rooting around for grubs in diverse soils

Tag: democracy

This is a really really great blog post. I mean really. I mean there are a lot of blogs out there, and some of them are good. But this one is just, you know, so great.

There is no document of civilisation that is not at the same time a document of barbarism

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

A while ago when it became clear that Donald Trump was going to secure the Rublican nomination for president, a friend of mine from Croydon offered a striking parable of what was going on. Trump, he said, was like an extremely drunk stranger in a pub that everyone finds hugely entertaining, as he lolls around spraying insults and obscenities with unrestrained abandon. The smiles on people’s faces suddenly fade to alarm as the stranger produces from his pocket a key and staggers out onto the street and gets into his car.

I followed @realdonaldtrump for several years while his rage against Obama reached the crescendo of his unlikely candidacy.  When he is not hectoring, I quite like listening to him. His circular rhetoric – I am so great, our people are really great. Our people are just the greatest, greatest people in the world. Ever. etc. – has a poetic vacuousness, a sort of preternatural elegance which I am sure harks back to earliest stirrings of human speech.  (‘Me Tarzan’: the history of language is one of ‘unfolding’ – Guy Deutscher.) I especially like it when he does that sort of soft almost non-speaking, usually when he is sidestepping an allegation – ‘Putin? I don’t know the man’ etc.  If only there was someone with integrity and benevolence able to harness modern anglo-saxon with the same unglossy directness.

But today Trump and his fascist entourage are reaching for the car keys. This shit suddenly got real.

It’s hard to fathom how, according to the polls, at least 40% of the voting population of the United States, that’s around 90 million adults, are so pissed off that they would put Trump in charge of the most powerful state on the planet. This includes the swathe of ‘evangelical’ Zionist Christians who have concluded that a female Democrat president would be worse than a sexually-depraved, anti-Semitic megalomaniac with a evident sympathy for the Ku Klux Klan.  They had already reduced the total of Christian theology to an obsession with sexual mores and abortion.  In fact one fascinating sub-plot to this election is the unmasking of the ‘Christian right’ as being just the ‘right’ and not Christian at all. The hypocrisy and mean-spiritedness is so stark that Tony Campolo, one of the American preachers who strident voices were always issuing from the in-car cassette player when I was a child, has now disavowed the term ‘evangelical’, which is supposed to mean ‘good news’, because it has become so contaminated with hatred and violence.  It was similarly masks-off in the UK too last week where, by the temerity and biliousness of their reactions to the High Court ruling on the Royal Prerogative and Brexit, the Right have revealed their true target to be not really the European Union but the general tenets of, deeply English, traditions of liberal democracy and social progressivism.

The United States is basically unfathomable.  It is seething with people and stuff made by people, mostly inhabiting the most artificially-contrived habitat in the history of the humanity. Bloated, unforgiving capitalism and the subjugation of nature. Recently I was in a cab in Washington DC and heard a short series of commercials on the radio which ran more or less as follows:




To paraphrase and summarise the standard advertising message of America in 2016:


The next ad was for the Burger King ‘Supreme Breakfast Sandwich’ featuring two eggs, two sausages, bacon and, of course, ‘two slices of melted American cheese’. So this is a nation in the grip of paranoia, gorged on meat and slathered in oozing processed cheese.

Politicians seek advancement by giving electors what they want, or by just being seen to give people what they want. Good politicians try to do this without harming anyone or anything else in the process. But there are so few good politicians out there right now. Memories of 20th century cataclysms are moving towards abstractions.  ‘A quarter of Americans born since 1980 believe that democracy is a bad form of government, many more than did so 20 years ago.’ Americans and Europeans are more susceptible to fascism than at any time since the Second World War. Cynicism with politics, social inertia and interminably growing inequality and the impotence of the Left is the breeding ground for fascism.

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno in the Dialectics of Enlightenment describe how the failures in civilisation  – evident in the 1930s and 40s and more and more apparent today – induces in people what they call ‘repressed mimesis’. Something must be repressed and suffer in order to make the alien famililar: in ancient times, humans and animals were sacrificed, in Europe since the Middle Ages ‘the object of the illness’ became the Jews. The Jews, as we see from Trump’s and other right wing movements, are still in their sights, but globalisation now presents many other ready targets.

If Hillary is, as predicted, mercifully, elected tonight, she will have merely injured the beast and she should not strike any note of triumphalism. Tomorrow morning there will be almost 100 million very pissed-off white Americans, most of them probably with guns. There are difficult days ahead.  Let us pray.

L’Union? C’est nous.



A friend of mine recently told me that the artificial Brussels construct – of the EU institutions by day and the polite socialising by night – makes for relatively boring fayre, replete with platitudes, when compared to the bonhomie enjoyed with educated peers from his native Portugal. The air of society in the bubble feels cold and impersonal (emails to known individuals open with the frenchified ‘Dear colleague’). That suits me fine. After the chaos of my latter London years it gave me an opportunity to start something new.

Global capitalism may make the EU necessary, but not sufficient. It’s deficient because it was and remains a technocratic confection, the brainchild of several brilliant and progressive post war visionaries, determined to avoid another man-made catastrophe. Democracy, in the sense of direct accountability through an elected transborder parliament, was an afterthought. Now, as the wannabe superstate totters from crisis to crisis, the parliament provides a veneer of post hoc legitimation for the whole project, but it has little chance of placating a grumpy and pessimistic electorate. In the same way the laws that are churned out seem to lack a sense of (can I say this?) organic conviction – there are so many checks and balances that the solutions are at best beautiful compromises, fleeting like the seasons.

Take the latest capitulation to France and Italy for their unapologetic flouting of the fiscal rules which they themselves had foisted on Greece, Ireland and Portugal a few years ago. Une Europe solidaire? Chutzpah evident in, for example, Michel Sapin’s breathtaking pronouncement last month that ‘No further effort will be demanded of the French’, carried distant echoes of the Sun King and his successors. Such episodes make it easy to conceive of the EU as a bastard offspring of the French polity, perpetually condemned to pleading for its inheritance.

The compromise machine will no doubt also find a way to accommodate a truculent majority Tory UK government post-2015, for all the ostensible trench-digging about intra-EU immigration, a.k.a. the free movement of labour, a.k.a. a founding principle of neo-liberal capitalism. Britain owes its historic prosperity to this same right, arrogated to itself by its ruling class and merchants while they were hoovering up the land and resources of the empire. These were rights denied to colonials, and only reluctantly and slowly ceded when large numbers moved in from India and the Caribbean. It is not expedient for Farage, Cameron and Johnson to engage with this facet of Great British History. Anti-immigration is too useful a tactic for deflecting anger at political ineptitude and cowardice onto the least enfranchised members of society.

In the eye of the storm, meanwhile, boredom reigns largely unperturbed. I don’t know whether this is a good thing.


Democracy in Europe

The EU’s economic crisis is in danger of becoming an endemic political crisis. Popular acquiescence – there was never enthusiasm – towards the European project is fracturing, as the citizens of the south realise that they never voted for austerity, those of the north that they never voted for bail outs; Eurosceptics harrumph around the Nordic fringes, recidivist authoritarianism looms on the other side of the erstwhile Iron Curtain.

Those whose careers hinge on the viability of the EU’s infrastructure (I am one of them) typically see in the tottering edifice an opportunity for it to accrete more and more of the paraphernalia of a liberal state – elected commission president, EU-wide political parties, direct tax-raising powers – as if the creation of more institutions will instil by osmosis a heightened popular consciousness.

This is juggernaut politics: there are 500m citizens on board, they may once have agreed to get on, and the only way to stop them getting off is to hurtle ever faster towards the technocrats’ utopia.

Here’s what I think needs to be done.

We assemble a very small committee of clever lawyers (because it has to be lawful), communications experts (it has to be understood) and elected politicians (it has to be pragmatic). The committee are given two months to draft a new EU constitution in a maximum of 10 pages: what the EU is for, its core values, and what it does.

Then we hold referenda in every Member State, plus the candidate countries for accession and whoever else is interested (Turkey, please), with one question: ‘Do you agree that your country should be a part of the EU on the basis of this draft constitution?’

For the states that vote in favour, their governments have a mandate to negotiate a new treaty – details of banking union, Eurobonds, fiscal union, austerity, abolish shuttles to the Parliament’s wasteful clone in Strasbourg, elected commissioners, whatever.  The treaty needs then to be  then ratified according to state constitutions, so popular referendum or parliamentary vote.  For those that vote no, EU can offers them a free trade agreement.

If we don’t do something like this, then the disconnect with citizens is going to get bigger and bigger. Believers in the EU should have the courage of testing their arguments on the crucible of public opinion, instead of presenting an endless series of faits accomplis.  Otherwise it won’t be a question of ‘more Europe’, but rather more far right, who put the blame on outsiders – Eurocrats, immigrants, Muslims, gypsies, homosexuals, and other easy targets for the frustrated and the ignorant. Democracy, abandoned to the voices of reaction, could itself then subvert justice and freedom.

Update. On 26 April Jürgen Habermas gave a lecture at Leuven on a similar theme. He said that the tacit popular consent to the political elite’s construction of the EU edifice was now fracturing because the promised prosperity was no longer a given.  He situates the current crisis as the latest in a continuum where social insecurity was a function of modernity. ‘Under the pressure of these reciprocal functional dependencies [due to an accelerated functional differentiation of society in the 19th century] the older forms of social integration broke down and led to the rise of class antagonisms which were finally contained only within the extended forms of political integration of the nation state.’ Solidarity was the necessary response, a concept rooted in class struggles, the 18th century revolutionary construct of fraternité, and religious notions of a universal community of believers. ‘The socially uprooted journeyman, workers, employees, and day laborers were supposed to form an alliance beyond the systematically generated competitive relations on the labour market.’ While these class tensions were constrained by the formation of democratic nation states, and after the 2 world wars by welfare states, the new crisis is precipitated by ‘the explosive pressure of economic interdependencies that now tacitly permeate national borders. Systemic constraints again shatter the established relations of solidarity and compel us to reconstruct the challenged forms of political integration of the nation state.

So Germany had better bail out Greece, and for that matter, the UK should open its ports to Bulgarians, because in the maelstrom of globalised capitalism they could be calling a lifeline themselves one day soon.