The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

The European Union


Both inside and outside Europe, the left is highly divided on the topic of the European Union, with a large current being firmly against it for reasons that are actually quite understandable, from multiple perspectives (not just economic). The recent history, especially the Syriza episode in Greece, does not help the reputation of the EU from a left-wing perspective, and there is a temptation to see anything that damages the EU as being good for the people of Europe.  Jeremy Corbyn’s somewhat incoherent position towards the EU can therefore be dismissed by some as the result of a circumstance impossible for him, whereby a good chunk of Labour voters were supportive of EU membership while a principled leftist like Corbyn would have to, in their inner selves at least, be against it.  The EU’s association with neoliberal economic policy has led some, including a large percentage of this blog’s own commentariat, to view Brexit as just another stick with which to beat the neoliberal dog, so to speak, and to take at best a neutral view of who and how the stick is wielded.

It is absolutely correct to say that EU institutions have developed in such a way as to embed neoliberal attitudes and policies deeply within them. The institutions of European integration were largely built at the very same time as the neoliberal consensus’ apparent accession to the Mandate of Heaven.  (Providence does not hand out these mandates on the basis of evident goodness or wisdom.)  Starting from the late 2000s, it became obvious that neoliberalism was losing the Mandate, and no clear claimant has as yet emerged, a worrying sign.

The dilemma for those who want a more just and sustainable human future is extent to which the active dismantlement of the EU is necessary or warranted.  There is a left-wing position that is a kind of short-term nihilism which celebrates the destruction of institutions as a necessary step in creating the opportunities for beneficial change.  This position should certainly be taken seriously and becomes increasingly relevant as neoliberal institutions continue to operate in “zombie” mode, deprived of the providential imprimatur.

The ideal case is that the dismantlement of the EU would lead to a condition that was more beneficial, i.e., replacement from the ground up with, if not with a single institution, then with a collection of polities that are better empowered to serve the needs of their citizens.  The prospects for this can only be understood in terms of the forces that created the European Union (and its predecessor organizations) in the first place.  Europe as viewed from a Martian height consists of extremely unstable, contentious nation-states with badly drawn borders (as it is impossible in Europe, the birthplace of the nation-state, to draw the borders well).  A handful of these nation-states took advantage of a specific set of historical circumstances to become great colonial-imperial powers, but partly due to their own internal contradictions and external developments eventually lost their own heavenly mandates.  Present-day Europe, ex-EU, is a checkerboard of small states and middling industrial powers which had to reinvent themselves in the latter half of the 20th century.

A cursory, common-sense examination of Europe’s present-day geographic situation indicates that the checkerboard (or chessboard) analogy is more than apt.  European countries sit on geographically strategic (if resource-poor, relatively speaking) real estate between the current hegemonic military powers and become easy prey for the very colonial tactics Europe itself perfected.  The post-WWII architects of European convergence, themselves functionaries of states skilled in colonial tactics, were absolutely correct to surmise that Europe required a super-state level of organization that was at least partly independent of other power blocs in order to prevent being further carved up like a Thanksgiving turkey. The Middle East’s current, long-standing troubles illustrate clearly what can happen in that case.

The adolescence of European institutions during the neoliberal moment presents the central dilemma, because it itself is now a major threat to a protective European unity.  The question is: what is the optimal and most feasible way to lever out zombie neoliberalism without putting European countries at risk of “integration” into the pathologies already evident in the current hegemons?  The question is not an abstract one: one of Brexit’s consequences is that the UK likely will adopt an even harsher internal economic stance with integration into the weaker, less consumer- and worker-friendly economic regulation of the USA.

My own position is that the only way to resolve the deadlock is by the boring, difficult work of building cross-border, cross-polity popular solidarity both inside and outside the current EU.  It is the only way to enshrine the benefits of European integration with the necessary reform of the EU’s economic management.  Anything else — and admittedly, “anything else” is the most likely prospect — risks that those who live in Europe jump from the frying pan into the fire, following a mirage of dead-end cultural-nationalist idylls and emotional appeals to a clean, safe world that never really existed.


Week-end Wrap – Political Economy – September 20, 2020


Bill Bodri’s “Culture, Country, City, Company, Person, Purpose, Passion, World”


  1. bruce wilder

    The past is prologue, the man once said.

    Finding a principle around which to organize a polity and an economy is not a simple or obvious thing. It is necessary to find some anchor, for example, for concepts of the public good and general welfare to take concrete form and also make a claim on hearts and mind. At the same time some limit must be placed on the scope of any project, geographically or in some other finite mind-space.

    I would not be as ready as Mandos to commit to the idea that it can be done at all, without some form of the nationalism he so cavalierly despises. Liberalism made extensive use of nationalism in the 19th century to conjure up the “self-governing” nation-state, with representative parliaments in republics or constitutional monarchies, but also with cultures and literature and music and histories and heroes and railroads and highways and industries. Liberalism swept away many reactionary projects in the process, including aristocracies and empire, though there was a price in blood.

    Mandos claims he cannot understand the details of how neoliberalism is built into the “ontology” or the architecture of the EU institutions. I understand his reluctance to take on the Four Freedoms — it is kind of embarrassing to admit that your ideal can also be a poison to the body politic — but there it is.

    Power and authority must vest somewhere. If not rooted in a People or a locality, then, perhaps, it just floats up into a vast global enterprise hovering in the clouds.

    I could make some suggestions for devolution in the EU — decentralizing power. Let the Center hold and where popular feeling can sustain it, let the autonomy of peoples willing to cooperate together prevail over the forced conglomerations of the UK or Spain or France or Germany or Italy: a Europe of free Catalonia, Scotland, Bavaria, Brittany. Forget English votes for British laws.

    For this, states must have an economic basis that can resist the great business corporations and extract taxes from the economic rents of their trade. The system of VAT that has been harmonized across Europe could be re-worked to allow smaller states impose the equivalent of a protective tariff. Capital controls should be a routine matter, part of an apparatus to repress the international FIRE sector. The Euro might survive and serve, if it were suitably constrained.

    I fear there’s not much interest in economics on the left at present. It is all MMT-inspired fantasy, no more true than the Big Lie of neoclassical economics relied on by the neoliberals. And, too much of the intellectual left considers itself too good for the kind of populism that might actually build workable, beneficial institutions capable of keeping civilization together during the Long Crisis of climate change and the threat of ecological collapse.

  2. Willy

    Trump just gave himself an A+ for his handling of the coronavirus. I wonder what grade these ‘elite’ economists give themselves, the ones who helped get us into this mess. I’m not sure I’d blame the politicians, since they’ve got such “really great brains” that we shouldn’t be questioning their policies. Or their sanity.

    When top level professional economists can be bought, or are interested in rolling the dice, or just go along to get along, while knowing the system contains no consequences for themselves if they wind up being wrong, they get to pretty much ignore the lessons they should’ve learned from their “Money Is Power 101” class.

    Maybe that needs to be included into our principles. Other working people have to take personal responsibility for their decisions, including any consequences. Elites should as well.

    So what was the post about, anyways?

  3. Hugh

    Europe looked like it worked when economic times were good. But when times aren’t so good, economically, immigration, or with the coronavirus, then it doesn’t and we see a more national responses. Europe isn’t a union so much as a disunion. How can any of us take Europe seriously ? I keep coming back to Germany’s very self-serving lack of leadership. Its rich get the benefit and the rest of Europe gets the shaft. Germany effectively destroyed another EU member Greece to bail out some German banks. Where’s the union in that? What does Brexit, the EU’s second largest economy leaving, say about the idea of union? What do the economic problems of Europe’s South and authoritarianism in its East speak to other than disunion? I look at Europe and ask what’s the point? It’s anti-democratic. It doesn’t deliver economically. And politically, it’s a failure. So again, what’s the point?

  4. S Brennan

    Excellent Post Mr Wilder

  5. Joan

    @bruce wilder, “A Europe of free Catalonia, Scotland, Bavaria, Brittany.”

    Holy smokes, yes. A free (or freer) Brittany would be an incredible dream come true, and it might make it in time to save the Breton language. I’d wish the same for Welsh and Manx if the people there wanted it.

    Bavaria and Austria are closer in language and culture than Bavaria is to the rest of Germany, so I could see the two cooperating a lot if Bavaria had more independence.

    I’m hoping economic relocalization can unite the right and left, pipe dreams as that sounds.

  6. Chiron

    The EU will have to become a “United States of Europe” if wants to regain any relevance in th world stage, also independence from other superpower.

  7. Senator-Elect

    The left must win the war of ideas and take neoliberalism’s place as the dominant ideology. All else follows. Do you think half the technocrats at the EU even know that what they’re doing is neoliberal? They were mediocre poli sci students (but good social climbers) who don’t remember much of what they learned. They just do as they’re told and tell others to do as they did.

    How does the left win the war of ideas? My current thinking is that people do as they’re told and think as they’re told. That means the left must not only have the better arguments and ideology, but it must take control of institutions of teaching and learning and institutions of mass communications. We are bombarded with neoliberal propaganda from cradle to grave. If we were bombarded with leftist propaganda in this way, we would all think differently, and the EU and other institutions would be leftist, democratic and ethical.

    Simple enough, right?

  8. I said earlier that I have little time to engage in the comments anymore but some of these are potential food for indirect responses at some point. Even this post was an indirect response to something people were telling me ages ago.

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