back to

e-flux conversations

Democrisis: Notes on the Capitalist Imaginary of Europe


With his statement that “Eurozone voters have been blackmailed and betrayed,” journalist and economist Philippe Legrain provided us with a concise account of the political situation in Europe a week before the May 2014 European elections. Legrain’s article suggests a direct link between the mismanagement of the sovereign debt crisis on the level of political discourse, and the rise of both xenophobia and Euroscepticism across the continent. On a political and economic level, certainly the actual crisis management in Europe has failed to match up to the often contradictory rhetoric of political agents. However, some conclusions can be drawn regarding the ideological foundation of such rhetoric.

In reference to the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which led to the creation of the euro as a common currency, French economist, writer, and senior civil servant Jacques Attali (a former government adviser and the first president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development) declared in a lecture about the European crisis on February 24, 2011 that making things more difficult within the treaty and less democratic for the member-states was in fact the absolute warranty for obliging every single member-state to continue being one. Attali implied that even if the European sovereign debt crisis had not been designed for this purpose, it was at the very least fomented with the aim of forcing a dubious unification process. According to an article published by The Press Project about former US treasury secretary Timothy Geithner’s new book Stress Test (2014), “in 2012 German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble presented [Geithner] with a plan to kick Greece out of the eurozone. This, he said, would appease German voters and terrify Europe.” This was the so-called Grexit Plan. The article continues: “According to Schauble’s logic, a Greek exit would scare the rest of Europe enough for them to commit to providing sufficient financial assistance in order to prevent the system from collapsing.” A sovereign debt crisis has been deployed as a Trojan horse, not in order to advance a democratic process of integrating Europe politically, legally, economically, and culturally, but rather to create a powerful financial confederation entirely disjoined from national parliaments and democratic decision-making. And indeed, the European Stability Mechanism—the mechanism for managing financial crises in Europe—is under no juridical or parliamentary control, being bound instead to global casino capitalism. In his 2008 book La crise, et après?, Attali advocated a world government as a response to the problems that have emerged from what Richard Falk calls “predatory globalization.” In outlining this center-left, utopian vision for a global federation (much like the politically optimistic fiction of global governance suggested in Star Trek), Attali doesn’t discuss the means for achieving such a noble goal. Along the same lines, Robert Cooper, an EU diplomat and a former adviser to UK prime minister Tony Blair, terms this global government a “post-modern cooperative imperium.”

What all these approaches have in common is an indirect acknowledgement that democratic values and parliamentarianism are indeed in crisis. It is a crisis of how we understand and define the democratic heritage of which Europe is so proud. In November 2013, Roman Herzog, the former president of Germany, declared that the source of democracy in Europe is not classical Athens but Britain and Switzerland. Although this statement might have offended philhellenes everywhere, it is a historical fact, analyzed by philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Agamben investigates the ways that power in the West, beginning with the first Christian Roman emperors, has tended to take the form of a divine oikonomia, that is, the dissemination of God’s will into the factual world. European politics is the outcome of the theological and political concept of the distribution of divine grace in the world (best exemplified by the British tradition of the “sovereign Dei Gratia”) as well as its continuation in the current form of European governance, which philosopher Alain Badiou calls “parliamentarian capitalism.” (Before Badiou, the great realist novelist Stendhal in 1830 called it “congregational bureaucracy.”) A devoted evangelical, Roman Herzog’s views on the cradle of European democracy can be traced back to the Calvinist secular ethic, which, as Max Weber analyzed in his classical study The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, shaped the current sociopolitical order of engaging in trade and accumulating wealth for investment.

Herzog’s argumentation introduces a fundamental question concerning Europe’s present and future. And by “Europe” we are not simply referring to current European politics, or even to the European Union, but to Europe as an entity with a distinctive set of political, cultural, and social norms, values, and histories—which clearly go beyond any banal symbols such as the Eurovision Song Contest, InterRail, or a common design for EU passports. These fundamental values—such as connectivity, solidarity, and a respect for human rights, which, according to economic and social theorist Jeremy Rifkin, contribute to the European dream—shape a powerful political imaginary.

Read the full article here.