Wednesday


Greek PM Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis

Greek PM Alexis Tsipras and Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis

Financial crisis or political crisis?

Democracy does not come naturally to the governments of Europe. Europe may have the institutions of democracy, and have them in a stronger form than elsewhere in the world, but democracy has shallow roots in the Old World, and in extremis we are not surprised to see Europe move in the direction of statism or populism. The problem of elite opinion, which I began to examine in The Technocratic Elite, is especially strong in Europe, and it repeatedly encounters the limits of engineering consent.

Because of the strong democratic traditions of the nation-states of the western hemisphere, governments are eventually aligned more-or-less with public opinion, but in Europe the attempt to maintain a facade according to which elite opinion is presented as mass opinion leads to periodic instability in which the distance between elite and mass opinion opens up like a fault line during an earthquake, at time swallowing whole the political order entire. The European press, which is itself split between elite opinion and mass opinion, documents this divide. If you visit a European nation-state you will find highbrow media of a quality far superior to that of the US, but you will also find popular newspapers and magazines pandering to the lowest common denominator (the “yellow press”). The individual who reads the Financial Times (as I do) is likely to never read The Sun, and vice versa.

I do not read the mass opinion press of Europe, so I do not know what it says, but I read quite a bit of the elite opinion media from Europe, and this tells us that Syriza, just elected to power in Greece, is a “radical party” of the left; the press also tells us that the National Front in France is a “radical party” of the right. There is a real concern, rooted in the painful lessons of European history, that Europe might once again turn to radicalism and extremism. How radical are these parties? Is Syriza a front for Stalinism or the National Front a front for fascism? Is Europe truly on a verge of an ugly populism that must be suppressed in order to assure the continuity of democratic institutions in Europe? This, as I read it, is the sotto voce position of elite opinion in Europe.

There are, of course, limits to European radicalism. One of the best explications of these limits that I have heard was to be found in a series of lectures by Jeremy Shearmur, an Australian philosopher and political scientist, who recorded a series for The Great Courses titled “Ideas in Politics.” Like many of my favorite lectures from The Great Courses, these have been discontinued and are no longer available (other discontinued favorites include An Introduction to Archaaeology by Susan Foster McCarter and The Search for a Meaningful Past: Philosophy, Theories and Interpretations by Darren Staloff). Shearmur noted in one of his lectures that if a truly radical government were elected, as soon as it came to power there would serious financial consequences: the currency would be bid down on international markets, foreign investors would seek to take their money elsewhere, and the country would become an international pariah. The leaders of a radical regime would then be forced from financial necessity to try to step in and calm the markets by making moderate-sounding statements. The lesson is that all the advanced industrialized nation-states are tightly integrated into the international financial system, and it would be quite painful for anyone of them–even a smallish economy like that of Greece–to separate themselves from this system.

What I have just described is a mechanism of moderation within elite opinion that guides the international system. It is assumed that political leaders will say radical things to get elected, but as soon as they get elected they will begin to moderate their stance. In fact, we have already seen this with Syriza in Greece, and the deal that Greece struck with the EU was not quite the renunciation of its bail out that Syriza had campaigned on. In fact, this pattern is so predictable that truly radical leaders with little or no concern for pragmatism have been elected on the assumption that, once they came to power, they would moderate their tone and their demands. This was one of the mechanisms that made it possible for Hitler and the Nazi party to come to power.

But this is not Germany in 1933. Conditions have changed. Indeed, we could with greater justification call these changes “radical” that to call contemporary European political parties or their leaders “radical.” The rule of Syriza is not going to initiate a new communist crackdown on Greek society, in which artists and poets will be jailed and Lysenkoism is imposed upon agriculture. Syriza may well effect an economic leveling that makes everyone except the nomenklatura and apparatchiks equally poor (this is, after all, what communist regimes typically do), but making everyone equally poor through economic policies known to be disastrous might be stupid, and it might mean the loss of an enormous amount of human potential, but it is unlikely to be criminal in the way that twentieth century communist regimes were criminal. Moreover, these are the policies that the people have voted for, and apparently it is necessary every single generation that people be taught a lesson on the unworkable nature of socialist economic policies.

If Syriza is communist (and Yanis Varoufakis, e.g., has been very upfront about the influence of Marx on his own views), it is a kinder and gentler form of communism (to borrow a phrase from George H. W. Bush). And if the National Front is fascist, it is kinder and gentler form of fascism. No more than Syriza is going to jail opposition intellectuals is Marine Le Pen and the National Front going to preside over a Kristallnacht aimed at Muslims living in France, though if you read the records of elite opinion in Europe you very clearly get the idea that there is a profound undercurrent of anxiety that extremists will come to power in Europe who will repeat the most brutal episodes in European history. However, this anxiety seems to be almost entirely focused on a right-of-center populist reaction against Muslim influence in Europe, as elite opinion journals seem to have little interest in the rise of an extremist left.

It could be argued that Europe would benefit from some political diversity (not to mention controversy), since monolithic elite opinion since the end of the Second World War has had the practical effect of denying the bully pulpit to alternative views. The election of Syriza in Greece, the rise of Podemos in Spain, the rallies of Pegida in Germany, and the improving poll numbers of the National Front in France are in this sense welcome. In so far as they give the bully pulpit to politicians who do not automatically mouth the euphemisms of elite European opinion, they actually give greater credibility to the EU and its programs.

In so far as the EU and the PR spin doctors of Europe’s elite opinion seek to deny even a voice to radical and marginal parties, they are making the same mistake in relation to politics today that they made with religion in earlier centuries. Instead of a free market of ideas, the attempt to shape a top-down definition of acceptable views has the opposite effect of making the “official” view laughable while piquing curiosity about the other views. In so far as some view is universally condemned in official sources, intellectually alert individuals will take notice and will suppose that there is something of interest and possible even something that is a clear and present danger to the established order in these marginal views.

Of course, the Europeans are not so stupid or as vulgar as to ban minority views outright (although there are a number of laws that make it illegal to make certain claims), but kinder and gentler elite opinion (like kinder and gentler communism and fascism) can be almost as effective in mere disapproval as it can be in outright legal sanction. Again, one need only pay attention to the monolithic on-message character of European politics. If you’re a careerist, you cannot possibly afford to neglect this.

With Round Two of the Eurozone crisis being played out across Europe, and headlines looking a lot like they looked a few years ago, although this time with Syriza in power in Greece, European elite opinion is faced once again with kicking the can down the road or dealing with the problems on the merits. Given the record of European elite opinion being so tightly focused on message, in contradistinction to meaningful action, the likely result seems to be further muddling through while hoping all turns out OK in the end. How many times can Europe lurch to the brink of crisis only to lurch backward from the brink at the last possible moment? European elite opinion worries about the brinkmanship of Europe’s radicals, but it is elite opinion itself that is pushing Europe toward the brink.

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During the initial iteration of the Eurozone Crisis I blogged extensively on the problem, including the following posts:

The Dubious Benefits of the Eurozone

Shorting the Euro

Will the Eurozone enact a Greek tragedy?

A Return to the Good Old Days

Can collective economic security work?

Poor Cousins

What would a rump Eurozone look like?

An Alternative to the Euro

The Old World in Turmoil

Gibbon, Sartre, and the Eurozone

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Sunday


Boko Haram

Contemporary terrorism perpetrated by radical militants who self-identify as Muslims constitutes not only a police problem and a military problem (which of the two it is, or properly ought to be, is itself a matter of debate), but it is also a social problem and a political problem. Recent spectacular terrorist attacks — for example, the Peshawar school massacre, the massacre of staff at the Magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, and an attack on Kukawa by Boko Haram that may have resulted in 2,000 killed — show this sociopolitical problem in an especially glaring light.

Europe in particular faces a problem in how to respond, and, as I wrote above, this is as much a social and political problem about the response to Islamic terrorism as it is a police or military response. Politicians would be greatly relieved if something so socially problematic could be carefully circumscribed as a police matter without wider social consequences, but this illusion cannot be sustained. Sustaining the illusion does not address the underlying problem, but allows it to fester and to grow from a problem into a crisis. It is better to address the problem when it is still a problem, albeit a thankless problem.

An organization in Germany, Pegida (Patriotische Europaer Gegen die Islamisierung des Abendlandes, Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the West) has been organizing demonstrations to protest what it calls the Islamization of Europe, and these demonstrations have been met by larger counter-demonstrations intended to frame Pegida as a xenophobic, right wing fringe movement. The counter-demonstrations against Pegida have been organized by government bodies, and cannot be characterized the spontaneous outpourings of grassroots German sentiment. In other words, we see here Europe wrestling with his own demons from its past. The political leadership of Europe is painfully aware of Germany’s Nazi past, and they are willing to go to considerable lengths to avoid targeting a minority that could be used as scapegoat for public discontent. The situation is similar in France, having its own and different demons from the past. In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, French President Hollande said, “Those who committed these acts have nothing to do with the Muslim religion.”

Elite opinion in Europe is at one — the same message comes from the governments and major media outlets — that spectacular terrorist attacks committed by self-identifying Muslims are not to be attributed to Islam nor to the presence of Muslims in Europe (at present, about five million or 7.5% of the population in France, four million or 5% of the population in Germany, and three million or 5% of the population in the UK). However, this unity of elite opinion comes at a cost, and with a danger. Recently in The Technocratic Elite I wrote about the yawning divide between those who hold power and those who are subject to power in the contemporary industrialized nation-state. When elite opinion is perfectly unified, it looks contrived and controlled by the public. Moreover, anyone who speaks out against unified elite opinion is immediately cast in the role of a lone outsider who is speaking unwelcome truth to power. This in itself is a powerful rhetorical position, and those who would protest the influence of Islam and Islamic values in Europe willingly take on the mantle. Elite opinion would probably prove itself to be more effective if it allowed for some latitude, and co-opted the most radical voices by giving them an official outlet.

The problem of elite opinion in Europe is partly the above-mentioned demons of Europe’s past, which suggest the ever-present possibility of plunging into another savage conflict with genocidal overtones (as the Europeans tend to do every century or two), and also partly a result of the fact that the nation-state system has its origins in Europe and it is in Europe that the nation-state is still strongest. That is to say, the political entities that constitute Europe are states based on a national ethnic identity, and despite the attempts by Europe to constitute their contemporary states as diverse liberal democracies, they are nothing like the nation-states of the western hemisphere. Identity matters in Europe. Anyone can become an American. Almost no one can become a German, a Frenchman, or an Italian unless you are born to it. Elite opinion knows this, but still attempts to put a brave face on a pluralistic, diverse, and democratic society.

The larger background to this problem is the demographic imbalance between Europe and its Islamic neighbors. European populations are static or falling, while the population of neighboring Islamic nation-states are growing. Conflict in these Islamic nation-states creates refugees, and the attempt to maintain the facade upon which elite opinion trades in order to maintain its legitimacy requires that Europe take in refugees from anywhere in the world (to “prove” they are not racist or xenophobic). These burgeoning Islamic populations can easily send millions into Europe without affecting population growth in their nation-states of origin. These refugees have no interest in assimilating into European society, and even if they did have an interest, European society cannot realistically pretend that Muslims from North Africa, Arabia, or Mesopotamia can pass as Europeans.

This is not the first time that this has happened in the Old World. If you visit the cities around the Mediterranean Basin, which was once all the Roman Empire, you will find classical temples and Christian churches with contemporary Muslim populations flowing around them like a stream flows around ancient rocks embedded in its course. In some small towns on the coast of Turkey, you can literally find rock cut tombs preserved in the middle of streets, with traffic flowing around them — a reminder of a world that is now utterly lost. Europe knows this story as well as anyone, and even if elite opinion cannot speak of it in public, the idea of the great monuments of European civilization surrounded by a alien population with a different tradition of civilization cannot be far below the surface.

What is to be done? Can elite opinion, steadfastly maintained by elite discipline, allow Europe to negotiate these troubled waters and continue to put a brave face on a politically impossible situation? After all, everything in life is mere temporizing if you look at things in the long term. Europe can temporize a bit longer — for a few hundred years, or a few thousand years. The Europeans are good at this, as the example of Byzantium demonstrates (though the Byzantines were mostly Greek, and Greece is not now in a position to assert its rule over even a rump of Europe). If you can temporize longer than anyone else, you have done all that can be expected of any political entity.

And what of grassroots opinion in Europe? Do we even know what it is? The efficacy of elite discipline in Europe shrouds public opinion in euphemisms that prevent it from being expressed in the ugly forms it took under twentieth century fascism. If elite opinion capitulated to the masses, what would the result be? We don’t know. The post-WWII period in Europe has been so effective in De-Nazification and re-education that we do not know at present that Europeans would do if not guided by the liberal internationalist vision of elite opinion. If elite opinion fell away, would we instantly see an anti-Islamic Kristallnacht unleashed in Berlin, Paris, Rome, London, and Copenhagen? Would we see the beginnings of a new holy war between East and West?

I have several times discussed the views of Reza Aslan on Islamic terrorism as a form of cosmic warfare. Unlike French President Hollande and most public figures of elite opinion, Aslan openly acknowledges that Islamic terrorists are inspired by religious zeal, but maintains that the only way to win a cosmic war is not to fight it. However, as I have observed, one may get dragged into a cosmic war against one’s will. The eschatological dimension of human experience cannot be avoided. If we pretend it does not exist, others will foist it upon us — sometimes in the form of a massacre (cf. my post Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception).

Sam Harris, like Reza Aslan, frankly recognizes the religious roots of Islamic terrorism and has discussed this unmentionable fact (unmentionable, that is, for elite opinion) of Islamic terrorism repeatedly, claiming that Islam as a religion is uniquely well-adapted for inspiring suicidal terrorism. I’m not sure if Harris has any solution other than to imagine a world without religion, so that, presumably, advancing programs of secularization might be on the table. However, such top-down measures are vulnerable to all of the same problems that how beset elite opinion in Europe. Sometimes it seems as though the more well-intentioned a policy is, the more likely it is to be denounced as malign social engineering.

The critics of Sam Harris, especially in the Arab world, have noted his Jewish background (a fact unmentionable in other contexts) and his lack of criticism of Israel (a religiously-constituted nation-state, presumably an appropriate target for someone like Harris), more or less assimilating Harris’ position to an anti-Islamic prejudice. But Harris is right that there has been no outpouring of revulsion from the Muslim masses over repeated spectacular terrorist attacks by self-identifying Muslims shouting “Allāhu Akbar” as they kill innocent children. You will not often find the governments of Islamic nation-states organizing protests against the killing of Christians in the way that anti-Pegida activists are organizing protests against protests against Muslims.

The problem of Islamic terrorism is not going to go away any time soon. Elite opinion, not only in Europe but the world over, is careful to dissociate such terrorist acts from Islam, but does so at the cost of its intellectual integrity. There are approaches like that of Reza Aslan and Sam Harris that possess intellectual integrity, but appeal as little to mass opinion and mass man as does elite opinion. Elite opinion at least has the virtue of being fired in a political crucible that makes it credible as a mass movement, even if it lacks grassroots appeal. At the grassroots level, we really don’t have any good, non-politicized data to form a judgment as to what might occur if elite opinion capitulated to popular opinion.

The one thing of which we can be certain is the fear. There is the fear of what will become of Europe as European populations dwindle and Muslim populations expand. There is the fear of what will happen if popular sentiment against Muslims living in Europe gets out of hand. There is the fear of what becomes of Western civilization if Europe becomes Islamicized, however slowly and gradually. There is the fear on the part of Muslims of the influence of Western civilization and Western ways upon Islamic civilization. There is the fear of Muslim residents in Europe and elsewhere beyond the Islamic world of what will become of their lives as coreligionists conduct massacres that causes them to live under a cloud of suspicion. There is the fear that civil wars in Nigeria and Syria will spread instability to other parts of the globe. There is a surfeit of fear in the world today, and perhaps this is a sign that it is the fear we should address and is perhaps the most tractable of this cluster of intractable problems.

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