The planned discussion in London on the subject “Europe is Kaput. Long Live Europe” between Slavoj Zizek, the outspoken philosopher, and Yanis Varoufakis, the rebellious ex-finance minister of Greece, was, unsurprisingly, overtaken by the attacks in Paris on Friday night.
According to Zizek, the real tragedy of the Paris attacks is that now the thousands of refugees who are attempting to flee from the clutches of ISIS will be blamed, and, as a result they are likely suffer even more as we continue to bomb their homes and to push them back into the hands of the very terrorists from whom they are attempting to flee. It is indeed a tragedy.
A further tragedy, it seems to me, is that these displaced people then become a fertile recruiting ground for terrorists. So the more we allow suspicion, fear and hatred to guide our actions, the more we escalate the violence perpetrated against both them and us. Violence begets violence! They more we turn our backs on them and continue with our campaigns of violence and destruction the more we perpetuate the problem.
Moving to broader questions about the structure of Europe Varoufakis reminded the audience that the origin of the EU lies in the establishment of the European Coal and Steel Community in the 1950s. This was essentially an economic cartel, raising profits through co-ordinated actions rather than competitive pricing. The administrative centre in Brussels was a practical requirement of the consortium rather than a political initiative. The primary concern from the outset was profits not diplomacy. Even as the size and scope of the Community increased, and particularly after the fall of the Soviet Bloc, the goal of unity and mutual support was subordinated to the pursuit of profit with little democratic oversight, social awareness or concern.
Varoufakis resigned as finance minister when he lost the support of his party for taking an extreme hard line against Germany over the issue of debt repayments. The deal that was eventually struck after his resignation gave the EU control over the Greek economy in return for a rolling-over of government debt. In July 2015, according to figures published by Eurostat this month, youth unemployment in Greece is at a horrifying level of 48.6%. In this recessionary time the figure for the Euro area as a whole is still very high at 22.1%, while for the UK youth unemployment is 13% and in Germany it is 7%.
Zizek introduces the neo-liberal concept of “the indebted entrepreneur of the self” (p.48) in his recent book Trouble In Paradise. Zizek describes the neo-liberal approach to the individual as one in which the individual’s decision-making process is conceptualised as an investment-consumption trade-off, where expenditure, risk and future returns are calculated and utility is maximised according to a preference function, in the same way that economists model entrepreneurial business behaviour. Debt is therefore rational and repayment of debt is a necessary part of good decision-making framework. The risk is borne by the individual who also stands to make a future return on the investment in his or her own future. Such a conceptualisations of rational decision-making processes only work if the framework is widely accepted as legitimate in the prevailing socio-economic paradigm. The idea of ‘self-enslavement to a modus operandi’ works at both a personal and a national level. It is only when you buy into the necessity to repay your debts that the debtors have any power over you.
Varoufakis tried to overturn this ‘modus operandi’ but he failed to upset the prevailing paradigm of debt-enslavement underpinning international financial discipline. You could argue, therefore, that Greece is the sacrificial lamb that has sustained the world’s financial system. You might also argue, given the obscenely high levels of youth unemployment in Greece, that the medicine runs the risk of killing the patient!
The lack of concern for the periphery of Europe poses a threat to the European Union’s ability to survive. If Europe fragments there will be a ‘race to the bottom’ as countries aim to outcompete each other by lowering labour costs, work standards, environmental standards, tax rates for businesses and so forth. The potential gain to business and wider interests of a more co-ordinated approach, particularly perhaps in areas such as security, will be lost.
Julian Assange unexpectedly joined in the discussion by satellite from his place of refuge at the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. His contribution was to give emphasis to the increasing gap between what technology makes it possible to know and the information that is actually available to the general public. This is, he feels, because there is an Orwellian concentration of information in the hands of those who have an interest in keeping information secret. In March 2014 secretive TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Patnership) negotiations were leaked to the public by WikiLeaks. TTIP is an economic agreement of “Titanic” proportions, according to Assange, governing about half of global GDP. Surely the public should be aware of such negotiations and be allowed to scrutinise, debate and vote on them before they are enacted and made permanent by the many and various governments involved in them.
All participants agreed that the great failure of the left has been to create a credible alternative narrative to the presumptions of the status quo. Zizek writes in Trouble in Paradise that “the ‘eternal’ marriage between democracy and capitalism is nearing divorce” (p.108). I would have liked to have had a chance to ask Zizek, Varoufakis and Assange whether, in the light of the Churchill’s perception that ‘democracy is the worst system, except for all the others’ the same might not also be true of capitalism.
The answer to the question ‘what next for Europe?’ remains as obscure today as it has ever been. Fragmentation if not collapse seems almost inevitable, and yet the need for solidarity and co-ordination on many levels is as great or greater today than it has ever been.