Dead Men Left

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Swinish multitudes and social theorists

Anthony Giddens, perhaps no longer "Tony Blair's favourite intellectual", and Ulrich Beck, doyenne of the risk society, had a splendidly otiose column in the Guardian a couple of days ago. Bashing their over-sized crania together, Europe's two leading social theorists hoped the resulting sparks would reignite the flames of passionate cosmopolitanism that is every grey Eurocrat's secret fervour:

The people of France and the Netherlands have spoken. The proposed European constitution is dead. Long live ... ! What? It's up to pro-Europeans to say. We shouldn't allow the Eurosceptics to seize the agenda. We have to react to and cope with the "no" in a positive and constructive way...

It is not the EU's failure but its very successes that trouble people. Reuniting western and eastern Europe would have seemed an impossible dream less than 20 years ago. But even in the new member states people ask: "Where does all this stop?" Even for those who profit most, the EU can feel like an agent of globalisation rather than a means of adapting to and reshaping it.

It's vapid nonsense, of course, as would be expected at least from the author of The Third Way. But its vapidity serves a purpose. Denying the obvious by omission - that, in this case, the French referendum vote was about economics, far more than it was about "identity" or "nationalism" - is a fundamental strategy for these self-designated "pro-Europeans" of the left.

A peculiar quirk of history found the mainstream of the European Left heartily embracing Europe at precisely the point at which the EEC abandoned substantive claims to be able to promote or sustain the Left's economic values. Jacques Delors' speech to the TUC in 1988 was critical in pushing the bulk of the Labour Party leadership into the most absurd enthusiasm for the EU and all its works: scuttling away from Thatcher's lash, Kinnock led the Labour Party into the steel trap of an EEC on the brink of imposing "cosmopolitan" Thatcherism across the continent, in the form of the Maastricht Treaty and the Stability and Growth Pact. In France, the same break happened earlier, and more dramatically, in Mitterrand's sacrifice of his Keynesian manifesto in support of the European Monetary System.

This was one element in the far bigger process whereby the historic institutions and organisations of the Left gradually dropped their aspirations (however meaningless in practice) for the overhaul of the society, and settled instead on the virtues of neoliberal management, watered down with more-or-less vague pieties about "social exclusion" and other "Third Way" themes. It has left so-called "pro-European" intellectuals like Beck and Giddens blindly supporting the EU, bereft of any substantial justification for doing so. (Jurgen Habermas, writing here before the French referendum vote, does something similar.)

They are left with a decidedly elitist position. Rather addressing the clearly-expressed concerns of European citizens, these bothersome noises are dismissed as expressions of recidivist "nationalism", to be swallowed by the neoliberal tide of true, "cosmopolitan" Europeanism. Alberto Toscano, in a letter to the Guardian the following day, summarised their problem, and posed the alternative:

Despite their global renown as sociologists, Professors Beck and Giddens (Comment, October 4) appear to have abdicated the critical virtues which mark their discipline at its best. Parroting familiar neoliberal euphemisms, they tell us that if it is to succeed as "a new type of cosmopolitan project", "Europe simply must gear up for change". Many Europeans have realised that behind these vapid exhortations and the idols of growth rates and reform there lies a commitment to a market-driven agenda at odds with the idea of "a Europe which is fair and socially just".

French resistance to the EU constitution was not fuelled in the main by a nationalist desire for isolation, nor by the racism seen elsewhere. It stemmed from the conviction that the constitution is not merely "lengthy and inelegant" but that it subordinates the demand for social justice to an economic creed proven to exacerbate inequality and erode solidarity.

Most importantly, the French campaign against the constitution showed the strength of one of the few values Europeans can be proud of: democratic participation and activism. The true pro-Europeans and cosmopolitans will be those capable of renovating the continent's radical democratic tradition, not the latter-day courtiers and experts.