A Manifesto for Another Europe

In May, the Forum of Concerned Citizens of Europe released a manifesto calling for a re-envisioning of a new Europe based on the progressive principles of tolerance, plurality, regulated markets, and a new focus on public goods. It boasts some impressive names among its signatories, including Etienne Balibar, Saskia Sassen, Richard Sennett, Costas Douzinas, and Tzvetan Todorov.

With Europe in an economic and cultural crisis, a restatement of these principles is a welcome thing. The manifesto rightly takes issue with the growing xenophobia that has beset countries like Italy, France, and Hungary (although these aren’t called out by name). Yet, like most manifestos, it is long on abstractions and very short on concrete ideas. To “demand the cessation of the politics of fear and engagement in the politics of hope” is a nice thing, but is a politics of hope what modern democracies really need after the brutal way this slogan has been manhandled by Barack Obama during and ever since his election?

Furthermore, the manifesto stands to defend diversity in Europe. This is an important point, but the way this principle is stated seems very naive. To quote the first article at length:

Let us recall, and let us admit, that for its best achievements Europe has always drawn on the creative energies of the world, on the positive engagement among people of diverse descent and complex biographies, on the respect for gender, racial, sexual, religious, cultural differences and preferences. It is this tradition of openness and inclusion, and not Europe’s other, darker, legacy of supposed superiority, closure and suspicion that needs to be revived in facing an uncertain and turbulent future.

Europe didn’t simply “draw on the creative energies of the world” in its rise to global supremacy between roughly 1400-1900. The rise of Europe is inseparable from the story of the development of the global market economy, colonial conquest, and the subjugation of native peoples all over the world (including fellow Europeans.) The best achievements of European civilization would not have happened without that same “darker legacy of supposed superiority, closure and suspicion.” That has been the historical dialectic of Western civilization: openness, toleration, and plurality on the continent was made possible through territorial expansion, the forceful acquisition of resources, and the exploitation of labor overseas. To oppose these as if one could have existed without the other is silly.

Then there is also the question of economic policy. This time it’s the final (fourth) point – again, at length:

Economic solidarity is indispensable both for fostering tolerance and for achieving inclusion. We therefore need policies that build on the European heritage of social fairness: a social economy that spreads opportunities and rewards; universal social insurance; corporate social responsibility; work for all and fair wages, along with continuous building of human capabilities. In line with this tradition that goes beyond particular ideological belongings and partisanship, a regulatory reform is now urgently needed to ensure the submission of the needs of the markets to those of societies.

How economic solidarity is to be accomplished at a time when the Eurozone is facing a crisis is left unanswered. The Euro is slumping. The German government has recently faced internal backlash over its support of the Greek economy. The rushed transition of vastly different economies to a single currency has linked the European governments in a volatile chain that threatens to knock them off balance one by one like falling dominoes. If more governments are forced to pass austerity measures (Greece) or begin drastically reducing social services (Great Britain), what we can expect to see is not a return to a more fair social economy, universal social insurance, and fair wages, but the very opposite. More people will be laid off, ending up disenfranchised and without a protective social net. Faced with tighter regulations, multinational corporations will increase the number of jobs outsourced to Asia; while smaller businesses will begin to rely more on the cheaper labor of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East.

Thinking more about the nature of the current recession, I’m becoming less convinced that any type of regulatory reform will be enough to “re-embed” markets back within society, as Polanyi once called for. The post-1973 development of the global economy has by now spiraled too far out of the reach of modern policymakers (although they still exercise a significant amount of influence) for any sort of return to the “kinder capitalism” of the 1950s-60s.

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