Carpe DiEM? Frédéric Lordon on the Democracy in Europe Movement

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This essay first appeared in Le Monde diplomatique in February. Translated by David Broder.

(Yannis Varoufakis, via Rosa Luxemburg-Stiftung


There’s no doubt, a lipogram is an acrobatic literary exercise — that is, depending on the letter that’s sacrificed. For precisely the skill that a lipogram requires is to write a text without using a certain letter even once. It took all Georges Perec’s talents to confront the the mother of all lipogram challenges in the French language — to write without using the letter ‘e’. His three-hundred-page book La Disparition [“The Disappearance”, published in English as A Void] — naturally — did not feature a single ‘e’. (For reader who wants to get a measure of his achievement, just try and form a single sentence that meets this criterion). Faithful to the Oulipo tradition [of which Perec was part] we could generalise the exercise, and pose the challenge of composing a sentence that is not allowed to use certain words or groups of words (a lipolexy? A liporem? A liposyntagma?). For example, let’s ask [TV presenter/journalist] Yves Calvi to write a sentence without “reform,” or [Libération editor] Laurent Joffrin to write one without “modern,” or [L’Express editor] Christophe Barbier to write one without “software” (“the Left has to change its software”… we will note in passing this index of the mediaocracy’s relentless desire for the Left to become the Right — after all, no one ever enjoins the Right to “change its software”). The great silence that would then fall over the public arena would finally give us the measure of Perec’s exceptional talent. “Alter-Europeanist” language also faces its own lipolexical challenges. Try forbidding it from saying “retreating into the national box,” and its own wheels will soon come off.

“Retreating into the national box”: an impossible lipolexical test for alter-Europeanism

Having run through the regulation references to our “very darkest past,” Julien Bayou of the French Greens warns us against “retreating into the national box, even on the Left.” His title “Democratising Europe for the victory of hope” can’t help remind us of [former Communist Party leader] Robert Hue’s “Shifting Europe” (or indeed some intern project on “PowerPoint and Events Communication”). He warns that “the dynamic of retreating into purely national agendas” could “drive distrust among Europeans.” In a very similar vein, Die Linke vice-president Katja Kipping has declared her “total opposition to the idea of a return to national states.” This would be a “backward step”; that is, a retreat — a national one. In passing, we might ask what the relations are like in Die Linke between its vice-president and its president Oskar Lafontaine, who has made strong appeals for a return to the European Monetary System (EMS), and would thus — according to Kipping — seemingly be facing in the wrong direction. Less surprising, in this regard, are the comments of Yanis Varoufakis, who has long repeated his hostility to any kind of euro-exit plan, rejecting what he poses as “the terrible dilemma between, on the one hand, our current system in full collapse, and on the other hand the returning strength of the ideology of the nation-state, such as the nationalists desire.”

The most striking thing in these almost perfectly interchangeable extracts is not so much the fact they conform to stereotype, as the inertial force of their automatisms, and their radical impermeability to anything else that might be said in the euro debate — and which might, at least, make them concerned to object to the objections made. But it seems that there will be no more of that — in any case, in the hard core of ‘the other Europe’, which is now found in Varoufakis’s DiEM movement [Democracy in Europe Movement, launched by Varoufakis in Berlin in February]. 

That said, not everywhere have all links been broken with the external reality of the debate, and we should honestly recognise that after the Greek summer many of those who had held firm to the alter-Europeanist line have considerably shifted. It’s not that the debate is now over, or that there has been a perfect convergence of views, but at least we can say that not all the basic requirements for dialogue have disappeared. Yet there’s no such hindrances for DiEm, whose automatic repetition of the words “retreat into the national box” sometimes has the air of a headless duck trying to run in a straight line.

Some of us have tried to say something about this, indeed for some now. For example, in remarking on the utter ineptitude of the “siege state” argument, which draws an equals sign between euro exit and being cut off from the world. Really, the 180 countries with their own national currencies are all cut off from the world? Was the French economy up till 2002 cut off from the world? How about the UK, already outside the Eurozone and perhaps soon out of the EU? Really cut off from the world, that is!

We are even more perplexed by the narrow-minded refusal to hear anything of the different propositions for reconfiguring internationalism, which are made precisely in order to show that there are plenty of ways to abandon the euro, including ones that are perfectly conscious of the danger of nationalist regression and indeed have the precise goal of combatting it. Surely you’d have to be an idiot — and we are truly sorry to get to this kind of hypothesis, but we can barely see any others — to continue so stubbornly to repeat the words “national retreat” when we explain that it is urgently necessary to develop links among all European Left forces, but without waiting for an (impossible) synchronisation of national political conjunctures, so that we can prepare for a test of strength and exit. Surely you’d have to be an idiot to continue yelping about the nationalist danger whenever we remark that the most noteworthy European achievements (Airbus, Ariane, CERN) did perfectly well without the euro, and that if monetary integration poses so many difficulties, then nothing forbids conceiving other forms of European integration, through other kinds of exchange: exchanges among researchers, artists, students and tourists, teaching each other our literatures and national histories, producing a European history, massively expanding translation projects, etc. Nothing forbids such a conception, except of course the economistic obsession that measures the closeness of peoples only in terms of the circulation of capital and commodities. But what’s the point of repeating all this? In the last redoubt of the “other Eurozone,” DiEM, they hear nothing and respond to nothing — they run in a straight line (like the duck).

Democratic Europe, or anti-austerity Europe?

Surely there are plenty of reservations over any plan B — for the moment meaning, a plan on paper, the real will behind which is still uncertain, but whose internationalist intentions and beliefs can hardly be doubted. But little matter: for this plan as for everyone else, there’s one same charge: “national retreat.” However, we should worry that internationalism-against-national-retreat will get off to a false start if it sets itself the sole criterion of an authentically democratised Eurozone. For a whole series of reasons — which we have abundantly elaborated elsewhere (See, among others, On the blind spots of people who think "another Eurozone is possible’ or  Intervention au sommet international du plan B) — there shall be no democratic Eurozone, not in any case within its current perimeters. For the democratisation of the euro is a self-defeating project; the more it had any possibility of succeeding, the more probably it would split the Eurozone. And so the more it exhibited a successful dynamic, the more surely it would end… in failure.

We would also like — as an a fortiori argument — to pose two simple questions to Yanis Varoufakis:

1) wasn’t he one of the people who immediately saw the independence of the European Central Bank as a major democratic anomaly, even in 1992 at the time of the Maastricht Treaty (an anomaly that will hardly be resolved by simply publishing the ECB’s minutes or offering some other “transparency” gimmick)? 2) does he really claim, without batting an eyelid, that the Germans will be ready to abandon the central bank’s independent status any time soon? Thus immediately follows the subsidiary question of by what miracle — in these conditions — the 19-state Eurozone could become fully democratic.

But Varoufakis has become so accustomed to shifting within a web of contradictions that we begin to question the real purpose of his DiEM movement. Indeed, in reality there are two “another-Europe-is-possibles,” which are often surreptitiously collapsed into one, or else one is passed off for the other: anti-austerity Europe, and democratic Europe. Perhaps a European political force could indeed be constituted in order to achieve — case by case — some accommodation or even a debt renegotiation (for Greece, for example) and then make a lot of noise about how this had proved that Europe can escape the inevitability of austerity. And certainly we would be better off with these sticking-plasters than without. But we have to know what we want, and know that a democratic Europe does not consist of a little less debt, and that a concession on the primary deficit (“but don’t do it again!”) does not replace the right to deliberate on everything — the most robust definition of democracy (and, in passing, sovereignty). 

In these conditions, we should say without equivocation that any ambition of a “democratic Europe” that falls short on this score — deliberating on everything — is, by nature, a sham. People often invoke the reasonable logic of the compromise, like for example accepting the independent central bank in order to keep Germany on side — “for we can’t have everything” — or indeed accepting a ‘relaxed’ Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance, or even something else — and isn’t this DiEM’s real destination? This is the type of predictable horsetrading that slashes the price on principles — which people usually wrap themselves up in to the sound of many fine words, before giving in on everything in the heat of the fight. But the democratic principle cannot be moderated. Either everything that concerns the collective fate of the political body, including all aspects of budgetary and monetary policies, is up for discussion, or we do not have democracy. But isn’t it possible to envisage a group of countries in agreement on this question of principle, and who formally understand their collective sovereignty in the same way as their individual sovereignties — that is, without any border restrictions? After all, that is possible. But what is certain is that this won’t mean the 19 current Eurozone countries, and particularly not Germany. And, moreover, that even today’s Euro would survive such a reduced configuration — especially without Germany.

The strategy of disobedience as experimental proof

The section of alter-Europeanism that has kept its head attached to the end of its neck — and it does have one — seems well aware that there is every chance that a test of force, for example in the form of the open disobedience for which it now calls (rather than envisaging a unilateral, “dry” euro-exit) will end in rupture. At least, it now accepts the possibility of rupture — and even that is considerable progress. It has a precondition demanding that we burst the boil and then see what happens, rather than just immediately slam the door — and we can allow them that much. For my part I have never ruled it out. But in the state the debate was in at that time, we needed to get a hearing even for the very possibility of exit. That’s been done, and the idea of a strategy of tension has become accepted. And most importantly, we can already tell how the story will end. It will break. It will break, because Germany does not want the democratic Euro, and won’t any time soon. From Germany’s point of view, moreover, there is no democratic deficit in the constitution of the currency that bears its imprint. Don’t all societies have their higher principles — the things they consider beyond discussion, overhanging all the other things that do remain open to discussion? Germany does: and its higher principles are monetary ones. That is that, and no one can blame them for it. If any reproach is to be made, it must be directed against those unaware types who have always rejected the least analysis, who think that the objective relations of compatibility, or rather incompatibility, can be solved by simply wanting that to be so, who have never measured beyond a certain point the risks involved in holding all the heterogeneous complexities together. Particularly when there has already been much disagreement over the appraisal of the single currency’s democratic or undemocratic organisation: for while it’s terribly problematic for some, for others that’s not the case at all.  So is this how DiEM is going to try and “democratise the euro”: blindly, refusing all thought, and replacing analysis with more enthusiasm and voluntarism? 

But the fact that we know the end of the story does not free us of a sort of duty to go through all its stages — it simply means we will avoid being caught by surprise at the (anticipated) moment when things start turning bad. In this regard we might propose a sort of gamble, albeit a clear-sighted one, without great hope, and which is reliant on a miracle: if there is even a vanishingly small chance of an eventual turnaround, or indeed Germany making an unprecedented conversion after reaching the point of having to choose between Europe and itself, then we have to take that chance. We would do so in order to be assured of the reality of our position, and not leave it to conjecture — and we can all the more agree to this sort of experiment, for the purposes of setting minds at rest, when we are so sure that the attempt would quickly collapse. 

This “duty” also includes the more political logic of publically dividing where responsibility lies. For the democratic question would then be posed to everyone, and everyone would be called on to respond: if democracy is the sovereign prerogative to discuss and decide everything, how can the Eurozone justify the patent anomaly of having taken such important matters as budgetary policy, the status of the central bank, the nature of its missions, the direction of its monetary policy, etc., out of democratic control? We would then see who gave us what answer. That is, we would see who is truly a democrat and who isn’t. That would be the very moment where those without mental limits on the perimeters of democracy would be entirely legitimate in no longer wanting to belong to the same club as those who do have such limits. And indeed that is the outcome we can expect: for there would be intransigent opposition to deconstitutionalising economic-policy questions. So the real democrats — again vested with their full right to live under an entirely democratic constitution, and long having been warned of this outcome — could point out the fake democrats, break with them, and take their destiny back into their own hands. The Euro would be dead, but we’d know whose fault it was. 

Yet DiEM doesn’t want to see any of this. And therefore it will fail. It will fail because waiting for miracles cannot replace the analysis of real complexities and tendencies — which in this case means an analysis of why the miracle is impossible. DiEM will fail, and as a bonus DiEM will make us lose another ten years, that being the timeframe it has given itself for ‘democratically’ reworking the treaties. Diem perdidi [another day wasted]? If only! It would be decennium perdidi. And as always with these things, the time spent is spent at the cost of the population. Indeed, it is mindboggling to see that a former Greek minister can so blithely espouse grandiose perspectives for the long arc of history, when his own people, pushed to the extreme — and whose exhaustion he must know — cannot hold on much longer. 

But supposing that, in the meantime, this light temporal negligence hasn’t opened the way to some monstrous alternative, DiEM will not only have failed. Apart from its untenable promise, it will have produced something: its own movement. Certainly, the movement will fail — in any case, that’s our conjecture. But after its defeat, the movement itself will remain. A European movement. But whoever thinks with even a little consistency that real internationalism consists of the tying of the closest possible binds among the European peoples — beyond economic, monetary and financial links — can only joyously welcome the idea of a cross-European political movement. No matter what its fate, that is in itself a good thing. So DiEM will fail, but not just for nothing.

Postscript: on the collective desire for bifurcation

Putting aside DiEM’s illusions, it could be that the landscape of the Euro question on the Left is now being clarified. But what about the populations themselves? When everything else escapes it, the mediaocracy still has the lifeline of deceptive surveys. It adopted this solution during the Greek summer of 2015 — “the population doesn’t want X,” and the surveys proved it. But the surveys proved nothing other than their own ineptitude, posing a question point-blank to people lacking the slightest means to reflect on it either individually or, most importantly, collectively. More particularly, they had not had the time to do so. As we know in January 2005 the surveys said the European Constitution would easily pass — and sadly for them, five months later, after a real debate… And if a survey makes no sense before (and not after) a collective debate, we have to say that in Greece there never was a debate on euro exit. Firstly, because Tsipras did not want one, at any cost, and then because the minority, the Left Platform, which was keenest to have one, was bound by an obligation to government solidarity, and thus silence, up till 13 July 2015. And when no one proposes to the country that an authentic political debate should take place, what remains is… the mush of the surveys.

Without doubt, in a country like France, where the situation is infinitely less critical than it is in Greece, the calls to begin a debate are even weaker. Although the effects of European constraints are very real there, they have not taken on the extremely spectacular character that they have in Greece in Portugal, and in these conditions the Euro question remains an abstraction, with too little power to engage. But it will be political work that will re-engage — that is, construct these problems, and in this case that means bringing to people’s notice, we could almost say making felt — the distant and yet highly active abstractions of the European currency.

In reality, as we well know, the principal obstacle to a political proposal for euro exit is of a different nature: fear. And more precisely, the fear of the unknown. This is a very general political affect, which here serves as the last rampart of the European currency. This is the asymmetry that has always served to maintain the existing state of things, with people preferring a known disaster over an unknown hope, and a servitude they’re used to, over a risky liberation. The “catastrophe” — that’s the fate systematically promised to those who dare.

DiEM is no more of a slouch than anyone else in invoking the apocalypse — “the cataclysm that euro exit would entail,” as the economist Julien Bayou prophesies. Within the first year of their crisis the Greeks were warned of the ‘disaster’ awaiting them if they ever got the idea into their heads of extricating them from it. But what can we call the situation they’ve been pushed into by the European rules, if not… a disaster? A 25% collapse in GDP , 25% unemployment, more than 50% of under-25s without work, a sharply worsening health situation, poverty, suicides, etc. Is this not, perhaps, the very model of disaster? 

The great strength of the established order is that it allows disasters carried out within the rules and according to its conventions. In reality even the worst disaster will never be termed a “disaster” — for that term is reserved to any alternative experience, and the first difficulty it faces. The established order may have failed for decades, but even so, any policy breaking with it has to succeed within the first term, or else be judged a “disaster.” And of course, that’s under the distorted gaze of the media, the asymmetrical certifiers of “disaster.”

Well yes, all attempts at political transformation in general, and the project of euro exit in particular, have to deal with the consequences of this, and first of all with fear — the preference for the known disaster. The body politic has to be brought to a point of intolerable crisis before it will give up its old habits and again envisage unprecedented paths. This point of intolerable crisis is the point when even asymmetry is overturned — the point where the known is so hated that even the unknown is preferred. No one knows where this point lies — without doubt it is very distant, seeing what the Greek people has endured without yet reaching such a point. However, not only external factors are reducing the distance between us and this point. Political work also has the effect of moving this point, making people see the abnormality of what the established ideology takes for normality, the disastrous character of what it takes for habitual, and the contingency of what it takes for nature. And above all, the possibility of what it takes for impossible. 

Besides, the lie of “impossibility” is never so finely exposed as when it is the established order in place that suddenly revokes its own professions of feasible and infeasible, in order to save itself from collapse. Thus in autumn 2008 we saw countless measures taken that would only a few months earlier have been declared delirious — special measures at the central banks, massive quickfire-nationalisations, the sudden amnesia over the European law on state aid, etc. But if everything can be looked at anew when the system has to save itself, why can that not be the case when we need to wave it goodbye?

Frédéric Lordon is the author of Willing Slaves of Capital