All austerity has wrought in Europe is a messy kitchen
After the electoral triumph of the anti-immigrant Eurosceptic parties in France and the United Kingdom in May, many liberals expressed their shock and worry. However, there was something of a feigned naiveté in their indignation and wonder at the Right victories. What one should wonder about is why it took the anti-immigrant Right so long to make a decisive breakthrough.
When Jean-Marie Le Pen—founder of the French far-right National Front party that triumphed in France’s recent European Parliament elections—made a tasteless gas-chamber joke about a French pop singer of Jewish descent, his daughter Marine Le Pen, the party leader, publicly criticized him, thereby promoting her image as her father’s human face. It is irrelevant whether this family conflict is staged or real—the oscillation between the two faces, the brutal one and the civilized one, is what defines today’s populist Right. Beneath the civilized public mask lurks its brutal, obscene real face, and the difference between the two is only the degree to which the hidden face is openly exposed. Even if this underside remains totally out of sight, it is there as a silent presupposition, as an invisible point of reference. Without her father’s specter, Marine Le Pen doesn’t exist.
There is no surprise in Marine Le Pen’s message: It’s the usual anti-elitist, working-class patriotism that targets transnational financial powers and the alienated Brussels bureaucracy. She rejects the unelected Brussels financial technocrats who brutally enforce the interests of international financial capital and prohibit individual states from prioritizing the welfare of their own people. She thus advocates a politics that connects with the worries and cares of ordinary working people. Le Pen forms a clear contrast to the sterile European technocrats: While her party’s Fascist outbursts are a thing of the past, she brings passion back to politics. Even some disoriented leftists succumb to the temptation to defend her. What unites Le Pen and her European leftist sympathizers is their shared rejection of a strong Europe and their desire for a return to sovereignty of nation states.
The problem with this shared rejection is that, as they say in a joke, Le Pen is not looking for the causes of the distresses in the dark corner where they really are, but under the light, because one sees better there. Instead of trying to discern the antagonisms of today’s global capitalism, she focuses on easy targets like immigrants whose presence is visible to everyone on our streets. Le Pen’s message begins with the right premise: the failure of the austerity politics practiced by the Brussels experts. When the Romanian leftist writer Panait Istrati visited the Soviet Union in the 1930s, the time of the big purges and show trials, a Soviet apologist trying to convince him of the need for violence against enemies of the state evoked the proverb, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” To which Istrati tersely replied: “All right. I can see the broken eggs. Where’s this omelet of yours?” We should say the same about the austerity measures imposed by the Brussels technocrats: “OK, you are breaking our eggs around Europe, but where’s the omelet you have promised us?”
The least one can say about the crisis, which has lasted since 2008, is that it offers proof that it is not the people but these experts themselves who, for the most part, don’t know what they are doing. In Western Europe we are witnessing a growing inability of the ruling elite; they know less and less how to rule. Look at how Europe is dealing with the Greek crisis: putting pressure on Greece to repay debts, but at the same time ruining its economy through imposed austerity measures and thereby making sure the Greek debt will never be repaid. In June 2013 the Wall Street Journal leaked internal International Monetary Fund (IMF) documents showing that the economic damage to Greece from aggressive austerity measures may be as much as three times larger than previously assumed, thereby cancelling out the IMF’s previous prescription of austerity as the solution to the Eurozone crisis. Now, after hundreds of thousands of jobs have been lost because of such “miscalculations,” the IMF admits that forcing Greece and other debt-burdened countries to reduce their deficits too quickly would be counterproductive.
The ongoing EU pressure on Greece to implement austerity measures fits perfectly with what psychoanalysis calls superego. Superego is not an ethical agency proper, but a sadistic agent that bombards the subject with impossible demands, obscenely enjoying the subject’s failure to comply with them. However, the paradox of the superego is that, as Freud saw clearly, the more we obey its demands, the more we feel guilty. Imagine a vicious teacher who gives to his pupils impossible tasks, and then sadistically jeers when he sees their anxiety and panic. This is what is so terribly wrong with the EU commands: They don’t even give a chance to Greece; the Greek failure is part of the game. It is as if the providers and caretakers of debt accuse the indebted countries of not feeling enough guilt.
Therein resides the true message of the “irrational” popular protests across Europe: The protesters know very well what they don’t know; they don’t pretend to have fast and easy answers. But what their instincts are telling them is nonetheless true: that those in power also don’t know. In Europe today, the blind are leading the blind. Austerity politics is not really science, not even in a minimal sense; it is much closer to a contemporary form of superstition—a kind of gut reaction to an impenetrable complex situation, a blind reaction of “things went wrong, we are somehow guilty, we have to pay the price and suffer, so let’s do something that hurts and spend less.” Austerity is not “too radical,” as some leftist critics claim, but, on the contrary, too superficial, an act of avoiding the true roots of the crisis.