Europe Is Trapped Between Power and Politics

By Zygmunt Bauman

That the disease which brought the European Union into the intensive-care ward and has kept it there since, for quite a few years, is best diagnosed as a ‘democratic deficit’ is fast turning into a commonplace. Indeed, it is taken increasingly for granted and is hardly ever seriously questioned. Some observers and analysts ascribe the illness to an inborn organic defect, some others seek carriers of the disease among the personalities of the European Council and the constituencies they represent; some believe the disease has by now become terminal and beyond treatment, some others trust that a bold and harsh surgical intervention may yet save the patient from agony. But hardly anyone questions the diagnosis. All, or nearly all, agree that the roots of the malaise lie in the breakdown of communication between the holders of political offices (policy-makers in Brussels and/or the politicians of European Council) who set the tune and the people called to follow the set score with or without being asked and offering their consent.

At least there is no deficit of arguments to support the diagnosis of the ‘deficit of democracy’ inside the European Union. The state of the Union, no doubt, calls for intensive care, and its future – the very chance of its survival – lies in a balance. Such a condition we call, since the ancient beginnings of medical practice, ‘crisis’. The term was coined to denote precisely such a moment – in which the doctor faces the necessity to urgently decide to which of the known and available assortment of medical expedients to resort in order to nudge the patient onto the course to convalescence. When speaking of crisis of whatever nature, including the economic, we convey firstly the feeling of uncertainty, of our ignorance of the direction in which the affairs are about to turn – and secondly the urge to intervene: to select the right measures and decide to apply them promptly. Describing a situation as ‘critical’, we mean just that: the conjunction of a diagnosis and a call for action. And let me add that there is a hint of endemic contradiction in such an idea: after all, the admission of the state of uncertainty/ignorance portends ill for the chance of selecting the right measures and prompting the affairs in the desired direction.

Let’s focus on the most recent economic crisis largely responsible for laying bare the critical state of the political union of Europe. The right point to start is to remember the horrors of the 1920s-1930s by which all and every one of successive issues of the economy have tended to be measured since – and ask whether the current, post credit-collapse crisis can be seen and described as their reiteration, throwing thereby some light on its likely sequel. While admitting that there are numerous striking similarities between the two crises and their manifestations (first and foremost massive and prospectless unemployment and soaring social inequality), there is, however, one crucial difference between the two that sets them apart and renders comparing one to the other questionable, to say the least.

While horrified by the sight of markets running wild and causing fortunes together with workplaces to evaporate and while knocking off viable businesses into bankruptcy, victims of the late 1920s stock-exchange collapse had little doubt as to where to look for rescue: of course to the state – to a strong state, so strong as to be able to force the course of affairs into obedience with its will. Opinions as to the best way out of the predicament might have differed, even drastically, but there was virtually no disagreement as to who was fit to tackle the challenge thanks to being sufficiently resourceful to push the affairs the way the opinion-makers eventually selected: of course the state, equipped with both resources indispensable for the job: power (ability to have things done), and politics (ability to decide which ones of the proposed things ought to be given priority). Alongside the overwhelming majority of the informed or intuitive opinions of the time, John Maynard Keynes put his wager on the resourcefulness of the state. His recommendations made sense in as far as the ‘really existing’ states could rise to such popular expectations. And indeed, the aftermath of the collapse stretched to its limits the same post-Westphalian model of a state armed with absolute and indivisible sovereignty over its territory and on everything it contains – even if in the direction as diverse as the Soviet state-managed, German state-regulated and US state-stimulated economies.

This post-Westphalian ideal type of an omnipotent territorial state emerged from the war not only unscathed, but considerably expanded to match the comprehensive ambitions of a ‘social state’ – a state insuring all its citizens against individual misfortune (selectively striking caprices of fate) and the threat of indignity in whatever form (of poverty, negative discrimination, unemployment, homelessness, social exclusion) that haunted pre-war generations. It was also adopted, even if in a somewhat cut-down rendition, by numerous new states and quasi-states emerging amidst the ruins of colonial empires. The ‘glorious thirty’ of years that followed the war were marked by the rising expectations that all harrowing social problems had been or were about to be resolved and left behind; and the tormenting memories of pre-war poverty and mass unemployment were about to be buried once for all.

Something largely unforeseen happened, however, that jostled most of the Europeans off the then selected track. In the 1970s the heretofore uninterrupted economic progress ground to a halt and was supplanted by a seemingly unstoppable rise in unemployment, seemingly unmanageable inflation and above all the growing and ever more evident inability of the states to deliver on their promise of comprehensive insurance. Gradually yet ever more starkly, states manifested their inability to deliver on their promises. Gradually, but apparently unrelentlessly, the faith and trust in the potency of the state started to erode. Functions claimed heretofore and jealously guarded by the states as their monopoly and widely considered by the public and the most influential opinion makers and guardians of common sense as the state’s inalienable obligation and mission seemed suddenly too heavy for nation states to carry. Peter Drucker famously declared that people need, should and shortly will abandon hopes of salvation descending ‘from above’ – from the state or society; the number of ears keen to absorb that message grew at accelerating pace. In the popular perception, aided and abetted by the chorus of a fast growing part of the learned and opinion making public, the state was degraded from the rank of the most powerful engine of universal well-being to that of a most obnoxious and annoying obstacle to economic progress and indeed efficiency of human enterprise.

Just as during the Great Depression of 1920s-1930s, the opinion setters as well as the widening circles of the general public deemed to know this time what kind of vehicles are called for to replace the extant ones, not so long ago viewed as trusty yet increasingly rusty and overdue for a scrap yard. Once more, it seemed to be obvious as well what kind of powerful force is destined, willing and able to lead the way out of the current crisis. This time, however, public trust was all but withdrawn from the political state only to be reinvested in the ‘invisible hand of the market’ – and indeed (as Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and the fast expanding bevy of their enthusiastic acolytes kept hammering home) it is the market ability of unerring knack for spotting profit chances that would accomplish what the ethics-inspired state bureaucrats abominably failed to achieve. ‘Deregulation’, ‘privatization’, ‘subsidiarization’ were to bring what regulation, nationalization and the communal, state-guided undertakings so obviously and abominably failed to deliver. State functions had to be and were to be shifted sideways, to the market, that admittedly ‘politics-free’ zone, or dropped downwards, onto the shoulders of human individuals, now expected to divine individually, inspired and set in motion by their greed, what they did not manage to produce collectively, inspired and moved by communal spirit.

The ‘glorious thirty’ were therefore followed by the ‘opulent thirty’; the years of a consumerist orgy and continuous, seemingly unstoppable growth of GNP indices all over the place. The wager put on pursuit of profits seemed to be paying off: its benefits, as later transpired, came into view much earlier than its costs. It took us a couple of dozens of years to find out what fuelled the consumerist miracle: not so much the magic ‘invisible hand of the market’, as the discovery by the banks and the credit card issuers of a vast virgin land open to and yelling for exploitation: a land populated by millions of people indoctrinated by the precepts of ‘saving-books culture’ and still in the throes of the puritan commandment to desist the temptation of spending money, particularly its unearned variety. And it took yet a few years more to awaken to the sombre truth that initially fabulous returns of investing in virgin lands must soon reach their natural limits, run out of steam and eventually stop coming altogether. When that ultimately happened, the bubble burst and the fata morgana of perpetual and infinitely expanding opulence vanished from view under the sky covered with dark clouds of prospectless redundancy, bankruptcies, infinite debt-repayment, a drastic fall in living standards, the curtailing of life ambitions – and of social degradation of the upward-looking middle classes to the status of defenceless ‘precariat’.

Another crisis of another agency, then? A collapse of one more vehicle in which the hope of the ‘economic progress’ perpetuum mobile had been invested? Yes, but this time with a difference – and a fateful, seminal one. As in the previous cases, old vehicles of ‘progress’ appear today to be overdue for the scrap heap, but there is no promising invention in sight in which one could reinvest the hope of carrying the rudderless victims out of trouble. After the loss of public trust in the wisdom and potency of the state, the turn has come of the dexterity of the ‘invisible hand of the market’ to lose credibility. While almost every one of the old ways of doing things lies discredited, the new ways are – at best – at the drawing board or an early experimentation stage. No one can swear, hand on heart, the effectiveness of any of the latter. Too well aware of the hopes that failed, we have no hopeful runners-up to bet on. Crisis being the time of deciding what way of proceeding to choose, in the arsenal of human experience there seem to be no trustworthy strategies left to choose from.

We are now painfully aware, at least for a moment and until the human, all-too-human, therapy-through-forgetting will have done its job, that if left to their own devices the profit-guided markets lead to economic and social catastrophes. But should we – and above all could we – return to the once deployed yet now unemployed or under-employed devices of state supervision, control, regulation and management? Whether we should, is obviously a moot question. What is well-nigh certain, however, is that we couldn’t – whatever answer we choose to that question. We couldn’t because the state is no longer what it used to be a hundred years ago, or what it was believed/hoped then soon to become. In its present condition, the state lacks the means and resources to perform the task which effective supervision and control of the markets, not to mention their regulation and management, required.

Trust in the state’s capacity to deliver rested on the supposition that both conditions of effective management of social realities – power and politics – are in the hands of states assumed to be a sovereign (exclusive and indivisible) master within its territorial boundaries. By now, however, the state has been expropriated of a large and growing part of its past genuine or imputed power, which has been captured by the supra-state, for all practical intents exterritorial global forces operating in a politically uncontrolled ‘space of flows’ (Manuel Castells’ term), whereas the effective reach of the extant political agencies did not progress beyond the state boundaries. Which means, purely and simply, that finance, investment capital, labour markets or circulation of commodities are beyond the remit and reach of the only political agencies currently available to do the job of supervision and regulation. It is the politics chronically afflicted with the deficit of power (and so also of coercion) that confronts the challenge of powers emancipated from political control.

To cut the long story short: the present crisis differs from its historical precedents in as far as it is lived through in the situation of a divorce between power and politics. That divorce results in the absence of agency able to do what every ‘crisis’ by definition requires: choose the way to proceed and apply the therapy which that choice calls for. The absence, it looks, will continue to paralyse the search for a viable solution until power and politics, now in the state of divorce, are re-married. It also looks, however, that under conditions of global interdependence such a remarriage is hardly conceivable inside one state, however large and resourceful; or even inside an aggregate of states, as long as power is free to abandon at will and without notice any territory politically monitored and controlled by political units clutching to the ghosts of post-Westphalian illusions. It looks like we are facing now the awesome yet imperative task of raising politics and its institutions to the global level, on which large part of effective power to have things done already resides. All pressures, from brutally mundane to sublimely philosophical, whether derived from survival interests or dictated by ethical duty, tend to point nowadays in the same direction – however little we have thus far advanced on the road leading there. Inside the European Union, a half-way inn on that road, those pressures feel more severe and pain more than in any other area of globalized planet.

Deficit of democracy is by no means a unique affliction of the European Union. Every single democratic state – every political body that aims or pretends to a full sovereign rule over its territory in the name of its citizens and not by the will of a Machiavellian Prince or Schmittian Führer – finds itself currently in a double bind, exposed to the pressures of extraterritorial powers immune to the political will and demands of the citizenship, which it can’t at any rate meet due to its chronic deficit of power. With power and politics subject to separate and mutually autonomous sets of interests, and state governments tussling between two pressures impossible to reconcile, trust in the ability and will of the political establishment to deliver on its promise is fast fading, whereas communication between ruling elites and the hoi polloi lies all but broken; election after election, electors are guided by the frustration of their past hopes invested in the currently ruling team – rather than by their preference for a specific policy, or commitment and loyalty to a specific sector in the spectrum of ideologies.

The European Union, as an aggregate of nation states charged statutorily with the replacement of an inter-state competition with cooperation and sharing, finds itself in a truly unenviable plight: a need to assume an incongruous mix of mutually incompatible roles – of a protective shield or a lightning rod intercepting and arresting, or at least attenuating, the impact of powers freely roaming the global ‘space of flows’ and of an enforcer pressing its member states to absorb the remainder of the force of impact that resisted interception and managed to break in through the outer circle of trenches. No wonder that the attitudes of the member states’ populations to the Union’s policies tend to be and to stay ambivalent, vacillating between the extremes of Hass and Liebe: an attitude mirroring the persistent ambivalence of the two-in-one role which the Union is bound to play more by the stark necessity it cannot control than by a choice it is free to make.

There is little doubt that there is much room yearning for reform and improvement in the Union’s ailing structures struggling for a modicum of coherence under the condition of unmitigated ambivalence. There is, however, only so much which the most ingenious reforms can achieve as long as they are considered and handled as a solely internal European affair. The roots of Europe’s problems – dis-coordination of power and politics brought about by globality of powers confronting locally confided and territorially constricted politics – lie far beyond Europe’s control. The problems Europe faces can be alleviated but hardly can they be fully resolved and prevented from rebounding unless the power and politics presently separated and in the state of divorce are brought back into wedlock and forced to work in tandem.

And so, in the case of badly needed and urgently demanded constitutional adjustment, quick fixes – let alone ultimate and lasting solutions to the current problems – are unlikely to be found and put in place. Whatever else the sought-after reform of the Union will be, it can’t be a one-off deed, but only a process of perpetual reinvention. This is the ‘hard fact’ reality we have little choice but to accept and consider in our thoughts and actions.

And there is something else we need to consider and focus our thoughts and actions on. Whether we are aware of it or not, and whether by design or by default, the European Union is a laboratory (if not unique, then surely the currently most advanced on a global scale) in which ways to deal with the outcomes of present dis-coordination of power and politics are designed, explored and put to tests. This is, arguably, the most important and consequential among Europe’s current contributions to the condition and prospects of the planet; indeed, to its chances of survival. Europe’s present quandary anticipates the challenges which the rest of the planet – the whole of the planet and all of its inhabitants – are bound, sooner or later, to experience first-hand, face up to and live through. Our present pains may yet (are destined to?) prove to be the birth pangs of a humanity at peace with itself and drawing proper conclusions from the demands of its new – irreversibly globalized – condition. What presently feels like an unbearably hurtful squeeze of a vice may yet be found in retrospect to have been severe, yet transient pain inflicted by forceps wresting salvation out of an impending doom.

To keep that in mind is our, Europeans, joint responsibility.



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