Blog post

After the Referendum, An Oligarchy Aggrieved

Frédéric Lordon13 October 2016

Image for blog post entitled After the Referendum, An Oligarchy Aggrieved

Frédéric Lordon, author of The Willing Slaves of Capital: Spinoza and Marx on Desire, writes on the fallout of Brexit and the Left’s reactions to it. This piece was originally published on Le Monde Diplomatique and translated by David Broder.

It is said that looking out to sea from Dover on foggy days, the British are accustomed to remark with their inimitable wit that ‘the continent has been cut off’. But at least they’re only joking. Whereas when the pro-EU commentariat exclaim that ‘the UK has been cut off’ after Brexit, they are deadly serious. We should take the poverty of this kind of argument as a solid indicator of the political and rhetorical extremes the ‘defend Europe’ camp has reached, now it has nothing else left – or only this and the spectre of ‘war’ – to try and hold back a wave now at the point of sweeping everything away. Unable to convince populations with evidence of its good deeds, neoliberalism – its European branch in the lead – has no other resource than to oscillate between the imaginary of the turnip and the camp (ramparts, watchtowers, barbed wire) in order to get them to put up with it.

For neoliberalism’s reasoned discourse, it was painful enough to lose Albania [as a counter-example]. But luckily it still had North Korea. And there’s fresh reason for hope: for now there is also the United Kingdom. Certainly, it doesn’t yet fully realise its historic responsibility: that of incarnating The Worst in order to convince us to continue to desire The Best. But no one should delay in noting what a Juche state it’s become. They are already predicting a wave of hyperinflation for the UK, the pound having hit ‘the lowest depths’ – little matter that as compared to the Euro it is still well above even its 2011 level; and little matter that Iceland, which has no industrial base and has since 2008 seen its currency devalued by 70%, only saw 12% inflation the first two years, brought down to 5% the third year (and 1.6% last year). What is being predicted above all is a near-halt in UK exports –  fog or no fog, it is ‘cut off’ and (as we also know) any country not belonging to the EU immediately becomes a hermit kingdom. 

Democratic’ upsets

But we shouldn’t deny ourselves life’s pleasures. The oligarchy’s moments of psychological crisis offer all sorts of delicious spectacles, and nothing triggers them like a European referendum – referendums which are all lost with such regularity, almost as if that told us something… This time we’ll spare ourselves the slightly tiresome task of reviewing the terrain: Lord knows this is an excellent vintage, but since Maastricht the pro-EU argument has been essentially little but a continuous collection of bloopers. But let us briefly note the particularities of the 2016 vintage, and in particular this fabulous petition for voting again. Now we know a little better the rather dubious thinking that lay behind it, but the mediaocracy immediately jumped on it as the most legitimate of proposals. Yet this wave of extravagant arguments only truly reached the sublime when it became a critical philosophy of the referendum – of the principle of the referendum, of course, and nothing to do with them receiving another spanking. Surely they’d have reflected on all this just as passionately if Remain had won with 60%...In a document that will go down in History, Pierre Moscovici explained that ‘the referendum on Europe has divided, wounded, burned’[1]. And it’s true: my little Socialist bunny, don’t put your fingers in the ballot box, you might get a nasty nip.[2]

There’s nothing we don’t know already, in all this. But since the spectacle of things is always a hundred times more eloquent than the mere idea of them, it continues to make a strong impression when we contemplate the post-Brexit scenario. For it has been proven once again that the dominant – in the widest sense, not only those who hold the effective levers of power but all those whose fortunate origins or social position have allowed them access to culture, to learn languages, the possibility of travelling, the benefits of cosmopolitanism for one’s morale – do not understand that anyone might answer back against this world they find so lovable. And they find it perfectly natural to think that electoral expressions that do not confirm their own should immediately be taken for null and void. To provide more of a synthesis of these arguments, we might say that all these good friends of democracy in fact wipe their arses with democracy. 

Change nothing so nothing changes

But there is something even worse than this social racism coming out into the open: namely, the definitive political deafness that follows from it. That is to say, the complete closing down of any degree of freedom in a system tendentially incapable of accommodating the internal tensions that it never stops generating. Neoliberalism lights the flame under the pressure cooker, but after having carefully bolted down its lid. And these amateur physicists are then surprised when, from time to time, they get a valve flying off and hitting them in the eye (and they’ve still seen nothing: soon it will be the stew-pot itself that will blow up in their face).

Often the primacy of supply is wrongly attributed to economics, when it is in fact politics that demonstrates this property. Evidently that’s not a given essence, but the result of structures falling into a certain state: when the structures of representation are cut off from the represented, becoming structures of dispossession. When such a separation takes place the primacy of supply does indeed come into effect – almost tautologically, because in its very construction the now-separated sphere of government becomes entirely self-centred. With the institutions having made this sphere capable of governing without worrying about anything other than itself, it becomes effectively ignorant of any ‘external’ demand.

Unfortunately bad-tempered energies look for an outlet – by any means they can. And when the oligopoly of the governing parties does not offer them any opening, they will take the first such outlet that does come along. Even if it’s for the worse. And we should indeed recognise, here, that Brexit isn’t pretty. We cannot help be struck by the identical reactions provoked by the various electoral disasters that this political configuration repeatedly produces: just like the Front National’s breakthroughs, European referendums inevitably produce the same geologically-themed front pages – ‘seismic shocks’, ‘earthquakes’ – the same solemn appeals to ‘change everything’ and the same warnings that ‘nothing can go on like before’. And through this, everything remains the same. That’s true for a very simple, very profound reason, which moreover dooms this era to ending badly. Putting a stop to the far Right’s advances and the furious referendums would demand a break with the social-demolition policies that feed… the far Right’s advances and the furious referendums. Yet these are neoliberalism’s very policies!

So we see the impossible equation the system is now trapped in: stopping the thing that will destroy it demands that it deny itself, whereas remaining the same condemns it to feeding the thing that will destroy it. Indeed, those who have appropriated the means to change something – anything – and proclaim their determination to change everything in reality persist in the same desire to change nothing. Temporal horizons have considerably shortened, and the time spent at the controls still being able to put off the contradictions is already something appreciable. In the meantime, there’s no lack of lobotomised columnists to keep the pantomime of ‘changing everything’ going. But it’s a poor man’s Lampedusa, this: change nothing so everything can stay the same….

The end of history is adjourned           

In a paradoxical conjunction of greater ideological robustness and greater lucidity (or a lesser degree of blindness), The Economist, whose first post-Brexit issue was literally sweating with fear, sees the threat of the ‘end of history’ being adjourned. This is the adjournment of the definitive halt that was meant to consecrate the eternal reign of liberal capitalism and democracy. And it’s not a question of any trouble with latecomers getting on board – rather, the problem is at the very heart of empire, where normally things could have been taken for granted. Now it seems they can’t; and leaving behind the comfort of the ‘end of history’ – above all when they thought things had turned out for the best for the property-owners’ legitimate interests – is a trauma that the anxious Economist gives the full measure of.

Less crude than its French counterparts, it is at least capable of giving a rather accurate clinical assessment of the grievances of the day, and even to grant them their merits.[3] Mutatis mutandis we might think we are re-reading its articles from 2008–09, when it was the financial crisis that threatened to sweep everything away. Yet while The Economist is capable of going a lot further in its analysis, as always what it ultimately lacks is the consequence of all this.  That will remain inaccessible to it, for now; for that would also mean it having to understand that the problem resides in the very thing that it has chosen to defend: ‘the liberal international order’. Failing to grasp this conclusion – and for good reason, for it would be an act of self-denial – there is nothing left for The Economist but the usual hastily put-together distraction: ‘liberals also need to restore social mobility and ensure that economic growth translates into rising wages. That means a relentless focus on dismantling privilege by battling special interests, exposing incumbent companies to competition and breaking down restrictive practices’. Let’s tell all these people right away that it’s far from certain that the Macron bills [French economy and finance minister Emmanuel Macron’s campaign against ‘red tape’] – since that is basically what they’re talking about – will suffice to put an end to history again. More probably, it may even be that they will speed it up a little.

Yet it’s one thing for history to pick up speed, and another thing to know in what direction it will head. The historic success of the far Right these last two decades has been managing to insert itself onto the political market, figuring as a well-indexed choice therein. And, even better, to have established in that market with a monopoly on difference. Little matter that this difference – overt racism aside – is in fact fraudulent: indeed, history confirms the collusion between the far Right and capital. The inconsistency of the FN’s economic views dooms it to end up as an attractor-by-default of neoliberalism, even if a neo-corporatist version for the purposes of small and middling business owners. Euro exit was nothing but an opportunistic fad that will end up evaporating as soon as a few big financial patrons convince it to get back to seriousness.

Retelling the same tales of a ‘democratic EU’

And what about the Left? If given the current state of its institutions politics is subject to a primacy of supply, it now also has to establish a Eurosceptic choice able to offer itself as a reasoned and progressive solution – indeed the only one – for expressing anger. But what exactly does ‘Eurosceptic’ mean, and who is truly up for it? Upon analysis, it cannot mean anything other than the decision to think about leaving. To say the least, that leaves us with a lot to do, since blow after blow, Brexit after OXI, a whole section of the Left refuses to give up the illusion that ‘another Europe is possible’. With an obstinacy admirable for its very hopelessness, Clémentine Autain and Roger Martelli repeat ‘we must change Europe or it will die’.[4] Taking this slogan in a purely literal sense we could almost agree with it – with the difference, as always, of consequence and inconsequence. For in reality there is not the least doubt how this false alternative will be decided.

The arguments are always the same, and none of them ever exceed the register of the pious wish, or respond to the substantial objections made. But one of them gets to the heart of the problem, as an effect of its involuntary pertinence: ‘The fight for social transformation is no easier in France than it is in Europe’. Well yes, it is – that’s the point! For reasons that are almost a matter of logic itself: for it is easier to pass one test than two in a row. All the more so when the second test is even more difficult than the first. Indeed, it is astonishing that people can continue to say such things exactly a year after the crushing of Syriza, which so eloquently proved how much harder it is to transform Europe than Greece, or Europe with Greece…

So let’s suppose as a thought experiment that we did have the blessing of an authentically left-wing government. What could it implement without immediately crashing into the constraints imposed by the treaties? Nothing. What solutions would it then have? Three.

1) Fold like Tsipras – end of story.

2) Intrepidly engage the battle to transform it from within. But with what support? The desynchronisation of national political conjunctures will offer us what it can in this regard – that is to say, not a lot, as Greece itself experienced. Here alter-Europeanism urges us to await the great alignment of the progressive planets so that the new Europe might arrive – provided that the first left-wing government is still in place at the moment when the cavalry of other ones comes to join it…

3) Disobey. But we must have learned nothing from the Cypriot and Greek experiences if we imagine that the liberal core of the institutions and member-states will let things go, without reacting. As we now know, the ECB has the means to bring a country to its knees within just a few days by putting its banking system under embargo. Without doubt it would think twice about doing so, considering the possibility of cataclysmic collateral damage. All the same, it has all the instruments at hand so that it can carefully regulate the asphyxia, thus arriving at the optimum punishment: to kill growth by strangling credit, but without bringing down the banks. And that is to say nothing of all the reprisal procedures written into the treaties themselves.

Libxit and Gerxit

In any case, given how fundamental the differences are you must have been a true believer to imagine that the tug-of-war that was then being engaged could have been resulted in anything other than one or the other side surrendering completely. And that very probably meant the dissident-progressive side surrendering, for reasons we have just indicated. Who could a Left government radically ostracised in the Council have counted upon for support? And in the miraculous event that it had found itself backed up by a few allies – sufficiently numerous so that the hypothesis of a real and profound change began seriously to take form – surely this would have resulted in the liberal core itself leaving (Libxit), with Germany in the lead (Gerxit)?

Learning decidedly nothing from the lessons of history – even recent ones – alter-Europeanism clunkingly relapses into the implicit hypothesis that already undid Tsipras: ‘Ultimately Europe is a club of democracies, and with our common democratic goodwill we can always get along’. This means still failing to understand that democracy has nothing to do with neoliberalism, especially in its German ordo-liberal version. It means refusing – even after three decades of great spectacles – to acknowledge that neoliberalism is fundamentally an enterprise of ‘de-democratisation’ (Wendy Brown), of neutralising the cumbersome demos, and that it can even – as the Hollande-Valls government strikingly demonstrates – prove perfectly compatible with the authoritarian forms of a rampant pre-fascism. In the already fantasist hypothesis that the liberal hard core found itself in the minority, it probably would not draw the conclusion that democracy, the law of the majority, had spoken.  It would take its things and walk out, leaving the ‘communists’ to their own affairs. It would go off and re-consolidate the ‘end of history’ for its own part.  

But this is a reality that none of the advocates of the ‘other Europe’ wants to imagine. Especially not the promoters of the ‘Eurozone parliament’, who persist in their cult of the formalities of institutional constructs, separated from their political conditions of possibility. We can very well continue to dream of a Eurozone parliament constituted in proportion to national parliaments[5] and given the authority to discuss budgetary and financial questions. But we still have to ask why Germany put so much effort into ensuring that the principal guidelines of national economic policy are enshrined in quasi-constitutional treaties. And that specifically means taking them away from all the levels of ordinary parliamentary deliberation! Repeating an illusion indefinitely does not suffice to make it a candidate for reality. That is especially true of the illusion that Germany would agree to the things dearest to it – the principles organising currency, budgets and debts – being subjected to an uncontrollable law of the majority. For that would mean it running the risk of eventually finding itself on the wrong side of things.

Unfortunately, there is every reason to think that those who present themselves as the heralds of the democratic reconstruction of Europe have ended up – without even noticing it – themselves adopting the ambient norms of de-democratisation. Even to the point that along the way they have abandoned the basic prerogatives of a baseline parliamentary democracy: the right to discuss everything. Or else they will have to explain to us how they think it would be possible to convince Germany to go back on its original ultimatum and return to the inner circle of ordinary parliamentarism – a parliamentarism with the right to debate deficits, debts, inflation or the capital-circulation régime, as it sees fit. In any case, we cannot imagine any challenge to the ECB’s independent status, for example, or even propose a redefinition of its missions. And there is a good reason for that: you would really have to pass into some parallel universe before you could imagine getting Germany to swallow such an idea. But – in a tragic, unconscious downward revision of their ‘transformative’ ambitions – there is already a kind of implicit confession that the ABC of monetary democracy is out of reach. Implicitly, this provides a measure of the renunciations that herald a redemocratisation that is nothing more than a sham. So if you like we can bask in imagining a (really) transformed Europe, but in that case we would have to imagine it without Germany (at the least). Another question, by the by: if the German bloc abandoned it, would there then remain anything we could call the ‘European Union’?

Lexit and its real internationalism

To repeat: if the alternative is ‘either we change Europe or it will die’, then it will die. A cut-price parody of democracy is not going to keep the EU alive for very long. So the question must shift terrain: it is no longer a question of the chimera of a ‘democratic European Union’ but of the best means of putting an end to the irremediable despotism of European neoliberalism.

Given how unable it is to transform itself, the European Union can now only choose by what means it will disappear: through obstinacy and a terminal explosion, or an ordered deconstruction process. And an ordered process means a mutually agreed path, a sort of cooperative dissolution agreement, coolly-made. We might mention in passing that if there is indeed a point of convergence that increasingly does look likely to emerge, it is that of everyone understanding that they have a common interest in cutting their losses.

Moreover, such a process could take on different forms: that of a simple return to the national level, which does not at all exclude the maintenance (or even deepening) of the varying degrees of cooperation that are already in place (in industry, in science, etc.), but without any formal integration. Or perhaps that of an open proposal for the reconstruction of ‘Europe’ – and I put ‘Europe’ in quote marks because its perimeter could not of course be the same as that of the defunct EU or its Eurozone. It would instead invite the states who want to (and some do not) gather around a real principle of democratically organising the various fields of integration. (And it is, we might note in passing, probable that they could not go as far as constituting a complete political community.) It is, in any case, in this sort of sense that Lexit takes on its full meaning. Indeed, whoever takes the trouble will notice that the word Lexit is not formed on the basis of a contraction of any country name - itself attesting to its consistency with a well-understood internationalism.

Through a cruel paradox, it increasingly seems that in the name of virtue ‘another Europe is possible’ is in fact involuntarily making things worse. Not through the project of ‘another European Union’, as such, but through its on-principle refusal to imagine the slightest form of rupture. This condemns it to non-existence on a spectrum of political supply that it is already difficult to enter onto. That is especially true when the popular resentment against the EU has – quite legitimately – broken through a critical threshold. Perhaps meaning that it has passed a point of no return.

Projects for the ‘democratic transformation’ of Europe such as Varoufakis’s DiEM 25 – which proposes that we waste another ten years chasing a chimera – leave the road clear to European far-Right forces which thus advance without encountering the least resistance. It is a well-worn stereotype that politics by nature abhors a vacuum – and this continues to tell us something very true. The far Right, which could not have wished for more, remains alone in capturing Eurosceptic discourse and, most importantly, in determining its form.

A peak of political aberration – almost a logical one – led some on the Left to think that since Brexit threatened to take the form of a right-wing exit, it was urgently necessary to silence a Lexit[6] which, ‘in these conditions’ could only feed its opposite.  This is the very syllogism of defeat – since the exit is to the Right, any pro-exit discourse will inevitably feed an exit to the Right…. This is the art of proving yourself right, but for the worse. Banning any thought of Lexit, and thus allowing right-wing discourse on exit to prosper without the least opposition, it could well be that exit would indeed mean a right-wing exit. In any case, they will have done everything possible to make it so.                                                         

[1] Pierre Moscovici, ‘Europe, vive le débat, exit le référendum’, Libération, 30 June 2016.

[2] [A reference to the signs on the Paris metro, telling passengers beware of getting their hands stuck in the doors]

[3] « The politics of anger », The Economist, 2 juillet 2016.

[4] Clémentine Autain and Roger Martelli, ‘ L’Europe, on la change ou elle meurt’, Regards, 28 June 2016.

[5] Thomas Piketty, ‘Reconstruire l’Europe après le Brexit’, Le Monde, 28 June 2016.

[6] Philippe Marlière, ‘Un Brexit xénophobe, un Lexit introuvable’, Regards, 17 June 2016.

Filed under: brexit, eu-referendum, eurozone, germany