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A New Left Strategy for Europe

As a follower of French public life, it is difficult to describe the feeling of anticipation elicited upon learning that the philosopher and economist Frédéric Lordon has published a new article on his blog, La pompe à phynance. His output is irregular, the subject matter hard to apprehend. It will certainly have little to do with any of the chatter coming from the newsrooms that work on a daily or even weekly cycle. Months after the fact, a billet penned by the researcher at the European Centre for Sociology and Political Science (previously under Pierre Bourdieu’s directorship) will surface and provide a frame of reference for the question at hand that will be matched in its utility only by its uniqueness. It will also be eccentric and amusing, which is perfectly coherent considering that Lordon is also the author of a satirical play about the collusion between politics and finance, written entirely in alexandrine verse.

This time, the fact is Emmanuel Macron’s election, and the question is what it means for the European project, including the conclusions that should be drawn for a left politics. With the cruel advantage that hindsight affords, Lordon begins by picking apart a hubris-ridden tribune by Jean Quatremer, long-standing Europe editor at Libération, which gladly declared a mere two days after the fact that the accession of the young investment banker to France’s highest office had given a definitive response in the affirmative to the ‘European question’. In his habitually caustic style, Lordon likens the usefulness of a commentator as invariably wrong as Quatremer to that of a compass that points south; one only has to take the opposite of the bearing given in order to obtain an accurate reading.

For it is clear that the question is far from solved. That Emmanuel Macron sits in the Elysée Palace today is a testament to this fact, as Lordon argues that it was the deep-running divide on the French left on the matter of Europe that permitted ‘defeat to be snatched from the jaws of victory’ as the old inversion goes. Incidentally there is nothing Gallo-specific to this divide. Across the continent, left-wing forces are split between populist-flavoured eurosceptics and social-democrat europhiles; Die Linke and the SPD in Germany, Podemos and PSOE in Spain, Bloco de Esquerda and the Partido Socialista in Portugal, the PD and the Articolo Uno movement in Italy. Britain is an exception, with these contradictions contained in the single ‘broad-church’ of Labour only because of the crushing logic of its electoral system.

Short-shrift is given to the proposition, published during the electoral campaign by Thomas Piketty and others, for the creation of a Eurozone parliament with the aim of democratising Europe. It is contested by Lordon that the assembly as imagined would be so bereft of political power that it would represent nothing more than a supplementary fig-leaf covering the shame of an entity which remains thoroughly undemocratic. He summarises the problem as follows:

  1. Any progressive political program would see its key measures blocked by the European treaties.
  2. Removing the substantial content of some of the most important public policy areas from the remit of an assembly such as the proposed Eurozone parliament in order to enshrine them in treaties that can only be revised in extraordinary circumstances is an anomaly that radically disqualifies all democratic pretensions.
  3. The project to make Europe democratic can only be tackled seriously by revising the treaties in order to instate a genuine parliament, which would be competent in all the domains of decision-making that are currently out of bounds of renegotiation.
  4. In the current state of affairs, such a revision would lead to a categorical refusal on the part of Germany, which if it found itself in a minority on the European debate, would prefer the integrity of its principles to belonging to the Union.

Lordon points out that the educated anti-austerity left as represented by Piketty seems incapable of following through to the logical conclusions of its critique of EU policy; which would be to challenge the single currency. It’s a distressing assessment, particularly taking into account that it is this very part of society that holds the reins to a hegemony of left-wing thought. For Lordon, the attachment to the euro is one of the more curious examples of good intentions being warped and channelled towards incongruous ends. It has become unthinkable for these ‘enlightened’ classes to break with a system that has nonetheless been proven to produce outcomes with great human cost such as that of Greece in 2015, all for a bafflingly-misplaced sense of internationalism. But Lordon has not come to engage in hand-wringing; as he says politics is an affair of the affects. What can be done to reorientate theses classes to a state resembling that of their counterparts in the lesser educated sections of society, who hold a generally more coherent view?

The answer for Lordon is to displace the euro from the position it incoherently occupies in the imagination and replace it with a ‘new European project’. The single currency, his bête noire, must be abandoned without any further prevarications à la Varoufakis and a euro-democratisation movement that will only “waste us another ten years”. It is proposed that we take the apocryphal quote by Jean Monnet on regretting that Europe was built ‘by the market and not by culture’ to heart. The Union’s peoples are to be brought back into the fold with substantial financial investment towards re-industrialisation, housing, popular education, and civil society networks, with the bill to be footed by an expansion in the European budget from the currently slim 1 per cent of GDP to 3 or 5 per cent. A democratic assembly could be installed to oversee the allocation of this budget, but one stripped of legislative powers which would have been entirely repatriated to member states. The EU Commission could be replaced with a similarly stripped-down body that would manage the transeuropean initiatives which would make up the centre of the new European project. The ‘ever closer union’ of the peoples, given its proper historical chance of becoming a reality, would come about from a myriad of new companions to Erasmus and the European Regional Development Fund, cultivated rather than coerced.

The appeal of this new imaginary endpoint for the left in Europe is undeniable. What remains to be decided is this; is it really for a lack of good ideas that the current European project is failing?