The theatre of democracy keeps falling apart. What we are witnessing is the ideology of neoliberalism that is now so deeply entrenched in the EU member states that an entire political idea – people centred democracy – that Europe once claimed was ‘its heritage’ is being jettisoned. We saw how the voice of the people of Greece was never even a consideration in the way the Troika dealt with that crisis, we see it here the constitution is effectively discarded to protect the arrangements of the EU itself, and we will see it again elsewhere. This is however, not just about ideology. It is also about faith in a system called Ordoliberalism – a German concoction that emerged in the aftermath of WWII, where it is believed by its adherents that:
…like the Anglo-Saxon advocates of laissez-faire, believe the state should not distort the workings of the markets, but they also believe that free competition does not develop spontaneously. The state should establish a legal, technical, social, moral and cultural framework for the markets, and make sure everyone follows the rules….They argued that a strong state was needed to neutralise cartels and avoid the escalation of economic war. Eucken wrote: “The state has to consciously shape the structures, the institutional framework, the order, in which the economy functions … But it [should] not direct the economic process itself.
The institutional framework is sacrosanct. Nothing, not even a people rising up to question and demand an end to their deprivations, can change it or should be allowed to change it. And whereas this may seem to have worked somewhat in Germany, it has become a brutal prison for weaker states that exploited the monetary union to borrow, and invited investors to invest carelessly and blindly. The EU promised a utopia built on a swampland of bad deals, careless investing, greed, corruption and vested political interests. These realities are not in ‘the framework’, but nevertheless.
Now, what does this mean? What we are seeing is that nation states and politicians, regardless of their geography, behave as autocrats and dictatorships whenever their economic and political sovereignty has been usurped. For too long people have assumed that the lack of ‘democracy’ in places like Africa or South Asia was a result of a cultural failure. These same people ignored the degree to which international lending agencies and imperial interests worked to undermine political autonomy and destroy local political priorities.
This is perhaps one of Saskia Sassen’s (thank you Vazira Zamindar!), Wendy Brown’s and Helen Epstein’s most critical insight: that foreign lenders, international donors and imperial interests eventually destroy the political autonomy of state politicians and bureaucrats, and hence replace the priorities of local governments from servicing the needs of citizens, to servicing the needs of lenders. As Sassen has argued earlier, that as the importance and influence of these global institutions of finance and power have grown
…[sovereignty’s] institutional insertion and its capacity to legitimate and absorb all legitimating power, to be the source of law, have become unstable. The politics of contemporary sovereignties are far more complex than notions of mutually exclusive territorialities can capture. (From Sassen, S. 2006. Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
That is, they undermine national and democratic sovereignty. Eventually, they take over decision making and important governmental and social priorities, always distorting these towards the interests of the international lenders, and away from those of the citizens. This set up further marginalises genuine popular political actors and representatives, who are pushed aside to allow technocrats to enter politics and institutions of power, for it is the technocrats who can effectively dismiss the concern for people’s rights and needs, and instead be trusted to simply play around with the spread sheets and ensure timely payments of debts regardless of their cost and impact on the wider polity. The policies pursued – increased taxation, consumer taxes, privatisation, reducing trade barriers, curtailment of welfare programs, destruction of unions, removal of labor pensions and minimum wage schemes etc. are consistent across the globe, and always geared towards taking back funds and giving to the donors. It is a systemic undermining of democratic politics, and what we are seeing is perhaps the beginnings of the expulsion of the European political citizen. This is Wendy Brown’s great clarion call in her fantastic work Undoing The Demos, where she explores the impact of neoliberal thought and practice on the ideals and imaginations of democratic participation.
We are now seeing this same pattern in Europe i.e. European nations are about to start to reveal behaviour that will be very similar to that which we saw in the past in African nations and South East Asian nations – constitutions will be put on hold, election results will be rigged, people’s opinions will be ignored, massive state violence will be used to attack protestors, state services will continue to disappear, etc. But the framework of the investor arrangements will not budge.
Welcome to our world!