Andrew at Hold that Thought, a new blog, has drawn my attention to a polemical piece by German social theorist Jurgen Habermas , arguing for a left-wing “yes” vote in the French referendum. Habermas’ major contention is that
What is vaunted today as the “European social model” can only be defended if European political strength grows alongside the markets. It is solely on the European level that a part of the political regulatory power that is bound to be lost on the national level can be won back. Today the EU member states are strengthening their cooperation in the areas of justice, criminal law and immigration. An active Left taking an enlightened stance toward European politics could have also pressed long ago for greater harmonisation in the areas of taxation and economic policy.
“Harmonisation… in economic policy”? Habermas takes a wonderfully benign view of a process that is becoming only too familiar. In the race to the bottom demanded by neoliberal policy, Britain is the pacemaker. A major part for of the case for a “no” vote here, should we face a referendum, is not to defend social protections in Britan, but to defend them across Europe. There are no more ardent enthusiasts for wholesale deregulation and a thoroughgoing neoliberalism in Europe than the British political class, exemplified by the oleganious Peter Mandelson, here seen trying for screw over the Third World. Far from pulling Britain leftwards, the British government has, for decades, acted to pull Europe to the right: a supposedly internationalise left-liberal Europhilia turns out to be alarmingly parochial, privileging minor (if any) social gains in the UK over a baleful neoliberal backwash across the continent.
The debate over the Bolkestein directive showed just how pernicious an influence the British government and senior British officials are in the EU, persistently advocating greater “liberalisation” and further extensions of the rule of the market across the continent. These are delivered in hectoring style, with guardians of the Anglo-Saxon model wagging fingers at slovenly Europeans and their recidivist attachment to the welfare state, employment protection, and free education. Gordon Brown, that supposed “left-wing” alternative to Blair, is no better than Peter Mandelson in this regard, vowing to defeat EU legislation to restict working hours. The British welfare state has taken a hammering after 26 years of Thatcherism and its ideological children in power; those currently bashing away at the NHS, state education and the rest will be strengthened here, as elsewhere, by the constitution. As Brown’s opposition to the European working time directive indicates, New Labour are adept at cherry-picking EU policy to suit their own particular vision.
For what we are all presented with is a free market treaty with a few sops. That’s why the no campaign in France has been led by the Left. The case for a “no” vote in France is even clearer: backdoor Thatcherism should be fought just as much as if the Iron Lady walked in through the front. There will be no gains, no improvements, and the real possibility of distinctly worsened conditions for millions of workers across Europe – “old Europe”, and new – if this constitution is ratified. As one summary (accurately) put it:
There is no improvement in the content of the Union’s policies when it comes to workers’ rights, social issues, the environment or gender equality. There are some beautiful words, but no obligations made or tools created for progressive politics…
Any policy contradicting the free market is simply not possible for the Union, which of course limits the possibilities for progressive politics in almost any field. The single market is still the core of the project and the failed EMU policies remain unchanged, imposing austerity measures on the member states and the dictates of a central bank beyond democratic control. The goal of continued economic liberalisation is clearly spelled out in the treaty.
Startlingly, Andrew at Hold that Thought, following Habermas, seems to dismiss the actual contents of the constitution as irrelevant: social protections are “…under threat with or without the EU Constitution, thanks to globalisation.” It is as if the simple fact of declaring there to be a ratified constitution, irrespective of what it actually says, will be sufficient to usher in a glorious cosmpolitan dawn for the 25 member states. We, the happy Europeans – moving swiftly past the unhappy Africans and unhappy Asians we lucky few imprison on our borders – will march, volumes of EU legislation in hand, towards the new Jerusalem.
The pessimism should be obvious. A classically ultra-left position, that constitutions are essentially irrelevant compared to the real demands of power, joins hands with an ill-founded Europhile reformism. Nowhere in this is any sense that other agencies or forces may exist that are better placed to deliver social justice than the venal political classes of Europe, committed for decades to a broadly neoliberal vision of the world. Quite why a declaration of faith in the existence of the EU by its citizens would alter their course is unclear.
This is Habermas’ major claim. He sees no possibility of change from below, and so retreats to a thoroughgoing legalism. Worse, there is an ugly undertone to statements like these:
Bush is the one who would rejoice at the failure of the European constitution, for it would allow Europe to develop a common foreign and security policy with enough soft power to bolster opposition to the neoconservative view of global order, also within the United States. It is in our common interest to develop the United Nations, and the law of nations, into a politically constituted world community without a world government. We must attain an effective juridification of international relations, before other world powers are in a position to emulate the power politics of the Bush government in violation of the law of nations.
Good Europeans vs. bad Americans is a model all internationalists should noisily reject. To dismiss – at a minimum – the 48% who voted against Bush in November 2004; to dismiss the many historic achievements of the US left; to write off any possibility of change in America that does not depend on external confrontation is to evince a profound, pessimistic conservatism.
Habermas is too smart not know that an “effective juridification of international relations” depends on the effective development of international force; if he is serious about wishing a strengthened Europe to face a neoconservative Washington, he must wish also that we enlightened EU citizens develop not just “soft power”, but hard military muscle. By such means can we hope to corral the backward peoples of the globe into a “politically constituted world community”.
It is not cynical to observe that the continent responsible for slavery, colonialism and genocide the world over contains no innate moral superiority by which such a new power might be justified. Absent the last fifty years, and we are left with a four-hundred year record of European colonial conquest and brutality sufficient to inspire a certain diziness – all conducted by the most enlightened of conquistadors and conquerors.
Where genuine progress in Europe has occurred, it has not been because of our vainglorious ruling classes; it has been in spite of them. Democracy, fundamental rights, welfare states were all forcibly extracted, continent-wide. The growth of mass labour movements and their ability to apply overwhelming political pressure are responsible for such progress as has occurred. For the last twenty-five to thirty years, such movements have been on the back foot; Habermas, searching for a force capable of breaking a brutal “neoconservative” offensive, ignores them entirely.
I believe he is wrong to do so. The “political spaces” Habermas wishes to develop through a mystified constitution-worship are already being developed: the growth and successes of the global Social Forums movement are the most visible expression of that. These, it is true, remain marginal. But they exist nontheless, and their marginality is not fated: we have seen, in Britain, what can happen when the broad global justice movement unites with and feeds into a narrower but deeper political movement against the war. Such a unity was critical to the success of the anti-war movement here. The great anti-war mobilisations could not take place without it. That anti-war movement, in turn, has been responsible for bringing a great rupture in the conventional political framework, whose political effects were are only just beginning to see. The battered labour movement is beginning to recover. These are the forces that will demonstrate “another Europe is possible”. The constitution, if ratified, will only weaken them.