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Frédéric Lordon: On the blind spots of people who think "another Eurozone is possible"

Frédéric Lordon15 June 2015

Frédéric Lordon: On the blind spots of people who think "another Eurozone is possible"

For Frédéric Lordon, author of Willing Slaves of Capital, the current Greek experience offers a 'categorical riposte' to those sympathetic to the idea of a democratic Europe, and demands we address the foreseeable cooperation between big capital and the far Right.

This text is an extended version of the talk Lordon gave at the Rencontres du Monde Diplomatique conference on 'Europe’s existential choices', held at the École Normale Supérieure on 22 and 23 May 2015. Translated by David Broder. Visit Le Monde Diplomatique to read the original article in French. 

The columnists seem to think it’s awfully profound to regurgitate the oft-repeated claim that we are living in an era of constant acceleration, and everything is always moving ever more quickly. But don’t worry: for some things we still cautiously proceed at a more genteel pace, for instance when it comes to trying to put two meaningful ideas together about the Eurozone.

For sure, it can hardly be a coincidence that we are again being posed the question of whether another Europe is possible, ten years after a constitutional referendum that already, in its own way, promised us that it was – and you could hardly blame the ‘No’ camp for the fact that the promise wasn’t kept, because we got an identical text anyway in the form of the Lisbon Treaty (with the exception of a few windy statements that committed no one to anything, but only ink to paper).

That of course gave us the possibility of experiencing the true greatness of what that version of ‘another Europe is possible’ meant. It is true that the same people have been heralding the good news of a social Europe since 1992 – and even so, we understand that some things still really take their time, and the other, possible Europe will require a lot of patience.

As always when it comes to patience, there are those who have the means to wait and others who don’t. Bourdieu used to recall how skholé, leisure, scholars’ position, and more generally a distance from material necessities, were a hidden yet important part of their view from lofty heights, their all-encompassing thought, admiring themselves for their own capacity to take a long view of history and project themselves a century into the future. Obviously you can afford the luxury of contemplating centuries-long horizons when you don’t have any idea what running out of money at the end of the month means. So the minds of the comfortably established, free of any urgent material concern, are at leisure to envisage the most distant futures and sit in their rooms forming grandiose plans, paper solutions cut off from everything, for which the duration of time is only an abstraction. If along the way whole generations are sacrificed – or, to put it more frankly, whole peoples bite the dust, as is the case at the moment – then these are very minor considerations in view of the capital ‘I’ Idea that these minds claim to serve; in a sense, all this is just the eggs that have to be broken in order to make the omelette of History.

The emotional prerequisites of formal democracy

In this era – which is only able to correct the intellectual standstill with imaginary accelerations of world or continental government – it took almost two decades for some people to understand that there was some sort of problem with the Euro, and for them to start saying it. Basically, it required a major, catastrophic spectacle in order to open their eyes, and ultimately their mouths. Now they rewrite history, and particularly their own, claiming to have made determined warnings right from the start [1] or even proposing a new institutional merry-go-round, this time with a Euro parliament, the latest discovery that’s supposedly at last going to make the single currency democratic [2]… could it be that we’ve been lied to, and that it hasn’t always been?

The ‘Manifesto for a Euro union’ published at the start of 2014 on the initiative of Pierre Rosanvallon [3], among others, thus offers a concentrated form of the blind spots of the social-democratic pro-EUism that confuses attributes for content, imagining that setting up a new parliament somewhere would ipso facto mean the political constitution of the Euro. Alas, it would be nothing of the kind. Still, to notice that, you’d have to have the slightest idea of what a true political community is, where its formal institutions are only its superstructure. Here, I mean that word in a non-Marxist sense, emphasising that the fundamental principle of democracy, such as it is enacted in formal institutions – majority rule – is not self-sustaining, but can only operate under the condition that there is an already constituted community: and you would have to be mad to think that such a condition has been satisfied in today’s Europe.

Does that mean that it could never be so? Of course not. Here, when we talk of a ‘constituted community’, it has nothing to do with the imagined substantive properties of particular peoples – as Spinoza reminds us in his Theological-Political Treatise, ‘nature does not create nations’. History creates them. And it has also shown its capacity to form peoples of peoples – more or less all the European nations that we, after the fact, are used to thinking of as perfectly unitary, in fact emerged from this type of composition of the heterogeneous. There is no a priori reason why Europe could not arrive at such a condition; but nor is there any reason to think that it will inevitably have such a pleasure. Above all, we have to ask ourselves a wholly prosaic, but, as always, politically decisive question: when? In how long? And in this case, that means: after having overcome which real difficulties?

That is to say, effectively there are emotional conditions of possibility for majority rule. These conditions demand that there is a feeling of belonging among the members of the political community, a common affect that is powerful enough to hold the minority to the community, that is, avoiding the fraction that is left in the minority immediately wanting to secede, such as then to re-found its own political community [4].

Certain political scientists evidently don’t have any understanding of political reality, so it takes extreme cases – acute cases of separatism, like in Scotland (which is an especially interesting case since it is less an ‘identitarian’ separatism than a ‘political one) – for them to notice, albeit generally too late, all the invisible prerequisites of the ordinary functioning of democratic institutions and the cost of not being aware of them. Is this emotional condition – the common feeling of belonging, which alone makes democratic dissent under majority rule viable – satisfied in the case of the European Union? No. Where is it most lacking? Greece, where all the accusing glances so systematically turn? Spain, which will suffer the same fate if Podemos comes to power? No: it’s Germany. Can we talk about Germany? Not any more [5]. Every attempt to discuss Germany is immediately greeted with cries of ‘Germanophobia’. Of course, we should recognise that this discussion often brings all sorts to the surface, and there is plenty of talk about Germany that has a sniff of the Lebel rifle and the infantry in the trenches. But ultimately we shouldn’t allow bad intellectual coin to chase out the good, or, at least, we shouldn’t restrict legitimate rights for analysis and prevent the questions from being asked. And that has however come to pass, with the accusation of Germanophobia becoming the cover for a voluntary blindness, in Europe and especially in France.

Majority rule and monetary doctrine: the German complication

But we ought to ask ourselves what meaning, if any, the word ‘other’ might have in the expression ‘another Europe’, and what is the main threat to its possible realisation. That’s where we have to look at Germany, not because it poses problems any different to those in (almost) all other countries, in terms of neoliberalism being dominant, but because it is unique in the complication that it poses to this general problem.

Now, another Europe is a democratic Europe. And a democratic Europe is a Europe determined to remove the whole third section of the Treaty in order to be able to submit all the substance of public policy to ordinary democratic deliberation. That is to say, to subject them anew to majority rule. This democratic imperative shows the vacuity of any discussion of ‘another Europe is possible’ that avoids the following two questions: 1) would Germany accept the central bank’s status – the definition of its mission, the rules on deficit and debt, and the capital circulation regime – becoming an ordinary matter of parliamentary deliberation again?; and 2) would Germany accept being left in the minority on one or another of these questions? We could also, if you like, ‘de-Germanise’ the problem and throw the question open to everyone: we would then see who says what, and who qualifies and disqualifies themselves as being part of the really democratic Europe, the only acceptable configuration of ‘the other, possible Europe’. In any case, the impossibility of giving a categorical ‘yes’ to either of these questions makes any project for a ‘democratic Eurozone’ a mere pipe dream – or else, indeed, a cynical lie.

But I think people are mistaken – even really mistaken – when they present Germany in terms of some sort of aggressive will to power. Rather, Germany is an unwilling hegemon, a dominant power with no positive plan for domination and which has only taken up the reins on account of its fundamental anxiety (though even this demands that it behave brutally): its anxiety that there will be some change to the monetary principles that it holds dearer than anything, because they became the symbolic heart of Germany’s national reconstruction after the war, because they thus achieved a cross-party and, so-to-speak, meta-political significance, and because their absolute constitutional sanctification – in this case, through their being inscribed in treaties – was posed as the sine qua non compensation for Germany’s participation in the single currency.

In these conditions, it is not a reasonable expectation to imagine that Germany could agree to abandon such fundamental principles – to which it attributes such great symbolic value – to the vagaries of majority rule. It does not belong to a reasonable temporal horizon – which of course means something closer than the horizon of those scholastic minds who are so at ease juggling with Universal History, and don’t look at the cost for the sacrificed generations.


We could even go further: with the multiplication of ‘X-xits’ – the portmanteaus designating the candidates for a more or less brutal departure from the Eurozone or even the EU itself, whose number already includes Grexit (for Greece), Brexit (for Great Britain) and even Iberixit (for Spain – you never know, if Podemos…) – a monumental blindspot is stopping us from seeing perhaps the most serious potential leaver: Gerxit (for Germany).

Let’s dream a little and have some fun imagining this ‘other possible Euro’. None of its arrangements are written into the Treaty anymore, all of them having been handed to the Eurozone parliament. Now a majority forms to put the ECB back under political control, giving it the mission of supporting jobs and growth; it gets rid of the automatic budgetary rules in favour of a pragmatic, conjunctural approach; it poses the question of cancelling certain debts; and it envisages clipping the markets’ wings in order to neutralise their reprisals against a progressive reorientation of economic policy. Who could believe that Germany – and doubtless other countries too, but principally Germany – would accept this ‘other Euro’? Left in the minority, it would leave in the name of defending its principles, considered vital stakes to be defended. And so the ‘other Euro’ would do without it – if there is any sense to a single European currency that doesn’t include Germany…

Doubtless some would argue that the French elites for example – who are not Germans – no less stubbornly defend the same principles of economic policy, which in fact suit the demands of capital, to which these elites have given up everything. And it’s true! But Greece in February, and perhaps Spain this autumn, show that we can never entirely rule out the miracle of a real political change – and, together with this, a project for radically reorienting economic policy. All other things being equal, this will not happen in Germany, for reasons connected to the symbolic anchoring of neoliberal (ordoliberal) doctrine, which is in other countries simply ideological and thus in principle possible to defeat politically.

Of course, none of this means that German society is a single bloc, even on the monetary question. Never and nowhere is there monolithic unanimity, on any kind of question. Economists like Peter Wahl, Wolfgang Streeck and others – or even the demonstraters outside the front of the ECB in Frankfurt – attest to the dissenting element within German society and the contradictions that exist even when it comes to questions of monetary doctrine.

So when we look for the reasons why another Euro is not possible, we must be lucid enough to look first of all to this point of most resistance, and then also to the Greek experience, or rather, what the European Union is subjecting Greece to in accordance with German principles. After all, now we know what weight a humanitarian crisis has, as compared to the defence of a monetary orthodoxy: none.

A functional symbiosis between the Front National and the Euro-liberal bloc

All those sections of the Left that have hung on for so long to the fable ‘another Eurozone is possible’ ought to find cause for a little reflection in the Greek experience, and perhaps also change their minds. The first four months of Syriza’s time in office have confirmed the terms of a rigorous alternative that applies to everyone else, too: give in, or leave. There is no third choice apart from complete capitulation or a radical emancipation, and nor shall there be.

So it’s hard to explain why the (real) Left remains so dumbfounded when confronted with a stranglehold that renders any progressive policy fundamentally impossible. Doubtless it is a result of the misleading role of an internationalism that is as laudable in principle as it is ill-thought-through in reality – but it would take a long time to explain this point completely, and for my part I’ve already had the opportunity to do so elsewhere [6].

It results – increasingly so, in fact – from a monstrous deformation of political debate that has led to a Euro exit becoming a Front National monopoly, and indeed the far Right’s stigma. And there’s nothing surprising about the undifferentiated duopoly of government parties, with the assistance of all its media apparatus, settling for this argument. Indeed, it seems well designed for indicating the real relation that has now been established between the FN and what we could call the Euro-liberal mass (and as we can see the Parti Socialiste and the UMP are two increasingly substitutable elements of this mass, and are in fact identical in tendency). This relationship is a functional symbiosis – though the comedy of republican intransigency obviously denies this [7].

It is a relation of symbiosis because the Euro-liberal bloc uses the FN as a universal anathema, systematically attributing to the far Right any economic programme aimed at a rupture, no matter what its content or who is promoting it. The FN has thus become functionally necessary to the Euro-liberal bloc, which for want of arguments can only maintain its position by bringing in the assistance of the far Right, to which all radical economic critiques are reduced. And indeed: what better way to guarantee the normalisation of debate than by assimilating all dissent to a referent whose indignity is so immediately striking?

In symmetry with this, the FN benefits from the impression that it manifestly different from the Euro-liberal mass, and indeed it only continues to grow insofar as it can insist on this uniqueness. But can it? Is this manifest difference not just an apparent one? Putting aside the Front National’s congenital – indeed, constitutional – racism, which will doubtless remain its peculiarity (we should hope so, anyway…) it has recently been able to make headway thanks to its economic appeal to the working classes, and in particular its grabbing hold of the Euro question. And that’s the subject we have to take a closer look at.

The Front National, capital and the euro

To be clear, the debate on the Euro is entirely legitimate on its own merits, and has no need to take this misappropriation into account – it is, in fact, a pollution of the issue. There is even less need to do so if we consider that even if the FN did arrive in power, it would not take France out of the Eurozone. And this is the reason why: if and when the prospect of the FN arriving in power took on any substance, big capital would make a pact with it. It would do so without the least hesitation, since – as history has amply demonstrated – capital knows no enemies on the Right, however far to the Right they are.

Here, incidentally, is good reason for all those miserable characters who have nothing better to do than place an equals sign between the Front National and the Front de Gauche to swallow their bile. And I say this with all the more freedom in that I am not a member of the Front de Gauche and also have serious disagreements with its current line. But ultimately you don’t have to have any special insight to imagine what capital’s attitude would be to the Front de Gauche if it was at the threshold of power: indeed, there is every reason to think that capital would not try to make a pact with it, but rather would enter onto a ‘war’ footing: even a ‘war without limit’. This is something to make you think, to make you take stock of the extent of intellectual corruption in contemporary political debate, to make you remember – as against this improvised mechanism of amalgam/delegitimising – that there is a fundamental asymmetry between the Front National and the Front de Gauche, and in reality a radical antinomy between them. Only those laying a bed for the functional symbiosis could sink so low as to deny this – these are miserable stratagems, and in fact they are a sign of regimes being pushed to their limits.

In any case, capital will come to an arrangement with the FN. And these will be the terms of the transaction: capital will bring what it is best-able to, namely money – before the elections, after the elections, money. And then also technical assistance, lending the FN the best disposed of its cadres. But the price of that will be that the FN doesn’t touch the euro. After all, in its overall construction the euro is the most powerful machine for disciplining wage-labour that contemporary capitalism has invented, and that, in effect, is what capital won’t let anyone touch.

Without doubt, capital will be fully satisfied, especially if we add in the consideration that the FN’s ‘economic model’ in reality consists of a sort of Reaganised neo-corporatism that is essentially addressed to the bosses of small and medium sized businesses. Here you can see the intellectual and political imbecility of crediting the FN with an ‘anti-systemic’ stance – giving in on its main demand! – even though it is a Party of Order, and thus cannot be anything other than a party of the system – that is, just as much as the bloc facing it, the party of capitalism, which it simply proposes to restore to a more retrograde form. And we see how the FN’s promises of social change, addressed to the popular classes, will lead to the cruellest of deceptions.

We shouldn’t have had to set out these points, but they must in principle suffice to tear away the veil of stupefaction that has been thrown over the Euro debate, in the form of the FN. All the more so if we consider the categorical riposte that the Greek experience has given us. A double one, in fact: a rebuttal of the fiction that the Euro institutions can be transformed from within, and most importantly a rebuttal of the ‘far-Right’ brush being used to tar all attempts to shake off the ordoliberal straitjacket and the single currency.

Some will say, rightly enough, that Tsipras is fighting to stay in the Euro. But on the one hand, as we were able to tell them even before he came to power, this fight is doomed to failure [8] and the only alternative to outright capitulation is to leave the Euro. And, on the other hand, Syriza has a large internal minority as well as an external Left opposition that resolutely insist on Euro exit. And even the most dishonest newspaper columnists would struggle to pass these people off as the harbingers of xenophobic nationalism. The truth is that this internationalist radical Left – standing up for a real internationalism, not an imaginary one – which is determined not to let itself be intimidated, is the only true rampart against the far Right, the true far Right, which will resume its forward march as soon as the Euro-liberals are back in power in Athens.

But however many arguments, case studies and experiences we have, there is an inexplicable kind of blindness or political anxiety attack that leaves the French Left dumbfounded and thus paralysed. Things don’t move as fast as you might think, I said in the introduction. Yet it’s also possible to not be an accelerationist on principle, but then begin to realise that now it’s time for things to move a little.


[1] Daniel Cohen, ‘La crise tient fondamentalement aux vices de la construction de la zone euro’, L’Express, 5 June 2013.

[2] Thomas Piketty, ‘Il faut donner un parlement à l’euro’, Le Monde, 20 May 2014.

[3] ‘Manifeste pour une union de l’euro’, Le Monde, 17 February 2014

[4] Read ‘Un peuple européen est-il possible ?’,  Le Monde diplomatique, April 2014.

[5] See the dossier in May’s Le Monde diplomatique, ‘L’Allemagne, puissance sans désir’.

[6] Read ‘Leçons de Grèce à l’usage d’un internationalisme imaginaire (et en vue d’un internationalisme réel)’, 6 April 2015, and also La Malfaçon. Monnaie européenne et souveraineté démocratique, Paris: Les Liens qui Libèrent, 2014.

[7] Read Joël Gombin, ‘Mythologie du front républicain’, Le Monde diplomatique, March 2015.

[8] Read ‘Syriza faces a choice between capitulation and open sedition’, 19 January 2015.

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