Saturday, January 26, 2019

The Irony of Fighting Populism


After World War II, Europe rebuilt its parliamentary democracies as a bulwark against the big, authoritarian state. Then Europe used its parliamentary democracies to build a big, authoritarian state. Now this big, authoritarian state has outgrown the parliamentary democracy from which it was born.

Under the guise of fighting populism, the authoritarian state is now trying to sever the ties between itself and the institutions that built it. 

After the fall of the Third Reich and Italian fascism, democratic Europe set itself on a course of continental cooperation between sovereign nation states. It started with a pact between Germany and France, where French coal miners supplied one of the raw materials for the steel workers in the Ruhr area. What coal trains shipped one way, steel freight hauled back across the border. 

Gradually, institutionalized European cooperation expanded to other countries and to a more comprehensive approach to economic cooperation. The EEC became the European Communities, but it was still a matter of cooperation between sovereign nations. 

With the Maastricht Treaty (later revised into the Lisbon Treaty), the European project morphed into a super-national structure. It was no longer a matter of cooperation, but of governance. The European Union, the seeds of which were planted long before the 1992 Maastricht ratification process, were to have its own government, its own parliament, its own, superseding legislative powers - and eventually its own taxation powers. 

With the exception of taxation, everything else has become reality. As such, it should be a source of joy, peace and harmony. On the face of it, today's European project, super-state as it is, should be the epitome of the anti-authoritarian endeavor from which it was born.

In reality, the EU has become the very opposite of what it was supposed to be. It is not a democratic institution - it has often been criticized by its skeptics for suffering from a democratic deficit - and it has already begun turning on the very tradition of freedom and democracy from which it was born. What was supposed to be the people's firewall against big government has become big government's firewall against the people. 

The irony in this is captured - unintentionally - in an article in September last year by Daniel DePetris with the British online magazine Spectator. Explaining the anti-populist ambitions of Federica Mogherini, the EU's high commissioner on foreign affairs, DePetris notes:
Mogherini, like many establishment European politicians of her generation, believes with conviction that the world is far better off embracing globalisation, supra-regional institutions, and multiculturalism than by reinvesting in the nationalist concepts espoused by Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, Vladimir Putin, and Matteo Salvini. On this, Mogherini has her work cut out for her; as exhibited across Europe, from Germany’s AfD to the League in Italy, right-wing populism is the new vogue of European politics. Before Europe’s migration crisis of 2014-2016, it would have [been] a silly proposition to even imagine the far-right Sweden Democrats registering enough support at the polls to become a potential kingmaker in the country’s traditionally leftist politics. And yet, Europe is a very different place today than it was earlier in the decade; the unimaginable is now well within the bounds of what is possible. 

The rise of nationalist parties across Europe is the result of a series of popular votes, in multiple parliamentary elections. By the very tradition of democracy that Europe so thoroughly - and rightly - embraced after World War II, this expression of the will of the people should be respected, even celebrated. Yet that is not at all what is happening. DePetris again:
Part of her disgust is rooted in the scapegoating of “the other” and the political and social divisiveness that are by-products of populist politics in general. But another big ingredient is that, with every far-right politician elected into a national parliament or far-right minister inducted into a national government, the multilateralism Europeans used to take for granted is that much more under siege. For a centrist like Mogherini, such a development is not only unacceptable: it’s downright anti-European.
At the core of Europe's democratic tradition is the principle that parliamentary democracy represents the final word on the people's will. In fact, the unrestricted will of the majority, manifested in a free election, is a hallmark difference between the parliamentary system and the American constitutional republic. Whatever the results of parliamentary elections, it is not to be challenged or restricted in any way. 

The American constitutional republic, by contrast, moderates majority votes in order to protect individual liberty. After World War II, Europe could have rebuilt its democracies in that model, but chose not to. They chose to rely solely on the parliamentary system as the trunk from which the European future would grow. Wherever the will of the majority would take her, that was where Europe would go.

It is an irony that the children of this political tradition are now turning on it. An even bigger irony is in the fact that they - like Mogherini - are doing it from the pulpet of a super-state structure that bears little resemblance to institutions that would truly protect Europe against authoritarianism. Representing a government, the European Commission, that is appointed, not elected, Mogherini imposes the powers of an almost entirely unaccountable structure, isolated from the very people it purports to speak for. 

The institutions that could save Europe from another totalitarian encounter are not the institutions built in Brussels. On the contrary, from a structural viewpoint today's European Union has more in common with the European nation states of the pre-parliamentary era. A nominally influential parliament, lacking the true legislative accountability of the United States Congress or the British House of Commons, is overshadowed by the powers of a Commission that has usurped both executive and legislative powers. 

In the 19th century, many European nation-states combined a sovereign - a monarch or an emperor - with some form of parliament with, primarily, advisory functions. This hybrid, meant to guarantee the perpetuation of unaccountable government and protect the state from popular will, began withering into the annals of history after World War I. By the mid-20th century its remains were swept away as Europe ushered in a post-war era of peace and, yes, parliamentary democracy. 

Inescapably, the European Union has come to represent a philosophical back loop, with its proponents embracing what its original assignment said it was created to oppose. Not only does the EU filter out the will of the people through its very structure of governance, but as Daniel DePetris exemplifies, the super-state is actively trying to quell the will of the people even where its own powers still do not apply. 

Nationalist movements across Europe have risen to prominence and power not because of racism and xenophobia - although that is too commonly the narrative - but because of a popular reaction to the European super-state project. Some two decades after the EU was born, people across Europe are struggling to find any change for the better in their lives: the European economy is perennially stagnant; the migration crisis has strained welfare-state services, in some countries to the brink of implosion; taxes have gone up and are eating away at the bottom line of working-class families; youth unemployment is perennially high, depriving the young of the opportunities that their parents had; businesses without lobbyist powers find Europe to be an increasingly difficult economic environment.

On top of the economic problems, many Europeans question why crime is on the rise while the integration of non-European immigrants does not seem to work. In some places the deterioration is appallingly apparent, with tourists describing Paris as an "open air toilet", London having a violent crime problem exceeding almost every American city and cities in Sweden being plagued by gang shootings, arsons and bomb attacks. 

It is in situations like these that parliamentary democracy is supposed to allow the people to elect new majorities, change course and solve the problems that motivated them at the ballot box. Yet when people do react, they are being criticized, even stigmatized for using those same institutions for self governance. 

When the big state turns on the will of its own people, it has crossed the line between European and authoritarian. What was meant to protect the continent from totalitarianism has become its very vehicle. 

Europe's own intellectual elite, who rarely misses an opportunity to stand up for democracy and freedom, is increasingly aloof on this matter. The latest example is the manifesto by 30 philosophers and writers aimed as a call to stop the rise of nationalism. From The Guardian:
Europe is being attacked by false prophets who are drunk on resentment, and delirious at their opportunity to seize the limelight. It has been abandoned by the two great allies who in the previous century twice saved it from suicide; one across the Channel and the other across the Atlantic. The continent is vulnerable to the increasingly brazen meddling by the occupant of the Kremlin. 
As we continue to listen to them, we will witness how the signers of this manifesto lend themselves to the very authoritarian ideas they claim to be fighting. Before we do that, though, it is worth noting how they start off by shying away from a debate over ideas: their opponents, they declare, are "drunk" and "delirious".

It is also amusing to note that the responsibility for Europe's problems lies with the American and Russian presidents. One is supposed to save Europe from herself, the other is supposed to refrain from saving it.

Back to the manifesto:
Europe as an idea is falling apart before our eyes. This is the noxious climate in which Europe’s parliamentary elections will take place in May. Unless something changes; unless something comes along to turn back the rising, swelling, insistent tide; unless a new spirit of resistance emerges, these elections promise to be the most calamitous that we have known. They will give a victory to the wreckers. 
Again, those who are elected as the voice of the people are dismissed based not on arguments for the European project, but on a verbally sophisticated, yet substantially crude ad-hominem slur.

In their next paragraph, the authors and signers of the manifesto explain in more detail what they believe to be the merits of the European project:
For those who still believe in the legacy of Erasmus, Dante, Goethe and Comenius there will be only ignominious defeat. A politics of disdain for intelligence and culture will have triumphed. 
To an academic book worm with tenure and lifetime income, this may be all that the European project has to offer. However, to Europe's working millions, who are shackled in their bread-winning efforts to an increasingly costly government, Goethe is not even of ephemeral intellectual relevance. To the families struggling to access government-provided health care in the labyrinth of bureaucracy and rationing, it does not matter what Erasmus had to say about a common European cause.

Dante's literary legacy has no relevance when taxes make gasoline prohibitively expensive; when mass transit is becoming unsafe in the face of rising crime; when women feel unsafe walking the streets of their home towns.

At its heart, the intellectuals behind the manifesto then express their disdain for the very people whose well-being they should worry about more than anything:
There will be explosions of xenophobia and antisemitism. Disaster will have befallen us. ... In response to the nationalist and identitarian onslaught, we must rediscover the spirit of activism or accept that resentment and hatred will surround and submerge us. Urgently, we need to sound the alarm against these arsonists of soul and spirit who, from Paris to Rome, with stops along the way in Barcelona, Budapest, Dresden, Vienna and Warsaw, want to make a bonfire of our freedoms.
The will of the people is destructive; the force of the state is constructive. 

As the icing on the irony cake, on January 24 French president Emanuel Macron took to Twitter to express his support or the popular uprising in Venezuela against an authoritarian government. In the meantime, under the banner of the Yellow Vest his own people continue their uprising against him - an uprising his government has met with political incompetence and brute force. 

When confronted with the will of the people, the embodiments of the authoritarian European project react increasingly like the fascists, against whose legacy the common European cause was built. This does not bode well for the continent, and especially not for its people. 

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