Frédéric Lordon: The twilight of an era

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Against all attempts to pretend that it did not happen, Frédéric Lordon argues that we should not overlook the significance of the OXI event, which dumbfounded the 'political heads made of jelly, experts on command, the lobotomised dominant journalism' that define the EU today. Translated by David Broder; see the French original here.



By Frédéric Lordon, 7 July 2015

It’s a photo like so many thousands of others, some likeable, others grotesque: a selfie. Two halfwits taking a selfie, with blissful, satisfied faces. They look like two peas in a pod. You can see that they are very pleased with themselves: ‘we’ll put it on Twitter, that’ll piss them off’. Arnaud Leparmentier [a journalist who works for Le Monde who has distinguished himself by his hostility to the Syriza government and Greece] and Jean Quatremer [a journalist who works for Libération who has taken a similar line]. It’s Thursday 2 July, the day of the demo in solidarity with the Greek people. There’s a caption on the photo: ‘Alright, Place de la Bastille? We’re on the Left Bank’.

Actually, yes, alright, not bad; you?

***

An electoral victory, even a massive one, does not in itself truly have the power to open the eyes of the opposing camp, nor to wall off its counter-truths. So we can’t expect the two selfie-taking halfwits to abandon their preferred refrains: ‘European taxpayers don’t want to pay for Greek civil servants’; ‘if the Greeks default it will be Slovak and German pensioners who have to pick up the bill’ – the common sense of the pig-headed.

European taxpayers are not paying for Greek civil servants. They are paying for European savers. A now entirely circular financial pipework lends to the Greeks so that they can reimburse the lenders – the Greeks don’t even see the colour of the euros passing under their noses. European taxpayers first of all paid for the public takeover of Greek debt titles held by private banks: a great classic. Now they are directly paying for themselves – or some of them for others, anyway. We’re making progress…

Above all they are paying as a consequence of one of the most colossal economic policy errors in history – it is true, one that’s written into the European treaties and engendered by their quasi-automatic functioning: the imposition of [a deficit of no more than 3 percent, and a public debt at no more than 60 percent of GDP] in the middle of a recession has led to the destruction of an economy. No more, no less: a 25 percent fall in GDP, a 25 percent rise in the unemployment rate: everyone knows these figures, which have already gone down in history. The most striking thing (though in reality, it is a sign of the times) is the inability of these numbers, however massive – the evidence of a crushing intellectual bankruptcy – to disarm the stubbornness and provoke the slightest cognitive process of taking another look. So Leparmentier and Quatremer continue either to maintain that the treaties aren’t at all to blame, or that this was the only possible policy, or that it wasn’t just the only possible policy but the best one for our wellbeing. Or they look elsewhere – to the Greek civil servants. It’s autism, and something close to racism (you should see what these two have been throwing at ‘the Greeks’ since 2010). Also a kind of jingoism, for those who have nothing on their lips but talk of ‘the Europe of peace’ yet tirelessly work to set Greeks and ‘Europeans’ (the other ones) against each another, and ‘European taxpayers’ against ‘Greek civil servants’. When those blinded by ideology are no longer hesitant in spreading discord, they can go into full flow: if the European taxpayer wants justice, he should demand it from the Greek civil servant. Er, well, no: if the European taxpayer wants justice, he should demand it off his own rulers, who took the enlightened decision – ‘in his name’ – to charge him to save the banks, and then to charge Greece, giving themselves over to a macroeconomic passion for the treaties.

When it comes to their passions, Leparmentier and Quatremer are only passionate about taxpayers; and pensioners, too (so long as they’re not Greek). ‘What will you tell the pensioners of Bavaria if Greece doesn’t pay back the debt?’, Leparmentier asked Piketty, who gave him quite a lecture on the debt in Europe [1]. We could also reply that if the Bavarians had a full pay-as-you-go pension system, that question wouldn’t even exist. We could reply that this is what happens after decades of choosing to hand the financing of all social activities – pensions, university studies, soon even health etc. – to capital markets, this plague doomed to all sorts of catastrophes. And there again, it is not ‘the Greeks’ who have to answer for this, but all our rulers who bet on this financialisation. Or accept that pensions entrusted to the markets, will work… like the markets: they’ll rise and fall, there’ll be a bad investment and then the bubble will burst. Lastly, we could also respond by saying that we can’t remember Leparmentier taking a stand for members of contributory pension schemes when share prices collapsed in the early 2000s, or when all finance collapsed in one fell swoop in 2007–8 – he didn’t stand up for them on the occasion of losses far greater than those that would follow a Greek default. But then again, it’s also true that back then there were no Greek civil servants and no Left government to blame.

***

And what might happen now? Has the alternative between capitulation and open sedition been overcome, to some extent?

From 2005’s referendum on the EU Constitution to 2015, if we’re counting right, we get to celebrate once every ten years. It’s all the better for being so rare – let’s admit it, it’s a particular treat to imagine the faces of the selfie halfwits (and all those like them) now. But all that doesn’t mean giving in completely to drunken joy. There is nothing significant that can be won from the negotiations with the Troika. So the most advantageous possible scenario is that of a resumption of the negotiations allowing some second-order concessions – a slight reduction in the required primary surplus, the Greek government being given licence to organise the budget adjustment as it pleases (and not following detailed Troika diktats), the promise that eventually the restructuring of the debt can be discussed (and that really takes some optimism).

There are serious reasons to think that there is nothing more to be gained. We know what they are. Between Sigmar Gabriel and Martin Schulz, the reaction from the German Social Democrats (SPD) has been even more violent than that of Angela Merkel: and that should tell you what really stands behind the German position. The orthodox principles that Germany demanded be written into the European treaties express a cross-party – and thus, so to say, metapolitical – monetary belief, that comes before political differences. It is not a question of ‘political ideology’ in the ordinary sense of the term, that is, something that we can revisit after the next elections, but a long-term symbolic construction that gives a common framework to either party in power.

That shows the extent to which the idea of ‘Merkel’s Germany’, this haphazard pettifogging of all the 'talking heads', with their empty appeal for us to wait patiently for a future ‘social-democratic Europe’ [2] (when the debris of European social democracy has entirely passed to the right) – the result of either stupidity or willing blindness – is doomed to understand nothing of what is happening in Europe, and, above all, not to understand what could never happen in Europe, in its current configuration at least.

What can never happen is a country – still less a country of the South – daring to free itself of the principles: after all, the recurrent theme of all German commentary on Greece is the rule being infringed. Even if this rule is a German rule or only suits Germany, and if almost everywhere else its forced application has turned into one of the greatest economic disasters in European history, that will not produce the slightest movement. This is true even in other countries, including France, stupefied by its attachment to Germany: for the politicians the ‘French-German couple’ has become an untouchable sacrifice to which everything else is blindly sacrificed, while experts are still trotting out the ordoliberal catechism (which even the American economists are amazed anyone can be so stupid to take seriously), accompanied by the journalism of the broken record.

In any case, it’s here that we will see Europe’s inherent flaws. The German people sees the currency question in its own way. It has every right to do so. But it has chosen to impose its custom on all the others. And that can only cause problems. After five years of exhaustion, and even economic persecution, the Greek people has just said that it does not want this any more. So one approach clashes with another: and that is why the alternative ‘capitulation or open sedition’ is again posed in identical fashion – notwithstanding the cosmetic concessions that allow each side to write their proclamations of victory.

Indeed, we should have no doubts as to what answer the German electorate would give if it were consulted – and doubtless others would vote the same way, but the German one especially. After the Greek ‘No’ the incompatibilities in Europe are now exacerbated to such a point as to leave very little space for compromise, such that it cannot be ruled out that the German Parliament, with the crushing majority of society behind it, would reject any new Eurogroup agreement. Tsipras’s referendum also (evidently) had to do with keeping his coalition together. Merkel’s rejection will proceed from the same motives – which there isn’t much more to be said about: at a certain moment politicians are called on by the requirements of their own national politics, which put them where they are.

As always the rabbit hunt will be on again, and we will see the commentariat passionately rushing headlong down all the wrong paths: irresponsibility on one side, selfishness on another, a lack of solidarity everywhere. The plague of moralism. After all, moralism is this indigent thinking that attaches everything to actors’ moral qualities without ever seeing structures or relations: power relations, accord and discord, compatibility and viability. You can only compose a viable collective totality if you bring together parties that entertain at least some minimal level of relations of compatibility. And if this compatibility falls below a certain critical threshold, then the totality is necessarily doomed to fall apart. The relation between Germany’s monetary beliefs and certain other European peoples’ blocks of affects is now reaching this threshold. The incompatibility that remained obscured when a none-too-unfavourable macroeconomic environment allowed the maintenance of similar objectives was doomed to become blatantly obvious at the first moment of serious crisis. And from 2009 onward, we got it.

The Germans’ right not to want to see infringements against the rules that they hold above all else is ultimately just as legitimate as the Greeks’ right not to be precipitated into the depths of poverty when these rules are applied to them. The bad idea was imagining that these two rights could be held together in a lasting way, without thinking about the conditions in which they could become violently antagonistic. Or else it would be necessary to arrange institutions that make the incompatible a bit more compatible, for example a union based on redistribution, in the form of (what would be a highly significant) European unemployment insurance – the minimal patching-up operation necessary when so many other serious problems persist. In any case, that is not at all a moral question, but a question of whether structures are capable of accommodating centrifugal political forces within a badly constructed overall framework, threatened with completely losing all viability because it didn’t think about any way of regulating differences. If Germany does not want to hear any talk of cancelling (part of) a debt that needs to be cancelled, then what logically follows from this is the explosion of the Eurozone.

And that could happen at either end. We should not be mistaken: if per chance a coalition of member states formed in support of this cancellation, and more generally a broad reform of the Eurozone’s monetary principles, then Germany – perhaps accompanied by a few similar cases – would threaten to go its own way, in the name of defending its indisputable principles. That is, the constantly forgotten possibility not of Grexit, but of Gerxit.

***

So we should not be mistaken about the significance of the OXI event. It is more than doubtful that the Syriza government will obtain more than marginal concessions – and then it will be its task to do what it can to present this as a triumph… But that is not how this event should be judged, because Sunday 5 July was a quite different sort of shock. It was the tremor of an entire people in movement, entering into rebellion against the European institutions. It was a twilight – thus heralding a new dawn to come.

What this powerful people’s movement has ultimately condemned is an era and its men, which it has called to its historical obliteration. We are finally entering into the death-agony of economism, this generation of politics, this calling to non-politics that (as we might expect) never ceases doing politics – just as the ‘end of ideologies’ is the ultimate degree of ideology – but in the worst kind of way, at the depths of lies and irresponsibility. Only great cynics could see that the rule of administrators, the reduction of everything to economics, proud in preferring the administration of things to the government of men, as all the useful idiots that neoliberalism could count on have endlessly repeated; yes, only great cynics were capable of seeing that this profession of anti-political faith was in fact the most insidious form of politics.

For risk of being on the wrong side of the dominant, we have to regret that there weren’t more cynics. They at least reflect, and do not tell themselves (or us) tall tales. So we have to recognise that they have a form of intelligence. But when cynics are missing, imbeciles proliferate. Neoliberalism was their triumph: they were everywhere. And first and foremost at the height of state power. A generation of non-political politicians. Power in the hands of a generation of imbeciles incapable of thinking, and, of course, of doing politics. Government by ratios is the only horizon of their politics. So we can better understand the number-fetishism that has taken over the whole European construction under their enlightened leadership: 3 percent [3], 60 percent, 2 percent. That sums up ‘Europe’. We can understand these people being reduced to the perplexity of a chicken faced with a car jack, when something truly political happens – a referendum, for example. Panic, as well as perplexity, in fact: the resurgence of the very forces that they denied is an unbearable return of the repressed. Their spreadsheets of ratios did not account for political passions and politics being a question of passions. So they look dumbfounded on truly political events: Scotland’s quasi-secession, the equivalent threats from a Flanders or a Catalonia – and the Greek upheaval, obviously. The shock of this incongruity is so violent that they spontaneously hurry to cover it up again. Like the Trojan War, the referendums did not really happen.

The fact that the task of European construction was handed to this generation has tragically predestined it to failure. It is them we have to thank for this performance, bound to enter into history, of a single currency without a political construction – an intellectual catastrophe typical of the economism that believes in the sovereignty of the economy, and thinks that economic matters are automatic, self-evident. Even their belated, brutally rude awakening is as pathetic as the deep sleep that it’s pulled them out of: ‘We need a political Europe!’ But their pyjamas are askew, their hair is a mess and their ideas still rather rough. It is not enough to call for a political Europe, as if, ipso facto, that signified its arrival. The formation of political communities is not a Meccano set. How can you make such heterogeneous idiosyncrasies live together? Through what institutional forms can you hope to reduce their incompatibilities ex ante? What are the constraints of a general economy of sovereignty? What are the conditions of possibility for accepting majority rule? Have they necessarily been fulfilled? And in the present scenario? Well, let’s pose all these questions to [French finance minister] Michel Sapin.

As a symptom of the ultimate degree of submission to the current order of things that ‘social democracy’ embodies, it is indeed in the Parti Socialiste that we find the finest specimens of this catastrophe: Sapin, yes, but also Macron, Valls, Moscovici and of course, first among equals, François Hollande. The halfwit personas of government by ratios, and, in times of great crisis, the hens in a forest of car jacks. A chicken nightmare. You have to see these poor beasts turning back and forth, disoriented, distressed and unable to understand, stupid in the etymological sense of the word. Everything is above their heads. Quite some while ago, the ratios were blown out of the water, but the vague anxiety that took hold made them feel that there was something more serious at hand… maybe it wasn’t still just a question of ratios… Thinking by ratios risked not being enough any more. So they needed to remake this ‘something’ of politics… ‘But how? We don’t know…’

We know that they don’t know. The worst thing, besides, is when they pretend as if they did know. When they make an attempt at offering ‘vision’. ‘Young French people should want to become billionaires’ [a quote from economics minister Emmanuel Macron]: that’s thinking-by-ratios’ effort to ‘be up to the task’ of the current situation. Build up the ratios and that’s what you get: Macron’s vision of civilisation. These are the people we give a mandate to lead us. But where can they lead us if not to disaster – a civilisational disaster, indeed? How can we imagine that this whelk’s-brain Europe could have led us anywhere other than to a shipwreck? In the last twenty years, has anyone felt even a slight murmur upon hearing a pro-EU speech? The gentlest tingling? Could we compose an epic poem any more grotesque than one that sticks end-to-end odes to Elisabeth Guigou and Martine Aubry’s social Europe, Jean-Claude Juncker’s hissing, the hysteria of a Cohn-Bendit, Lamy’s commercialisms, Moscovici’s flashes of charismatic brilliance, and so many other remarkable contributions to the chronicle of a disaster foretold? The truth is that it was enough to listen to them, or rather to turn an ear their way and tell that there was nothing happening, to become fully aware of the certainty of failure: a historic enterprise led by people cut from this cloth could only have failed.

There is no need to make exceptions for particular cases: this goes for the whole generation in question. The neoliberalism generation. Other countries have their own such figures, who are just the same: Barroso, Renzi, Monti, Zapatero, Verhofstadt, etc., all trained in the same matrix, the matrix of an epoch. How could neoliberal economism, this gigantic denial of politics, have done any other than engender its own generation of politicians, who are in fact political ignoramuses? ‘Get rid of all this nonsense, look at the ratios, they’re neither Left nor Right’: we’ve lost count of the lobotomised types who thought that by repeating this adage they had freed themselves from politics, when in fact they were doing the worst kind of politics: the politics that is ignorant of itself.

And this lot were everywhere, not just lurking in the corner. A whole hegemonic bloc communed in this one same eclipse. Starting with its organic intellectuals, if they truly can be called intellectuals – just as neoliberalism degenerated politicians, it has only produced degenerate forms of intellectuals: that is, experts. This was bound to be the case: neoliberal economism needs no ‘intellectuals’ other than economists. So-called ‘think tanks’ were the factories churning out the intellectuals now becoming engineers for the system. This was even the project of Pierre Rosanvallon’s République des Idées: enough with these fools in their low-cut shirts, now let’s seriously get down to the numbers: the university wing of thinking-by-ratios.

And behind them the whole cohort of parrots – the journalists. Fascinated by an economic pseudo-science to which they have no first-hand access, they gravely insist on the necessity of economic commandments that they do not understand at all – just as you can bet that these empty heads will be filled with the new air of the times and argue exactly the opposite when the wind changes direction.

They must already be perturbed, anxious about the conflict re-emerging among the powers-that-be, like children having to see their parents arguing. Yes, they hear of some economists disagreeing – they are just the heterodox, so that isn’t too serious. But there are also Nobel prize winners saying something different – that’s rather more serious. And even worse, the dissent is being heard even within the curia: IMF economists are suggesting mezza voce that perhaps… the IMF itself may have made some mistakes, with a serious multiplier effect [4]. We can understand that the doctrinal edifice was not made of Carrara marble, as we had believed before. But the fact that the world was plunged into utter chaos in 2008, with European countries suffering a decline at the level of the Great Depression of the 1930s: no, that can’t have any effect on the parrots, as they’re still caged up in the aviary [volière: can also mean ‘madhouse’]: opening their eyes and asking some questions would serve no purpose, since it suffices to listen to the authoritative claims of the powerful. But how about when that authority starts to crack up, and the whole structure risks giving in?...

For now, it is still holding together. The parrots go for a change of scenery, heading for Aix-en-Provence where they can take in the sun and reassure each other, among themselves. They will return duly replenished, repeating their talking points with all the more conviction because they are not considered to be talking points, but evident truths that speak for themselves: reform, don’t-spend-more-than-you-earn (ultimately-it’s-basic), the-debt-we-can’t-leave-to-our-children. And for the more gifted, in the top grade: archaeo-Keynesianism. It was Emmanuel Macron who said it, and as we’ve seen, he’s really someone. Evidently the parrot was ignorant of the phrase in Keynes – and it would be an insult to Keynes to draw any direct comparison between him and Macron – saying that there is no political leader who is not the unknowing slave of some defunct economist. And it’s not much to say that Macron is one of these slaves existing in blissful ignorance. And for a reason: he doesn’t even know who his master is. So let’s tell him. His master is called Arthur Cecil Pigou. A sort of Philippe Aghion of his day, who pleaded so well in defence of market adjustment that the fine ensemble of Hoover, Brüning and Laval precipitated their economies into the Great Depression: into collapse. Emmanuel Macron, who learned the same History-for-Dummies at the École Nationale de l’Administration as his President, purrs with contentment at the talk of 'archaeo-Keynesianism’. And the parrots cackle with joy all around him. The problem is that he is in fact a palaeo-liberal. And he adds his name to the historical series of the 1930s.

And then there’s the elite: the Twitterati with their selfies. Even amidst the smouldering ruins of a collapsed Europe, they’re conceding nothing: it’s always someone else’s fault, whether it’s the lazy Greeks, ‘red-brown’ elements, people’s stupidity, and, if they have to say it, the error of too much democracy. But all systems have their headbangers and those who’ll obstinately defend them to the end.

Political heads made of jelly, experts on command, the lobotomised dominant journalism: that’s your parade of the leading figures defining our age. And whose historic achievements, and especially that of Europe, it will be up for the future to evaluate. It could be that the Greek referendum will be remembered for dealing a fatal blow to this epoch. As we know, there has to be a moment between the decisive axe-strike and the din of the tree crashing to the ground. But all the fibres are already starting to crack apart. Now we should give it a push: that is, remake politics in an intense manner, because that’s the thing they are wholly ignorant of and that’s the way that we will overthrow them.

History gives us a precious lesson: namely, that there are dustbins. There are dustbins of history. That’s a good thing. They are the repository for failed epochs, calamitous generations, incompetent élites and, in short, encumbrances worth forgetting. So all together now, this is what we have to do: collect up all the rubbish, fill up the skip, and send it on its way to the dump.

Notes

[1] Thomas Piketty, ‘Ceux qui cherchent le Grexit sont de dangereux apprentis-sorciers’, Le Monde, 4 July 2015.

[2] Bernard Guetta, ‘De l’urgence de savoir défendre l’Europe’, Libération, 26 February 2013.

[3] Cf. ‘La règle des 3 % de déficit est née sur un coin de table’, Le Monde diplomatique, October 2014.

[4] Olivier Blanchard and Daniel Leigh, ‘Growth Forecast Errors and Fiscal Multipliers’ (PDF), IMF Working Paper, January 2013.