Voicing Opposition: Against Neoliberal Europe

Recent weeks have seen an escalation of events in connection with the Greek Debt Crisis which has been extremely revelatory. This comes together with an escalation of wars, news of opening a case for "treason" on two German journalists and bloggers, and a general feeling of democracy in decline everywhere. Voicing opposition, and doing so effectively, has become a real concern.

My initial impulse was to write in German, since this is my first language, and it is really not easy to find the right words in English or in any language. Yet I feel I should better try to say this in English because my thoughts are directed at a wider community of friends and acquaintances, those with whom thoughts and links had been shared on those recent occasions across mailinglists such as nettime or even on Facebook.

Those events have been teaching me a lesson about history and the “event”. I am not really tuned into the latest Deleuzian event philosophies – nor do I dismiss them out of hand – but in this case it was rather simple and obvious. The moment itself is only a marker of something much bigger. Events that had been building up over a longer timeframe came to a culmination, at the height of which the Greek prime minister, Alexis Tsipras, called a referendum, which in turn was dismissed by the Eurozone governments as a mistake. In return, even tougher conditions were placed on the Greek government to receive further financial aid. We have yet to see if the Greek government can carry out those reforms and make new legislations on time, and also if the creditors can find a common line.

Now without getting lost in more detail, my real concern is expressed in the very first sentence and the word "revelation." The nature of the event made things come out into the open which we have always supposed to be true but also feared they were; those were not just minor little things but a wave of issues. While those issues had been building up over time, over a very short period of days it was as if things turned inside out and history spilled its guts. There had always been the suspicion, that Europe had been constructed on a much too neoliberal basis, that it was a common policy which was for the banks and big business. But now it became clear that this could go against the essence of democracy.

The influential German minister of finance Dr. Wolfgang Schäuble had made it clear from the start – in February 2015 – that he had been less than happy about the Greek people voting into power a government that was conceived as, and quickly labeled so, leftwing. The string of articles written by the Greek economist and ex-minister of finance Yanis Varoufakis, who at the time had been in the midst of it, provides us with vivid imagery of what happened then. It was about walking into “rooms with harsh neon-lights,” “where technocrats with no concern at all for the consequences of their actions on people,” “demanded even harsher cuts” to state expenditure in the name of a rescue plan of “which everyone knew it would never work.” Varoufakis is adamant that it had never been about economics or having the better argument. The other side never seriously negotiated, never had anything on offer rather than: obey!

In another article Varoufakis warned the world about the Dr. Schäuble plan. Readers of German language press were not that unfamiliar with those plans (only that they had been dressed up differently). Schäuble told Varoufakis under four eyes, that he did not want Greece to stay in the Eurozone at all cost; that he wanted to make an example of it, by either “reforming” it to death or by kicking it out of the Euro, in order to enforce discipline on all other respective members. The long term goal was to have a shrunken Eurozone which would be a little bit more like the Deutschmark and less like the Euro with so many weaker economies on board. In this “Kerneuropa” (core Europe) more solidarity and a social security net would exist, but also tough rules which would be ruthlessly enforced if broken. This would be accompanied by reforms of the European contractual framework, whereby the existence of the “Eurozone” would gain a legal basis which it does not yet have. It would receive powers to supervise national budgets and core decisions would be taken by a democratically not legitimated boards which could veto decisions taken by national governments.

In a previous piece I have drawn historical analogies with Karl Polaniy's The Great Transformation, where he showed how efforts to restore the gold standard and undermined democracy and paved the way for fascism. The difference between the time when I wrote that piece and now is that all the worst fears have been confirmed. Europe is sliding to the right in several areas at the same time. The “events” of July have shown that the governments in power have no concern for democracy, at least when it comes to money. They are merely the helperlings of finance capital and of the powers that be in enforcing conditions that will help them to prevail. The great parties of the liberal center, the social democrats and the christ-democrats or conservatives of various shades of grey, as well as, to some degree, also the Greens, have accepted neoliberal dogma. Yet what they maybe do not understand yet is that this stands in contradiction to core democratic values, a contradiction which is basically unresolvable and which has become exacerbated to such a degree, that we can speak of a severe crisis of democracy.

This crisis of democracy is made worst by a number of other factors. Throughout those events, the media mainstream, that is the so-called quality press, and most public radio and television, has except for small pockets of more heterodox opinions towed the line of their governments – and what's so frightening about that, there is no need to insinuate that this has been centrally orchestrated, but is the result of decentralized decision making and emergent behaviour among the swarm of the international press corps. Uniformly they have been presenting events from the point of the view of the European Commission and the Euro hardliners, shaping a narrative according to which the Greek government was leftwing or of the radical left, inexperienced, dilettantish, its proposals unrealistic, badly thought out, its basic attitude unwillingness to reform, which only showed continuity with previous Greek governments. At no time did they accommodate the Greek's propositions that theirs was a new government voted in with a ticket to demand a change of policy. Concerns about democracy were brushed away by the remark that they had also been democratically elected.

While some newspapers made lists about hardliner nations and those slightly more sympathetic to Greece, by and large it was amazing to see how firm this new wall of Eurohardline consensus was. In the end, Dr. Schäuble got what he wanted, probably, the Greeks humiliated and Tsipras now struggling to keep his government together, while no serious promises about any real debt relief has been made. The public role taken by Germany have prompted the Italian leftwing intellectual Franco “Bifo” Berardi to propose a boycott of Germany. He argued that Germany should have a heightened responsibility because of its Nazi-fascist past. Such a link was quickly dismissed as an unfair and untrue connection to Nazi-era Germany. The Germans had just been carrying out the designs of international finance, as one participant on Nettime put it. While this is debatable as such, he was right to attack Bifo for swinging the big stick of Nazi-analogies. Such a leftwing radicalism often prevents a more nuanced analysis which would show a clearer picture and thus give a better spectrum of possible actions.

In my view, what Bifo did, and this is what he also said in additional emails explaining himself, had tried to find a way of voicing a deeply felt concern, and also of demanding from the German critical intelligentsia, or rather, left-liberal Germany as a whole, to make itself heard. It is legitimate and necessary to call for such a response. I am sure that there are many Germans who are deeply unhappy with the flow of events, but where can we feel you? Please, say something!

In times when the mainstream media do not reflect the opinions of the broad mass of people any more, how can oppositional voices make themselves heard? This question also affects everyone else in rich countries such as Britain, Netherlands, Austria, and the whole “former West” where opulence appears to quell protest. When public opinion has become manipulated to such a degree that we cannot trust in the media mainstream at all, to gain a political voice as a collectivity has become a real problem. We had thought that the Internet had become such a medium, an electronic agora. But in fact, after having been exposed to neoliberal influence for 20 years, the net has become Balkanized, separated into walled gardens, social media, and the like. Its potential as a new, decentralized yet still mass-medium have been disappointed.

To recap, the undermining of democracy carried out by our very own governments, is made worse by the docility of the press and public news television such as BBC, ZDF, ARD and their peers. Those twin tendencies are exacerbated by a complete lack of will by anyone to address the revelations made by Edward Snowden and also by WikeLeaks. It is now clear that data-surveillance is carried out routinely by secret services such as the NSA, with at least the collusion or active assistance by big Internet companies, that the US services are eavesdropping on the governments of their allies such as Germany and France, and that, more generally speaking, we have entered an age of total surveillance on all layers.

How serious that has become has shown the very latest event, the accusation of treason raised against journalists and bloggers from Netzpolitik.org.
Although the German General State Prosecutor (Bundesanwalt) has meanwhile stopped investigations, it is telling that those have been begun in the first place. The German legal system threatens to use oppressive measures against journalists who have only done what journalists in a democracy are supposed to do, to make public documents which expose potentially illegal practices by German secret services. They are doing exactly what a free press is supposed to do. It is revealing also that the big media fail to act on such issues and that it falls to an online medium which has a large followership but no big institutional backing to carry out this type of investigative journalism.

This confirms another tendency: our own governments have been slipping and sliding to the right on so many issues, notably “intangible” civil liberties and freedoms. In the name of the “war on terror” those rights and liberties have already been eroded. Normally, only those on the margins of society feel how their rights have been taken away. Now two mainstream bloggers have been hit. Netzpolitik.org, an international audience has to be reminded, are not leftwing; they are also not hackers like Wikileaks, but have for more than 10 years been a platform which has been defending digital civil rights and freedoms. In their overall political opinions I would assume they are quite close to the center, as they are also behind Res:Publica, the annual German blogger conference, which is a very start-up friendly environment. In other words, repression has arrived at the very centre of liberal democracy. While Bifo was wrong to make comparisons with Nazi-Germany, this shows that the political mainstream of German society has lost its political compass.

For this very reason there is an acute need to organise across national barriers in Europe. Since we can not trust the traditional media, and venting our anger on facebook and some mailinglists is not enough, the question is: how can the liberal intelligentsia and creative classes of Europe gain a new political voice, a collective political subjectivity which pulls its weight and creates real influence, to prevent a further slide into anti-democratic elitist thinking, nationalism, xenophobia, surveillance, financial dictatorship, neoliberal extremism, anti-humanist, and anti-ecological policies? The people need to find their voice and it needs to be a powerful roar. But what should be the demands?

In my view, Schäuble needs to step down or made to step down by Merkel. The German nation as a whole needs to show that they disagree with the anti-European ideas of their minister of finance.es Germany really want to drive the death-nail into the idea of Europe? The leader of the German government needs to recognize that Schäuble has done great damage to the idea of a united Europe, and that his plan would only support right-wing extremism.

If nothing of that kind happens, and if a loud and clear public debate in Germany remains absent, the German people as such need indeed to be reminded somehow that they have a special responsibility because of the Nazi era, but also because many of the current problems – from Greece to the refugee crisis – stem from structural inequalities in the world economy of which Germany is a beneficiary. I don't consider a boycott as the right way, but Germans need to understand that “their success” is not because they are hard working and everybody else is lazy,

For that same reason, Europe needs to reconsider urgently its position in the world and its policies for refugees. A legal right for asylum seeking needs to be newly affirmed and drastic policy changes happen, such as abandoning the Dublin agreement.

The whole legal basis of the EU and its institutional framework need to be completely reformed. Europe needs to be put on a new basis, with new social policies and bonds of solidarity, rather than neoliberalism, financialisation, and an increasingly corrupt and oligarchic system which thrives on exploitation of structural inequalities of the world economy and perennial inability to respond to environmental crises including a threat to the biosphere as a whole. The revelation of recent events has been that they don't care for democracy, liberty and emancipation: In the increasingly authoritarian framework, as Europe becomes ever so much less like ancient Greece and every so much more like a managed democracy, a new internationalist movement capable of voicing powerful opposition is an urgent necessity.