A Marxist analysis of the challenges and dangers of EU integration is at once brilliant in its detail and utterly wrong-headed in its analysisby / March 19, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
The New Old World
By Perry Anderson (Verso, £24.99)
Perry Anderson is an angry man. The object of his anger is the EU. Its foreign policy, he believes, renders it little more than a “deputy empire” of the US. Its neo-liberal economics have created a “vast free range for the factors of production,” generating inequality yet adding little to growth. Its leaders justify Turkish enlargement with “multicultural cant.” Worst of all, a democratic deficit in Europe stifles effective left-wing opposition from “chloroformed legislatures and mediaspheres.”
These are conventional socialist criticisms of Europe. But Anderson is no conventional socialist. Long-time editor of the New Left Review and perhaps Britain’s foremost Marxist historian, though now teaching in California, he is one of the most broad-ranging and engaging analysts of modern European history. This book, collecting essays written over the past decade, seeks to explain the historical origins of Europe’s current predicament and to chart its future.
The result is at once insightful and frustrating. In seeking to demonstrate what is wrong with Europe, Anderson ends up demonstrating what is wrong with modern Marxist historiography. A tradition which toppled plodding “one damn thing after another” history with sweeping revisionist reinterpretations of world events has now been diverted into Gramscian analyses of cultural particularities, and thence full-circle to a postmodernist embrace of indeterminacy—not unlike the meandering old-school history Marxists once rejected. In struggling to explain European integration, Anderson recapitulates this evolution—ending up utterly baffled by current constitutional circumstances in the EU.
The book is dedicated to the late Alan Milward, doyen of postwar EU historians. Milward argued that European integration was never intended to replace the nation-state, but to rescue it. The key was commerce. By quashing economic nationalism and encouraging trade, the EU would promote domestic prosperity, foster international peace and, most importantly, consolidate Europe’s greatest postwar achievement: the democratic social welfare state. Milward’s narrative sweeps aside the ideological and geopolitical causes that dominate schoolbook narratives of European integration. The idealism of Jean Monnet and other European federalists are “a pack of pieties.” Avoiding wars between France and Germany, keeping the Russians out, British Euroscepticism, are all secondary. The key motivations, in Milward’s account, lie in economic self-interest and domestic political advantage.
Though Milward is no Marxist, his approach has much in common with Marxism’s clear-sighted focus on material gain. Anderson accepts much of this, and he is at his most devastating when exposing the ways in which the politically correct, often self-satisfied rhetoric of contemporary European federalism disguises naked self-interest. Few acts of hypocrisy are missed by Anderson’s eye. Europeans like to speak about the “European model,” Europe’s “normative power,” “postmodern empire,” and its global reach, yet pursue their own commercial interests. Italian politicians mouth Euro-platitudes while running a kleptocracy, undermining the promises they make to Brussels. Anderson might have added that while Germans complain about supporting their eurozone partners in Greece, they have quietly exploited the single currency to pile up a trade surplus to rival China’s.
Yet Anderson ultimately finds materialism unsatisfying. He undermines every effort, even those of Milward, to place regional economic interdependence, the single market and currency, industrial investment and the euro at the heart of the European project. Given that his empirical reasons for doing so are unconvincing, one suspects that his underlying motivation is political. Milward’s account of Europe—which is mine too—implies something no proper Marxist can tolerate: the end of class conflict. The EU moves forward, with minor disputes over regulation of things such as bank transactions, consumer protection, telecoms standards and foreign aid. What worries Anderson is the lack of a progressive movement in opposition to what he sees, rightly, as an essentially capitalist project: why has the EU generated depoliticisation, rather than revolution or reform? Where are the anti-Americans, the anti-free marketeers, the anti-technocrats? Why are the masses so happy?
Perhaps, Anderson conjectures, elites are using culture to dupe, distract or corrupt the masses, so they do not rise up. The core of the book consists of long, detailed chapters on France, Germany, Italy and Turkey showing how cultural manipulation, partisan politics and intellectual misunderstandings divert societies from addressing social problems.
The tales are sordid. Anderson brilliantly traces the pursuit of partisan advantage by party factions. He uncovers contradictions in the thinking of pro-European intellectuals such as Jürgen Habermas. He reveals the short-sighted ambivalence most Germans feel toward reform, and the depths to which French Gaullism has fallen. He deciphers the language Italians have developed to describe the intricacies of their culture of corruption.
Most striking is a long chapter on Turkey. Anderson ridicules the politically correct view of Turkish enlargement found in most European “chancelleries and chat-rooms.” For true believers in Europe’s “normative power,” Turkish membership is important not because of the country’s geostrategic importance, as US analysts see it, but because membership would demonstrate once and for all that Europe is not Eurocentric. One often hears that Turkey is relatively open-minded toward Europe, a view dating back to the Ottoman empire, while intolerant Europeans hesitate to let Muslims into the western sanctuary. Anderson will have none of this. His sweeping analysis of 20th-century Turkish political history shows how governments to this day have manipulated political nationalism to deflect pressure for political and socioeconomic reform. Intolerance toward Kurds and Armenians is thus an integral counterpart to Turkish national identity. Anderson emerges as a deep sceptic of enlargement, or certainly of the multiculturalist platitudes about the virtues of Turkish membership of the EU one often hears.
But what about the broader future of European unification? How can we answer the core question: What is the constitutional finalité of Europe? Here Anderson comes full circle, embracing the historical indeterminacy Marxist historians used to disparage. Perhaps there is no grand narrative of Europe. “A less eccentric view,” he suggests, “is that history is a web of unintended effects.” He seems even more baffled by the “lack of any… coherent finality” in the EU’s constitutional conjuncture. He rails against a continent “adrift… without clarity of means or ends.” The EU’s relationship to the US “remains to be seen.” Above all, he hopes—good Marxist to the end—that “economic recession might reignite the engines of political conflict and ideological division.” Yet, he admits, “there is little sign of either.”
This account of the EU is absurd. Several dozen European governments consistently expand policy co-ordination through myriad decisions over a half century, including at least nine major international conferences, and it was all “unintended”? Nor does Anderson’s account make much sense of Europe’s recent decade of constitutional debate. The real meaning of the constitutional treaty lies not in what Europeans said, but what they did—and did not do. From the start the constitutional project was an exercise in consolidation. It used the language of federalist finalité to repackage and ratify the status quo. Quietly, a “European constitutional settlement” has emerged—and it is likely to be stable for the foreseeable future. What you see is what you get.
The nation-state has re-established itself as the dominant political form in Europe. The core of the constitutional settlement lies in a division of labour. Brussels helps states cope with the 10 per cent of legislation (not the 80 per cent one often reads) most closely connected with socioeconomic interdependence: international trade and finance, industrial and business regulation, environmental and consumer protection, modest levels of intergovernmental foreign policy co-ordination and international crime-fighting. The left-wing issues that concern Anderson—social welfare provision, healthcare, taxing and spending, pensions, education, immigration, cultural policy—are likely to remain overwhelmingly national. Since these are the issues voters care about most, democratic politics is thus destined to remain national as well, with governments representing their people’s interests in Europe. Not everything will be popular, and not everything leaders do will be widely supported, but that’s democracy.
So Milward was right all along. The Lisbon treaty marks the final stage of what he proclaimed: the rescue of the European nation-state. European leaders have finally surrendered their teleological illusions. It is time for Marxists to join them.