberal Spell: Europe as the Battleground