Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Lessons of Europe

By Boaventura de Sousa Santos 
Greek Left Review
November 20, 2011

Europe is haunted by the ghost of historical exhaustion. Having ascribed to itself the mission of teaching the world for the past five centuries, it now appears to have very little to teach. Even more tragically, it appears to have no capacity to learn from the experience of the world as a whole.

The little European corner, albeit increasingly smaller in the larger world context, cannot grasp the wider world but by resorting to general concepts and universal principles, and does not even realize that, on its own grounds, loyalty to such concepts and principles is little more than a mirage. Assuming that the understanding of the world by far exceeds the European understanding of the world, the difficulties that Europe is undergoing may provide a fertile learning field for the whole world. Here are the main lessons.

First lesson: the idea that crises may be opportunities is an ambiguous truth, since opportunities go in different directions and most favor those who better prepare themselves for them before the crisis. The Right took advantage of the crisis to implement the “shock doctrine” of privatization and destruction of the welfare state (by privatizing education and health). Not having succeeded by democratic means, it gradually prepared public opinion for the idea that there is no alternative to neoliberal common sense. The Left, on the other hand, surrendered to neoliberal common sense and was therefore unable to use the crisis to show the failure of neoliberalism (whether by exposing its stagnancy or its injustice) and propose a post- neoliberal alternative. The ecological moment, once strong, got paralysed by the slogan of growth , even if perfectly aware that the current growth is unsustainable, thus missing the opportunity provided by next year’s Rio+20 Conference.

Second lesson: the liberalization of trade is a productive illusion for the more developed countries. In order to be fair, trade must be based on ample regional agreements including joint industrial policies, as well as on the search for commercial balances inside the region itself. Exporting so much to the rest of Europe, shouldn’t Germany, import more from the rest of Europe? This would require a regional policy of customs and commercial preferences, as well as the refoundation of the World Trade Organization. The latter is actually today a postponed corpse, for having failed to build a model of international cooperation for the future: global and regional agreements focusing on the general objective of making the places of comsumption coincide with the places of production, increasingly and as far as possible,.

Third lesson: the financial markets, ruled by speculation, will never reward the countries for their sacrifices, since not acknowledging the countries sufficiency is what feeds the profit of speculative investment. If the speculative dynamics are not tamed, social disaster will occur anyway, whether the markets are complied with or not.

Fourth lesson: Democracy may gradually disappear with no need of a coup. Several European countries live nowadays in a state of constitutional suspension, a new kind of state of exception, as it were, which does not aim at dangerous terrorists, but at common citizens, their salaries, and their pensions. Berlusconi’s replacement (for which there were sound democratic reasons) was decided by the Central European Bank. The statute of the central banks, which was created to make them independent of politics, ended up rendering politics dependent on them. Once partially conquered, democracy may be gradually eviscerated by corruption, the mediocrity and gutlessness of political leaders, as well as by the technocracy representing the financial capital as it has always done.

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