Political Economy

Ingolfur Blühdorn: The Sustainability Of Democracy | The New Significance

On limits to growth, the post-democratic turn and reactionary democrats.

Emancipation, the central demand of democracy, has come to mean liberation from restrictive social and ecological imperatives. Are radical participatory solutions the answer when contemporary democracy serves the politics of unsustainabilty?

via Ingolfur Blühdorn: The Sustainability Of Democracy | The New Significance.


Jean-Pierre Chevènement: “Without Russia something is missing in Europe”

I am posting here a personal adaptation of Jean-Pierre Chevènement‘s interview with Le Figaro of March 8, 2014. The links in the article are not by the author, but my own commentary.

Andrei Rublev [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
What outcome can you foresee for the Ukraine crisis?

In this sort of situation, one blows hot and cold in succession. A phase of de-escalation, at least verbal, appears to have been started by Vladimir Putin’s statement. He conducted an operation of ‘calculated posturing’, as the military says. What matters now is to define the axis of exit from this crisis. There is no longer any ideological or military reason for a new cold war in Europe. No-one has any interest in that. There is too much interdependence between us for not looking at the road for a durable resolution.

We are not taking that road currently…

From the start there was a big misunderstanding: the EU policy aimed at association with Ukraine, while raising expectations of membership, as Olli Rehn declared, cannot be realised in a sensible timeframe. Membership may not even be desirable. One should not have placed, and must not, place Ukraine in front of a manichean choice: either Russia, or the EU. That is an unsolvable dilemma for Ukraine, given her history. The reality of Ukraine is her diversity. In the East there are russophone populations, and in the West, uniate catholic communities, some of which were once part of Austro-Hungary. It is not sensible to expect a democratic equilibrium in Ukraine, with power alternating between East and West, as we have witnessed since 1991: Kravtchuk in 1991, Timochenko, then Ianukovitch. I see not reason why Ukraine could not become a federal state. It may be what Russia is leading at: that is no reason to disqualifying the proposal, if it makes good sense. As for Crimea, no-one could challenge that it is Russian, as the majority of her population. A substantial autonomy is in the natural order. As Charles de Gaulle once said: ‘There is no worthwhile politics outside realities’.

In your last book you wrote: ‘Without Russia, something is missing in Europe’…

Russia is a great European country. Her space stretches across Europe and Asia, but her people are unquestionably European. Something essential to our culture would go missing without the Russian novelists, Tolstoï, Dostoievski, without Tchekov’s plays, Diaghilev’s ballets, Tchaikovski’s music, Sutin’s painting. Moreover, France is well placed to know how much she owes to Russia: in 1914 we were lucky to have the Russian front buying us time to hold on to the Marne, and more so in WWII. We are in Russia’s debt for her immense sacrifices in breaking the back of nazi Germany. One cannot delete history at a stroke.

Is Russia a democracy?

For twenty two years Russia has been a state based on the rule of law, no doubt imperfectly so, but which comprises all the elements (necessary to) democratic development: political pluralism, freedom of expression – at least in the written press and on the Internet – elections that the opposition can win, as for example in Yekaterinburg, fourth city in the country, last September. The 1993 Constitution, still in force, has been adhered to; in France, twenty years after 1789, we had at least ‘consumed’ seven or eight (constitutions). One has to trust (the effects of) economic development, time, the rise of a middle class: democracy will develop from the Russian people themselves. The thesis of exporting democracy is dangerous: the ideology that states that the West must export its values, norms, standards, can only feed the lingering remains of the cold war. One always has to try and understand what’s in the head of ‘the other’: Russians believe that Westerners, particularly in the US, have not given up on ‘regime change’.

They haven’t forgotten Kosovo, Iraq, Libya etc. Russia defends her geopolitical interests, but she is not the USSR. That disappeared twenty three years ago. One must accept that each country evolves at her own pace and chooses her destiny. I always refer to Jacques Berque who said that every people must find in themselves, and in their motivations, reasons to borrow concepts that at first are foreign, but that those cannot be forced upon them.

Does Europe need Russia?

Since, on the other side, there is a project of euro-asian free trade, why not try and work this out in its entirety, from Brest to Vladivostok? That was the spirit of strategic partnership agreed between the EU and Russia in 2003: to create a vast free-trade area from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Since then there has been growth of interconnected interests: western investment, German and French, in Russia, as well as energy and industrial interdependence. One has to see how this can be developed further in a free trade space that must, of course, include Ukraine.

You have denounced also the ‘ambient Russophobia’…

Russia became a great country at the end of the eighteenth century, with Catherine the Great and Alexander I, as Napoleon found out at his cost. But Russia has long inspired fear. In Germany and the Anglo-Saxon world, there was political Russophobia, geopolitical rivalry between Great Britain and the Russian Empire, as shown in the nineteenth century by the war in Crimea and the ‘Great Game‘. Between the US and the USSR it was the Cold War, from 1917 to 1990.

Germany, in 1918 and 1941, was tempted to expand to the East, by pushing away the Slavs, an old pan-germanic thesis. That temptation has now fortunately disappeared and today German policies towards Russia are infinitely wiser.

In France there is an ideological Russophobia. It was defined in 1839 by the Marquis de Custine in his famous formula: ‘Siberia starts at the Vistula’. That Russophobia is deeply detrimental to the interest of our country, and to that of a peaceful Europe. In ‘Le monde’, for example, the historian Françoise Thom, wrote of a ‘civilisation choice’ about Ukraine: are we going back to Samuel Huntington‘s ‘clash of civilisations’ (1994)? If Bernard-Henri Lévy and a few others could resuscitate Joseph Stalin it would give them their ‘raison d’ être’!

How do you see Vladimir Putin?

After the economic collapse of Russia in the decade that followed the end of the USSR, when Russian GDP was halved, Putin improved that situation considerably (with average annual economic growth of 7% between 2000 and 2010). He has adopted policies that are socially appreciated. Paradoxically he has contributed to the rise of a middle class that is not particularly supportive to him. He has restored Russia’s international role. Russian public opinion appreciates him. In the main the French media project at best a reductive vision of the Russian reality. Certain things of course may shock us: gay propaganda towards minors is legally suppressed. This may be interpreted in many different ways. But we forget that thirty years ago, in France, interference with minors was more heavily sanctioned for homosexuals. That cannot be the sole benchmark to judge a country. Death penalty is not abolished in Russia, but there is a moratorium, and no executions. One cannot say the same of all countries, including some of our closest allies. A majority of the Russian people supports Vladimir Putin, and the opposition is divided. M. Navalny, leader of the opposition, received 28% of votes in Moscow.

Vladimir Putin likes to present himself as the inheritor of the European christian roots…

Are we in a confrontation between Eastern and Western christianities? In a poll, seventy four percent of Russians below the age of 30, were ignorant of the ‘filioque‘, the theological quarrel that led in 1054 to the schism between the Byzantine Church and the catholic Church of Rome. It was a question of knowing if the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father, or from the Father and the Son. What surprises me is that 26% of young Russians still know what that was about! Russian society is more religious than ours: a simple walk though the basilicae of the Golden Ring shows the many worshippers, of all generations, praying fervently in front of the icons.

The truth is that Russia has an identity problem, now she has been pushed back to her sixteenth century borders, and that she sees NATO extended far beyond West Germany’s boundaries, contrary to the 1990 agreement. Russians remember that NATO wanted to include Georgia and Ukraine in 2006 – which France and Germany opposed. They consider that Russia’s status as great power would be threatened by NATO’s extension to these two countries. They probably exaggerate the threat, but they don’t enter easily into the western leaders’s reasoning. We have seen many of the same leaders, a few weeks back, posturing on Maidan square, making unreasonable speeches, and displaying themselves in the company of unsavoury characters. Was that sensible? The agreement concluded with Ianukovitch, countersigned by the three foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland, was then emptied of substance. And one speaks of interference!

You speak in your book of the inevitability of a ‘variable geometry’ Europe, as the sole solution to managing a Union of twenty eight plus countries…

Why not linking the Euro – as a single or common currency – and the Rouble: Europe represents more than half Russian foreign trade. We have a strong interdependence for energy and economic growth: few French citizens know that more than a million cars built in Russia, or a third of the total production, are made by French automakers. Few people are aware of the scope of investments in the Yamal peninsula to exploit natural gas. Those are considerable investments, in which Total, among others, has a stake. Russia’s is a resurgent economy close to us, with Moscow a mere three hours from Paris. French businesses in Russia do not wish for this crisis to worsen.

And the American alliance?

We must maintain our alliance with the US, but an alliance does not equate with subordination. The 21st century cannot be reduced to a confrontation between China and the US. It is desirable that Europe organises herself to exist by herself. One must think of a ‘variable geometry’ Europe associating different countries, each choosing how it converges its policies toward a common European interest.

 For the past eight months Europe and the US have been negotiating a commercial agreement dubbed ‘Transatlantic Treaty‘, which aims at improving the conditions of free trade between the two Atlantic shores: do we have anything to gain from that agreement?

My fundamental criticism is that the Euro/Dollar exchange rate can vary in a 1 to 2 ratio. The Euro was at 82 cents in 2000, and $1.60 in 2006. So (in these conditions),what does the suppression of our custom duty (3 to 4%) and norms harmonisation mean?

Today the Euro is worth $1.40, a very high level for the French economy, which is not in (trade balance) surplus with the US like Germany’s. Behind that treaty is a US will to group all the countries of the Atlantic shores, as those of the Pacific, to isolate China.

There is then the will of some large multinational corporations to implant themselves in low-cost areas: Mexico, and even the US, for financial reasons.I cannot see what our country can gain from that.

What is your view of the sanctions decided last Thursday by the EU?

The European sanctions (against Russia) are a double-edged sword. They target all Russian nationals, contrary to the US measures targetted at the leadership, except Vladimir Putin… The only virtue I see is that they are easily reversed…

The Logic of Power

Not in our nameAt the height of the Cold War, in 1974, Franz Schurmann, a respected Professor of Sociology and History at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of the already classic “Ideology and Organization in Communist China”, wrote “The Logic of World Power“. This masterly dissection of US Foreign policy, of the role of the imperial presidency, and of the significance of the nuclear arms race, remains to this day one of the most cogent analyses of the Cold War viewed from a US perspective.
The book subtitle was, aptly: “An Inquiry into the Origins, Currents, and Contradictions of World Politics”.

In his forward, Schurmann explains that he started writing the book in 1965, “when American planes began the bombing of North Vietnam.” He died in 2010, having had the time to see to the end the Vietnam tragedy and what Giovanni Arrighi would later consider “the signal crisis of US hegemony”. However his starting point was the observation that “since the end of World War II, the prime mover on the world scene has been the United States of America.”
Forty years later, in September-October 2013, the New Left Review, arguably one of the few remaining independent observers of world politics left in the English speaking media, published a two part study by Perry Anderson, “American Foreign Policy and it’s Thinkers.” In 2009 Mr Anderson gave us “The New Old World“, an unforgiving account of the origins and evolution of the European Union and its undemocratic institutions. “The New Old World” is indispensable reading for anyone who wishes to understand European current politics, and the logic of the US – European conundrum.
This new study will equally become a must read, not only for students of US Foreign Policy history, but for whoever wishes to follow up on Schurmann’ magisterial analysis, forty years later.
For the US are still the prime mover, despite all the disasters, despite the illusions of generations of prophets of doom and gloom for America’s role in the world. What was the logic of world power then, still is. Now, as then, the genesis of the new world order has US foreign policy as it’s midwife: in 1970, it was the onset of the final struggle with the USSR, the collapse of Keynesian political economies, and, soon, the rise of capitalist China, under the cloak of communism; today it is the seemingly unstoppable spread of neoliberal austerity policies in all western economies, on a backdrop of ever closer violent uprisings and local conflicts, and, still, the spectrum of conflict with China.
Schurmann wrote: “What began to wane in the late 1960s, clearly in relation to the Vietnam war, was the American Empire.” And indeed this relative decline has continued (as seen in the “longue durée”), but the reality of our world is that the logic of power is unchanged. Anderson shows that the fundamental logic of the Cold War had little to do with a “soviet threat” (for the USSR was at the end of WWII an exhausted and ruined country, contrary to the US who had hugely benefitted from the war and had been untouched by it), but rather the continuation of a bid for sustained US political and military dominance, unchallenged at the end of World War II, and with it, an economic order far remote from the official “free-world” propaganda.

Anderson observes on what was to follow, on the conclusion of the Cold War:
“In the Cold War, triumph was in the end complete. But the empire created to win it did not dissolve back into the liberal ecumenism out of whose ideological vision it had emerged. The institutions and acquisitions, ideologies and reflexes bequeathed by the battle against communism now constituted a massive historical complex with its own dynamics, no longer needed to be driven by the threat from the Soviet Union. Special forces in over a hundred countries round the world; a military budget larger than that of all other major powers combined; tentacular apparatuses of infiltration, espionage and surveillance; ramifying national security personnel; and last but not least, an intellectual establishment devoted to revising, amplifying and updating the tasks of grand strategy, of a higher quality and productivity than any counterpart concerned with domestic affairs – how could all this be expected to shrink once again to the slender maxims of 1945?”

It did not and it won’t. Despite the disappearance of the USSR, despite many localised conflicts and their costs, the logic is unchanged.
Reflecting on the dilemma, under Nixon, of US policies over Vietnam in 1970, Schurmann wrote: “but the nuclear chess game was not compatible with either popular sovereignty or parliamentary rule. As it was, the President preferred to appeal to the bottom over the middle. He spoke to what he felt was the majority’s opposition to any American defeat, appealing to their nationalism… Like any President, he had to go to his constituencies when he faced a great crisis within his bureaucratic ranks and ask for their support.”

God bless America.

Image: Ilka Hartmann Photography

Peace to her soul ~ and Why I Loathe Mrs “T”

Poll Tax riotsI started working in the Midlands around 1978 for a small engineering firm that designed, manufactured and exported high-tech telecommunications equipment to the US.  Yes, that’s right to the US of A. The firm had been founded a few years back by ex-European Space Agency British engineers who were good at what they were doing, and not bad employers either.  There were then hundreds of similar companies around the Midlands and the North of England.  By the late 80’s they were all gone, sacrificed to the Hayekian non sense that underpinned “la Thatcher”’s philosophy in life.  Ignore the noises of sycophants and of her numerous inheritors – think about this:

The craddle of the industrial revolution destroyed, entire regions laid waste by a policy of deindustrialisation paid for by plundering the riches of the North Sea, the plunder of state, that is, people-owned organisations in telecommunications, transport, energy, water, the destruction of the Coal-Mining industry and of the communities that had lived for it through two centuries, and saved the country in two world-wars, the sell-off of most of the remaining industrial base to foreign interests, the beginning of the dismantlement of the welfare state…

Was Britain in decline in 1979? No more than any other European social democracy.  Capitalism had been in crisis then since the end of the Viet-Nam war in the mid 70‘s. Britain, obviously not immune, was however still a country of moderate inequalities, fair fiscality, good public services, and good prospects of making headway in the European concert of nations, thanks to the policy of Edward Heath, an enlightened conservative  by the standards of what followed, who a few years before had taken Britain to the Common Market, through the only referendum ever held on the subject in the UK.  A majority consensus had emerged to support Mr Heath’s policies.  “Mrs T” hated Edward Heath.  Her malevolent hatred would divide the conservative party before the full blast of her divisive and vindictive  personality poisened British politics for years to come.  Edward Heath was an informed, ethical and courageous politician.  She, the “grocer’s daughter”, was a crypto fascist of the basest kind: an admirer of Pinochet and of the Apharteid régime of South Africa.  Her class instincts were to fear and hate workers, their trade-unions, and the mass of their members.  Her ideal was the hayekian pseudo paradise of the worst reaction of the 20’s, laissez faire, anti universal suffrage, anti welfare state, a proto-fascist pre-industrial petty bourgeois lunacy.

Unemployment soared to levels unseen since since the 30’s and the great depression.  But Mrs T did not care: it did not matter since the future, fuelled by North Seal oil revenue, would be all about the hyper financialisation already underway in the US.

Yes, Britain and its inbattled labour government of 1979 was in the claws of the IMF and its neoliberal gurus.  Friedman and Hayek ruled OK.  In the US Ronald Reagan inaugurated his presidency by sacking the striking air-traffic controllers – the first of many, and a decision that may (or not) have haunted his ghost years later.  But who cared? Not Mrs T! The war against democratically elected local government started, armed with the new inquisition, the unaccountable “Audit Commission”, and the destruction of the fabric of local public services and unashamed “privatisation”…  Mrs T was, literally, on the war path, the class-war path.  Or indeeed pursuing a foreign war when things appeared not so rosy?  She ignored her friend Ronald’s offer of mediation, and went to war with Argentina!  Can one imagine a more absurd situation?  But it worked, for a short while. Forget the hundreds of casualties on both sides – worse would come in the Bliar’s years, evidently her spiritual son…

Enemies abound: the British working class, battered and humiliated but not forgetting, her personal foe, the emerging Union (“I want my money back!”), and of course the villains on her own side, intelligent people who dared see that disasters were looming.  So after riots, unprecedented and soaring levels of inequalities, the abject exit from the ERM, the loss of influence in Europe, and of course being overtaken on all fronts, bar speculation, by countries that did have a real industrial policy…  “they” finally kicked her out shouting and screaming.  She would not even spare her venom for her hapless successor, honest Mr Major…

But her legacy lives on.  Britain no longer exports anything much to the US, her influence in Europe is virtually nil, what remains of her car industry is in foreign hands, as far as India and China.  After many crises and collapses (1984, 1987, 1989, 2002 and finally the crash of 2008) the “financial sector” still holds on to its incredible privileges and unethical conduct… As for inequalities the country is now more divided than ever, North-South, the very rich and most of us, renewed assaults on public services, and, looming large, the exhaustion of the North-Sea bonanza and the dependence on foreign imports of gas and oil…  Indeed 11 years whose trail goes on forever…

Global Turbulence and History


 Citizens as Customers

It is now fourteen years since Robert Brenner dissected “The Economics of Global Turbulence”, still the reference work for any serious study of the advanced capitalist economies during the sixty years from 1945 to 2005. There has been no shortage, since Brenner published his book, of commentaries on the root reasons and consequences of the deep crisis of capital accumulation that gripped the “West” from the 70’s onwards, and of the hyper-financialisation and neo-liberal policies that heralded the worst financial crisis since the 1930s. However few observers have reflected on the fundamental questions that Brenner asked in the Afterword of 2006 to his work: what forces are making for the transcendence of the global downturn? What factors are contributing to its still further perpetuation? We know of course part of the answer to the latter: austerity policies now applied to most countries in the western world are depressing consumer demand to a level that makes “recovery” impossible and perpetuate the depression.

In the context of what Giovanni Arrighi described as “The Long Twentieth Century”, it could be argued that we are still living through the terminal crisis and death convulsions of the form of capitalism – to simplify, US-led industrial hegemony – born from the two world wars and the crisis of 1930. Yet there is, until now, a dearth of explanations as to the link between western economic decline, typified by the renewal of Asia to its millennial position at the economic pinnacle of the world, and western “politics”. Here I must confess that a simplistic ritual pillorying of the ineptitude of Hayek’s progeny and neoliberal economics may not suffice. Nor would the no less ritualistic execution of ineffectual and corrupt politicians on both sides of the Atlantic.

Wolfgang Streeck, Director of the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies (MPIfG, Cologne) and author of “Re-forming Capitalism” (2009), attempts in “Citizens as Customers” (NLR 76) to analyse the mechanism and effects of the new modes of production and marketing, that were part of capital’s response to the downturn. His “Considerations on the New Politics of Consumption” begin with a critique of an article in Public Interest titled “Public Goods and Private Status” by Joseph Monsen and Anthony Downs, who, in 1971, asked “why American society was, the phrase coined by John Kenneth Galbraith, ‘privately rich but publicly poor’”. Monsen and Downs’ explanation was rooted in “the differential allocation of goods between the public and private sectors”, and “a desire on the part of the consumers ‘for emulation and differentiation’”. Streeck then takes “a longitudinal view on the development of (the) mutual relationship” between the two modes of provision: “one, public and collective, administered by state authorities, the other private and individual, mediated by commercial markets”.  His observations are at times counterintuitive, but dovetail well with the classical analysis developed by Brenner who looked primarily at the manufacturing crisis.

First, Streeck observes that capital’s answer to the stagnation of markets for standardised goods (the staple of post-war Fordism) included making goods less standardised. This phase of reengineering of products and processes, “with the help of microelectronic technology”, rendered much (western) manual labour dispensable, “or at least enabled firms to relocate to other parts of the world where it was cheaper and more deferential” (my emphasis). Second, as “mass production gave way to something like large-scale boutique production”, consumers in affluent societies – initially the “rich” West, but increasingly Asia – turn out to be willing to pay, and borrow to “participate in the new paradigm of economic growth”. Third the customisation of commodities, and soon services, “was part and parcel of a powerful wave of commercialisation of the capitalist societies of the time”. This, in turn, amounted to a massive “invasion of social life by ‘market forces’ under capitalism, a process that Rosa Luxemburg… characterised as Landnahme, or land-grabbing, in the Accumulation of Capital”. The “land-grab”, as we know, translated itself, from the Reagan-Thatcher era onwards over the following three decades, into large scale plundering of public assets, waves after waves of privatisation of essential services. Streeck says that “what firms learned in the 1970’s was to put the individualisation of both customers and products at the service of commercial expansion”. He then observes that, at the same time, “traditional families and communities were rapidly losing authority”. The growing social vacuum was then filled by the “markets”. Streeck cites as typical example of commercialisation the fate of the Olympic Games, once the protected domain of ‘amateurs’, now a giant money-making machine. He makes several further observations on “sociation by consumption”, and the particular type of politics of consumption arising from it in affluent countries. The marketisation of the public sphere that “aimed to rescue capitalism from its late-Fordist stagnation” resulted from the unprecedented commercialisation of social life, and  has had a profound effect on “the relations between collective state and individual market provision”, transforming the relationship between citizens and states. Streeck argues that “as formerly public functions were moved to the private sector and the public sphere came to be simultaneously narrowed and discredited, with the support of reformist governments, the balance between private and public channels of provision shifted in favour of the former”. His conclusion is that this process leads in time to the decline of states’ political legitimacy, and since “citizenship is… less comfortable than customership”, eventually “motivation to contribute to the joint production of civic goods will dry up”. This is clearly the case already in the US,  as “the middle classes, who command enough purchasing power to rely on commercial rather than political means to get what they want, will lose interest in the complexities of collective preference-setting and decision making, and find the sacrifices of individual utility required by participation in traditional politics no longer worthwhile.” As a further consequence “what is publicly perceived of politics is increasingly reduced to self-centred power games, scandals and the egotistic antics of its remaining personnel”. This explains neatly why once affluent countries like the UK, may end up in a similar state as the “Nigerian state railway”: as privatisation and decline in state tax revenues continue, the increasing poverty of the public sphere will not only perpetuate the downturn, but make it unrecoverable.



Eric Hobsbawm

We mourn Eric Hobsbawm who died on October 1st. He was an admirable historian, a wonderful and interesting writer and humanist, and, perhaps the finest analyst, this side of the Atlantic, on the subject of the birth of modern capitalism though the European revolutions, the Age of Capital and Imperialism. He was a lucid witness of the 20th century, of its horrors and its hopes, and of the hesitant first steps of the 21st. I wish to quote the historian Martin Jacques who wrote this moving testimony for the Guardian last Saturday (October 6):

“The first time I met Eric Hobsbawm was at an annual gathering of the Economic History Society. As a fellow historian I had long admired his historical writing. But it was not until a couple of years later that I was to get to know him. By this time I had become editor of Marxism Today. Having read Eric’s articles in the now-defunct New Society, I was aware he had much of great interest to say about contemporary politics. I phoned him in autumn 1978, soon after commencing my editorial duties. I wanted to run a special issue on the 10th anniversary of 1968 and it was patently obvious that there was no better author to write the overview. He did not disappoint. The grand sweep of the piece was breathtaking.

A little later I heard he had given a lecture entitled “The Forward March of Labour Halted?” By the late 1970s I had come to the view that the labour movement was in historical decline. But Eric arguing such a contrary view was an entirely different matter. I asked him to send me a copy; drawing on the range of his historical repertoire, he contradicted the common sense of the time. It became a famous article that was to change the thinking of the left and marked the emergence of Eric as a major political figure, albeit a somewhat reluctant one.

He wrote numerous articles for Marxism Today, many of them classics. We had plenty of fine writers but Eric was indisputably the best and the most influential. Our editorial relationship could hardly have been more straightforward. I would meet him at Birkbeck, or later at his home, and suggest a theme. And always well before the deadline, he would phone and ask me to come round to his home and pick it up. I would read it with a huge sense of anticipation: you never quite knew what he was going to say.

It was difficult not to be in awe of Eric: the breadth of his knowledge, his analytical powers, his lucid writing style, his laser-like ability to get to the heart of the matter, and his originality. Over the 14 years of my editorship of Marxism Today that sense of distance steadily diminished, conversation flowed more easily and we became the closest of friends. When my wife Hari died in a Hong Kong hospital, Eric joined me at her bedside, gently trying to coax me to do what I could not bear to do: leave her for the last time. And just a few hours before he died in hospital, I stood at his bedside, holding his hand and gently thanking him for all that he had given me. He was an intellectual giant without compare. Politically and intellectually, he influenced me more than any other living person.”

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Which Europe?

Church in Südtirol Escaping the pseudo-olympian non-sense this summer was a privilege. Living in East London we were keen to have as much of clear space as possible between ourselves and the polluted commercial extravaganza overtaking the landscape. So we aimed for the mountains, and that country blessed with so many precious gifts, Italy.

If one was to believe the reactionary “popular” press over here, the Europhone Union is in trouble, and far worse than some others. It’s a long way from our corner of the woods to the (now) Italian Tirol, over 800 klicks across Northern France, Belgium, Central and Southern Germany, Austria and, finally, Northern Italy. This gave us a snapshot of realities over those regions. The first observation is that the state of roads has not improved in recent years, always poor in Belgium – awful traffic and driving behaviour – as the high quality of French and German motorways has suffered under so-called austerity measures, as administrations cut corners (and eventually increase costs!) Austria remains impeccable, and petrol there is somewhat cheaper than elsewhere, for reasons we have not identified. British banks (yes, the ones we pumped up and are still pumping up with hard-earned cash, we resident taxpayers) charge an outrageous £7 to 8 fee/commission for “foreign exchange” (how about that for another non-sense?) so we garnished the Euro account to avoid such. The second one is that the German automobile industry rules ok. Belgian, French, Italian, and of course, German, high income professionals (we guessed) drive Audi’s, Mercedes’ and BMW’s – and the occasional Porsche’s – as if there was no crisis. Those cars are high end models, and not few of them expensive fuel-guzzling SUV’s. I have not mentioned British number plates, but more of the same for those of HM’s subjects who dare point their noses out there in the crisis-ravaged Union!

The third, concomitant, observation, is that austerity and neo-liberal cuts in public services, and its unavoidable consequences for economic growth, have not affected people – the citizens of the Union – equally, an obvious truth already noted over here. The upper middle class – employed, fee-earning, and well-endowed in assets and insurance policies (and German cars), is doing just fine. Of course, there are huge regional, and national, disparities, as in Britain. Southern Germany, Austria and that part of Northern Italy we visited, are doing well. Like the weather, hardship is not fairly apportioned. We enjoyed a cool and occasionally wet climate in Südtirol, while other parts of the country were sweltering in African drought. So for employment and the economy. The Alto-Adige region is one of the most prosperous in Italy, indeed, in Europe. The well-managed mix of sustainable agriculture, light industries and tourism, has done miracles there. Young people and families stay in their villages, because there is work, good public services, and attractive, affordable housing, which in turn makes a stay attractive, affordable and healthy for visitors like us, who then spend their “devaluated” Euros with glee. Südtirol, that most beautiful haven of nature, which has a privileged status of autonomy in the Italian constitution, is a model of careful husbandry of natural resources, with still a balance between traditional activities and tourism. This is a far cry from the destruction of mountains, habitat and traditional farming, wrecked over the French Alps by the greed of winter sports entrepreneurs. We wished this model – the sustainable mix – was more wide-spread over Europe (more about this on my post about the Messner Mountain Museum in Brüneck).

On the way back, in reverse, through Austria, Southern Germany, Eastern France and finally the Northern Atlantic seaboard, those observations were confirmed. We totalled another 1,000 klicks, through industrial, farming and urban landscapes, stopping twice in France and visiting my childhood town (unchanged after all those years). Europe is still, by world standards, prosperous, and its citizens well aware of the onslaught on their rights and liberties. But there is hope. The tide is turning against the conservative anti-social policies that have taken us to this situation: sacrificing our young on the altar of so-called economic realities, feeding Moloch, in fact, the inept dogma of privatisation and public services roll-back that have proven disastrous everywhere in the world for the past 40 years, except for the exceptionally wealthy!

In the meantime, the German industrial juggernaut rolls on, the Chinese – some Chinese – are getting richer, and keep lending – thank you – to the citizens and banks, and government, of the US of A, and of course, “we” had the Olympic Games for 2012 (and as local tax payers, are waiting for the bill thereof). All is well.

The New Old World


I have just received my copy of Perry Anderson‘s The New Old World and I look forward to this week-end read. The book is the subject of a symposium in the last issue of the New Left Review (NLR73). After reading the four articles in the review I felt a compulsion to read the book. The Union’s current crisis – and its monetary collateral – is the most significant issue for Europe, understood to include both Union’s members and non-members, such as Turkey. Of course there are other issues of at least equal importance, such the Arab counter-revolution, or the continuing saga of capital markets vs democratically elected governments. All of those are essentially components of what Wolfgang Streeck described  as “The Crisis of Democratic Capitalism” in NLR 71.

The Markets vs Voters question has of course been typified by developments in Greece and Italy, where elected administrations – however fragile or controversial – have been displaced by decree by the massed ranks of the European Central Bank, the IMF and the (unelected) European Commission, under active supervision from the Federal Government of Germany. Those developments fall clearly within Streeck’s definition of “democratic capitalism” as “a political economy ruled by two conflicting principles, or regimes, of resource allocation: one operating according to marginal productivity, or what is revealed as merit by a “free play of market forces”, and the other based on social needs or entitlement, as certified by the collective choices of democratic politics.”

A writer in the symposium, Alain Supiot in Under Eastern Eyes, comments that “it was not until the fall of Communism that ultra-liberal ideology, despite its political successes in the US and UK and its adoption by international financial institutions, began to have a significant impact on the social systems of solidarity established after the War in Western Europe”. Supiot blames a “revolt of the elites” for the damage, and particularly for the ascent of the “communist market economy”. According to this interpreattion “the elites of all countries can now get astronomically rich – which was impossible under communism – without a thought  for the fate of the middle and working classes, which was impossible under the political  or social democracy of welfare states.”

Jan-Werner Müller – in Beyond Militant Democracy – disagrees, pointing out that “rather than contrasting those glory days (the  30-year “golden-age” of post-war capitalism) with our (supposed) sordid post-democratic condition, we ought to understand that European elites in the late 1940s and 1950s opted for a highly restrictive understanding of democracy – and that the EU, from the start, operated on this basis.”

A Final Victory

I was very moved by reading Jennifer A. Homans’ account of her husband Tony Judt’s last days in the NYRB. I will read Thinking the Twentieth Century. There are several reasons, all personal rather than intellectual, first Tony and I were of the same generation, and I shared his understanding of the issues of the post-war period (our half century), Palestine, Europe, growing social inequity, Europe, the rise of Hayekian tyrannies… Second, I do not share the views of writers such as Dylan Riley (A Cooler Look) as far as their “assessment” of Tony’s work and intellectual courage is concerned.

To Write or Not to Write

I have to admit that fictional endeavours, as well as other social activities, such as marriage, have kept me away from this “travel and political” blog. However this is Spring, and I will renew with this corner of my garden. For those readers so inclined my writing blog is here.

Related articles

The death throws of neo-liberalism… or else?

 The StandEthical Capitalism?

“Capital, wrote David Harvey, is not a thing but a process in which money is perpetually sent in search of more money”. It is in this context that the unctuous words of politicians – in Europe and, more occasionally, the US – as to “ethical” capitalism have to be placed. There is no ethical capitalism. Processes have no moral behaviours. Yet the actors of the economy may or may not act ethically. This blogger believes Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, in their own sphere of influence (which is not negligible!), probably act ethically. Fat cats CEOs and their bonuses and share options do not. Neoliberal ideology, based on the disembodiment of the economy from the life of society, denounced  by Karl Polanyi some 60 years ago, is the real culprit, enabling the little greedy CEOs and elite managers to prey with impunity on shareholders and workers alike.

e-Voting in London

French nationals living outside French departments will this year, for the first time, vote to elect their deputies (15 in total?) to the Assemblée nationale. The situation of people like me – permanent residents elsewhere be it in the Union –  has been so far not to be able to vote for national assemblies anywhere, neither where they live and pay taxes, nor in France. Now this is changing. Moreover Internet voting is being tested! WOW! In London I hope our candidate Axelle Lemaire will trump the usual bunch of reactionaries when we vote in June. Longue vie à la democracie française!

In the meantime…

Mostly I despair of the level of the current political debates in the US. Yes, as an “old European” I must be biased. We – old Europeans – hoped that the demise of the bush-ites and their fellow “astronauts” would lead to some form of recovery (din’t we?) Indeed the SOTU was a clear statement of intent, and positively delivered with conviction. But as to the GOP, despair creeps back in: Newt has pledged a permanent US base on the Moon by his second mandate. One wonders. The US no longer have a launcher since the demise of the Shuttle program. NASA’s budget is at rock bottom. Dream on Newt. Maybe the EU, India or the Chinese will let you use a little corner of their rockets for a price (of course collaboration will enable progress, if collaboration is what the US administration wants)? It will take more than a withdraw of the mighty US military from Iraq and Afghanistan to enable a renewal of the US Space program. This blogger regrets it deeply. Savings indeed…

The Stand: we must!

Stephen King‘s story of a 20th century “made in the USA” global disaster and its aftermath, may well turn out to be a metaphor for the current “crisis”: there are villains and there is hope for people of goodwill. But the journey may well prove horrendous for some of us…

Michel de Montaigne and the Independent Commission on Banking

The Memory Chalet

A must read this year is Tony Judt’s posthumous collection of essays “The Memory Chalet” reviewed by Thomas Nagel in this issue of the NYRB.

“The articulate recreation of the active life that he has lost, writes Prof. Nagel, is Judt’s answer to his imprisonment and impending death, and it gives him a more personal posthumous existence than do his historical and critical writings, important as they are. These eloquent personal recollections are infused with historical consciousness, but they also explain and reflect the strong opinions and attitudes that marked Tony Judt as a distinctive presence among us, unforgettable to those who knew or read him. Wary of group identity, he was an Englishman but exceptionally cosmopolitan, a Jew who became an outspoken critic of Zionism, and an egalitarian social democrat who was also an elitist and a defender of meritocracy.”

From the White House to Michel de Montaigne

I am not altogether desperate to uncover the identity of the author of “O: A Presidential Novel” but enjoyed Mark Lawson’s piece in the Guardian (22 January). Of particular interest to this reader were the references to Vivian Grey and to the lineage of the ” model political novel”. Disraeli, Trollope, R. Penn Warren and Allen Drurry… forbears indeed…

In the same Guardian issue Saul Frampton’s delightful extracts on Michel de Montaigne and the “true language of human nature” reminded me to push “When I Am Playing With My Cat, How Do I Know She Is Not Playing With Me?” to my trolley at the next opportunity. Another must read.

The Road to Serfdom

No surprise yesterday in the speech of John Vickers, chairman of the Independent Commission on Banking. Inadequacy of “Basel III”, nefarious effect of the disappearance of any barriers between ” retail” and so-called “investment” banking (remember “Big Bang”?), costs to society of bailing out the speculators, all have been debated to saturation since the onset of the what started as the “sub-prime” crisis. What is striking, on both sides of the Atlantic, is governments and regulators’ apparent incapacity to bring the “big banks” to any serious commitment to real changes. This appears equally to extend to any commitment to small businesses from the four largest UK banks (Preston’s Picks of 22 January). The choice is ever clearer: finance capital or society, them (obscene profits, speculation, derivatives of derivatives, plunder and wastage) or us (the real economy, households and businesses, our children’s futures).

From Guadalcanal to Downing Street

Media-wise our household is eclectic. We are in turn Telegraph, Guardian, Independent, Times and even, occasionally (LOL), Daily Mail readers. As Lili Allen said: I look in the Sun, and look at the Mirror… Yet this reader tends to focus on Le Monde Diplomatique, and as you could guess from the blogroll, the LRB. Still yesterdays’ issue of The Telegraph had interesting insights.

Neil Tweedie spoke with Sid Phillips, one of the five survivors of H Company, 2nd battalion of the 1st US Marine Regiment, the one at Guadalcanal. Sid engaged in the US Marine Corps in 1942, on the wake of Pearl Harbor, aged 17. He’s now 85, and one of the four soldiers who inspired Steven Spielberg’s and Tom Hanks’ “The Pacific” tv series. I rarely have cause to regret not paying due to the Murdoch empire, but this is perhaps one such occasion. The battle for Guadalcanal raged from August 1942 to February 1943, coincidently also the pivotal moment in the battle for Stalingrad on the other side of the world. After the war Sid Phillips turned to the medical profession in his native Alabama . He returned once to Guadalcanal, in 1977, with other veterans: “Gads! This place still stinks”. Like in Verdun and Volgograd, the smell of Death never leaves the loci of its triumphs. We salute you, Sir.

The same issue opened its columns to David Cameron’s “personal manifesto”, My Vision, Your Choice. Although a distinguished great child of Hayek’s school of neo-liberalism that has now prevailed across western political life since the late 70’s, I respect David Cameron’s views, since, contrary to many, he is at least loyal to his principles. David writes that “from (his) mother, a magistrate, (he) got an enduring sense of community, responsibility, obligation.” David continues “it is unfashionable (sic) these days to talk about public service, but she taught (him) life was about more than making money.”

Can’t agree more, though the extent of public service talk being “unfashionable” depends of course on where you are born, and on your income… Regretfully I cannot concur with Mr Cameron that “the state” should not “infringe on the freedom of the individual”, if doing so is the only way to offset gross inequalities and injustice. This of course is why, even if I could, I would be unlikely to become a Cameron’s supporter. My party is that of Karl Polanyi and the Great Transformation, rather than that of the Road to Serfdom.