European “democracy” in fragments

It may be an oxymoron to still be discussing democracy in the European Union, at a time when European citizen are called to pay the consequences of the choices of a small elite. Even when one argues that most of the Western leaders are legally and democratically elected, there are few cases where they consulted the opinions of the people they are supposed to represent. It becomes even more bizarre to address issues like the political regression we are witnessing in the West; a self-destructive conformity which transformed societies into a crowd of isolated, atomized and de-politicized individuals, an easily manipulatable consuming mass that lives and feeds on the populism of a handful of charlatans demagogue politicians. The vulgarity of the tabloid right wing media reflects the level of social de-politicization. Since the Eurocrisis became the main subject, continuously stories regarding the “hard-working Northerners” and the “lazy and irresponsible people of the South” appear in their headlines. In this article, this issue will be outlined, in conjunction with the anti-political climate that has been cultivated in the entire West since the 60s.

Τhe surveillance of the IMF – ECB – EU in Greece contributed to a further impoverishment of the population through unprecedented cuts in wages and pensions, dramatic reduction in social spending, sharp increase in unemployment, and loss of employment rights won by hard struggles during the past decades. Governments and (puppets) MPs act under the pressure of the global markets – to impose even harsher austerity measures – and when the Greeks are fighting back against this barbarity the state attempts to break their resistance with repression, while the mass media respond with irony, hypocrisy, justification of police violence and hate campaigns. “The Euro is in jeopardy because of the irresponsible Greeks who instead of working and producing, they go to demonstrations, don’t pay their taxes and live beyond their means” is a racist cliché we often hear from various EU leaders, economists, technocrats, and tabloid newspapers. Economically speaking, this is a lie. 1) The Greeks work (averagely) 42 hours per week comparing with 40.3 (the average in the rest of the 27 member states of the EU), while the average gross monthly wage is 803 euros. 2) Although there is some truth that tax evasion in Greece is a plague, the mass media systematically avoid to mention that it is the elites (for example, the Greek Orthodox Church which owns hundreds of properties and banking stocks but was always a subject of tax exclusion, or some other local wealthy families who manage to escape taxes) rather the entire population. 3) Overspending does not apply only to Greece but also (and mostly) to the U.S. from where the economic crisis started (2008). There is also another issue here; the objective contradictions of capitalism: Even under the most ideal a-historical and a-social scenario, where everyone acts at 100% as a rational producer/consumer, a similar economic crisis could not be avoided. Based on the commodity fetishism and the primitive accumulation one understands that, in the end, the first accumulation of capital was not the result of rational moves, but of blackmail, domination and political inequality. Hence, this mafia-style of attack against Greece should not be confined to the economic recession only. It is first of all, the results of political inequality, 2) of Neoliberal ostrichism, 3) a direct effect of mass conformity (regression), which impacted to a further spread of political, cultural and intellectual poverty and, 4) (and most important), an elitist reaction to social struggles: Historically speaking, Greece is a country where various anti-capitalist movements played an important role in gaining popular sovereignty and achieving political and social liberalization (this issue will be outlined further below).

The mechanism of the European Union (perhaps one of the most oligarchic and undemocratic institution), does not take into account the views of the people of any particular country. The decisive EU institutions (the European Commission Council) do not receive electoral legitimacy from an electoral body; the European Council consists of the Heads of States or Governments of the member-states and the Commission President (the commissioners are appointed by the governments), but the bureaucrats who surround them (also known as “the Eurocrats” and proudly call themselves so) are not directly elected. The European Parliament is not merely advisory. The degradation of popular sovereignty is a fact, not only in Greece but in almost all the 25 countries. An example of the violation of people’s voice is Ireland, which after the rejection of the Lisbon Treaty had to repeat the Referendum in order to give the “Yes” answer, a response which suits Brussels, a response that merely reflects the pro-EU sentiments of the Irish (this was mostly came as a result of blackmail by Fianna Fail’s campaign). The referendum was repeated in 2001, when the Irish were again called to vote in favour or against the Nice Treaty. This sort of referendum is supposed to be a constitutional right, but obviously the EU is a profoundly undemocratic, technocratic institution. Similarly in Greece, the recent events of Papandreou’s call for a referendum (which in fact means Yes or No to the Eurozone), caused the reaction of other Euro leaders, and resulted in a sort of coup d’ etat by a bunch of technocrats – economists; this proves that the EU’s greatest enemy is democracy.

However, this wide political regression can be also understood as a deep anthropological decay of our societies, which resulted in a massive deprivation of human expression by turning individuals into labourers (homo laborans), and making them concentrate their efforts in the improvement of their social status through consumption (passive conformity). The individual well-being and the attachment to the values ​​of the post-modern lifestyle, encourages political apathy, and leaves the field open for those in power to take back many of the rights gained during the past centuries. This regression also revealed many cultural divisions (most importantly the one between the “rich North” and the “poor South”), divisions that existed between European nations long before the spark of the economic crisis, but were forgotten for the sake of a temporary “economic prosperity”. In reality, the fact that the word “Greek” has become a sort of swearword in most of the Western countries, has less to do with “lack of productivity” or with the fact that Greece is one of the weakest links of the EU’s economy, than with the problems inherent in the Neoliberal economic dogma: Anyone who is preoccupied with the Greek reality will notice how deeply is rooted in the Greek society the culture of political disobedience and anti-authoritarianism, something that makes the oligarchs tremble. Nevertheless, the mainstream media do everything possible to protect this system and it seems that they achieved to do whatever the Soviet totalitarianism failed to carry out within 60 years; to hypnotize the masses, to love their oppressors instead of fighting against them. Neoliberalism is a doctrine based on the absolute domination of the private to the political realm (the only one where a man can become truly free), and is deeply characterised by its inheritance of work ethics – a form of institutionalized (and voluntary) slavery – and self-guilt. As Michel Foucault brilliantly stressed, “The strategic adversary is fascism… the fascism in us all, in our heads and in our everyday behaviour, the fascism that causes us to love power, to desire the very thing that dominates and exploits us.”

Hence, the Greek case is not unique. A similar attack can be found against anyone who despises the Neoliberal dogma, like the worldwide Occupy movements, the students movement in Britain, unless the revolt is happening in the Middle East where it is called “legitimate”. Based on this mindset one should never complain, should never demand more rights, but blindly obey all the rules. As George Carlin said: “they don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that . . . that doesn’t help them. That’s against their interests. You know what they want? They want obedient workers… Obedient workers, people who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork.” Adopting the logic of the homo laborans, of blind obedient producers (because this is what the technocrats want) is surely a disastrous idea. Not only it is a form of Platonic idealism (the technocrats, the economists, the bankers know everything and hence we should always follow their orders), but also it is an offense to human consiousness, and a total destruction of what politics really mean. In order to gain a better understanding of this, the roots of Neoliberalism should first be examined:

Hannah Arendt in her outstanding book, “The Human Condition” identifies the creation of politics with the Athenian polis. The realm of the polis (or else called, the public realm) was “the sphere of freedom,” (31) “the place for deliberation and decisions on matters of common concern” claims Cornelius Castoriadis (124). “I am in the public space: I deliberate with other people in order to decide, and those decisions are sanctioned by the public power of the collectivity” (125) In contrast, theprivate realm (the households) was “the center of the strictest inequality” (Arendt, 32). There was no (or little) relationship between these two spheres. In the household rulership one can find a strict pre-political violence; “in Greek self-understanding, to force people by violence, to command rather than persuade, were prepolitical ways to deal with people” (Arendt, 27). Prepolitical relationships (violence) was the main characteristic of life outside the polis, particularly in family life, where the household head (the oikonomon [οικονόμων] in Greek) used despotic means of rulership, similar to what one can find in the so called “barbarian” societies of Asia, where “despotism was frequently likened to the organization of the household” (Arendt, 27). In the households there existed slaves who were forced to deal with the “necessities of life,” (labour condition) both theirs and their masters. “Aristotle’s definition of man as zoon politikon was not only unrelated and even opposed to the natural association experience in household life; it can be fully understood only if one adds his second famous definition of man as a zoon logon ekhon (“a living being capable of speech”). Nonetheless, a mistranslation of the term political to social by the Romans (in fact, the word “society” does not exist in ancient Athens) resulted to the appearance of a third realm, the social. “The Latin translation of this term intoanimal rationale rests on no less fundamental a misunderstanding than the term of “social animal” (Arendt, 27). The social realm includes some characteristics of the polis (direct democracy) mixed with elements of households relationships (slavery and laborism). Thomas Aquinas confuses “the household rule with the political rule: the head of the household, he finds, has some similarity to the head of the kingdom, but, he adds, his power is not so “perfect” as that of the king” (Arendt, 27). Hence, the borderline between these two realms has been blurred with disastrous effects up to date:

“One of the many reasons why it is laughable to call contemporary Western societies “democratic” is because the “public” sphere is in fact private – be it in France, the United States, or England. This is true, first of all, in that the real decisions are made behind closed doors, backstage, or in places where those who govern meet informally […] we note that present “democracy” is anything but democracy because the public/public sphere is in fact private It is in the hands of a political oligarchy, not of the body political” (Castoriadis, 125)

The roots on Neoliberalism cannot only be traced in the misunderstanding of the polis. They are also found in Thomas Hobbes’s theory. Hobbes, unlike Aristotle who points out the political nature of men, identifies a “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” (Hobbes, 99) human nature, which makes men unable to govern themselves. Hence, his only solution is to bend the will of an individual by coercion and repression. Later thinkers, simply replaced Hobbes’s absolutism with economic motivation; a man can be ruled liberally thanks to the forces of the market, and thus we have the creation of homo economicus. This sort of economic determinism dominates the political realm, and in fact, erodes it and distorts it. Etymologically, the term economy has a Greek root. It refers to the eco and to nomos, that is the law of the household, the monarchical style of rulership, and the prevailence of the necessities of life.

Cornelius Castoriadis stressed that capitalism was, indeed, the first regime presenting itself as “rational”. All the other previous societies were based on myths, religions and traditions. But this “”rationality” is an “instrumentalized rationality” which “clearly has no intrinsic value,” (p.48) and “every society institutes both its institutions and the “legitimacy” of that institutions. This legitimation, an improper, Western expression already referring to some “rationalization,” is almost always implicit. Better yes, it is tautological” … the “legitimation” of capitalism by its rationality is just as “tautological.” Who in this society, except perhaps a poet or a mystic, would dare to challenge this “rationality”?” (p. 49) We see how the economic determinism, based on this “rationality” dictates the political realm, and is regarded as the dominant mode of being. In fact, we see most of the Neoliberals claiming that there is “no alternative,” and that their system is the only way out. This happens because of this tautological closure of “rationality”, which as Castoriadis notes, nobody can despise due to its (pseudo)scientific appearance. The Neoliberals present their solutions as unique and well promising, but have ignored behaviorism, ethnology, psychology, anthropology and other approaches. Studying Milton Friedman and his descendants, one sees that their “theory” or “science” is a series of arbitrary “abstractions” and “mathematics” that do not comply with the “clarification” of the objective reality.

A typical example is the campaign of the masters of hypocrisy, the Tories of Britain, who constantly claim that “there is no alternative to the cuts,” exactly as the Greek politicians say that “the memorandum is the only solution to save the country,” and that the “Greek people are corrupt” (said the former Vice President, Theodoros Pagalos, in Paris, a few months ago.) [1] Based on this absoluteness, the cuts are necessary because “the average worker is responsible for the crisis.” So we should “stop being lazy and start working harder”; stop claiming rights and “take responsibility for our actions” (again, the morality of guilt prevails).

The propagandists of Neoliberalism, scorn any criticism as ‘conspiracy theory’, ‘utopia’, or as an “act that incites to violence” and “illegal behavior.” We see that the possession of absolute truth is the tactic with which the Neoliberal “clergy” aims to despise and suppress the opposing view as “irrational” and “dangerous to the public order”, in order to not jeopardize the “Holy Faith” of the average citizen to the market forces. All other opinions are “childish and anarchistic utopias that undermine the state and the authorities.” So, the “dangerous” anarchists should be reported to the police, similarly as in the times of the Inquisition. Only if you listen to the Neoliberal priesthood you will be saved from “the shackles of lawlessness and laziness of some crooks.” Until now, all examples of Neoliberalism have massively failed (Argentina, Chile, Ireland, Spain etc), and unemployment is sky-rocketing. But above all, there is a biblical prospect of a “promised land”: the Invisible Hand of the Market will fix everything. The blind will see, the deaf hear and the poor … the poor are lazy (hence sinners), and their place is in hell… When the Hand of the market makes its début (Revelation), then all will be corrected! But of course, some will starve, but not everyone can live just as well!

Freedman’s theory rightly notes that the economic functions of individuals, markets and societies are closely connected with the “money supply”. But what it fails to outline is who offers the money. Cornelius Castoriadis, Pierre Clastres, Hannah Arendt, and some ancient Greek philosophers, together with many others, truly libertarian thinkers, philosophers, clarify the real, holistic and complex substance of human societies. The unambiguous roads are unimportant, but they have on their side money, power, violence, cynicism and the media, allowing them to shape imaginaries and conscience.

For this reason we stress that it is time we ended apathy, if we really want an immediate change of society. The existing institutions of centralized oligarchy have no place in a creative world. If desire to be responsible citizens, we have to understand the importance of our participation in society, the importance of collective decision-making, as opposed to the oligarchy of a handful of technocrats! Political participation and direct democracy [2] lead not only to freedom, but are also tools that can bring different cultures together. It presupposes open public meetings and assemblies. The direct contact with the other, not only helps an individual or a group of individuals to understand the different, but also, contributes to a self-recognition. It is a tool for individual and collective autonomy. Nowadays, that cultural divisions are growing and Europe significantly becomes more and more introvert, the creation of situations that enforce egalitarianism and participation becomes important.

[1] The logical question that derives from here is the following; why the so called representatives of the Greek people seem to be the first ones who turn against them by spreading so much hatred, even against those who brought them to power? Maybe the Greek politicians would prefer to join the business-party with other Euro-leaders instead of trying to implement their pre-election promises. But further more, it clearly shows that the term “representative democracy” is contradictory, or even better, democracy should be direct and participatory or we cannot talk about democracy at all.

[2] Since the end of the 19th century and the creation of various social movements which resulted in a further expansion of civil rights and political freedoms in the Western world – revolutions (whether failed or not), the labour movement, the confrontation of totalitarian regimes, struggles for racial equality or against sexism and anti-Semitism – the examination of the role of an individual or a group of individuals in the shaping of political landscape has become immediate and necessary for anyone who is concerned with modern political theory. All the events that marked the previous century, the two major wars, the Cold War, and the division between the Eastern block and the West followed by the pulverization of Marxism-Leninism which signified the end of the well promising liberation of human being via a Communist revolution, all these events shaped and determined definitively the political thought, and, finally, called for a general review of all political philosophies; who is not sceptical nowadays speaking about a radical change of the society, after the severe crimes committed in the countries where “thirst for power and self-interest for some, Terror for all” (Castoriadis, 59) was the result of an ideology which was supposed to become a pioneer of human liberation? But on the other hand, following the crisis of the Eurozone and the systematic degradation of democratic rights in the countries of the South, and the revolutions that took place in the Middle East, who is not yet convinced that the relationship between the ruling power and the masses, apathy and mass conformity should not be questioned? It is obvious that the new Social movements that were created around Europe – movements that draw on influence from the Arab Spring (the Indignados in Spain and in Greece, the Occupy Movements) brought to the surface the concept of direct democracy; direct political action in the sense of mass and open participation in the decision making.

Arendt Hannah, The Human Conditions, The University of Chicago Press, 1969
Castoriadis Cornelius, Figures of the Thinkable, Standforf University Press, 2007
Carlin George, American Dream
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Oxford University Press, Second Edition, 1909

by Julien Febvre


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