Is there a new specter haunting Europe? Have the powers of old Europe entered into a new holy alliance to exorcise this specter?
These were the kinds of questions pondered by Marx and Engels in the introduction of their Communist Manifesto. It was in year 1848 and the specter in Europe was then called communism.
There is no existing communist movement today. At least no relevant one. There’s also no regime in this planet that would adopt Marxism or Leninism as its own dominant ideology. And please, do not call North Korea and the People’s Republic of China socialist states.
And yet the Greek crisis, and all the debate surrounding the agony of a country that used to be the cradle of Western civilization, offers some similarities to the past.
As the Guardian reported a few months ago, left-wing party Syriza’s victory in Greece “has been directly driven by the ideas of Ernesto Laclau and an Essex cohort that includes among its alumni a Syriza MP, the governor of Athens, and Yanis Varoufakis. Syriza built its political coalition in exactly the way Laclau prescribed in his key book On Populist Reason [sic] – as Essex professor David Howarth puts it, ‘binding together different demands by focusing on their opposition to a common enemy’.”
Of Argentinian origin, Ernesto Laclau was a professor of politics at the University of Essex, where – in many years of teaching – he developed a notion of “radical democracy,” which goes far beyond classical Marxism. Laclau subverted the obsolete theory of class struggle and liberated the notion of populism from its pejorative connotation. In the years before his death (Laclau died this past February at age 78), and particularly after the crisis in 2008, Laclau was able to identify Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain as movements that would help him to consolidate his earlier ideas. The crux of his thought became populism, which in contemporary globalised society is seen as a danger, is about as dangerous as democracy. “Rationality belongs to the individual,” Laclau wrote, characterising the anti-populist thesis. When the individual takes part in a crowd or a mass movement, they are subject to the most criminal or beastly elements of that group and undergo a “biological retrogression” to a less enlightened state of being.
These are the hours in which the big and powerful in Brussels will decide whether to exorcise the devil or to save face and let the Greece implode by itself. After the unexpected purge of the Yanis Varoufakis, the combative former finance minister with the degree from University of Essex, Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras will have to face the judges by himself. There is virtually no chance that today in Brussels “Europe will take its chance to awaken,” as Slavoj Zizek hoped in an essay few days ago. This very mediocre European leadership not only misses imagination, but is also incapable of realizing what is at stake with further radicalisation and polarisation of the European Union – with or without Laclau’s and Zizek’s ideas. There is no logical reasoning from the side of the EU. There is a mass, collective oblivion, throwing a nation that brought us the awareness of gods and the power of language to the pigs. All this seems to be forgotten thanks to the greediness of the banks and corporations. And unfortunately, while many of us still see the EU as the only possible way for the Old Continent to survive in this increasingly globalized world, the EU Commission totally lacks imagination and acts like any other corporation.
And as Fintan O’Toole argues in his essay entitled “Has Europe lost it holds on our collective imagination?”, there is another aspect of this looming European crisis that Eurocrats seems to be forgetting. The warning came from the former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, who addressed the present German and European leaders three years ago, saying: “If we Germans allow ourselves to be seduced into claiming a political leading role in Europe, or at least playing first among equals based on our economic strength, an increasing majority of our neighbours will effectively resist this. The concern of the periphery about an all too powerful European centre would soon come racing back. The possible consequences of such a development would be crippling.”